Tag: Elise Hooper

Learning to See

by Elise Hooper

ISBN 978-0-06-268653-4

“I could tell my commercial success put off some of the men who been working for a long time. They viewed me as a hack. After all, what did I know? I was just taking pictures of rich people. All of their talk about artistic philosophy and technique made me feel inferior and bored me to tears.”

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, an unlikely figure took up the calling of capturing for posterity the breadlines, shantytowns, and migrant farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl. Dorothea Lange was a portrait photographer, sought after by the elite of San Francisco society. Though she was friends with members of the city’s prestigious f/64 photography club, such as Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams, she was not a participant, perhaps because her work was considered too commercial. But as her rich clientele dwindled, Lange took up her camera for a new purpose, capturing many of the most famous images of the Great Depression as we remember it today. In Learning to See, Elise Hooper fictionalizes Lange’s journey from New Jersey girl to San Francisco society photographer to one of America’s most famous photographers of the nation’s pivotal moments.

Hooper paints a portrait of Lange as a modern, independent businesswoman and artist, who evolves into something of an artist-activist. In the afterword, Hooper notes that many of Lange’s contemporaries described her as difficult and controlling, but the novel takes Dorothea’s first-person perspective, and tries to imagine her life as she saw it herself. She expected the same degree of control over her work that her male peers enjoyed, but because she often worked for the government in the latter half of her career, she often did not have full control over her projects. She would be told where to go, and what she could and could not photograph. Her images did not belong to her, but to the various government agencies by whom she was hired by to depict the Great Depression, and then the Japanese-American internment. The latter photos were considered so incendiary that her work was impounded. Ansel Adams took her place, capturing images that were more to the government’s liking. Likewise, Lange took many photos of African-American sharecroppers who were hard hit by the depression, but the government chose not to use them, declining to make the depression a “race issue.” You can see some of Lange’s images in the back of the book.

Hooper pays particular attention to Lange’s family dynamics, from her abandonment by her father as a child, to her first marriage to painter Maynard Dixon, their two sons, and their subsequent divorce. As work dried up during the difficult years of the Depression, Lange made the wrenching decision to foster out her children so that she could keep working for the government, which required her to travel. With her husband unable to sell any of his work, she was the sole provider, a fact which strained her marriage, and caused resentment in her children. Although she enjoyed a happier second marriage, she remained responsible for the children, while neither of her husbands were ever faulted for their own part. Hooper captures this tension, deftly demonstrating the constraints that limited a working woman artist at the time; without birth control or childcare, she was at the mercy of childrearing responsibilities, and judged harshly for any she dared to throw off.

In addition to Dorothea’s marriages, Hooper pays special attention to two of her friendships, first with Fronsie Ahlstrom, the girl with whom she traveled to San Francisco in the first place. Hooper acknowledges that Fronsie mostly disappears from Lange’s biographies after this period, and that her role in the novel is largely fictionalized. However, Dorothea’s relationship with fellow photographer Imogen Cunningham was better documented—in fact, Cunningham was the original subject of Hooper’s project before the research trail led her to Lange instead. These two friendships buttress the narrative, providing the support that the men so easily overlook.

Hooper spends the first part of the book fully setting the scene and chronicling Lange’s development. While this part of the story is slower, it gives weight to Lange’s evolution, and contextualizes her decisions. Learning to See begins at the end, when Dorothea receives an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective of her work in 1964. We occasionally revisit this last year of her life throughout the book, illustrating the length and strength of her friendship with Imogen, her carefully repaired relationship with her older son, and the amount of time it took for the value of her work to gain to broader recognition. While the book rushes in portions, and drags in others, the overall portrait is nevertheless fascinating.

You might also like The Other Alcott 

Summer Reading Suggestions 2018

Each summer my book club goes on break, as members scatter to the four winds for visits and vacations. But being too busy to meet isn’t the same thing as too busy to read. So here’s this year’s list of suggestions for my book club members looking for something to read over the hiatus. September will be here before you know it! Click the headlines for links to full length reviews where applicable.

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

Cover image for Cork Dork by Bianca BoskerBianca Bosker had a successful career as a technology journalist when she became fascinated with the world of wine, and blind taste testing in particular. How could expert tasters identify the grape, vintage, and even the vineyard of what they were drinking, without ever seeing the bottle? Cork Dork is the story of the eighteen months she spent following this obsession, quitting her job as a journalist in order to study to become a certified sommelier, while also interviewing vintners, sommeliers, chemists, and collectors. But the rubber really hits the road in Cork Dork when Bosker tries to make her way into the restaurant industry armed with her freshly polished but highly theoretical knowledge of wine and wine service, with often humourous results.

