Women’s History Month 2023

“Welcome to My World of Women’s History”

That’s the greeting I chose for the home page of this website. Once every year, during the month of March, it takes on added significance because of the observance of Women’s History Month. I’ve marked that month in different ways on my blog. The 2018 entry, for example, highlighted that year’s “Nevertheless She Persisted” theme with information about the lawyer/activist Pauli Murray followed by a couple of book recommendations.

This year, Women’s History Month kind of snuck up on me, even though I knew Pamela Toler would once again be running her excellent blog series, Talking About Women’s History. The first installment, featuring biographer Cathy Curtis, is already up, and it’s wonderful.

So when I finally looked up this year’s theme this morning, I was especially intrigued:

This Women’s History Month is not only all about women as historical figures, but it’s also about the women who have written about them. It’s like getting a bonus Women’s History Month.

Over the next four Wednesdays of this month, to match the 2023 theme, I’ll be posting a book recommendation along with some information about its author.

Stay tuned.


My Favorite Nonfiction of 2022

My 2022 list (nonfiction books I read but were not necessarily published in 2022) is made up of an even dozen titles. All of them are about women, and all but one were written by women. This is not unusual for my reading preferences. What is unusual is the number of memoirs included. What is not unusual about the memoirs that made my list? Most of the authors focus on aspects of their writing lives.

So here they are, roughly in the order that I adore/admire them.

The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an America Family by Kerri K. Greenidge. An eye-opening account of the Grimke sisters, white women from South Carolina, who became outspoken advocates for abolition. Greenidge uses her expert historical skills to show the limits of the women’s understanding of and support for racial equality as they acknowledge their Black nephews, a side of the family that flourished after the Civil War. It’s a marvelous family biography wrapped around essential racial and gender history.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland. A luminous mixture of memoir and biography. I didn’t know much about McCullers going into this book and found Shapland’s approach to writing about the famous author innovative and intriguing.

Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me by Ada Calhoun. Another unusual memoir, this one intertwined with the biographies of poet O’Hara and of Calhoun’s father, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl. A great story of a complicated father-daughter relationship.

Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontes by Devoney Looser. Jane and Maria Porter were bestselling novelists in England with a literary fame that spread around the world. Looser revives their reputations via a narrative as enthralling as anything Jane Austen wrote.

The Ruin of all Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill. Gaskill brings to life the realities of eking out a living in the early Massachusetts Bay Colony and the power of Puritan beliefs in witchcraft to upend the precarious lives of the settlers. The story of Hugh and Mary Parsons is bone-chilling.

I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys by Miranda Seymour. About as moody and atmospheric as Gaskill’s book, this literary biography delves into Rhys’s Caribbean background and its influence on her writing.

To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Phyllis Joyner by Carol Emberton. Historian Emberton uses the life of Joyner, born in North Carolina shortly before the Civil War, to explore how formerly enslaved people experienced the (sometimes limited) freedom of emancipation. This is a great example of how the life of an ordinary, “unknown” person can illuminate key periods in American history.

Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood by Hilary Hallett. If you want to know anything about the evolution of the modern early twentieth-century woman, this is the book to read. Glyn started writing scandalous novels to make up for her husband gambling away most of the family fortune. And she ended up in Hollywood!

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous. This memoir of a real-life author and Twitter personality is a surprisingly touching and sometimes funny work about dealing with grief and depression. I don’t know who Duchess Goldblatt is, but that really, really doesn’t matter.

Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals by Laurie Zaleski. I picked this up on whim at the library, expecting that it would mostly be about rescuing animals. There’s some of that, but it’s woven around Zaleski’s tale of her rocky childhood and it all blends together in a very pleasing way.

Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maude Newton. In this multi-generational story, Newton tracks down the truth behind the tales told by and about various family members over the years. It’s an eye-opening account of the power of genealogy.

Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay by Shanna Greene Benjamin. A fabulous exploration of the public and private lives of McKay, a writer and literary scholar who helped create the academic field of African American literature.  

What do you think? Have you read any of these? What are you looking forward to in 2023?

