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In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons From 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules

3.57  ·  Rating details ·  1,863 ratings  ·  323 reviews
From Frida Kahlo and Elizabeth Taylor to Nora Ephron, Carrie Fisher, and Lena Dunham, this witty narrative explores what we can learn from the imperfect and extraordinary legacies of 29 iconic women who forged their own unique paths in the world.

Smart, sassy, and unapologetically feminine, this elegantly illustrated book is an ode to the bold and charismatic women of moder
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published February 27th 2018 by National Geographic
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Feb 22, 2018 rated it did not like it
I got this arc from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review, so thank u!

I'm so disappointed in this. I'm giving one star for the research and another for the few good essays in the middle of it. But I just can't get on board with this book. It already opened with an essay about how J.K. Rowling is Oh So Feminist, even though she is an abuse apologist and a racist. Through it, we also have an essay praising that Lena woman from Girls, who was accused of raping. I think around 80% of the women
Alisha Marie
Sigh. I was so looking forward to reading In Praise of Difficult Women. Then, I took a look at the contents page, said "Typical..." and started to read. Look, there are some good things about In Praise of Difficult Women and some of it was well done. However, there was some glaring oversight.

The Good: Some of the essays in In Praise of Difficult Women were really well-done. These essays just gave you a taste of what these women were like. Enough that you got a sense of who they were, but were st
Apr 30, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, nonfiction
I had to force myself to finish this one in order to get it back to the library and stop the fine build-up. I don't feel the title is a good fit. The author's personal commentary, sprinkled throughout, was often annoying. In labeling each woman with a one word descriptor the author either hems herself in or wanders from the descriptor. Also, I'm curious to know, why these 29 women? How were these women chosen?

The title. In labeling these women difficult I feel Karbo is judging any woman who asse
Katie/Doing Dewey
Mar 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: possible-reread
Summary: An engaging, inspiring collection where I enjoyed learning about amazing modern women and was left wanting to learn more.

This beautiful book, with its gorgeous cover, delightful illustrations, and scalloped pages, is an ode to women author Karen Karbo admires for being 'difficult'. She defines a difficult woman as someone who believes her own desires and aspirations matter and who doesn't let social expectations confine her. Something that made this book stand out from the many other wo
Nov 05, 2019 rated it it was ok
trigger warnings: n word usage by the white author, ableist language, alcoholism, addiction

Honestly, I was pretty disappointed. The majority of these essays centered around white American women in the entertainment industry. I didn't really enjoy the narrative/self reflection in the essays nor some of the people included. I understand the people were not necessarily meant to be "likeable" but there's a difference. I'm probably not explaining my dislike well... To me, it mostly read as a white fe
Daniel Swensen
May 08, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Three stars because I have some very mixed feelings on this book. Many of the bios are great: provocative, compassionate, incisive, celebratory. More than a few are tarnished by shallow, nasty, judgmental passages about their subjects that seem to come out of nowhere.

Also, while I can sort of get behind including genuinely divisive figures like JK Rowling and Lena Dunham (the title does include the word "difficult," after all), I also think it could have done with a bit more diversity. I agree
Apr 03, 2018 rated it it was ok
I had high hopes for this book. I am very disappointed in the lack of diversity of women chosen to “focus” on. I felt that all of the women chosen lacked depth and dimension in their description of their life.
Elisha Condie
Sep 06, 2019 rated it it was ok
Hmmm. I've got mixed feelings about this one. GREAT concept. But a little murky on why these 29 women? I would have liked to know why she chose these people. Like, why did Edie Sedgwick get a chapter for being bold and brave for charging lunch to her Daddy's account at the fancy hotel? That just seems entitled and bratty to me. And like, we skip oh, I don't know, Mother Theresa?

I liked that the author gave a word for each woman describing why she included them - "Feisty" for Harry Potter autho
May 21, 2018 rated it it was ok
I really, really wanted to like this book. The idea is a great one- showcase a variety of women who didn't stick to the norms, who pushed boundaries. Showcase these women and discuss the lessons one could learn from their lives.

