February was Black History Month, but  March marks the transition into Women’s History Month.  If you didn’t catch our displays last month, stop by and see what’s new. 

One book in particular that serves as the perfect segue from one theme to the other is Sister Days by Janus Adams.  Subtitled “365 Inspired Moments in African American Women’s History,” the book is written in diary style, with short anecdotes for every day of the year.  For example, Philippa Schuyler, who was declared a prodigy at age 3, is featured on July 29th, while Era Bell Thompson, who was inducted into the Iowa Hall of Fame, is the woman of the day on April 30th.   Personally, I had not heard about either of these remarkable individuals! 

Another book that’s received a  lot of press lately is the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  It’s a true story of a poor woman who died of cervical cancer.  Before her death in 1951, a sample of her cancerous tissue was taken, but without her knowledge or consent.  Her cells, known as HeLa cells, not only survived in the lab, but thrived, providing scientists with a building block for many medical breakthroughs, starting with the cure for polio.

This is just a small sampling of a wide variety of materials celebrating women of achievement throughout the years.  Come check some out!

Following her memoir, An Italian Affair, travel writer Laura Fraser shares an intimate peek into her private life, which includes traveling to exotic places and interviewing eccentric personalities in All Over the Map.

On one hand, I was at once envious, wishing I had the means to travel, seemingly at whim, to such intriguing locals (Italy, Provence, Peru, Samoa, etc.) but on the other hand, sympathetic to what dangers she may have faced (Rwanda) and to what her career and lifestyle choices have forced her to forego — a lasting marriage and children of her own.

She is open about her love affairs, poignantly honest about an assault in the South Pacific, and appreciative of her large network of friends.  In all, the book achieves the desired result and illustrates why she is successful in her field — readers may have seen her work featured in O, the Oprah Magazine, Gourmet, and many other publications.  Those who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love will also enjoy this; plus it’s also an excellent example of how a non-fiction work can read like fiction.

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson is the memoir of a young woman who makes the life-changing decision to abandon atheism and convert to Islam.  After being offered a teaching position at the Language School, Wilson moves to Cairo, Egypt, where she experiences what it is really like to be a Muslim woman in a Middle Eastern country.  Here she quickly discovers that she must learn all over again how to do simple things like greet someone and shop for groceries.  Her life takes an unexpected turn when she meets Omar, who defies the stereotypes of Muslim men she has always heard about.  As Omar teaches Willow how to get by in this new environment, the two fall in love and embark upon a new journey where two cultures come together and learn to relate to one another.

I absolutely loved this book.  I was a Religion major in college, so I had a little background knowledge of Islam, but I learned so much more about it from reading an actual Muslim woman’s perspective.  It was incredibly enlightening to learn about what it’s like for a real Muslim woman in the Middle East, rather than just focusing on the often sad images we see on the news.  Despite being in a place so different from where we live, the story is still relatable, and the author takes care to always explain Arabic words and cultural concepts to the reader.  If you’re interested in learning about about Islam but want something that reads like a novel rather than a textbook, I highly recommend The Butterfly Mosque.

This sequel to Adriana Trigiani’s Very Valentine continues to follow custom shoemaker Valentine Roncalli and her vibrant Italian family.  Brava, Valentine opens with the romantic wedding of her 80-year-old grandmother in Tuscany, then segues back to their shop in Greenwich Village where Valentine must learn how to deal with her brother as a freshly-ordained business partner.

The most interesting scenes, however, take place in Buenos Aires, where Valentine discovers a long lost cousin who coincidentally operates a similar business.  At first cousin Roberta appears reticent and a bit defensive, actions which appear reasonable once the full, scandalous story is told.  Plus, Buenos Aires is where she passionately reunites with sexy Italian tanner, Gianluca.  True to Trigiani’s usual form, this new novel is both heartwarming and humorous.

The author, earlier known for her Big Stone Gap series, has also written an entertaining cookbook, Cooking with My Sisters, which includes many memorable anecdotes and photos of her colorful family.

“Remarkable” can describe many things in this novel – the remarkable time period (the early 1800s) when the pursuit of science became the rage, the remarkable fossils being discovered and studied, and the two remarkable women – based on real people – who did so much to uncover the fossils that challenged the beliefs of the time.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is set in Lyme-Regis, on the southwest coast of England. Spinster Elizabeth Philpot and her two sisters have been forced by reduced circumstances to leave their comfortable life in London and move to a smaller, less expensive house. Their new location suits Elizabeth; she has no hope of suitors and soon becomes addicted to searching for the fossils that can be found along the sandy beaches. It is here that she runs into Mary Anning and a friendship, spanning social status, age and circumstance is quickly forged. Mary has a gift for finding the half-hidden fossils – sometimes complete skeletons – and these remarkable discoveries eventually attract the attention of the scientific community at large. The attention brings much needed income and (some) credit to the women, but it also causes tension, misunderstandings and finally a falling out. This remarkable friendship, with it’s ebbs and flows and eventual  renewal, form the core of this fascinating story.

As expected, Chevalier does a wonderful job of setting the time period and creating a believable atmosphere. Her characters are also carefully drawn, each with their own complex motivations, from the various scientists that visit them to the townspeople who snub them, and she brings this fascinating story of the past alive again.

