Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book Review: Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern

This year for NaNoWriMo I decided to write a story set in the 1920s (well, sort of anyway) and decided this was as good an excuse as any to track down any and all books I could find set in this time period and read them. This proved trickier than I thought and I didn’t come up with many books but one that I did find was this one about flappers and the 1920s sexual revolution which sounded rather interesting. I put in an interlibrary loan for it, didn’t hear anything for two days and then about half an hour before a friend was set to come and pick me up for fall break I got an email from the school library saying it had come in.  So as soon as I got back from my fall break* I picked up this book and I really enjoyed it. It’s not meant to be a history of the 1920s but rather focus in on a few specific areas and it did provide a lot of background material that I tried to incorporate into my NaNo and I suggested it to a few friends who also like reading about that time period.
Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz
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 Normally I'd comment on the title but since mine was covered up by a piece of paper (with the words DO NOT REMOVE on it) I don't really have any comments on it.

Summary: Zeitz gives insight into the many women who created the image of the flapper including Zelda Fitzgerland (wife to Scott Fiztgerald and his muse), Coco Channle (French fashion designer), and Lois Long (writer for the New Yorker).
The Good: This book had tons of information on the 1920s I found fascinating and almost ton that I knew**. The book showed how the very image of feminity was changing from the old Victorian notions and how that affected how women dressed, had relationships, and how they viewed their own future. The book compared the sexual revolution here to the sexual revolution in the 1970s (another era I also like, probably for the same reasons) and it made the 1920s sound like a fascinating era and I really do wonder why more fiction authors haven’t tapped into all the issues to write about.
The Bad: The book is split into three parts and, after reading the first part, I thought that all the parts would be thematically the same; introduce one of the big players in the formation of the image of the flapper, focus on them, shift focus to other people in the same area who also did a lot for the image and then shift back to the first person to tie the whole section together. The second and third section did not do that however and they came off as a bit weaker than the first section because of it. Both of them were well written and provided a ton of information but they just weren’t as structured and I wondered why the book was split into sections at all instead of just focusing on different people each chapter. I know it’s picky but it did bother me as the book went along so I should bring it up. Another odd thing that bothered me was that the photographs included in each chapter (usually one first thing in the chapter) didn’t always relate to the information in that chapter. I remember in one case there was a picture of a Chinese-American flapper (who I think was an actress) and the caption said that she proved you neither had to be American-born or white to be a flapper and then there were only a couple of lines about her in the chapter. Actually, there wasn’t much about non-white flappers at all in the book. The book explains it by mentioning the racial prejudices at the time (like people saying that African-American women couldn’t dance the Charleston, although African-American men were considered the best dancers) but I still felt like the book could’ve used a chapter on that and explored the issue a bit more.

I loved this book as much as I had hoped and would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the pop culture of the 1920s. Am I likely to pick up this book anytime soon? Probably not but I'll keep an eye out to see if I see it on sale, I'd certainly like to have it some day (and more books on the 1920s, anyone got any recommendations?). 

*and I meant that literally, as soon as I got off the bus I wheeled my suitcase halfway across campus (thank god that thing has wheels, the last time I had to carry my bags across campus it took forever and I had to call a friend for help, mind you even with wheels the fact that my school is in the mountains and some of the ramps are blocked off due to construction didn’t help) to drop off Inkdeath at the library and grab this book before wheeling my bag across the other half of campus back to my dorm, more stairs and more uphills!
** Not that I knew much to start with, usually my history courses skimmed through the twenties to get to the Great Depression.