Posts Tagged ‘heroines’

For several years now, I’ve been following Jenny Williams’ work online – she runs the adorable Carrot Top Paper Shop on Etsy, and her Instagram account and newsletter are full of sweet literary goodness. She sells prints, mugs, bookmarks and stickers with quotes from our favorite heroines (real and fictional), and like me, she’s an Anne Shirley fan from way back.

I ordered Jenny’s literary heroines calendar for my kitchen wall this year, and I love the simple design: each month features a drawing of a beloved character, along with a banner naming one of her essential qualities. When I flipped the calendar to April this week, Fern Arable was looking back at me. The banner under her portrait says simply, “Compassionate.”

Fern is the (human) heroine of Charlotte’s Web (though we all know the real heroine is that wonderful spider). She saves Wilbur the piglet from certain death at the beginning of the book, and she cares for him until he’s sold to her uncle, at which point she still comes to visit him. She is tenderhearted and kind, and she’s the only human in the book who can understand animal conversation, at least for a while.

It strikes me that in this moment, we need a dose of Fern’s compassion: we are all doing our best to tend to ourselves and our people, while supporting the healthcare workers and others who are working to heal the sick. I am sure Jenny couldn’t have known what an apt heroine Fern would be for April, but I’m glad to have her face on my kitchen wall this month.

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strand bookstore cookbook shelves

Early December always leaves me breathless. But – thank goodness – there are the books. (Photo from my recent trip to the Strand.)

Here’s the latest roundup:

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, Abbi Waxman
I loved Waxman’s debut, The Garden of Small Beginnings. (I was ambivalent about her second novel, Other People’s Houses.) And I liked this, her third novel following introvert, bookseller and trivia whiz Nina Hill as she deals with various unexpected pieces of news. Really witty, though a lot of the characters felt two-dimensional. I liked seeing Lili and her daughters (from Small Beginnings) again. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9, 2019).

How to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, Samantha Ellis
In her thirties, Ellis began to wonder: did the literary heroines she’d loved as a child still have something to teach her? The answer, of course, is yes. I loved Ellis’ memoir of finding her way as a person and a writer, and revisiting characters like Sara Crewe, Scarlett O’Hara and others. Some are my heroines too (Anne Shirley!) and some are newer to me, like Lucy Honeychurch and Scheherazade. So much fun.

Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and his memoir traces his journey to public service and his experience in the mayor’s office. He’s a Harvard grad, a Navy reserve veteran, a data-driven geek and a warm, thoughtful writer. City government may not sound exciting, but I found his narrative so compelling and hopeful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 26).

The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory
Freelance writer Nikole Patterson is blindsided when her actor boyfriend proposes via the JumboTron at a Dodgers game – and he spells her name wrong! When Carlos and his sister rescue Nik from a camera crew, Carlos and Nik become friends and then something more. But what, exactly? A really fun romance with lots of tacos, cupcakes and women’s empowerment messages. The latter felt a bit heavy-handed, but I enjoyed the story – especially since I knew (and liked) Carlos from Guillory’s debut, The Wedding Date.

A Borrowing of Bones, Paula Munier
After a tour in Afghanistan where she lost her fiancé, Martinez, Mercy Carr has retreated to rural Vermont along with Martinez’s working dog, Elvis. When they find an adult skeleton and a baby girl (very much alive) in the woods, Mercy teams up with game warden Troy Warner to find the baby’s mother and the identity of the victim. A well-plotted, thoughtful mystery; first in a new series. Reminded me a bit of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries, which I adore.

Hope Never Dies, Andrew Shaffer
After the 2016 election, former VP Joe Biden is bored and restless. But when his favorite Amtrak conductor dies under suspicious circumstances, Biden and his old friend Barack Obama team up (with Obama’s requisite Secret Service escort) to solve the mystery. A fun, often witty bromance and a pretty good mystery. (I love the premise almost more than the execution.)

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
Conversations about race are often fraught, and Oluo, a black activist and writer, pulls no punches in this primer about how to talk and listen. It’s meant (mostly) for well-meaning white folks like me. Powerful and thought-provoking.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith. If you’re shopping for holiday gifts, please consider supporting indie bookstores – either in your community or by ordering from them online. 

What are you reading?

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In memory of Mary

mary tyler moore hat

A few years ago, soon after I moved to Boston, I fell completely in love with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I’d watched it occasionally in reruns as a child, but this time I checked the DVDs out from our library and savored every single episode. I love Lou Grant, Rhoda, Murray and the whole cast, but Mary Richards – sweet, spunky, hardworking, brave Mary – is my favorite.

I loved her chic wardrobe and cozy studio apartment. I laughed aloud at her eloquent facial expressions and quick wit. I cheered as she made her own way in a big city, forging a new career (as I was doing much the same thing). And I related in a deep and visceral way to the struggle between being a “nice girl,” staying true to yourself and your values, and standing up to sexism or other prejudices.

