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American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

1/5. DNF. I've had this biography of Oppenheimer for years, and I've been looking forward to it. Shame it comes with the biographers.

You know how sometimes biographers spend years and years on a project, and it renders them erudite and clear-eyed and compassionate and surgical upon their subject? And then you know how other times biographers spend years and years on a project and it renders them defensive and untrustworthy and over-invested? …Yeah. A small sample of the many reasons finishing this book was not worth my time:

  • Bird and Sherwin relate the multiple documented accounts we have of Oppenheimer's expulsion from graduate school in England after he – these sources agree – attempted to poison one of his professors. This can't actually be true, they conclude, and if it is true he was just trying to hurt the guy a little bit, okay, because if it was a real poisoning, there would have been more consequences.

    …Yeeeeeah. Yes, definitely, when the very wealthy child of privilege does something bad at school, the good old boys will absolutely react appropriately, yep.

  • They recount Oppenheimer's own story of assaulting a girl (sexually and later physically, though the exact dimensions of the sexual assault are unclear) and then conclude, with no reasoning, that this is a fabrication of some sort. The reasoning, by the way, is entirely clear – they just can't cope with the notion that they're writing a biography of a guy who would do that. Even though they quoted his juvenile rape fantasy poetry at length.

  • They can't talk about the bomb. It's fucking amazing, they're all 'loving discussion of the first test in the desert, feels feels feels – oh yeah Hiroshima happened anyway let's talk about how the scientists felt afterward also politics shh don't look over there lots of people died but we really don't want to talk about that at all at all at all.'

And then there's the part where they take the suicide of the woman he nearly married before he met his wife – a really interesting, complicated, improbably well-educated, professional queer woman – and they decide the suicide was all about Oppenheimer. It's revisionist fridging! It's fucking amazing!

And then there's –

Nope, I've spent enough time on this already.
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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. SheldonJames Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alice Bradley Sheldon. In rough order: she walked over a thousand miles through then uncharted Africa, was a society debutante, eloped, enlisted and then worked her way up to an army Captain in World War II, was a painter and an art critic, became a chicken hatcher and then a CIA analyst, traveled the world, became a doctor of psychology, wrote some of the most searing and extraordinary science fiction short stories I have ever read, played out a complex gender identity shell game with her male pseudonym, had an epistolary affair with Joanna Russ, shot her husband and then herself.

Damn I wish someone else had written this book. I would seriously pay cold hard cash for Hermione Lee’s version. Because this is an extraordinary story about someone with a rich, turbulent life, with complicated and contradictory ideas of gender, and who maintained multiple personas and voices. Phillips had access to Alice’s papers, conducted extensive interviews, and is a deft writer. And I could not trust her.

The overarching problem is her lack of critical tools. The best biographers have all the intensity and knowing of a spouse, but the coolness of a surgeon. They have to love the subject, know her flaws, and be able to cut her open and let her entrails steam in the same sentence, without ever changing tone.

Phillips didn’t have that. She is untrustworthy in that hard-to-spot way where she rushes or elides things that make her uncomfortable. Like, okay, you can’t give me half a paragraph on an incident from Alice’s tumultuous twenties where she apparently turned to prostitution and barely escaped a knife-wielding customer with her life, and then trot hastily on to the next thing, determinedly never looking back. That would be absurd in any biography; in the biography of this woman, who wrote so much about sex and violence and gendered sex and violence, it’s fatal.

Things like that. And her lack of consistency or control with questions of gender. I mean, you i>cannot write a biography of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr. without bringing an educated, consistent, interrogated framework of gender to the table. Or so I thought.

And the lack of critical faculties sometimes betrayed Phillips into total fail. She takes Alice’s late-life account of the sexual advances her mother made on her when she was a teenager at such unquestioning face value that she actually says that Alice acknowledged some responsibility for what happened, and then blithely carries on for the rest of the book accepting that as true. Because obviously if the fifteen-year-old victim of what was at the least sexual predation victim blames herself, well whatever she says goes, right?

I just, argh. I’m harping. But this book could have been so brilliant. The subject is so extraordinary, the material so rich. And I really enjoyed it for everything I learned about Alice. But all the ways Phillips failed just kill me.

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A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Don’t let the breadth of the title mislead you: this isn’t a history of the fourteenth century, it’s a history of France from about 1340 to 1400 through the career of a noble man, with occasional jaunts to England and the Italian city states. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – aside from one or two things, noted below – just for clarity.

My favorite parts of this book were the slice-of-life sections: what French peasants ate, what people talked about at court dinners, the lifestyle of British royalty. Tuchman clearly waded through a truly astonishing amount of primary sources, but she also retained consciousness of the gaping holes in the history related to class and literacy and plain old record destruction. But there’s only so much she could do about that, and I admit I did get a little tired of the endless backing and forthing with the politics of war and kingship and more war. It’s what she had to work with, but it wasn’t what I primarily came for.

Not her fault. What is her fault is the dose of explicit and implicit anti-Muslim sentiment we get connected to the crusades. Explicit in some of her turns of phrase, in her allegiance to the western view of defeats as tragic and victories as righteous. And implicit in her claim to be writing a history of the fourteenth century which believes that Muslims are only important to history when they’re killing Christians and getting killed by them.

