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Birnbaum, Phyllis 1945-

Birnbaum, Phyllis 1945-

PERSONAL:

Born May 27, 1945, in Bronx, NY; daughter of Louis (in business) and Ruth (a teacher) Birnbaum; married Ashok Trimbak Modak (an engineer), September 24, 1971. Education: Barnard College, B.A., 1967; University of California, Berkeley, M.A., 1972.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Watertown, MA. Agent—Fifi Oscard, 110 W. 40th St., New York, NY 10018.

CAREER:

University of Tokyo Press, Tokyo, Japan, editor, 1966-69. Columbia University, fellow of Translation Center, 1979.

MEMBER:

National Book Critics Circle.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for translating Confessions of Love.

WRITINGS:

An Eastern Tradition (novel), Seaview Books (El Cerrito, CA), 1980.

(Translator) Rabbits, Crabs, Etc.: Stories by Japanese Women, University of Hawaii Press (Honolulu, HI), 1982.

Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: Five Japanese Women, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1999.

Glory in a Line: A Life of Foujita—The Artist Caught between East and West, Faber & Faber (New York, NY), 2006.

Also translator of the novel Confessions of Love, by Uno Chiyo. Contributor of articles, translations, and reviews to magazines.

SIDELIGHTS:

In her book Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: Five Japanese Women, Phyllis Birnbaum presents the stories of five twentieth-century Japanese women who had the courage to defy their culture's deep-seated discrimination against women. Since feudal times, sexism was extreme in Japan. A woman's inferiority was considered a simple fact of life, and a wife was held in complete subordination to her husband and sons. While a man might have many mistresses without rebuke, a woman who took a lover was liable to be imprisoned. Western concepts of freedom and equality for women were first introduced during the mid-nineteenth century, causing shock waves throughout the country, even though most women were far too timid to embrace the new ideas.

In a collection of essays originally designed for publication in the New Yorker, Birnbaum profiles two writers, two actresses, and a painter. All led stormy lives and two came to tragic ends: actress Matsuo Sumako, who scandalized the public with both her unconventional private life and the revolutionary roles she brought to the stage, eventually took her own life; and Takamura Chieko, a progressive painter, ended her days in an insane asylum. Writers Uno Chiyo and Yanagiwara Byakuren, along with film star Takamine Hideko, had the advantage of being born a little later, when the rigid attitudes about women had loosened a little. Uno still managed to shock with her free-ranging love life and the candor with which she wrote about it. Yanagiwara left her powerful but crude husband for a younger, poorer man, shaming her spouse by printing her request for a divorce in the newspapers. Takamine, who began her career as a child star exploited by greedy relatives, went on to shape an admirable career that included hundreds of films, some with the country's top directors.

Reviewing Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo, Booklist reviewer Grace Fill commented: "These portraits provide a view of Japanese women who … demonstrated enormous strength and helped create change for many others." Kathleen A. Shanahan, a Library Journal contributor, noted that Birnbaum "has a refreshing style; she points out the biases in previous biographies of these women and adds her own comments, never pretending that a biography can be completely free of bias. Highly recommended."

Birnbaum next turned her attention to the flamboyant and enigmatic Japanese artist Foujita, whose monumental ego, bizarre costumes, and stunning drawings of women and cats were the talk of Paris from his arrival there in 1913 through the 1920s. According to Birnbaum's biography, Glory in a Line: A Life of Foujita—The Artist Caught between East and West, Foujita's self-aggrandizing attitude and scandalous behavior may have shocked French society, but these traits also added to the artist's celebrity and boosted sales of his line drawings, woodcuts, and other artworks. Foujita's popularity in the West peaked in the early 1920s when he was finally acknowledged as the serious and hard-working artist that he truly was, but his acceptance was short-lived. Birnbaum tells Foujita's story with the empathy of a biographer who understands the Asian culture from which he came, according to International Herald Tribune reviewer Janet Maslin.

Foujita's heady success was cut short by a tax scandal and other personal troubles that drove him out of France and eventually back to his homeland. There, during the 1930s, Foujita was commissioned by the Japanese government to create propagandistic paintings—paintings which glorified Japanese military aggression and the cruelty of war so forcefully that he was criticized around the world. As his reputation eroded, Foujita reportedly lashed out against the West, yet he spent the last years of his life rather quietly in the French countryside. For the most part, Glory in a Line was well received by western critics. New York Times contributor Christopher Benfey called it a "briskly and stylishly written book" but one that "left me wishing for more." Maslin suggested that Birnbaum may have neglected or downplayed the more controversial facets of this colorful character, both in Paris and in his homeland, but she also called Foujita's biography "an intriguing book on the basis of its odd story … and its exploration of the many contradictions he embodied." A Kirkus Reviews contributor similarly noted Birnbaum's tendency to focus especially on Foujita's glory years in Paris but in the end called the book an "evenhanded portrait" of a "conflicted artist proud of Japanese culture and stung by Western racism."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, January 1, 1999, Grace Fill, review of Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: FiveJapanese Women, p. 802; November 1, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of Glory in a Line: A Life of Foujita—The Artist Caught between East and West, p. 19.

International Herald Tribune, December 12, 2006, Janet Maslin, review of Glory in a Line.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1998, review of Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo; September 1, 2006, review of Glory in a Line, p. 883.

Library Journal, October 15, 1980, review of An Eastern Tradition, p. 2229; January, 1999, Kathleen A. Shanahan, review of Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo, p. 112.

New York Times, January 14, 2007, Christopher Benfey, review of Glory in a Line.

New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1980, review of An Eastern Tradition, p. 42.

Publishers Weekly, June 20, 1980, review of An Eastern Tradition, p. 73; August 6, 1982, review of Rabbits, Crabs, Etc.: Stories by Japanese Women, p. 67; August 7, 2006, review of Glory in a Line, p. 41.

Saturday Review, July, 1980, review of An Eastern Tradition, p. 58.

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