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Best 2017 Books for Arts and Humanities Lovers

Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate, this book should garner serious consideration for a variety of book prizes.

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A majestic biography of “history’s most creative genius.”

With many exceptional popular history books under his belt, Isaacson (History/Tulane Univ.; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, 2014, etc.) is close to assuming the mantle currently held by David McCullough. Here, Isaacson takes on another complex, giant figure and transforms him into someone we can recognize. The author believes the term “genius” is too easily bandied about, but Leonardo (1452-1519), from the tiny village of Vinci, near Florence, was “one of the few people in history who indisputably deserved—or, to be more precise, earned—that appellation.” He was self-taught and “willed his way to his genius.” With joyous zest, Isaacson crafts a marvelously told story “of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical.” Like a child in a candy store, Isaacson often stops to exclaim; he shares his enthusiasm, and it’s contagious. For the author, the starting point are da Vinci’s notebooks, all 7,200 pages, the “greatest record of curiosity ever created.” Da Vinci’s groundbreaking, detailed drawings charted the inner worlds of the skull, heart, muscles, brain, birds’ wings, and a working odometer, along with doodles and numerous to-do lists. In his iconic Vitruvian Man, completed when he was 38 and struggling to learn Latin, “Leonardo peers at himself with furrowed brow and tries to grasp the secrets of his own nature.” Isaacson is equally insightful with the paintings, of which there are few. The Last Supper is a “mix of scientific perspective and theatrical license, of intellect and fantasy.” Regarding the uncompleted Mona Lisa, he writes “never in a painting have motion and emotion, the paired touchstones of Leonardo’s art, been so intertwined.” As Isaacson wisely puts it, we can all learn from Leonardo.

Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate, this book should garner serious consideration for a variety of book prizes.

Pub Date: Oct. 17, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5011-3915-4

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 3, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2017

For anyone who wants a crash course in contemporary comics, or wants to teach one, this is your book.



A comprehensive, critically incisive survey of comics in contemporary culture.

Rather than a professor who happened to latch on to comics as a promising field for research, Chute (English, Art and Design; Northeastern Univ.; Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, 2016, etc.) clearly has a deep understanding of, experience with, and affinity for comics culture. Best of all, though she analyzes with an academic’s rigor and supports her themes with extensive research, she doesn’t write like a professor. Tackling a tricky subject like Robert Crumb’s objectification and caricature of black female sexuality, she writes, “Crumb isn’t mocking black women, but rather he’s mocking a public discourse that either implicitly or explicitly mocks black women. And yet Crumb always makes tricky or unclear the line between the act of satirizing something and embodying it.” Rather than argue about the cultural legitimacy that comics have achieved, Chute simply treats this as a matter of fact—a fact with which she, as a fan, is very pleased. The result is a study, rife with full-page panels illustrating points she makes in the text, that will enrich the understanding of readers who know and care a lot about comics, from punk zines to graphic novels, as well as initiates who seek an understanding of how this cultural shift came about and what it means to academics who wish to research this fertile field. The cartoonists have even infiltrated the academy, as the author writes in her appreciation of Lynda Barry: “It is telling that Barry is currently a tenured professor, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, of what is called Interdisciplinary Creativity (the best job title perhaps ever!)” Chute also goes deep into the lives and work of Art Spiegelman (with whom she worked on MetaMaus), Alison Bechdel (whose Fun Home made the leap from graphic novel to Broadway), Matt Groening, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and so many others.

For anyone who wants a crash course in contemporary comics, or wants to teach one, this is your book.

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06-247680-7

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 17, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2017

Well-researched and brimming with intrigue, Bullock’s comprehensive study not only makes the work of scores of musicians...



An encyclopedic look at the lives of formative Western LGBT musicians and performers.

