Books: 13 Badass Babes From Literature

normanrockwell-4When I decided to make a list of kick-ass female characters from literature, I wanted to use only characters from adult fiction. This proved to be more difficult than I thought. It’s fairly easy to find awesome female characters aimed at making young girls believe they can grow up to do or be anything. Katniss, Hermione, Violet Baudelaire – all of them are awesome and smart and feisty. But they are also all teenagers. Every list I found of “The Best Female Characters in Books” was full of YA or children’s characters. Aren’t there any cool female characters who are all grown up? Answering that question proved a little harder than I hoped. It made me angry that every literary female cited was under twenty.

Unfortunately the adult world of literature favors men. MEN have adventures. MEN fight dragons. MEN go to war. And MEN live full lives. Perhaps it’s because girls are encouraged to be active, seek adventure, and be daring. Women are encouraged to make babies and seek a husband. How dull. How sad. But I managed to put together a list of thirteen of the most badass ladies in literature despite the stereotypes. The only criteria: 1. It must be a book that I have read. Personally. 2. Must be a book aimed at adults.

  1. Jo March (Little Women) – Smart, impulsive, argumentative, tomboyish, and hot-tempered. Jo March loves life and wants to participate. Much like the author Louisa May Alcott, Jo was a rebel. She is forced to live a life that doesn’t suit her and soon yearns for more. She is a writer, and her main focus is writing. Not romantic love. Although she does have romance in her life, it isn’t what defines her. I love Jo. My good fellow. 
  2. Jane Eyre9780143106159She’s my favorite character of the Brontë universe. Throughout the novel Jane possesses a sense of self-worth and dignity.  She’s only a mouse, but underneath she is a tiger. Her integrity is tested over the course of the novel, and Jane must learn to balance the frequently conflicting aspects of herself. She’s self-reliant and never expects to be “rescued” from her circumstances. Jane Eyre has always been a hero of mine. A woman trying to find balance between her need for freedom and her yearning for love, and often voicing radical opinions on sex, gender, religion and social class. Bad. Ass.
  3. Elphaba Thropp (Wicked) – Even before this book became a hit musical with songs that annoy karaoke participants to this very day, I was singing its praises. Long before TV and movies got on board with the “new twist on classic tales” idea, Gregory Maguire had it nailed. He created a Wicked Witch of the West that was vulnerable, kind and funny. A true hero. She’s tough, smart, sassy and green. And like the song says, it’s not easy being green.
  4. Marian McAlpin (The Edible Woman) – Margaret Atwood tells the story of a young single woman who works for a market research company. Unable to foresee a fulfilling career, she begins to worry about her future and about what she might become. She soon realizes that her relationship with her boyfriend Peter is more serious than she would like. Yet when Peter proposes marriage, Marian accepts. A story I whole heartedly related to when I read it. Marian has an affair and develops one of the best eating disorders I’ve ever seen in print. A woman, like Emma Bovary in some ways, has to determine her own worth and her place in her own life.
  5. Miss Jane Marple – She’s not what you think of when you think of detective, but she’s one of the best. Long before Jessica Fletcher was out solving crimes, Miss Jane Marple was doing it better. A shrewd observer and a natural genius, Miss Marple proves herself a match for every murder she meets. Sure, I’m more of a Poirot fan, but even I have to give props to Agatha Christie’s tour de force, Miss Marple. A cheerful person who always expects the worst. How can you not love her?
  6. Scarlet O’Hara – A dark-haired, green-eyed, spoiled brat of a beauty takes center stage in this novel of the south. screen-shot-2013-06-29-at-4-32-01-pmShe’s not nice. And that is exactly what I like about her. Scarlet gets shit done. And if you are in her way, good luck to you. She proved to be strong, smart, and even a shrewd business woman who always gets what she wants. She embodies the old and new south, and struggles with those ideas internally. She adapts to what life throws at her and doesn’t just survive. She thrives.
  7. Mildred Pierce – At first glance, Mildred Pierce is a dumb woman who lets people manipulate her. But that’s not all Mildred Pierce is. The story takes place right after the depression in Southern California, and Mildred finds herself needing to work for the first time ever. Her spoiled daughter is embarrassed of her. Her best friend tells her to use her femininity to her advantage, use men for what she can get out of them. But Mildred instead chooses to start her own business, earn her own money and take control of her own life. Bad. Ass.
  8. Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights) – All that we know of Catherine is second-hand, filtered through diaries and memories. 2c0ad9efeee96800985915d822546939She is a literal ghost at the opening of the novel. She is a woman torn between two loves and two worlds – Edgar and Heathcliff. Her choice of husband is the turning point of the novel, and when the nastiness begins. She manages to become a “lady” – a snobby brat who gets her way – but underneath is still that strong, wild woman who wants love and freedom. She’s a ghost for the majority of the novel. That says something about the strength of her character.
  9. Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter) – A is for Adultery. The heroine of The Scarlet Letter is ostracised in 17th-century Boston for giving birth to a daughter out-of-wedlock. This story shines a bright light into the world of suffocating American puritanism that still exists today.  Hester endures shame and scorn for a situation she could hardly control, and a situation she was not alone in. It takes two to tango, ya know. Hester was forced to marry an old man and while waiting for him in to come to Massachusetts, she meets a charismatic minister and has an affair with him. I wonder who gets punished for that one? I’ll give you a hint, it ain’t the minister. Hester is an independent woman, and a free-thinker in a time when none of that was okay to do. If you were a woman.
  10. Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) – A poor orphan of low birth, Becky Sharp is a born hustler and social climber who manages to raise herself to the upper limits of high society and wealth. Evil doer or misunderstood woman ahead of her time? 20111017071648-vanity_fair_coverThackeray never actually reveals whether she is guilty or innocent of the crimes that cause her reputation’s crash. Sure, she is constantly stealing from her creditors, allowing Rowden’s gambling to disrupt her friendships, and pulling con jobs, but somehow the narrator makes these sound comical rather than evil. I feel like Becky only committed crimes of circumstance or survival. Any woman in her place would do the same thing. Okay, she’s not the best mom in the world, but not every woman wants a child. And I don’t think Becky wanted to be a mother.
  11. Claire Fraser (Outlander series) – She’s a no-nonsense nurse and all around badass. Oh, and she also time travels. Cool, right? I read the Outlander series back in 1992, and I’ve been recommending them ever since. See, she’s married to a guy in the 20th century, but meets an even hotter guy when she is transported back to the 18th century. Claire has a quick tongue, a hot temper and she’s smart. Sure she gets into trouble, but watching her get out of trouble is half the fun. It was the first time I had read a book where a woman was having the adventure, time traveling, and making decisions that changed the course of the story. And history.
  12. Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) – Okay, she might be a sociopath, but given the circumstances of the novel, I feel alright with that. She’s a feisty, world-class computer hacker with a photographic memory, and she’s also the survivor of an abusive childhood. That’s why she’s anti-social. And why she has just a teeny, tiny violent streak. If you fuck with Lisbeth Salander, you better be a fast runner.
  13. Auntie Mame (Auntie Mame) – This is the story of a ten year-old boy who is sent to live with his zany aunt. And before I go any further, I want to state that I think the world needs more zany aunts. 1549471_10152037290632496_1516082930_nAuntie Mame is a worldly, hilarious, irrepressible, adoring, easily distracted, and all around awesome guardian of her little nephew Patrick. Mame’s life is filled with parties, travel, bathtub gin, caviar, Broadway stars and Indian mystics. The perfect environment for raising a well-rounded kid. No. Seriously. Mame believes in trying things, thumbing your nose at convention, taking roads less traveled because they’re bound to be more interesting, and being yourself no matter what the assholes of the world think of you. These are valuable lessons to learn at any age. My life motto is from this book: “Life is a banquet” she says, “and most poor suckers are starving to death.” (The picture here is my vey own first edition of “Around the World with Auntie Mame”)

