I love biographies and memoirs. I am especially drawn to those about women who live interesting lives and seek to make some sort of difference in the world. The books below cover the lives and memories of a country music singer, several senior citizen activists, a former First Lady, a couple of authors, a bunch of nuns and a woman who sold most of her possessions to move into a 200 square foot house on wheels. A quirky crowd to be sure, but I sure do love reading (and in some cases re-reading) about these inspiring and eccentric women.
Like Me by Chely Wright. Sometimes a book comes to you at exactly the right time. I have had many books like that in my life and Like Me by was one of them. Chely Wright was a top country music star who lived a closeted existence until she hit rock bottom and decided she had to live her life true to herself. She came out with a bang by being interviewed on national television and releasing this book. When I was first coming out as a lesbian, I didn’t know a lot of gay people and there weren’t many celebrities who were publicly out and sharing their stories. It gave me great solace to hear the life story of a person who was… well… like me. At least in one way; I can’t sing to save my life.
Granny D: You’re Never too Old to Raise a Little Hell by Doris Haddock. I met some amazing people when I worked at a public library, but Doris “Granny D” Haddock was hands down my favorite. When we contacted her to see if she would appear, we thought it was a long shot. But she agreed. This was after she had captured national attention for walking across the country at age 90 to rally support for campaign finance reform, after she ran for the Senate in her home state of New Hampshire at 94 and after she had written this wonderful book. I loved her stories of traveling across the country and staying in the homes of her fellow Americans. Granny D was a marvelous speaker, an opinionated and seasoned activist and a staunch believer in the potential of a well-functioning democracy. Once you’re done with this memoir, I’d suggest you try Granny D’s American Century, which contains more memories of her early years. And if you, like me, can’t get enough of this remarkable woman, check-out the documentary about her Senate race, Run, Granny, Run. Politically, things have changed enormously since the early 2000’s when she was most in the national spotlight, but Granny D still has much to teach us. As a country, we desperately need her wisdom and her belief in the goodness of her fellow citizens at this moment in our national story.
Becoming by Michelle Obama. As an undergraduate political science major, I did an independent study on first ladies in American politics. I got to spend a whole semester reading and researching the lives and legacies of Abigail Adams, Rosalynn Carter, Eleanor Roosevelt and Laura Bush. Considering that I graduated close to twenty years ago, a lot more first lady history has been written since my study. A former first lady came remarkably close to becoming President for one thing. And the country saw it’s first African-American first lady. Michelle Obama remains a popular and admired woman in American life and her memoir has received much buzz. There is even a documentary about her book tour, which I have in my Netflix queue. I listened to the audio book version of Becoming, which Ms. Obama narrates herself. I find something really special about audio memoirs that are narrated by the authors; I like hearing people’s stories in their own voices. And Becoming is a remarkably honest and open look at Michelle Obama’s childhood, career, marriage, motherhood and time as First Lady. Perhaps because of the phase of life I find myself in, I was particularly moved by her honesty regarding their infertility and the challenges of balancing a career and being a mother.
House of Dreams by Liz Rosenberg. I have been reading biographies of L.M. Montgomery since I was a kid. I remember reading one called Maud so many times as a young teenager that the paperback fell apart and I taped the spine back together. When I love an author’s work as much as I love hers, I want to know all about their life. It’s my nerdy version of celebrity worship, I suppose. If I ran into a Hollywood star on the street, there is a 98% chance that I wouldn’t recognize them, but an author is a different story. So naturally, when I read that there was a new Montgomery bio out, I couldn’t wait to get my author-worshipping hands on it. Happily, it was shelved in the Children’s section of the library where I worked. So I brought it home and devoured it. In addition to my much-loved paperback, I have read many of Maud’s journals, so I wasn’t expecting to learn much new. But I did. Liz Rosenberg takes an unflinching look at the author’s life and doesn’t sugar coat the tough stuff. I knew that the creator of the perennially optimistic Anne went through some tough times in her life, but Rosenberg sheds new light on Maud’s mental health struggles. I am still shaken by her theory of Maud’s death. While I have to admit I have a soft spot for whitewashed, cheerful biographies of my favorite people’s lives, these 100% real people deserve to be known in all their human complexity. And in many ways, Maud’s prolific work becomes even more admirable when you fully comprehend all that she faced while spinning her beautiful stories.
If Nuns Ruled the World by Jo Piazza. While I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools at various times, by the time I was there parochial schools were no longer filled with the strict, ruler wielding nuns of legend. The sisters I knew were a guitar playing CCD administrator and the retired sisters living in the convent attached to my high school who burned their toast so badly on the morning I was taking my SATs that we had to evacuate the building. These benign, kindly figures may be why I fascinated instead of bitter about religious sisters. And I am fascinated by the them. I read everything I can get my hands on about nuns and sisters. Most of it is a bit, shall we say, obscure and academic but If Nuns Ruled the World clearly aims at the general reader. Piazza is a veteran reporter and she profiles ten remarkable American nuns. There is the “Nun on the Bus” who lobbies for government policies that benefit the poor, the sister who is willing to go to jail for the rest of her life in order to protest nuclear weapons and the 83 year old nun who is an Ironman champion. These nuns are not the ones of Catholic school children’s memories of the 1950’s, nor the ones from my childhood. They are tough, determined and often social justice warriors. I wouldn’t mind living in a world that these women run!
You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap) by Tammy Strobel. Tiny houses are trendy now; they have their own reality TV shows on HGTV. When I first discovered tiny houses, no one had ever heard of them. Tumbleweed Houses was one of the only companies out there with plans for tiny houses. But they were just offbeat enough to appeal to me. It’s been fun to watch the plethora of books, blogs, websites and builders galore spring up to to help those with miniature aspirations craft a pint-sized dream home. What I like best about Tammy Strobel’s memoir is that it focuses on living in a tiny house, not building one. She gets specific about what motivated her to radically downsize and how she and her spouse find contentment in such a tiny space. I’ve read a lot about tiny houses, but this is probably my top book length selection in that area.
My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary. How could I craft a list of memoirs without mentioning one of Cleary’s memoirs? She has two. The first, A Girl from Yamhill, covers her earliest years living on a farm. This second volume follows the future author to college, grad school, early marriage and several jobs as a librarian. Entering college during the Great Depression and working on an army base during World War II provides Clearly with plenty of historical context for her personal stories. Her signature ability to make the day to day realities of life entertaining and readable is on full display in this volume. She is probably the only writer ever who could turn library school into a page turner. Although this book is typically listed as a children’s biography because its subject a popular author for youth, I think adults are most likely to find her stories of interest. I highly recommend this to any grown-up Ramona, Henry, or Ralph fans.
The Peabody Sisters by Megan Marshall. I was first introduced to the remarkable lives of these three Massachusetts sisters when I was a teenager through Louise Hall Tharp’s book The Peabody Sisters of Salem. Her book has since been criticized for the liberties she took with their story and how she romanticized the Peabody women. These critiques may be warranted, but her very readable account of the lives of Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia Peabody has given me a lifelong interest in these fascinating women. The Peabody sisters were intimately involved in the Transcendentalist movement that swept New England before the Civil War. They were friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May and Bronson Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The eldest sister, Elizabeth Peabody was an earlier support of Hawthorne’s writing and Sophia, who was a talented artist in her own right, eventually married the author of The Scarlet Letter. Elizabeth was also key in the creation of the first kindergartens in the United States. Mary Peabody married Horace Mann, who was a well known educational reformer. This thick volume covers the intriguing lives of three women who were at the very heart of the most influential intellectual, social, and religious movements of their day. A fascinating look at this period in history through the lens of talented, but overlooked, women.
I am always on the look out for memoirs and biographies of wonderful women to read. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comment section!
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