Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life

by Stephanie Staal

Paperback, 2011




PublicAffairs (2011), Edition: 1 Original, Paperback, 288 pages


In a personal guide to the classics of feminism, the author examines how well the books hold up to the realities of marriage and motherhood in her own life.

User reviews

LibraryThing member kaelirenee
Do feminists have children? Do they have husbands? Can women (and men) enjoy sex, have maids, do the grocery shopping and still call themselves feminists? Stephanie Staal reconsiders all the questions she confronted as a 19-year-old undergrad in her Feminists Texts courses as a married mother. Her experimental memoir has her retaking these courses while juggling her career, her preschooler, and strife in her marriage.

Staal does a fantastic job of showing how the arguements and evolution of feminism directly relate to the lives of men, women, and children. Feminism is not just some abstract political or cultural concept; it is a daily struggle for equality and fairness. She also shines a light at the generational differences between women and how we view feminism.

I am a 30-year-old mother, wife, and self-proclaimed feminist who was raised by feminists in an era of hearing "I'm not a feminist, but..." I know my views of feminism is wildly different from my mother's or my grandmother's. I've read many of the texts she cites in her book (and added a fair few to my reading list), but never in a class, so hearing her analysis along with the comments of some of her classmates and professors was enlightening.

There are a couple of issues I wish Staal had spent more time with. First was the idea of domestic help (the notion that "I want a wife"). Considering how widely this spreads and what it means to feminism and classism, she spends relatively little time considering this. Second, I thought she almost ignored the treatment of feminists by each other. For all the time she considers older and younger feminists, she skips over how dismissive they can be of each other and the raging debates of second, third, and possibly fourth wave feminists. Third, she also spends little time considering men in all this. Maybe this is indicitive of which wave of feminism I'm in, but I think men are vital to feminism (as the author states, some of my favorite feminists are men), and that it isn't necessary to bash the patriarchy or take men down a peg in order to bring women up.

That being said, I loved this book. I love the feeling of rereading a book at a new time in my life, so now I do feel the urge to reread many of these books myself (especially because I'm pregnany--go figure). Feminism should evolve and grow as the culture changes, but without forgetting its roots. Staal shows this in real life.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
Feeling adrift in middle age, Staal re-enrolls in her college feminist texts seminar and rereads the great works of feminism.

I thought this was a very interesting read, probably because I am in a similar situation as Staal was when she wrote it. I'm a mom of one, middle-aged, doing a little freelance writing but mostly a stay-at-home, wondering what my role is without a job or career, not wanting my only identity to be as mother. I am glad that Staal decided to read these feminist texts looking for answers, so I don't have to (although I have read all of the fiction that she discusses). I enjoyed most her take on the texts themselves and how she applied them to her life. I confess that although I did identify with Staal's particular time in life, I skimmed a lot of the personal in her book. She has a pretty nice life, and some readers may think she's whining, but she, like a lot of us, is just continually wrestling with the question, "Who am I? Is this who I am?"

Spoiler alert: This book has no answers. I think we readers are used to turning to books for answers. It was Staal's instinct, and it's certainly mine. But I had an a-ha moment as I was reading it: there really are no answers to life, not that anyone else can give us, anyway. I consider myself a feminist; I feel passionately that women deserve better than we get and that we should not be reduced to merely mothers, wives, or vaginas. Still, we are also individual human beings, each of us on our own life path. Even as we continue the struggle for equality, there is no one single prescription for all of us. We are all writing our own stories, and we are still writing. Reading is a terrific way to get the brain working, particularly if it's been feeling sluggish, but ultimately any answers we find, we find within ourselves.

Read as part of my "Reading Women" project in 2015.
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LibraryThing member nancyewhite
Two of my favorite things in the world: feminism and books! I enjoyed this book in which a young mother in a troubled marriage re-visits the feminist texts of her undergraduate years by auditing a course at her alma mater. Stephanie Staal is at loose ends after the birth of her baby and finding herself in that common place of feeling vaguely dissatisfied and looking around her and wondering what has happened to the life she was supposed to have. She decides to explore her situation in a Feminist Text class.

In each section she discusses a text, it's place in the culture in which it was written, her experience with it both as a young reader and at this point in her life and then discusses her life now. I felt that the 'memoir' part was the least successful of her endeavor. There are moments where she struggles at making the feminist text she is grappling with and her life circumstances fit together and others where she is not quite forthcoming enough about her life. Nonetheless, reading about how her experience of the book has changed over the years is very exciting for someone who read most of these at about the same age as she did and makes me want to revisit them myself.
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LibraryThing member roniweb
In Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life, Stephanie Staal confronts the all-too-familiar reality of finding yourself disconnected from your beloved college courses and their content. What prompts Staal to become disconnected is not so much leaving college and entering adulthood, but her journey into marriage and motherhood. In order to reconnect, Staal audits a series of courses she took at Barnard as an undergrad. So yes, there's that privilege to content with here.

This memoir/analysis of the women's studies canon is not an indictment of marriage or motherhood. Rather it is an honest examination of what happens when feminism smashes into domestic life. On top of that, her husband and Staal flee NYC after the birth of their daughter and the 2001 terrorist attacks for suburbia. So yeah, this is a bit of an indictment on suburbia and how Stepford some moms can become with their obsession over themes for children's rooms.

Staal uses the revisiting of classics like "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "Fear of Flying" to not add to the feminist critique of motherhood and marriage, but to critique the critique. Staal often makes mention of having years of life experience added to her view of classic texts. She talks about being a part of a generation who were raised by feminist mothers or with feminist messages who have now found themselves in a weird situation that is reminiscent to a 1950s housewife.

She also uses this opportunity to do some intergenerational thinking (it's unclear how much Staal added to any of the conversations in class) between GenX and Millennials. While most intergenerational issues seem to be pegged on Second Wavers versus Millennials, it was great to see a Gen Xer take it on like this.

There is a lot in this book for just about everyone who has ever read a women's studies book. You won't agree with all her conclusions. I certainly didn't appreciate her criticism of working-outside-the-home moms and her recollection of being a latch-key kid. But you will appreciate how she makes you want to go dig out your copy of that favorite book from undergrad.
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LibraryThing member Nickelini
The author, Stephanie Staal, is a thirty-something New Yorker who has stepped off the career track to be a mother, wife and freelancer. When she suffers a crisis of meaning, she decides to return to the women’s studies department of her university and reread the feminist texts that she had first read as a young student. In both structure and concept, the book is highly reminiscent of David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, down to the detail that both authors attended Columbia University.

On the back cover, Reading Women is described as “part memoir, part literary adventure, part social observation,” and that interested me very much. My own university path only touched the feminist canon, so I thought this might be just a little compensation. However, by page 136 I realized that I had read a lot of memoir and very little literary adventure or social observation. Furthermore, I found Staal’s existential crisis rather mundane—although I could relate, I wasn’t particularly interested. Other than fourteen interesting pages on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Charlotte Gilman Perkins The Yellow Wallpaper, I wasn’t getting much out of this book. I was particularly disappointed by her comments on A Room of One’s Own, which is one of my favourites.

So at page 136 I was ready to quit. But I just couldn’t, and decided to skim through the rest. Well, I don’t know what happened, but suddenly the book got very interesting. The literary discussion became lively, and the social observation was sharp and insightful. The memoir sections even became interesting and relevant. I was enjoying myself, and the book was inspiring all sorts of ideas to bubble to the surface. I’m not sure if the second half of the book was truly superior to the first, or if it was the mood I was in, but in the end I was a fan. One day I will go back and read over those first 136 pages. And the book has inspired me to finally pull The Awakening from my bookshelf and read it soon.

Recommended for: women in their late 20s and 30s.
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LibraryThing member asbooks
Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life – Stephanie Staal (Public Affairs)

Angelle Haney Gullett

I avoid memoirs like the plague. But when I saw Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women, I reconsidered. Hey, I thought, books and feminism changed my life too! She also appears to be about my age, which means that we both read The Feminine Mystique under the influence of the Riot Grrls, and were just a bit too old to be swayed by the Spice Girls’ version. Still, my mistrust of the genre made me skeptical.

