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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon Hardcover – August 8, 2006

4.8 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Journalist Phillips has achieved a wonder: an evenhanded, scrupulously documented, objective yet sympathetic portrait of a deliberately elusive personality: Alice Sheldon (1915–1987), who adopted the persona of science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr. Working from Sheldon's (and Tiptree's) few interviews; Sheldon's professional papers, many unpublished; and the papers of Sheldon's writer-explorer-socialite mother, Phillips has crafted an absorbing mélange of several disparate lives besides Sheldon's, each impacting hers like a deadly off-course asteroid. From Sheldon's sad poor-little-rich-girlhood to her sadder suicide (by a prior pact first shooting her blind and bedridden husband), Sheldon, perpetually wishing she'd been born a boy, made what she called "endless makeshift" attempts to express her tormenting creativity as, among others, a debutante, a flamboyant bohemian, a WAC officer, a CIA photoanalyst, and a research scientist before producing Tiptree's "haunting, subversive, many-layered [science] fiction" at 51. Sheldon masked her authorship until 1976, and afterward produced little fiction, feeling that a woman writing as a man could not be convincing. Through all the ironic sorrows of a life Sheldon wished she hadn't had to live as a woman, Phillips steadfastly and elegantly allows one star, bright as the Sirius Sheldon loved, to gleam. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Julie Phillips, a journalist, took a decade to complete James Tiptree, Jr., her first book. Drawing on Alice Sheldon's voluminous papers and more than 40 existing interviews with the author, Phillips ably handles the contradictions of Sheldon's personae, negotiating with uncommon grace and confidence the complexities of a woman best known as a man. Although Sheldon's readers may already know the story behind her strange life, Phillips keeps the material fresh. James Tiptree, Jr. will find fans even among those who have never read science fiction. The quality of the writing and Phillips's insights are apparent from the single criticism—that the biographer may have delved too deeply into Sheldon's life.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 469 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (August 8, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312203853
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312203856
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #772,217 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Jeanne Gomoll on August 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I probably shouldn't have done any driving for a day or two after reading Julie Phillips' biography of James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon. I was too distracted with thoughts of this life, this complicated amazing person, that had suddenly elbowed itself into my own. I'll never again be able to tell that thrilling, easy story that I've told way too often -- of the woman who wrote under a man's pseudonym and who, when she decided to write under a woman's name, couldn't get published without Tiptree's recommendation. That story now feels like the gloss it is, and so much less interesting that the real one. It's a holographic biography -- At times I felt like I could freeze the action. put down the book, and walk all around this 3-dimensional, fully fleshed out person. Ali revealed slices of herself to most people, seldom letting them see more than the single persona; she was constantly disguising herself, always performing, even for herself. Readers of Julie's biography are privileged to a much wider view: sadly, a view Ali never may never have allowed herself. The room had been lit up and the photo had become a hologram, the voice had become many voices.
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This book is a delight. I would go so far as to say it is the best biography I have ever read (not that I've read a great number). Philips has presented an exhaustive but not exhausting account of the life of Alice B. Sheldon, aka James Tiptree Jr., aka Racconna Sheldon. This is a comprehensive work at over 400 pages of smallish print. One gets the feeling that Philips has done the job almost to perfection.

What makes this book so amazing? Firstly, the subject, Alice Sheldon, is fascinating. This is much more than a biography of a science fiction writer (although it is that too); it is a chronicle of a difficult and ultimately tragic life. It would be hard to read this book and not feel for Sheldon, who 'lived inside her body as though inside an alien artifact.' Sheldon's lack of comfort in her own body is palpable in these pages. One can sense her dis-ease. Philips presents this difficult material sympathetically, correctly asserting that Sheldon's life is indicative of the changing landscape of sexual politics in twentieth century America.

The various sections of Sheldon's life are interesting in themselves. For example, the chapters on Africa are fascinating, as is the material on Sheldon's mother, Mary Hastings Bradley (who I'd never heard of, although she was a famous writer in her day). 'Alli's' life is overshadowed by that of her successful mother, and the older woman's presence hangs over these pages. By the time we finally get to Sheldon's own writing career, more than half the book (and half her life) is over. This enables us to see the ephemeral figure of 'James Tiptree Jr.' in the context in which he was concieved.
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Format: Hardcover
I read a few stories by James Tiptree Jr., but I never went out of my way to do so. If you're wondering how much you'd get out of reading this biography if, like me, you didn't know enough to be a fan... don't worry. The book is fascinating enough on its own.

Julie Phillips did a remarkably good job of collecting the details of Alice Sheldon's life, and in presenting them in a way that brought this woman to life. Ali was interesting in her own right: independent (yet overwhelmed by her accomplished mother), creative and artistic (but somewhat directionless), willing to take risks (some foolhardy, others courageous). Some of the story is disturbing, because this woman was -- in a bunch of ways -- rather screwed up. But it's also a positive story, because she didn't let herself be a victim to her weaknesses.

What struck me particularly about Ali Sheldon's story was the woman's need to separate her identities into very different personae. After struggling with the social roles available to her, she remarkably managed to turn the prism of her personality conflicts and sexual confusion into the most creative of efforts: to create new and groundbreaking science fiction stories that, ironically enough, often dealt with "women's issues" from the outside.

Tiptree lived only in his/her writing, either as an author or as a snail-mail correspondent. (Just imagine what "he" would have done with e-mail and online forums.) Tiptree created close friendships that respected the author's desire for anonymity (though most people thought it was because he worked for the CIA or another government agency) -- raising good navel-gazing questions about how one can be close to another person and not know the most "intimate" facts about them.
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Format: Hardcover
A few weeks ago, Julie Phillips published James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.

Last week I spotted Richard Ellmann scouting the MLA conference for penniless, amoral grad students who might be willing to swap a hit for a really good letter of recommendation.

Just kidding: he's been dead for almost 20 years. Nevertheless, the premiere literary biographer of our day has a serious rival. His specialty was bringing difficult figures to luminous life on the page. Julie Phillips has done the same for a character who seems too far-fetched to be real: the blonde Chicago debutante who became a chicken farmer, the first white child to trek through the Congo who grew up to be a suicidally depressed devotee of Dexedrine, the Army major and CIA analyst who was also a gifted artist, the battered teenage bride who earned a PhD in psychology, the reclusive male SF writer who turned out to be a middle-aged housewife in McLean, VA.

It would be easy for a biographer to get lost among the many masks of Alice B. Sheldon, or to be dazzled into idolatry by her flashing surfaces. Or, most likely, to choose one mask, one surface, as the Real or True or Important one, relegating the others to obscurity. Phillips never makes this mistake: she deals fairly with all the faces she mentions, and she examines the interplay of masks, emotions, gender identity, sexuality, and behavior with genuine insight.

Alice Bradley's parents were characters straight out of a 1920s film: dashing socialites who were also daring explorers. Her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, was a superb raconteuse, expert markswoman, noted beauty, and very successful writer of both popular fiction and travel/adventure books. (I wonder if this book will bring her writing back into fashion.
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