The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

Cover image for The Other Alcott by Elise HooperFans of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women will already be aware that the much beloved children’s story was loosely based on the Alcott sisters’ childhood. The Other Alcott follows Louisa’s youngest sister, May, who lives under the shadow of her fame as the inspiration for the much-hated Amy March. May aspired to be an artist, and illustrated the first edition of Little Women. But while her sister’s novel was a critical success, May’s illustrations were panned. If Jo is the rough but shining favourite of Little Women, then The Other Alcott tries to imagine what it would be like to be the youngest sister of the person who penned this fictionalized version of herself. The Other Alcott follows May into Europe’s art scene at a fascinating period when the Impressionists were beginning to rock the French art establishment with their radical ideas, and more women were finding ways to formally study art.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Cover image for One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi KoulIn this humourous collection of essays, Scaachi Koul vividly sketches a portrait of her Kashmiri immigrant family, including her parents, much older brother, and young niece. Her father in particular is a vivid character, the kind of person who will decide a year later that he isn’t done being mad at you about something you did that he didn’t approve of, and abruptly stop talking to you for months at time. The inter-generational conflict is at once unique to her situation, and recognizable to parents and children everywhere. With a deft hand, Koul combines funny family stories with insightful cultural commentary about growing up as first generation Canadian in an immigrant family.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

Cover image for The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. FlynnWhen Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane arrive in England in 1815, it is by unusual means, and with an even more unusual mission. Sent back in time from a somewhat dystopian near-future, they are charged with identifying the cause of Jane Austen’s untimely demise in 1817 at the young age of 41, and with recovering and bringing back her lost manuscript of The Watsons. This top-secret mission is known as The Jane Austen Project, and it has one very important rule; they must change the future as little as possible while achieving their objectives, or risk being stranded in Regency England forever. With this highly unusual premise, copy editor and ardent Austenite Kathleen A. Flynn has captured something of Austen’s tone and pacing, without trying to entirely mimic her style. Highly recommended for fans of time travel fiction that is more about the destination than the science of such an endeavour.

Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi

Cover image for Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma LakshmiPadma Lakshmi has had a varied career. In her twenties she was a model, and then a television host and actress. She published a cookbook about what she ate to lose weight after a movie role required her to put on twenty pounds, and as a result made the improbable transition from model to foodie, co-hosting the popular cooking competition Top ChefLove, Loss, and What We Ate is a chronicle of the role food has played in her life, through times of love, and times of loss, and how she navigated the jump from a career that was based on her looks to one that engaged her heart and her mind. From a childhood in India, to an early adulthood spent traveling Europe, to a second career in America, she shows how food can be a source of comfort, a connection to identity, and an occasion to examine our biases about beauty.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

Cover image for Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie FordLocal author Jamie Ford’s third historical novel is set in Seattle during the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. Ford opens on the better remembered 1962 fair, and uses it to echo and reflect the main action of 1909. The plot was inspired by a fascinating newspaper clipping from the AYP Expo, advertising the fact that an orphan boy was one of the raffle prizes at the fair. The fate of the real boy is unknown, but in his novel, Ford imagines what might have become of a young half-Chinese boy named Ernest, whose winning ticket is sold to the madam of an infamous brothel. Raised in a Catholic orphanage, Ernest comes to the red light district as the temperance movement is surging in the city, and finds himself caught between the Japanese house girl, Fahn, and Madam Flora’s stubborn daughter, Maisie. Through fiction, Ford explores the history of the city.

The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu

Cover image for The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu So much of the web is free, at least in terms of money paid by the users who access its vast array of content. From eyeballs on ads, to time on site, these are the metrics that the tech industry thrives on, as free-of-charge enterprises find ways to monetize. Wu explores the attention economy, and how we pay for all this free content with our time, and our personal information. Through the history of advertising, this book explores how we got to the present state of the advertising industry, and how it is morphing to adapt to our new technologies.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

Cover image for Bloodletting and Miraculous CuresFour young medical school students start out on the road to becoming doctors, sure of their nobility of purpose and their calling, the real and trying rigours of the medical profession still ahead of them. Ming, Fitz, Sri, and Chen come from different backgrounds and have different career paths awaiting them. In a series of twelve interlinked short stories, Dr. Vincent Lam takes the reader behind the scenes of the medical world, from medical school to residency to the emergency room and the operating room. Lam’s characters are complicated and flawed, fallible humans who have been trusted with unthinkable responsibility, and faced with terrible dilemmas. This adds depth to the rich detail of the author’s own medical experience, making for an intriguing collection.

