Best Books: Sci-Fi and Fantasy with Strong Female Characters and Political Themes

This list contains a few authors of science fiction and fantasy books whose work critiques while entertaining. Almost always political, these books are often feminist, and are, most importantly, well written. They have provided me with hours of relaxation and fascination as well as a relief from the dominance of hyper-masculine norms and the lack of believable female characters so often present in genre novels. Some use science fiction to demonstrate the constructed nature of our social world, creating planets and places with absent or exaggerated norms. Others provide a window into a primeval past and a way of re-imagining history. Many provide warnings and powerful critiques of society, power, and privilege.

 

Nicola GriffithCover of book Hild by Nicola Griffith

Griffith has authored books of multiple genre, her earliest being science fiction (Ammonite and Slow River), the middle period noir detective (The Blue Place, Stay, and Always), and her latest book a romp in medieval/fantasy  (Hild). All of her novels equally merit a read, depending exactly what it is you are looking for. Ammonite is science fiction at its purest, an examination of what a world of only women would be like, as a colonizing corporation sends its employees to the surface of a planet where a disease kills all men. The Blue Place, Stay, and Always feature 6-foot-tall Norwegian woman named Aud, who can and does kill men twice her size with her bare hands. These books are perhaps the darkest of Griffith’s work, examining the repercussions of violence and the roots of powerlessness, grief and love.

Hild was the first of Griffith’s books that I read, and is perhaps the best, especially for lovers of nerdy fantasy, but also for those who aren’t much interested in the genre. Hild, which is based upon true characters and events, is unique in examining what happens to women in the fantasy universe. The reader watches in horror as Hild survives a perilous position of power and importance as the king’s ‘seer’. Hild’s powers aren’t rooted in magic per say. Rather, she is an intelligent young woman whose mother has groomed her for this role from birth, starting with the fabrication of a commonly known prophecy, to understand the patterns of the events happening in the world around her. The reader follows Hild from childhood into marriage, seeing the horror of her first battle and watching her protect her people as the Butcher-Bird. When she is stuck waiting with the rest of the women as the climactic battle of the novel rages, we stay behind with her.

Griffith’s work is often included in lists of lesbian fiction, and Hild is best described as queer. Griffith’s characters are primarily women, and she lends a sense of humanity to them which is refreshing in a genre which too often focuses entirely on male experiences. For more about Hild, read this NPR book “With Nuanced Beauty, ‘Hild’ Destroys Myths of Medieval Womanhood”.

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Veronica Mars, the Movie: On the Losing End of the Class War

veronica mars movie veronica camera surveillance

For anyone who has escaped their hometown in search of success, watching the movie finale of Rob Thomas’s cult TV series Veronica Mars is bittersweet. Our favorite anti-heroine is back, black bag, leather jacket, dark eyeliner and all, and once again she is doing what only she can… saving her hometown of Neptune from a whole host of corruption and strife.

Veronica’s return to Neptune is a mixture of noir lighting, modern technology, and something like a cowboy coming home to find that his family had been murdered and his home burned to the ground while he was gone. Now he has to seek justice.

The always tech savvy Veronica is now living in a world where she’s not the only one carrying out surveillance. The movie has plenty to say about technology and our societal obsession with celebrity, addiction. Veronica herself describes the parallel between her compulsive need to fight crime and her mother’s alcoholism.

And as usual, Veronica pays the price for her decisions.  She loses a lucrative and high profile job opportunity, her sweet stable boyfriend Piz, choosing the constant struggle that is Neptune. “When the class war comes, Neptune will be ground zero,” she narrates. Neptune, it seems, is just the same as it ever has been. Weevil may be the most changed of his graduating class, but police corruption is as prevalent as ever, and they plant evidence on him that could ruin his idyllic new life. Bad boy Logan Echolls may have enrolled in the military and traded in his flashy SUV for a beemer, but he hasn’t lost his propensity for starting fistfights in defense of Veronica’s honor.

Veronica Mars is a movie that must necessarily be watched as what it is: the end of a series, funded by and written for its fans. And in this sense, it delivers. Veronica may be able to drink legally now, but you still get to see her sitting at the reception desk in her fathers’ office, waking up in Logan’s bed, as she did many times as a teen. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment is watching Weevil ride off with the motorcycle gang at the end of the movie, even after going straight to take care of his family.  The long-time fan may be satisfied to see that though we’ve all grown up, all is as it has been and always will be.

