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Tiptree redux
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I just finished reading the Alli Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. biography, which was brilliant and fascinating, right up until the ending. One of the lines about Alli Sheldon that Julie Phillips keeps quoting throughout the biography, and especially in the last chapter, is "Alli never flinched." At the very end of the biography, Julie Phillips flinches. She does a brilliant job of presenting all the facts of Alli and her husband Ting's murder/suicide (it was an agreed-upon "suicide pact" from years before, but her husband was certainly ambivalent about it and apparently hadn't agreed to it happening the night she shot him in his sleep before shooting herself) as well as the reasons that led up to it. Then Phillips reports the emotional responses of Alli's friends, who were heartbroken but understanding and overwhelmingly positive in their eulogies of her and interpretations of her actions...but, in a move that conflicts with her techniques throughout the rest of the otherwise-perfectly-balanced book, Phillips completely fails to report the emotional reactions of any of Ting's family and friends to what was, in effect, his murder.

Did his family understand and forgive and think well of Alli, too? Or were they angry and unforgiving, either at first or forever (as, y'know, I probably would have been in their place, if Ting had been my dad or friend)? Reading this biography, I just don't know, and it's a large missing piece that seriously detracts from the portrait of Alli's ending and what she left behind her...and my best guess, from that missing piece of the puzzle, is that Phillips just liked Alli Sheldon too much to end her book with anyone saying bad things about her. If that's the case, it's understandable (biographers often like their subjects too much to be truly balanced in writing about them) - but it's a real flaw in the biography, which is particularly frustrating after the brilliance of the first 39 chapters. (Or maybe she left that part out because Ting's family & friends didn't want to be quoted about it in the book, which would be perfectly understandable on their part - but if so, Phillips could have quietly stated that they were unwilling to talk about it, and that would have been fine for showing her readers that she was keeping the biography balanced to the best of her ability.) It's still a brilliant book, and I'm very glad I read it, but it ends on a flinch away from the full complexity of Alli Sheldon's life and death, and on a seriously flat note. Bah.

On the other hand, the fact that I'm still thinking about the book and cannot get it out of my head is a sign of just how powerful it really is, despite any flaws or missing pieces - what a fascinating person Alli Sheldon was, in all her strengths and fears and contradictions, and what a wonderful writer Julie Phillips really is, thoughtful and perceptive and also just a beautiful stylist. I guess that's what it comes down to in the end - if I hadn't loved this book so much, I wouldn't have felt so frustrated by the ending. If it had been a mediocre biography, I would have shrugged and moved on at the end without thinking anything of it. As it is, it's a biography that's going to stay at the top of my shelves for re-reading and thinking about and lending to friends, because it's by far the most fascinating, stimulating book I've read for a very long time.

And I spent yesterday afternoon reading it in the best of all possible circumstances - we took Maya to the park, where not only were cream teas were being unexpectedly offered at one end of the field, but a little band of old men had set themselves up at the other end to play wonderful 1920s jazz! I sat in the sunshine listening to the jazz, while a four-year-old girl danced to the music like a flapper, fifteeen feet away, and dogs romped all around the park, chasing balls and toys and each other, tails wagging, and I read about the 1960s/70s science fiction community and felt just perfectly happy. It was a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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