A Woman's Work

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A Woman's Work

Some of 2019's Best

In this anniversary year of Women’s Suffrage some remarkable and sure to be classic novels have emerged.  New voices like Lauren Wilkinson and established ones like Lisa See have created page-turning, literary works with strong female characters who don’t always realize their strengths.  Place your holds and check out these memorable gems available in hardcover, eBook or audiobook formats.

American Spy: A Novel by Lauren Wilkinson
With her career stymied by chauvinism and racism, FBI agent Marie Mitchell accepts a CIA assignment in Burkina Faso.  Marie is to get close to the charismatic Marxist leader of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara as part of a larger scheme to insert American interests into the new government.  In Africa, Marie is conscious of her otherness in a new way. Here she is American first rather than black first as she is back home. Her consciousness is also rocked by Sankara’s sincerity, her own country’s shaky motives and her upbringing.  There is also the increasingly suspicious death of her sister, Helene, an intelligence officer who was killed in a car accident years before. As suspenseful and detail rich as the best spy fiction this keen bildungsroman is a debut worth savoring.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Patsy and her daughter Trudy-Ann struggle against society and their self-worth in critically acclaimed Dennis-Benn’s second novel.  Patsy’s former lover Cicely still writes, even after leaving for America a decade before. Patsy longs to break free from her unhappiness in Jamaica and obtains a tourist visa to see her friend with no intention of returning.  Patsy’s unexpected arrival in New York is met with disappointment. Cicely is married to a controlling and abusive man she does not want to leave. Patsy struggles to get work, but is too ashamed to write home. Meanwhile the 6 year old daughter she left behind must adjust to life with her father and his family.  Trudy-Ann’s father encourages her talent at soccer, but the abandonment by her mother and Tru’s own struggles with coming out as a lesbian lead to paralyzing depression. Life as an undocumented worker, guilt and repressed identity are just some of the themes Dennis-Benn richly illustrates for a novel that has made several best book of the year lists.

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict
Why did a 19 year-old rising actress of Jewish heritage marry a purveyor of arms to anti-Semitic dictators? How did she co-invent, amongst other things, the frequency-hopping technology that later made Bluetooth devices and cell phones possible with no training in engineering?  Marie Benedict attempts to answer all in her novelization of the life of Hedwig Kiesler, a Viennese film and stage actress who would recreate herself as Hollywood Golden Age starlet, Hedy Lamarr. Benedict deftly frames Kiesler’s considerable artistic and intellectual talents within the values and mores of the times in which she lived.  Denied anything more than a Swiss finishing school education, Hedy absorbed knowledge from the men around her, beginning with her bank manager father. Having honed her acting skills during a lonely childhood, Hedy became adept at being who she needed to be to get results. 

The Island of the Sea Women by Lisa See
“A woman is not meant for the household!” proclaims the leader of a collective of haenyeo, “sea women”.  It is the men who care for the children while the women do the dangerous work of free-diving. Young-sook and her best friend, Mi-ja join the proud tradition of their island and become haenyeo at the age of 15.  As the world erupts in the chaos of World War II, Young-sook and Mi-ja work out of Vladivostok, Russia, an experience their diving abilities make possible. Their diving gives them prestige, independence, strength, joy and a close sisterhood within their collective in addition to knowledge of the natural and human world all around.  When Mi-ja is coerced into marriage with a Japanese collaborator and moves to Jeju City, the two friend’s lives go down desperately different paths. Tragedies follow and it is not until a new generation arrives for an important remembrance that the ocean wide distance between Young-sook and Mi-ja can be forded. 

The Island of the Sea Women follows the 70+ diving years of the last generation of haenyeo, from their earliest working years under Japanese control to the creation of the Jeju Uprising Museum and their status as national treasures. See’s narrative is visceral with the details of coastal life and a loving homage.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
In 1935 The Pack Horse Library Project of the Works Progress Administration is established in eastern Kentucky to provide work for rural women and men and access areas with few schools and no public libraries.  The following year 19 year-old Cussy Mary Carter becomes a book woman. She gets her job by sidestepping the local Pack Horse Library Project authorities who don’t want to hire “coloreds”. Cussy is a Blue Carter, and possibly the last.  She has inherited blue skin ranging from her ordinary grey-blue to blueberry when her skin becomes flushed. Most of her patrons welcome her, their love of books insatiable. Cussy makes full day journeys on her mule, Junia to barely accessible hollows, her blue-skinned father, Elijah clearing her path ahead of time in his rare off hours from the coal mine.  Cussy reads to her patrons, teaches them to read, reads for the vision impaired, picks out that just right book from the donations that are the book woman’s only supply, and creates “mountain books” to circulate from clippings and contributions of her patrons. Being a book woman brings Cussy happiness, but both Cussy and her father live in constant fear of harm in the hard land of the Kentucky mountains.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is no pastoral, light-hearted read. Its opening chapter depicts Cussy coming upon a hanging Blue body with a blue-skinned newborn at its feet.  The violence, prejudice and desperation of a poverty-stricken community in the throes of its worst decade ever gets no sentimental treatment. The narrative that results is weighty, haunting and under native Kentuckian Richardson’s hand sensitive and lyrical.