From the acclaimed British biographer of Florence Foster Jenkins (2016, etc.) comes a sweeping overview of LGBT musicians from both sides of the Atlantic who have had a pivotal influence on recorded music. Bullock argues that while the “LGBT community has spent over 100 years pioneering musical genres and producing some of the most lasting and important records of all time…far too many LGBT musicians have seen their stories ‘straight-washed’ or completely brushed under the carpet.” Turning the spotlight on modern creators of popular music, the author presents the struggles and triumphs of gifted artists who paved the way in the realms of pop, punk rock, folk, and disco, noting how “LGBT people were there as jazz gestated” and “in the maternity ward during the birth of the blues.” Fans looking for ribald details from the lives of gay pop idols like Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Boy George, and Dusty Springfield won’t be disappointed, but it is Bullock’s bringing to light more hidden stories, like those of Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, or jazz pianist Tony Jackson, and his close historical examination of queer performative movements that make the book compelling. The author calls as much attention to the private lives of these gifted, often closeted musicians, like Little Richard—the song “Tutti Frutti” originally described anal sex between men—as to their impact on their genre and later artists like David Bowie. Particularly powerful is the story of Wendy Carlos, a path-breaking inventor of the synthesizer and collaborator on the soundtracks of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, whose work not only introduced the disco sound, but, with Bob Moog, helped make the equipment affordable. Born in 1939, Carlos underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1972 and found the public reaction to her revelation in the late 1970s to be “amazingly tolerant.”

Well-researched and brimming with intrigue, Bullock’s comprehensive study not only makes the work of scores of musicians sing anew; it also demonstrates how the pendulum of acceptance can swing from era to era.

Pub Date: Nov. 21, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4683-1559-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Overlook

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2017

A well-told story that underscores the power of storytelling.



An account of the lessons learned by a son and his father as they study the Greek epic together.

There have been plenty of gimmicky books about returning to the classics and unearthing the contemporary implications and timeless wisdom therein. This sharply intelligent and deeply felt work operates on an entirely different level—several of them, in fact. A frequent contributor to the New Yorker and New York Times Book Review and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, Mendelsohn (Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture, 2012, etc.) is also a classics scholar who teaches a seminar on The Odyssey at Bard College. His father, a retired mathematician and research scientist, had been interested in the classics during his school days and decided to continue his education by studying with his son. The two also embarked on an educational cruise that attempts to re-create the journey of Odysseus. This would seem to present challenges for a man nearing his 82nd birthday, but it proved to be more of a trial for his son. Ultimately, this is a book about what they learn about each other and what they know about each other and what they can never know about each other. The author uses a close reading of the epic to illuminate the mysteries of the human condition, and he skillfully and subtly interweaves the classroom textual analysis and the lessons of the life outside it. “That’s how I was trained, and that’s how the people who trained me were trained,” he writes. “If the work has real coherence, all these details will add up, even if they’re not noticeable at first and even if the big picture isn’t clear. Only by means of close reading can we understand what the big picture is and how the pieces, the small things, fit into it.” Revelations for Mendelsohn provide epiphanies for readers as well.

A well-told story that underscores the power of storytelling.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-385-35059-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 3, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2017

Not only an essential record of the first 40 years of Calder’s life, but an exceptional chronicle of the genesis of...



A meticulously researched biography of one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century.

New York Review of Books contributor and former New Republic art critic Perl (Art History/New School for Social Research; Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture, 2012, etc.) chronicles how Alexander Calder (1898-1976) grew from a crafty boy into a master sculptor who, along with Picasso and Miró, pushed the world of art toward the frontiers of modernism. Calder wrote of “trying to get at ‘evolution’ [from] toys to sculpture,” and Perl divines exactly this thread amid a tremendous amount of source material and shows the progression from Calder’s tinkering childhood to the celebrated, clowning Cirque Calder of the 1920s, all the way to Calder’s inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s epochal exhibitions “Cubism and Abstract Art” and “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” of the mid-1930s. The author unveils a network of Calder’s influences. “Artistic inspiration,” he writes, “involves instincts, apprehensions, and revelations ranging from the subliminal to the nearly spiritual, and the zigzagging, even ricocheting connections need to be mapped in ways that defy strict rules of evidence.” Calder’s parents were both artists, and although they encouraged him to pursue a degree in engineering, they also exposed him to art that would later shape his career. Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase, for example, possessed a kineticism that would eventually contribute to Calder’s understanding of the vast conceptual capabilities of art. With wire fashioned into spirals and mobiles gently spinning through the air, Calder’s lines would later adopt a sense of movement over time, a fourth-dimensional change through a three-dimensional space. Most triumphant is the way in which Perl explains how to read Calder’s challenging forms; he clearly discusses the “difference between a volume and a void” and “the disparity that exists between form, masses and movement.” “Sculpture could be a matter of lines,” he explains, capable of synthesizing “science with sensibility, the engineered with the empathetic.”

Not only an essential record of the first 40 years of Calder’s life, but an exceptional chronicle of the genesis of modernism.

Pub Date: Oct. 31, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-307-27272-0

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2017

A rare, erudite, and delightfully entertaining history.



A palaeographer’s fascinating investigation of medieval culture.

A former librarian of Parker Library at Cambridge and cataloger of illuminated manuscripts for Sotheby’s, de Hamel (Fellow, Corpus Christi Coll., Cambridge; Bibles: An Illustrated History from Papyrus to Print, 2011, etc.) brings extensive expertise to his meticulous examination of 12 celebrated manuscripts created from the sixth to the 16th century. For the author, each is a portal to the medieval world, revealing the lives and times of the societies that produced them. Most are religious, and not all were illuminated—i.e., embellished with sparkling, eye-catching gold. Some selections, such as the eighth century Book of Kells—“the most famous and perhaps the most emotively charged medieval book of any kind,” de Hamel says—and the Hours of Queen Jeanne de Navarre, from the 14th century, may be the most familiar to readers. For each artifact, de Hamel describes his journey to find it, his experience in the library or archive where he examined it, its physical details (size, material, orthography, binding), provenance, readership, iconography, and, of course, content. In the Gospels of St. Augustine, for example, he finds the words laid out “by clauses and pauses.” “It is an arrangement prepared primarily for reading aloud,” he adds, “which comes from a time of oral culture when most of the audience for the Scriptures was illiterate.” The author deems the illustration of the Virgin and Child in the Book of Kells “dreadfully ugly,” probably resulting from “inherited tradition” rather than the artist’s shortcomings. De Hamel explains the particular script of the Morgan Beatus, a collection of interpretations of the Apocalypse from the 10th century, by tracing the history of Latin writing, beginning in ancient Rome. Although most manuscripts were religious, the author includes the lusty lyrics of the Carmina Burana, from the 13th century, later “set to music by Carl Orff,” and one of two 14th-century copies of The Canterbury Tales, which represents “nearly everything that is reasonably knowable about the original text.” The book is sumptuously illustrated with color plates.

A rare, erudite, and delightfully entertaining history.

Pub Date: Oct. 24, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-59420-611-5

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: July 3, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2017

A charming, well-researched journey to “Austen-land.”



A fresh, spirited look at the beloved author by a self-proclaimed “Janeite.”

British historian Worsley (Maid of the King’s Court, 2017, etc.), chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, is steeped in the world of Georgian England, where Jane Austen (1775-1817) lived, wrote, and set her novels. In a biography as brightly entertaining as it is erudite, the author offers a richly detailed portrait of Austen, her various homes, and her social context. In what she admits is a “crowded field” of Austen biographies and critical studies, Worsley takes a wry, sometimes-irreverent perspective, grounded in a deep knowledge of Austen’s fiction; letters to, by, and about her; and seemingly every bit of scholarship, criticism, and biographical inquiry relevant to her. Although her sources are abundant, there are still gaps, and Worsley occasionally resorts to “would have,” “might have,” and “it is easy to imagine” as she narrates Austen’s life. Nevertheless, she is so reliable a historian that her speculations seem well-founded. She reads Austen’s correspondence with uncommon empathy, discovering “dense detail of domestic life” in letters that some biographers have dismissed. Investigating Austen’s possible suitors, Worsley cautions against treating her subject “like just another modern person, reacting to the situations in exactly the same way as the writer would him or herself.” An 18th-century woman might have far different feelings about romance, she argues; Austen, she believes, had a series of suitors, one of whom proposed marriage. Austen accepted him only to change her mind the next day. Her writing career had a slow start, but Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, garnered “terrific sales” and strong reviews, becoming “a wild, noteworthy, enviable success” that buoyed Austen’s confidence and made her a celebrity among her neighbors. Worsley gives sharply drawn pictures of domesticity in the many homes that Austen inhabited, including her family’s rented houses in Bath and residences where she, her widowed mother, and sister visited as guests before they settled in Chawton, a site of pilgrimage for Janeites.

