Book Club: Two Lives by Janet Malcolm

Last week, we discussed Janet Malcolm’s book Two Lives, a biography of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. As a women’s historian I was looking forward to reading this book even though like most I find Stein’s writing style tedious and dull. However, I was really disappointed as were other members of the book group. Despite reviews that say this book sheds new light on this relationship, there really isn’t anything new or particularly surprising. Stein’s fascism is pretty well known, so the fact that she and Toklas survived WWII because of connections with a wealthy French fascist is not really earth-shattering news. We decided that this book is really more about Malcolm’s position as a biographer, which in many ways resembles the rather arrogant and self-worshiping voice of Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Malcolm claims she spent extensive time in the Beinecke Library at Yale, but what she gleaned from the Stein collection is pretty trivial and not well documented (i.e. no footnotes — an automatic “F” for my classes!] In other words, this book suffers from the same flaws and hubris described in Craig Seligman’s article in Salon a few years ago.

Next up: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, a writer who has not let us down yet!

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