Mary belongs to my grandparents’ generation, and her show was popular in my parents’ youth. But much of what we’re fighting for, as women and as human beings, has not changed. (In the current political climate, this truth is coming home to me every single day.)

Mary Tyler Moore died this week, and I’ve been thinking about her – both the character I love and the actress who pushed television forward with her bold, funny, utterly real performance. She may have “turned the world on with her smile,” as the show’s theme song has it, but she also lit up the world with her courage, wit and grace.

Thank you, Mary. You made us laugh, you made us think and you made us brave. I think you made it after all.

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rilla of ingleside book tulips

I’ve been thinking about Rilla Blythe lately.

Rilla is Anne Shirley Blythe’s youngest daughter, the last of the six children who grew up at Ingleside in the golden years before World War I. In August 1914, she’s nearly fifteen: pretty, pampered, a little spoiled, but still sweet. She’s never had to do many disagreeable things, apart from the occasional household chore. But when war erupts in Europe, it upends her entire world.

Rilla of Ingleside is the story of how the women of Ingleside – Rilla, Anne, their faithful cook-housekeeper Susan, and Miss Oliver, the local schoolteacher – grit their way through the dark days of war. It’s one of the lesser-known Anne books, but it’s one of my favorites. I’ve read it a dozen times, and I love it so much.

As I make my way through both winter and the job hunt, a few lines from Rilla’s story keep coming back to me.

“I finished my sixth pair of socks today,” Rilla writes in her diary one evening. “With the first three I got Susan to set the heel for me. Then I thought that was a bit of shirking, so I learned to do it myself. I hate it – but I have done so many things I hate since 4th of August [when war was declared] that one more or less doesn’t make any difference.”

When war comes, both Susan and Rilla resolve, separately but with similar motivations, to be “as brave and heroic and unselfish” as they can be. Rilla’s declaration comes with italics and drama (she is fifteen, after all); Susan’s comes with a plain, old-fashioned sense of duty. They, and the entire village of Glen St. Mary, spend the next four years adjusting to new realities and, in the face of tragedy, simply doing what must be done.

They are no saints: they get frustrated, tired and worn down, and Rilla shares her troubles with the reader as she blows off steam in her diary. Even Miss Oliver says one day, in a rare moment of desperation, “There’s nothing heroic about me today. I’ve slumped.” But they always pick up courage and go on, helped in no small measure by letters from their boys at the front, and by one another.

I am in the middle of a few long, hard struggles, notably winter (we are now in the grit-your-teeth phase) and the continuing job hunt. I have to do a lot of things I’d rather not do, these days. But often, thinking about Rilla and her umpteen pairs of socks (and the many other tasks of wartime) helps me pluck up a bit of gumption to keep going. As she says to herself on a particularly difficult evening, “I must stay here and see things through.”

I’ve written often about how my fictional heroines keep me company or inspire me when things are rough. Do you have any fictional characters (or good words in general) that you draw on when you need wisdom or strength?

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Veronica Mars

veronica mars

Trust me to get excited about a TV show because of a book.

When Anne did a giveaway on her blog last month for Veronica Mars fans, I didn’t enter, because I hadn’t yet seen the show. But I’d already heard about the Kickstarter-funded VM movie, made possible by the show’s legions of fans. And when Anne said she’d enjoyed the first brand-new Veronica Mars mystery novel, I was definitely intrigued.

(Also, after finishing Call the Midwife, I needed a new show. And Valerie, my college friend who is a whiz at finding the good stuff on TV, is a longtime VM fan.)

When the show opens, Veronica is a high school junior in Neptune, California, “a town without a middle class.” As the daughter of sheriff Keith Mars and girlfriend of Duncan Kane, one of the coolest, richest guys in school, she used to enjoy a certain cachet. But when Veronica’s best friend Lilly Kane (Duncan’s sister) was brutally murdered, some of the evidence pointed to Lilly and Duncan’s father, a powerful software billionaire. Keith followed his conscience and accused Lilly’s father of being involved in his daughter’s death – thus losing both his job and his reputation. Keith’s alcoholic wife, Lianne, skipped town soon after that, and Veronica and her dad were left on their own.

Hardened by Lilly’s death and her subsequent shunning by nearly everyone at Neptune High, Veronica takes a job working for Keith in his new private investigation business. She helps with his cases, sometimes does her own sleuthing on the side – and is determined to find out who killed Lilly, and why.

With its film-noir overtones and deep, dark secrets (Neptune is full of people pretending everything is just fine when it’s not), Veronica Mars is grittier than some of the more lighthearted shows I love. But the mystery plots are compelling, the ensemble cast is fantastic, the snark is abundant, and the heroine is tough, smart, resourceful and determined to bring Lilly’s killer (and other criminals) to justice. Veronica is more pragmatic than high-minded – she’s not above playing dirty to get what she wants or exact revenge – but she’s ultimately on the side of the victim and the underdog.