A charming, well-researched journey to “Austen-land.”

Pub Date: July 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-250-13160-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: April 17, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2017

This incisive, groundbreaking portrait of the enigmatic and influential poet will be indispensable to all future...



The first “comprehensive” biography of the American poet’s early years.

Roffman (Humanities/Yale Univ.; From the Modernist Annex: American Women Writers in Museums and Libraries, 2010) met Pulitzer Prize–winning poet John Ashbery (b. 1929) in 2005 at Bard College, and they immediately hit it off. The “vehemently private” poet provided her with an early diary and handwritten and typed manuscripts of poetry, plays, and stories, as well as numerous photographs (included here along with many poems). All of this material, writes Roffman, provides “astonishing record of his earliest creative life.” When the author asked if she could write a biography of these early years, he assumed she “already was.” Roffman delivers a revealing, unprecedented portrait of this artist up to the publication of Some Trees in 1956, which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.H. Auden, narrowly beating out Ashbery’s close friend Frank O’Hara. Born in Rochester, New York, he spent time on the family’s farm and in his beloved grandparents’ home overlooking Lake Ontario. His youth was “ordinary,” and he loved to paint, write, and read. He wrote his first poem at age 8 and read an article about surrealism and Dada in Life that “thrilled him.” As early as kindergarten, Ashbery felt attracted to boys but kept his feelings secret. In 1941, he appeared on the national Quiz Kids show in Chicago. After attending Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, he went to Harvard. At the time, he said, “I suppose I’ll come out of it intact.” Midway through his college career, Ashbery had ambitious plans to “rip modern poetry wide open!” At Harvard, he met poets O’Hara and Kenneth Koch and immersed himself in the poetry of Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore. Next came Columbia University and a new, lifelong friend in fellow gay poet/collaborator James Schuyler.

This incisive, groundbreaking portrait of the enigmatic and influential poet will be indispensable to all future biographical work.

Pub Date: June 13, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-374-29384-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: April 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2017

Thoreau has inspired so many esteemed biographies that it's difficult to claim any new one as definitive. However, Walls...

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A superbly researched and written literary portrait that broadens our understanding of the great American writer and pre-eminent naturalist who has too long been regarded as a self-righteous scold.

“A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov. In Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), this formulation finds its fullest expression, and that’s only part of the story. Besides being a great prose stylist and the spiritual father of environmentalism, he was also the author of “Civil Disobedience,” which has served as a rallying cry for nonviolent protests ever since. For all that, he's hardly a beloved figure; he's the hermit of Walden Pond, the Concord solipsist sneering at the lesser mortals who lack his independence. In this magnificent new biography, Walls (English/Univ. of Notre Dame; The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America, 2009, etc.) effectively humanizes her subject. The man who will always be regarded by some as the great prig of American literature was deeply involved in 19th-century life. He worked every day, and not just as a relentless writer; he made his living as a handyman, carpenter, expert surveyor, and businessman who helped run his family’s pencil-manufacturing company. His friendships, most notably with Ralph Waldo Emerson and others in the transcendentalist movement, were tumultuous but enduring. He was a popular lecturer and an anti-slavery activist. He was also the literary artist who spent nearly a decade trying to describe a year on Walden Pond. The Thoreau on the pages of Walden, writes Walls, “is not the author who so carefully staged the book, but the book’s protagonist, who, in the course of the year and a day, is utterly changed by the experience.”

Thoreau has inspired so many esteemed biographies that it's difficult to claim any new one as definitive. However, Walls delivers a sympathetic and honest portrait that fully captures the private and public life of this singular American figure.

Pub Date: July 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-226-34469-0

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: May 16, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2017

A well-written prize for students of history, archaeology, and urban planning.



A searching survey of some of humankind’s greatest architectural accomplishments.

