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Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice
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Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

3.61 of 5 stars 3.61  ·  rating details  ·  476 ratings  ·  106 reviews
"How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?" Janet Malcolm asks at the beginning of this extraordinary work of literary biography, criticism, and investigative journalism. The pair, of course, is modernist master Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the "worker bee" who ministered to Stein's needs throughout their forty-year expatriate "marriage." As Ma ...more
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published September 27th 2007 by Yale University Press (first published January 1st 2007)
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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott FitzgeraldA Moveable Feast by Ernest HemingwayThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest HemingwayA Farewell to Arms by Ernest HemingwayParis France by Gertrude Stein
Midnight in Paris
25th out of 60 books — 31 voters
The Uncommon Reader by Alan BennettHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. RowlingMister Pip by Lloyd JonesThe Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas TalebOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
The Economist - Books of the Year 2007
21st out of 46 books — 9 voters


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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,033)
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Sketchbook
Janet Malcolm craves attention. She landed herself and the NYer in a zilly dollar lawsuit some years ago. Now, she's at it again -- throwing stones at Gertie & Alice for daring to survive W2 Occupation in France. They didnt blow farts and scream obscenities at the enemy in Vichy; they had the temerity to stay civilized. Super writer Tom Junod once said of Mme, "She's full of shit." So are her pals high in publishing ozones.
Jenny McPhee
If things truly come in waves, we seem to be riding a Gertrude Stein tsunami. Recent Stein events and books include:

-- "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde" (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 28-June 2). This extraordinary show presents paintings collected in the early twentieth century by Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael's wife Sarah and displayed at their weekly salon at 27 rue de Fleurus. Visually demonstrating the family's signif
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Peggy
Malcolm investigates the lives of Stein and Toklas and discusses some of Stein's impenetrable writing. Stein remains a significant, even legendary literary figure associated with the rise of modernism in art and literature. The mystery in my mind has always been--why? Malcolm describes her as a sexy, happy, self-proclaimed genius who naturally attracts followers. Stein learned early on that she was not creative, meaning that she could not create characters or conversations for the literature she ...more
Kp
I just picked this up in a pile of books at the Russian River vacation cause I'm a little fascinated by Gertrude and Alice B. Toklas... or maybe just the idea of the brownies made me think they must be cool. Oh, and having read The Book of Salt that was tangentially about them, I was interested. Learning about them was interesting, but the book didn't thrill me. Gertrude Stein is a famous writer, however most of the books she wrote, according to the author, are completely unreadable, even by the ...more
Sara
Aug 01, 2009 Sara rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: literary gossip types, Francophile Americans, those puzzled by Gertrude Stein's actual writing
Exactly how DID two rather prominent Jewish lesbians manage to lead a rather idyllic French country life in the middle of the Nazi occupation of France? This is the question Malcolm starts with in her attempt to get a foothold in the much-chronicled, much more hinted and insinuated life of Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B Toklas.

Full disclosure: I spent my adolescence reading gossipy accounts of Gertrude Stein's involvement with William James, with Hemingway, with Picasso, with the Shakes
...more
James
Normally, a book about 2 dead lesbians would be the last thing I'd want to read.
But after the Journalist and the Murderer,
I developed a liking for Malcolm's style of writing.

Colorful metaphors, snappy one liners, a little psychological insight.

This book isn't as good as the other one but is still very enjoyable,
and confirms an insight as to the nature of the author.

Janet is basically a quidnunc who loves to expose the foibles of others.

Taking a cue from Stein, who's "autobiography" of Alice
...more
Anna
I was a bit 'meh' about the gossipy parts of this book - sometimes the colour of 1920s Paris can come off a bit "Henry and June" for me.

The part that really shone was the analysis of The Making of Americans - Malcolm's documentation of her struggle to read it, and when she finally did, what it revealed, rejuvenated my fascination with Stein and her style all over again.

Which doesn't mean that I'll read it, mind. Books that large are only used for squishing spiders at my place.

Also, Malcolm's c
...more
Sarah B.
Although this is a very well-written book, I found it dry. Malcolm has done a wonderful job piecing together the evidence to form the narrative of Stein and Toklas' lives. I loved the story of how Stein defaced her poem Stanzas by crossing out every instance of the word "may" and replacing them all with "can", even when the change made nonsense of the sentences, because she was erasing any allusion to May Bookstaver in order to appease Toklas's jealousy. But, in the end, if Stein was a warm pers ...more
Amanda
This is not the book I had understood it to be, which is my fault. This is purely an academic work, and if you're not familiar with Stein's writing, then you will be at a loss. I also have to say I don't really care much for the style of the author of this book. It's more about name dropping. There's focus on her subjects in there, but she's much more interested in the historiography of the subjects than her subjects themselves.

