IN A RECENT issue of Sports Illustrated , there was a story about a 61-year-old librarian who'd braved sting rays, coral snakes, vampire fish and cannibals, to take a fly-fishing expedition down some South American rivers. There was, it seemed, a certain kind of fish the librarian was after, found only in exotic jungle waters. And fly-fishing was the librarian's passion.
Some of us read every word of that story, and some of us who did, did not know that fly-fishing was: it was the fisher we were captivated by, not lures or the catch. Her name was Kay Brodney, she looked a bit like Miss Peacock in the game of Clue and she was a woman. (Obviously, sports magazines have caught on to the fact that many of their readers are women and women like to read about other women, because more and more often these stories are appearing, not just in columns, but as full-blown features, hero stories about women.)
In Machisma: Women and Daring , Grace Lichtenstein, herself doubtless another one who can't get enough of such stories, has set down a number of them, for us to read and pass on to our daughters and, mostly, be cheered by. Lichtenstein is perfect for the job, as an adventurer herself, one who, as she says, always "loved to go as far as she can to the edge . . . any edge" and who gave up her job on the staff of The New York Times in order to write this book and, in some instances, to take risks along with the women she was writing about.
"Machisma" is a made-up word, deriving of course from the male "macho" and "machismo." Lichtenstein defines machisma as "a term that conveys a spirit that [is] a by-product of the sexual, fitness and feminist revolutions of the past two decades" and as a "neutral, probably hazy phrase, useful in describing traits in a woman that, even to this day, are at the masculine end of every psychological masculine/feminine scale." It means brave and gusty, foolhardy; also it implies "not just wanting to win or be successful, but to beat someone or something, to show off, to strut one's stuff." Lichtenstein cites Billie Jean King as a successful athlete with machisma; Chris Evert Lloyd as one just as successful without it.
But the stories are the thing. Wisely, Lichtenstein does not dwell on definitions, but plunges in, telling the story of a group of women setting out to climb Annapurna, the 10th highest mountain in the world. Once the adventures begin, the book takes off. There are hikers and runners and hanggliders, stuntwomen, white-water river-runners, race car drivers, a jet pilot. This is where Lichtenstein's heart is, telling about these women who pit themselves against time and the elements (not to mention records and other people's skills); and her passion is not only obvious but catching: the women's bravery is both touching and compelling. You want them to make it to the top of Annapurna safe and sound, the same way you want the Outward Bounders to make good, the hang glider to ride the to ride the wind, the swimmer to go the distance, the pilot to be given the recognition she has earned. And Lichtenstein is not afraid to tackle controversy, dissension, last-minute fears, or the kind of bravado that can endanger others' lives, in the interest of "strutting one's stuff." Her reports seem thorough and true.
When the stories start, the book's great ommission shows up: pictures. There is no photograph of Irene Miller and Vera Komarkova, who made it to the top of Annapurna, or of Arlene Blum, who organized the expedition. We're told the climbers are in wonderful shape, that a few are "near-Amazons." It's a loss not to see for ourselves. Some of the women are familiar: Diana Nyad, Janet Guthrie, Suzy Chaffee, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda. The loss is not so great, in these cases. But when Navy jet pilot Sue Mason says, "I could be put in a combat situation. I think I could go out and fight another airplane in the air and fight very; very well . . . I think I could really love it," there's a real need to see what such a woman looks like. Probably, she is a true original, somebody who in the movie wouldn't get the part at all.
The second half of the book deals with women who take other kinds of risks: businesswomen, politicians, actresses, singers, a poet, a prostitute. Lichentenstein's engagement, while real, in these chapters seems less passionate and immediate, especially when the women either are dead or seem not to be directly interviewed by Lichtenstein. And so the book begins to feel thin, gleaned from indirect sources; the stories seem more to simply serve the purposes of the book's theme; than to honor the lives of the women involved.
It's understandable to make "quirky" choices, as Lichtenstein herself admits, and not to want to become a "female George Plimpton," but in fact Lichtenstein is a fascinating character in her own right. Indeed, her participation in some of the adventures in the early chapters gives the book its basic spirit: her Himalayan trek with the tireless, unsympathetic and infuriating Sarah Larrabee, for instance, as well as her trip on an Outward Bound "artificial adventure" with a dozen other women over 30, including one named Mary Louise who is nearly 58.
Still, it's wonderful to have the stories recorded. Anyone contemplating a mountain climb, a (God forbid) hang-glide, or Outward Bound experience, ought not set out without reading it. This book could have been better, but at least we've got it.