17 August 2006

All the Kinds of Yes

Yesterday I brought Meghan McCarron and her brother Alex over to Dartmouth to meet Njihia Mbitiru and Eric Schaller, and the five of us stopped for a moment at the Dartmouth Bookstore, where some copies of Julie Phillips's amazing book James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon were sitting on the New Books table. I recently finished reading the book in preparation for interviewing Julie about it (more on that another time), and it blew me away, because it was even better than I'd dared hope, and I had hoped for a lot. Meghan and Alex and I had just been talking about the book, because I brought them to see the Orozco frescoes at the Dartmouth Library, which Alice Bradley saw as they were being completed when she was a senior in college, visiting a boyfriend who was a Dartmouth student.

I grabbed a copy of the book and all but threw it at Eric, insisting he buy it, not just because it's brilliant, but also because his father is mentioned in passing on page 20. Eric waffled a bit, saying he might wait for the paperback, but I can be tremendously intimidating when I want to be, and he gave in.

Then we were all looking at magazines, and I saw the new issue of the New York Times Book Review, and lo and behold, what is the cover review -- "Alice's Alias", a review of the biography by none other than Dave Itzkoff, whom I have said a few things about previously. I think I might have uttered embarrassing squeals of joy when I saw the Book Review, a joy elicited by seeing a book I treasure receiving such prominent notice. Itzkoff does a good job of summarizing the major points of Bradley/Sheldon/Tiptree's life, and offers praise for the biography in a way that people not familiar with the material will probably find intriguing. (The Times previously ran a review by Janet Maslin [which spawned a poll].)

I thought for a day or two that I might review the biography, but one of the nice things about the book is that it has inspired thoughtful reviews, and I don't really have anything to add to things already said by Nisi Shawl, John Clute, Justine Larbalestier, Mely, Gavin Grant, Laura Miller, and John Mark Eberhart, among others. (I will say that the only recent literary biography I've found as absorbing for its own merits, rather than simply out of curiosity about the writer, is Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Decisive Years.) Phillips's achievement is that she has found a subject that lets her explore not merely the life of a writer (though she does that well), but a whole tapestry of ideas and experiences of 20th century gender roles and prejudices, and she shows how those ideas, experiences, roles, and prejudices molded, deformed, and inspired one woman's life. The book shows what the best biography can be: a portrait of one person that opens into an epic depiction of personal and cultural life within particular places at particular times.

I also want to note that the September issue of F&SF is essential reading, because it contains selections from letters between Tiptree/Sheldon and Ursula LeGuin. They are entertaining, insightful, affecting, marvelous letters, some of which are excerpted in the biography, but there's lots of new material in the magazine.

[This post was originally titled "Matt & Meghan & Alex & Eric & Njihia & the Book", until the author decided to abjure esoteric allusions.]


  1. Huh. My copy of the Phillips *and* the September F&SF are stuck in the transatlantic mails. Grump grump.

    By the way, on behalf of the bigblogofcheese groupmind, thanks for the link!

  2. Also worth noting that _Entertainment Weekly_, no less, reviewed the Tiptree bio and gave it an A. I can't recall the last time a book won such universal and unqualified praise.

    Glad to see the ranks of northern New England sf writers continue to swell.


  3. I'm probably going to snag the Tiptree/Alice Sheldon bio today. I read the letters in F&SF and was completely blown away.

  4. Another enthusiastic review going online Sunday, assuming that the Finns stop entertaining me long enough for me to cut the HTML version of the magazine.

  5. Glad you at least footnoted the "esoteric allusion" so I could let my Tiptree-loving geek fetish bloom into a mad cackle of foot-stomping spittle-flying laughter of recognition.

    I started half way through the book, like you mentioned doing yourself, to gain insight into the era that I already knew, seeing which stories got more than a passing mention and the stories behind those stories. After that I'll go back to read the first half, where I will be truly entering unknown territory. Although, I will confess to reading page 20 out of order.

    I was throttled to see so many piles of the book around the bookstore. It didn't seem possible and I tend to think that I must have wondered by accident into an alternate reality, which differs from ours only in that writers I care deeply passionately about have more than a cult following and may, perhaps one day, dream of being on the lower end of the best-seller list.