My Favorite Fiction of 2022

I read at least 54 books, both fiction and nonfiction, in 2022. I’m not great at keeping an exact count, mostly because I consider many of the books “work”—for research and for reviews—and don’t add them to my Goodreads page. The only stars I assign on Goodreads are five stars because I find it too difficult to dole out the lesser numbers. (After the fabulousness of five stars, how can I determine why a book rates four or three? And honestly, I wouldn’t give a book one or two stars because I don’t finish books I don’t like.)

Here are the eleven novels (all but two written by women) I read in 2022 (not all were published in 2022) that received five stars from me. They are not in the order I read them (but may be in the order that I love them and still think about them).

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. I rarely buy a book (especially in hardcover) before I’ve read a library copy. I made an exception here because I’d heard such glowing things about it, and because I found out our town finally got an independent bookstore and said bookstore had this novel in stock and I wanted to support said bookstore. I loved it. (The book, but also the store. Five stars to Bound to Happen Books, too.) I had a hard time putting the novel down to do the routine things of the day. Yet I also tried to stretch out reading it because I didn’t want this compelling multi-generational, history-laden story of a Black family to end.

Still Life by Sarah Winman. I loved this book so much for its wonderful story of love and beauty that I bought it as a gift for a friend. I also loved how Winman ignored the tropes of most of today’s love-in-the-time-of war stories to create something more authentic. Ulysses Temper, a soldier in Italy during World War II meets an art historian named Evelyn Skinner, and their lives unfold over the next forty years. (There’s also a talking parrot.) I will someday buy a copy of this book for myself.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. I’m a fan of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel, and I ended up purchasing this book after I read the library copy. Lovely and heartbreaking, the story opens with a chance encounter in a Canadian forest between a young Englishman and a shadowy figure named Gaspery Roberts. It reminded me a bit of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, one of my favorite novels.

The Magician by Colm Tóibín. I picked this up on a whim from the New Books shelf at the library. I’ve read some of Tóibín’s other novels (The Master, Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary, and Nora Webster) but I didn’t really expect to be interested in a story about Thomas Mann. I was very wrong. I really admired how deftly Tóibín made Mann’s life relevant to contemporary issues.

There There by Tommy Orange. It took me a long time to get around to reading this bestselling Pulitzer finalist about Native Americans coming together at a pow-wow in Oakland. And it took me a long time to read this book because I would get such a strong sense of foreboding that I had to set it aside for weeks at a time before I could read more. So beautifully written and so very heart-wrenching.

Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang. Also so beautifully written—a story about what happens to a young woman kidnapped in China in the late nineteenth century and sold into sexual slavery in San Francisco—with an ending that will gut you.

Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. Set mostly in Depression-era Denver, the novel centers on Luz Lopez, who earns money reading tea leaves, coming to terms with her family’s past as she tries to carve out a good present and future for herself. Her brother, a snake charmer, is a great supporting character.

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. I don’t usually read suspense, but since this was about all the complications that ensure when a novelist steals the plot from one of his student’s work in progress, I couldn’t resist. Korelitz is so, so good at building suspense while making everything very plausible and adding a touch of dark humor.

The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont. In the 1920s, popular mystery writer Agatha Christie went missing. De Gramont’s novel imagines what led her to walk away from her family and how she was eventually found. The author manages an homage to Christie’s style without resorting to blatant pastiche.

Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark. I picked this up because I was intrigued to find that the main characters are elderly women. I found myself quickly drawn into the story of the meaning of friendship, family, and doing good in the world. It was a real bright spot in my 2022 reading.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to what is by now certainly a classic of American literature. A spare, deeply moving story of orphaned sisters struggling to stay together while they grow up.

Next up, the list of my favorite nonfiction books of 2022.

A Refinishing Tale from 2912

One of my mother’s talents (in addition to umpiring Little League baseball games and telling stories) was refinishing furniture. I think she may have been inspired by the 1970s hoopla surrounding the American Bicentennial. She developed an interest in Early American (sometimes called colonial) furniture and décor—not just original pieces (which she never could have afforded) but also the contemporary spin on them (now sometimes called Bicentennial Chic) as envisioned by furniture retailers like Ethan Allen.

