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.]