Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land

The book cover shows a pair of dirty yellow work gloves, lying one on top of the other.

By Kimberly J.

In this autobiography, journalist Stephanie Land details the hardships and trials she endured during her daughter’s first years. Driven into homelessness due in part to an abusive partner, an abusive father, and an absent mother, Land is truly on her own. Her family and friends have nothing to give, leaving her alone to survive. People from all walks of life will relate to her fighting spirit and resiliency.

This story is so compelling because it is so personal. This eye-opening tale gives us a glimpse into the everyday struggle of one woman fighting for a life for herself and her daughter. Reading from her point of view gave me insight into the scorn and derision felt by the working poor. The tension and anxiety Land experienced were palpable as she struggled to balance 15 types of assistance in order to simply survive.

It is a hard and heavy subject – Land works as a maid cleaning houses in order to make ends meet. The contrast of being surrounded by the trappings of the upper middle class while she is struggling to feed herself is heart-rending. This position of servitude leaves her feeling dehumanized and “othered” more often than not. When she encounters the rare client that treats her like a person, she is hungry for even the smallest acts of compassion – a note, a conversation, a smile.

This book raises important questions – How do we treat people who are performing manual labor? How do people experiencing homelessness and/or poverty fit into our society? What makes a home? How can you keep going even when hope feels impossible?

Maid is a New York Times bestseller and has been converted into a Netflix series. It is available in print, ebook, and eaudiobook from HCLS.

Kimberly J is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS Glenwood Branch. She enjoys reading, photography, creating, crafting, and baking.

Lawrence Lanahan and The Lines Between Us

Stylized black and white drawing of typical Baltimore rowhouses frame the title.

By Holly L.

Journalist Lawrence Lanahan’s 2019 book The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide opens with two epigraphs:

It’s in the way their curtains open and close.

“Respectable Street,” XTC

I don’t even have to do nothing to you.

“Big Brother,” Stevie Wonder

The first line comes from English post-punk band XTC’s 1981 song about what songwriter and frontman Andy Partridge considered “the hypocrisy of living in a so-called respectable neighborhood. It’s all talk behind twitching curtains.” The second lyric is from a track from Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album Talking Book. In the song, Wonder takes the white establishment (Big Brother) to task for only coming to the ghetto “to visit me ‘round election time.” He continues his indictment – “I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you” because, from offenses ranging from criminal neglect of its black citizens to having “killed all our leaders…you’ll cause your own country to fall.”

It is fitting that Lanahan chose these words and these voices to begin this story, as his narrative weaves together multiple perspectives but most closely follows the criss-crossing threads of two individuals, one black and one white.

Nicole Smith is a young black woman living with her family in a West Baltimore rowhome owned by her mother, Melinda. When we meet Nicole, she is twenty-five and is contemplating the crossing of a line—leaving her neighborhood (and family and community) behind in search of security and opportunity for herself and her six-year-old son, Joe. Though she is enrolled in Baltimore City Community College and is on a waitlist for affordable housing in the city, Nicole seems to be on an existential treadmill, running but getting nowhere fast. She’s heard of a place called Columbia, a planned community in Howard County, with a reputation for good schools, plenty of jobs, and safe streets. Could she make it there?

Mark Lange is a white man raised in the Baltimore suburbs who, after a spiritual reckoning in his late teens, embarks on a path of service informed by the teachings of Mississippi civil rights activist and Christian minister John M. Perkins, who argued that those who wanted to help communities in need must live among them. As Mark’s story begins to be told, he feels a gravitational pull from his comfortable suburban life in Bel Air toward Sandtown, a West Baltimore neighborhood where his best friend Alan Tibbels, a like-minded white Christian with a mission of racial reconciliation, relocated with his family. If he moves, would Mark prove to be just another “white savior” looking to appease his own guilt? Or would be able to form meaningful relationships and help foster change in an impoverished community?

In this meticulously researched book, Lanahan alternates the fascinating tales of Nicole and Joe with the complicated history of Baltimore’s segregation and the resulting devastating impact on its black communities. Having its genesis as a year-long multi-media series on inequality in the Baltimore area broadcast from September 28, 2012 to October 4, 2013 on WYPR, Maryland Public Radio, the depth and breadth of Lanahan’s reporting is detailed to an almost dizzying degree. But just when a reader’s brain might start to get overwhelmed by the minutiae of historical detail (as mine sometimes did), my attention would come swiftly back into focus as the humanity of Nicole and Mark’s stories propelled me through the book. The Lines Between Us should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the institutional forces that shape inequality in our region and for those whose understanding of their neighbor might require them to cross a line. And isn’t that most of us?

