Books by Ruth Brandon

NONFICTION
Released: Feb. 1, 2011

"A wildly convoluted tale as bizarre as it is intriguing."
A sprawling exposé on how the blending of two cosmetics behemoths reopened a shameful era in French history. Read full book review >
CARAVAGGIO’S ANGEL by Ruth Brandon
MYSTERY THRILLER
Released: Oct. 6, 2008

"Brandon's background in art history (Surreal Lives, 1999, etc.) serves her well in her fiction debut, the first in a proposed series. Her refined prose matches the ornate plot, well-suited to a niche audience."
An art mystery leads an academic to tangled family feuds and baffling deaths. Read full book review >
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: May 1, 2008

"The author struggles at times to maintain her focus—too much context obscures rather than illuminates—but she never loses her profound empathy and passion for her subjects' travails."
Biographer and cultural historian Brandon (The People's Chef: The Culinary Revolutions of Alexis Soyer, 2005, etc.) traces the lives of some 18th- and 19th-century governesses, whose lot was even bleaker than that of their counterparts in Victorian fiction. Read full book review >
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: April 30, 2005

"Quibbles aside, devotees of Ruth Reichl and M.F.K. Fisher will gobble up this delicious new gastronomic biography. "
Brandon serves up the life story of a man who changed the way rich and poor ate. Read full book review >
HISTORY
Released: Sept. 1, 1999

Brandon (The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, 1994, etc.), a prominent biographer and fiction writer, explores the aesthetics, politics, and psychology of Surrealism by unraveling the complex personal histories of the movement's key players. Among multiple sources of Surrealism, Brandon highlights two: Marxism and Freudianism. Born of the turmoil of WWI and christened by Apollinaire, this revolutionary artistic trend advocated anarchy, sided with the political left during the interwar period, and aspired to produce an iconoclastic "anti-art." A creative use of dreams, delving into the subconscious, and a preoccupation with sex, death, and excrement complemented the Surrealists' political radicalism. Although nowadays we associate Surrealism primarily with visual art, literary figures like the autocratic AndrÇ Breton headed the movement at its inception. Transgression of boundaries between different artistic media was quite common, and many artists also wrote poetry or prose. After the shock induced by Bu§uel's films, cinematography advanced as the most immediate Surrealist format. Brandon systematically points out the eccentricities that shaped Surrealists' lives and, consequently, their creative process. Despising conventional moral and family values and considering procreation "sloppy" at best, many Surrealists were involved in mÇnages Ö trois, bisexual relations, and unscrupulous leeching off rich American lovers. On the other hand, Elsa Triolet and Gala Eluard successfully exploited their husbands' talents to attain the lifestyle they desired. Elsa made Louis Aragon a national icon and had him endorse her writing; the "nymphomaniacal harpy" Gala achieved fame and wealth by transforming (her second husband) Dal°'s originally subversive art into expensive commercial entertainment, compliant with the Fascist regimes in Spain and Germany. Scattering its principles by the wayside, the Surrealist movement stumbled toward its zenith, torn by internal contradictions. Rooted to a large extent in neurotic obsessions, pathological tendencies, and introspective observation, Surrealism is a rare case where insights into artists' lives facilitate interpretation of their creations. A marvelous job of using biographical material to demystify esoteric art. Read full book review >
THE LIFE AND MANY DEATHS OF HARRY HOUDINI by Ruth Brandon
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Oct. 1, 1994

Houdini's fame is so great that he is more a metaphor for magical escape than a man, but Brandon's (The New Women and the Old Men, 1990) biography readably explores both his act's archetypal appeal and his obsessive personality. Born Ehrich Weiss in Hungary and raised in Wisconsin, Houdini mythologized his impoverished childhood and early career in countless interviews and publicity notices. Brandon penetrates his family's isolation in poverty, his father's failure as a rabbi in America, and his mother's Freudian bond with her favorite son. Married early, Houdini and his assistant-wife began with an unremarkable magic act, which they toured in circuses, vaudeville, and even a freak show. At the turn of the century his theatrical breakthrough came with concentrating and expanding on his original escape act—from handcuffs—and his promotional talents and showmanship brought him worldwide fame, with phenomenal success in autocratic Germany and Russia. He added constantly to his ingenious repertoire—escaping from straitjackets, immersed in water, suspended in midair, or buried alive—with an instinctual sense of the public appetite, while also writing books and dabbling in early movies and aviation. Preoccupied with spiritualism, he campaigned against fraudulent mediums and arranged experiments to make contact with his wife after his death. Invoking Freud and Jung, Brandon reveals Houdini's fixations on his mother (including impotence, in her guess), suicide, death, and the hereafter, and his act's fascination for his audience (though she ignores his influence on modern magicians like Penn and Teller). If her Houdini is shackled in Freudian complexes, though, his act was equally bound up in his obsessions. More trickily, Brandon adroitly deconstructs his secrets (available for years) but keeps the suspense and wonder intact. Apart from occasional slips into a corny carny-huckster style and insertions of irrelevant anecdotes of her own experiences, Brandon has written an entertaining biography of a legendary figure. (24 pages of b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >