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Best Biographies of 2013

A story rich in musical history and poignant with dramatic irony.

KANSAS CITY LIGHTNING

THE RISE AND TIMES OF CHARLIE PARKER

A veteran cultural critic and jazz historian tells the simultaneous stories of the rise of jazz and the emergence of one of its brightest comets, Charlie Parker (1920–1955).

Crouch (Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz, 2006, etc.), whose journalism has appeared in just about every major venue and whose books have earned widespread critical appreciation, is uniquely qualified to guide readers on this tour. He begins in Des Moines, Iowa, where Parker, 21, was touring with the Jay McShann Orchestra. Here, we get an early hint of troubles to come when Crouch notes that Parker’s “disappearing acts were his specialty.” Hard drugs would limit Parker’s ascension and eventually bring him down. But Crouch’s agenda comprises not just the story of the early Parker. He tells the tales of towns (New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, New York), of ragtime and jazz legends (Scott Joplin, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum and others of lesser name but considerable significance), and of families and friends. We see Parker’s impecunious struggles to learn his instrument (alto sax), his repeated visits to the pawn shop (morphine was not free), his experiences of having to borrow other players’ instruments, his gift as a musician, his ferocious work ethic (striving to find his own sound) and his transformation into a dweller of the night. We learn, as well, about his youthful love affair that eventually became his first marriage. He became a father and then left his family to pursue his dreams, which no longer included them. Crouch takes us with Parker to Chicago and then to New York City, where he was just about to make it when the story stops. Crouch is a phrasemaker, and the text is chockablock with memorable lines. A friend’s death “was like drinking a cup of blues made of razor blades.”

A story rich in musical history and poignant with dramatic irony.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-200559-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: It Books/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2013

The personal knowledge aided by extensive archival research and always compelling, accessible writing make this an...

JOHNNY CASH

THE LIFE

Veteran music writer Hilburn (Cornflakes with John Lennon, 2009) masterfully separates fiction from fact in an exhaustive, but never exhausting, biography of the legendary musician.

Even as a child, Johnny Cash (1932–2003) knew he wanted to write songs and perform them in front of large audiences, but he had no realistic plan to accomplish those goals. After high school, he joined the Air Force, a choice that taught him a great deal about life outside Arkansas but did not seem to bring him closer to his musical goals. He met Vivian Liberto while still in the military. They eventually married and had four daughters amid numerous struggles with Cash's marital infidelities and amphetamine addiction. As for the professional dream, Cash reached fulfillment only due to his gutsy foray into Memphis, where record-company impresario Sam Phillips eventually succumbed to the novice's entreaties. Hilburn expertly navigates the ups and downs of Cash's music career before, during and after stardom; the divorce from Vivian and eventual marriage to June Carter; his debilitating addiction to pills; the TV and movie appearances that increased Cash's cultural presence; the slide into apparent professional has-been status; and the unlikely pairing with music producer Rick Rubin after the fall that not only revived Cash's fame, but took his singing in amazing new directions. Hilburn packs his mostly chronological narrative with cameos by famous artists who admired Cash, including Carl Perkins, Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and even some heavy-metal and rap musicians. As the longtime music critic for the Los Angeles Times, Hilburn followed Cash's career vigorously and interviewed him multiple times before his death.

The personal knowledge aided by extensive archival research and always compelling, accessible writing make this an instant-classic music biography with something to offer all generations of listeners.

Pub Date: Oct. 29, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-316-19475-4

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Aug. 26, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

A well-documented and shocking reappraisal of two of the shapers of the American century.

THE BROTHERS

JOHN FOSTER DULLES, ALLEN DULLES, AND THEIR SECRET WORLD WAR

Longtime foreign correspondent Kinzer (International Relations/Boston Univ.; Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, 2010, etc.) portrays the dark side of Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration through the activities of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, the director of the CIA.

The author reveals the pair's responsibility for the wave of assassinations, coups and irregular wars during Eisenhower's administrations as the outcome of three generations of their family's involvement in America’s increasingly active foreign policy, and he documents the way the brothers created the political shape of the Cold War in the 1950s, with John Foster providing the arrogant and pompous public face for the covert operations organized by brother Allen. Kinzer also shows how Eisenhower's knowledge of the costs of open war between states led him to support their covert operations to “strike back…to fight, but in a different way.” The author discusses John Foster's assimilation of the undeclared war against Soviet communism into a Manichaean framework of the eternal struggle of good vs. evil. He also examines how, during the 1930s, he was seen by some as “the chief agent for the banking circles which rescued Hitler from the financial depths.” Later, Allen recruited Nazi leaders to help shape postwar Europe against the Soviets during the war's final stages. For Kinzer, the brothers epitomized the presumption that America has the right to “guide the course of history” because it is “more moral and farther-seeing than other countries.” In addition to providing illuminating biographical information, the author clearly presents the Dulles family's contributions to the development of a legal and political structure for American corporations' international politics.

A well-documented and shocking reappraisal of two of the shapers of the American century.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9497-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

Jane Franklin was an amazing woman who raised her children and grandchildren while still having the time to read and think...

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BOOK OF AGES

THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF JANE FRANKLIN

New Yorker writer Lepore (History/Harvard Univ.; The Story of America, 2012) masterfully formulates the story of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, who will be virtually unknown to many readers, using only a few of her letters and a small archive of births and deaths.

Jane Franklin Mecom (1712–1794) did not come into her own until she was widowed in 1765; at the time, widows possessed greater rights than married women. The first existing letter in her own hand was written when she was 45 years old. Of course, it helps that her letters were to her brother, one of the most significant figures of the time period. “He became a printer, a philosopher, and a statesman,” writes the author. “She became a wife, a mother, and a widow…[who] strained to form the letters of her name.” Benjamin’s references to her missives helped Lepore gain at least a partial picture of a little-educated woman who nonetheless showed a great mind capable of deep opinions. She was also very lucky in that her brother looked after her needs, eventually giving her a house of her own and providing her with books. Women were taught to read but not to write, so spelling and punctuation are random. Since the letters quoted in this book are unedited, the narrative pace occasionally slows, but the author’s reasons become clear once she shows the result of some dastardly editing by Jared Sparks, who was famed for amassing some of the most important documents of the period relating to Franklin and George Washington. An appendix shows how Sparks’ heavy-handed pencil drastically changed the meanings of many of the letters.

Jane Franklin was an amazing woman who raised her children and grandchildren while still having the time to read and think for herself. We can only see into her mind because her correspondent was famous and because a vastly talented biographer reassembled her for us.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-95834-1

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

A good and indispensable man, Hammarsjköld “understood and respected the need for heroes.” In this lucid, well-written...

HAMMARSKJÖLD

A LIFE

A monumental life, spiritual and intellectual more than purely biographical, of the great Swedish diplomat and author.

Dag Hammarskjöld (1905–1961), writes Lipsey (Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton, 2006, etc.), was “formidable in his time, somewhat forgotten now.” The second secretary general of the United Nations, he was also an author of note whose book Markings sold widely across the world—and, the author is careful to record, some 185,000 copies in its first six months in the United States. Lipsey makes a convincing case for why Hammarskjöld should not be “somewhat forgotten”: His spiritual yearnings and conviction that the U.N. could serve as a vehicle for true Christian compassion may seem a touch arcane now, but his activist stance and equal conviction that all humans are indeed created equal lend the office and institution a certain nobility. Lipsey argues that, more than mere inspiration, Hammarskjöld, once a diplomat with an economic portfolio, brought useful specific ideas to the business of international human rights, among them the importance of sanctuary and his capacity for “lightning-like” assessment of unfolding crises. He died a half-century ago in one such crisis, in the Congo, where an ugly civil war was raging; Lipsey devotes a considerable number of pages to this conflict as a kind of exemplar of all the things the U.N. is meant to ameliorate. Another episode he covers thoroughly is of current interest again more than 50 years later, namely the flight of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese invasion of Tibet, which the U.N. could not satisfactorily resolve.

A good and indispensable man, Hammarsjköld “understood and respected the need for heroes.” In this lucid, well-written biography, he certainly emerges as one.

Pub Date: March 18, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-472-11890-8

Page Count: 752

Publisher: Univ. of Michigan Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2013

Not a fun read, but a wonderfully crafted portrait of a tormented homosexual writer.

DREADFUL

THE SHORT LIFE AND GAY TIMES OF JOHN HORNE BURNS

A revealing biography of the brilliant, arrogant author of The Gallery (1947), a celebrated World War II novel.

