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.