A look at fascinating biographies, stories about women

Susan Withee: At the Library

By The Mercury

I’m a pretty eclectic reader overall with interests that bounce around through much of the Dewey Decimal system and make forays into all sorts of fiction. But an ongoing and constant reading interest of mine is books about women’s lives, which have fascinated me since I climbed the stairs to the Children’s Room in the old Carnegie Library and checked out “Abigail Adams: A Girl of Colonial Days.” Since then I’ve continued to read anything from collections of women’s journals and letters, to books of humorous and true confessions, to biographies and personal memoirs, to social and cultural history. Here are some interesting books that I’ve enjoyed in the past year about women and their lives and history.

• “The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie” by Wendy McClure. McClure, a young woman with a very understanding boyfriend and a childhood obsession with writer Laura Ingalls Wilder, set out to revisit all the joy she experienced from the Little House series by traveling to locales from the books, researching the real Laura’s story, and experimenting in her own apartment with Laura-esque chores like grinding wheat and churning butter.

Reminiscent of Sarah Vowell’s wacky and humorous travelogues through American history, McClure’s experiences and commentary are often hilarious and wry, and her observations on girlhood both in Laura’s time and now are penetrating and poignant.  A fun and unexpectedly touching book.     

• “The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters” by Jeffrey Zaslow.  A series of vignettes taken from a bridal shop owned and operated by three generations of strong, hard-working women in small-town rural Michigan, this is a tender, sympathetic look at the changing nature of weddings, marriages, and families since the shop opened during the Great Depression. The Magic Room is a wonderful book about ordinary women and the dreams, joys, and sorrows they encounter and share. I especially recommend it if you, like me, are a secret devotee of the TV show “Say Yes to the Dress!”

• “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” by Gail Collins.  Starting out in 1960, when women still needed their husband’s permission to get a credit card and single women were routinely denied home mortgages (if they were even allowed to apply), this book tells the amazing story of five decades of nearly unimaginable social change in the lives of American women.  For women and men of a certain age, this is a startling reminder of all they have lived through and witnessed first-hand, and for those young women who take the changes of the past 50 years for granted it’s a sobering revelation. 

Collins’ writing style is conversational, anecdotal, and witty and this social history is a page-turner — absorbing, enjoyable, and enlightening. 

• “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” by Deborah Feldman.  Born into the ultra-orthodox, insular Satmar Hasidic sect, Deborah Feldman grew up under strict traditional religious and social customs that governed every aspect of everyday life, but she struggled to meet the group’s expectations and live the life prescribed for girls and women. 

Her first rebellion was to secretly visit a public library some distance from the Satmar neighborhood and read voraciously from secular and popular works in English. Her final attempt to conform, an arranged marriage, was a disaster, and with the birth of her own daughter, Deborah began planning her escape from the community. This is a fascinating look at a mysterious and secretive group; an absorbing and suspenseful personal memoir.   

• “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake” by Anna Quindlen.  Pulitzer-prize-winning columnist and novelist Quindlen looks back on her life from the milestone of her 60th birthday, and makes observations and offers perspectives in her trademark style — candid, astute, funny, acerbic, and touching.  Of parenthood she writes, “Being a parent is not transactional. We do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor: We are good parents not so they will be loving enough to stay with us but so they will be strong enough to leave us.” 

About her aging body she writes, “I’ve finally recognized my body for what it is: a personality-delivery system, designed expressly to carry my character from place to place, now and in the years to come. It’s like a car, and while I like a red convertible or even a Bentley as well as the next person, what I really need are four tires and an engine.”  Amen, Sister.

This book was a delight.









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