Though New Year's resolutions are made with the best intentions, by the beginning of January they can add to the cumbersome emotional baggage from last year. Shake off your case of the "shoulds" with these 11 inspiring books by women, about women. From Malala Yousafzai to Julia Child, these uplifting true stories are sure to get your New Year off on the right foot.
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'Living History' by Hillary Rodham Clinton
What better place to start than the awe-inspiring Hillary Rodham Clinton? Clinton’s memoir, Living History, published in 2004, chronicles her interest in politics in college, to law school, her courtship with Bill, and her trials and tribulations on the campaign trial and in the White House as First Lady. It’s easy to criticize a woman who has lived such a public life, but one thing’s for certain: Hillary is tough, intelligent, and goes after what she wants. And if the rumors are true, by reading this book you could be reading the memoir of a future President of the United States.
'Cleopatra' by Stacy Schiff
If you’re interested in power, politics, sex, and how they go together, look no further than the life of Cleopatra. Though the details of her life are murky, biographer Stacy Schiff has done an incredible job of putting the puzzle together in Cleopatra, published in 2011. Grounded in historical documents and surviving texts from the period, Schiff uses her talents for narration to bring Cleopatra to life, as legend and woman.
'Book of Ages' by Jill Lepore
In her famous essay “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf wonders what it would have been like if Shakespeare had had a sister named Judith. (For the record, Judith escapes a bad marriage but ends up pregnant and a suicide.) In Book of Ages, Jill Lepore tells the true story of Jane Franklin, sister to Benjamin Franklin. The book is a historical account of the Franklin family and the close bond between brother and sister, despite the fact that they lived apart and Jane barely knew how to write or read. Ultimately, this beautifully written book is a rumination on history from a personal rather than global perspective — about one life, and what we leave behind.
The Work of Penelope Mortimer
You may recognize Penelope Mortimer as the author of a novel called The Pumpkin Eater that was adapted into an film, starring Anne Bancroft, in 1964. The book was considered provocative for its frank discussion of marital discord and infidelity, and in reality, it was very much autobiographical. Mortimer also wrote a three volume autobiography entitled About Time, which is sadly out-of-print in the U.S., though you can find used copies online. Though her dry English wit and sardonic turn of phrase, Mortimer shows what can be borne (multiple pregnancies before the time of birth control, failed marriages, illness, literary fame and failure) when you have a great sense of humor.
Joan Didion's Entire Oeuvre
If you are making the journey back home for the holiday season, you may find yourself doing some serious rumination about your life. There’s no better writer to read at this point than Joan Didion, who offers several essays about what it means to go home, leave, and then go back again. Her collections The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem are of course the stand-outs, but if you’re looking for a good catharsis, she offers not one but two memoirs about loss: The Year of Magical Thinking, on the sudden death of her husband, and Blue Nights, on the tragic death of her daughter.
'Eat, Pray, Love' by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love, at this point, is basically an institution. After the major motion picture starring Julia Roberts and 10 million copies of the book in print, there are apparently themed vacations you can take as a single woman inspired by the book. It’s easy to give this memoir a hard time for being self-indulgent and unrealistic — but there is something here that speaks to women and encourages them not to settle for less.
'How Should A Person Be?' by Sheila Heti
This brilliantly wacky book — a novelized memoir of sorts — follows a young woman named Sheila who wants to know “how should a person be.” The characters here, including her best friend Margaux, a painter, are Heti’s friends in real life, and the names have not been changed. How Should A Person Be? is the perfect book for those about to reach 30 and feel the immense confusion surrounding the meaning of art, life, romance, and friendship in the modern age.
'A Prayer Journal' by Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor was one of America’s greatest writers — and one of the most devout. Just last month, FSG published her prayer journal, kept while she was a student at the University of Iowa. Not only is O’Connor’s commitment to her Catholic faith at such a young age remarkable, her journal entries reveal how that faith fueled her writing and hopes for the future. “Don’t ever let me think, dear God,” she writes, “that I was anything but the instrument for Your story.”
'Never Eat Your Heart Out' by Judith Moore
If you are a fan of the food writing of Ruth Reichl or Laurie Colwin, you absolutely must read Judith Moore’s collection of essays, Never Eat Your Heart Out. Here Moore charts her entire life, her childhood, her marriage, her children, her writing, through the lens of food, including one adulterous affair. “Somebody might suggest I cooked that year the most superb dinners of my housewifely life because I was trying to atone for my adultery. I wish I could say that was true. The fact is, I cooked so lavishly because I was so happy.”
'I Am Malala' by Malala Yousafzai
Not even an assassin’s bullet could keep Malala quiet. Though few thought she would recover, shot in the head by the Taliban when she was just 15, Malala has surpassed all expectations, writing her story and continuing to champion the cause of education for women all all over the world. Malala is inspiration personified.
'My Life in France' by Julia Child
Perhaps your career isn’t what you hoped and you’re looking to make a big change in 2014. Just follow Julia Child’s example, who didn’t enter culinary school until she was 37 years old. On top of that, she had lived all over the world working for the British service, found a mate in Paul Child, defying those who said she was too outspoken (and too tall, at 6’2”) to ever find a husband. Child’s memoir, My Life in France, is a foodie’s dream — but it’s also the story of a determined woman who wouldn’t let anything stop her for achieving her goals.