It’s easy to equate Louisa May Alcott with her literary alter ego Jo March, the feisty, dark-haired bookworm of Little Women. But as Harriet Reisen vigorously shows in Louisa May Alcott (Holt, $26), the real Louisa was far more intriguing. Reisen introduces us to the woman who churned out thrillers and pulp fiction, and who penned a romance about hashish the same year she published Little Women. Jo March eventually married, but the fiercely independent Alcott, who supported herself and her family with her writing, preferred to be a free spinster and to paddle her own canoe. This is a compelling biography.
Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) was born in the Ukraine but became one of Brazil’s most admired modern writers. Her novels are steeped in Spinoza and Jewish mysticism, yet she was also a popular newspaper advice columnist. She earned a law degree, married a diplomat, and lived in Europe and the U.S., all the while writing fiction that was rich, strange, and even shocking. To produce such a remarkable writer required an incredible set of circumstances, and Benjamin Moser’s fascinating Why This World (Oxford Univ., $29.95) looks back to the years before Lispector’s birth for the sources of her art. Her family barely escaped the pogroms in their small village of Chechelnk. Lispector, though an infant when the family fled to Brazil, always felt a particular guilt: her mother contracted syphilis as a result of a gang-rape by Russian soldiers, and her parents tried the folk remedy of conceiving a baby as a cure. Needless to say, her mother’s condition worsened and she died when Clarice was seven. Such nightmares haunt Lispector’s work, as do passion, mysteries, and the quest for authentic identity.
Linda Gordon has written a wonderful biography of Dorothea Lange (W.W. Norton, $35), who transformed herself from a privileged socialite into the famous Depression-era photographer. Lange began her career as a society photographer in San Francisco, but the election of Franklin Roosevelt as president stimulated in her a passion for grassroots activism and a desire to integrate her work as an artist with her political convictions. Portraiture gave way to documentary photography; Lange started with Mexican farm workers and soon was making pictures of the impoverished refugees who arrived daily in California from the Oklahoma dust bowl. In doing so, she quarreled with Ansel Adams, who believed that a photographer’s emotions should not influence the photography. Over 100 of Lange’s photos accompany this absorbing chronicle of a well-developed life.