Robin: The Definitive Biography of Robin Williams
By Dave Itzkoff. (Henry Holt and Co., 529 pages, $30.)

 

Robin Williams developed into one of the world’s most beloved comedians by drowning out his true voice with chatter from a deep bench of characters, most brimming with humanity and kindness. There wasn’t a bad bone in his bodies.

That approach, however miraculous to behold, makes the comic a hard subject to truly understand, but Dave Itzkoff tries his darnedest in “Robin,” the most thorough biography yet of the legendary entertainer.

The New York Times veteran approaches his daunting task with a reporter’s objective eye, relying heavily on more than 100 interviews with close friends and noted celebrities, including David Letterman and former “Mork & Mindy” co-star Pam Dawber. Recollections from Billy Crystal are particularly revealing and downright touching, especially when Williams’ Comic Relief co-host shares details from their late-night conversations.

Itzkoff’s research shines considerable light on what led to the Oscar winner’s unexpected suicide in 2014 and how a form of body dementia was already creeping in, a devastating diagnosis for a man whose life depended so much on being animated.

Still, Itzkoff can’t quite crack the surface, a shortcoming he admits in the book’s epilogue.

“Everyone got a piece of him and a fortunate few got quite a lot of him, but no one got all of him,” he writes.

For the most part, “Robin” is a nimble, joyous journey down memory lane — just the way Williams might have planned it.

NEAL JUSTIN

 

The Hidden Light of Northern Fires
By Daren Wang. (Thomas Dunne Books, 322 pages, $26.99.)

We generally place the Civil War in the South — in Atlanta and Savannah and Appomattox. But this novel is set in northern New York, around Buffalo, and it explores the dangerous work of helping escaped slaves cross into Canada. In other words, the last steps of the Underground Railroad.

Author Daren Wang’s town of Alden, N.Y., has a basis in history, inspired by the only secessionist town north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Here, Mary Willis lives with her father, who runs a lumber mill, and her opportunistic brother, Leander. When she discovers escaped slave Joe Bell near death in their barn, she decides to hide him until he is healthy, then help him to freedom.

It’s terribly risky. The area’s bounty hunters are ruthless, and her own steely independence further sets them off. The characters are compelling and the story’s twists are riveting, right down to a scene above Niagara Falls, yet nothing is played for easy drama. The northernmost reaches of the North were every bit as entrenched in the war, all without ever seeing a Rebel uniform. Wang reminds us how the rights of men and women, as well as the foundations of the Union, were tested along the icy shores of Lake Erie just as much as along the muddy Ohio River.

KIM ODE