Reset by Ellen Pao

Cover image for Reset by Ellen K. PaoGet a glimpse into the boy’s club that powers the venture capital world funding today’s hottest tech start ups, and your favourite websites. Ellen Pao speaks up about her experience as an Asian American woman in this cliquey world, and offers her insights into why Silicon Valley’s diversity initiatives have failed. Going beyond the “pipeline problem,” Pao examines why women who made it through school and into lucrative careers later drop out of tech jobs in astonishing numbers, and what it would take to reset the industry culture so that everyone can thrive.

Little Women/The Other Alcott

Cover image for Little Women by Louisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott / Elise Hooper

ISBN 9780451529305 / 9780062645340

“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason.”

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March live in Civil War era Boston with their mother, Marmee. Their father is away at war, and the two older girls have gone to work to support the family. Beth stays home to keep house, while little Amy is still at school. Little Women is a quiet, domestic coming of age novel that follows four very different sisters as they grow up and find their place in the world. Together they befriend their wealthy but lonely neighbour, Theodore Laurence, and his grandfather, weather sickness and loss, and face difficult choices about marriage and family in the aftermath of the war.

Cover image for The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper I first tried to read Little Women when I was about eleven years old, after receiving a boxset as a gift. I found it exceedingly boring, and put it aside after only a few chapters. I next picked it up when I was about thirteen, and utterly devoured it. Along with many a previous reader, I was charmed by Jo, vexed by Amy, and felt cheated by Laurie’s disposition at the end of the novel. After attending a reading of The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper at Brick & Mortar Books in January, I decided that is was well past time to revisit this classic.

What struck me most on this third reading was how condescending and moralizing Little Women is. It is full of asides, lectures, and reprimands that bog down the delicate characterizations and loving depiction of a family. Knowing more about the history of the novel, this is now less surprising. Alcott was induced to write the books by her publisher, who saw an untapped market for clean literature for young women. Alcott herself was not precisely a traditional woman; she was an unmarried career woman who supported her parents and siblings with her craft. And it was precisely this responsibility to care for her dependents that persuaded her to accept her publisher’s offer, and to publish not one but two installments of Little Women, and then two later sequels. In short, Alcott knew that she was pandering, but she had a family to support, so she wrote what her publisher wanted. The subtext of the book is more complicated than that, of course, but the bad taste remains.

One of May Alcott's original illustrations for the first edition of Little Women, 1868While the lecturing tone of the book is now decidedly unappealing, I was as drawn to the characters as ever. The focus is on the interactions and interplay between the sisters, though their neighbour Theodore Laurence of course plays an important role. The March sisters have a pleasingly realistic air, likely helped by their basis in Alcott’s own family. It is this fact that Elise Hooper draws on in her historical novel, The Other Alcott. The story follows Louisa’s youngest sister, May, who lives under the shadow of her fame as the inspiration for the much-hated Amy March. May aspired to be an artist, and illustrated the first edition of Little Women. But while her sister’s novel was a critical success, May’s illustrations were panned.

If Jo is the rough but shining favourite of Little Women, then The Other Alcott tries to imagine what it would be like to be the youngest sister of the person who penned this fictionalized version of herself. Hooper’s Louisa is prickly and temperamental, using her position as the family breadwinner as a right to exercise control over those she supports. Yet she has mixed feelings about her success with such pandering material, and little patience for her fans. May’s dreams of being an artist are constantly subordinated to her family responsibilities, and with little idea of how to support herself as an artist, she labours under a heavy weight of obligation to her wealthy sister. That weight is especially burdensome when the character of Amy March in Little Women reveals all too clearly how May thinks her sister must see her.

The Other Alcott follows May into Europe’s art scene at a fascinating period when the Impressionists were beginning to rock the French art establishment with their radical ideas. Women were finding ways to study art, despite prevailing ideas about the indecency of such an endeavour. So in addition to a difficult and well-drawn family tension, the novel also has a great historical backdrop to work with. Hooper occasionally inserts her historical research about the Alcotts or May’s artistic contemporaries in a way that is less than fluid, but it seems to be a stumble born mostly of enthusiasm for her subject. However, it is all this information that helps the novel form such an intriguing counterpoint to Little Women, adding context, and taking the part of the most maligned sister. And May’s own life is more interesting than anything Louisa imagined for Amy.