Books That Made a Difference

owenmeanyI love Oprah Magazine. I love it because where other magazines devote a small corner of a single page to books, Oprah devotes pages to books. Pages, that’s plural. The reviews are well thought out and written by actual readers. And, they are about real books – not the grocery store schlock other magazines feature in their “must read” sections. The magazine also gets celebrities to share books that made a difference to them. Folks from John Cusack to Amy Poehler to Colin Firth list five or six books that stayed with them, or made a difference in their life somehow. I am an avid reader, and I am always on the lookout for new material, so reading about other people’s favorite books is right up my alley. And c’mon… it’s fun knowing that you have the same favorite book as Kazuo Ishiguro.

Here are the books that have made a difference in my life. So far…

  1. A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving – I have been giving this book as a gift since I read it in high school. I adore this book. When I finished it I held it close to my body and sat there with it. I was sad it was over. It was one of the first times I remember really feeling loss at the end of a novel. From there I went on to read everything in Mr. Irving’s cannon and have not really been disappointed. He is a gifted writer. This is far and away his best work. Or at least one of them. It tells the story of a little boy (literally, little) who has a mouse like voice and who thinks he is the voice of god. Maybe he is. But you’ll have to read it to find out. Like all of Irving’s books, it’s filled with crazy characters, big moments, big laughs and small victories.
  2. The Omnivore’s Dilemma By Michael Pollan – 200px-OmnivoresDilemma_fullThis book changed the way I eat food, shop for food, and think about food. It is a well written, thoughtful and funny book. The author sets out to find the origin of his meals and quickly notices that it will be a lot harder than just going to the grocery store. The book covers three avenues of eating: fast food, cooking at home, and growing organic food. He doesn’t take sides and he covers every side. Fairly. If you haven’t read this book yet, put it on your list. It is a must read. It’s one of those books that has so much truth in it that you can’t not be changed by it.
  3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being By Milan Kunderathe_unbearable_lightness_of_being.large Little did I know when I read this book by the famous Czech author that I would one day live in his city. I have very distinct memories of reading this book. I was doing a show in college (I used to do live theater back in the day!) and my part was small. Really small. Like I had a scene … and that was it until act two. But that was fine with me because I had this book. I remember running down to the make-up room and grabbing my book. The book about two men, two women and a dog. And their lives during the Prague Spring. It influenced me more than I can say.
  4. The Man Who Quit Money By Mark Sundeensundeen-the_man_who_quit_moneyThis book is sitting next to me as I write this just waiting to be finished. I plan on devoting an entire post to it once I wrap my brain around it. The gist is this: One man gave up money and has lived free of it for the past thirteen years. He doesn’t take donations or beg and he isn’t crazy. He just doesn’t believe that money is worth what the rest of society says it is.  He hasn’t earned, spent or taken a single dollar in thirteen years. Reading this book was a revelation for me. It was the first time I ever felt validated in my thoughts on work, spirituality, and money. It was the first time I felt proud of my life philosophy rather than scared and ashamed. I don’t place much value on money or the things that you can buy with it, and this book explains the reasons why I feel that way far more elegantly than I ever could. I don’t know if I could ever live the way Daniel Suelo does, or to the extent he does, but I am sure going to try.
  5. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World By Haruki Murakami – WonderlandEndWorldIt was really difficult for me to choose which one of Murakami’s wonderful novels to include here, so I decided to go with the first one I read. The book is one part detective novel, one part sci/fi novel and all parts Murakami. That means that time and space don’t mean what you think they mean. It means that you will meet some very interesting characters, and that you will most likely read beautiful paragraphs about food and music that will leave you wanting more. This book has shadowy creatures, sewers that hold secrets, libraries and much, much more. If you have never read Murakami, this book will give you a crash course. When I finished this book I went to the bookstore and brought home the next one. I haven’t quit reading him since. I adore him and his beautiful mind.