Staal initially sets out on what might seem like merely the latest in the “stunt” memoir tradition. She is a young adult who finds herself lost in a post-9/11 malaise of marital tension, parental angst, isolation and writer’s block. But instead of eating nothing but Corn-Nuts for a month, or packing her bags and repackaging old-school Orientalism as enlightenment, Staal decides to go back to school.

Specifically, she decides to retake the year-log Feminist Texts course offered at her alma mater, Barnard College in New York City. And, lo and behold, 10 years later, she brings a different perspective to the works and biographies of Chopin, Wollstonecraft, Woolf and de Beauvoir. A competent writer about reading (harder than it looks), Staal succeeds in giving us just enough to follow her thinking, but not so much we don’t feel the need to read the book ourselves.

She also observes the perspectives of her bright and combative classmates, young women coming to these books for the first time. She does this with a compassion that is seldom seen between generations within the feminist movement. She listens thoughtfully to these young women, and the fact that they expect no less says a great deal about how far feminism has brought us.

Criticism and observation are sandwiched in with Staal’s life circumstances, and here is where the book stumbles, if just a little. One clear strength is her observations on the growing distance inside her marriage are frank and that thread of the story resolves refreshingly in a way I wasn’t expecting. But sometimes the chronological or thematic link between life and literature feels tenuous and disjointed.

Reading Women made me want to have lunch with Stephanie Staal, which is what I suppose a memoir is meant to do. But more importantly, it made me hungry to read and reread these classic books and essays for myself, which as a reader and a feminist is the highest praise I can offer.
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LibraryThing member DJ_Cliffe
Interesting book. Lovely combination of memoir and Fem Studies. The flow back and forth between the two could have been smoother in places but, over-all, the book succeeded. Stephanie Staal hits the wall in her life as woman, wife, mother and freelancer. Seeking some insight into her situation and a possible solution she hits the women's studies section of Barnes and Noble (as paltry as the one here at Bolen Books it would seem). Pulling out The Feminine Mystique, she hits upon the idea to revisit the Fem Texts Course of her undergrad years. It takes her two years and four semesters to audit the two semester course, given life, family, work and the usual distractions. Her insights, both past and present, help her to place herself in her present-day world and life. I have disagreements and complaints about some of the information and interpretations vis a vis the books studied, but enjoyed the book as a whole.… (more)
LibraryThing member hopetillman
A delightful read! Biographical in tone, the author revisits feminist texts and relates them to her life. A graduate of Barnard who identifies herself as a feminist, Staal audits “Fem Texts” a decade after college, as she is trying to come to terms with her life as writer, wife, and mother. She dips into works from different periods, going from the works from Mary Wollstonecraft and Kate Chopin to more current titles such as Riverbend’s Bagdad Burning blog. We get to know the author as she learns more about herself. It is an enjoyable journey. She brings back my memories of many of the earlier works she covers and introduces me to many of the newer titles. There is an excellent syllabus for further reading in the back of the book.… (more)
LibraryThing member book58lover
A thoroughly readable book and one that I am enjoying in my feminist reading. Staal walks us through her personal life as a young mother and wife as she takes classes at Barnard in Feminist Literature. A real juxtaposition of the personal thoughts as a thinking young woman and as a mother. The discussions of the feminist texts and her thinking as a writer herself really have me thinking of rereading them myself. I realized that I was nearly her mother's age, and having lived through the seventies as a freshly minted college grad, I know that much of the discussions are so very different for me and my friends than they are for the students in the Barnard class. These are truly ancient writings and ancient feelings and yet many of them are still with us, not having been resolved to my satisfaction.

