Saturday, December 23, 2006

Pg. 69: "James Tiptree, Jr."

I heard Julie Phillips talking about her new book on NPR last month and immediately knew I'd like to feature an item about the biography here on the blog.

So of course I invited her to put the book to the "page 69 test" and was well pleased when she accepted. Here's what Julie reported:
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is a biography of a woman, Alice Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987), who wrote under a man’s name for ten years. Tiptree became in effect a persona who did Sheldon’s writing for her, corresponded, often quite intimately, with colleagues, and allowed her to say things she couldn’t say as herself.

Page 69 is partly about Alice’s sleeping habits. It’s 1934, she’s 18, she’s a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College, she’s beautiful and popular, and she’s getting into trouble. She’s the most talented artist in the school but never works, and the college president has just written her parents, “Her habits of eating and sleeping are exceedingly erratic. [...] We have found it quite impossible to persuade her to lead a normal life.”

So p. 69 starts:

Alice was impatient with sleep, and when she was caught up in work that excited her got as little of it as possible. Lack of sleep in turn exacerbated her moods, making her even more vulnerable to ups and downs. Yet, like her mother, she loved working at night. It suited her natural rhythm. Later, writing as Tiptree, Alice explained, “I fling myself down and let sleep iron it all out, and then get up at some private hour, sometimes like 2:30 or 3, when the world is magical, and work then.” She used to do all her work at night “and leave it on the professor’s desk in the morning, like the elves.” The night was for her another safe, secret space.

Secretly I was convinced that all Alice Sheldon’s problems—depression, ill health—came from lack of sleep, but then I think everyone’s problems come from lack of sleep. In fact, she was probably bipolar, and sleeplessness could as easily have been a symptom as a cause.

One reviewer pointed out that getting up at 3 a.m. doesn’t make Alice a night owl but a very early morning person. I stand corrected.

The rest of the page is kind of a lecture, which isn’t typical for the book at all but is important for understanding why a talented, privileged, sophisticated woman couldn’t take advantage of her education, didn’t start publishing fiction until she was 51, and even then could only do it under a man’s name.

The post-suffragist thirties were a difficult time for young women. They were told that they could do anything they wanted, that the future lay before them like an open highway. Then they were handed, not the keys to a fast car, but the handle of a shovel, and saw that they would first have to build the roads themselves. For one thing, it was hard for a woman alone to support herself; to do so at anything above a subsistence level required a professional education and extreme dedication to a career. For another, careers for women seemed to rule out Life, as defined by passion, boys, sex, and later marriage and a family. The threat of ending up an old maid was dire, the pressure to have children very strong. The women who succeeded were the ones who from the start knew exactly what they wanted. A woman seldom got the freedom to make mistakes or go on a Wanderjahr.

Alice was so determined not to be found out as different that she too gave in to the pressures. She didn’t work hard at her career. She later observed that a classmate, one of her “followers,” had become a successful editor at a woman’s magazine. But that girl had been neither pretty nor popular, so the school stars [like Alice] could learn nothing from her example. And yet Alice hated what her shallowness made her. Being stuck in traditional roles for women was one of the great sources of Alice’s anger.

The sex scene, alas, is on p. 70.
Many thanks to Julie for the input.

Click here and here to read excerpts from the book.

Good reviews for getting up to speed on James Tiptree, Jr. are in Bookforum, on, on Bookslut, and in the Seattle Times.

Among the considerable acclaim for the biography:
Andi Shechter praised the biography in January Magazine.

Click here for further reading and more links about the book--including a link to the NPR interview I mentioned at the start of this item.

Visit Julie Phillips official website.

Previous "page 69 tests:"
Debra Ginsberg, Blind Submission
Sarah Katherine Lewis, Indecent
Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
William Easterly, The White Man's Burden
Danielle Trussoni, Falling Through the Earth
Andrew Blechman, Pigeons
Anne Perry, A Christmas Secret
Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers
Kat Richardson, Greywalker
Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire
Masha Hamilton, The Camel Bookmobile
Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue