Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore

Joe Gould's TeethJoe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jill Lepore, historian and author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, tackles a difficult subject in this book: a thoroughly unlikeable man – racist, abusive, anti-Semitic, harasser of women – and his unfindable manuscript, simultaneously hailed as potentially one of the greatest works of history and dismissed as being unevenly written, where it was written at all. The book is being marketed as Lepore’s search for the manuscript, but it’s more about her can’t-look-away curiosity for the man. She does an excellent job, I think, of treating Gould like a human being, while also not sugarcoating that he was a pretty shitty one.

I really appreciated Lepore’s presence in the book. It helped me to understand what it is like to try to reconstruct a life from, mainly, what the subject wrote. In devoting a large portion of the book to Augusta Savage – an influential Harlem Renaissance sculptor who Gould obsessed over, stalked, and harassed for years – we see a contrast between this sort of project when a subject is an insatiable writer (Gould) and when they are so invested in their privacy that they destroy their own papers & work (Savage). “It has taken me a very long time, my whole life, to learn that the asymmetry of the historical record isn’t always a consequence of people being silenced against their will. Some people don’t want to be remembered, or heard, or saved. They want to be left alone.”

I did feel, however, like there were times that Lepore filled in gaps by telling us what she thinks happened, without always providing us with concrete evidence or even her own reasoning. Mostly I felt like I understood why she made those decisions and that she marked those places so that we readers know when she’s doing it, but there were times when I wanted more from her. Here’s Lepore at her best, explaining why she thinks what she thinks and, at the same time, illuminating for us another of the pitfalls of biographical research: “I think Savage left New York to get away from Joe Gould. But – and here’s the trouble – from the moment I first learned about her, I knew that my likeliest error would be in thinking I understood Augusta Savage, as if she were me, when, really, I hardly know her at all.”

To sum up, it’s good, and if it sounds interesting to you, go on and pick it up. I’ve shared two of my favorite quotes from the book, so let me share the third, which I have apparently turned into a poem. It comes after a story Savage told Gould, about a Baptist preacher who tries to baptize a (possibly unwilling) woman.
At the end, he says, “Tell these people what you believe,”
and she answers, “I do believe this man’s trying to drown me.”
Lepore follows,
“I began to consider this a story that Savage told not only to Gould,
but also about him,
and about how she was wise to him,
wise, even,
to what white modernist
writers and artists
were doing to the
writers and artists
of the Harlem Renaissance.
He said he was trying to save her,
but really he was trying to drown her.”

Joe Gould’s Teeth is out today, May 17th, 2016. I won it in a Goodreads giveaway. This review is cross-posted from Goodreads. See my other reviews and/or friend me here.

P.S. I don’t think it’s coincidental that my three favorite quotes were all about Savage. I wonder if Lepore feels the same way. I would love to see her take on Savage, but in the case it never happens, it’s time for me to do some research of my own.

Euphoria by Lily King

EuphoriaEuphoria by Lily King
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Gah, this book. It was probably 4.5 stars for me going into the ending. There were so many things to appreciate about it, and just a few things that bothered me*. On a stylistic level, I thought King’s writing was strong – emotional and evocative. Thematically and politically, King’s portrayal of the start of modern anthropological ethnography was nuanced and balanced – Nell Stone (aka Margaret Mead) and her compatriots were among the first to think about bias and objectivity and global white supremacy, and they were all part of changing anthropology into what we see today. I thought King’s portrayal of the native peoples’ Stone lived with and studied in New Guinea was equally nuanced. She shows that what we know of this people has come through the lens of white anthropologists, who themselves knew that they weren’t getting or understanding everything. She wrote the indigenous characters as people, which ideally wouldn’t be a positive thing to note. (Ideally it would just be a thing that everybody does, but instead here I am, thankful that she treated human beings like human beings.) King engages with the complicated harm that white people brought to the rest of the world, especially in the return of an indigenous man who had gone off to work in a mine and came back changed.

That’s the good stuff out of the way. My niggling negatives pre-ending included a discomfort with how unclear it is what is Margaret Mead & compatriots and what is fictionalized. King changes enough, including making Stone more passive than Mead and her husband both emotionally and physically abusive when afaik there isn’t evidence of that, that I would have appreciated more notes in the back, separating truth from fiction. I also felt uncomfortable with King’s POV choices – why does Bankson get this close, personal 1st person perspective, while Stone gets either a limited-3rd or diary entries? Ultimately, King’s POVs show her focus: this is really Bankson’s story, about how Stone saved him and his career, and it seems insulting to me, to take one of the most famous & fascinating women in history and write a book about how she changed one man’s life. Judging harshly, I’m going to say that King turned Mead into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with a little less manic pixie, but plenty of “amazing, crazy, unique girl comes into a man’s life and inspire/save him.” Ughughgughgughg.

And worse than that, worse than that, and here’s where we get to my deep anger at the ending(view spoiler)

I will say that it is rare for me to downgrade a book more than half a star based on its ending (I only had one last year – Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar), so for me to go down 2 full stars is a big deal. I rounded up to 3 stars out of respect for the nuance and care King showed during most of the book.

*Thank you, Mia, for helping me to, rather than fall into to a rage cycle, think through my post-reading anger and to acknowledge all of the things I appreciated about the book.

(Cross-posted from Goodreads. See my other reviews and/or friend me here.)