Bookworm: Celebrate Women's History Month with these books

In a time of great division, two new books explore the Civil War

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Bookish Broads: Women Who Wrote Themselves into History”

  • By Lauren Marino, illustrations by Alexandra Kilburn
  • c. 2021, Abrams Image
  • $19.99, $24.99 Canada; 192 pages

“The Girl Explorers”

  • By Jayne Zanglein
  • c. 2021, Sourcebooks
  • $25.99, higher in Canada; 416 pages

“The Women's History of the Modern World”

  • By Rosalind Miles
  • c. 2020, William Morrow
  • $16.99, $21.00 Canada; 432 pages

Fifty percent of the population. Give or take, that's how many women there are in the world, women who work, raise families, care for others, paint and create and dance. So, this month – Women's History Month – why not celebrate those who wrote, explored, and made change?

Celebrate Women's History Month with these books.

You know how much you love a really good book, so look for this one: “Bookish Broads” by Lauren Marino, illustrations by Alexandra Kilburn.

Through dozens of mini-biographies, Marino gives readers some new insight on some old favorites: Toni Morrison, Agatha Christie, Hildegard von Bingen, Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, even the authors of several beloved children's classics. There's scandal here, and a little criticism, and to add to the fun, Marino lets readers know where the magic happened, why some women wrote under pseudonyms, why they were important to anyone who loves literature, and you'll get recommendations for reading these writers' best works.

If you're more the adventurous type, then “The Girl Explorers” by Jayne Zanglein is a book to find. When president of the guys-only Explorers Club Roy Chapman Andrews said in 1932 that women were “not adapted to exploration,” he severely underestimated a group of women who set out to prove him wrong. Those women founded the Society of Woman Geographers, which is a bit of a misnomer, since they and those belonging to the organization were explorers, advocates, scientists, historians, and sea farers who almost did everything Andrews' group did, and more. They made change – and not just in this country, but around the world through sometimes-dangerous work with other cultures and in corners that needed a strong voice and someone to break all kinds of ground.

This is a triumphant book, filled with history and tales that may be hidden to modern readers. Fix that little omission and look for this book.

And finally, remember: this is Women's History Month, after all, so reach for “The Women's History of the Modern World” by Rosalind Miles, a book that lands somewhere in the middle of the two, above. This one steps farther back in time to look at our foremothers' audacious actions and brings us up to modern times, touching upon all aspects of life: all-female militaries, abolitionists and freedom fighters, women on and off the Silver Screen and behind the camera, leaders, communicators, and a host of women who stood up against the patriarchy at many points throughout history. This book is humorous at times, but it also dives into Serious Territory with tales that will make readers gasp and other anecdotes that are as outrageous as they are enraging.

It's the kind of book you'll want to share with your older teen, especially if that teen is a budding feminist. It's also the kind of book that will lead you to search for more information.

And that's the beauty of a Month like this: there's always more to learn, always more women to appreciate for their rebellion and their revolutionary actions. Pick up these three books to start. You'll love them 100 percent.

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“The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship”

  • By Deborah Willis
  • c. 2021, New York University Press
  • $35, higher in Canada; 256 pages

“Blood and Germs: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease”

  • By Gail Jarrow
  • c. 2020, Calkins Creek
  • $18.99, $24.99 Canada; 176 pages

Put up your fists. Yep, it's come to this: someone's looking for a fight and that's exactly what they're about to get. There will be a winner. It won't be fun: there'll be a loser, and probably some bruises. But at least you'll be able to open those fists and shake hands when it's over – unlike, perhaps, the people inside these two great books ...

Two new books on the Civil War.

When the Civil War began, says author Deborah Willis, most “... enslaved blacks and servants were united in their opinion – they associated war with emancipation.” They hung onto every bit of news about Abraham Lincoln and news from the battlefront, they were eager to know what Lincoln would do next, and in “The Black Civil War Soldier,” you'll get to meet some of those people and learn their stories.

You'll also get to see them, in portraits and snapshots taken on and off the field, in Black hospitals, homes, and asylums. These are the kinds of pictures that make you want to linger, taking in details of what was obviously someone's best dress, or someone's best and bravest face. Look at the pictures and read personal letters home, diary entries, and thoughts – words, says Willis, of absent loved ones, fear and confusion, frustration on the part of both soldier and commander, “dignity and pride... achievement and self-confidence...” and valor. You'll also learn about the daily lives of a Black soldier during the war, and what happened in the years after wars' end. Together, this narrative and the photographs make an astounding book that show an often-little-told human side of the War Between the States.

When there's war, of course, you'll see action on the field, but the fight can also go on far behind the lines, as you'll see in “Blood and Germs” by Gail Jarrow.

In this very heavily-illustrated book, young readers will get an authentic look at what, other than bullets, bayonets, and cannonballs, might've killed a Civil War soldier. These things – gangrene, scurvy, tuberculosis, typhus, and other horrible maladies or injuries – are examined and explained in context to the times in which they affected American on and off the battlefield; many of those maladies, after all, are rare in today's world and may be unfamiliar to young readers. Through letters and stomach-churning old-tyme cures, Jarrow also tells of the roles women played in nursing and ministering to the wounded and afflicted, how they stopped blood loss, saved legs and arms, ended pain, and kept away disease and death.

Older teens and adults, especially those who are history buffs, are the perfect audience for “The Black Civil War Soldier,” although later-middle-schoolers shouldn't have any problem reading or understanding the book and may enjoy it. “Blood and Germs” is great for kids ages 10 and up and adults, though parents of particularly sensitive kids should beware that some of the photos can really be quite gruesome. In both cases, the stories inside these books make them great additions to anyone's library, and good things to get your fists around.

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“Gay Bar: Why We Went Out”

  • By Jeremy Atherton Lin
  • c. 2021, Little, Brown and Company
  • $28, $36 Canada; 320 pages

The stool over by the window is all yours. Might be because you've spent a lot of time there. It's the right height, you can easily watch the door from there, and the bartender knows your favorites, so why not? As in the new book “Gay Bar” by Jeremy Atherton Lin, it's one of the best places to be.

This cover image released by Little, Brown & Co. shows "Gay Bar: Why We Went Out" by Jeremy Atherton Lin. (Little, Brown & Co. via AP)

Long before it was legal for him to go there, Jeremy Atherton Lin, like most teenage boys, imagined going to the bar – though in his case, Lin imagined what it was like in a gay bar. Ironically, he says, “I can't remember my first.”

As someone with a foot in each of two continents, he does have favorites, places that are now closed, re-named, or been moved. He's danced in them, had sex in them, drank and moved through gay bars with his “companion, the Famous Blue Raincoat,” and anonymously, and with friends-not-friends.

Some bars were carved out of a back room or basement, or a place that used to be something else, maybe another bar. They're cavernous; or they're small and packed with men dancing or doing drugs; or they're thick with bachelorette parties and tourists, to the annoyance of the gay men who've claimed that bar. Those usurpers don't know the legacy of feeling gay, but “[I]t goes pretty deep.” Some bars have opened just for the night. Others were raided once upon a time or will close before a month has passed. Overall, they're an important part of being a gay man, pre-Stonewall, pre-AIDS, post-epidemic, and now.

And yet, says Lin, “ ... there does remain something embarrassing about a gay bar.” Still, try to stop him from fondly remembering nights in the Castro or Los Angeles or London ...

Absolutely, you could be forgiven for wondering what you got yourself into while reading the first couple dozen pages of “Gay Bar.” Unabashedly, without preamble, author Jeremy Atherton Lin leaps right into a hazy description of a night out or two, in a chapter that seems fragmented, like a broken strobe light. Clarity comes, but later, and it's fragile.

Part of the haze might be due to the autobiographical nature of Lin's story: there are bars in his tales, but the focus here is more going to bars, with the implied assumption that readers are familiar with those he mentions or others exactly like them. This, of course, may not be true; still, Lin's sex-and-booze-filled tales of drag, dance, and la dolce vita are compelling, woven with gay history, interesting then-and-now comparisons, and blisteringly-explicit tales of being a young gay man.

And then again, while these stories take readers through the doors of a gay bar, once we've literarily entered, there are times when we're abandoned, the music's too loud, and we want to just go.

Like a song you don't particularly like, though, that won't last long. Really, the surreality of “Gay Bar” is not insurmountable; in fact, if you wait it out, you'll be mostly glad you did. So, look for it – and take a seat.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.