Bodies Politic

Decades later, Kendall, a sophisticated intellectual with a degree from Radcliffe, heals herself by fleshing out the life of the person who made her, and who lived barely long enough to taste the feminist changes in women's lot.

"I have made a life that is in every way the opposite of hers. I'm not a daughter . . . and I'm not a mother. I live alone in the city of Manhattan, which is as far from my mother's version of a community as there can be in this country. I am as much an extreme example of my generation as she was of hers."

In another season, without the high-octane competition of Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Kendall's carefully researched, lovingly assembled book might have garnered more attention. Her chronicle of her family's life, and of her evolving place in it and in the larger world, makes riveting reading.

Norton and Margot, in the ’30s, made ballroom dance a black thing.
photo: Maurice Jeymour Studio from Waltzing in the Dark
Norton and Margot, in the ’30s, made ballroom dance a black thing.

Details

Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era
By Brenda Dixon Gottschild
St. Martinís Press, 270 pp., $45
Buy this book

Dancing Class: Gender, Ethnicity, and Social Divides in American Dance, 1890Ė1920
By Linda J. Tomko
Indiana University Press, 284 pp., $19.95
Buy this book

An American Daughter: Discovering My Mother
By Elizabeth Kendall
Random House, 225 pp., $23.95
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Obsessed by Dress
By Tobi Tobias
Beacon Press, 176 pp., $20
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Tobi Tobias, a former Voice critic who covers dance for New Yorkmagazine and writes books for children, brings us Obsessed by Dress, a compendium of quotations about fashion. Her sources range from Virgil to Lillie Langtry, from former Voicecolumnist Cynthia Heimel to Marcel Proust, the Bible, and various folk sayings. Tobias, who is as attracted to the visual arts as to dance, has found a subject that fuses elements of both. She must have had a field day researching this compact volume, which contains the expected (Robert Herrick's 17th-century verse extolling "a sweet disorder in the dress") and the startling (Cocteau's remark that "mirrors should think longer before they reflect"). Illustrated with Chesley McLaren's soigné cartoons, it is both permissive and prescriptive. In this season of political gassing, I'm encouraged to encounter a former president who does not fear to tell us exactly how to behave. "Some ladies think they may, under the privileges of the déshabillé, be loose and negligent of their dress in the morning. But be you, from the moment you rise till you go to bed, as cleanly and properly dressed as at the hours of dinner or tea."

No casual Fridays for Thomas Jefferson.

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