Whereas a human life is usually less than 100 years, writes Scottish preservationist Crawford, “in its lifetime, the same building can meet Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Adolf Hitler.” Buildings have come to stand for whole civilizations, have indeed been practically all that survives of a civilization, whether the now-fallen city of Palmyra or the ruins of Angkor Wat. In an arresting vision, Crawford juxtaposes the ancient Tower of Babel and the recently fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center, imagining that the American soldiers who invaded Iraq in 2003 “would have been able to see, had they known what they were looking for, the place where it all began.” The author’s “it all” includes some grandly noble experiments, such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, one that both royalists and republicans knew even in a time of civil war “still mattered,” so much so that huge energies and treasuries went into rebuilding it after the Great Fire of 1666. Along the route of his detailed but lightly told tour, Crawford stops in at places such as Karakorum, the ancient Central Asian city that afforded the Mongol Empire a stronghold from which to conduct an unusually enlightened kind of administration, encouraging free trade and suppressing the usual bandits and robbers of the caravan routes; the long-gone walled city of Kowloon, victim of a perhaps not so enlightened modern colonizer; and even the imagined metropolises of the here-today, gone-tomorrow virtual world of GeoCities. Some of the most affecting passages, though, concern the World Trade Center and its wealth of intertwined stories, from its designer’s acrophobia (hence its narrow, containing windows) to the destruction of old lower Manhattan that preceded the building of those towers. Crawford closes this elegant, charged book with a view of cities now destroyed in the wars of the Middle East, ones that, hopefully, will one day rise from the ashes.

A well-written prize for students of history, archaeology, and urban planning.

Pub Date: March 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-250-11829-5

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: Jan. 10, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2017

A penetrating, engrossing biography of a literary giant.



A masterful life of the prolific playwright, novelist, statesman, and poet who defined German romanticism.

After the production of his play Götz, 24-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) soared to fame throughout Germany, “a new star in the literary firmament,” a genius acclaimed for his “earthy, powerfully visceral tone” and “liberation from the conventional rules.” The following year, he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther in a three-month burst of creative energy, drawing on the “stormy” romantic turmoil in his own life. Safranski, biographer of Friedrich Schiller, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others, brings sensitivity and authority to a sweeping chronicle of Goethe’s life, drawing liberally from the writer’s autobiography and correspondence as well as other contemporary sources. The author has made the unusual decision to incorporate Goethe’s own words in italics rather than introducing quotations, resulting in a seamless, flowing narrative that foregrounds Goethe’s perspective while still offering a rich historical, philosophical, and artistic context. In a preface, conclusion, and two brief essays that punctuate the biography, Safranski pauses for reflection on Goethe’s work, relationships, state of mind, and intellectual interests, which included mysticism, alchemy, nature, and the existence of God. The young Goethe was influenced by Johann Gottfried Herder, already a famous writer although only five years older than his new friend. Goethe’s “candor, eagerness to learn, self-confidence, unself-consciousness, inventiveness, and playful and carefree nature” charmed Herder; for his part, Goethe was enchanted with the iconoclastic thinker whom Safranski likens to “a German Rousseau.” Later influences included Spinoza, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Byron, the Sturm und Drang writers who passed through Weimar, and Schiller, with whom he collaborated on plays. Prominent are his many passionate love affairs, often with married women, that fueled his work. Safranski places his sister among those women, noting “an erotic edge to their relationship.” Throughout, the author ably elucidates Goethe’s works, emphasizing the significance of Faust as a herald of modernism.

A penetrating, engrossing biography of a literary giant.

Pub Date: May 16, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-87140-490-9

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2017

Expansive and lavish, this outstanding biography does much to demythologize Carter, revealing her to be a singular writer of...

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The first comprehensive biography of the acclaimed British author.

