Between the Covers

The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures


By Margo Hammond

By Ellen Heltzel

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With wit and wisdom, the bibliophile's Ebert & Roeper recommend more than 600 books based on what women care about most. Between the Covers is organized around their wide-ranging curiosity—about themselves, friends and family, the larger world—and their concerns, from health to sex to managing their finances. With such sections as “Babes We Love” (Role Models Real and Imagined), “The Babe Inside” (Focusing on Body and Soul), and “Love, Sex & Second Chances,” this unique collection of fiction and nonfiction reflects how women really read.


“I wouldn’t normally and publicly praise a book I’m in, but in the case of these enthusiastic readers who devour books as if they were gorgeous and smart lovers, I’m making an exception. Any reader will be swept away by this swift and useful guide through life’s dilemmas through literature. These two guides have read deeply and widely and their sure touch translates into practical and pleasurable uses for books. Trust them, they’ll fix you right up, and they are cheaper than shrinks.”
ANDREI CODRESCU, author of New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing from the City and Jealous Witness: New Poems
“Between the covers, the Book Babes are novel lovers.”
WHITNEY OTTO, author of How to Make an American Quilt
“The Book Babes are brainy, funny, on the money. They’re fantastic role models, showing young women that there’s nothing sexier than someone who is well-read and witty.”
SUSAN SHAPIRO, author of Five Men Who Broke My Heart
“The Book Babes’ vast knowledge of books and their sometimes offbeat, always on-target judgments about quality literature are demonstrated in Between the Covers. I cannot imagine a more interesting, useful, and wise guide to literature—for women and men.”
STEVE WEINBERG, author of Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller
“Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel are true goddesses of the literary world. And their love of the written word has been channeled into this fabulous volume—which contains a smorgasbord of book advice for every stage of a woman’s life. Between the Covers should be required reading for ‘book babes’ everywhere (and I’m not just saying that because my book is listed herein)!”
JANE GANAHL, author of Naked on the Page

About the Authors
Margo Hammond, former book editor for the St. Petersburg Times, has served as a National Book Critics Circle board member and as president of the Southern Book Critics Circle. She wrote a weekly travel column for The New York Times Syndicate and worked at The Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Star, and the Baltimore Sun. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Ellen Heltzel was features and book editor at The Oregonian. She serves on the National Book Critics Circle board and writes for a host of publications, including The Washington Post, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, and The Seattle Times. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
As The Book Babes, Hammond and Heltzel have written a weekly column for Poynter Online and The Book Standard and a monthly column for Good Housekeeping magazine online. Their radio program airs monthly on WMNF-FM in Tampa, and their work has appeared in magazines and newspapers across the country. Visit them at, and send them your favorite book picks at

