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Check It Out

Courier Article by Lucy Clem
Sunday, March 21, 2005

Women's Lives Have Lessons For All

A friend who had a summer job in an ice cream store once told me that after a couple of months she was tired of even the exotic flavors and thereafter was always able to pass up frozen desserts. Working in a library seems to have the opposite effect. The more books I read, the more I want. This month, I've chosen some recent releases that excited me, and it turns out that all four are about various stages of the lives of women. "Oh, boy," you may be thinking, "more women's issues. I'll pass, thanks." But wait—take a look at The Only Life That Mattered: the Short and Merry Lives of Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Calico Jack Rackham by James Nelson (McBooks Press, 2004). Think "Pirates of the Caribbean" with girls. Anne and Mary are historical figures, the only documented case of two female pirates sailing together. This fictional account of their lives begins with Mary, who has been passing as a man and making her living as a soldier for many years. She marries her tentmate and they live happily as innkeepers until he dies. Bereft, she joins the English Navy. Meanwhile, pretty and spoiled teenager Anne marries a dolt to spite her father and then ditches him for the glamorous but cowardly Calico Jack. She dons men's clothing and fights side by side with him as they ply the "sweet trade" on the sea. When they capture Mary's ship and take her prisoner, the two women quickly find each other, join forces, and continue to sail with Jack under the skull and crossbones for a thrilling and doomed adventure.

Set in recent Britain, The Family Tree by Carol Cadwalladr (Dutton, 2004) is superficially more refined than a pirate tale. As cultural researcher Rebecca Monroe tells the story of her family, present and past, a different sort of conflict is uncovered. While considering whether or not to have a child, she details the events leading up to her mother's suicide and uncovers her grandmother's biracial romance with Cecil, a Jamaican immigrant. As Alistair the geneticist husband studies her freakish background (her grandparents were first cousins and her mother was bipolar), Rebecca begins to doubt that biology alone determines our destinies. Told with wit and humor, this is a look at a lovable and dysfunctional family.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, 2005) is a coming-of-age novel that explores that angst-ridden, alienated period of everyone's life: high school. Lee Fiora, bright and resourceful, wins a scholarship that takes her to the prestigious East Coast Ault School. Once there, she discovers the grimy underside of the life depicted in the glossy brochures she pored over back in South Bend. The pretty girls and athletic boys posing on the steps of ivy-covered buildings and lounging under the ancient trees are from a different world than hers, one where money and privilege are taken for granted. At 24, Lee recounts her Ault years, learning "everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people." Bittersweet humor and shrewd insights into the adolescent psyche will bring to mind memories of those painful, thrilling years.

This one is about women's issues, and there's something for everyone in Roar Softly and Carry a Great Lipstick, edited by Autumn Stephens (Inner Ocean Publishing, 2004). Twenty-eight essays by an array of women writers from Merril Markoe to Edwidge Danticat cover battles with marriage, divorce, and anorexia, among other personal demons. Some are humorous, like Mary Roach's look at aging (on under-eye circles: "Many athletes apply black grease paint to this area to reduce glare and improve their game. You don't ever have to do this. That's a savings right there.") Others are joyous. Autumn Stephens' wonderfully upbeat take on breast cancer tells how her faith in her marriage was reborn after her mastectomy. Many are poignant, like Edwidge Danticat's account of childhood years without her mother, gone to America to be with her husband. Reading these pieces left me with a strong sense of sisterhood and plenty of admiration for my gender.

Lucy Young Clem is the Tech Center Supervisor at Central Library, where she sandwiches reading book reviews between computer training sessions.