Book List

Best Biographies of 2014

A sad, tragic story that underscores the high human cost of violent entertainment.

BOY ON ICE

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF DEREK BOOGAARD

Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter Branch debuts with a biography of hockey player Derek Boogaard (1982-2011), a fierce fighter on the ice who died of an overdose of alcohol and prescription painkillers at the age of 28.

“No one ever told Derek that his primary mission in hockey would be to fight,” writes the author. Yet that is what the shy, oversized Saskatchewan native did throughout his career, first for minor teams, then with the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers, where he became the NHL’s most feared fighter. In this engrossing narrative, based on an award-winning Times series, Branch details both Boogaard’s life growing up in rural, hockey-mad Canada, where his size stigmatized him in school, and his years of playing hockey, when size—not talent—brought him success. In a sport where violence attracts crowds, Boogaard’s role as an enforcer was to intimidate opponents and protect his team’s star players, often engaging in game-stopping fights. With spotlights beaming and Rocky theme music blaring, the enforcer and his adversaries would beat on each other with fists and sticks and then spend a few minutes in a penalty box. To alleviate stabbing pain in his back, hips and shoulder, Boogaard took increasing amounts of painkillers. In his fourth professional season, he obtained 25 prescriptions for oxycodone and hydrocodone from 10 doctors. Despite efforts at rehabilitation, he persisted in his addiction, becoming increasingly erratic and depressed. An autopsy revealed that Boogaard had suffered a series of concussions as well as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition caused by repeated blows to the head. Boogaard’s death and increasing public awareness of the dangers of concussions have prompted steps to limit fighting in hockey’s junior leagues, but there’s been no action at the professional level, where a culture of “concussion denial” reigns.

A sad, tragic story that underscores the high human cost of violent entertainment.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-393-23939-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

A vigorous, fully fleshed biography of an important contributor to American culture.

THE TASTEMAKER

CARL VAN VECHTEN AND THE BIRTH OF MODERN AMERICA

A significant reappraisal of a cultural icon and crucial booster of modern artists, especially African-American artists.

Reading British journalist and historian White’s account of the extraordinary life of Chicago-born critic, novelist and photographer Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), one is struck by how he toiled over many decades under a very fortunate star. He had not only the good luck to be in the right place at the right time—New York City during the Jazz Age—but also the prescience to grasp the significance of this modernist iconoclasm for American culture. As a Chicago novice newspaperman relocated to New York, Van Vechten cut his journalistic teeth on music criticism—e.g., covering Richard Strauss’ seminal Salome (adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play) at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907. In 1909, notes White, he intuited Isadora Duncan’s barefoot ballet as an “exuberant manifestation of a new type of art” without knowing anything about dance. From the exotic, unconventional Mabel Dodge, Van Vechten learned how to “bolster one’s own profile by championing the work of others”—e.g., their shared discovery of Gertrude Stein. Van Vechten published a series of “heretical” books throughout the 1920s about music and arts criticism, elevating the lowbrow or vulgar (ragtime, jazz, African-American art) and teaching the American public how to reappraise it. His novels were wildly popular, scandalous and largely forgotten; all the while, he had access to the rich gay bohemian underground, and he embarked in the 1930s on a fresh career as a portrait photographer just at the moment that photojournalism took off in America. In orderly chapters, White tackles this complicated, multifaceted, tremendously fascinating and contradictory subject: a married gay man, an alcoholic and always a “catalyst for outrage and argument.”

A vigorous, fully fleshed biography of an important contributor to American culture.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-374-20157-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

Lively, elucidating, elegant and highly knowledgeable.

THE MANTLE OF COMMAND

FDR AT WAR, 1941-1942

A deeply engrossing study of the first year of Franklin Roosevelt’s prescient military leadership in World War II.

