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Friday, March 17, 2017

Books Celebrating Women

March is the month set aside for celebrating Women's History Month, so I reflected on some of the non-fiction books I have read over the last few months that fit well into this category.

Tara Clancy's The Clancys of Queens is a memoir about growing up with her extended family in Queens, New York. After her parents divorced, Tara spent her childhood with her beloved maternal Italian grandparents, running around their Brooklyn neighborhood.
The Clancys of Queens

Her grandparents lived in a two-family house with her Aunt Mary. Her grandparents lived on the top floor, Aunt Mary in the middle level, and the basement level was where all of the thirty members of her family celebrated holidays. It reminded me of all the stories my mother told me about growing up with her grandparents, and this was the best part of the book. It sounded like Tara lived in the 1950s, instead of the 1990s.

Tara also spent time living between a converted garage in Queens with her divorced father, and on a fancy Hamptons estate when her mother remarried. Clancy can sure spin a yarn, and she makes you feel like you are right along side of her in her adventures.

Richard Cohen's She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron shares his decades-long friendship with writer/director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally).  Ephron has written extensively about her own life, in her books I Feel Bad About My Neck, I Remember Nothing and her novel Heartburn, a thinly-veiled roman a clef about the dissolution of Ephron's marriage to writer Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame).
She Made Me Laugh

Cohen shows us a side to Ephron that most people didn't see, and he doesn't shy away the more prickly aspects of her personality. He'd seen her through thick and thin, and his wife was battling cancer at the same time Ephron was dying from leukemia and trying to hide it from the world.

Reading She Made Me Laugh brings Ephron back to vivid life, and fans of hers will not be disappointed with this candid look at a complicated woman.

Jennifer Weiner is best known as a novelist, but she also writes essays, appearing in The New York Times and other distinguished publications. Her essay collection Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love and Writing tells her story, growing up as a young woman trying to find her way in the world.
Hungry Heart

Weiner tackles what it was like growing up not looking like a Barbie doll, being a bookworm instead of a cheerleader, her family dodging bill collectors after her father up and leaves, and her steely determination to go to college and be a writer.

Some of these essays have been seen before, (the one about her grandmother being ostracized by "mean girl" women at her new adult living home is heartbreaking) and some are new, but all together they tell a tale of a woman coming into her own, trying to make a living at what she loves best- writing.

I loved her stories as a working reporter for a newspaper best, (as I once wanted to be Brenda Starr, if anyone knows who that is) and this is a great collection for young women to read, giving them hope that persistence, a good work ethic and believing in yourself can pay off.

Cara Brookins has had a bad run with men. One of her husbands was mentally ill, terrifying her and her children. Her next husband was physically abusive, and she would wake up to him grabbing her by the throat threatening to kill her.

She needed to prove to herself and her children that she could take care of them, and so she found a mission: to build a home for their family, which she recounts in Rise: How a House Built a Family. 

Although her children were young, (the oldest being 15, the youngest a two-year-old toddler), Brookins and her children taught themselves how design a home, frame walls, and lay a foundation by watching YouTube videos. (And this was back in 2009 before YouTube videos were as sophisticated as they are today.)

It sounds astounding that the Brookins family could accomplish this, but Cara's belief and determination was infectious and they all pulled together, along with help from a few people along the way, to make their dream come true.

They had many roadblocks, but when Brookins found herself flagging, her children picked her up. It's an inspirational story, and the next time your children tell you they can't take out the garbage, remind them that Cara Brookins' kids helped her build a house.

Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures tells the story of a group of African-American women who worked in the aeronautics industry as mathematicians in the 1940s. This is a truly fascinating story, as these women overcame prejudice through hard work, determination and an indomitable belief in themselves.
Hidden Figures

They came from families who believed that education was the way to make a better life, and their communities helped too, chipping with scholarships to college, and help with childcare when needed.

Women like Katharine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn and Christine Darden became an integral part of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia and later helped launch man into space at NASA.

Their story is the perfect example of "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." They prepared to succeed by working hard in school, taking difficult courses in college. When WWII led to a shortage of men working stateside, and the war effort needed more and better planes, these ladies were ready to step and do the job needed for America to succeed.

These women also gave back to their community. In addition to working 16-hour days, and caring for their families, they were choir members at their church, led Girl Scout troops, and mentored other young black women.

Hidden Figures inspired the movie that was nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards, and the book is even better. There is something for everyone here- technical stuff for the math and science fans, a great narrative of interesting women for those who like a good biography, and a sense of pride for America and what we can achieve when everyone is allowed to contribute to the best of their abilities. Hidden Figures was the best of the books in this category, it is a must-read.

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