Excellent Books About Unforgettable Women #WomensHistoryMonth on #WorldBookDay

Today I saw the twitter hashtags #WorldBookDay and #WomensHistoryMonth prompting some interesting references to notable women, so I decided to look back at books I have read and reviewed here at Word by Word and show you a selection that highlight a few important women in our recent history, some you may not have heard of, all of whom have made significant contributions to our world. Click on the headings to read the reviews and share your recommendations.

Unbowed, One Woman’s Story, Wangari Maathai

The first woman who came to mind and whose book I want to recommend is Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed, One Woman’s Story. Kenyan and one of a group of young African’s selected to be part of the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ , she and others were given the opportunity to gain higher education in the US and to use their education to contribute to progress in their home countries. Maathai was a scientist, an academic and an activist, passionate about sustainable development; she started the The Greenbelt Movement, a tree planting initiative, which not only helped save the land, but empowered local women to take charge of creating nurseries in their villages, thereby taking care of their own and their family’s well-being.

“We worried about  their access to clean water,  and firewood,  how they would feed their children,  pay their school fees,  and afford clothing, and we wondered what we could do to ease their burdens. We had a choice: we could either sit in an ivory tower wondering how so many people could be so poor and not be working to change their situation, or we could  try to help them escape the vicious cycle they found themselves in. This was not a remote problem for us. The rural areas were where our mothers and sisters still lived. We owed it to them to do all we could.”

She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, which motivated this story to be written thanks to others who pushed her to share it, thankfully, for she was an extraordinary and inspirational woman, who sadly passed away from ovarian cancer in 2011.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks is perhaps one of the most famous women we’d never heard of, a woman who never knew or benefited from her incredible contribution to science and humanity. A young mother in her 30’s, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and despite being eligible for and receiving medical care at the John Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, a medical facility funded and founded to ensure equal access no matter their race, status, income or other discriminatory reason, she died soon after.

Before treatment, samples of her healthy and cancerous cells were taken, part of a research initiative in search of ‘immortal cells’ that could be continuously replicated. It had never been done before, until now – the newly named HeLa cells would become one of medicine’s significant advances.

Rebecca Skloot heard about the HeLa cells in biology class in 1988, became fascinated by them, she focused her research on finding out about the woman behind this important advance in medical science. This book tells her story and rightly attributes her a place in history.

Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain was a university student at Oxford when World War 1 began to decimate the lives of youth, family and friends around her. It suspended her education and resulted in her volunteering as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse. Initially based in a military hospital in London, events would propel her to volunteer for a foreign assignment, taking her to Malta and then close to the front line in France for the remaining years of the war.

Her memoir is created from fragments of her diaries, sharing the angst and idealism of youth, and later looking back from the wisdom of middle age, for she was 40 years old before her tome was published.

War changed her, she could no longer tolerate the classrooms of Oxford and the contempt of a new youth.

‘I could not throw off the War, nor the pride and the grief of it; rooted and immersed in memory, I had appeared self-absorbed, contemptuous and ‘stand-offish’ to my ruthless and critical juniors.’

She changed her focus from literature to history, in an effort to understand and participate in any action that might prevent humanity from making the same terrible mistakes that had caused the loss of so many lives. She became an international speaker for the League of Nations.

The book was made into a dramatic film of the same name in 2014.

Mom & Me & Mom, Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is best known for her incredible series of seven autobiographies, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), narrating her life up to the age of 17. She became a writer after a number of varied occupations in her youth.

This book was her last memoir, not one in the series, but one that could only be written from afar, from the wisdom of 80 years, when she could look back at a torturous youth, at a neglectful mother and see her with love, compassion and forgiveness.

‘Love heals. Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.’

Stet, An Editors Life, Diana Athill

Diana Athill OBE (born 21 Dec 1917) is someone I think of as the ordinary made extraordinary. She was a fiction editor for most of her working life, forced into earning a living due to circumstance, for while her great-grandparents generation had made or married into money, her father’s generation lost it. She clearly remembers her father telling her ‘You will have to earn your living’ and that it was something almost unnatural at the time.