The writing style is very fluid and even the in-depth discussions are very readable. I just didn't want it to end because I could relive the emotions and late night jam sessions we had when we were oh so young.
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LibraryThing member GiniLiz
I have met more than one woman who, like the author here, read feminist texts in college and then got caught up in all that being an adult woman frequently entails, leaving little time for reflection on those readings, much less time to consider how they might apply to her life today. This book shares the author's experience of returning to feminist texts she had read in college and finding a new relationship to them in light of her adult experiences. For somebody who, like her, has read many of these texts, it would be an enjoyable reminder of their content and perhaps encouragement to pick them up again. For somebody who has not read many, this book would be a good place to start for some friendly recommendations from somebody who is not trying to be overly academic, but simply trying to (re)connect with feminists of the past.… (more)
LibraryThing member jcelrod
This book is a really interesting account of Stephanie Staal's attempt to see her life as a wife and mother through the lens of the feminist texts that she had read as an undergrad by auditing Feminist Texts courses as Barnard, her alma mater. I loved the idea of revisiting these works years later to discover new meanings, applications, and even problems in directly applying feminist thought to a life very familiar to many women today. The structure of the book juxtaposes the class readings and discussions with episodes from Staal's life which makes the book well-rounded and illustrates the impact a wide variety of feminist ideas and theories are having on her day-to-day life as a writer, a wife, and a mother. I love that Staal also provides two reading lists at the end of the book (one is her own reading list and the other is the reading list that was covered in the Fem Text courses she took). After reading this memoir, I definitely want to read more of the texts she covers!… (more)
LibraryThing member feministmama
Reading Women by Stephanie Staal

Freelance journalist and Barnard graduate, Stephanie Staal decides to revisit her relationship to Feminism after the birth of her child and years of marriage manifest feelings of Feminist Mystique, version 2.0. After rereading Freidan’s seminal work one day while trying to entertain her small child in a chain bookstore, she is inspired to audit a class looking at Feminist texts she took years ago while a young student at Barnard. This class frames the narrative of the book, a personal journey of her connection between her feminist ideology and her ambivalence with marriage and motherhood.

As a feminist and mother myself I am on the one hand intrigued by this dichotomy yet on the other as a woman of color, disappointed to hear yet another women of privilege whine about the limits of that privilege with no recognition of that privilege, a downside to the book Friedan wrote some 40 years ago. Case in point, her references at the back of the book list many women of color authors who raise this very issue but she discusses none of them in the 270 pages of the book but makes passing references to their names. An Asian American women herself, (she doesn’t reveal this information till page 122) she raises no experiences of racism in her entire life which I find hard to believe.

While she claims this is her own personal journey with Feminism and should not be misconstrued with imparting any kind of analysis or wisdom for the reader to learn from, she cites the familiar feminist phrase that is intended to motivate women in struggle. “As a mother, linked to my child in a million ways, I could not ignore the difficulties of applying my feminist ideals to my life’s realities, yet I could not turn my back on feminism either….I longed to fashion my own incarnations, the personal with the political” (p.x). In this search for herself she missed the connections with others. Even though this myopic view upset me while beginning the book I did find some valuable insights raised by Staal.

Staal takes the reader through the main issues and themes of Feminism through each author and fleshes them out in a way that is accessible for those unfamiliar to Feminism. On page 187, she references the issue of women balancing work and family, an issue raised heavily by second wave feminists and the topic of some of the books in her class. The argument goes like this; in order for women to be “fulfilled” they need to be able to work and have careers as men have. The catch is that women have to also care for the home and the children, which competes with the demanding hours of these jobs. Enter the nanny discussion. Should women hire a nanny so that they can compete in the workforce as men do? In this discussion she dares to ask “ Is it really liberating for women for women to peruse a ‘male pattern of work’ if they’re oppressing others in the process?”

Yet the conversation ends there. If Staal wanted to circle back to her preface where she states the personal is political this would been a perfect opportunity to raise it here. Unfortunately she missed it. Her definition of fulfillment is based in privilege. It begs the question does her journey inspire the reader to challenge or maintain the status quo? Feminism is many things to many people but ultimately it is about change. As bell hooks describes in her many works, Feminism is about confronting sexism and taking action for change. Using feminism as an anecdote seems inappropriate to me and adds fuel to the fire of critics who denigrate Feminism. In one discussion, a student raises her frustration of how to deal with sexism and to be an agent of change. The professor instructs the student to confront the sexism by saying “this is not me- this is crap” (p.127). This is a perfect illustration of the power of Feminism that I wish Staal had drawn on more.

