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

***

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

Buy a copy of one of these books via BookDepository

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31 thoughts on “Excellent Books About Unforgettable Women #WomensHistoryMonth on #WorldBookDay

  1. Great selection, Claire. The Skloot is absolutely fascinating, a great blend of medical and social history. And I’m delighted to see Stet here, too. Diana Athill is a role model for ageing, providing you’re blessed with good genes.

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  2. Excellent selections Claire! Mom & Me & Mom has been on my TBR way too long. Will you be following and reading from the longest and shortlist of the Women’s Prize this year?

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    • I’ve been watching all the excellent prediction videos and reading posts and based on those I think it’s going to be an entertaining list I hope, I’ll probably pick and choose the titles I want to read but I’ll definitely be doing summary posts on the long and short lists. I’m unlikely to have read many though, how about you, are you committed to reading either of the lists?

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  3. I’ve been wanting to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for a while now – thank you for reminding me! Mom & Me & Mom sounds like a good one for a Mother’s Day gift too. I haven’t read enough nonfiction books lately, but there’s an interesting woman astronomer in The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (although there are some annoying parts near the beginning in the way that women are referred to). Thank you for these suggestions and Happy World Book Day!

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  4. Great selection! I’ve only read two of your recommendations – I’ll definitely pick up the others. Will also share with my readers on Becca’s Inspirational Book Blog. Namaste!

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  5. Oh my, I do wish I had finished my current book in time to blog it for today! It would have been so appropriate. Written by Goldie Goldbloom (who wrote The Paperbark Shoe) the book has the unprepossessing title of Gwen, a Novel, but it tells the story of Gwendoline John, sister of the artist Augustus John and an artist who came to outshine him in due course. It is absolutely wonderful…

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  6. What wonderful women … Testament of Youth I read at 18, having been given it to read by my step-grandmother… to help me understand her generation…and what a heartbreak the story of Henrietta Lacks is… so good to read the other women who were able to consciously achieve great things…

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    • I love that Henrietta Lack’s story does eventually get told, and all because the author never forgot her after hearing her names in a biology class when she was only 16 years old. I hope more stories like this come to be told Valerie and I’m equally content to know you too are writing down your extraordinary story, which I hope we will eventually see in book form.

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  7. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of the most memorable books I’ve read in the last decade. And I simply love Diana Athill. I got to see her speak in London a couple of years ago, and recently won a signed copy of A Florence Diary!

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      • It was very special to see her in person, being interviewed by Erica Wagner. I read the Florence Diary in January and it was enjoyable — definitely a minor work (a 40-page journal she found from a trip she made in the 1940s), but one that fans will still want to read.

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  8. What a great selection. Some new to me, several I’m aware of, none (I’m ashamed to say) that I’ve actually read. I’ve not yet worked through all of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies; I’m itching to read some Diana Athill – and would probably have started with Stet. Testament of Youth has been a ‘must read’ for so long it’s grown cobwebs. Thanks for the nudge, Claire!

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  9. A brilliant selection Claire, thank you. I have just finished an extraordinary novella called So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ. We read the reflections of a middle-aged West African woman on the occasion of her husband’s death. In the space of just 90ish pages we find beautiful, insightful, heartfelt wisdom about all aspects of life.

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    • Oh excellent! I am so glad you’ve read this Liz, I just read it a few weeks ago, though I’ve been meaning to for a very long time, I almost included that novella on the list, it really is a classic in my opinion. It is such a heartfelt correspondence and an incredible insight into an aspect of a culture we can hardly imagine. It reminded me too of reading Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, only she was a young recent wife and it was the interfering in-laws who caused that situation to come about.

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      • My apologies and thank you for the reminder of your review – it was your post that put me on to this amazing book. I try to keep track of how I come to pick up a book, but my somewhat arbitrary system does not always work! Anyway, I shall definitely be coming back to this one – as I was reading it I felt that it was impossible to absorb all the wisdom first time through. I’ll check out Stay With Me too, thanks! 🙂

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      • I thought it was a bit of a coincidence, and I know exactly the feeling, I often regret not noting where I found out about a book, but really it’s not that important, the wonderful reality is that you were inspired to read it and it sounds like you felt about it just as I did. I agree, it’s definitely one to reread and to have others read too. It required discussion! I love coming across lesser known and exceptionally articulate voices like these, I’m sure we miss so many because of the publishing model today.

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      • I think that is one of the best reasons why sharing reviews via blogs is so important and exciting – we can highlight lesser known and unsung titles not picked up by the mainstream. Reading, and writing about reading – are there any more perfect ways to spend our time! 🙂

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