To Carl and Tim

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library
For book lovers, Paradise means getting between the covers. It means curling up with a good book, or finding just the right one on a bookstore or library shelf, or sharing a favorite with a friend.
And it’s never been easier: There are now more books in circulation than ever before. Millions, to be imprecise—because precision would be impossible with today’s biblio birth rate. This embarrassment of riches creates a quandary for the passionate reader: How do you wrap your mind around all the options?
We have an idea.
Just as the Dewey Decimal System was invented to impose order on books, we’ve created a system of our own to guide and stimulate your reading. It’s hardly the equivalent of the time-honored catalogue. But it can help you in a way that Dewey cannot, because it follows the rhythms of a woman’s life.
Make that a busy, curious woman, and one who likes to read. If you see yourself in this description, please come aboard. As the Book Babes, two book critics who have built a friendship and partnership around our enthusiasm for reading, our goal is to connect the dots between literature and your life.
For us, reading is as familiar and essential a habit as our morning coffee. It’s an interactive sport that we practice every day, when our experience meets the author’s words and transforms them.
Between the Covers is interactive, too. It revolves around lists—fifty-five in all, each including ten books that relate to the same theme, each approaching the theme in a different way. We start with some favorite women we’ve found through books. No saints here: Instead, they’re individuals—from fiction and reality—who have gained dimension on the page. Their wit, intelligence, perseverance, and elegance remind us of qualities we want to foster in ourselves.
Then we get personal, dealing with how you feel about your looks and weight, your spiritual and artistic growth. Then come family matters, love life, attitudes about home and work. As the circle widens, we expand to your concern for the world at large. Finally, it’s time to put up your feet and relax: Be an armchair traveler, a crime solver, a member of royalty.
In order to cover this range and reflect how women really read, our picks come from every corner. About a third are fiction (with a little poetry for good measure). A third are general nonfiction. The rest? Memoirs. This high proportion is no surprise: So many good memoirs have been published in the past fifteen years. And because this is a book about women and what we care about, personal stories take pride of place.
In our focus on women’s lives today, we give priority to living authors and more recently published books. Not that we’re against the classics, and a couple are tucked in where you might not expect them. But as much as we admire Middlemarch and Anna Karenina, our aim here is to showcase the tremendous variety and superb writing that’s being created now.
Within this contemporary frame, we cast wide, reflecting the eclectic tastes of the truly passionate reader. You’ll find literary fiction and chick lit. Mystery and self-help. Obscure books and best sellers.
If some of your favorites are missing, rest assured, some of ours are, too. This book isn’t intended to circumscribe your reading, but to open it up and spur a wider search. Like a box of assorted chocolates, this selection gives you many ways to indulge.
While writing this book, we discovered what kinship books have. They echo or amplify each other, or take an opposing view. It’s seven degrees of separation, literary-style. After reading Anchee Min’s novel Empress Orchid, about the last empress of China, we picked up Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, and it was as if the two books were talking to each other, and we were listening in. Describing his library in the French countryside, Manguel compared it to “the strange Chinese villa that in 1888 the capricious Empress Cixi caused to be built in the shape of a ship. . . .” A picture of her strange, land-bound ark cemented the image of the wily queen that Min already had placed in our minds. Discovering her for a second time, she was locked there forever, like John Keats’s lovers on that Grecian urn.
More connections: In her novel The Collection, Gioia Diliberto imagines a young seamstress working in Coco Chanel’s Paris atelier. In My Mother’s Wedding Dress, Justine Picardie gives us an actual tour of the same workspace.
In Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters, Anne Kreamer begins with a photograph from a trip that changed her life and her attitudes toward aging. One of the women in the photo is Akiko Busch, author of Nine Ways to Cross a River—another book that ruminates on the passage of time.
In The Naked Woman: A Study of the Female Body, Desmond Morris describes how women whitened their cheeks and blackened their teeth in ancient Japan, a beauty ritual that’s described in Liza Dalby’s novel, The Tale of Murasaki—itself inspired by the eleventh-century classic The Tale of Genji.
In making the choices for this book, one goal was to include as many of our unsung heroes as we could. Another was to come at well-known authors in fresh ways. Much as we love Ann Patchett’s novels, she’s represented here by her memoir Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, about her strange but loving relationship with a fellow poet and writer. (A novel by her mom, Jeanne Ray, did make our cut.) Mary Gordon’s memoir Circling My Mother was picked over her better-known Shadow Man, a book about her father. Sara Gruen is featured not for her best-selling Water for Elephants but for Riding Lessons, another novel that similarly shows her devotion to animals.
In order to include as many favorites as we could, we mention only a few authors more than once. But please don’t try this at home: If you like the book we recommend, that’s the perfect reason to read more of what that author has written. Seek out the writers who teach or provoke or comfort you, and ask yourself why they do. Your answer matters, because what you read signals what you want to know and care about.
Between the Covers grows out of a long-distance collaboration that began after we met, appropriately enough, at a book convention during the 1990s. Both of us were book editors for newspapers—Margo in St. Petersburg, Florida, Ellen in Portland, Oregon. We kept in touch by phone and then the Internet, which led us to blogging before most people (including us!) had heard the term. Our back-and-forth discussions evolved into columns and recommendation lists that have appeared on various websites and in newspapers around the country.
What makes our collaboration work is not that our tastes in reading are the same, but that they complement each other. So, too, our lives: Ellen, a native Oregonian, has been married for more than thirty years and has two sons. Margo has been divorced and is remarried. A Wisconsin native, she has lived and worked in various cities in Europe and along the East Coast.
As with books, our political and religious views aren’t the same, but we love to discuss them. Our differences contribute to a stimulating dialogue that’s fueled by—yes, you guessed it—our love for reading. Book lovers are an informed, dissenting lot, so you may take issue with some of our choices. We welcome a different opinion. If there’s ever peace on Earth, we think it will start when guns are replaced with books, when the thirst for knowledge will outpace the quest for power.
The cue for our reading habits and this book can be found in Ralph Waldo Emerson, who observed, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.”
No, the Babes can’t guarantee that reading makes you a better person. But it can make you a deeper one: a smarter, more interesting, more imaginative woman who carries that knowledge and understanding into the world.
So, welcome to our divine library. We look forward to introducing you to some old friends and some new ones. Some may merely interest you. Others may change your life.

