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Reviews Wed Sep 30 2015

Review: The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin

the dead ladies projectJessa Crispin, the founder of the literary blog and the online magazine Spolia, and a former Chicagoan, recently wrote a memoir. The Dead Ladies Project will be released Oct. 6 by University of Chicago Press.

The book is one part travel diary and one part biography of famous intellectuals. Crispin spent a year and a half traipsing through Europe. She dedicates each section of her book to a different city and a different genius who at one time lived there.

The Dead Ladies Project is worth reading for the brief biographies alone. Crispin tells us about people who've never gotten as much attention as their life and work demands. Who was James Joyce's wife? Why does no one tell the story of half-sisters/lovers Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore playing tricks on the Nazis? What was father of Psychology William James's relationship with his own father like? Crispin details the lives of nine figures complete with their love affairs, run ins with the law, and a synopses of their life's work.

Crispin imagines them for us with color, but she never makes up any happy endings and she even allows for disappointment. Jean Rhys was not the kind of independent feminist figure we want her to be. After facing legal action, bans, and fines, and fleeing America for greater freedom of the press, Margaret Anderson stopped publishing and kinda just settled down. Crispin uses each figure to discuss broad issues of identity, self and femininity. When we learn about Nora Barnacle waiting around for her drunk husband James Joyce, we also hear about Crispin's constant state of waiting for visits and emails from her "lover." When we read of Margaret Anderson escaping the relative cultural drought that is the Midwest in favor of Europe, Crispin's own life is in clear parallel. With each biography, we receive a description of a city as Crispin found it along with speculation on what it was like when our intellectual lived there.

In addition to biography, The Dead Ladies Project is Crispin's memoir, the who she was, and what she was thinking about in each place as she read each figure's work. She offers a rarely told conflicted feminist narrative. I liked that she talks about sadness, loneliness, and the "I want to go home" feeling that can infect you when you're finally doing the traveling you dreamed about, or worst of all when you're already home. Crispin is fiercely independent, and simultaneously needy toward the men in her life. She never settles down. She never takes up yoga, and she never meets the love of her life. She accepts moments and even weeks of unhappiness, fear, and discomfort, and keeps moving along.

The Dead Ladies Project is a carefully balanced book that takes on an ambitious goal, and it delivers.

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