Leading Ladies in Literature – Strong Female Reads for International Women’s Day (March 8)

When asked to write a post about strong female protagonists, it took me longer than I’d like to admit to think of my favorites. Even if I’ve read hundreds of books over the course of my life, only a handful stand out in their portrayal of a female lead. Most often, the most interesting characters I’ve come across are varied, flawed, and human, filled with errors and quirks that I find easy to relate to in my day to day life. These are the women I find myself relating to (even if I do wish I could be as perfect as Hermione Granger) and rooting for. I’ve compiled a list of a few of my favorites, which barely scratch the surface of the wonderful and wide world of women in books, but hey, we all have to start somewhere.

If I’ve missed your favorites, please feel free to leave a comment down below, I’m always looking to add books to my reading list.                                                    

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. First off, this is a book I swore to never read again, ironically,  just because of how much it hurts to read. Wally Lamb is a master of creating a character you physically hurt for after getting to know them, and Dolores Price is no different. At once a fragile girl and a hard-edged cynic, so tough to love yet so inimitably lovable, Dolores is as poignantly real as our own imperfections. Through rough edges and rougher trials, including assault, mental institutions, absentee parents and lonely adulthood, Lamb shapes a character you find yourself cursing at, wincing for, and holding close.

519bogs1ivl._sx330_bo1,204,203,200_How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. After she shames herself on local TV, 14-year-old Johanna Morgan reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde–a fast-talking, hard-drinking Gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. Watching Johanna stumble through her rebirth into a plucky more confident version of herself made me look back fondly (and lets be honest, not that fondly) on my high school years. Trying to re-brand yourself, whether it be with new fish net stockings, a streak of pink in your hair, or a new favorite band, is a rough process. How to Build A Girl highlights how surface level all of these additions are, and asks the question, how far will one really go to re-imagine themselves? I found myself wanting to hug the pivotal character Johanna, and tell her it gets better, if not by action, then by time. It seems like even if she’s struggling, Johanna is a character you find yourself egging on, and even being somewhat jealous of at times.

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein.  I brought this book on vacation thinking I’d enjoy a pulpy novel about crime scene clean up. I’m a true crime fan myself, and my interest in forensic science has led me down an interesting path in terms of books in the past year. This book turned out to be the opposite of pulp, and had very little to do with crime scene clean up after all. Sandra Pankhurst is a titan in the industry of Specialized Trauma Cleaning, she does her job and she does it well. Before she began professionally cleaning up their traumas, she experienced her own. First, as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home. Then as a husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, and trophy wife. The true life story of Sandra left me wounded in ways I didn’t expect. In a world that profits of making jokes of hoarders and death, this book, and Sandra, treat these people with dignity. She bags up their postcards, their books, their recipe cards tucked into binders, and saves them from the despair of dirt and mold. She returns them to their family, and gives the people effected by it hope to start their life over. She never once jokes at their expense, or teases them for their situation behind closed doors. After going through such a violent and unforgiving life, Sandra shows grace and humility, mixed in with grit and sarcasm I find comforting.

51cbsqw0cbl._sx331_bo1,204,203,200_Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.  If you’re looking for a strange, otherworldly novel, that expands into two more books, then the Southern Reach trilogy is for you.  A group of female scientists, ignoring the high mortality rate of the previous missions, travels into an area only known as “Area X” to research a strange phenomenon.  Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.  The narrator, the biologist of the group,  is a strange and difficult character to get a hold on. You don’t know her motives until they uncover themselves, slowly and methodically throughout the text. She seems driven by knowledge and the unknown alone, until it’s revealed that she had a husband who also went into the reach, but who came back strange and unrecognizable. I think one of my favorite parts of this character is that she’s not a broken record throughout the story. She doesn’t repeat over and over her need to find her husband in the Reach, if anything, she loses that goal almost immediately. Her goals become more abstract, her position as a narrator is unreliable at best, which makes her all the more interesting.

Some other books with strong female protagonists worth checking out: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell, Little Women by Louise May Alcott, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

More Than Oprah

Many people are aware that Oprah Winfrey is the richest black woman in America, with a net worth of more than 2.8 billion dollars (which still doesn’t put her in the top 10 richest American women). She is, however, in the top 10 richest self-made billionaire American woman – and the only African-American woman to make the cut. But long before Oprah, there was Sarah Breedlove.

Success Started Early

Breedlove was America’s first self-made female millionaire. Born in 1867, she was an orphan by the age of 7, a domestic by the age of ten, and married her way out at 14. After several marriages that ended in widowhood or divorce, in 1905 Breedlove began her own line of beauty and hair care products for African American women (under the name Madame C.J. Walker), many of whom were going bald because of the harsh lye soaps of the era. The need was great, her products worked, and she went on to become an American philanthropist.

To a degree. Marjorie Joyner was one of her employees. Marjorie became the first African American woman to be issued a patent – for the first machine to permanently wave hair (no Toni kits back then!). However, she never saw a dime for her creation – the royalties and rights went to Madame C.J. Walker! Next time you go to a salon or use a home perm kit, remember to think of Marjorie Joyner.

When we think of African-American women in history, we seem to get stuck on Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and Coretta Scott King, but they are just the very tip of the iceberg.

The Long Hard Climb for Recognition

It’s been a slow, hard climb for African-American women. While Hattie McDaniel won a Best-Supporting Actress Oscar for Gone With the Wind in 1939 (the first African American to do so), a Best Actress award didn’t come until Halle Berry won in 2001 for Monster’s Ball. That’s a long wait. While the first white woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was in 1909, the first African-American woman wasn’t until the great Toni Morrison won in 1993. Although actress Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame showed African-American women as educated members of space crews in 1966 (and gave television’s first interracial kiss), Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut, didn’t make it to space until 1992. To this day, African American women are disproportionately victims of more violent crimes than any other group of women – by more than double. While more African-American women are enrolled in college than any other group (9.7%), they make up only 8% of the workforce, and earn only 64¢ on the dollar compared to 78¢ for white women; 21% of African-American women live in poverty, compared to just 9% of white women. Only now, decades later, are we beginning to appreciate the remarkable contributions of African-American women in the fields of science and math, such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who helped launch NASA’s space program by doing the math in their heads.

Making Strides

While there is still so far to go in equalizing opportunities for minority women, the 21st century has shown remarkable gains, with not only Condoleeza Rice becoming National Security Advisor and then Secretary General under President Bush, but with Michelle Obama becoming the First Lady of the United States.  African-American women continue to enter politics, with record wins in 2018, including the first African-American women elected to Congress from Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. So grab a novel, a biography, a great DVD on the lives and achievements of African American women, and catch up on some of the great history you never learned about in school.

 

         

  

             

Authors Neal Stephenson & Emily St. John Mandel: Different Visions for the Future of Mankind

Today’s guest post is by Harold Kramer, our go-to sci-fi guy!

While his works are usually categorized as science fiction, author Neal Stephenson’s novels span many genres, since they interweave politics, religion, archaeology, philosophy, technology, computer programming, and cryptography.  His novels take place the past, present, and future and often include actual historical characters.  His early, innovative cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash was named one of Time magazine’s 100 best English-language novels.

My favorite Neal Stephenson book is Cryptonomicon.  It takes place during two distinct periods, World War II and 1997.  The main characters are from the same family, but they are from different generations.  It’s a novel for people who like science-based, thought-provoking, fiction.  The plot focuses on the British government’s efforts at code breaking during World War II. If you are familiar with the movie The Imitation Game, many of the real-life characters in that film appear in this work of fiction.

I recently read Stephenson’s latest novel Seveneves.  In this book, Earth becomes uninhabitable when an unidentified object strikes the moon that bursts into fragments.  These fragments eventually surround and smother the earth.  Humans survive by migrating to “space arks” where they must live for thousands of years.  Through various circumstances, political squabbles, and other unforeseen events, seven women, the seven Eves, are left to re-populate mankind. However, five thousand years later, humans have been discovered still living on earth resulting in complications between those who are earthbound and those who are space- bound.  While this topic has been covered by many other science fiction novels, Stephenson’s book has a unique perspective and it is based on hard scientific facts that make it stand out from the usual “earthlings migrate to space” novels.

Another dystopian novel, with a radically different point of view is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It  was a National Book Award Finalist and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award.  In this book, the earth is ravaged by a mysterious plague that wipes out much of mankind.  Earth has become a world with no technology – not even electricity.  The story focuses on a group of survivors who are musicians and actors and are called The Traveling Symphony.  They travel from town to town performing works of art from the past.  The book concerns their amazing journey and is full of colorful characters who end up at an abandoned airport called “The Museum.”  There is a villainous “prophet” who provides an interesting plot element.

Thanks to the readers who responded to my first blog post with some suggestions for authors worth considering.  I’m happy to mention Larry Niven, author of The Ringworld series, a classic work of science fiction and Anne McCaffrey, author of the Dragonriders Series and the first woman to win both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award. Let me know if you have more science fiction or fantasy authors worth noting.

 

Sci-Fi Favorites

Today’s guest post was written by Harold Kramer.

In this blog post, I’m going to discuss some of my favorite science fiction (sci-fi) books and authors.  If you are interested in sci-fi, a good place to find some of the best science fiction are the Hugo and Nebula Awards. These annual awards constitute a list of outstanding sci-fi literature and drama. They also provide an international platform that showcases both established and new sci-fi authors in a broad range of genres and sub-genres.