One decision can alter a life forever – turning left instead of right, stopping instead of going straight home, holding onto a piece of information. That a life can be saved or shattered by the smallest gestures is movingly illustrated in The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

Set during the early stages of World War II when London is staggering under the relentless German bombing from the Blitz and America is teetering on the verge of entering the war, The Postmistress looks at how simple decisions change and connect the lives of three women. Frankie works for Edward R Murrow in London, reporting on how the bombing is affecting the people and their lives. Newlywed Emma Trask, just arrived in a small Cape Cod town, waits for her doctor husband, who has gone to London to volunteer. And the town’s postmistress, Iris James, holds onto a crucial piece of information that will impact all of them.

The scenes set in London and Europe are especially good; Blake brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of the Blitz where panic gradually gives way to resignation, and death is random and arbitrary. Frankie’s journey through Europe (as an American she is still able to travel through German-occupied countries) is tense and heartbreaking and terrifying. I felt that the parts of the book that are set in Cape Cod are not as strong – less action, less immediate – and that the ending suffered because of this. However, many readers felt differently; this book is worth reading to find out how you feel.

The title of this amazing book, full of incredible stories about women overcoming obstacles, is taken from an old Chinese proverb: “Women hold up half the sky.”  The authors, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, received the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, and I first saw their work featured on the Oprah show.  Their primary premise is that, “Throughout much of the world, the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population … Unleashing that process globally is not only the right thing to do; it’s also the best strategy for fighting poverty.”

Rather than tire the reader with boring statistics,  the authors wisely chose to illustrate their point by letting us “get to know” individual women.  Warning — the majority of these reports are very sad, even horrific at times, dealing with subjects such as sexual slavery, inequities in gender education, and maternal mortality.  However, each chapter is also followed by a success story, proving time and time again that one person can make a difference.

April 18-24 is National Volunteer Week; I can’t think of a better book to read for it than this.  Besides a plentitude of inspiration, the final chapter gives suggestions on “What You Can Do” with “Four Steps You Can Take in the next Ten Minutes.”  Step One?  Go to GlobalGiving or Kiva and open an account.

After 48 years of marriage, Joseph has asked Betty for a divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences”. This confuses Betty because of course they have “irreconcilable differences” – what did that have to do with divorce? And thus begins a tale of manners and family ties, heartbreak and second chances.

To save money Betty and her two adult daughters – each facing life changing situations of their own – move into a dilapidated cottage on Long Island, loaned to them by an benevolent cousin. It is here that each woman faces her new future, making connections to their neighbors, town and each other that are both unexpected and comforting.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine is a decidedly modern look at society, inspired by the novels of Jane Austen (you’ll recognize a lot of Sense and Sensibility and a bit of Pride and Prejudice here) Witty, thoughtful, sharply observant, this is a novel of picking up the pieces and starting anew.

How to be a Geek Goddess“Could someone just tell me what I need to know without trying to convince me that I need the latest gadget, assuming I have all the time in the world to trudge through geek speak, and wasting my time with a lengthy explanation of how it all works?” Christina Tynan-Wood, a female geek, could hear these subliminal pleas for help whenever a friend asked her a question about technology–a question they usually chased with a “I’m sorry to be so clueless (page xviii).” GIRLS! YOU ARE NOT CLUELESS! You had the brains to ask the question, right? Well now Christina has made it easy to find the answer–Ta da! How to be a Geek Goddess: Practical Advice for Using Computers with Smarts and Style.

Finally everything a girl needs to know to feel technologically confident in ONE BOOK! Christina explains what you should know before buying a computer, how to set up wireless, how to organize your desktop, what security software you might need, how to shop online, and so much more! Her writing is fun, conversational, and full of illustrations and screenshots. Only downfall is that the book is very PC-heavy (which she admits up front), so some of the very useful topics, such as installing software, will not apply to Macs. Despite that, How to be a Geek Goddess is must-read for all women who want (or need) to be in control of their technological life. You may also want to check out Christina’s website at www.geekgirlfriends.com.

Okay, lets get our geek on!
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Inspired by the life of the author’s Korean mother, this first novel by Eugenia Kim is a beautiful and satisfying story.  The Calligrapher’s Daughter spans 30 years of Korean history, from 1915-1945, and is narrated by najin Han, the daughter of an ultra-traditional and aristocratic calligrapher.  Born in 1910 at the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Korea, her life, through privileged, is restricted by strict social standards, including a very limited education for women.  When her father decides to marry her off at age 14, her mother bravely defies him by sending her instead to Seoul, where she serves as a companion to the young Princess Deokhye during the waning days of the centuries-old dynasty.

Later, Najin attends college and works as a teacher and school principal.  When her parents again choose a husband for her, she is pleasantly surprised to find that she concurs with their choice of Calvin Cho, who is leaving to study for the ministry in America.  However, only one day after her wedding, she is denied a passport.  An entire decade passes, separated from her husband with little hope for reunion, as she struggles to survive the hardships and poverty brought on by World War II.  Both lyrical and tragic, this novel celebrates the perseverance and strength of women — a thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age saga.