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.

Women’s Stories from World War II

The cover is mostly in shades of grey, with a woman's face seen from behind turned to the side, smelling a rose. A plane, in a downward spiral, appears across the top. Spots of red in the smoke from the plane, the rose, and circling the name Verity provide a pop of color.

by Kristen B.

One of the current hot trends in publishing involves telling the previously overlooked stories of women during World War II, from code breakers at Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall to spies who worked with the Resistance. It seems they are everywhere right now. My all-time favorite, and one of the first in this sub-genre, is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (technically YA, but I have no idea why).

Two young British women become bosom friends and compatriots in supplying occupied France with intelligence. Maddie is an amateur mechanic and pilot, who works ferrying planes around the UK to various RAF bases and sometimes across the Channel. She loves flying with an undying passion. I learned more about early aircraft than I wanted, to be honest. Men were needed as combat pilots, so women flew most of the personnel and supply shuttles. Maddie has a heart of gold and a desire to make a difference despite her lack of social standing or eduction. She’s the perfect foil to Queenie (code name Verity), a member of the upper class with a wicked ability with languages and acting, who is recruited directly into intelligence work. Not to put too fine a point on it, our girl is a perfect spy. Her nom de guerre means truth, and the entire book hinges on figuring out which parts of her story are true.

The two become unlikely friends through their brief careers, including one scene where they end up lost on their bikes in the rain because all the road signs have been removed. When Queenie ends up captured behind enemy lines, everyone fears the worst. Verity is the main narrator for the book, and to say she’s unreliable doesn’t even begin to capture the reality. The plot is a breathless dash of misadventure and raw calculation, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. Sometimes friendship saves the day, and sometimes a book rips your heart from your chest and leaves you a wreck on the sofa. Maybe I’m saying too much … but really, just read it!

Code Name Verity is also available as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive and as an audiobook on CD.

All in shades of blue, the outline of a castle appears in the foggy background with a hedge in the foreground and a plane high overheard.

Equally fraught if less devastating, The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck gives us an unusual and moving look at German women in the immediate aftermath of the war. Three women and their children find themselves living together in a derelict castle in Bavaria, doing their utmost simply to survive. The property belongs to Marianne von Lingenfels, member of the landed aristocracy and wife of one of Hitler’s detractors. When her husband and other conspirators in the 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler are summarily executed, she tries to fulfill her promise to save as many other wives and children as possible.

She manages to find two: Benita and Ania. Benita, a classic German beauty, flees her family’s impoverished life by marrying Marianne’s best friend from childhood. Ania and her two boys escape from the far eastern regions and trudge through much of the country, dodging Russian soldiers and American GIs, before reaching the safety of the castle. The three women and their six children band together in unlikely friendship to outlast the worst depredations and devastations. In one of the most moving scenes, everyone in the castle and the connected village attends an Advent service in the local ruined church, and the power of the sacred music and a clear, cold night brings a much-needed moment of hope.

As the book progresses, we learn each woman’s history and gain some understanding of how they come to be within the castle. Benita suffers all a beautiful woman at the mercy of an enemy can expect. Marianne, used to privilege and a life filled with intellectual rigor, maintains a moral viewpoint that allows for very few shades of grey – despite being in a time and space that demands them. And Ania, my favorite character by far, lives almost entirely within those grey spaces in the most practical manner possible. Her background of supporting the Nazi agenda until she could no longer ignore the atrocities portrays the “good German” conundrum all too well.

The book catalogs the necessary sacrifices and compromises, from the reality of marauding renegade soldiers to the plight of Displaced Persons. It’s a fascinating portrayal of how people move forward, trying to make it through today, tomorrow, this week, this month, this year. It made me think about how this is not a sexy, heroic story, nor is it a tragic tale of valiant derring-do and winning through at all costs. Shattuck gives us – gifts us – three fairly ordinary German women thrown together in dire circumstances who survive … because what else was there to do?

The Women in the Castle is also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive and as an audiobook on CD.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

Virtual Visit with Lisa See

On a sea blue background, two Korean women stand ready to dive. The title and author information interweaves with line drawings of water grass and squids.