What is good is that it's not necessarily about Toklas & Stein's
...more
Joanna
I think I am not a big enough Stein fan to have appreciated this book. Where I expected Holocaust literature. I instead found literature literature. Not a bad thing. but not my thing.
MaryJo
I am a huge fan of Janet Malcolm, and always intrigued by Gertrude Stein. So, of course I loved this book. I had read sections f it previously in the New Yorker, but enjoyed the chance to read the essays together. Stein's obdurate impossibleness is palpable but also her enduring charm. I really loved Malcolm's persistent exploration of the difficulties of her subject, and, at the same time her resolute appreciation. She actually makes me want to read The Making of the Americans. (Will I, like he ...more
Elaine
This is an interesting read, lots of info and insights. Janet Malcolm investigates how Gertrude and Alice survived WWII in France. Stein has been attacked and labelled a collaborator because she had help from a friend, Bernard Fay, who worked for the Gestapo. I have found that the best defense of Stein is to read her work on her war experiences, such as Wars I have Seen. Wen WWII broke out, Stein was in her sixties. She was terrified. They relocated to the country where it would be easier to fin ...more
Sheila
Why is Gertrude Stein so admired, and why is her work important? I didn't really learn the answers to these questions (esp. the first one) in Malcolm's book, a New Yorker-style portrait of Gertrude and Alice B. Toklas that leaves the reader with an ugly impression of both women. Malcolm seems upset that neither one said or wrote much publicly about being Jewish. She also brings up Hemingway's famously creepy portrait of them and gives it a thumbs-up.

I liked the info about Stein scholars and arc
...more
Poingu
Janet Malcolm begins with this question: How did two elderly Jewish lesbians survive the Nazis? and then takes us on her journey of investigative journalism that leads her, and us, to ever more unexpected places. The book never really answers the question with which it begins. Instead the book becomes a loving meditation on the nature of how we remember other people. Malcolm explores how our understanding of even those we love most, and know best, is distorted by the limitations of language itse ...more
Stephanie
I returned this to the library before I could properly quote from the way Malcolm sort of unravels, against her will, especially in her reading of Making of the Americans. It may be true she has no 'intuition' towards Stein (something Malcolm loves to admit, endlessly comparing herself - negatively - to Ulla Dydo, I think she even sets up a metaphor somewhere of Dydo as the foodie of Stein criticism and Malcolm as the eater of hamburgers and french fries, I wish she'd have said 'hamburger helper ...more
Kenny
I labored over the first half, and then breezed through the last half, even though it's a relatively short book, given the subject matter. I knew I wanted to read this book due to a confluence of reasons - Janet Malcolm is a bright light in high-brow literary nonfiction (I had already bailed on an attempt at her Psychoanalysis book); there seemed to be a Gertrude Stein resurgence with an exhibit at the Yale Beinecke of Stein paraphernalia, and this year I read The Book of Salt by Monique Truong, ...more
Nancy
Malcolm takes Stein scholarship/biography a step further in untangling truth from fiction and reticence. She questions Stein and Toklas' decision to remain in France through WWII when they were both warned of the dangers, and given offers of help in escaping, and looks at how they made it through the war as Jewish lesbians with the help both of friendly villagers, but more so the protection of a major Nazi collaborator who was responsible for sending some thousands to their deaths in concentrati ...more
Ruth
Fascinating and odd exploration of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas alongside an exploration of the "uncertain" and "unreliable" act of writing biography. This book has lots of levels as Malcolm sifts through Stein's (mostly) and Toklas' writing, a good deal of writing and interview info by Stein scholars burrowing into a couple driving questions: how did these 2 Jewish lesbians avoid Nazis while living in Vichy France and what else can we learn about the inner dynamics of their relationship?

I fe
...more
Dorian
After reading a wonderful review of this book by Terry Castle in the London Review of Books, I made sure to find this at my local library. Brought it home, sat down with it that same evening, and finished it several hours later. (It's quite short; much of it printed in the New Yorker a few years ago.)

Malcolm has long been a favourite of mine--her psychoanalytically-inflected close biographical and textual readings are a model of intelligent, restrained, elegant non-academic criticism.

Castle su
...more
Brendan
Contra Ron Silliman, who wondered here on goodreads "why biographers choose to write about an artist for whom they have neither interest nor intuition," I liked Janet Malcolm's new book, a short meditation on the lives of Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas. It should be noted, however, that Malcolm is not a biographer. Her mission strikes me as more personal, more idiosyncratic and essayistic, at times more journalistic. This may put off some readers -- just don't mistake Two Lives for a biogr ...more
Gina
Nov 05, 2007 Gina rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Lovers of Lit and WW II History
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas have always fascinated me. They probably excite most people's curiosity on some level since their commitment to each other in a "gay marriage" in the early part of the 20th C. was daring to say the least especially since they also were Jewish: two reasons the Nazis should have carried them off posthaste.

Having read a long biography of the pair in my undergraduate years, I learned how genuinely inevitable the lifestyle is for those born into it. In Countee Cul
...more
Kevin
To note the perversity of choosing to tell the story of Gertrude Stein’s and Alice B. Toklas’ relationship by asking how two Jewish Americans avoided exposure to the Nazi’s in Occupied France is not a criticism in itself as long as something interesting is the result. Malcolm stages each detail she relates as if she were plotting a detective novel where a narrative of the discovery will be important to the solution, but unfortunately for the reader, the clues never provide even contingent answer ...more
Dave Riese
Janet Malcolm writes for the New Yorker. I've read many of her books. Her style draws you into all her books no matter the subject. This book is an eye-opener. These two gals were quite a pair. Gertrude wrote one or two interesting books, but I don't think she was quite the genius she thought she was. Most of her writing is unreadable. Janet's book gives you all the details about their relationship which is fascinating.
Carolyn
I have read biograhies on Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas and so was interested in reading this short literary biography. I do not read Stein's writings because her works are very obtuse. However Janet Malcolm research of The Making of Americans reveals how biographical her works are.

I loved Malcolm's insights into the relationship between these two women and how it shaped their writings. Malcolm's writing is interesting...for a critic she uses ! and ? which I found odd.

One quote from her bo
...more
Kristen
Snore. Wow. What a disappointment. I had high hopes from this short book that chronicles the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. They are such interesting figures from a literary and feminist perspective. Given that they considered their relationship a "marriage" yet never identified as lesbian, they seem to understand fluid sexuality well before their time. I read the book hoping to garner some sort of perspective into female friendship, feminist struggles, sexuality. But, rea ...more
Caroline
Reading this book was like reading a high school research paper...all secondary sources and hearsay. I did learn a lot about these two women, but am unsure if the portrayals are accurate. The quotes were long and boring. I finally gave up in the last twenty pages. Just couldn't take it. Totally boring. Why did I even read this? A book club pick.
Jeffrey
Malcolm is such a fine writer and makes the players in her books jump off the page - this is a wonderful account of Gertrude stein and Alice Toklas and the way biography reveals - and fails to reveal - the inner lives of great writers
Jeff
Dec 22, 2007 Jeff rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: JT Newman
There are lots of books out there about the relationship of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, but Malcolm's new little book has many things going for it. It answers a number of questions that linger in the minds of Stein fans, such as: how did these two Jewish women manage to stay alive in France through World War II, when other Jews were being shipped out of the country to concentration camps? Was this seemingly perfect relationship as calm and devoted as it seemed? Malcolm has clearly done h ...more
Nicole
One was an arrogant, anti-Semitic, closeted egomaniac whose writing could be utterly baffling. Nobody liked the other one. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were not the cute nested lesbian couple I always imagined. So reading this book wasn't always a joy, because it shattered some illusions I had about them. The other complaint I had was that the book really ought to have been called "1.2 Lives," because Alice seems like an afterthought. But apparently that's how it was in real life. The book ...more
Carrie
Jan 29, 2008 Carrie rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: folks who liked The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas or The Book of Salt
Although this book purports to tell the story of how Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (two elderly Jewish lesbians) survived in German-occupied France during WWII, it is really more of a meditation on their relationship and Stein and Toklas as people. Which is not to say that it is not good - especially if you are interested in Stein or Toklas.

I first read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in college for a class and my classmates all decried Alice and her perceived "doormat" status (in whic
...more
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Born 1934Janet Malcolm (born 1934) is an American writer, journalist on staff at The New Yorker magazine, and collagist.[1] She is the author of Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981), In the Freud Archives (1984) and The Journalist and the Murderer (1990).
More about Janet Malcolm...
The Journalist and the Murderer The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes In the Freud Archives Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial

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