Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (originally published in 1933; Vintage, 1990 edition)
This was the second book we read as a group after Two Lives by Janet Malcolm piqued our interest in Gertrude and Alice, two very unique and interesting characters who were clearly made for each other. While I’m intellectually intrigued by most of Stein’s writing or rather what she was trying to do with words (and do quite like trotting out “a rose is a rose is a rose” on occasion), I’ve never really enjoyed reading her work. This was a very notable exception, filled with vivid descriptions of Stein, Toklas, their life domestic life together, their who’s who circle of friends in Paris, and the garrets and studios of Paris itself. Lots of discussion on this book, especially about how they managed to survived the war years, and I don’t mean the rationing.
This autobiography of an eccentric Southern childhood reads like a novel and every scene with Mama, Herb, and Granny is uproarious.
Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok edited by Rodger Streitmatter (Da Capo, 2000)
An insightful and fascinating look inside the lives of both of these women and the progression of their relationship, from intensely romantic to cold disinterest. Hickok’s story is profoundly tragic and much of her later sorrow rests squarely on Eleanor’s richly appointed doorstep. Though not all. The lesson here: never give up your career and independence for a woman—even if she is the First Lady.
We had one of our liveliest discussions over this book and I still think about it.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard it before but I’ll say it again: brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Highsmith: A Love Story of the 1950s by Marijane Meaker (Cleis, 2003)After we read The Price of Salt by Highsmith, we decided to read Meaker’s account of her relationship with Highsmith. It’s an all too familiar yet thoroughly enjoyable tale of lesbian love (let’s move to the country!) and dyke drama (who cares about my girlfriend and your alcoholism!). What I like most about this book, though, is the window it provides into life for a lesbian during the 1950s in New York City. There’s subterfuge, fear and insecurity on these pages but also strength and never bitterness.
I think Frontiers said it best: “Funny, hip reconstruction of the making of a lesbian, from teen rebel to soft-porn model to high-class academic who never loses that entertaining chip on her shoulder.” If you’ve read any of Faderman’s other books (Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Surpassing the Love of Men), this is a fascinating look inside the life of one of the foremost feminist and gender studies scholars in the country.
It’s all here: humiliation, helplessness, awkwardness, bad hair, and sexual confusion. I love the concept for this collection and the conversation it sparks about coming of age and coming out but I didn’t love most of the individual essays. Some gems here but overall I found the writing uniformly disjointed and unfocused—granted, much like a lot of seventh grade.
Two Lives by Janet Malcolm (Yale University Press, 2007)
Part literary criticism, part biography, this is an elegantly written, slim yet comprehensive look at Gertrude and Alice. It’s also part detective story as we follow Malcolm in her search to uncover new material on her subjects and the Nazi collaborator who protected them during the war. If you only read one book on the pair, this would be a good one.
I admit it. I have a thing for Natalie Barney, Belle Époque Paris, and lesbians cavorting in Grecian style dresses around a Temple of Friendship. Barney was out and unapologetic from an early age though it was definitely her inheritance that allowed to her live an extravagant, independent life. Some say she was spoiled, vapid, heartless, and a bad poet. I say, she was a helluva lot of fun and Rodriguez paints an excellent portrait of her and her scene.