It's a great idea, but it's not an idea that Karen Karbo achieves in this book. I'm reading an advance copy so perhaps things will change, but honestly I don't foresee large edits and changes. My disappointments were in three parts in particular. The first area of disappo
Meg - A Bookish Affair
Mar 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018, non-fiction
How fortuitous it is that I am reviewing this book for the first day of Women's History. There has been a slew of books for younger readers to introduce them to some really phenomenal women (and thank goodness for it!!!) but there seemingly not been a similar influx of books for adults. This book is a good fit for that deficit!

Each chapter focuses on a different woman and they range from politicians to judges to athletes to women who broke just about every barrier imaginable. And as the author c
Cathy Lamb
Feb 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book was just flat out interesting. I loved reading about inspiring, strong women who often came from nothing, or hard childhoods, or hard experiences with men and life, and through grit and courage and a belief in themselves, fought their way up and out. They didn't sit home and try to please everyone.

There are chapters on Coco Chanel (born into a poor house in France), Angela Merkel (father was a pastor, she moved to East Germany and watched the wall being built as a child), Nora Ephro
Lis Carey
This is a celebration of notably difficult women, women who do what they choose rather than what's expected. In most cases, of course, they don't do anything that wouldn't be perfectly acceptable in men, but as we all know, the rules are different for women. We're supposed to be nice, and cooperative, self-effacing--not independent, ambitious, strong, or inconvenient.

The women included here are fashion designers, politicians, athletes, artists, actors, singers, and other entertainers. Amelia Ear
Jun 05, 2018 rated it did not like it
To be fair, I didn’t finish the book (because it pissed me off). But from what I read, it upholds stereotypes about girls/woman and perpetuates misogynistic beliefs by portraying women who are authentically true to themselves and unwilling to change for society as “difficult” and by defining the definitions (and limitations) of success for women. Additionally, as pointed out in another review, this book spotlights majority white women. I fully believe that all of the women listed in this book ar ...more
Scottsdale Public Library
This compilation highlights 29 intelligent, notable women, ranging from Frida Kahlo, Amelia Earhart, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to Shonda Rhimes. Their lives were messy; their lives were glamorous; their lives were imperfect. But above all, their lives exemplify what we can accomplish if we dare to be courageous and work hard to forge a path in this world. - Sara Z.
Biographical essays on 29 "difficult" women--I enjoyed it very much and learned a great deal. Some of the 29 women are:
J.K. Rowling, Elizabeth Taylor, Josephine Baker, Carrie Fisher, Gloria Steinem, Janis Joplin, Angela Merkel, Kay Thompson, Nora Ephron, Lena Dunham, Eva Peron, Martha Gellhorn, and Margaret Cho.
Sara Cutaia
Nov 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
WOMEN RULE! I loved these small glimpses into the lives and backstory of the powerful women we all know and love. This allowed us to know and love them a little bit more.
Mar 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
In the introduction to Karen Karbo's In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules, the author states that "a difficult woman is a woman who insists on inhabiting the full range of her humanity." This book profiles 29 women in modern history who do just that.

Each chapter profiles one woman, beginning with a single word to describe them ("Fiesty" for Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, "Indefatigable" for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, "Determined" for Jane
Mar 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
It’s a time of change for women right now. They are speaking out and being well, difficult in ways they haven’t been in quite a few years. Where it will all lead, who knows but it is certainly an exciting time to be reading about female icons.

This isn’t a book about the conventional, exceptional women you might expect to find but rather women Ms. Karbo has found fascination. That is not to say that the profiles aren’t full of women who bucked their time and the system. They fall mostly in two ca
Menna Elmanzalawy
This was a nice quick read, but not what I had hoped for. Some essays were very good, the author shares many interesting stories of powerful women (here I'll avoid using the term 'difficult'- I'll come to that later). I especially enjoyed the chapters on Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Frida Kahlo, and Amelia Earhart. On the other hand I found the chapters on celebrity women very bland. I couldn't relate to these women, nor could I find the point of hearing about their stories. Maybe that's just ...more
Oct 02, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Some interesting portraits, but overall disappointing

I found several of the chapters in this book fairly interesting, but others were just terribly glib. How hard is it to be a “difficult woman” when you’re rich and white as many of the women in this book are? And should we be worshipping addiction and mental illness as the purveyors of creativity? The author didn’t do this consistently, but the times she did were pretty jarring.
2.5 stars.


All 20th to 21st century women and overwhelmingly predominantly white and American. No disrespect to the women profiled, as there were some interesting chapters on Rachel Maddow and Angela Merkel, but, as a reader from a white, educated, upper middle class background (aka privileged and fully aware of it), I’m bored reading about similar women. There. I said it. The author was lazy and unoriginal. There. I also said that.

Books like these only perpetuate other books like these i
Jessica Garza
Nov 29, 2019 rated it liked it
I will admit to not exactly being a leftist voter. However I’m not a right voter either. I’m politically open minded and vote accordingly. That said, I felt like this book should be called In Praise of Politically Left Women. I get women like Clinton and Warren, we obviously know their political afflictions and they can still be showcased. I absolutely respect their achievements. Other women like Rowling... the author discusses how charitable and generous she is. Okay, great. All admirable quali ...more
Jan Lynch
I actually only made it through about 70 pages, but not finishing doesn’t reflect on the quality of the writing or content of the book. The writing is witty and breezes along. As I am currently reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the premise of the book, that supposed flaws are not only acceptable but are a source of strength, serves as an amusing contrast to Alcott, whose emphasis is on virtue and self-improvement. What I tend to forget when picking up a collection is my preference for de ...more
Maddison Foss
Mar 08, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: books-i-own
Unfortunately, other reviewers are very right. This book is white-female centered, with very little representation outside that narrow box. Many of her chosen women also have many other sides to them, too, that are neglected by this narrative. The whole point seemed to be providing an account of how women are HUMAN and therefore also flawed in addition to being incredible, so when she missed some major points of contention, she didn't provide complete honesty, and I have less respect for that. I ...more
James Kennedy Public Library
Apr 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book profiles 29 women deemed "difficult" when looking through the eyes of conventional societal norms. Basically, these women have been trail blazers in their field and when they dared to be true to themselves, outspoken, intelligent, career-driven, and not about to conform to societal norms just to make someone else happy, they were deemed difficult. Their male counterparts would and have been praised for acting the same way. I enjoyed reading about these women and finding out how they've ...more
Jun 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book introduced me to several powerful and strong women that I hadn't heard of ( Edie Sedwick, Vita Sackville-West, Diana Vreeland), and re-introduced me to women I thought I knew, but didn't know their whole story (Angela Merkel, Frida Kahlo, Janis Joplin). I liked how the author picked one word to describe why the woman might be deemed difficult and explained her reasoning. Although I liked the artwork of each woman, and the author's description, I still would have enjoyed photos of each ...more
Jan 08, 2019 rated it liked it
This was fine as a book of essays. Some of the criteria for "difficult" was just women being assholes. It's one thing to be labeled bitchy or difficult for things that don't get men labeled, but if you're just breaking contracts and doing drugs, that's more than just being a "difficult" woman. Also many of them had enough money to get by with being difficult and there was no examination and only one mention of how much easier that made their lives. But I did learn about some women I'd never hear ...more
Jun 13, 2020 rated it liked it
While I learned a lot about many of the women in the book, it was a bit of a slog to get to the end. The book was sorely lacking in several areas. There was no discernible order to the chapters and no reasoning for why these 29 women were chosen. The author's comments about her own life were awkward and didn't lend very much to the overall book. The chapters were a hodgepodge of details and lengths. Some women who lived to their 80s and 90s had very short chapters while others who lived consider ...more
Dec 14, 2020 rated it did not like it
I was frustrated that a book that, on the surface, is a staple of feminist reading, is actually far from it. Elizabeth Taylor’s life was told through her marriages to men and as a socialite, or as a victim to poor health. Where is Liz in all of this? The Steinem chapter was better, but still didn’t really read like a feminist wrote it. Even RGB’s chapter started as a reflection of the death of her husband and “best friend on the bench”. Ugh.
Oct 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fic, 2018-books
I devoured this book in a day.

Another book about amazing women- although I really liked that each woman had a focal attribute which their individual story revolved around.
The author wasn't afraid to provide her often hilarious 2 cents about each lady, which gave this book a lot more personality than previous "awesome women" books.
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Karen Karbo's first novel, Trespassers Welcome Here, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a Village Voice Top Ten Book of the Year. Her other two adult novels, The Diamond Lane and Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, were also named New York Times Notable Books. The Stuff of Life, about the last year she spent with her father before his death, was an NYT Notable Book, a People Magazine ...more

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