In his debut, Gordon (English/King’s Coll. London) has done yeoman’s work crafting an authorized, sensitive, and well-written biography of an ebullient writer whose “ novels, short stories and journalism…stood defiantly apart from the work of her contemporaries.” She was largely ignored until she died (1940-1992), when the mythmaking began in earnest. Gordon focuses on how “she invented herself.” His portrait of the prolific writer who described herself as a “born fabulist” travels from her “shy, introverted childhood, through a nervy, aggressively unconventional youth, to a happy, self-confident middle age.” Born into a “matriarchal clan,” her mother wanted to control her, but her grandmother raised her “as a tough, arrogant and pragmatic Yorkshire child.” After school, Carter became a journalist and married a folk musician. College came later. Exposure to Baudelaire and Rimbaud convinced her she wanted to be a writer. After a few short stories, she wrote her first novel, Shadow Dance, in 1966. This was followed by a “malevolent fairy tale,” The Magic Toyshop. These were surreal gothic/horror tales written in a baroque and arcane “style of luxuriant beauty.” Reading Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard added science fiction to her palette, resulting in Heroes and Villains, a “post-apocalyptic fairy tale.” Gordon notes that The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman, jam-packed with her social and feminist principles, showed how she could transform her “day-to-day experience into strange, hallucinatory art,” and he calls the controversial The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography “a work of brilliantly sustained cultural criticism.” Always the iconoclast, Carter had her supporters, like Salman Rushdie, Robert Coover, and director Neil Jordan. Gordon’s narrative has a beautiful, effortless flow as he seamlessly moves back and forth from the life to the works.

Expansive and lavish, this outstanding biography does much to demythologize Carter, revealing her to be a singular writer of her time.

Pub Date: March 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-19-062684-6

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Dec. 25, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2017

Sweeping yet meticulous, appreciative without eschewing critical judgments—like Toscanini himself.



The epic life and art of the famed Italian conductor.

In his lifetime, Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) was considered the greatest conductor of all, and music historian Sachs (Curtis Institute of Music; The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, 2010, etc.) makes a strong case for that assessment with judicious quotations from contemporary sources. They reveal an exacting taskmaster, feared for his brutal criticisms of singers and orchestra members, who could also be a gentle instructor and a steadfast support—if he felt they were working hard enough. He drove no one harder than himself: a musical prodigy from a family in straitened circumstances, Toscanini won admittance to Parma’s prestigious Royal School of Music when he was 9 and conducted his first orchestra at 19. He gained early success in opera, serving as chief conductor of La Scala in Milan and then New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but he achieved his broadest popular reach leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra’s weekly radio broadcasts beginning in 1937. He awed performers and audiences by conducting without a score and was revered for his attention to detail and fidelity to the composer’s intentions. Sachs creates a well-rounded portrait of this admirable artist and not entirely admirable man, noting that Toscanini proclaimed devotion to his wife while philandering well into his 70s. The biographer has nothing but admiration, however, for Toscanini’s principled anti-fascism, which led him to leave La Scala and to refuse to continue at Bayreuth, where he was the first non-German conductor. The author also praises Toscanini in his prime as an advocate for new music and living composers; if the conductor’s tastes grew more conservative over time, Sachs reminds us that this was part of a broader trend, as classical music and opera receded from the mainstream to rely on an established, mostly 19th-century canon. This minutely detailed chronicle of Toscanini’s jam-packed life offers more than casual readers will want to know, but music lovers will savor every evocative word.

Sweeping yet meticulous, appreciative without eschewing critical judgments—like Toscanini himself.

Pub Date: June 27, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-63149-271-6

Page Count: 992

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2017

Unparalleled research, transparent prose, and wide eyes can serve as a model for other biographers—indeed, for all other...



The third in the author’s series of riveting titles about the histories, activities, duties, and effects of biographers.

Holmes (Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, 2013, etc.), who has written major biographies of Shelley, Coleridge, and others, has published previously on his current themes (Footsteps and Sidetracks), and his new volume brings together thoroughly rewritten pieces that had earlier incarnations as speeches, essays, and various ruminations. Early on he reiterates his fundamental belief that biographers must pursue their quarry: follow their footsteps and explore their sidetracks. Holmes proceeds to do so again here in sections that revisit the lives of the celebrated (Wollstonecraft, Shelley—both Mary and Percy Bysshe—Coleridge, Keats, Blake), but he also reacquaints us with some lesser-known notables like Margaret Cavendish, Isabelle de Tuyll, and Mary Somerville. The author’s focus remains sharp throughout, as he sketches his individuals’ lives, discusses the published biographies of them (from the earliest to the latest), and reveals his theories and beliefs about the writing of biography, beliefs that he has used to develop graduate courses in biography. Holmes proves to be a generous critic of the work of his predecessors and contemporaries—the word “superb” appears more than once—and he evinces awe when he considers what some early biographers experienced and endured to complete their work. In a few chapters, the author revises what we have previously thought about Coleridge’s early lectures and about the importance of Shelley’s drowning. Most impressive, though, are Holmes’ erudition—is there a relevant text he has not read or a significant site he has not visited?—and his clear, sharply focused prose. Throughout, he manifests the patience and the persistence to do right by his subjects.