On Tuesday, October 6 at 11 am, 2020 One Maryland One Book author Lisa See visits virtually to discuss her book The Island of Sea Women. She will be in conversation with Laura Yoo, Professor of English at Howard Community College and a board member of Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Register to receive a link to this free event.

Spanning generations, and set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Korean War, and the broader geopolitics of the Cold War, The Island of Sea Women takes place on the island of Jeju. It focuses on haenyeo – female divers, who cooperated to create a matrifocal society. These women were the primary earners in their families, while their husbands took on more domestic roles. However, the complexity of the narrative captures the broader theme of nearly 70 years of friendship.

See writes, “No one picks a friend for us; we come together by choice,” and such was the case for Young-sook, the daughter of the chief haenyeo, and Mi-ja, an orphan whose father was a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook’s family, in spite of being wary of Mi-ja’s stained reputation, practically adopts her, and their friendship is a beautiful and rare sort. It is, “not tied together through ceremony or the responsibility to create a son; we tie ourselves together through moments. The spark when we first meet. Laughter and tears shared. Secrets packed away to be treasured, hoarded and protected. The wonder that someone can be so different from you and yet still understand your heart in a way no one else ever will.” Such deeply shared moments, secrets, and experiences define the nature of their friendship.

As the girls reach adulthood, the prospect of their respective arranged marriages begins to strain their friendship. Mi-ja looks to marry the wealthy and handsome son of a Japanese collaborator, who resides in the city, while Young-sook has an understanding with a neighbor boy, Jun-bu. Yet, their friendship further solidifies through the shared experiences of their “leaving-home water-work” in Russia’s Vladivostok and motherhood.

The looming backdrop of the Korean Crisis and the 4.3 Incident (the massacre of thousands of Koreans on April 3, 1948 in response to a communist rebellion) at the hands of the new Korean government brought into power by the United States results in crimes against humanity and atrocities being committed against the innocent. The novel’s major dilemma revolves around Young-sook’s struggle with the traumatic and rather graphic barbarity of the 4.3 Incident and her subsequent rejection of Mi-ja’s friendship. 

While the novel deals with several themes, the overarching theme of friendship intersects and interacts with some of the other themes like male hegemony in Korean society, motherhood, religion and spirituality, war, injustice and finally, loss, betrayal and forgiveness. This book has much to teach about female companionship, trust, and, more importantly, the necessity to hear a friend without judgment. 

Review by Rohini G., who is an Adult Curriculum Specialist with Howard County Library System and is a member of the selection committee for One Maryland One Book

If you wish to discuss the novel, several HCLS Book Discussion groups have chosen it for upcoming meeting. Register to receive a Zoom link.

Stories of the World on Monday, Oct 5 at 7 pm

Books on Tap on Wednesday, Oct 7 at 6 pm

The Thursday Next Book Club on Thursday, Oct 8 at 7 pm

ELK Excellent Reads on Tuesday, Nov 10 at 12:30 pm

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

The sepia-toned book cover depicts a young Black woman seated in a wooden chair, wearing a plain sleeveless white cotton dress.

Review by Piyali C.

This has to be one of the most difficult books that I have read in a very long time. Difficult, powerful and absolutely brilliant. I had to take frequent breaks because of the inexplicable cruelty that is described in the book. However, I realized I was thinking about the story and the characters even during those breaks.

Lilith is born as a slave in the Montpelier plantation in Kingston, Jamaica in the eighteenth century. She is born with skin as dark as midnight, yet her eyes are a startling green. She is also born with an indomitable spirit which refuses to be tamed even within bondage. There is a group of women on the plantation, the Night Women, who are plotting a revolution. The head house slave, Homer, who is also the leader of the slave uprising, recognizes something dark within Lilith’s spirit. She raises Lilith with the hope that she will use that darkness towards the cause of the slave rebellion. Their dream is to recreate the villages of Africa that they were forced to abandon after the uprising. Lilith’s life, however, takes a slightly different turn than the rest of the slaves in Montpelier, and her decision to join the revolution is highly influenced by that turn of events. Where does Lilith’s loyalty lie? Will she harness the dark power within her to help free her people?

