"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shady ladies, free women, and bandit queens (book reviews)

Here are some great collections of true stories about women who threw off their fetters and lived in unconventional ways. These reviews are all pretty much as published in SLJ (School Library Journal--in the column highlighting books published for the mainstream market, but which could also be enjoyed by older teens reading at that level). Well, the first three were published; I don't think they took the last one - maybe it pushed the envelope a little too far...

Usually, I like to take advantage of the blogging format to expand my short SLJ reviews, but in this case I'll leave them more or less as they were, showing their appeal to teens as well as to their aunties. And another one that belongs here is Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World (2001) by Milbry Polk and Mary Tiegreen.  I reviewed that earlier, here. The other books in that post also include many interesting women's stories. 

Booty: Girl Pirates on the High Seas (2001) by Sara Lorimer (author) and Susan Synarski (illustrator)

Here are brief but colorful accounts of 12 women who terrorized sailors in waters throughout the world, from the ninth century to the 1930s. Subjects range from Alfhild, a Viking who roamed the Baltic and North Seas, to Lai Choi San of Macao, who was probably the original "Dragon Lady." Americans include perennial favorites Mary Read and Anne Bonny. 

Through these fascinating misfits, readers get a close-up view of many cultures and times, and each life is made vivid and memorable. Synarski's bold, quirky, color illustrations and a variety of eye-catching typefaces create the amusing impression of a demented picture book. One chapter includes a glossary and explains pirate arcana, which is highly interesting; but for students, the sketchy bibliography doesn't offer much practical guidance: many of the books listed would not be easily found, and some of these tales are more folklore than history in any case.

Pirates are not usually considered to be positive role models, and Lorimer's matey gusto and humorous slant might raise hackles in some quarters; but while her enthusiasm for her subject is contagious, the author does not gloss over the cruelties inflicted, and hardships endured, by these women. Booty offers some fresh perspectives on the past, and it should attract graphic-novel fans as well as the most reluctant of readers.


They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways, and Renegades (2002) by Barbara Holland

Deriving its title from the old rhyme,

   A whistling woman and a crowing hen
   Both will come to no good end 

this snappy book proves that whatever their ends, adventures of women who whistle in the face of convention can make for very entertaining reading. 

These true stories of some of history's "willful wildlings" include both the famous (Cleopatra) and the lesser-known (the religious pilgrim Alexandra David-Neel, who walked in disguise to Tibet) in a wide range of endeavors, from piracy to social reform. With the pace of a music video, the style of a gossip column, and the wit of a Molly Ivens, these stories should prove irresistible even to teens with short attention spans and a reluctance to read history. 

The breezy "Acknowledgments" page perhaps describes Holland's attitude best: "The author is greatly indebted to all those genuine biographers whose patient work she has shamelessly plundered." But though the style is sometimes irreverent, the content is well researched and the author's positions--particularly concerning the unreliability of historians throughout the ages--are solid and defensible. Holland owes much to feminist scholars, particularly in the chapter "Menswear," an excellent introduction to the political and cultural meanings of gender-defined clothing, and in her insightful comments on the malleability of history. 

Finally, Holland raises interesting questions about what would constitute "whistling" nowadays. It is doubtful that any teen who reads this book would again make the mistake of assuming history to be dull-or to think it is written in stone.


Shady Ladies: Nineteen Surprising and Rebellious American Women (2006) by Suzann Ledbetter

This romp through 19th-century American history touches upon the colorful lives and careers of women who are largely unfamiliar now. Most, however, were widely celebrated in their time, if not downright infamous. 

An artistically talented and sometimes delusional eccentric, wealthy Elizabeth Ney built her Xanadu in the wilds of Texas. Adah Isaacs Menken ("The Menken"), a gifted actress, cut a dash through the society of artists and poets while scandalizing and entertaining the public. Some of the women wrested a remarkable life from poverty, like the legendary dance-hall denizen known as "Silver Heels" and the famously voluptuous Sarah Bowman, who rose from camp follower to proprietor of a "full service hotel" for soldiers during the war with Mexico. 

As for better-remembered names, such as Ann Rutledge (Abraham Lincoln's mysterious lost love) and Margaret "Molly" Brown (of Leadville and Titanic fame), the author corrects misconceptions and provides details that make the women spring into focus for today's readers, while Lydia Pinkham, entrepreneur, and Fanny Fern, writer, are shown to be surprisingly modern figures. Filling out the collection, and adding welcome spice to history, are yet more gritty pioneers of medicine, photography, law, finance, and other fields and walks of life. 


Laws of the Bandit Queens: Words to Live by from 35 of Today's Most Revolutionary Women (2002) by Ali Smith

The author, a musician and photographer, takes as her inspiration Phoolan Devi, the low-caste Indian woman who survived extreme abuse in her youth to become an outlaw leader, folk hero, and after serving a term in prison, a member of Parliament (she was assassinated in 2001). Smith appreciates this bandit queen's "determined unwillingness to accept the oppression fostered by the norms of society," and presents here an amazingly diverse group of 35 women whom she also admires for their success in creating lives beyond the limits of convention.

Through arresting photographs, which catch her subjects in the moment and on the run, Smith takes the reader on a mad dash through a world of athletes, writers, musicians, activists, and other interesting achievers. She briefly introduces each, and asks for her best advice on how to live and succeed as a human being. The "laws" the women come up with range from Publisher Jane Pratt's focused "Another woman's success is a success for us all" to Musician Exene Cervvenka's anarchic "If I ever did manage to find a law to live by, I would break it." 

Women like Alice Walker, Freeda George Foreman, Sandra Bernhart, Geraldine Ferraro, Amy Sedaris, Waris Diri, and even a Guerilla Girl, come from many walks of life and share a similar diversity of perspective, and Smith splashes their vibrant and highly individual personalities all over these pages. But thanks to the unobtrusive flow of her presentation, the effect is not cacophony but a joyful chord.

Though some might feel uncomfortable with this unusual book's intensity, it should appeal strongly to many young readers, especially whose who are rich in talent and eager to get on with life. 

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