(1970s Ethan Allen ad)

Even Ethan Allen furniture was more than my parents could afford. So my mother acquired pieces (garage sales, flea markets, family hand-me-downs) she thought looked antique and refinished them to make them appear even more so. She tackled old, yellowing varnishes and vanquished all evidence of paint (she did not approve of painting wood furniture). In my memory, she has a workspace set up on the driveway in front of 2912’s two-car detached garage. The portable radio, tuned as always to WGN and probably broadcasting a Cubs game, blares as she uses chemical stripper with abandon, forgoing safety glasses (she wore eyeglasses, which were enough) and rubber gloves (she didn’t have to actually touch the stripper). But she keeps her cigarette at a safe distance. This provides an acceptable amount of exercise for her as she walks back and forth for her nicotine fixes.

My mother’s best moment came as she carefully scraped off the bubbling stripper to reveal some beautiful wood. She always hoped for oak, her favorite, but she was pretty much happy with anything that wasn’t pine. Then she stained and sealed and had a lovely new old piece.

In this photo taken at Christmas time (note the little twinkle lights strung across the room divider and the bottom edge of a bell decoration hanging from the ceiling) of 1983 documents my mother’s design style. The green ruffled drapes and the milk glass light fixture signaled Early American to her. The round oak table, one of her best refinishing projects, was her pride and joy. My big sister reminded me that it once belonged to our great-grandmother, who used it in her summer cottage at Petite Lake. We used the table every day for our meals. On Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, my father hauled the leaves up from the basement and wrestled them into place so there was enough room for the relatives. Behind my mother’s shoulder is the side of an old ice chest that she also refinished and turned into a bar cabinet. I think she was almost as proud of that piece. Both the table and the cabinet remained right there in the dining room until she died.

(For dog lovers: The golden retriever, the only purebred dog my parents ever owned and only because my father was friends with the breeder, was officially named Sir Ski Kaminski but nicknamed Ski. They chose this name because when they opened the back door to call him in, they could yell, “Come in, Ski.” The other dog, looking straight at the camera, was Mickey, a lovable but very, very dim mutt. He belonged to my sister, who wisely left him behind when she moved away from home.)

The last refinishing project I remember my mother completing was my parents’ bedroom set. They bought it—dresser, chest of drawers, two nightstands—the year they were married. It was made by the Kent-Coffey Manufacturing Company of Lenoir, North Carolina, which specialized in affordable, mass-produced, stylish furniture. The set was classic midcentury modern, finished in a silvermist grey coating with space-aged hardware. I haven’t been able to find a photo, but I did run across this furniture store ad that included Kent-Coffey bedroom sets.

Sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, my mother decided she’d looked at that grey finish long enough and wanted to get rid of it. (The midcentury mod enthusiast in me now cringes at that decision, despite, like my mother, a general preference for natural wood finishes.) I don’t think she could stand the thought of getting rid of the furniture itself, which was still in amazing condition, but she longed for the wood look. So my mother stripped all the pieces. She found nice wood, but it wasn’t oak—at least it doesn’t look like that to me—and she stained it a dark Early American color and replaced the sleek hardware with more ornate handles. I think she was pleased with the outcome. It was the only bedroom set she ever owned as an adult. She liked it; it was familiar, and it was comfortable.

(photos courtesy of R. Moore)

Then one day my mother was finished with refinishing. I don’t remember if she abandoned a project midway, but I doubt it. She finished what she started, though her satisfaction with the final product could vary from project to project. She learned from any mistakes and moved forward, determined to do better with the next.

The round table, bar cabinet, and bedroom set are still in the family, being used and enjoyed by a new generation. The first two may really qualify as antiques by now, though of course not Early American. Hopefully they will endure for another generation or so beyond that, tangible reminders of one of Irene Kaminski’s talents.