But this, in my opinion, is why the movie succeeds in closing off the series so well. In the end, Veronica’s personal growth and hard work can only take her so far before her compulsive need for justice takes over. The movie, and Veronica herself, asks the viewer to decide: can she ever win the fight? Will corruption and her own obsession keep destroying her and everyone around her as she remains Batman-like in her dark office, watching over the town of Neptune for people in need?

As Veronica herself says: “In what world do you get to leave the ring and declare victory?”

It seems safe to say that V will never pay off her student loans.

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Gender and class in HBO’s True Detective: Archetypal characters and childhood innocence

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About halfway through the season, a graphic sex scene filled the screen and my husband remarked “for a second I almost forgot this was on HBO.”

In True Detective, there are uncharacteristic periods of time in which the viewer can almost forget that this is a true-to-form take-advantage-of-our-lack-of-censorship HBO show filled with unnecessarily graphic soft-core porn-style sex and many, many naked women.

HBO has a confusing propensity for creating quality shows, which in many ways challenge gender and genre norms, and provide the viewer with complex story-lines and characters, then filling them with a fixation on the female form that often seems to come from the mind of an adolescent boy. This is also true of HBO’s series Game of Thrones, which makes many deviations from the books, some necessary, others seemingly for the sake of retaining male subscribers uninterested by the plot.

Sexuality, crime, class and innocence

Overall, True Detective‘s take on sexuality is disturbing, particularly the graphic footage of Marty having sex with Beth, a girl not much older than his own daughter who he encountered years before, working in a bordello when she was underage. This exchange leads to questions about Marty’s own hypocrisy (he previously beat two 18-year-old boys who were jailed after being caught about to have sex with his daughter, threatening them with statutory rape) and about the nature of childhood, age and sexuality. Unfortunately, these questions aren’t satisfactorily resolved, leaving Marty as a hypocritical creep.

The crimes in the show revolve around the violation of innocence, focusing on horrific sexual violence committed against children who have been ignored by society. It is an intensely classed look at the disappearance of children from ‘the bayou’ which has never been perceived as a pattern or even noticed, in part due to their parents’ lack of power, in part because they are an ignored segment of society, the rural underclass. This ranges from the young girl whose disappearance wasn’t pursued because she was ‘better off’ no longer living with her drug addict mother, to the sex worker, whose murder is seen as less important than the apparent ‘anti-Christian’ significance given to the crime scene.

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A Guide to Rome for Beer and Food Lovers

A little secret that the city of Rome is gestating is that craft beer is big here. Pubs selling quality brews and good food are popping up everywhere, and craft beer breweries are springing out of every corner to create beers which maintain the integrity of Italy’s reputation for good food and drink.

Below is a brief list of Italian brewers as well as best bars for craft beer and food in Rome. Because my expertise in limited, this post has been written in collaboration with Flavio “Tank” Spaducci, beer lover and strength trainer extraordinaire.

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Italian Craft Beer Breweries:

Birra del Borgo – Try My Antonia, an Imperial Pilsner created in collaboration with Dogfish Head.
Birrificio del DucatoMachete, a double IPA, comes complete with a picture of Machete himself on the bottle.
Birrificio Menaresta – The 2 di Picche is a Black IPA strong enough to merit its name, a slang term meaning to be rejected by a potential mate.
Operbacco10 e Lode is a Belgian Strong Ale with a chocolate-y flavor.
OlmaiaLa 9 is an amber double malt with citrus notes, which is unpasteurized, meaning that it retains the original flavor of the beer.

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Best Craft Beer Pubs in Rome:

La Tana
Via della Magliana Nuova, 362 (Magliana)
La Tana is off the beaten path, but by far the best of the craft beer bars in Rome. The five or six beers on tap are exclusively Italian, which are generally rotated on a daily basis. While some come from the larger brewers listed above, many originate from lesser-known micro-breweries, whose beers can be found at few to none other locations. The menu also changes based upon the season and the availability of fresh products. If you’re a meat eater, try the arrosticini. For vegetarians, there is always an assortment of cheeses and vegetarian pasta. To get to La Tana, you can grab a train towards Fiumicino and get off at Villa Bonelli. The pub is just around the corner from the station.

Luppolo 12
Via dei Marrucini 12 (San Lorenzo)
Luppolo 12 runs an American-style happy hour special where beers cost 3.50 instead of the usual 5 until 9.30 PM. On Tuesdays, this special runs all night long. There are 18 beers on tap from all over the world. The bar also does a special with one beer and a mini-tagliere for 5euros. This gets you a small platter with a mix of cheese, bread and meats along with a beer of your choice. Also notable for food is the foccaccia, a thick pizza which you can eat covered with cheese, ‘nduja, or lardo di colonata. If you’re feeling in the mood for something a bit stronger than beer, Luppolo 12 also has an excellent selection of whiskey.

Bir & Fud
Via Benedetta 23 (Trastevere)
Bir & Fud is a restaurant located just behind Piazza Trilussa. They stock both Italian and other European beers, and are famous for their thick chewy pizza crust made with natural yeast. Their buffalo mozzarella is also exceptional. They also have around 10 beers on tap, many Italian, as well as from other European brewers. The main drawback of Bir & Fud is that being a restaurant, and a very small one at that, you need a reservation, and these are often hard to get.

Honorable Mention: (also known as places we don’t frequent but have excellent selections of beer)
Buskers (San Paolo) – Owned by one of Rome’s craft beer pioneers, who often brings back strange and exciting unknown brews from his travels in Europe.
Open Baladin (Campo dei Fiori) – Pub created by Baladin Brewery, which is packed most of the time especially weekends.
Ma Che Siete Venuti a fa’ (Trastevere) – Roman slang for “why did you bother coming here?” The truth is, you came for the excellent selection of beer, but the place is so busy you may forget that while standing in line.

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Carnevalone Liberato di Poggio Mirteto

The city square was a sea of pig masks, pregnant nuns and demons wearing pope hats. the steps of the church, where the gate and door were barred tightly for the occasion, were crammed with young people swigging red wine from plastic water bottles, cigarettes dangling from their mouths.

The air filled with discordant music, as multiple bands played throughout the town. We made our way through the crowd, stopping to marvel at the couple dressed as two semi trucks with Jean-Claude van Damme doing the splits in the air between them, who surely would have won the costume contest if there had been one. Vendors sold fried foods: divine ciambelle alle patate, donuts made with potato flour, deep fried and sprinkled with sugar, and salty fried pizza. Along with our food we purchased water bottles filled with wine for 1.50 each. The wine left my lips numb after the first bottle.

As the day wore on, the already rowdy crowd slowly disintegrated. We were accosted by a drunken Jesus whose friend Jack Sparrow was trying to convince him to stop drinking and come home. To the beat of a man playing techno music on a set of pot and pans we made friends with a black orc with homemade chain mail, and whose pirate girlfriend told me he works as a bouncer. And finally, our friend Lorenzo arrived dressed as a Batman Lego and promptly went into battle with The Joker and his projectile cup of wine.

As the lines for the overflowing port-a-potties lengthened, the giant paper mâché moka pot in the center of the square was set on fire. The flames roared to the beat of unseen drums, and the crowd went primordial, dancing like cave beasts in circles around the flames.

Our return train was packed with people smoking and singing and three chimney-sweeps who had lost their Mary Poppins, one of whom was puking in the toilet. We watched in awe as the ticket inspector approached us, then lept from the train at the next stop, chased by the jeers of the passengers, none of whom had bothered to purchase tickets.

History of Carnevalone Liberato

Every year, the Sunday after Carnival has passed, Poggio Mirteto, a small town just over 60 kilometers from Rome, celebrates what is known as Carnevalone Liberato di Poggio Mirteto, roughly translated as the Free Carnival of Poggio Mirteto. Carnival (what we often refer to as Fat Tuesday in the US) marks the last day of debauchery before Lent begins, a period which, in the calendar of the church, demands that the faithful deny themselves earthly pleasures for the next 40 days, until Easter Sunday.

When the Free Carnival began, the Vatican was immensely powerful in Italy and in the world at large. Priests generally took the role of town leaders under the power of the Papa Re’, or Pope-King. On February 24, 1861, Poggio Mirteto revolted, declaring their independence from the Vatican. However, in the interest of regaining their connection with the rest of the world (they were promised a railway station for their good behavior) the town became integrated with the Italian state in 1929. As the story goes, their agreement stated that while they would take part in the rest of society, they would continue celebrating an anti-clerical version of carnival during Lent as a symbol of their disavowal of the Vatican.

Read more about the history of Carnevalone Liberato in Italian, English, or Spanish.

Read more about travel in Italy and Europe in general:

An Introduction to Cheap Travel in Europe

How to be a Perpetual Wanderer

Exploring Italy: Matera

Exploring Italy: Alberobello and Castel del Monte

The Truth About Being an “Expat”

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Best of TV: Female Characters

In honor of International Women’s Day, I bring to you my list of the best female characters on TV. Some of these women are tortured, others are badass, sweet, bookish and incredibly intelligent. The beautiful thing about all these characters is that they are complicated, complex, and while they each have weaknesses, they all find some way to overcome them.

Battlestar GalacticaKara Thrace or Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica.  Starbuck is a woman written into a fairly archetypal male character. She is reckless, insensitive, impulsive, and afraid of commitment. She is also the best pilot to survive what was nearly the destruction of the human race, and an alcoholic. Her character is strong physically but weak mentally, and while at moments we hate her, we can’t help but love her because she is so real you nearly expect to see her sitting across the table from you, cigar clenched in her jaw.

Best quote: “After they attacked, I never…I never pined over any of my old crap. Never missed my apartment in Delphi. Stupid view of the parking lot. Broken toilet in the bathroom. You know, everyone I know is fighting to get back what they had. And I’m fighting ’cause I don’t know how to do anything else.”

tumblr_mczgkpyvH21rf756co1_500Daria from Daria. Sarcastic, tortured and genuine, Daria is the teenage girl none of us ever really grew out of. She hates highschool, loves books, wears combat boots, and struggles (hilariously) to deal with love, friendship, and an obnoxiously popular little sister.

Best quote: “Why didn’t I stay home where it’s nice and quiet and nothing ever happens?”

3579523-willowmagicWillow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Willow is Buffy’s best friend, who eventually develops her own powers to rival Buffy’s sometimes obnoxious “Chosen One” shtick. Using her dedication to bookishness, Willow studies her way to the top of the witchcraft field to discover that she has an immense natural talent for it. When witchcraft becomes a metaphor for drug addiction, she is saved by her love for her childhood friend Xander.

Best quote: “Darn tootin’”

Dana-Scully-dana-scully-25310371-2560-1723Scully from The X-Files. Smashing any stereotypes about the irrationality of women, Scully is the pragmatic part of the Scully-Mulder duo. She’s also a damn good shot and a brilliant scientist.

Best quote: “Sometimes looking for extreme possibilities makes you blind to the probable explanation right in front of you.”

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Exploring Italy: Alberobello and Castel del Monte

Alberobello

After our Saturday day spent in Matera, we made our way to Alberobello bright and early on Sunday morning.

Alberobello is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it houses the world’s oldest known trulli, dating from the 14th century. These unique houses are made from limestone, using a prehistoric technique called drywall construction.

The drive from Matera was a little less than two hours, taking the back roads (called “statali”) rather than the highway. Along the way there I was thrilled to see field after field with stacked stone fences, most of which also contained a stone trullo.

In Alberobello we found parking just outside the trullo district of Monti, and paid an exorbitant fee for an hour of parking. Our stroll around the neighborhood to take pictures was enjoyable, but short, and we left the town before our parking meter ran out. Though Alberobello is certainly a unique and fascinating sight, it is also overtly commercial. While Matera was a lovely break from modern society, Alberobello bombarded us with junky tourist shops each hawking the same tired statues, magnets, and postcards.

We then made our way back north towards Castel del Monte. The drive was also full of rows upon rows of olive trees, the ground beneath them carpeted with thousands of beautiful yellow flowers. Along the sea and all the way to the castle, crumbling trulli dotted the fields we drove through, slowly losing their singular shapes and dissolving into mounds of stone.

Castel del Monte

 We were astonished to see Castel del Monte perching on a hill from a distance of nearly 10 kilometers, majestic, as the mysterious castle is surrounded by no walls to distract from the beauty of its perfect form. Historians are unsure of how and if the castle was ever used after its construction.

