Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar 

Women of Our Time: 75 Portraits of Remarkable Women

by Frederick S. Voss

Published by Merrell

192 pages, 2007

Buy it online

Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar

Women Who Write: 75 Portraits of Remarkable Women

by Stefan Bollmann

Published by Merrell

152 pages, 2007

Buy it online



Immortal Women

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

Women Of Our Time, a stubby but thick tome filled to the brim with photos (primarily black and white) and accompanying short bios (less than a page in most instances), gives us a sampling of notable women in the 20th century. In addition, we are privileged to see them through the eyes of great portrait photographers and can often chart how women’s roles have changed throughout the years by studying the women themselves: their clothes, their pose, their expressions and their surroundings. We can also get a sense of history from the style of the images themselves.

From “Red Emma” the militant political activist, Emma Goldman (1869-1940) to the beautiful but doomed Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962), and from Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) to Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), readers get a sampling of the broad spectrum of women at work: social reformers, actresses, sculptors, poets, writers, dancers, singers, scientists, aviators, cabinet officials, business women, musicians, photographers, evangelists and strippers, they all stare back at you from the page.

The photographers themselves -- many at the peak of their career and art at the time the included images were made -- also add an extra dimension to the book. The photo of Gertrude Stein, for example, was taken by surrealistic artist/photographer Man Ray.

Women of Our Time is courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. In 30 years, the gallery has acquired over 10,000 images, and the photos for the traveling exhibition the book commemorates and accompanies were selected from this impressive assortment. As a former senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, editor Voss was well familiar with his inventory. Not surprisingly, he has also published extensively on American portraiture.

It’s inevitable that not everyone will agree with Voss’ choice of subjects, but what is impressive is the range of women covered, and the pithy write-ups that accompany them. Like good sweets, the facts are boiled down to their delicious essence. In that one scant page, Voss also frequently squeezes in a paragraph on the photographers who captured these images, or gives a little background on the occasion when the photo was taken. I love this little book.

From the same publisher comes Women Who Write. It is certainly a glitzier package, a large, coffee table book with lithographs, illuminations, paintings and photographs in black and white, sepia and color, it looks gorgeous. While zeroing in on women authors only, it presents a much broader timeline, from the Middle Ages onwards, beginning with Christine de Pisan in the 15th Century and continuing on through successive centuries. George Sand, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, The Bronte Sisters, right up to Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende and Arundhati Roy.

Author Stefan Bollman did very well indeed with an earlier book, 2006’s Reading Women, and was understandably motivated to get back to work. After all, women like to read about women, and inspiring women are an excellent topic.

I had expected this book would appeal more to me, but a slightly pedantic and petulant tone is set in the foreword, where well published academic, Francine Prose, explores the times when these women wrote, and their challenge in pursuing their love and passion. It’s perhaps a little more strident than we need. We know it’s been a rough ride for women writers, but hey -- we’re there now.

Sometimes the chapters’ themes seem unruly, not a good fit for the women who are squeezed into them. Chapters such as “The Ancestors of Women Who Write,” “Alternative Worlds of Feeling,” and “Eccentric Orbits,” just feel too contrived, too awkward. Who is the readership? If it’s most of us, then I would go for the tried and true chronological grouping. It’s so darn easy to follow. Not original, I know, but these women are original in their own rights; they’re going to look just as unique in plain wrapping.

A major and somewhat bizarre flaw here is the total lack of an index. A book of this nature must have one, simple as that. Yet Women Who Write does not.

At first, Women Who Write just felt like hard work, like a university text, something I had not been expecting at all. There was so much extraneous and subjective material. Somewhere, part way through, however, I broke clear. Perhaps I just got used to it. With such great images and subjects like these inspiring women, it would be difficult indeed to bore the reader. | October 2007

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.