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.

Board in the Library – Exploring the rise of tabletop gaming in 2018

When a friend asked me if I wanted to go to a board game cafe (The Board Room in Middletown CT) , I pictured three mind numbing hours of pictionary, or even worse, monopoly. I have a short attention span as it is, and pretending to be a tiny banker buying properties acrossboardgamesforadults-2x1-7452 the board and keeping track of piles of colorful money never really engaged me. In reality, I spent the next three hours curing diseases in Pandemic, creating train tracks that spread the globe in Ticket to Ride, and trading spices in Century: Spice Roads. I was floored that board games had evolved so much since I had played as a kid, the art was more engaging, the stories richer, and the play more involved. In the months following this revelation I’ve added over thirty board games to my list, and I’ve expanded my idea of what a board game can be.

Now how does this tie in to the library you ask? Well, board games have actually gained a large following in the library world, and both librarians and patrons are starting to take notice. Board games are one of the many tips-on-how-to-make-a-board-gameresources in a library that encourage community and collaboration. At a time when parents and educators are concerned about the rise in digital media and isolation, board games get people of different backgrounds engaging with each other across a table, solving problems, improving a number of practical skills, and having a good time. When you look at it that way, it’s no surprise that board games are a critical part of a libraries community, and a lifelong pursuit of learning.

If you’re new to board games, or like me, rediscovering your love of gaming, fear not. Here is a quick list of board games perfect for beginners.

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Ticket to Ride is a cross-country train adventure in which players collect and play matching train cards to claim railway routes connecting cities throughout North America. The longer the routes, the more points they earn.

 

  • Ticket To Ride suggests 2-5 players ages 8 and up with 45 minutes of play time.

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TsuroCreate your own journey with Tsuro: The Game of the Path! Place a tile and slide your stone along the path created, but take care. Other players’ paths can lead you in the wrong direction—or off the board entirely! Paths will cross and connect, and the choices you make affect all the journeys across the board. Find your way wisely and be the last player left on the board to win!

  • Tsuro suggests ages: 8+ , with 2-8 players, and up to 20 minutes of play time.

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Sushi Go! – Pass the sushi! In this fast-playing card game, the goal is to grab the best combination of sushi dishes as they whiz by. Score points for making the most maki rolls or for collecting a full set of sashimi. Dip your favorite nigiri in wasabi to triple its value. But be sure to leave room for dessert or else you’ll eat into your score! Gather the most points and consider yourself the sushi master!

  • Sushi Go! suggests ages 8+, with 2-5 players, and up to 15 minutes of play time.

Just like the rest of the library, board games are designed to challenge your current pattern of thinking and keep your brain young. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that playing board games was associated with a reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Board games are also great for those with anxiety as a way to step out and make new friends within a structured setting, allowing friendships to build over a collaborative goal. But, just like any other program in the library, it needs participants to thrive and grow.

Lucky for you, there’s a new board game club opening at the Cheshire Public Library this February! This club will be hosted on the first Thursday of the month, and each month will feature a new board game. Come and enjoy our freshly re-modeled third floor, have a hot chocolate and re connect with old friends, or make some new ones!

 

 

 

That Wild Wild West

Westerns are not my bag. They cover a very short piece of history (usually post-Civil War to the early 1900’s), they’re often trite, and too many of them bore me. You can run down a checklist for almost every one: Horse? Check. Damsel? Check. Angry Indian? Check. Sheriff?  Check. Big shootout? Check.

Clichéd

No doubt, much of my boredom has to do with Hollywood Westerns. Though I’ve never seen the entire Terror of Tiny Town, I’ve suffered a few westerns. I did like Tombstone, and the remake of True Grit, Young Guns, Maverick, and yes, I admit, I did enjoy The Lone Ranger – three times. Maybe I’m un-American, but I can’t stand John Wayne or his films, and while I was excited to watch High Noon (it was mentioned in the TV show M*A*S*H*, and actor Harry Morgan appeared in both), it was a terribly disappointing, tragically dull film to someone used to modern Hollywood. It turned me off from ever attempting My Darling Clementine or Shootout at the OK Corral. So while I can handle modern westerns, those old classic hallmarks aren’t found on my shelves.

