I first stumbled upon Svetlana Alexievich’s work about ten years ago, when I visited the library and randomly picked up a copy of her brilliant Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of Nuclear Disaster. Of course, Alexievich has been around much longer than that; Voices from Chernobyl was published 20 years ago, and she’s been chronicling Soviet history for decades now. She garnered a lot of critical acclaim in 2013 with Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, and I finally made the connection between her and Voices from Chernobyl when she won the well-deserved 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her unique way of blending a chorus of voices into her oral history storytelling.
Luckily, that Nobel Prize has created a push for her works to be republished and translated for broader audiences. Her first book, The Unwomanly face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, was first published in 1985. It was recently translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and published in hardcover in the United States about a month ago. The introduction includes journal excerpts from the years she spent collection the oral histories, but it also includes newer insights and a few clips that the censors had taken out of the original version.
Fresh out of college in the early 1970s, a naive and bright-eyed Jessica B. Harris began teaching French at Queens College in New York. A new wave of Black intelligentsia was forming, and though Harris was considered a little too young and bourgois for colleagues to fully embrace her, she did manage to develop a friendship with the undeniably cool Samuel Clemens Floyd III, an older, magnetic professor at the college.
That friendship turned into a years-long romance filled with food and travel and creativity, all made possible by Sam’s close friendship with “Jimmy” — James Baldwin. Harris was younger than Sam’s crowd of artists and literati, but as Sam’s girl, she was allowed entry into a world few ever got to see. In My Soul Looks Back, she recounts her years on this periphery of Black genius. Toni Morrison had written The Bluest Eye but was still an editor at Random House, Roots was about to be published, Nina Simone occasionally dropped in on Jimmy’s parties, and Dr. Angelou was still “Maya” (who also happened to be Sam’s former lover). Everyone was poised for greatness, and Harris was there on the outer edges. Just like at Queens College, she was the outsider, the young one, but there to witness everything nonetheless.
Sherman Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78. His relationship with her was always complicated, as was his grief over her death. This memoir, composed through 78 essays and 78 poems, teases out those complexities.
Alexie and his three siblings were raised by two alcoholic parents; they would throw crazy parties at their home where the very presence of some of their guests was potentially dangerous, and his mother in particular could get violent when drunk. Alexie recounts some alcohol-fueled scenes from their childhood that literally endangered their safety. After one particularly terrifying episode, his mother vowed that she would never drink again, and she kept that promise, a decision Alexie credits with being the reason he is still alive.
Be that as it may, Lillian was still far from perfect. She was a liar and an abusive woman; she and her son went through various levels of estrangement through the years. She was a terrible mother at times, and as an adult, he refers to himself as a terrible son. But he loved her nonetheless, and these emotional dichotomies are what make the book.
A century ago, radium was one of the most exciting wonders of modern times. Not only could it make things glow in the dark, it also had healing properties that could be used for medicinal purposes. Then America went to war, and the demand for radium products skyrocketed. In 1917, many young women from Newark, New Jersey were presented with the opportunity to work for the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. Painting radium on watch dials paid well, and the positions were highly sought. The women, most in their late teens and early twenties, were taught how to mix radium — a fine powder that floated everywhere — with water to create a paint. To get a fine enough point on their paintbrush, they were instructed to put the brush tips between their lips. Lip…dip…paint.
The Newark plant was rather strict about how much of their product was used, and the women were reprimanded if any was wasted. Demand for radium products increased, and a second plant in Ottawa, Illinois was opened. There, they weren’t so strict. Radium was fun — and healthy! — and the girls were allowed to take leftovers home to paint on their skin and clothing; their fashionable glow made them the envy at dances.
Decades before Match, OkCupid, and Tinder, there existed the Marriage Bureau in London, offering the unorthodox — some might say scandalous — services of finding clients their future husband or wife. War loomed large and single young men were posted abroad in the British colonies; when they came home on leave, they didn’t have time to find a proper date — much less their future wife — before returning to duty. And though times were changing and more women were entering the workforce, a lot of young women still lived at home and lived under their parents’ rule. How would they ever find someone?
In The Marriage Bureau, Penrose Halson recounts the first ten years of the Bureau’s existence. A restless twenty-four-year-old named Mary Oliver visited her uncle in India. He told her that she should find a way to introduce the boys stationed there to some women when they went on leave; otherwise, they’d never find someone to marry. The idea stuck, and she brought it up with her friend Heather Jenner, a beautiful socialite who had already been divorced and was intrigued by the idea. They forged ahead with their eccentric plan and ended up charming the media in their favor. With the publicity, they suddenly found their “mating” services in high demand even through terrifying times like the London blitz.