Holiday books: Biography

  • Article by: STAR TRIBUNE STAFF
  • Updated: November 21, 2009 - 11:58 PM

From "Charles Dickens" to "Civil War Brides" to "Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson"

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Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch (Little, Brown & Co., 464 pages, $30). Like Blake Bailey's superb Cheever: A Life, Gooch's "Flannery" presents an impeccable narrative of another American classic, the Southern Gothic Catholic novelist and author of some of the greatest modern short stories. Striking the right balance between the work and the life is tricky, and Gooch gets the edge over Bailey for finesse.

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles (Alfred A. Knopf, 736 pages, $37.50). Stiles conducts a bracing foray into early 19th-century America, when the country jettisoned a hierarchical culture of deference and mercantilism for an all-out individualism and capitalism. This revisionist biography rehabilitates the Commodore as a remarkable man of honor and a patriot who played a pivotal role in the Union war effort and in shaping the postwar economy. Pair this epic work with Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Anne Heller's impassioned novel-like biography of the apostle of individualism.

The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar (St. Martin's Press, 704 pages, $40). Both Schenkar's witty take on that charming villain, Tom Ripley, in "The Talented Miss Highsmith" and Elizabeth Hawes' evocation of a movie-star-like writer in Camus: A Romance are biographies that challenge the conventional, chronological approach to biography, favoring, instead, a more meandering but penetrating portrayal of their subjects' obsessions and romantic relationships.

Booker T. Washington: Black Leadership in the Age of Jim Crow by Raymond W. Smock (Ivan R. Dee, 240 pages, $26). This country's first famous post-Civil War African-American gets a makeover in Smock's biography, an admirably concise narrative. Smock shows that Washington was a shrewd politician, even though his means of accommodating the racist South was discredited as W. E. B. Dubois and a younger generation of black notables were engaged in more militant programs that ultimately resulted in decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education.

Charles Dickens by Michael Slater (Yale University Press, 720 pages, $35). Slater, a premier Dickens scholar, has produced an engrossing story of a writer at work. New even to devotees of Dickens biography are wonderful vignettes of Dickens the journalist, honing his knowledge of London by reporting on actual events and personalities that became wonderfully transmogrified into his baroque fiction.

Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood (Knopf, 480 pages, $27.95). Writing with grace about a figure as elegant and punishing as Sugar Ray Robinson is no mean feat, but Haygood's deft biography does a beautiful dance between the man and his times, setting quintessential scenes like the one in the boxer's own Harlem club: "Tapping his feet, fingering his money clip. Why, he loved this world so much there were times he wondered if it just might overtake his primary line of work. Which was delivering pain and causing blood to flow."

Civil War Wives by Carol Berkin (Knopf, 384 pages, $28.95). In "Civil War Wives," Berkin, the author of "Revolutionary Mothers," continues her great work of recovering women's lives. In this case, she writes about Julia Dent Grant, the president's stalwart helpmate; Varina Howell Davis, the Confederate president's fiercely independent partner, and Angelina Grimké, the outspoken abolitionist and feminist who had to put up with the requirements of a conventional marriage. Not able to wield power themselves, these women nevertheless provide a fresh and essential perspective on an era that redefined the nation.

Abigail Adams by Woody Holton (Free Press, 512 pages, $30). Holton's book begins irresistibly with an account of his subject's will, a daring, rebellious act in a time when women had no legal right to own or dispose of property. With so many accounts sentimentalizing the Adamses' marriage, Holton provides a refreshing and grittier account of the considerable tensions between this couple. That they could surmount considerable difficulties makes their marriage and political partnership all the more impressive.

Gabriel García Marquez: A Life by Gerald Martin (Knopf, 672 pages, $37.50). Martin's book reflects decades of research into the life and work of this internationally acclaimed novelist. He draws on interviews with his subject as well as hundreds of others while exploring why Marquez more than any of his contemporaries has managed to remain both a popular success and the most esteemed writer of his generation.

The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and his Moral Conscience by Kirstin Downey (Nan A. Talese, 480 pages, $35). Downey presents a riveting account of the first woman to hold a major Cabinet position and who advocated a radically progressive agenda that today is taken for granted: a 40-hour workweek, unemployment compensation, a federal child labor law, unemployment compensation, Social Security and health insurance. She knew FDR well and feared that he might renege on his promises to her. The story of how she managed to accomplish so much of what seemed unattainable in Depression-era America clearly has powerful implications for our contemporary political climate.

-- by Carl Rollyson

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