Well we’re very much into Christmas last year now (although I’ve skipped right ahead for my current read) and here’s a great one from Meg off my wishlist. How was I almost the last person to read this excellent book – “books about books” being a favourite category of mine?

Samantha Ellis – “How to be a Heroine”

(25 December 2017)

A super memoir and book-about-books tracing Samantha’s reading from childhood on and relating it to her progress through education and finally into her career as a  playwright, working with and against her Iraqi Jewish heritage and with a clear eye on this and her relationship to it. She re-reads her old favourites and discusses her changed attitudes to them, always a favourite theme of mine. She also has a long-term reading buddy, Emma, who she gets into all sorts of arguments with – great stuff!

She’s a great, feisty heroine herself, and it’s apt that she ends up writing heroines for others, too. She discovers the Marriage Plot early on but simultaneously rewrites Oliver Twist “so that girls come out top” (p. 71). I love that amidst serious discussions about feminism and sisterhood, re-reading Gone with the Wind makes her use hand cream more regularly. She’s ashamed in retrospect that she saw her illness at university in comparison to Esther in The Bell Jar’s ECT and her family’s persecution and exile, but she also forgives her younger self.

Of course we always like the bits that chime with our own experience, as well as reading to find out about other lives. Emma tells her off for relating details of Salinger’s slightly manky life when it shouldn’t affect her reading of his novels, and she says at one point,

I’m beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what the need from them at the time. (p. 141)

After her English degree at Cambridge, she’s stuffed full of literary theory and “I was almost convinced that literature was all coded messages about Marxism and the death of the self” (p. 163) and she turns to Valley of the Dolls for light relief and at least something written by a woman. I read a few books by women in my English degree, but had to turn to Arthur Ransome’s full Swallows and Amazons series before I could read adult novels again”

Ellis’ reading of Lace being instructions on how to WORK is genius, and the final chapter marvellously features an imaginary party for her heroines, thought up after making Aphra Behn’s milk punch: a wonderful finale to a great read.


I’m very much enjoying “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward” and should have a review for you on Monday of that one. What a great read and brilliantly edited. How’s your December reading going?