Contemporary sci-fi has split into many sub-genres, such as dystopia (think Red Rising), alien invasion  (like Ender’s Game),  cyberpunk (like Neuromancer), and sci-fi/fantasy (Dune, for example).  The common thread, that makes any literary or dramatic work science fiction, is that it deals with scientific topics such as life on other planets, space flight, time travel and life in the future.  In fact, the library has recently merged its sci-fi collection into the fiction collection since it is has become difficult to distinguish “regular” fiction from science fiction.

For starters, here are two of my favorite authors:

Jack McDevitt is a master writer of classic sci fi.  He has been compared to Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, two legendary sci-fi authors. He has been nominated for the Nebula Award sixteen times.  His two ongoing series of novels are the Alex Benedict series and the Academy or “Hutch” (Priscilla Hutchins) series.  Both series have definitive timelines, so you should really start at the beginning of each series. However, each novel can stand on its own.  My favorite Alex Benedict novels are Coming Home and Seeker. Seeker won the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novel.   Two of my other favorites are his first novel, The Hercules Text a story about mankind’s reaction to receiving an intelligent signal from space, and Omega, a Priscilla Hutchins novel about mysterious energy clouds in space. It was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2004.

Connie Willis is an American writer who has won more Hugo and Nebula awards than any other science fiction author ever.  My favorites books by her are her trilogy of time travel novels.  These include Doomsday Book that is an account of time travel to the 14th Century by a female heroine who is a historian from Oxford University sometime in the late 21st Century. It is moving story of human frailty and courage during a time of great devastation. It’s as much historical fiction as it is sci-fi.  Blackout and its sequel All Clear also feature female historians from Oxford University. These books are detailed, compelling novels about the courage of the British people during World War II.  These novels won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

Let me know about some of your favorite sci-fi authors and novels and I will feature them in future blogs.

This Year’s Best Crime Novels So Far

Today we are featuring a guest post by Cassie Peters:

Crime novels offer glimpses into the minds of those who choose to either take the law into their own hands or ignore it entirely. Through the author’s words, we are able to contemplate, observe, and judge the motivations that make the criminals tick. If learning about the underworld is within your literary interests, here are some of the best crime novels of 2018. Following a long tradition of crime-based literature, many of these novels are brilliant subversions of the well-known and popular genre. Get ready to take a harrowing leap into the minds of 2018’s fictional criminals.

The Outsider by Stephen King

Terry Maitland is a Little League coach, family man, and all-around beloved pillar of the community who was arrested for the mutilation and murder of a young boy. Honest cop Detective Ralph Anderson struggles with deciphering all available evidence for fear of convicting the wrong suspect, until his wife Jeannie asks all the right questions that leads the investigation to the truth. Meanwhile, time-warping details both obscure and provide glimpses into hidden, deeper truths. Stephen King’s The Outsider is a masterful twist on the classic crime genre. A smooth and effortless tale of modern day crime with just the right amount of noir, politics, and psychedelics. Not a lot of writers can so pleasurably disorient readers like King.


Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz

An orphan who at 12 was enrolled in a top-secret government training program for assassins escapes to become an unlikely vigilante in Hellbent. The novel is the latest in author Gregg Hurwitz’s international bestselling series of books in the Orphan X series. It’s a sordid look into the all-too-fragile lives that evolve on their own amid government motives and conspiracies. Crime and conspiracy take on a humanitarian form via bullet train-paced prose. 

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

What if Mary Poppins was a sociological suspense-thriller that didn’t hold anything back? There’s nothing mystical or magical about Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, but she manages to masterfully subvert expectations via her sublime prose. It’s no secret that the lives of the characters in the story are in danger, including young children.  The mystery is whether or not you’ll be able to make it through the slow simmer of how a wholly trustworthy figure can transition into a rationally irrational monster. Library Journal says, “What initially feels like routine, unremarkable women’s fiction morphs into a darkly propulsive nail-biter overlain with a vivid and piercing study of class tensions”.  Peppered with social realist truths amid subtle but constant mounting dread, The Perfect Nanny submits a poverty-stricken view of Paris that culminates in one of the most satisfyingly horrible endings yet.

Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner

FBI rookie Caitlin Hendrix is assigned to the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Unit to find a serial killer who leaves behind grisly clues. In this  dark, disturbing portrait of murder from the perspective of a career forensic psychologist, Agent Hendrix works with the FBI’s serial crime unit and a legendary FBI profiler to dissect the motivations behind a killer based on the available evidence. Into the Black Nowhere is a gripping novel that doubles as a crash course in sociology, critical thinking, crime research methodology, psychological testing, and criminal theory. Based on the exploits of the infamous Ted Bundy, Gardiner’s novel succeeds at a creating a realistic depiction of how serial killers function that is horrendous and unflinchingly educational at the same time. Don’t worry – you won’t need an actual degree in forensic psychology to enjoy this book. However, you should be prepared to learn a thing or two about the criminal mind – insights that might be too dark or true to be forgotten. Watch your step.

This feature post written for Cheshire Library Blog by Cassie Peters.