While I admit that my criticism of this book may be sharp I would also recommend people read it anyway. Some Feminism is better than no Feminism. Maybe the readers can find inspiration for change and not just a cute anecdote.
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LibraryThing member noodlejet22
This is like a quick and concise summary of a feminist texts course. Staal gives us just enough background on the texts and the main points but what is most interesting is the dynamic that she navigates among what I see she feels as her two selves-mother and working woman. Her writing is accessible and I could really appreciate her experience.… (more)
LibraryThing member heinous-eli
I was really excited about this book, and I wasn't disappointed. Staal moves through the different periods of her life, with their requisite hopes and expectations, with frankness and aplomb. She doesn't hold back at all, even when certain aspects of her life might contradict what she says she believes, which is refreshing. Her discussion of the different eras/waves of feminism as she has experienced them is a welcome change from the generation gap/finger-pointing in which many feminists who discuss those issues tend to engage. Feminism aside, it's a great testimony to the power of time to change how you feel about different works of literature; if nothing else, the book is valuable for showing how the truly intellectually curious and intellectually inclined evolve and grow in their thinking over time.… (more)
LibraryThing member Lilac_Lily01
If you didn't get the chance to take a Women's studies course in college but always wanted to then this is the book for you. Stephanie Staal is a middle aged writer, wife, and mother who decides to go back to Barnard College in order to retake Feminism 101. When she took the same course as a young college kid she felt the theories where outdated and didn't apply to her life. But a decade later with a changed perspective on the femine reality she is curious to find out if there isn't any more wisdom to be gained from those same theories. Staal summarizes some of the most important feminism texts and explores their relavance for her and modern women in general. She does so with a refreshing voice that makes it hard to put the book down. Staal is a fantastic writer and this book was a pleasure to read. I think this is a great starter for anyone interested in feminism and feminine issues in general.… (more)
LibraryThing member Yells
I loved this book! I was a women's studies major in university so for me, it was an interesting review of all that I learned before. But also, Staal did a good job relating everythings he learned to her own life. Before marrying, she worked hard to build a good career for herself but then struggled to fit marriage and motherhood into the equation. She repeated questions her own definition of what a feminist is and seeks to discover how much one can give up to others before they lose sight of themselves. It's an honest book and one that I can totally relate to.… (more)
LibraryThing member readingthruthenight
Stephanie Staal, graduate from Barnard, anticipated a progressive career driven life. And was on her way, until she meets a man, falls in love, gets married, has a baby and leaves The City. (And speaking of The City, didn't we see that episode on SatC?) It is about this time that we meet her, as our narrator and guide. Her marriage is a wee bit rockier than expected, and even though both her and hubs work from home, she ends up with the role of "mommy" and not the equal partnership that she anticipated.

"Our shared parenting time appeared astonishingly equal to outsiders - maybe too equal. It didn't take long to discover that they viewed my time as a duty, whereas John's was a gift - he was a saint to my sinner." (46)

Not knowing what else to do, she decides to audit a year long study of Feminine Texts at her alma matter. Reading Women is her journey.

I received this book from LT in December and squealed knowing that it would align perfectly with The Year of Feminist Classics challenge that I signed up for. Not surprisingly, the first text that Staal is assigned in her Fem Text course is our January read - A Vindication of Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft.

Staal excels in literary analysis. I truly felt as though she combed the texts and spent the time to truly understand them as period pieces and contemporary sources of wisdom. For example, while reading "The Yellow Wallpaper", she states: If men, too, are products of the culture, how culpable are they really? And how complicit might women be in their own imprisonment. (94)

She's obviously a very bright woman and I do understand her desire to go back to the text. I imagine that it is difficult for a woman to manage both motherhood and a career. She constantly goes back and forth trying to find the most accurate definition of "woman" for herself as a feminist and all of her other selves. Her thoughts are candid both after running into other SaHMs who ask when she plans on having another baby, and while being in a college class thinking about her daughter at home. I get that duality. I get the stress on finding a defining foundation of womanhood. Especially when I don't know if men think of themselves against women in the same way that women do.