Also: Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, My Life in France by Julia Child, Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn, Lisey’s Story by Stephen King, and The BFG by Roald Dahl

(Partial) Year End Book Round Up – 2012

Yep, it’s that time of year again. Time for me to look back on a year of books and tell you what was good, what was not so good and hopefully what was outstanding. I usually do this as a month by month list, but I didn’t keep track very well this year. So, here is my list of books read from October 2011 – October 2012. It’s short. Sorry. I’ll try harder.(I am currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” and with just under 100 pages to go, it is getting a huge recommendation from me. It’s funny, warm, and very well written. I also re-read “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and loved it just as much the 4th time around. Like I said, I didn’t keep track very well this year so this is an incomplete list. When I remember more titles, i will add them. Promise.)

11/22/63 & “Under the Dome by Stephen King – I read these two huge books back to back, and that was probably not the best idea. Stephen King is a great story-teller, but I should have taken a break after 11/22/63. It was a fun ride and I enjoyed seeing the 60’s through his eyes. Mr. King has a knack for description, and I felt like he understood what Texas is like, even before I moved here! “Under the Dome” was great as well, but I struggled to finish it. I don’t particularly fault the book for that since I read it as I was moving to a new country and getting settled. And reading two 1000 page books by the same author back to back might have done me in.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” by John Le CarreDon’t try to read this book on the bus. Seriously. I felt like I needed to be in an isolated room with zero distractions to keep track of the characters, the timeline and everything else in this novel. But you know what? I still enjoyed it! I was confused until the end, but I liked it. I even watched the movie, but it just confused me more. And then my fella read it… and he was confused too so I didn’t feel so bad. Fans of thrillers will enjoy this.

City of Thieves” by David Benioff – Those of you who watch “Game of Thrones” might recognise the author. He is the brains behind the biggest TV show currently on television. But before he started making millions in television he was a writer. And he wrote this lovely little book. It follows two young men and their search for eggs in WWII. It’s a black comedy mixed with a history lesson and a coming of age story. I loved it. It moved fast and was enjoyable from start to finish.

The Gravediggers Daughter” by Joyce Carol Oates – Yes, I read a Joyce Carol Oates book at least once a year. She is that good, and that prolific. I haven’t even put a dent in her over 36 published novels, and I have read at least ten of them. I enjoyed this book. It was based on Oates grandmother who was an immigrant to America. Like most of her novels, this one spans decades, has a lot of violence, and has a suicide or two. Although it sounds super depressing, it isn’t. I felt up lifted, and a little sad when I finished. I just wanted more.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” & “Thunderstruck” by Erik LarsonI love everything this man writes. I think I have said that before. Anyway, these two books don’t disappoint. The first tells the story of the American Ambassador to Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. He takes his entire family with him, introduces them to Hitler, high-ranking SS officials, and heads of state all the while watching the world begin to collapse. The best part is, it is all true. Some of it is so unbelievable it could have come straight from a Lifetime TV movie. Love, sex, violence, power set against the back drop of the Third Reich – it’s all in there. And Hitler. The second, “Thunderstruck” takes the true story of Marconi and his conquering of the world, and a murderer named Crippen that you secretly root for and intertwines them. Again, every gruesome detail is true. Read his books people. They will amaze you.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke – I have been trying to read this book for years. I bought it way back when I worked at Vroman’s and never got around to reading it until now. Boy did I wait too long! Not to sound like a grandmother but what an enchanting, lovely and graceful little book! Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t little by any means. It is a total commitment at 900something pages, and a quarter of those pages are full of detailed footnotes. But the pay off is huge. It has magicians in old-timey  England. It has ghosts and mischievous spirits. It even has damsels in distress. It is just really fun.

Middlesex” by Jeffery Eugenides – Loved it. I know, every one loves it. Well, some books are just awesome and this is one of them. If you think growing up was hard for YOU, then just you wait. This book won the Pulitzer prize for literature  for good reason – it is outstanding. It is a family story spanning generations and laced with wit and history. Some find the story ponderous, but I quite enjoyed the story of the grandparents and how it applied to the main character Cal. It takes place in Greece, Chicago and covers growing up, being poor, being middle class and being human. It is a great book.

