Phoenixfalls's Reviews > James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

James Tiptree, Jr. by Julie Phillips
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Mar 08, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: gender, james-tiptree-jr, biography, female-subject, mothers
Read in September, 2009 — I own a copy , read count: 1

It is very hard, when reviewing a biography, to separate liking for the book (as a book) and liking for its subject. In this case, I liked Sheldon less than I expected to -- the section of the book when she is working for the CIA and then working towards her Ph.D I read very slowly, as I kept getting annoyed with her. Much though she struggled with her gender, her sexuality, her relationship with her parents, she remained the product of privilege, and she never seemed to see that.

But the biography is extremely well done -- messy, yes, with big gaping holes where there is no real record of what went on, but still a wonderfully detailed portrait of a life that spans Victorian, colonial America to post-Civil Rights era modern America and a person who took active part in all of those disparate, disjointed ages. Sheldon was raised with Victorian ideals of service and a woman's place in the world, went on safari in Africa at age six, was a bohemian artist in the 30s, fought in WWII, helped form the CIA, sympathized with the Civil Rights movement and was a conflicted member of the womens' lib movement, and all BEFORE she created the persona of Tiptree, who (with Ursula Le Guin and several others) made SF more literary and raised questions of what the role of women was to be in the genre. Her end was tragic, and one of the few things that bothered me about the biography was that her suicide note was not provided. The truly wonderful thing about this biography is how much Phillips allows Sheldon (and all the other people who touched and were touched by Sheldon's life) to speak through her own words -- her writing, her letters to friends, her journals all are quoted liberally throughout.

My only other quibble about this book is the end notes. Phillips clearly wrote this book with as much care as a scholarly paper, but all of her detailed source notes and the extraneous information is buried at the back of the book in end notes. I did not discover them until halfway through reading, and I despise the physical process of flipping back and forth, so I tried to simply read the notes for each chapter as I completed it, but even that was too confusing because they were annotated merely as to page, not line (or within the text). I finally gave up on that process as too unwieldy and read them all at the end, but I am sure that I missed some of the connections.

Still, this is an impressive work, as Sheldon's is an impressive life, and I hope that it finds wide readership.
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