Veronica likes to pretend she doesn’t need anyone else, but I love her friendship with basketball star Wallace Fennel (whom she rescues from public humiliation on his first day at Neptune High) and her occasional tender father-daughter exchanges with Keith. And Veronica’s uneasy friendship with Eli “Weevil” Navarro, the leader of a local biker gang, provides insight into the constant tensions of race and class in Neptune. I don’t think much of Veronica’s taste in boyfriends so far, but I’m curious to see whether that will change.

After binge-watching half a dozen episodes during my hibernation weekend, I blazed through the rest of season 1 and have now gotten the hubs hooked too. We’re midway through season 2, which is darker and more sordid than season 1, but Veronica is quickly becoming one of those heroines I’d follow to the ends of the earth.

Have you watched Veronica Mars – the show or the movie? What do you think?

(Image from Zap2it)

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For many years, it seemed to me that my favorite literary heroines inhabited their own universes, hardly ever running into real (read: historical) people, and only touching actual events peripherally. The American Girls books were carefully set in decades that didn’t quite touch each other (I always found it amusing that they all began in years ending with “4”), and though I adored Felicity, Kirsten, Samantha, Molly and Addy, it was highly unlikely that they’d ever cross paths, or even have been alive at the same time.

Some of the heroines I loved, like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne Shirley, were such sacred figures to me – such larger-than-life girls who were the center of their own universes – that I could never think of them together (though Laura and Anne were born around the same time and lived through many of the same world events). They simply lived in different worlds, bounded by different families, life stories and writing styles. And some characters’ place in history is rather vague – Nancy Drew, for example, has shifted back and forth in time over the years, and the Baby-Sitters Club girls, though resolutely contemporary, seemed to live in a sort of bubble in small-town Connecticut.

More recently, I’ve tried to mentally piece together a sort of timeline of heroines’ lives – and it blows my mind, frankly. Even if the stories are similar, it’s still difficult to think of Rilla Blythe as being just seven years younger than Betsy Ray – they were both young women at the time of the First World War, though Betsy was already married and Rilla was just a teenager. And across the ocean, Maisie Dobbs was serving as a nurse in France at the same time, while the women of Downton Abbey (I’m loving season 2 so far!) were learning that the war would change their lives forever.

I’ve read rather a lot of World War II fiction, since it looms large in the American consciousness, and it’s a little easier for me to connect Annemarie of Number the Stars to Patty Bergen of Summer of My German Soldier to Frankie Bard of The Postmistress and even Juliet of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. But still it seems that they all inhabit their own universes – touched, perhaps, by the same earthshaking events (which in turn have affected my own life, decades later). But mostly they still seem to live on parallel tracks, with no knowledge of one another.

Do you ever try to piece together a timeline of heroines, or think about how some characters lived differently (or similarly!) in the same period or decade? Does your reading of a book from a certain time period inform your understanding of other books from that era? Or does this just happen to me?

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She seems to be everywhere lately.

First she showed up on Sarah’s blog in a post about living alone (wherein we all reminisced about our carefree single-girl days or bemoaned the fact that we’d never had any). Then my friend Camille came to town, and after she’d quizzed Abi and me about our Boston lives over dinner at Panera, she exclaimed, “I’m so proud of you girls – living in the big city, and making it! Just like Mary Tyler Moore!” And then, Sarah proposed a challenge to make August feel a little more charming, and in the comments we started talking about how we feel like Mary – organized, on top of things (and impeccably dressed) – when we take care of the grown-up stuff.

Well, I can take a hint. Besides, it had been 15 or 20 years since I last caught episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in reruns on Nick at Nite. So I checked the first season out from our library. And I’m in love.

I’d never watched enough of the show to have any sense of the real storyline – so I’ve loved watching Mary’s career take off at WJM-TV and her new life in Minneapolis unfold. I do not now, nor have I ever, had any desire to live in the Twin Cities (too cold! Even colder than Boston!), but I admit I love her spacious apartment, with that big bay window and those comfy couches and that cool pull-down stained-glass shade thingy over the kitchen counter. I love her colorful, tailored, chic wardrobe (most of which would be in style today) – I think my husband is getting sick of me exclaiming, “I love her suit/jacket/dress/outfit!” every time we watch an episode together.

Most of all I love Mary’s repartee with her friends – her friendships with Rhoda and Phyllis strike me as direct ancestors of the relationships on my beloved Friends. I love the way she holds her own as (basically) the only woman in the WJM-TV newsroom, and how sarcastic Murray, narcissistic Ted and even gruff Lou Grant all come to adore her. And – of course – I admire Mary’s spunky, can-do spirit, whether it’s solving a work crisis or navigating an awkward first date or simply dealing with whatever crisis her friends have dreamed up.

You can never have too many heroines – and sweet, spirited Mary is becoming one of mine. On the days when life feels like a slog through the mundane, she reminds me that with a little spunk and ingenuity, I just might make it after all.

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