John Horne Burns (1916–1953) grew up in a wealthy New England family and attended Harvard, where he began a lifetime of drinking that ended in lonely days as a regular at a hotel bar in Italy, where he died an embittered drunk at age 36. He attended and taught at Loomis, a prep school outside Hartford, Conn. As a student there many years later, Vanity Fair contributor Margolick (Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, 2011, etc.) became fascinated by the forgotten author whose Lucifer with a Book (1949), a vicious novel about Loomis, was forbidden reading at the school. Years later, Margolick encountered The Gallery, about U.S. soldiers in occupied Naples in 1944–1945, “perhaps America’s first great gay novel.” Even Margolick’s warning that Burns was a difficult man to like does not fully prepare readers for this story of an obnoxious, hypercritical, mean-spirited loner. For all his negativity, however, Burns was able to write his life-embracing The Gallery, a compassionate view of characters passing through a vast arcade, including gays in uniform. Always arrogant, Burns had nonetheless become more open-minded and decent as a result of his wartime experiences that inform the novel. Sensitive, well-researched and drawing nicely on the novelist’s vivid letters, the book covers Burns’ abnormally close relationship with his heiress mother; his years as a student and, later, disgruntled teacher at Loomis; his wartime postings in North Africa and his beloved Italy; and his career as an author, from the ecstatic acclaim for his war novel, to the poor reviews of later works, to his rivalry with Gore Vidal, who called Burns “a gifted man who wrote a book far in excess of his gift.”

Not a fun read, but a wonderfully crafted portrait of a tormented homosexual writer.

Pub Date: June 4, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59051-571-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2013

A top-notch biography of Oppenheimer to sit alongside Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus (2006).

ROBERT OPPENHEIMER

HIS LIFE AND MIND

A highly detailed examination of the life and times of Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967), the man who ushered in the Atomic Age and played a leading role in putting American science on the map.

Monk (Philosophy/Southampton Univ.; Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921–1970, 2001, etc.) does full justice to Oppenheimer's irreplaceable contribution to the development of nuclear energy during and after World War II. The author also addresses his less well-known contributions to nuclear physics, including “a method that is used even now for understanding the physical processes that occur in the interiors of stars.” Born to an affluent Jewish family, Oppenheimer had a privileged upbringing (private schools, Harvard University and extensive study abroad), yet he faced a rising tide of anti-Semitism even in America. Among many examples, Monk quotes a reference by George Birkhoff, Harvard's most eminent mathematician, supporting his application: “He is Jewish but I should consider him a very fine type of man.” In 1927, Oppenheimer co-authored a paper on quantum chemistry with the leading quantum physicist, Max Born, but in Europe, he faced anti-American prejudice among scientists such as Paul Dirac. Monk explains that experiences such as these prompted Oppenheimer to accept a joint teaching position in California, at Berkeley and Caltech, where he devoted himself to establishing “a world center of theoretical physics in the U.S.” The Spanish Civil War drew Oppenheimer into left-wing politics (and surveillance by the FBI), but he also had a distinguished career during WWII as head of the Manhattan Project and after, when he played a key role in shaping American nuclear policy. In 1954, renewal of his security clearance was denied, a miscarriage of justice that President John F. Kennedy reversed by awarding him the prestigious Fermi Prize.

A top-notch biography of Oppenheimer to sit alongside Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus (2006).

Pub Date: May 14, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-385-50407-2

Page Count: 848

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: March 24, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

A darkly enlightening tale—thoroughly researched, gracefully written—about Enlightenment thought, male arrogance and the...

HOW TO CREATE THE PERFECT WIFE

BRITAIN'S MOST INELIGIBLE BACHELOR AND HIS ENLIGHTENED QUEST TO TRAIN THE IDEAL MATE

The award-winning author of The Knife Man (2005) returns with a true-life, truly bizarre tale set in Georgian England.

Thomas Day (1748–1789) had numerous virtues: He supported the American Revolution, opposed slavery, believed in living meanly to support those in need, abhorred social conventions, and wrote best-selling poetry and children’s books. But as Moore shows us in this often shocking tale, Day was, in contemporary parlance, a creep—a man who took into his keeping two young girls whom he raised in a sort of sick competition to see which one would become his bride. Such behavior today, of course, would land him in prison for a lengthy sojourn, and Moore struggles valiantly to balance her disdain for Day’s soaring arrogance and male entitlement (and cruelty) with her wonder and scholarly disinterest. Day wasn’t a physically prepossessing fellow, but his considerable fortune and earnest manner caused many to overlook his eccentricities. Greatly influenced by Rousseau, Day cast about for a young woman who would meet his exacting spousal standards. Seeing none, he went to a foundling hospital, where he lied to obtain the services of two pre-pubescent girls, whom he named Sabrina and Lucretia. He tutored them, toughened them up with harsh physical training and raised them to be ideal partners for him (his intellectual equals, but also his servants). Day eventually sent Lucretia packing and invested all in Sabrina. It didn’t work out. Both eventually married other partners (and were more or less happy), and Sabrina ended up closely allied with the family of writer Fanny Burney. Her odd story found its way into writings by Burney, Trollope, Henry James and others.