Join us: Author Works with Lawrence Lanahan
Wednesday, January 12 from 7 – 8:30 pm
In person, HCLS Central Branch
Register at bit.ly/3pFTq3y

To learn more about the historical policies of redlining, visit the interactive exhibit currently at Central Branch. Undesign the Redline explores the history of structural racism and inequality, how these designs compounded each other from 1938 Redlining maps until today, and the national and local impacts. Join a guided tour on Wednesdays at 11 am and Saturdays at 2 pm.

Holly L. is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch. She enjoys knitting and appreciates an audiobook with a good narrator.

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

The book cover, in faded pinks and yellows, shows a young Korean woman with hair parted in the middle, sculpted eyebrows, and full makeup and lipstick, wearing a yellow top and looking slightly off to the side. She is surrounded by yellow flowers as if in a garden bower.

By Piyali C.

If I Had Your Face drew me in at the beginning, lost me a little bit in the middle, and captivated me again towards the end. Through the eyes of four narrators, Ara, Kyuri, Miho, and Wonna, Frances Cha brings us not only the personal stories of these women but also the social tapestry of modern South Korea in terms of beauty standards, feminism, women in the work force, a challenging economy, sexuality, matrimony, and societal expectations.

Kyuri works as a room salon girl – an opportunity afforded to only the “prettiest 10 percent.” She accompanies and caters to the sexual needs of rich men, who in turn ply her with designer bags and expensive makeup. Kyuri has surgically altered her entire face to attain the flawless beauty that is vital to her job and, ultimately, her prosperity. (Interestingly, according to businessinsider.com, “with the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries in the world and nearly 1 million procedures a year, South Korea is often called the world’s plastic surgery capital.”) Although her life seems enviable, Kyuri is in heavy debt and emotionally wrecked. On top of everything, she makes one bad decision that threatens her entire livelihood.

Ara has lost her voice due to some violence in the past. The author piques our interest, hinting about the violence throughout Ara’s narrative and disclosing the incident towards the end. She is a hair stylist and a huge K-Pop enthusiast. Ara’s K-Pop fantasy is her escape to a dreamworld that is very different from the harsh reality of her life.

Miho is an orphan who won a scholarship to study art in New York City, who obsessively creates art influenced by her friendship with a girl named Ruby. Ruby dazzled Miho with her personality, wealth, influence, and charisma. She also introduced Miho to the upper echelon of South Korean society. Miho, however, can simply look into the lives of the rich from the periphery. She is not allowed in.

Wonna, who lives in the same building as the young women, is trapped in an uninspiring marriage. She is pregnant and terrified of losing her baby. She has to hide her pregnancy for as long as she can so she does not lose her job. Moreover, she does not know how she and her husband will raise the baby in South Korea’s brutal economy with their combined meager salaries.

Then there is Sujin who works at a nail salon and yearns for Kyuri’s surgically altered, perfect jawline because her goal is to emulate Kyuri and become a room salon girl herself. She is willing to go through painful jaw surgery and subsequent complications from it if she can attain the beauty that society dictates women ought to strive for. She is Ara’s roommate, and we know about her mostly from the narratives of her friends, Ara and Kyuri.

All our protagonists come from impoverished backgrounds. They are desperate to leave their past behind and move up in life despite the barriers that society constructs for them. But when their friendship is put to test in their quest for upward mobility, what do they do? Does societal pressure shatter their tentative friendship, or will their friendship ultimately save them?

The book tells the unique story of these women and their relationship with one another. While each individual story is interesting, the picture of South Korean society that emerges from the collective stories and through the perspectives of these unique individuals is what makes If I Had Your Face a captivating read. Frances Cha, a former travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul, writes her vivid and realistic debut novel which Publishers Weekly hails as, “an insightful, powerful story from a promising new voice… Cha navigates the obstacles of her characters’ lives with ease and heartbreaking realism.”

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha is available at Howard County Library System both in print and as an eBook via Overdrive/Libby.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.