A Travel Tale from 2912

Now that summer is drawing to a close, I find myself thinking about the car trips we took when we were young.

car trip 1960s

Here we are in the way back of our station wagon in the summer of 1966. I’m on the right, looking bored (but probably already worried about getting carsick), holding my favorite doll, Susie, who went everywhere I went. We rarely took a big family vacation, like a week-long trip to anywhere, but we often went someplace that was driveable within a day. And many, many times, in any season, this meant a trip to Lake Geneva to visit my maternal great-grandmother.

3632 Oakrest Lake Geneva

We headed to this house, located on the edge of town, within walking distance of Linn Pier, a beach area with bright blue, frigid water, and a rocky bottom. Still, when the weather was warm, we liked nothing better than piling back into the station wagon for the bumpy ride down the road, and shoring up our courage to jump from the pier into the cold water. But if the weather wasn’t warm enough or the adults didn’t want to supervise us in the water, we improvised our own games in the big side yard. When we got bored with that, sometimes we could talk the adults into taking us to the tavern across the street. It was a neighborhood place that, though taken up by a big bar, catered to the neighborhood families. Children could often be found inside with their parents. We thought it was great fun to climb up on one of the bar stools and twirl around as we drank a glass of Orange Crush or 7-Up.

Lake Geneva c. 1966

My great-grandmother, Katie, was the heart of these visits. I’m not sure what this occasion was, but it looks like it took place in the early spring, before the arrival of warm weather. Our father, always the one with the camera, would have organized this photo. Katie is standing there at the far right, in all her white-haired glory, next to her eldest daughter, Martha (my maternal grandmother), who is next to my mother Irene (Martha’s only daughter), who is standing next to Grace, my mother’s favorite aunt and Katie’s younger daughter. Grace and her husband Jack (sitting on the front step, holding the youngest of us) lived in Katie’s house. This arrangement seemed normal to me because my other great-grandmother (we called her Nana), standing in front of Grace, lived with her daughter-in-law Martha. Both great-grandmothers and my grandmother were widowed by then.

My strongest memory of my great-grandmother is of her sitting on a straight-backed chair in the kitchen, quietly smiling at us as we raced around the house. I don’t remember ever having a long conversation with her. I guess I probably thought we wouldn’t have much to talk about. But I do remember a visit a few years after this photo was taken, when my mother asked if I noticed anything different about great-grandma. I looked at her sitting in her favorite chair, smiling, and nothing looked different. I shook my head. “She’s wearing pants,” my mother said. “Katie decided to wear pants.”

At the time I thought it was a little bit cool that such an old woman had ditched her day dresses for slacks, like so many pants-wearing women in the early 1970s. It didn’t occur to me that maybe Katie delighted in bucking tradition because it was something she liked to do. It didn’t occur to me that she had a whole big life long before I entered the world.

Katie was born in 1886 and grew up in Chicago, where her father was a butcher in a packinghouse. She married Clarence, a Dutch immigrant, in 1907. Their first daughter, Martha, arrived soon enough, but seven years passed before Katie gave birth to Grace. By 1920, the family lived in a rented house on Morgan Street. Clarence worked as a salesman in a shoe store; Katie kept house.

The next ten years brought changes to the family. Martha grew up and left home to get married. After the stock market crash of 1929, as the country sank into the Great Depression, Clarence managed to hold onto his job at the shoe store. But business likely slowed down and he may have had his hours cut. They still needed to make rent. They still had another daughter to finish raising. So Katie found employment at a local grocery store. It was not an easy thing to do. White middle-class married women weren’t supposed to work, not even during the Depression. Jobs were supposed to be for men who needed to provide for their families. But Katie and Clarence knew they both needed to provide to get themselves through the economic disaster.

Katie was apparently good at her job and probably liked it, too. By 1940, not long before the United States formally entered World War II, she had been promoted to manager. She brought 24-year-old Grace in as a clerk. They all made it through. 

Grace and Jack never had children. This may be why Grace was one of the first working women I ever knew. When we were young, most of the women we encountered were mothers like ours, who stayed home and took care of us. To me, Grace seemed unusual, even a bit strange, because she had a job. But when I was a child, I didn’t think to ask any questions about it. And now, I think a lot about my great-grandmother, sitting quietly in her chair, wearing her new pair of pants, probably proud that even late in life she could still do something new and daring.