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Essential Reading: Real Women, Real Stories

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Our reading lists at Literary Mama have often featured biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and fictionalized lives of real women. This month, we focus exclusively on that literary category. My boys' earliest picture books are still a part of their bedroom library, and one of my favorites is Me . . . Jane by Patrick McDonnell. With sweet illustrations and poetically spare text, this award-winner shows how Jane Goodall's childhood pursuits—stealthily watching a chicken lay an egg in the coop, climbing her favorite tree, drawing meticulous materials for her nature club, The Alligator Society—led to a lifetime of field research and conservation work. The Alligator Society drawings are the real thing, and Goodall has also contributed her own note to the reader, which accompanies additional biographical information at the end of the book. Me . . . Jane is a lovely tribute and an inspiration, for grown-up writers as well as young aspiring naturalists.

Literary Reflections Editor Andrea Lani shares, "I recently picked up a used copy of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith B. Holden. The book—a facsimile copy of Holden's 1906 Nature Notes, which was discovered and published in 1977—encompasses a year of Holden's observations about the natural world, nature folklore, and seasonal poems, all exquisitely illustrated in watercolor. Read alone, The Country Diary would be a pleasant tramp through the English countryside, but I happened to run across a television series adapted from the book and it integrates much more detail from Holden's interesting, and ultimately tragic, life: the family's reduced fortune, infighting between her socialist and capitalist brothers over the family's paint business, the Holden sisters' inability to have children, Edith's frustrations with establishing herself as an artist, her romance with and marriage to a young sculptor, her untimely death. The book, while pleasant to browse through in a quiet moment, suggests none of this; read in combination with the TV series, however, it paints a portrait of a complex and fascinating figure."

Rae Pagliarulo, creative nonfiction editor, writes, "Telling the truth about one's own life is risky business. It can be tempting to wrap up a story with redemption, allowing the narrator to enjoy her status as survivor. But what's braver, I think, is reflecting on a difficult, tumultuous life and turning an unflinching eye toward what it's like to be a woman in the world. This is what Phoebe Gloeckner's Diary of a Teenage Girl accomplishes. Part memoir, part graphic novel, and all guts, Gloeckner's fictionalized self, Minnie, takes the reader through her turbulent upbringing in 1970s San Francisco. Minnie experiences sexual abuse, emotional heartache, and every drug under the sun. Some of the heartbreak comes of living in a cruel world, and some is the result of her irresponsible decisions. But for all the ugliness and all the struggles, Minnie shines with honesty and resilience. She is unafraid to admit that she's scared, or desperate for love, or confused about what she's worth. Her life is human life, in all its messiness and complication. While Diary is not what I'd call an uplifting account of a young girl surviving her adolescence, it's a perfect example of what memoir can do at its best: shine a light, however harsh, on what it truly means to be human."

Find more essential reading on our Goodreads page.

Libby Maxey lives in rural Massachussetts with her husband and two young sons. With her academic career as a medievalist having died a stunningly swift death by childbirth, she now works as an editor, writes poetry, reads when able, and sings with her local light opera company. Her work has appeared in The Mom Egg Review, Tule Review, Crannóg Magazine, Pirene’s Fountain, Mezzo Cammin and elsewhereHer first poetry chapbook, Kairos, won the Finishing Line Press New Women’s Voices contest.

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