Unparalleled research, transparent prose, and wide eyes can serve as a model for other biographers—indeed, for all other writers.

Pub Date: March 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-307-37968-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Dec. 18, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2017

A rich and sweeping story superbly told.



A resplendent biography of the “most notorious writer of his day.”

There’s no shortage of books about the life of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), but this one might just dissuade others from writing another—if Leo Damrosch’s excellent 2013 biography didn’t already do so. (Stubbs acknowledges Damrosch’s achievement.) In this monumental biography, Stubbs (Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, 2011, etc.) presents a classic man-and-his-times narrative, recounting in remarkable detail the complex life Swift led as an orphan born in Dublin who lived mostly in England but returned to Ireland in 1713 as a “reluctant rebel.” He was fond of saying that he was “stolen from England when a child and brought over to Ireland in a band-box.” Stubbs’ Swift is a practical joker who rarely smiled and possessed a “commanding, patriarchal air.” Drawing extensively on Swift’s writings and the histories of the time, Stubbs recounts the author’s upbringing by a “well-connected family,” fine education, and employment in England as a secretary for a retired diplomat, Sir William Temple. It was then that he met the young Esther Johnson, who would be his friend for life and help him deal with his life-long vertigo, tinnitus, and nausea. Stubbs disputes rumors that he secretly married her. While in England, Swift demonstrated his “power as a fabulist” and master satirist, penning The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub. He begrudgingly returned to Dublin to serve as dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he churned out anonymously written, scathing political pamphlets, the bleak and sardonic masterpiece A Modest Proposal, and Gulliver’s Travels, a “phenomenon.” Stubbs’ in-depth analysis of the vast cultural impact of Swift’s many works is impressive, as are his portraits of Swift’s literary acquaintances. This astute portrait of a complicated man who wanted to defend his homeland and to “vex the world rather than divert it” is truly masterful.

A rich and sweeping story superbly told.

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-393-23942-3

Page Count: 752

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2016

A splendid biography that penetrates the inner lives of Kahn’s buildings as well as the inner life of their creator.



A new, in-depth biography of the noted American architect.

Threepenny Review founder and editor Lesser (Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, 2014, etc.) begins her stellar biography at the end, with Kahn’s death (1901-1974). At the time, the renowned architect, who was “famous for his energy,” was “tired.” He had just returned from a long overseas trip and had a heart attack in Penn Station in New York. Lesser describes Kahn as “affable, conciliatory, and a bit self-mocking,” warm and captivating but secretive (he had two affairs while married). His output was small, but his best buildings were “beautiful in a surprising new way.” Kahn came to America from Estonia in 1906 when he was 5, his young face and hands scarred from a fiery accident. Always a brilliant drawer (he was ambidextrous), he received a good education and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1924. In 1935, he worked on a new workers’ housing project in Washington, D.C., and soon started his own firm. In 1954, “I discovered myself after designing that little concrete-block bath house in Trenton.” Concrete and brick would forever be his favorite construction materials. Lesser punctuates the narrative with five lengthy sections of “ ‘in situ’ descriptions of what it feels like to move through his built structures.” The author visited them all. Included are the Salk Institute in San Diego (1959), with its enormous, distinctive plaza. It would be the “only profitable project that Kahn ever undertook.” Also included is his “most supremely beautiful accomplishment,” the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which was the biggest project he ever took on and “in many ways the most difficult.” Extensively researched, the book is full of quotes from letters and interviews, providing an intimate portrait of his personality and genius.

A splendid biography that penetrates the inner lives of Kahn’s buildings as well as the inner life of their creator.

Pub Date: March 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-374-27997-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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