Overall, a really impressive read.
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LibraryThing member chrystal
I loved this book for many reasons- the authors voice was clear and genuine, and having several texts summarized and explained was great. I loved how she tied her personal story and reflections in. I am going to explore a few of the books she discussed.
LibraryThing member macart3
Stephanie Staal, finding herself in an Annapolis, MD suburbia and a husband and chlid, decides to retake feminist literature courses at Barnard, where she obtained her undergraduate degree. She reflects on the changes the years have wrought upon her as well as, to a lesser degree, the less passionate nature of feminist men and women today and the stigma attached to be called a feminist.

It is a well written book. Her thoughts are coherent and the conversations included as examples relevant. I don't think it's whiny as one reviewer suggested, but it's the author's revelations of how the media subtly (and not so subtly) prepetuate stereotypes about women and what they should be able to do/put with.
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LibraryThing member madhatter22
This book reminded me a lot of Reading Lolita in Tehran. With both books I loved the concept and the books that were being discussed, but I found the authors' voices grating and and as hard as I tried I couldn't make myself finish them.
I found Staal whiny (which was especially off-putting for a woman with her obvious advantages) and there wasn't enough interesting discussion (at least in the first few chapters which was as much as I could stand) to make up for that.… (more)
LibraryThing member alexandrampatterson
Stephanie Staal takes a personal approach to the classics of feminist literature in Reading Women. After a midlife crisis, Staal decides to return to her alma mater to attend feminist literature courses and recover some of the zeal she had as an undergraduate. Readers are taken along for the ride as Staal realizes that her perspective on the texts has changed drastically from her views in college. She is confused by her classmates' views on feminism, citing them as too relaxed. Her statements leave those of us who are young enough to hold the same views puzzled and more than a little annoyed.

Overall, Reading Women sparks interest in the literature it presents serving the author's purpose.
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LibraryThing member ironicqueery
Reading Women is half memoir and half women studies book. Stephanie Staal reaches a point in her life where she finds herself married and with a child, having given up a successful career, focusing on the family. She starts to wonder what happened to her feminist ideals and whether she could still call herself a feminist or not.

To answer these questions, she heads back to school to retake the Feminist Texts class she took years ago.
From this point, we learn how Staal relates to these texts in the new context of her life with a family and set in her life, as opposed to a young college student with nearly unlimited options in life. Her comparison between the readings in each stage of her life makes for a unique look at how the messages in each book she reads has changed over the course of her life. It shows how people can gather different things from a book depending on their situation, but also how they can still provide inspiration and wisdom over the course of time.

Reading Women is a great mixture of a memoir giving us a peak into the life of a woman struggling to reconcile various aspects of her life, and a look at the great women writers who influenced and led the Feminist movement.
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LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
I flew through this book. It might not be one of the best books of 2011 by any objective measure, but it resonated so much with me that I know I will be thinking about it again and again. The primary subject: the intersection of feminism and motherhood.
LibraryThing member ValerieAndBooks
I stumbled across this book at the library, and ended up buying a copy for myself because I want to refer back to it. Staal's "Reading Women" was one I really identified with. Life does change after becoming a wife and mother, and Staal acknowledges this. While struggling to deal with these changes, she decides to audit classes in feminist texts at her alma mater. There's much insight in this book, and I have already started reading, and looking for, many of the texts she refers to and discusses.… (more)
LibraryThing member llusby23
Such a palpable story of the struggle for balance between theory and reality, between what we say and what we do. In reading this book, it became very clear to me how much identity--especially a woman's identity--is a balancing act. No matter what stage of life we inhabit, it seems our identity is always in flux, on the verge of becoming something else.

This is also a story of perspective. Of how experience changes not only the way we see ourselves, but how we see everything else in relation to ourselves. Of taking a step back from our own lives and changing that perspective. But the ultimate moral to this story is one any reading woman can appreciate: when feeling lost, turn to the right books and you'll find your way back.
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Original publication date


Physical description

288 p.; 5.6 inches


1586488724 / 9781586488727

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