Essential Reads: Books for Women’s History Month

In the United States, March is Women’s History Month. However, March 8this International Women’s Day. So, the entire planet acknowledges half of its population for one day. And, similar to Black History Month, we tend to recognize the same figures over and over. While this is not as problematic as with the figures from other demographics, it is easy to overlook women whose achievements get overshadowed by others.

            For this recommendation, I’m going to select a woman from each region throughout the world, and from ancient history to modern times. Some of these women are notable, some more obscure. In all, these women give insight to the challenges within the society and how they met them head on. You might not know all of their names, but you’ll know about their resilience against oppression. 

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban(2012) by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

            Everyone has heard of her, but do you know of the events that led to Malala Yousafzai’s shooting? Besides learning about the Yousafzai Family and their notion that everyone deserves to be educated, you’ll learn about the practices of Islam, the recent history of Pakistan, and the rise of the Taliban. This book is a real-life cautionary tale surrounding political interference, terrorist groups, and human rights. Malala Yousafzai is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and her story about her life, her country, and her culture should be read by anyone who is interested in human rights. 

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China(1991) by Jung Chang

            This family saga follows three generations of women who survived the social norms and the social changes within China during the 20thCentury. Jung Change uses her family history to tell China’s narrative and how it affected not just her family, but families throughout the world. Jung’s grandmother was a warlord’s concubine during the ending of the practice of foot-binding. Her mother experienced the Cultural Revolution, which brought communism to China. And, Jung Chang is the daughter of members of the Communist Elite and was a Red Guard until she was old enough to declare the life, she wanted for herself. Each generation is thrust into a situation she must work through in order to escape that lifestyle. While Chang wasn’t the only one whose family had to survive these social norms and changes, she provides enough details for witnesses, readers, and historians to comprehend for both empathy and compassion. 

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt(2018) by Kara Cooney

            Everyone is familiar with some of the culture surrounding Ancient Egypt. Pyramids, mummies, pharaohs, papyrus, gods, and curses usually come to mind when thinking about the ancient civilization; and, names such as Rameses, Amenhotep, Tutankhamun, and Khufu come to mind. But, what about the female rulers? Everyone has heard of Nefertiti and Cleopatra, and less are familiar with Hatshepsut and Tawosret. How many people know who Merneith and Neferusobek were? I’ve never heard of the last two until I picked up this book.

            Egyptologist, Kara Cooney, delves into the lives and the reigns of these six remarkable queens who would eventually become pharaohs in their own right. And, how and why their government betrayed them and sought to remove them for posterity. However, history is not so easy to eclipse. While Egypt was very much ahead of its time, it still became victimized to the notions of female rulers as did the rest of the world.

            When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egyptprovides historical facts about each of the pharaohs mentioned within the text. Both the introduction and the epilogue provide answers to those common questions. These queens ruled centuries before the notable female rulers of the last thousand years. In addition, you will wonder whether or not Ancient Egypt was the progressive civilization. 

            The next recommendations are duos. This is because the fictionalized variants are more ubiquitous than the available biographies. Yet, the fiction is noteworthy because they introduce readers (and academics) to whom these people were and what was happening during that era in their country. So, both the fiction and the biographies of these women’s lives will be recommended. 

In the Time of the Butterflies(1994) by Julia Alvarez; followed by Vivas en su jardín (Live in Your Garden)(2009) by Dedé Mirabal

            The Mirabal Sisters were some of the many opponents of General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic during the 1950s. On November 25, 1960, three of the sisters were killed on Trujillo’s orders. In the Time of the Butterfliesis the fictionalized narrative about this family’s courage and resistance against a brutal dictator. And, while Julia Alvarez included suggested reads to learn more about the Mirabal Family and the Dominican Republic, Vivas en su jardínis Dedé Mirabal’s autobiography in which, she mentions her sisters and their political resistance. It is in Spanish, but that shouldn’t prevent one from learning more about these amazing women.

Pope Joan: A Novel(1996) by Donna Woolfolk Cross; followed by Pope Joan: The Indestructible Legend of the Catholic Church’s First and Only Female Pontiff(2017) by Charles River Editors

            For centuries, there have been rumors of the Catholic Church having a female pope. Of course, there is limited information to confirm this due to both the era—the Middle Ages—and efforts by the Vatican to limit any knowledge about this possibility. Pope Joan was believed to have serve as “The Pope” for about one year. A few reports claim that Joan might have disguised herself as a man; and, there are a few reports which claim that Joan was elected Pope as an interim by the Papacy. It is difficult to determine what had happened. Pope Joan: A Novelby Donna Woolfolk Cross is a historical fiction novel which narrates what could have happened to Pope Joan during her life. In terms of an actual biography, so far, Pope Joan: The Indestructible Legend of the Catholic Church’s First and Only Female Pontiff, is the only one I came across that has believable information about Pope Joan. If you know of any actual and reliable titles, then please mention it in the comments below. I would appreciate it greatly. 

            The books on this list are about women you have heard of, but forgotten about, or about women you’ve never heard of before. However, it’s the moments in human history that allowed these women to demonstrate that they were more than what society wanted them to be. Instead, these women presented themselves as equals to their male counterparts to the point where the men either attacked them, or (tried to) erased them. These women survived and prevailed, and we can admire their achievements and be content knowing that we won’t permit them to fall into obscurity for posterity. These women rock! 

