Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Women behaving badly. . .

One of the books I've been heavily pitching in my talks this fall is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's ingenious Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. This is the type of cultural history I most enjoy reading. It's partly a fascinating look at the history of this slogan which has popped up on t-shirts and coffee mugs and been used by groups representing every different political ideology, but at its core, the book is really a history about how women's history itself has been written, manipulated and ignored over the centuries. Ulrich uses Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virginia Woolf as examples of women who spent their careers proving that the stories of women's lives and work were essential and interesting, but she also takes iconographic and stereotypical images and mixes them with the ordinary. I particularly like her chapter ruminating on illustrations from The Book of Days which then leads to an examination of the changing historical significances behind images of women with cows. Terrifically interesting stuff and written in a very conversational style. This would be a great pick for non-fiction bookclubs.
In a similar vein, I've recently finished two books about unusual and ground-breaking women. I've been a huge fan of Janet Malcolm since reading The Silent Woman, her magnificant book on the biography industry surrounding Sylvia Plath. Malcolm doesn't just recount a life story; she inserts herself and the role of the biographer - the research involved, the conversations with other scholars, the nagging questions that can't be solved - right into her narrative. Her latest book, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice looks at the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The first part examines how two Jewish, lesbian women managed to survive in France during WWII and the last chapter looks at the lonely life of Toklas after Gertrude's death. But the most fascinating part of the book for me was the middle section - a look at Stein's monumental and difficult work, The Making of Americans. Malcolm interviews two Stein scholars who have been waiting decades for a third scholar named Katz to finally publish his version of Stein's annotated notebooks about the novel - expected to shed huge light on the work because he actually interviewed Toklas extensively about every scribbled line. And why are Stein scholars so mad at Katz for his delay? Because without extensive literary criticism available on the novel, it doesn't have a decent shot at getting onto university curriculum and thus maintaining its canonical position as a key modernist work. As one of the scholars says, "He's left us hanging . . . And we'd like to hit him over the head and open that head up and see what's in it - assuming there's something in it. We're not entirely sure anymore." I just relish this kind of stuff - truly obsessed academics. I never know whether to laugh or just gaze open-mouthed in awe and admiration for a lifetime's devotion to a writer's work. But Malcolm makes us truly care about this mystery even if we're never going to tackle Stein's forbidding, 900 page masterpiece.
I'd also like to recommend Mary Ann Caws' Glorious Eccentrics: Modernist Women Painting and Writing. These are short vignettes of female painters who led unconventional and wild lives that not only fed their art, but also nurtured the talents of their male friends and lovers who often fared much better in the posterity fame game. Out of the seven women profiled, I'd only previously read about Emily Carr and Dora Carrington, so it was fascinating to read about Dorothy Bussy, whose obsession with Andre Gide mirrored in some respects, Carrington's adoration of Dorothy's brother Lytton Strachey. I definately have to read more about Suzanne Valadon who in addition to her own painting, was also Renoir's "voluptuous nude" model and mistress. She also knew Degas, Picasso, Erik Satie and seems to have had quite the tempestuous love life, including an affair with her son's close friend. Also fascinating was the chapter on the surrealist photographer Claude Cahun and her role in the resistence movement during WWII when the island of Jersey was occupied by the Germans. One of her self-portrait photographs graces the cover of the book.

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