Dave Wood's Book Report, Oct. 24, 2007
I've always been fascinated by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, ever since I read "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" by Gertrude Stein and "The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook," by Alice B. Toklas.
The first is a tour de force in which Stein really writes about herself, but titles it using her partner. That ploy enables her to have Toklas "write" stuff like this: "I have known only three geniuses in my life -- Pablo Picasso, Alfred North Whitehead and Gertrude Stein."
Not bad, eh?
The cookbook, of course, is famous for Toklas's brownies, which were laced with marijuana which made her the darling of the hippie set 40 years ago.
But the cookbook is more than that, if you're interested in these two women. Of course, there are serious recipes, like "Eggs Francois Picabia," which require a dozen eggs and ONE POUND of butter and "Occupation Meat Loaf, a recipe Toklas used during their lives during the German occupation of France during World War II.
But there's more because Toklas presents life in the expatriate world of France in a more factual way than her partner, who writing is often maddeningly obtuse.
Now comes "Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice," by Janet Malcolm (Yale University Press, $25). Malcolm is the New Yorker writer who has spent a good deal of time in Europe and a good deal of time researching the lives of these two Americans, who took off and made history, Stein as an art critic and writer and Toklas as her faithful partner.
Malcolm brings new light to the relationship, one that surprised me, but not everyone. A friend said she had known for years that shy little Alice B. Toklas had ruled the roost in the Stein-Toklas household and that many people had heard the husky authoritarian Stein beg Toklas not to be angry.
The other news to me was Stein's conservatism. You wouldn't think a rebel of her caliber would also be an avowed capitalist, who hated progressive politics and most of all Franklin D. Roosevelt, but she did and said so again and again.
Also, Malcolm has uncovered the fact that Toklas and Stein entertained a prominent Nazi collaborator in World War II France. This was a strange activity for two Jewish women, who wrote about every bit of minutiae in their lives, but failed to mention that.
A sidelight to that story would be pretty funny if it weren't so sad. The collaborator was able to get food stamps for the little dog so loved by its owners. Stein and Toklas didn't get the stamps, but the dog did, because the Nazis apparently wanted to take care of any animal that was a purebred, part of their program for racial purity.Malcolm's is indeed an interesting look at two American icons.
On the regional front we have "The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate," edited by John and Abbey Gaterud (The Blueroad Press, $20). It's a compendium and poetry, stories and nonfiction written largely by Minnesota writers and teachers, many of them connected with the Minnesota State University system.
Some are well-known, like Bill Holm, retiring now from Southwest State, Richard Coffey and Robert Bly, Minnesota's Pulitzer Prize poet. Here he is in the new book with a poem appropriate to the crazy weather we've had this summer.
"Today it's raining on the trees
And the roof and the ground.
We can say too much ran is falling,
But it falls anyway.
"What did we expect? This
Wetness is what we are.
Each of us was born
Naked from a wet door.
"Nothing wrong with that.
That's how the Amazon
Was born and how the whales
Received a home."
Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.