Jezebel’s Anna Holmes: 5 Essential 'Lady' Books Everyone Should Read
I have to admit: When I was asked to curate a list of five essential "lady" books every girl should read, I balked. Not because of the request itself, but because of how final, how arbitrary, my taking on such an endeavor might appear to be. After all, what is essential to one person is superficial to another, and there is an infinite number of potentially foolhardy ways to approach the task of making a “must” list. So, I decided to do something a little different--namely, list the five books that influenced me the most throughout my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, when I really fell in love with reading, and then, writing. To call these books “essential” is not to say that I believe everyone must read them, but to convey that they broadened and informed my ideas of what it means to be female and how the stories of girls and women are told. In my opinion, that’s the most essential thing of all.
An absolutely beautifully illustrated and written children’s picture book about a curious, courageous fiery-haired young woman, Alice Rumphius, who leaves her home of coastal Maine to see the world. Never married, Alice Rumphius is the unapologetic star of her own formidable narrative, traveling the globe for decades and making friends in far off places. In her later years, Alice, who has a bit of a green thumb, returns to her seaside home, where she and her cat stroll the New England countryside and scatter the seeds of her favorite flower--the pink and purple lupine--everywhere they go.
This is the book that made me want to be a writer. Fitzhugh’s classic concerns one Harriet M. Welsch, a tomboy on New York’s Upper East Side who pens brutal portraits in her composition book about the people in her life--friends, family, neighbors--and their habits, neuroses, shortcomings, and everything in between. There is very little that is “nice” about Harriet, but that’s why I love her: She was the first fictional female character I ever came across who privileged her own truth above the expectations put on her as a little girl.
Toni Morrison’s award-winning 1977 book is perhaps not her best known; that distinction, no doubt, goes to "Beloved." But, it was my first encounter with Morrison’s unforgettable, lyrical, powerful and sometimes angry prose style, not to mention the first piece of adult fiction I’d ever read by and about an African-American. It is a breathtaking achievement--passages literally took my breath away--and a meditation on manhood and the psychological repercussions of the United States’ denial of an entire population’s liberty, humanity and right to self-determination.
If Harriet the Spy made me want to be a writer, this collection of essays about California by Joan Didion allowed me to believe that I could actually become one. A native of Sacramento, located some 10 miles from the town where I grew up in, Didion was a local girl made good. More than good, really, because there was no arguing the influence this book had not only on my adolescent ideas of how women wrote and what they wrote about, but also on the culture at large, which had been celebrating Didion’s pointed, perceptive prose for decades before I was even born.
This important, game-changing feminist classic by journalist Susan Faludi about “the undeclared war against American Women” came out in 1991, the year I graduated from high school, moved to New York, and entered my freshman year of college. To say that Faludi was able to articulate suspicions I held about a cultural climate in which women were routinely patronized, provoked and punished simply for being women would be an understatement: The quality of her reporting and the anger beneath the story she told clarified an entire era for me, and made me determined to address the issue of gender politics in my own nascent writing career.
Anna Holmes, editor of "The Book of Jezebel," is a California-born, New York City-based editor, writer and the creator of Jezebel.com. Her work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Washington Post, Glamour, Newsweek, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, Harper's, the New York Observer, Entertainment Weekly, O: The Oprah Magazine, Salon and the New Yorker online, and her first book, "Hell Hath No Fury: Women's Letters From the End of the Affair," was published in 2002.