War removed her chance at marriage and she appeared to reject it after that, revelling in her freedom and independence, though others suggest she was scarred by the intensity and pain of her first relationship. While the first part of the book focuses on her life, the second half recalls some of the relationships she developed with writers over the years, Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S.Naipul and Molly Keane.

The more extraordinary era of her life was still to come, for in her 80’s she began to write memoir, and achieve notable success, her book Somewhere Towards The End won the Costa Prize for Biography in 2008. Now 100 years old, she hasn’t stopped writing yet.

Further Reading:

The Guardian: Diana Athill: ‘Enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people’
The former editor on regrets, the advantages of old age and why she’s still writing at 100

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Have you read any good books about notable women we might remember for #WomensHistoryMonth?

Buy a copy of one of these books via BookDepository

Stet, an Editor’s Life Diana Athill

LakesideI read most of Diana Athill’s book in two afternoons, sitting under a willow tree beside the lake L’étang de la Bonde as the children swam continuously, refusing to get out until it was time to leave. Despite the fact that we were outdoors, I felt as if I had just spent two days in Athill’s living room, listening to her share this particular segment of her life, that as Editor at André Deutsch, the publishing house where she worked for four decades.

Stet is not a common word and I am perhaps only familiar with it because, back in the old days, when I was a 23-year-old Market Research Assistant without typing skills, I used to write reports and had a secretary to type them. I even had my own office with a door that could be closed. Using the word stet meant I’d changed my mind after I’d crossed something out, wanting it left in. The Concise Oxford Dictionary tells us :

Not the first of Athill’s memoirs, but the one I was attracted to, since it offers a glimpse inside an Editors office. I had already read and reviewed Betsy Lerner’s The Forest For the Trees, which this book made me recall, you could say they complement each other in a certain respect, though they are very different books, as one might expect when comparing the perspective of an English Editor to that of an American Editor. Both equally interesting and insightful in their own way.

In Part One, Athill shares how she fell into publishing as a career, knowing she would have to find a job, while her great-grandparents generation had made or married into money, her father’s generation had lost it and she talks about many aspects of the job, the decisions that were made, the dramas that were lived and worked through.

“The story began with my father telling me: ‘You will have to earn your living.’ He said it to me several times during my childhood (which began in 1917), and the way he said it implied that earning one’s living was not quite natural. I do not remember resenting the idea, but it was slightly alarming…Daughters would not, of course, have to earn their livings if they got married, but (this was never said) now that they would have to depend on love unaided by dowries, marriage could no longer be counted on with absolute confidence.”

Diana Athill

Diana Athill

The start to her career was disrupted by the onset of the Second World War, however she was fortunate to have a friend working in the recruitment office of the BBC and found an information/research position in the Overseas News Department. She and a friend lived in a small apartment in London and had a good social life, at one of the parties she met the young Hungarian intellect André Deutsch, the start of a lifelong friendship and she would eventually leave her job to join him as a shareholder and working Director when he decided to start his own publishing firm.

Not the easiest of employers, Athill shares some interesting insights about working for an often disagreeable and intolerant man whom she respected despite his deficiencies. She is also quick to point out her own flaws and it is perhaps the counterbalance of their personalities that made them such a successful pair and helped keep the publisher in business for as long as it was able. She also shares her continued love of literature, reading and writing.

Stet“They brought home to me the central reason why books have meant so much to me. It is not because of my pleasure in the art of writing, though that has been very great. It is because they have taken me so far beyond the narrow limits of my own experience and have so greatly enlarged my sense of the complexity of the life: of its consuming darkness, and also – thank God – of the light which continues to struggle through.”

In Part Two, she expounds on her relationship with a small selection of writers, providing a chapter each and very frank accounts of what transpires between Athill, the publishing house and the following authors: Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S.Naipul and Molly Keane. One is left with the impression that there was a lot more drama and pandering to personalities in the past than there can be in today’s less nurturing publisher – author relationships. Eye opening indeed!

As I mentioned in the Man Booker Prize longlist post, Diana Athill won the Costa Prize for her most recent memoir Somewhere Near the End in 2009, which she wrote in her nineties, a book which is sure to be equally enlightening and one I look forward to indulging, knowing as I did with this book, it is bound to offer delightful company for future afternoon reading.

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