Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Book A Month Challenge: Changing Times

Phillips, Julie. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.

In recent months, I've begun to notice that the movie studios are creating different trailers and ads for the same film, each with a different emphasis. So we have the "comedy" trailer and the "chick flick" trailer. I even once saw "chick flick" and "action" trailers for a film, which was a bit of a stretch. This biography of Alice Sheldon could easily be promoted the same way, but more honestly. One could write the proto-feminist review, the Lesbian/gender identify review, or the literary biography review. In keeping with January's theme of “Time ”, I read the biography of someone who lived through much of an extraordinary century and saw amazing changes in world around her.

Sheldon led an adventurous life from the very beginning: when she was six, her parents took her with them on safari to unexplored Africa. She was literally one of the first white people the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya saw. She was one of the first WAC officers in World War II, interpreting spy-plane photos of enemy territory, and she worked briefly for the newly founded CIA. She earned a PhD in Psychology. Her accomplishments were also regularly dismissed because she was a woman:

When [she] got an all-time high grade on a qualifying test, the county agricultural agent who wrote to congratulate her pointed out, "Your husband didn't do bad either. I expect Mr Sheldon could have really beat you but wanted to be real gallant and diplomatic and let his wife win (p. 151).
She saw the birth of modern feminism and corresponded closely with Joanna Russ, but she watched the movement from the outside and did not benefit from it. She was working as a man at the time (that's the "Lesbian/gender identity" review breaking through).

Her experience among the Kikuyu in 1922 informs the headlines we've been seeing out of Kenya for the past month. Imagine living in central Africa and being transported from an isolated village that has seen no change in hundreds of years into the 21st century in just three generations.

Phillips has written a well researched biography with extensive, though unobtrusive, notes. This is not a "popular" biography, but an academic one. The early chapters are focused primarily on Sheldon's parents, and are slow-going, but they lay important groundwork for later discussion of Sheldon's relationship with her mother, who was famous in her own right.

The back matter includes a bibliography of Sheldon's works, the notes, a bibliography of published sources, and an index. Unfortunately, the index is not as strong as I would like: there are no entries for "Army" or "Intelligence" (the latter is listed under "World War II, intelligence work in"), nor is there a cross reference from "WAAC" or "WAC" to "Women's Auxiliary Army Corps" or "Women's Army Corps". The index does include entries for significant text in the notes, which are indicated by italic page numbers. (This use of italics is not explained in the index.)

For most readers, these issues are minor and will not detract from the reading. For an academic studying Sheldon or the science fiction of the 1970s and early '80s, they will make referring to the text more challenging, though.

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