Women have written poetry, trekked across continents, and ruled empires. But for most of human history, it was his story: men casting themselves as the heroes of their own sagas. Women were left to whisper their stories to each other—in red tents where they were isolated during menstrual cycles, next to each other in the fields, in churches and factories, over backyard fences, and at beauty parlors.
In the 1970s, artist Judy Chicago decided to give a shout-out to the forgotten women of myth and history. As the women’s movement gathered steam, she created an unusual art installation: thirty-nine place settings, each dedicated to a different female figure, set on a triangle-shaped table. The settings featured ceramic plates decorated with a stylized version of a vulva. On the floor below porcelain tiles were inscribed with the names of 999 more notable women. Chicago called her ensemble The Dinner Party.
When the party was first exhibited in 1979, many viewers could scarcely see the forest for the vagina. In the ensuing uproar, Chicago made her point: Women deserve a place at the table.
Inspired by Chicago’s tribute, the Book Babes imagine an all-woman celebration of their own. Ours is composed of thirty-two extraordinary women we met in the pages of thirty biographies, memoirs, and novels (four of our guests come as couples—lesbians living on the rue de Fleurus in Paris and a pair of bisexual anthropologists). They speak to us in different ways—through fiction, biography, and memoir—but their stories come together to offer testimony about their lives.
Like the figures honored by Chicago, these women who’ve been invited to feast with us are achievers—but not always in the traditional sense. Heroic exploits aren’t the only reason to celebrate a life. Some of them are trailblazers. Others are “originals,” with their own special sense of style. Still others are iconoclasts. More important, they’re thirty-two high-spirited, smart, ass-kickin’ women whose stories can inspire us all.
Writing down their lives—and drawing attention to themselves—has not always come easy for women. The ancient Greek poet Sappho wrote verses about her love life. Lady Murasaki drew on her own experiences to re-create Japanese court life in The Tale of Genji (considered the world’s first novel). But most women writers, contrary to the archetype of the lone male embarking on his journey of discovery, didn’t play the starring role in their own work. This is especially evident in the autobiographical writings that came out of European convents during the Middle Ages, when nuns wrote about their relationship to the divine. In The Life of St. Teresa by Herself, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic from Avila warns you to “pay not attention to the intellect, which is merely being tiresome.” Instead, give yourself to God.
As religious writings gave way to more secular ones, the family replaced God as the focal point of women’s memoirs. Personal stories took on importance only in relationship to other family members. Even the captive narratives written by white European women kidnapped by Native Americans and the accounts of freed female slaves spoke to a purpose greater than the individual experience—the former to bolster the religious faith of the colonizers, the latter to create sympathy for the abolitionist cause.
Gradually that has changed. Now all the literary forms that deal with the universals in human experience—the quest, the romance, the odyssey, the tragic or comic mode—are available to women, says Jill Ker Conway in When Memory Speaks. But even as women have stepped up to center stage in their memoirs, they often still keep sight of their roots, producing more textured stories in the process.
Conway is a good illustration. In her first memoir, The Road from Coorain, she describes her hardscrabble childhood on her family’s sheep farm in the Australian Outback. Her follow-up, True North, begins with her emigration to America in 1960 and ends with her appointment as the first woman president of the all-women’s Smith College in 1975. In both cases, as her personal history unfolds, so does the warp and woof of the society in which she operated.
“We travel through life guided by an inner life plot,” says Conway. That plot is created by our family and societal norms, but also by our insights into ourselves and the universe around us. It is the sum of all those parts that has made the lives of women in this section so engaging—and why we’d fight to be seated next to any one of them at a dinner party.


1. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Few women can write their own story, capture the yin of an entire cultural legacy, and defy it at the same time. But Kingston is up to the multitask in this memoir, as she expunges the sorrows and sexism that are part of her Chinese heritage. A self-proclaimed “woman warrior,” she resists the “American-feminine” of her immigrant upbringing and claims an assertive voice. Furious at a meeker classmate’s silence, she pulls the girl’s hair and yells, “Talk! Talk!”
2. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Nafisi, a teacher in Tehran, and seven of her best women students defied Iran’s ayatollahs with the weapon repressive regimes fear most: reading. Meeting secretly at Nafisi’s apartment every Thursday morning for two years, they shed their robes, scarves, and inhibitions to discuss forbidden classics by Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen. The group relates most to Lolita, the story of a young girl kept captive by someone else’s fantasy. It’s not that big a leap from a controlling dirty old man to the thought police.
3. My Life So Far by Jane Fonda. Dividing her narrative into three acts as if she were starring in her own play, Fonda describes her many roles: daughter of a beloved actor who was an emotionally distant father, wife to three oversized egos, workout guru, and political activist. By Act Three, appropriately titled “Beginning,” she is simply Jane, alone but finally not lonely. Nothing is off-limits: her mother’s suicide, her controversial trip to Hanoi, her bulimia. If you don’t weep at her dying father’s silent tears, you probably sat dry-eyed through On Golden Pond.
4. Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston. In the 1920s and ’30s, black male authors rejected her use of rural patois. White publishers censored her. No wonder Hurston’s work was ignored for nearly three decades. Now her novels, folklore studies, and this inventive memoir about growing up in “burly, boiling” black Florida are back with a vengeance. She died penniless, but she left words rich with empathy for poor rural folk: “You, who play zig-zag lightning of power over the world, with the grumbling thunder in your wake, think kindly of those who walk in the dust.”
5. The Bone People by Keri Hulme. An odd trio inhabits this lonely, lyrical novel set against a remote New Zealand backdrop. The reclusive painter Kerewin befriends a small boy, Simon, and through him another loner, the child’s foster father, Joe. Past pain defines their individual lives and invades their relationship in a story that Hulme flavors with Maori phrases and the tempestuous roar of the sea. The Romantic poets meet one tough and independent woman: “Whatever you want of me, I will give,” Joe tells Kerewin. “Even absence?” she counters.
6. Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman. Funny thing about the French writer Colette: No matter where you look in her long life, she seems both sinner and saint. So you don’t need to wonder why, after she died in 1954, she was the first woman to receive a state funeral in France—and was also denied a Christian burial. Thurman portrays a scrappy survivor who went topless at a time when proper women didn’t show their ankles. You’ll like her pluck, but not her back-stabbing.
7. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Family values and a surprisingly independent main character burnish this nineteenth-century classic. Jo March, of course, is a stand-in for the author, who turns her alter ego into a bright and impulsively kind girl who “valued goodness highly” but also treasured the life of the mind. She treats the lives of her sisters Meg, Beth, and Amy as no less important than her own. And she marries not for money, but for love. Cynics can regard Jo’s rose-colored vision as pure fiction, but millions have embraced the idea that ambition and self-sacrifice can come in the same package.
8. Frida Kahlo: The Paintings by Hayden Herrera. Herrera’s 1983 bio still is the most complete picture of Kahlo you’ll find. But the art historian was smart to follow up with this collection, where you can absorb her cogent commentary while looking at the Mexican painter’s work. Kahlo began painting after a horrific traffic accident at eighteen shattered her body for life. Now her paintings sell for millions—a fact that probably would amuse and infuriate the flamboyant iconoclast who was always scrambling for “dough.” But she’d love Herrera’s description of her mind-jarring work.
9. Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm. Like Kahlo, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas have been turned into pop icons, but only as a matched set. Gertrude, who blew off her own brother when he didn’t honor her genius, wanted to be center stage, but not Alice, who was born to serve. The book is built around the riddle of how two Jewish lesbians escaped deportation in Nazi-occupied France. Yet Malcolm’s look at Gertrude’s art and the power balance between Gertie and Alice makes you think about how any couple divides up the pie.
10. Mae West: It Ain’t No Sin by Simon Louvish. Before Sex and the City, before Madonna, there was West, the sexy woman who made fun of sex. Usually tightly corseted, and always loose with the innuendo, the bawdy entertainer may have become a caricature of herself, but she was one of the first to show us how to be a babe with brains. Thankfully, this bio focuses on her anatomy above the neck. Forget those rumors of secret lovers—Mae West was too busy perfecting her scripts.


1. I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark by Brian Hall. In this fictional retelling of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Indian guide speaks to the reader in broken English. But don’t let that fool you. Sacagawea is a kingpin—hey, why not queenpin?—who holds the trek together at a crucial moment. Kidnapped by another tribe as a girl, the nation’s most famous woman trailblazer knew the language and terrain to get “big knife” and “red hair” through a scary patch. When she describes her reunion with a Shoshone brother, her words will melt your heart.
2. Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach. Talk about a woman with attitude. Raised in the Victorian age, the willful, red-haired Bell defied custom to attend Oxford and become a self-styled roving ambassador. She was the only woman at the 1921 conference that redrew the map of the Middle East and created modern Iraq. Read her story—and this is the best-told version—for a better grip on history and how good intentions don’t always produce good results.
3. I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn. What happened after Earhart’s plane disappeared over the Pacific in 1937? Here’s one theory that stokes our ongoing romance with the mysterious flyer who “wore leather and silk with such glamorous nonchalance”: The record-breaking aviatrix and her male navigator became “between voyagers” (a phrase borrowed from the Tibetan Book of the Dead). In this gauzy, feel-good novel, you get not only life after death, but love after death.
4. Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle by Lois W. Banner. Your head will spin faster than Linda Blair’s as you read this twofer bio about these bisexual anthropologists. Not to worry: Banner’s coupling of the two women, who had conventional marriages while also becoming intimate friends, gives context and a lesson on how their free-love mindsets affected what they thought they saw in the field. Step beyond the partner swapping, and you see two independent thinkers who fought the tide of taboo with their questions about sexual identity.
5. Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey by Jane Goodall with Phillip Berman. If you think all scientists are atheists, primatologist Goodall will prove you wrong. In this memoir, written with an expert on comparative religions, she talks about mystical experiences, her surprising discoveries in Tanzania, the risk of environmental destruction, and the religious faith of her grandmother and mother. When she describes lying on the forest floor to watch chimp David Greybeard feeding on figs, it’s pure poetry.
6. Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American South-west by Sandra Day O’Connor and H. Alan Day. The first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court came a long way, baby, from her rugged upbringing in sagebrush country. Her roots are recalled in text and black-and-white photos that underscore the tough, macho culture into which she was born. This may have braced her for the sexism ahead: After her 1952 graduation from Stanford Law School, she was offered a legal secretary job. O’Connor didn’t rewrite the rules, but she tweaked them, “wearing my bra and my wedding ring” all the way to the top.
7. The Tale of Murasaki: A Novel by Liza Dalby. An eleventh-century noblewoman named Murasaki wrote the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji,


On Sale
Nov 11, 2008
Page Count
296 pages
Da Capo Press

Margo Hammond

About the Author

Margo Hammond, longtime book editor for the St. Petersburg Times and past president of the Southern Book Critics Circle, lives in Florida.

Ellen Heltzel, a member of the National Book Critics Circle board, has written for the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Learn more about this author