Nor had I ever read a real “Western,” although a couple of Best-Western Literature lists include children’s books like the Little House on the Prairie series, as well as Old Yeller (you could probably throw in Young Pioneers, Caddie Woodlawn, Seven Alone, and the sequel to Old Yeller, Savage Sam), and those I loved just fine. If you read through twenty different lists of what’s considered the best of Old West literature, you’ll find ten books are on every list, so let’s call them the Best Westerns of Literature (not to be confused with Best Western, the hotel, or Western Lit as opposed to Asian):

The Virginian – Owen Wister
Hondo – Louis L’Amour
Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
True Grit – Charles Portis
All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
The Shootist – Glendon Swarthout
Riders of the Purple Sage – Zane Grey
The Time it Never Rained – Elmer Kelton
The Ox-Bow Incident – Walter Van Tildenberg Clark
Shane – Jack Schaefer

Fresh and Award-Winning

I could have lived the rest of my life just fine without Westerns, except for one thing: someone I knew was writing one. I’ve seen Howard Weinstein for many years at various conventions, attended some of his writing workshops, and we know each other at least in passing. Howard’s written more than 18 books, from science fiction to dog training to Mickey Mantle, and some 65 comic books. To make sure he got it right, he visited several of the places he wrote about, making sure he got the details, and over a year or more I listened to him talk about his work and read excerpts from it. It was interesting, but… It was a western.

Galloway’s Gamble was published last September, and now it’s won an award: The Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award for Best First Western Novel. So I had a quandary: support a fellow writer in his award-winning endeavor, or ignore his success on a project he loved dearly. I thought I’d done my duty by having the library order a copy, but I buckled down and opened my first western.

photo courtesy of Howard Weinstein

Galloway’s Gamble is the story of Jake and Jamey Galloway, two brothers who shift about aimlessly looking to find their purpose and not doing well at it. They join the Civil War too late, they miss marrying the girls they had their eyes on, they get taken by a cheating card shark, and horse-shy Jake just can’t manage to hang onto a hat. Yet, little by little, they take steps and missteps to change their fortune, and wind up trying to save their little Texas hometown from the villainous cattle baron Wilhelm Krieg and the corrupt banker Silas Atwood. 

As a western, I can’t judge Galloway’s Gamble, since I’ve read nothing to compare it to, but winning an award is pretty good sign. As a novel, you certainly don’t have to like westerns to enjoy it. The story of the Galloway brothers is a timeless tale of the little man against the powerful, with a cast of characters that never lets you walk away for long – you have to pick it back up and find out what happens. While the influence of films like Maverick is evident (which is not a bad thing), there isn’t an overwhelming number of bullets, horses, swaggering men in hats, and no cliché’d slang that could be a turn-off to the casual reader. Instead, you get a solid, interesting story that just happens to take place in the late 1800’s.

Give it a try. If you like it (and I’m sure you will), you might find some of the classic westerns to your liking, too. I think I’m going to go watch Maverick again.

Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Sister

Did you know that Sherlock Holmes has a younger sister? Me, either, until I encountered the amazing Enola Holmes.

Author Nancy Springer has written an intriguing children’s series about the exploits of Enola, a girl left on her own on her fourteenth birthday when her mother walks out of the house and disappears. Once her two much older older brothers Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes, learn what has happened, they decide that the best thing would be to place Enola into a boarding school.

The free-spirited Enola has other ideas. Her mother has left behind codes and clues, leading Enola to hidden stashes of money. Once she has enough, she slips away and travels on her own to London, where she turns her talents to becoming a perditorian, a finder of the lost. Having mastered the art of disguise, Enola manages to stay two steps ahead of Sherlock and Mycroft while solving crimes in London.

I confess, I love reading children’s books. This series in particular is entertaining for adults as well as kids because it is not over-simplified. Enola frequently uses terms such as “proboscis”  and “perditorian” and the solutions to the mysteries are not obvious. London’s social rules are humorously and sometimes  poignantly viewed through the eyes of Enola, who often is outraged at the restrictions society places on women. The darker, crueler side of London is also depicted in sobering scenes of poverty, filth, crime, and disease.

It was also announced this year that Millie Bobby Brown (of “Stranger Things” fame) will be starring in a film series based on the Enola Holmes series.

Kids will love the clever Enola, who can disguise her self so well, she often walks right past her two older brothers without them even recognizing her! Adults will delight in Enola’s interactions with her brother Sherlock, which are written with wit and humor. As a Sherlock Holmes fan, I greatly enjoyed this portrayal of the world’s most famous fictional detective. He genuinely cares for what he views as his wayward sister and comes to respect her intelligence and courage. He and Enola have some very amusing adventures before the ending of the series.

There are six titles in all, and I wish there were more. Highly recommended for all readers interested in mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, and Victorian London.

Isle of Dogs

I’m aware Studio Ghibli is a big deal, with assets worth more than 15 billion dollars, five Oscar nominations and a win to their name (2003, Spirited Away), and my kids love them, but I don’t much care for Japanese Anime, or Japanese animation in general. Steeped in the beauty of classic Disney and Warner Bros., I hate the minimalist design style of Pokemon, Power Rangers,  Howl’s Moving Castle, and others of that genre. So, when I started seeing previews for Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion animation set in Japan, I was really confused as to why I wanted to see it.

A Multi-cultural Film

In truth, it’s hard to call Isle of Dogs a Japanese film, no matter what it seems like it should be, based on content and style. It’s written and directed by American Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel, Fantastic Mr. Fox), co-produced by Germany, takes place in Japan, and contains a fair amount of Japanese conversation and several Japanese actors (including Yoko Ono, who mercifully does not sing). If anything, it’s an homage to Japanese films. The story takes place in the fictional city of Megasaki, where a dog flu has taken hold and there is worry it could transfer to humans. The corrupt Mayor banishes all dogs to Trash Island – starting with the dog of his ward, 12 year old Atari Kobayashi, despite the assurance of a scientist that he has a cure. Atari sets out immediately to get his dog back, and the story begins.

Incredible Animation

The draw for me was that the film is dependent on stop-motion animation, not any style of art. This is dolls come to life – the dogs were filmed with animatronic heads, giving a life-like range of facial movements. Characters have a living translucence that is often achieved with wax over porcelain, but here was done with special resins and computer programs to coordinate freckle movement. Having grown up on Art Clokey’s Gumby, and Davey and Goliath, the dominating force in claymation from the 1950’s through 1989, and all those Rankin-Bass Christmas specials such as Rudolph, claymation and stop-motion animation have a very fond place in my heart. The animation in Isle of Dogs is superb, right down to blowing fur, and watch for it come Oscar season. If you doubt it, just watch the sushi-making scene.

That’s fine, but what about the story? Giving Dogs a PG-13 rating seems harsh (especially when the highly controversial Show Dogs was given a PG) – there’s no sex, no major swearing, some mildly upsetting scenes of experimented dogs and threatening robots, implied violence but not graphic, but I would consider it appropriate for ages 9 and up – some of the themes could be upsetting to younger children (such as euthanasia, and a dog that starved to death). Overall, Isle of Dogs is a sweet, caring story about a boy who loves his dog and will go to any lengths to get him back. It’s endearing, heartwarming, cheer-worthy, with several good laughs – well-worth a movie admission price.

Controversy

Of course, nothing, nothing today is without controversy and because this is not an actual Japanese film, there was an outcry of cultural appropriation and insensitivity, that the culture is seen through American eyes and is more caricature than accurate. However, when shown to native Japanese, the reactions were positive.

Isle of Dogs was released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 17, 2018. Although it’s a wonderful animated film about a boy and his dog, it is not a sensitive-child’s movie. If you love animation, if you love rebellion, if you love dogs, be sure to give it a try.