The castle was commissioned by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. The main body of the structure is an octagon, and it has eight octagonal towers. It is well recognized for the near perfection of its proportions, its use of Fibonnaci’s Golden Ratio, and it’s unique fusion of elements from classical antiquity, the Islamic Orient, and north European Cistercian Gothic.

Apart from the fascinating nature of the castle’s history, it is a spectacular site. Any fans of fantasy will be in awe of the structure, which looks like something that has been created based upon some sort of bizarre-o-world combination of Game of Thrones meets Jabba the Hutt’s palace.

Read more:

Exploring Italy: Matera

On Our Wedding and Our Honeymoon

An Introduction to Cheap Travel in Europe

How to be a Perpetual Wanderer Part 1

How to be a Perpetual Wanderer Part 2

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Exploring Italy: Matera

Matera in the Fog by Neon Anomaly Photography

Matera in the Fog

This past weekend, my husband and I took a trip to celebrate my 24th birthday. We visited Matera, Alberobello, and Castel del Monte in Basilicata and Puglia, on a two day, two night jam-packed road trip. Matera is a bit of an off-beat location, a weird destination in comparison to Italy’s more conventional offerings, but without a doubt, one of the most spectacular and unique sites the country has to offer.

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Our Itinerary

Matera has become a tourist destination thanks to its historical sassi district, where homes were built one on top of each other, in caves carved into the soft rock. It is also one of the world’s oldest towns, and has been inhabited without interruption since the Paleolithic era.

There are virtually no cars in the city center, so visitors spend their time winding their way up and town sloping stone pathways and tilting staircases. If you visit, prepare to be lost. No map can save you from the feeling that you have been dropped into the middle of an Escher drawing.

Matera at Night

Matera at Night

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On New Year Resolutions

Fry from Futurama new years eve

How to stop torturing yourself and have a really happy new year.

So, it’s that time again, and the Internet is filled with declarations about going to the gym, losing weight, quitting bad habits, etc. I’ve always hated this holiday because, lets face it, New Years Resolutions, and New Year’s Eve parties are basically designed to create disappointment because we superstitiously base the outcome of our entire new year on the success of one night and a silly resolution.

So as always, we will wrap up this year with raging parties and delightfully lazy nights watching the ball drop in Times Square.  Here in Italy, tradition dictates that you eat lentils in hopes of earning more money in the new year. You’re also supposed to wear red underwear, and in some parts of the country, people throw their old things out of the window.

The next two days even the most cynical seem inevitably pushed to reconsider our lives and to attempt to make them better.  Since it seems nearly unavoidable, I think New Year’s Eve is a great time to think about ways to make yourself happier in the upcoming year, rather than to make resolutions which are really just about guilt and self-hate.  So, these are my suggestions to make healthy changes in the coming year in order to actually make your life better.

Throw your old things out the window.  Ok, not literally, because in many  parts of the world, you’ll probably end up with some angry neighbors and law enforcement if you chuck an old TV from the 7th floor. But symbolically, the start of a new year is the right time to let go of old grudges and forgive, or at least forget, things and people that have caused you pain. There is no point in holding on to these things, as they only serve to make you unhappy, and if your vengeful spirit is just too strong, remember, happiness is the best revenge. Take a deep breath, breathe out, and let go.

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The Truth About Being an “Expat”

Why I love Rome and why some days, all I want is to run all the way home.

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Today has just been one of those days.  That’s what I tell myself while I’m crammed into public transport for hours on end fighting against giant bags, bony knees, and nasty groping man hands to try and keep myself and my belongings relatively safe and maybe even just a little bit comfortable.

Some days I feel like living in this city is to be constantly at war, an affair of elbows and glares thrown out when in need.  These are the days when not even the sight of the Coliseum can bring me out of my grumpy funk.  Not that, by the way, I managed to see it today.  No, today the primary attraction of my voyage was Rome’s central station, Termini.  Not exactly the most inspiring site by any means.

The thing is, just this morning, before my public transport-induced rage reached epic proportions, I was thinking about how, for all its frustration, I really love this city.  I came here from a smallish midwest town, thinking that all cities must be this way.  That’s not to say that I’d never been to Chicago, but my time in that city was mostly spent in aquariums, concerts, and museums, not living the daily life of a city dweller.

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