“They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways and Renegades” by Barbara Holland (Anchor, $13, paperback)
Queen Boudicca of Britain defied the Roman Empire. Aurore Dupin called herself George Sand, wore pants and slept with Chopin. Anne Bonney and Mary Read pillaged and plundered as pirates on the high seas. Irish writer Dervla Murphy was born with itchy feet and “broke the most basic rule of female travel” by taking her baby along on her adventures in India and Peru. Holland’s lively chronicle of bold and spirited women moves briskly through history as she regales readers with odd facts and pointed observations. For example, “Belle Starr the Bandit Queen, the Petticoat Terror of the Plains, the Female Jesse James, was born Myra Maybelle Shirley, and if she’d stayed that way, people probably wouldn’t have heard as much about her.”
“The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup,” by Susan Orlean (Random House, $13.95, paperback)
As a writer for The New Yorker, Orlean has a knack for finding the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary, for seeing the story behind a story. A New York cabdriver, for instance, turns out to be the king of an African tribe. The Tonya Harding Fan Club goes into overdrive when their ice-skating heroine hits the headlines after the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. Christina Sanchez, a matador in Madrid, “has chemically assisted blond hair … but she’s not so beautiful that she’s scary.” Some of the subjects Orlean writes about are well-known – designer Bill Blass, agent Sue Mengers. Others gain fame because of what Orlean writes about them. Who, after all, can forget Biff the boxer, a show dog whose face is his fortune and who looks a bit like Bill Clinton?
“Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology for Women Travelers,” selected by Jane Robinson (Oxford University Press, $15.95, paperback)
Once upon a time, “real ladies” did not travel. Ha! Real women certainly did, to practically every corner of the globe, and many of them wrote of their experiences. Robinson stitches together excerpts from their writings with brief introductions. But it’s more fun to hear from the adventurers themselves, whether it’s Mrs. H.W. Cole advising us in 1859 (“Of course every lady engaged on an Alpine journey will wear a broad-brimmed hat, which will relieve her from the incumbrance (sic) of a parasol”), or Charlotte Eaton approaching the battlefield at Waterloo in 1817 “… cannon-balls had lodged in the trees, but had passed over the roofs of cottages.” Mary Kingsley, Jan Morris, Freya Stark and Rebecca West are among the many contributors. We find Violet Cressy-Marcks being bitten by a snake in the Amazon in 1932 – and then in China in 1940, sitting by a fire made from yak dung.