Marlon James poses a challenge to his readers to live the lives of both his Black and White characters in 18th century Jamaica; he dares them to stomach the inexplicable cruelty that was meted out to the slaves by the White overseers, plantation owners and ‘johnny jumpers,’ and then he invites them to put this all into the current context and analyze how much has really changed in the world that we inhabit. The topic was harsh and this was not a pleasant read, but I am determined not to run away from hard topics that deal with race. This book, through a thoroughly captivating story, sheds a spotlight on the White mentality of objectifying and dehumanizing Black people so they could inflict the cruelest of torture on them, physically and mentally. This is a brutally honest look at the genesis of racism.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James is available from HCLS in print, audiobook on CD, and as an eaudiobook in Libby/Overdrive.

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

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

The cover shows a woman in 1940's-era clothing, carrying a package under her arm and walking down a deserted alley surrounded by stone walls.

Review by Julie F.

Imagine running the largest spy organization in Vichy France – setting up safe houses and networks, negotiating the tensions between de Gaulle’s Free French and the anti-Gaullist General Giraud, and helping to spirit spies and messengers from France to England in the dead of night on dangerous Lysander plane trips. Never staying in one “safe” location for too long; never knowing who has your back or who might stab you in the back.

Now imagine doing all of that as a woman, a mother of two young children and an infant, in a society where, as author Lynne Olson describes it, “Men fought, and women stayed home” (525). Marie-Madeleine Fourcade resisted both the German occupation and the gendered expectations of a military and espionage apparatus designed for and perpetuated by men. When the life of a spy in occupied France was reputed to be six months at the most, her success is a credit to her resourcefulness, daring, and people skills. The colleagues she trusted and led knew her worth. In the words of Léon Faye, her dependable lieutenant and the father of her youngest child, “A woman…But not just any woman!  She’s an indisputable and undisputed leader. Even the English have accepted her” (201).

Readers who enjoy tales of espionage will be amazed that Marie-Madeleine’s story is real and not more widely known. The scenes depicting her captures and escapes, and those of her Resistance colleagues, are riveting – sometimes by simply talking her way out of the hands of the Gestapo, or waiting until their backs were turned to climb out of a window and make a run for it. Not all went according to plan; she lost friends and companions, and their stories, and her anxiety for their safety and grief over their losses, are powerfully depicted. Her devotion to a cause greater than herself and her family is heroic – even after the war, when she advocated for remembrance ceremonies, official honors, government pensions, and medical care for Alliance agents, as well as benefits for the families of those the German executed. Read this fascinating account of her dedication and defiance of societal norms, and be riveted by her exploits and those of her spy network.

Adult nonfiction. Available in eaudio through CloudLibrary and in ebook and eaudio through Libby.

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she facilitates two book discussion groups – Spies, Lies, and Alibis and Bas Bleu.

20th Century Women

review by Eric L.

A group of people stand on a beach with the ocean behind them. 20th Century Women is in basic type above their heads. A gold banner at the top announces that the movie has been nominated for an Academy Award

The story centers around a middle-aged single mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), raising a fifteen-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Dorothea owns a large old house (under slow renovation) wherein she rents rooms to Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup). Abbie is a twenty-something, artistic, feminist photographer interested in the nascent punk rock scene; William is a forty-something hippie and handyman mechanic. The other character often in the house is Jamie’s seventeen-year-old female friend Julie (Elle Fanning), with whom he has a complicated relationship.

The thrust of the film is that the overly analytical Dorothea decides to enlist Abbie and Julie to help raise Jamie, in lieu of another man. The different ages and experiences of the characters in the film create the tension. People of different ages and backgrounds attempting to understand and relate to each other is always fraught with problems, irrespective of the setting. Different characters narrate the background of each character as they are introduced and understood, which is very well done with dialogue and images.

The washed out, sunny Southern California setting and the wardrobe selection create a strong visual aesthetic for the film. There are also wonderful scenes of a punk rock club and a seemingly out of place, psychedelic style to the car travel scenes.

I enjoyed the film very much, but perhaps that’s because it “reflected” aspects of me back. However, it’s my opinion that many people will feel the same about it. It’s “indie” and “artsy,” but has a mass appeal due to the characters deftly portrayed in the film. I would describe it as feel-good, but not overly sentimental or trite.

The film is rated R and does include some sexual content.

DVD Fiction. Available to view through Kanopy.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.