I’ve been trying to do a lot of reading with all this time at home. It’s easy to just sit and watch re-runs of Desperate Housewives (I’m doing that, too), so I try to set aside the time to read every day. I’m more of a non-fiction person in general, and lately I’ve into reading books by women who have really led fascinating lives that I can learn from. Here are 6 books I’ve enjoyed recently.
Résistance by Angès Humbert
Angès Humbert was a French art historian who started the Groupe du musée de l’Homme, the first resistance movement against Nazi occupation in France during World War II. She was arrested and sentenced to 5 years hard labor before finally being freed. She kept a personal journal throughout her imprisonment, which has been published as Résistance.
I’m still making my way through this incredible book, but I’m already in love with Agnès.
You can’t compare Coronavirus to Nazi occupied France, but I think it makes it easier to have some perspective on crisis and struggle when things are bad. It’s also inspiring to see an intimate portrait of how the human spirit can overcome so much and stay true to its core values.
As she’s starving in prison she says…
“They can have my fat, but they can never take my skin.” -Angès Humbert
Unbowed: a Memoir by Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai is a feminist, environmentalist and political activist from Kenya. She helped start the Green Belt Movement, which has helped transform the Kenyan government and has, to date, planted over 51 million trees. In 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Prize.
With her beautiful personality, shining spirit and charisma she will inspire you to walk through every door that opens and carve new ones where there aren’t any. Reading about her childhood in rural Kenya was really interesting. It’s also amazing how she advocated for her own education in a culture that did not embrace women’s ambition.
“There comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness . . . that time is now.”― Wangari Maathai
Jewels by Victoria Finlay
Even if you’re not a jeweler like me, you will still appreciate the history, science and lore that is woven into each gemstone. For each gem, she takes you on a journey around the world to where it’s mined. It’s a fascinating look at not only the mining industry, but also the cultural microcosms that are built around the mining and cultivation of each stone.
The book isn’t really about Finlay, but you can’t help be completely captivated by her sense of curiosity and adventure. She’s a fantastic writer, and deftly tells the stories of each person she meets with cultural humility and incredible warmth. If you miss travel being stuck at hone, traveling the world with Finlay in this book will be a treat. Honestly, I just want to meet her and hang out with her.
“The most beautiful pearl is nothing more, in fact, than the brilliant sarcophagus of a worm.” – Jewels
Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters
I became slightly obsessed with Alice Waters after watching her Masterclass. She taught me the joys of grinding my own cumin salt, how to properly wash and dry salad greens, and also convinced me to spend $48 on a suribachi. This was before I knew much about her, like the fact she’s basically the entire reason the farm-to-table food movement in the United States even exists.
In her book, she gives a fascinating look at growing up in the 50s (including the very depressing American culinary life of that era), participating in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 60s, and starting a food revolution that has fundamentally changed how Americans eat. Alice is a true master of the senses, and has changed how I think about food and how I taste food.
This book is personal, playful and immensely readable. Her approach to cooking is intuitive and simple, which is part of what I find so inspiring. She will make you realize cooking is just as much about the ingredients you’re using as it is about skill. Think you’re not a cook? Alice will prove you wrong. At a time when people are staying home and cooking a lot, there’s no better time to let Alice inspire the home cook in you to come out!
“Even though I shared a lot of counterculture values, I never connected with the hippie culture of the late 1960s… the food in particular. It felt to me like they were fighting for the freedom to completely disengage from society. I thought the way to change was to engage with society, and I believed in formality and beauty and deliberation.” -Alice Waters
It’s All About the Dress by Vicky Tiel
In a time when reality is heavy (like now), sometimes you need some pure, delicious escapism. Vicky Tiel’s book will transport you to a world of Parisian fashion shows, 1960s Hollywood parties, and frothy decadence. Vicky Tiel is a fashion designer best known for (claiming) to have invented the miniskirt and designing Julia Robert’s iconic red dress in Pretty Woman. This book is full of gossip and name dropping (apparently Woody Allen hired men to carry a pinball machine 5 stories so he could sleep with her?), and for that alone, it’s a fun read.
According to Vicky Tiel, every famous person in Hollywood was in love with Vicky Tiel at one point–but you’ll find no one loves Vicky as much as Vicky. As many times as I found myself eye rolling and saying “sure, Jan”, it’s still entertaining. You can’t deny she’s a woman who was never afraid to break rules and live fearlessly on her own terms. Vicky is a total lightening bolt. She also writes candidly about her close friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I love Elizabeth, so the intimate history and insights into their relationship was really interesting to me. It made me love her even more as a person than I already do! If you don’t read this book for Vicky, read it for Liz.
“Trying to make something work that doesn’t is a big mistake. I always tell my friends who are looking for Mr. Right, if no one comes along, that is because no one was meant to!” – Vicky Tiel
Building a Life Worth Living by Marsha Linehan
Marsha Linehan is famous in mental health circles for being the inventor of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a form of CBT that focuses on relationship building and emotional regulation. DBT is the only evidence based treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder, and has been revolutionary in reducing suicidality (BPD has the highest rate of suicide of any disorder). Prior to DBT, Borderline patients were often viewed as “untreatable” and denied services by therapists and doctors.
Linehan used her own experience with Borderline to develop the therapy to treat it, making her a total badass. She also had to advocate not only for her own treatment, but for professional respect, during a time when women were both rare and devalued in the mental health profession. She paints a picture of hope for those struggling with mental health issues, and shows us how powerful our own will to change can be.
If you surrender and radically accept life as it is–with willingness, without resentment, without anger–then you are in a place from which you can move on. Don’t say, ‘Why me?’ Whatever has happened has happened. To radically accept something is to stop fighting it.” – Marsha Linehan
The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet
Catherine Millet is the editor of a prestigious French art magazine. Her book is considered a bit of a classic in France. It’s an uncensored and unemotional personal portrait of a woman’s sexual escapades–escapades that border on compulsive. She’s been compared to the Marquis de Sade, but I’d argue the Marquis probably had more philosophical, social and emotional interest in sex. Catherine is just about the act of copulating, and she isn’t shy about admitting it. As one critic said, it is possibly the most provocative book about sex ever written by a woman.
While the book may not warm you to her (she’s no feminist, and even publicly opposed the MeToo movement in France), her willingness to fearlessly and unapologetically discuss her sexual desires is an interesting ride. And not for the pearl-clutcher.
She’s like the female Hannibal Lecter of sex.
“I can no longer pretend that I believe in God. It’s highly possible that I lost this belief when I started having sexual relationships.” – Catherine Millet
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