Gifts for Friends Who Always Root for the Underdog

Just about everybody is feeling like an underdog these days, but the following books (taken from our list of the best nonfiction books of 2008) recount the lives of real people, mostly women, who were kept down but somehow carved out their own space in the world.-- Rachel Hartigan Shea

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang
Chang skillfully sketches migrants as individuals with their own small victories and bitter tragedies, and she captures the surprising dynamics of this enormous but ill-understood subculture. -- Seth Faison

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed
In this magisterial book (named one of Book World's top 10 titles of the year), Gordon-Reed has succeeded not only in recovering the lives of an entire enslaved family, but also in showing them as creative agents intelligently maneuvering to achieve maximum advantage for themselves within the orbit of institutionalized slavery. -- Fergus M. Bordewich

Ida: A Sword Among Lions, by Paula J. Giddings
Ida B. Wells was an orphan and a poor, single woman who supported her younger brothers and sisters through teaching and journalism. She recognized that "my good name was all that I had in the world," yet she would not be silenced. Wells used words to fight white Southern lynch mobs, an indifferent white Northern public and, sometimes, black critics who felt that her outspokenness undermined their agenda. ..... Read Ida and weep. Then give it to the last person who told you that ideals are a waste of time. -- Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury, by Alison Light
Mrs. Woolf and the Servants focuses primarily on the interactions between Virginia Stephen, later Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), and the women who cleaned, cooked and cared for her over the course of her 59 years. Light's signal achievement in her compelling book lies in divvying up her pages equally between the lives of the servants and that of their mistress. -- Michael Dirda

Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine, by Scott E. Casper
Casper tells the story of the invisible men and women who worked the 8,000-acre riverfront estate of Mount Vernon for generations. George Washington may have helped create our republic, but slaves built and upheld its economic infrastructure. In Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon, Casper reminds us that they were founders, too. -- W. Ralph Eubanks

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  December 9, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Rachel Hartigan Shea
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So I read the book on Woolf and her servants, years after reading all of Woolf's published diaries and letters.

While it is good to have the history of the servants and some information about the conditions and history of domestic service, there isn't much else in the book that an alert reader can't figure out from just reading Woolf herself. Woolf gives herself away with her comments.

Posted by: jweissmn | December 12, 2008 9:41 AM

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