A darkly enlightening tale—thoroughly researched, gracefully written—about Enlightenment thought, male arrogance and the magic of successful matrimony.

Pub Date: April 9, 2013

ISBN: 978-0465065745

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2013

Like most Ellington albums, Teachout's in-depth, well-researched, loving study of this American treasure is an instant...

DUKE

A LIFE OF DUKE ELLINGTON

With this exhaustive, engaging study of the greatest jazz composer of his era, Wall Street Journal drama critic Teachout solidifies his place as one of America's great music biographers.

Many have cited jazz as America's only true indigenous art form, so it is at once surprising and disheartening that major publishers are seemingly hesitant to champion books that tackle the subject—especially considering that when an author is allowed the freedom to dive into the life and music of a jazz titan, the results are often brilliant, something that Teachout demonstrated with his justifiably revered Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (2010). After Armstrong, chronologically speaking, bandleader/composer/arranger/pianist Duke Ellington was jazz's next game changer. Aside from his undeniably astounding ear, Ellington, like Armstrong, was a personality, one of the rare jazzmen who was able to combine heady music with showbiz panache without diminishing his art. With his vibrant prose and ability to get into his protagonist's head and heart, Teachout captures this essence and charisma in a manner worthy of Ellington's complex yet listenable classic “The Queen's Suite.” One of Ellington's most notable nonmusical qualities was his loyalty, and the author gives some of his longtime sidemen and compatriots—e.g., composer Billy Strayhorn and saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves—their due. Finally, as was the case in Pops, Teachout's musical analysis is spot-on, at once complex and accessible. It will be appreciated equally by those who have 100 Ellington albums and those whose awareness of the Duke is limited to his best-known tunes like "Take The 'A' Train" and "Satin Doll." Hopefully, the brilliance of Teachout’s treatment will compel the industry to let authors take a crack at the lives of, say, Ornette Coleman, Count Basie and Charles Mingus.

Like most Ellington albums, Teachout's in-depth, well-researched, loving study of this American treasure is an instant classic.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59240-749-1

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Gotham Books

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

Graceful prose creates a richly detailed and poignant portrait, simultaneously inspiring and depressing.

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FOSSE

The lushly researched life of celebrated dancer, choreographer and director (stage, films, TV) Bob Fosse (1927–1987).

Film critic and biographer Wasson (Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, 2010, etc.) has amassed a mountain of data about Fosse but has sculpted it into something moving and memorable. With chapters whose titles remind us of his approaching death (“Fifteen Years,” “Five Years,” “One Hour and Fifty-Three Minutes”), the author both increases the dramatic irony of the dancer’s days and reminds us continually of life’s evanescence. After a swift chapter about Fosse’s boyhood—for a long time, he concealed his dancing passion and skills)—Wasson guides us through his incredibly productive career (in a single year, 1973, he won a Tony, an Oscar and an Emmy), providing engaging detail about his major productions—Sweet CharityPippinCabaretChicagoAll That Jazz and others. Wasson shows us Fosse’s enormous empathy for his dancers, his ferocious work ethic, his reliance on uppers and cigarettes, and his constitutional inability to remain faithful to a single woman. His hotel room during productions was, well, a chorus line. A few resisted him (he never seemed to bear a grudge), and former wife, fellow choreographer and gifted dancer Gwen Verdon remained in his orbit to the absolute end—she was with him when he collapsed on the street. We see, too, his close friendships (Paddy Chayefsky, E.L. Doctorow), his rivalries (Michael Bennett) and his friendly rivals (Jerome Robbins). The author also reveals a deeply insecure artist who wanted to be a writer and was always certain his productions would fail—and, in the late cases of Big Deal and Star 80, he was certainly correct.

Graceful prose creates a richly detailed and poignant portrait, simultaneously inspiring and depressing.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-55329-0

Page Count: 736

Publisher: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Sept. 10, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2013

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