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Book Review: How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

Title: How To Be a Heroine: Or, What I've Learned from Reading Too Much
Author: Samantha Ellis
Series: N/A
Length: 264 pages
Published by: Vintage Books
Publication date: January 2, 2014
Diversity: Author is Iraqi and Jewish

My first progress update from this book was "I've only read the introduction so far but I think I'm in love." I didn't quite sustain that absolute adoration, but this was still a pretty amazing book that made me want to go out and read ALL of the classics that I've missed. I was surprised that I've only read ONE of the eleven main heroines (Lizzy Bennet), though I'd also read some that weren't focused on as much.

This book is half memoir, half feminist literary criticism. Yes, it's nonfiction, but don't let that turn you away from the book! This book was very accessible - and this is coming from someone for whom nonfiction usually takes much longer to read than fiction. This book also includes analysis of a lot of fiction books, so it combines the best of both worlds. And throughout the entire book, the writing is incredible. The author is also a playwright, and this made me want to go and read all of her plays just to be able to absorb that beautiful writing style.

While reading, I was forced to reexamine some of my most-loved classics. If I resent this book for anything, it's that I doubt I'll ever be able to read Little Women again with the same blissful happiness that I felt when I read it half a dozen times in elementary school. I never realized how preachy it was! I'm glad that I won't be loving it blindly anymore after recognizing its many problems, but I wish that it didn't have those problems in the first place. The analyses of the many books that I'd already read (such as Pride and Prejudice & Romeo and Juliet) weren't as harsh, though, and may have made me love the books even more.

As for the memoir portion, I really enjoyed the insight into the Iraqi Jewish community. I'm Jewish, but my family comes mostly from Eastern Europe, so I wasn't familiar with a lot of the things in the book. I always love reading about different cultures and expanding my knowledge, and this introduced me to a world I hadn't even considered. The portions about Ellis's childhood were especially enjoyable.

The one problem I really had with this book was that the transition from childhood classics to much more...erm, explicit adult-oriented classics was rather abrupt. Perhaps Pride and Prejudice isn't so much of a childhood classic, but I think my point still stands. I understand Ellis's point - she was reading very different books during her adolescence from many of her classmates - but the huge difference in tone in a few paragraphs is a bit jarring. Once I re-accustomed myself to the new content, however, I went right back to loving the book.

In the long term, I what I'll appreciate most is that this book introduced me to so many classics that I'm now DESPERATE to read. The Bell Jar, Lolly Willowes, Cold Comfort Farm, Franny and Zooey...the list goes on. And it made me want to read classics that I'd already heard of even more! I know I'm going to have to pick up Anne of Green Gables very soon. And I can't wait to reread this book once I've read more of the books that are included!

Who are your favorite heroines from classic literature? Have you read any other good memoirs? Or other nonfiction books about books? Tell me in the comments! 


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