Looking for a Few Good Men

Are you female? Over 18? Then answer the following question: When I was a young girl, a book that inspired me was (fill in the blank).Chances are, you won't find that title in the new list of recommended reading by Kathleen Odean, Great Books for Girls: More than 600 Books to Inspire Today's Girls and Tomorrow's Women (Ballantine Books). Troubled when she couldn't find a reference guide directing her to a good children's book about sports and girls, Odean, a children's librarian, decided to compile her own list. She wanted works that show females who are bold, capable, adventurous, athletic and independent -- girls who play with bugs, get dirty, fix machines and fist fight. The Girl Who Wore Snakes definitely made the list; the old Nancy Drew series did not. Speaking at R.J. Julia's in Madison on Mar. 15, Odean admitted that many people are angry not to see their favorite works included. "Most of my own childhood favorites are not in here. Truthfully, if you go back and re-read some of those books, you'd be dismayed -- they won't be what you remember."But Odean doesn't reject our childhood favorites; she simply points out that it's important to present a counterpoint to the barrage of daily images re-enforcing negative gender stereotypes. "Children are constantly having the idea re-enforced that males are important, and females unimportant. Sesame Street features far more males than females in more active roles... [In] the popular toy, Leggos, almost all the human figures are male," writes Odean. (The Leggo conspiracy is, indeed, nefarious. Not a Christmas goes by that I don't think about the fact that Santa brought my brother Leggos while I got a tea set. He became an architect. I became a coffee drinker).Attendees at Odean's talk were encouraged to write down the title of a book that was influential in their own childhood; not many chose to participate. It's rather daunting, after all, to come up with a title you loved as a child and can be proud of as an adult. The author Amy Tan, for example, reportedly selected Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre!! Aren't we missing the point? Is that too-sweet, straight laced, overly humble, long suffering missionary the type of woman who will cure cancer, build a superconductor, run with wolves? I think not.Speaking of inspiring role models for young women: Katharine Graham. Writing a bestseller at 80 is the latest in a long life of accomplishments, but perhaps the most significant triumph is her unexpected transition from a pampered, shy, upper-class housewife into the successful and influential publisher of The Washington Post. Raised to excel at being a rich man's wife, Graham refused to let her life fall to pieces when her husband committed suicide. Instead, she took over the family paper and guided the daily through some of the most important events of the 20th-century...Manchester resident David Pesci, who minored in history at the University of Connecticut, has written Amistad (Marlowe & Company), a novel based on the Amistad rebellion (a story that is also currently being put to celluloid by Steven Spielberg). In 1839, led by a Mende rice farmer, 53 Africans conducted a successful rebellion on board the Amistad, a Spanish slave ship that was transporting the group for sale in Cuba. Reported as "black pirates," the Africans were intercepted by the U.S. Navy and taken to a port in New London. The subsequent trial created a national showcase for the abolitionists to tackle the pro-slavery leanings of the Van Buren administration. Unbelievably, the Africans were cleared of criminal charges and given their liberty to return home. Their long tenure in the New Haven jail during the trial brought out the best and worst of Connecticut, from racist, profiteering jailers to citizens who risked everything to see justice served. Pesci's work is strongest in its historical detail, including such forgotten historical footnotes and figures as Prudence Crandall, a woman drummed out of town after opening her prim and proper boarding school to young black girls. Characterization and dialogue occasionally descend to romantic swashbuckling: "Preposterous!" scorns the Spanish liaison. "This flaccid government of yours will be your ruin. You will never be a power in the world if you cannot impose the will of your leaders at home!" "We call it democracy," hotly retorts the American.Wow. That Spanish guy was way off. Forget the dialogue and focus instead on the novel's story and its connection to Connecticut history. Another author who also turns to the turmoil of history as the basis for a first novel is award-winning Canadian poet Anne Michaels. The book centers on Jakob Beer, a Polish-born Jew who, at age 7, loses his family to the Nazis. Escaping into the woods, he's rescued by Athos, a Greek geologist, who smuggles the boy into Greece. While waiting for the war to end, Athos inundates Jakob with a flood of knowledge, hoping to drown out the sorrow of his past. Eventually, Jakob must confront the horror of his childhood. Language provides the key for reconciliation: "When I began to write down the events of my childhood in a language foreign to their happening, it was a revelation. English could protect me; an alphabet without memory." The power of poetry will enable him to transcend the gap between the despair of the past and hope for the future: "I already knew the power of language to destroy, to omit, to obliterate. But poetry; the power of language to restore: this was what Athos was trying to teach me." Michaels dazzles with her ability to capture beauty and pain, love and hate, hope and despair, within a few graceful words. The novel reads like an extended poem, the words careful and fragile, yet the finished work is solid and strong.

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