The best fictionalized autobiographies by women

March is Women’s History Month, so we’re talking women’s novels today. Novels by women, about women, from the viewpoint of real historical figures.

I’m pretty sure we’re living in a Golden Age of amazing autobiographical fiction about women’s lives. So many of the books being written these days are meticulously researched and emotionally authentic.

In recent years, we’ve had…

  • the remarkable novels by Melanie Benjamin — The Aviator’s Wife, about Anne Morrow Lindbergh and The Swans of Fifth Avenue, about the women in Truman Capote’s social circle
  • Paula McLain’s glorious Circling the Sun, about Beryl Markham
  • Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, about Mamah Borthwick

And a spate of fictionalized memoirs told from the viewpoint of First Ladies:

  • Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, about Laura Bush
  • Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon, about Pat Nixon
  • Amy Bloom’s White Houses, about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok

The thing I love about these novels is that they allow us to get into the person’s head in a way that feels believable, based on what I know of each of the subjects. (I would’ve bailed if I’d’ve thought the author got it wrong.)

And then a reading map can take us to the actual biographies or autobiographies, and the nonfiction about the times when the person lived. It can really be a lovely thing.

I’m susceptible to this kind of thing: I’m in the midst of the second Berle Markham spree of my young life. I just finished Circling the Sun and am about to embark on a re-read of her memoir West with the Night. If I were super ambitious, I’d also read Mary Lovell’s Markham biography Straight on Till Morning, plus Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa and re-watch the movie. And then this historic aviation line could loop me right back to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and then on to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and then I’d be soaring above the clouds.

This is happiness, my friends.

What great fictional biographies would you add to this list?

News of the World: the news is good

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

3 words: thoughtful, direct, touching

The book I keep recommending to everyone I see? It’s this one.

The primary reason is: characters. The two main characters are fascinating, decent, complex humans, and their developing friendship completely absorbed me.

We’re looking at historical fiction here, with a touch of Western. One character is an elderly widower who travels around Texas, reading the news of the day to audiences. And the other is a 10 year old girl, abducted by the Kiowa four years earlier and now being returned to her family against her will.

And they hit the road together.

There are relatively few pages here (it’s only 240 pages long), but there’s so much story.

It’s quiet, it’s dramatic; there’s introspection, there’s action.

A perfect gem of a book. Get near me, and I’m handing you a copy.

Give this book a whirl if you like… intergenerational friendships, well-chosen words, 19th-century America, intersection of cultures, journalism, Native American culture, widowers, Civil War veterans

What book is making you borderline obnoxious these days?

Listening to Lincoln

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

3 words: melancholy, gentle, eccentric

 

I’m guessing you might’ve heard this by now, but… this is The Big Audiobook of The Year.

And it’s not because there are more than 160 narrators, though that’s certainly a source of much of the buzz.

And it’s not because the cast contains tons of famous actors, though that’s true, too.

And it’s not because all of this fuss is over the author’s debut novel.

All of those things contribute, but for me, there are three other factors that make this thing so amazing.

First, the story makes you feel all the feels. At one point, I had to turn off the audiobook, because otherwise serious sobbing would’ve ensued, and I was pulling into the parking lot at work. That wouldn’t do.

This book is a magical realism-tinged look at the days following Willie Lincoln’s death in 1862. The Civil War is raging away, and then Lincoln lost his beloved son. And the way Saunders writes, you feel it.

But because this book is narrated by lots of dead people in the cemetery, you also feel lots of other things, because they represent a cross-section of humanity. So there are kind souls and there are brutes, and there’s gentleness and there’s crassness.

Second, the author tells the story in an inventive way. Not only is much of the book narrated by the dead, but there are also sections of knit-together excerpts of writings of the time, describing things like Willie’s death, and the Lincolns’ parenting style, and Lincoln’s personality and appearance. And the opinions differed widely, so you see the difficulty of getting at “the truth” of a person or a situation. But throughout, the greatness of Lincoln shines through.

And third, Nick Offerman. The man’s a narrating genius. He and David Sedaris read the two main roles, and I gotta say: Offerman’s subtle, understated way completely slayed me. The nuance in his voice conveys ten times more than dramatic flailings could even hint at. His character is in denial about his own death, and each time any of the ghosts is about to say “casket,” he substitutes “sick box.” It nearly choked me up.

If you’re going to read this book, I sure hope you’ll listen to it. The beauty of the narration — by all those 166 narrators — adds texture and emotion to an already remarkable story.

Give this book a whirl if you like…Lincoln, cemeteries, ghosts, books that include snippets of real historical accounts, sad stories, a bit of earthiness, The Graveyard Book, The Spoon River Anthology

Skyr and fear

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
3 words: melancholy, unfolding, muted
Oh, Katie darlin’, you got me to read an execution book.
You might be magical.
Here’s how it happened…
 
During our blogger reunion, we were talking about my recent trip to Iceland and resulting skyr-craving affliction, and Katie (she of Words for Worms) was all, “Oh my gosh, you’ve got to read Burial Rites! There’s skyr in it!”
I asked her what the book was about, and she said words that informed me that it was about the last months of a woman convicted of murder, who was awaiting execution. 
And we all know I can’t bear books about prison or execution. Heck, I can barely even read true crime, people.
So I was all, “Ohhhhh…” and doing the shaking of the head and backing away slowly, and Katie assured me it would be OK. (And her excellent review does the same.)
So I went in.
And I survived it.
But guys, this book, it is sad. And it is haunting and it will make you look off into the distance, all melancholy-like.
 
But it held me, it did. Agnes’s story unfolds slowly, and the author puts you right there in the plain, chilly, little hovels where she lived as a servant and where she awaited her end. So you’re very present in the there and then.  
Since reading Icelandic words is seriously hard work, I listened to the audiobook, and that was a good idea. (At then end, during the credits, they thank the person who advised them on Icelandic pronunciation. It’s the kind of thing that requires an expert.)
The craziest part of all is that Agnes was a real historical figure — the last person to be executed in Iceland. And during the months leading up to her death, she lived with a family on a farm, and each family member responded differently to the weirdness of having a murderess under their roof. Pretty fascinating character studies.
So: I’m super glad I read this book. Thanks, Katie, for giving me the gentle, necessary nudge.
So, readers… What’s the book that took you the farthest outside your comfort zone?

True Grit: The Re-Read

True Grit by Charles Portis 
3 words: plain-spoken, dramatic, unsentimental
The month of re-reading continues…
It’s rare that I allow myself the luxury of re-reading a book, but sometimes I’m fortunate and my assigned reading causes me to re-read something I loved.
Enter: True Grit.
And, as always, the second reading was a different, more complex experience than the first.
(I love how this happens.)
The first time I read this book, I marveled at Mattie’s clear, strong narrative voice and her toughness.
The second time, I knew to expect those things, so instead, I really felt the feels.
And man, this book is filled with them. 
It was only on the second time through, that this book made me get teary-eyed.
(Did not expect that)
It reminded me of that time I re-read The Sisters Brothers and felt it the second time. 
This re-reading can be hard on a person. 

So guys… Ever been surprised by a book you re-read?