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Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles Hardcover – November 19, 2009

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Attempting to solve the riddle of Tillie Lerner Olsen, literary scholar Reid paints a warts-and-all portrait of the woman who became an iconic feminist and admired writer. The author of the celebrated stories I Stand Here Ironing and Tell Me a Riddle was, according to Reid, an imperious narcissist who used her charisma to cover her inadequacies. But Reid also presents Olsen's life as a metaphor for the 20th century, encompassing Communist activism, WWII patriotism, early feminism, and civil rights activism. Olsen (1912–2007), born in Omaha, Neb., to poor Russian Jewish immigrants, displayed early on a magnetic personality, verbal prowess, and what would become a lifelong habit of lying. A Communist during the 1930s, Olsen was thrust into the limelight after being jailed during a San Francisco dockworkers' strike. Putting the Party before personal loyalties, she neglected her daughter, was unfaithful to her husband, and took an advance from Random House without delivering a novel. A second marriage to fellow Communist Jack Olsen was happier, but sputtered as she finally tried to publish a book in 1974. Reid, author of biographies of Faulkner and Woolf, paints a deftly engrossing, nuanced, and meticulously researched portrait of a perplexing, larger-than-life woman. Photos. (Jan.)
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"Attempting to solve 'the riddle' of Tillie Lerner Olsen, literary scholar Reid paints a warts-and-all portrait of the woman who became an iconic feminist and admired writer. Reid paints a deftly engrossing, nuanced, and meticulously researched portrait of a perplexing, larger-than-life woman."
(Publishers Weekly (Starred Review))

"Reid sets out to interrogate the heroic feminist image that adorned Olsen in her last decades, to fill in the neglected, blurred, or falsified facts of her long life, and to answer riddles—most notably, 'why didn't Tillie write?'. An ambitious and obsessively well-researched biography."
(Women's Review of Books)

"Reid brings her extraordinarily complex and endlessly perplexing subject to vitally disarming life and her book provides substantively more for Olsenites than any previous attempt. Tillie Olsen is rich—and riddled with answers."
(Philadelphia Inquirer)

"A biographical bombshell. Reid's meticulous research undoes the feminist legend of Saint Tillie and replaces it with a complex, even-handed account of a passionate, often devious, and always ideological woman writer."
(Elaine Showalter author of A Jury of Her Peers)

"Panthea Reid tells an enthralling, complicated story of a maddening, charismatic writer; her self-creation, self-destruction, and self-promotion; and her profound social commitments."
(Patricia Meyer Spacks author of Reading Eighteenth-Century Poetry)

"Panthea Reid's quest for the truth about the courageous, egotistical, generous, maddening, and difficult Tillie Olsen is downright heroic. Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles is biography at its fascinating best."
(Valerie Martin author of The Confessions of Edward Day)

"Reid concludes her book with a sense of conflicted loss. While she wept at Olsen's death, 'I have never adored Tillie,' she admits. Reverence hampers facts, she says, then adds, 'My biographer's obligation . . .is to tell the truth as artfully as possible and not to let love hamper honesty.' No wise reader could ask for anything more."
(Susan Comninos Christian Science Monitor)

"Brilliant. Professor Reid sympathetically and critically describers the strengths and foibles of the iconic Olsen. Her intimate revelations are pertinent to Tillie's complex character."
(Jewish Press)

"Biographer Panthea Reid's extensive research reveals that some accounts of Olsen's life are more fable than fact. While Reid solves some riddles, she creates additional ones for admirers and scholars to ponder in the years ahead."
(Bloomsbury Review)

"Panthea Reid chronicles a journey for knowledge and social justice that spans the entire 20th century and follows the events that made the times momentous. Olsen is a biography of rare humanity. It is profoundly real. Reid has written a marvelously evocative book."
(The Advocate)

"This book is well-researched and provides an in-depth look at Olsen's life.Ried definitely knocks Olsen off any saintly pedestalàbut she does this without lessening the impact of Olsen's work."
(Feminist Review 2010-05-29)

"A remarkable amount of material on the life of Olsen. Students of Olsen's work will find this a valuable guide to the autobiographical roots of Olsen's fiction."
(Jewish Book World)

"Reid has succeeded in giving us a well-rounded and well-grounded picture of Tillie Olsen. This book is a major achievement in offering a balanced appraisal of Tillie Olsen, who was revered by some and reviled by others."
(National Jewish Post & Opinion 2010-08-11)

"Superb and painstaking biography. Reid artfully depicts a tortured writer whose concern for oppressed masses often eclipsed her duty to intimates."

"Get ready for the unflinching, warts-and-all story of Tillie Lerner Olsen. Reid unwraps the riddle of Olsen's complex personality in this fascinating biography."
(Carolina Arts and Sciences Magazine 2010-09-01)

"Great lives challenge and empower an intelligent, determined biographer. Tillie Olsen lived a great life to which Panthea Reid does full justice."
(Town Topics)

"A feminist icon, beloved of the left and also a superb delineator of what blocks writers from writing, Tillie Olsen is deserving of this penetrating biography, the first book to unravel the riddle of a life devoted to and tormented by writing."
(Kansas City Star 1999-01-01)

"Panthea Reid's ten-year odyssey in writing a definitive biography of this enigmatic woman has been long awaited by western literature and history scholars alike. Tillie Olsen will delight readers."
(Western American Literature 2012-10-01)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 484 pages
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press; First Edition edition (November 19, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813546370
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813546377
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,372,820 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Kevin Killian HALL OF FAME on July 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Panthea Reid performed extraordinary feats of research and detection to write her life of feminist writer Tillie Olsen, but she could have stopped at the corner store to pick up half a pint of compassion. As it stands, we have a gigantic book in which the ostensible subject gets her hands slapped on every page. In fact I took a sample at random (from the chapter "Queen Bee") and found Olsen trapped in another lie in every paragraph for ten pages, a streak broken only by a paragraph that discussed her love of being admired and idolized.

It is a curious case, but Reid does not make it easy to understand Olsen by any means, and I would think this should be one of the principal aims of biography. How is it that Olsen was able to write so beautifully at different times in her life, but only for short stints? What caused the annus mirabilis during which she wrote most of all of her famous short story collection TELL ME A RIDDLE? You won't find the answers here, but you'll find Olsen exhibiting every bad behavior known to mankind at one time or another--most often, lying, like Truman Capote, about the status of one or another long-awaited work.

Olsen benefitted from the women's liberation movement, but Reid (also a beneficiary) castigates contemporary scholars and critics for over-praising Olsen, because once the praise went to her head she could be outrageously vain. There's one funny story after another about Olsen refusing to surrender the spotlight to another.
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