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Composing a Life (Plume) Mass Market Paperback – June 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Bateson profiles herself and four other highly productive women, concluding that the obstacles life presents can be sources of wisdom and personal growth. "While the book's premise is intriguing, the telling is self-indulgent and only sporadically illuminates the author's themes," PW remarked.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Bateson, an anthropologist who is the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, attempts to examine women's lives from a new perspective. Using her own life and those of several friends, all of whom have interesting, multifaceted careers, she looks at life as a work of improvisational art. Rather than a series of interruptions, she sees child rearing, career changes, divorce, etc., as creative opportunities and seeks a unifying thread in varied life experiences. This attempt to create theory from life is not accomplished; reading about these women in a work of collective biography would be worthwhile, but the bits and pieces of their lives that Bateson gives lead nowhere. This books lacks the clarity of her With a Daughter's Eye (LJ 8/84; one of LJ' s "Best Books of 1984"). Women's studies collections may want to consider, but this is not an essential purchase.
- Barbara M. Bibel, Oakland P.L., Cal.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Plume
  • Mass Market Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Plume (October 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452265053
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452265059
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,560,231 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mary Catherine Bateson is a writer and cultural anthropologist. She has retired from teaching but continues as a visiting scholar at Boston College's Center on Aging and Work. She was educated at Radcliffe (BA 1960) and Harvard (PhD 1963). She was Dean of the Faculty at Amherst College 1980-83. From 1987 to 2002, Bateson was Clarence J. Robinson Professor in Anthropology and English at George Mason University, becoming Professor Emerita in 2002. She has also taught at Harvard, Northeastern, Amherst, and Spelman College, as well as overseas in the Philippines and Iran.

Bateson's original research interest was in the Middle East. More recently she has been interested in how women and men work out distinctive adaptations to culture change, learning from those around them and improvising new ways of being. She is currently exploring how extended longevity and lifelong learning modify the rhythms of the life cycle and the interaction between generations.

Her books include:, With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson; Composing a Life; Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way; Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition; and Willing to Learn: Passages of Personal Discovery; and Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, September 2010.

Bateson is married and has a married daughter and two grandsons. She lives in Southern New Hampshire.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

48 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Dianne Foster HALL OF FAME on June 6, 2001
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I read Mary Catherine Bateson's book COMPOSING A LIFE when it was first issued some years ago. I had read her mother's biography BLACKBERRY WINTER, and I wanted to know more about the child raised by the woman who wrote COMING OF AGE IN SAMOA. Bateson's mother was married three times -- twice to anthropologists, including Gregory Bateson, Mary Catherine's father and Margaret Mead's third husband.
I was pleasantly surprised by Mary Catherine's strong individual personality and the inspirational tone of her book. Bateson definitely escaped her parents shadow. Having famous parents who study other people's children doesn't mean your life will be perfect or easy. Mary Catherine had to find her own way and compose her own life. Finding her way meant "stepping outside the box" or realizing that she could make choices at any point. She did not have to conform to society's notion of the phases of life (maybe her mother's study of "coming of age" had some effect on her novel thinking?).
Bateson's book helped me to think about my own life differently. I found the courage to go back to school at age 28 (I was a high school dropout with three small children), earn a B.A., M.A. and complete all the coursework for a PhD. Today, I am a a subject matter expert for one of the Federal Government's leading statistical agencies. At age 28, I had no idea how far I could go, or that I even wanted to go there. Mary Catherine Bateson was one of those pioneering women who helped me realize it is possible to change your life.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Andrea M.. Ahlsen on December 5, 1998
Format: Mass Market Paperback
"Composing a Life" is a critically reflecting book on the lives of five women and the challenges they are faced with during their life roles.
Mary Catherine Bateson has woven together several cross-functional areas of study including psychology, anthropology,multi-national studies, and behavioral sciences to explain the societal, ethnic, and economical pressures that women feel in the varying (and ambiguous) roles in their life.
This is not a male-bashing book yet one that carefully explains the external and internal forces of women as they wear several hats as professionals, mothers, girlfriends, wives, lovers, and friends. Just as music can rapidly change in tempo or keys, so can the lives of women and the expectation of immediate adjustment and acclamation.
A five-star book. Easy to read and great to reflect upon and journal your thoughts as they springboard from this introspective book.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 17, 1998
Format: Mass Market Paperback
This very thoughtful and subtle book is good for just about anyone to read, although it particularly recounts the contemporary lives of five women. Mary Catherine Bateson is the daughter of two of the greatest of anthropologists, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, and her capacity for insight shines through. There is something energizing and exciting about seeing the quandries of modern life with perspective. We are not the first to have days filled with adversity and challenge, all the while trying to live in a way that does justice to ourselves and our world. You will hear about Joan Erikson, wife of Eric Erickson and an artist, a college president, an engineer in the business world, and Bateson herself. The interviews and observations span decades, but are so intriguing you find yourself thinking "and what happens next?" It's nearly impossible to write a book about decades of personal life, and see the kernels of wisdom about how we make personal decisions and deal with adversity, but it's here. In one elegantly slim volume. I'm sending it to one friend of 20 years, one of 40 and one of 80 this week.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By anerak2 on February 17, 2005
Format: Paperback
This is a well-written and well thought out book. The reason I give it three stars is for its very limited focus. Bateson leads the reader to believe that we will learn about different life choices, different stories, and different outcomes from the women she followed. We don't. All of the women she follows are upper middle class or above; they are either academics themselves or swimming in the same pond as professors; all of them (with one exception) have children, a husband, and access to everything life has to offer.

These are interesting stories, but from an anthropologist's daughter I expected more. Why not expand the research to include a few women who were faced with welfare, or violence, or non-conformist husbands or children? Women who had no access to education and still managed to "compose a life" despite terrible hardship? Women who propelled themselves into jobs or environments no one would have expected? Anything give this book variety.

How can we truly learn how to "compose a life" unless we've seen many different ways to do so? This book is only inspirational to blessed upper middle class "liberals" who are within Bateson's own sphere. While it could have been great, it was only so-so.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By M. Hersey on January 7, 2008
Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase
I really wanted to love this book. It came highly recommended. The first 15 pages were great--I thought this would be a seminal read. But then things took a nosedive. Ultimately, this book felt to me like a self-indulgent intellectual ramble, and excuse for author to vent her bitterness toward Amherst College and get even by airing her story. (Which she has every right to do, but I thought I was reading a different book.) In the end, my only takeaway is that wearing multiple hats, perhaps in succession, can be a positive thing. I still don't understand what the plight of the homeless has to do with figurative improvisation. Perhaps I'm just not smart enough to appreciate the nuances--but I definitely didn't. Original? Yes. Uplifting/inspiring? Nope. I really tried!
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