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Why You Need to Read: Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

By: Celeste Ng

Published: September 12, 2017

Genre: Fiction

 

Mia looked down at Izzy, this wayward, wild, fiery girl suddenly gone timid and dampened and desperate. She reminded Mia, oddly, of herself at around that age, traipsing through the neighborhood…(Chapter 7).

In fact, she (Izzy) reminded him (Mr. Richardson) of her mother, when she’d been younger…the fiery side of her (Mrs. Richardson) that seemed, after so many safe years in the suburbs, to have cooled down to embers (Chapter 9).

 

Continuing on the success of her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng continues with exploring the family dynamics of Americans. Shaker Heights, Ohio is an upper-middle class neighborhood in which, all of the residents strive for the same thing: principles. Set during the late 1990s—before the Internet, smartphones, Columbine, and 9/11—this novel is a look back to American society when studies regarding adolescent rage and angst were emerging in mainstream society.

The plot of this story is family, particularly mothers and daughters. What is a mother? What makes a good mother? Who gets to be a mother? Celeste Ng does not only look at the various mothers in the story and how they are similar and different from each other, but also illustrates the needs of all of the daughters involved and how their mothers either attempt, or fail to meet those needs.

The narrative moves as necessary; meaning that the story moves from the present to the past, back to the present, to the future and back to the present. This type of narrative is used as necessary in order to answer any questions the readers will have about the characters and future events. Of course, the characters’ pasts are not revealed to each other unless that individual decides to do so. Keep in mind there is a difference between knowing the truth and assuming you know the truth.

The characters are rounded and relatable. The children are the focus of the novel, while the parents are the driving force. The Richardson Family has the presentation of the “All American Family,” but, obviously, with the baggage that comes with it. The father is always working, the mother is more concerned with appearances than with what is happening in front of her, and their children—like all adolescents—are trying to determine their identities while coming to terms with how different and alike they are from and to each other. Mia and her daughter, Pearl, appear to be the stereotypical vagabonds, but they portray what a family represents, a strong bond and understanding for each other. As for the two mothers involved in the custody battle, both of them love the child, clearly; but are at odds because of society’s notions of what constitutes a “family” and a “parent.”

Elena Richardson sees herself as a proud matriarch and hometown girl. She is set in her ways of thinking and believes that is why she has the life she lives, because she conformed to society’s expectations. However, her notions are not without consequence because she believes that individuals who are not like her—in terms of decorum—are not worthy of what they have. Elena’s way of life clashes with Mia and Izzy, her tenant and daughter, respectively. And, while she tries to justify her actions to herself, the consequences do not leave readers with any reason to pity her.

Mia Warren is an artist is every sense of the word. She decides to settle in Shaker Heights in order to give her daughter, Pearl, some sense of stability. Her influence on the Richardson Family and on Shaker Heights allows for an open discussion about family dynamics and family values. However, Elena’s “disgust” with Mia’s lifestyle reveals how and why suburban life is not everyone’s preference.

The style of storytelling Celeste Ng uses makes readers understand all of her characters within the novel. That being said, it allows readers to be aware of each character’s motivations while allowing readers to sympathize, to emphasize, or to dislike those same characters. Similar to people in the real world, individuals have his or her reasons for presenting themselves and carrying out their actions. The past explains the predicament of each person, but it does not mean what he or she did is the right thing to do. Every action has a consequence, and every person has to live with the aftermath of it. Celeste Ng gives her readers clues and instances in which, her characters have to live with themselves in the long run due to their actions and their choices. This style leads to readers with feelings of empathy, sympathy, and indifference.

The appeal of this novel has been captivating. With almost 240,000 ratings on Goodreads, it comes as no surprise that I had to wait over a year to burrow this book from a library (the eBook price wasn’t low enough, and I’m limiting the amount of print books I buy per month). Celeste Ng reminds her audience that while parents have good intentions for their children’s futures, their wants outweighs what the child, or children, want or need. This causes a rift amongst the family that have long term consequences instead of positive outcomes.

There is a potential media adaptation in the near future for this novel. As of the publishing of this article, Hulu is planning on a limited series based on this novel. It is supposed to star both Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington (possibly as the two “main” mothers). As with many media adaptations, there will be some changes and/or additions to the story, probably. In this case, it could help expand both the narrative and the characters. I am curious to see whether or not Celeste Ng will allow such additions to be incorporated into the adaptation of her book.

I enjoyed this novel because it speaks volumes about the hidden reality of growing up in a suburban neighborhood. As someone who grew up in a suburb similar to Shaker Heights—and during the late 1990s—the depiction of how the adults and the children interact with one another and each other are accurate. The emotional rollercoaster Celeste Ng pulls you on recalls both personal and publicized events that occurred around that time. Obviously, teenaged angst and Elian Gonzalez come to mind.

I do not say this often, but every once in a while, I read a book—regardless of its genre—and, I find myself saying, “This is one of my new favorite books.” Little Fires Everywhereis now in my current “Top Ten Favorite Books of All Time.” Family dynamics was and continues to be an issue throughout the world. Is family stability determined by having two parents? Who or what determines the “support system” children need while growing up? Are wants and needs the same thing when it comes to raising children? Being a single parent is difficult, but that does not mean that the parent is not worthy of being one. Mia and Izzy are reasonable examples of what could happen when the wants (“stability”) are met, but the needs (“support system”) are not. Both Mia and Izzy are two of the most relatable characters I have read in a very long time.

 

My final rating: MUST Read It Now!