The always-hilarious Mindy Kaling

Books: Kick-Ass Women

For the rest of 2015, I’m grouping books into themes. Today I’m sharing extraordinary stories of strong women who #runtheworld.

When she published, Mary Ann Evans had to use a male pen name, George Eliot, to guarantee that her book was published. In Little Women, Josephine March gets rid of the -sephine to publish as Jo March. But no more — women not only write under their own names, they top the best-seller charts. To give you a little bit of girl power at the end of this year, here are some books written by some kick-ass women that you should read.

Rising Strong (Brene Brown): If Brene Brown had a fan club, I’d be the president because. this. woman. This woman? She is driven to understand complex human emotions and as she leans into the research, she shares her own challenges and struggles. She’s a professional and she’s vulnerable to everything that she studies.

Rising Strong is organized into three main sections that detail the process — The Reckoning, The Rumble, and The Revolution. In her trademark style, which blends research, case studies, and her personal experiences, Brown helps you understand the core concepts. The best news? Even grabbing one little tidbit and applying it will help you see a difference in your life right away!

To give you a taste, one portion that The Shitty First Draft (or, for kids, Stormy First Draft) is that terrible story that we tell ourselves when something goes wrong. Instead of taking it as the truth, what if we simply said, “The story I’m telling myself now is…” and recognize it as a story, and a bad first take on it at that?

Like I said, #superfan. I even registered for her upcoming COURAGEworks course (see details here). There’s no better book to start the new year with than one written by Brene Brown.

“There is no greater threat to the critics and cynics and fearmongers than those of us who are willing to fall because we have learned how to rise.” Rising Strong, Brene Brown

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and Why Not Me? (Mindy Kaling): Mindy, Mindy, Mindy — where do I begin? If you checked out because you thought, “Oh, isn’t she Kelly from The Office?” she is so much more than that. And stepping into her world through her words is a treat because she writes what she thinks and has no shame in it and includes her geeky childhood pictures because that’s who she is and that’s what makes her funny.

Like Lena Dunham or Amy Poehler, Kaling is in a new generation of comediennes who are unapologetic and unafraid to be themselves. Forget trying to be someone you’re not, Kaling writes: “Teenage girls, please don’t worry about being super popular in high school . . . . Not only do people not care about any of that the second you graduate, but when you get older, if you reference your successes in high school too much, it actually makes you look kind of pitiful, like some babbling old Tennessee Williams character with nothing going on in her current life.”

From musings on popular culture, dating in your 30s, and encouraging women to eat whatever they want, Kaling’s books will warm your heart and remind you that being yourself is the best thing to be.

Brain on Fire (Susannah Cahalan): What would you do if your brain was attacking your body? If you are anything like Susannah Cahalan, you wouldn’t even know it was happening to you. In this frightening — and sometimes too-close-to-home (auto)biography, she recounts her months of madness with the help of lab results, doctor’s reports, video, and what her friends and family tell her it was like.

Everyone loves a story filled with triumph and it’s heartwarming to see someone beat the odds. Susannah, though, still carries the scars from her scare, both physical (the scar on her skull from a brain biopsy — the area will never grow hair again) and emotional (her familial relationships were altered. “Will I be as slow, dour, unfunny, and stupid as I now felt for the rest of my life?” she wonders. “Will I ever again regain that spark that defines who I am?” This is a sentiment anyone who has walked a difficult road can relate to.

Lipstick Jihad (Azadeh Moaveni): This is the story about a woman who considered herself too American to be Iranian and too Iranian to be American. She was born in Palo Alto, CA and has few memories of Iran, only those from a few visits to the country before the borders were more or less closed to her.

As an adult, she becomes curious about “modern” Iran, so she relocates to Tehran as a journalist. This is the year 2000, just before the latest round of American-Iranian conflict, but Moaveni paints a complex, vivid picture of a country where women can be beaten for being out alone but where young adults find ways to hold hands and date like people all over the world.

She also helped me understand how wrong it is to assume that our Western concepts can be easily transferred into a different culture (Iraq? Afghanistan? anyone? anyone). “They borrow Western concepts, like democracy,” she writes, “stick in Iranian parts, and can’t figure out why they’ve lost the juice.” Because of her work as a journalist, Moaveni is exposed to many of Iran’s political and cultural elite, but it is only in following cultural rules and norms that she gains this access.

Does she ever settle the question of her identity — Iranian or American? I won’t spoil it, but instead will leave you with a quote from Reza, one of her friends in Tehran: “Stop asking if you count as Iranian. By asking you just make it seem like a question that other people have the right to answer. If you were confident about yourself, instead of tip-toeing around, no one would challenge you.”

A powerful lesson for all of us, that.

Swallow the Ocean (Laura M. Flynn): Like a car wreck, as readers we cannot look away from this book, even as we see Flynn’s mother, Sally, self-destruct before our eyes. Laura, older sister Sara, and younger sister Amy grow up with their parents in 1970s San Francisco in what seems, at least initially, as a normal family.

But it isn’t long before Flynn starts to realize that her mother is different than the other mothers. She stops leaving the house and stops caring for herself. She has odd compulsions and even starts hoarding. When Flynn is in elementary school, her father leaves her mother and begins a long battle for custody of his daughters.

Stories about mental illness can be hard to read, but Flynn’s powerful imagery, as well as a relatively balanced portrayal of all of the characters, makes this feel lyrical and haunting — and it is an effective way to build a lot of empathy for Laura and her sisters.

Still, she writes, “I had a special place in my head for the things my mother told me. I knew a thing could be real and not real at the same time. . . . Whether what she told me was real or not almost didn’t matter. This was all treacherously real to her, and she took any sign of skepticism as betrayal. I lived in her world, and even if none of this was real to other people, the consequences were real for me.”

And, of course, a throwback choice for you:

Wild (Cheryl Strayed): Strayed is the original bad-ass woman. Who changes her name to something that reflects her current belief on her life? You have probably been out hiking a trail somewhere if you haven’t read this book (or perhaps you saw the movie adaptation, starring Reese Witherspoon?), but it’s worth a read if you’ve missed the boat. Whether you want to trek into the wilderness to find yourself or just want to escape into your thoughts, Wild is an epic story of both confronting the past and walking towards a better future.

“What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?” Wild, Cheryl Strayed

Thanks for reading this latest blog post. 2015 has been a fantastic book year — 84 books read! I can’t wait to see what the pages have in store for 2016!

xo, Sarah

P.S. My reading has been trending international again — I just finished a book set in rural Iceland and am halfway through a book about survivors of the Chechen war. I’m going to continue writing themed book blogs in 2016, so come back in early January for another trip around the world through the pages of some great books!

Whether on planes or through the pages, get out there!
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