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American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I picked this up largely on the strength of a hilarious Daily Show interview with the author. After reading, I think it was more a case of Jon Stewart’s awesomeness overwhelming all other considerations. Tragic.

Look, I could talk about how stilted the construction of this bio-history is, and I could talk about the frankly odd pacing and even odder notes. But my real problem with this book is a lot more subtle. Take a quote like this one: “. . . but Jackson, like many husbands before and since, may have loved his wife rather more than he listened to her.” Ninety nine percent innocuous, right? With just a smidge of a hint of an undertone, but hey the context all makes sense, so all right. Except when you add up a whole book of innocuous sentences like that, those little hints all accumulate into more of an . . . odor.

Jackson was an asshole of extraordinary proportions, and this book spent enough time rolling around with him to pick up some whiff of it. In that accidental way that’s just sloppy rather than authentic. History is by definition a project of perspective, but there are histories I trust, and this wasn’t one of them. Oddly, it was the extended passages condemning Jackson for the brutalities of Indian removal that did it. Pointing out the most obviously awful things the man did in a book with a clear pro-Jackson bias doesn’t add nuance or depth, it just makes both the condemnation and the extensive praise look shallow. We hear so much about Jackson as the founder of the Democratic party – of the concept of the President as an instrument of the people (his opponents thought it was inappropriate for him to ever address the press, incidentally, because he should only speak to Congress, and Congress should speak to the people). But never does it occur to this book that Jackson’s democratic principles were actually connected in a complicated way to his paternalism (he called himself the father of the nation, ug ug ug), and this book wouldn’t know a critique of paternalism if it patted it on the head and sent it off to bed.

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Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller by Georgina Kleege

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A book I should have liked, but really, unreasonably didn't. A blind English professor writes letters to Helen Keller, who is a really uncomfortable figure for the disability community because her "story inscribes the idea that disability is a personal tragedy to be overcome through an individual's fortitude and pluck, rather than a set of cultural practices and assumptions effecting many individuals that could be changed through collective action." Kleege talks about that discomfort, and the assorted favors and damage Keller's narrative did the disability movement by probing some of the difficult unknowns of Keller's life, such as her always-elided sexuality, her socialism, and the persistent claims that she was nothing more than one of those horses that can appear to do math by following trained cues – that she was a fake, because clearly she could not be intelligent. The letter format makes it personal and reflective, and lets Kleege do some interesting work with narratives and points-of-view and the lens of modernity.

And ug, I did not like it, and it was all about the damn letters. Kind of twee, sure, but really it's just that I seem to be allergic to second-person writing these days. Seriously, I was having flashbacks to bad eighties lit fiction, and I was in actuality just reading freaking Dr. Seuss in the eighties. I don't know why I had such a huge problem with the form of this book, because its content was generally good, if not ever surprising to someone in my particular niche of the disability movement.

Just, second-person. For hundreds of pages. Yargh.

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Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey by Linda Greenhouse

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
More history than biography, written almost entirely on the basis of Blackmun's recently unsealed papers (he kept everything). It's a bit of a weird book because of that. The opening biographical sketches getting Blackmun to his Scotus appointment are very cursory, as these things go, and the real meat of the book is the themed sections on abortion and Blackmun's authorship of Roe, then the death penalty through Greg v. Ga. and beyond, and to women's rights (which were, by the way, completely unrelated to the abortion issue for Blackmun, at least at first).

Ah, Blackmun. Thin-skinned, tetchy, precise, finicky, rigorous, occasionally quite funny. That comes through in this book, in his personal notes, casual correspondence, editorial marginalia on letters and drafts. What doesn't really come through is the bigger picture. You'd really think that the personal papers would give the best view of how Blackmun, the Nixon appointee, swung in the last third of his life from voting almost entirely with the conservative Burger end of the court to almost entirely with Brennan and often Marshall. But Blackmun, who wrote down nearly everything else, didn't really explain that, and neither does this book, quite. So the focus on the Blackmun lens is interesting, but not as illuminating as I thought it would be, and the whole book is a bit lighter weight than I was hoping.

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Nonfiction. Combination biography of Teddy Roosevelt’s early years and historical portrait of a time and class. This is a book which emphasizes letters, much to my pleasure. McCullough writes good history in the way that he can pick just the right details to give you as complete a picture of people as possible without droning on for pages about, oh just for an example, what George Washington ate for breakfast on each successive day of the week. The portrait of aristocratic life in New York in the last decades of the nineteenth century is vivid in its privilege. Teddy’s story, when it slowly emerges from the background detail, is irritating in the way that he is a man who succeeded given every possible advantage and opportunity to do so. This should not, but does, lessen the impact of his expansive personality and intellect. I really don’t like this sort of reverse classism in myself or others, but I did eventually stop mentally deconstructing it when I got to the part about Teddy, the great outdoorsman, going out west with a bowie knife made by Tiffany’s. Because some things you’ve just got to laugh at. Still, this is an intriguing portrait of the family and Teddy’s early years, particularly the impact of his childhood battles with asthma and prolonged illness.


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