Everything Matters!” by Ron Currie Jr What would you do if you were born knowing the exact date life on earth would end, and exactly how it would end? That is the crucial question of this book. My former roomie lent me this book and I had mixed feelings about it as I was reading it. It wasn’t until I was finished that I decided that I liked it. I liked the ideas presented in the book, and the narration. I didn’t have a whole lot of sympathy for the main character, but I did like his dad. I didn’t like how it wrapped up, but it was minor enough to not make me hate the book. My roomie loved it, I liked it and my fella hated it. So… there you go.

10 Best Summer Reads

Just about every blog out there has a Summer Reading list – the best books of the year to companion you through the dog days of summer. While it’s a good idea, it’s not really feasible for me to do. Why? Well, out here in the land that time forgot (The Czech Republic) it isn’t really easy to get your hands on the newest literature in english. I used to work at a little independent bookstore here in Prague that has since closed, and that was the best bet. Sure you can find books in english here, but usually just best sellers and crap lit like “The Twilight Saga”. You would be shocked and amazed at the amount of crappy female detective novels (V.I Warshawski, Alexander McCall Smith) females consume thinking they are reading good “literature”. Anyway, when I see all of these enticing lists full of books that I can’t get my hands on immediately, I get upset. And sad. I wanna read new books too!

And please don’t tell me to just get an e-reader. I think e-readers suck. I don’t care how “easy” it is, or how fast I can download it. Honestly, how fucking hard is it to open a real book? How much easier does a thing need to be? I digress. It’s simple: I like books. I like the smell. I like flipping pages. I like to feel the print on the page. I like finding used books with writing in it. Why would I want to replace all of those tactile joys with a fucking computer? Oh, right. that would mean that I like ads every time I open my um, flap jacket that thinks it’s a book cover. That would mean I like “people” tracking what I read, how fast I read, and if I finish my books. Lame sauce. That’s right, lame sauce. And if I see you with one I reserve the right to call you that.

ANYHOO… That’s why this particular summer reading list is a little different. This list contains books that take place in summer months or just feel summery. I don’t know. They are good books that you can buy and read and I suggest you check them out. I tried to put some different books in here. And please note – for the first time ever there is no Murakami on the list. You should have already read him by now. The end.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Duh. A classic any way you slice it. Read it again.

2.  A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving – I know, I have put this book on so many lists! But it is that great. This book contains an armadillo, a live changing summer baseball game, a boy who believes he is an instrument of god, and just about the best Christmas pageant scene ever put on paper.

3.  Under the Dome by Stephen KingI am smack dab in the middle of this mammoth of a book. If “summer reading” for you means a big, huge adventure involving a mystery and a murder or two, then this is the book for you. Stephen King is pretty awesome and so far this book doesn’t disappoint.

4. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – Maybe fiction and sci-fi aren’t your thing. Maybe you like real life drama. If that is the case look no further than Erik Larson. I have read all of his books and they are all wonderful. He makes non-fiction feel like a story. It’s awesome. I picked my favorite of his books. The tag line for the book is “Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America”How could you NOT want to read it? And the serial killer? Well, you couldn’t make this kind of crazy up.

5. The Beach by Alex Garland – Backpackers, beaches, hostels… what more do you need in a summer read? Don’t judge this book by the movie because the book is much better. It’s a quick fun read.

6. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan – Don’t worry. I am not trying to force you to become a vegetarian. That’s not really what this book is about. This book is one mans journey to discover where his food actually comes from. He tackles the issue from four different angles: Industrial, Organic, and food we forage or kill ourselves. It is a really interesting book that will make you think the next time you want to buy food at a big chain store or a Burger King.

7. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann – Sex. Drugs. Hollywood. It’s all in there and it’s all pretty damned good. You want a beach read? Then grab a copy of this classic. The book is full of helpful life hints like, “A man must feel he runs things, but as long as you control yourself, you control him.” Hmm. Good to know! or how about this one, “When you’re climbing Mount Everest, nothing is easy. You just take one step at a time, never look back and always keep your eyes glued to the top.” See? This book helps you climb mountains.

8. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell – This book isn’t really a “summer” book, but I read it a few summers ago and loved it, so it makes the list. The book is composed of thirteen chapters, each one month in the protagonists life. He is a 13-year old boy named Jason Taylor and he deals with life and loss, and peer pressure and coming into his own. The book takes place in 1982 and manages to stay fresh. Each chapter almost reads like its own short story.

9. The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz – This is another book I just couldn’t stop talking about after I read it. What a treat! The story is about Oscar – a fat kid from the Dominican Republic who dreams of growing up to be the next Tolkien and falling in love. You can’t help but love Oscar. He lives in New Jersey with his old school mom and his kind of mean sister. This is a good one!

10. The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates – I don’t think a summer has gone by without me reaching for a Joyce Carol Oates book. Her books are epic, heartbreaking and thought-provoking. And the woman is prolific, I haven’t even come close to reading everything of hers and I have read a lot! So, I went with “The Falls”. I don’t know if it is my favorite, or even the best but it is awesome.  She is amazing at telling stories that span decades, like this one. It starts off on an ill-fated Honeymoon that leaves our heroine a widow. The rest of the story involves her life, loves, the Love Canal case and environmental issues that nobody really thought about in the 50’s and 60’s.

*****BONUS BOOK!****  

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber – This one is for all you sheep ladies out there who think 50 Shades of Grey is something new and awesome, or even well written. It ain’t. Try THIS one is you like smut, sex, romance, forbidden love and all that stuff that comes with it. This book is HOT, gritty, well-written and lot’s of fun to read.

My Top 5 Overrated Books

I am an avid reader. I have enjoyed reading ever since I read “Green Eggs and Ham” and wanted to punch “Sam I Am” in the nose for pestering me to eat funny colored eggs. I love books of all shapes, sizes and genres. I like classics, I like modern fiction, I like non-fiction, I like poetry, and I like biographies. I always say, I just like books that are well written. And just because something is popular doesn’t mean it was well written. Just look at “50 Shades of Grey” which is one of the most trite, grocery store level, waste of time I have seen this year. I would get more out of reading Penthouse Forum.

This list focuses on some popular books, even some classics that I think are highly overrated for one reason or another. PS – I had a very difficult time just sticking to 5 books, but I managed.

  1. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – I didn’t hate this book, but I wasnt over the moon for it either. It was an easy read with an easy message. It fictionalized Afghan culture and made it easy to swallow for us Westerners. I read it and found it just… eh. 
  2. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – Ayn Rand is a divisive person to start with; you either agree with her or you don’t. But her “masterpiece” is just a slow-paced bummer of a book that lacks good writing. This book is a transparent political ideology in the form of fiction. Although a lot of people like it, that doesn’t make it a well written piece of literature. 
  3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – Ugh. Is there anything worse than the teen angst of an unlikable teen? I think not. Although this book is touted far and near as one of the greatest novels ever written, I have to disagree. I know you probably loved it when you were 16, but have you tried to read it as an adult? Go ahead and see what happens. I hated this in high school. I thought Holden was depressing and whiney – not attractive. I would recommend reading “Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters” instead, or even a great little book called “King Dork” by Frank Portman. It is a modern-day book about being forced to read Catcher in school. I laughed. A lot. 
  4. The Help by Kathryn Stockett – When I was reading this book I kept waiting for something to happen. This is another easy read with a message. A lot of people loved this book, but I found it to be pretty basic. It read like a screenplay… a bad screenplay. After the white woman saves the day you are just left with an uneasy feeling and left to wonder why you wasted your time. 
  5. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov – I know this won’t be a popular opinion but I am going to stick to it anyway. I think this book is very overrated. I get it – it is a satire, but I still didn’t think it was “all that”. I understood all of it. I got the “good versus evil” themes but something about the book just seemed way overwritten. Again, I know my opinion isn’t going to be popular, but I don’t care. All this book did for me was lull me to sleep every time I picked it up.