Consummate biographer Hamilton (How to Do Biography: A Primer, 2008, etc.) ably captures the charming, astute personality of FDR, especially his role as foil to the dogged, imperious Winston Churchill. Considering that so many facets of the Roosevelt era have already been amply scrutinized, it is to Hamilton’s considerable credit that he manages to impart singular, fresh nuance and depth to his hero. Hamilton aims to set the record straight on three counts: First, despite the postwar preening by his generals, FDR had fended off various defeatist and ineffectual proposals after the attack on Pearl Harbor and held firm to the necessity of a quick reprisal in the Pacific to check Japan’s further incursions into the Indian Ocean. Subsequently, working with the British (and against a near mutiny of his generals), FDR seized on a massive combined force in northwest Africa, which would become Operation Torch, to pincer the Germans under Erwin Rommel, thus opening up a second front, to the delight of the Russians. Second, Hamilton aims to emphasize how important it was to FDR, a born aristocrat yet a man of the people, that he and Churchill hammer out an understanding that the Americans would enter the war not to help Britain prop up its collapsing empire; on the contrary, FDR touched this sore spot frequently, for instance, pressuring Churchill to let the beleaguered Indians fight for their self-determination. Finally, Hamilton wonderfully delineates FDR’s ability to elicit news from his many “eyes and ears” in the field—in opposition to the Victorian, prideful Churchill. However, as the author portrays through Churchill’s extended White House Christmas visit in 1941, the two leaders learned a great deal from each other.

Lively, elucidating, elegant and highly knowledgeable.

Pub Date: May 13, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-547-77524-1

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

The author doesn’t pull punches, but all involved should find it fair as well as comprehensive.

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ONE WAY OUT

THE INSIDE HISTORY OF THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND

“I have viewed everything with the eyes and ears of a journalist but the heart and soul of a fan,” writes Guitar World senior writer Paul (Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing, 2011), who spent decades and hundreds of interviews earning the trust of musicians who didn’t always trust each other.

“The Allman Brothers Band, I believe, has no equal.” One need not share the author’s belief in the band’s supremacy to find its story engrossing. The majority of the book takes the form of oral history, which on other projects might sometimes seem slapdash and lazy but here proves crucial, for there are so many different perspectives—on everything from the band’s name to leadership and songwriting credits—that having dozens of different voices serves readers well. Nobody disagrees on the overwhelming talent, inspiration and legacy of guitarist Duane Allman, who formed the band, saw it coalesce into something special, and died recklessly and young before the music reached its popular peak. Explains one fellow musician, “Duane died just on the downstroke of the diving board, as the band was about to launch.” The loss of Duane and founding bassist Berry Oakley a year later would have brought an end to a less determined band, but the ABB somehow flourished despite a leadership void and decades of tensions exacerbated by drugs and alcohol. Perhaps the most complex relationship was between Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts, as the former was never considered an equal partner with his brother, and the latter resented the implications of the band’s name as he attempted to fill the guitar void and rule more by dictatorship than the universal respect Duane commanded. In the wake of Betts’ departure and Gregg’s sobriety, the responsibility has largely shifted to a new generation of guitarists, as the band improbably boasts its strongest dynamic since its original leader’s death.

The author doesn’t pull punches, but all involved should find it fair as well as comprehensive.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-250-04049-7

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

As an artist who “left behind…many lifetimes of brilliant music, a legacy that will inspire generations to come,” Chilton...

A MAN CALLED DESTRUCTION

THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF ALEX CHILTON, FROM BOX TOPS TO BIG STAR TO BACKDOOR MAN

A thoroughly reported biography illuminating the life and work of one of the more mystifying and influential cult figures in rock.

Few musicians have ever experienced a career trajectory and musical progression quite like Alex Chilton’s (1950–2010). At the age of 16, he enjoyed (if that’s the word) not only his biggest hit, but “the biggest hit single ever recorded in Memphis” with “The Letter” as the lead singer of the Box Tops. Though he was little more than a hired voice, he subsequently established his creative bona fides in Big Star, a band so influential that it all but invented indie rock. That band suffered from a series of recording-label disasters that prevented it from reaching its popular potential at the time, but Chilton subsequently proceeded to confuse his fervent fan base (which increased, along with his influence, as bigger bands such as R.E.M. paid homage) with solo recordings that ranged from abrasively noisy and raw to lounge lizard-y (including “Volare”). It may be hard to find the common denominator, but veteran rock journalist George-Warren (Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, 2007, etc.) connects the dots, showing how it all fit together: his Southern upbringing in a family that was patrician, artistic and permissive, his early mood swings, his later suspicion of the music business and rejection of the adulation that belatedly came his way. He became a true bohemian, bedeviled by alcohol, drugs and a penchant for tempestuous romance. He even took an extended hiatus from music to work as a New Orleans dishwasher (and later live in a tent). But he came to terms with his life and legacy before his death at 59, and “he died a happy man,” perhaps the most surprising twist for such a complicated musician and man.

As an artist who “left behind…many lifetimes of brilliant music, a legacy that will inspire generations to come,” Chilton receives the biography he deserves.

Pub Date: March 24, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-670-02563-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2014

Whether you view Snowden’s act as patriotic or treasonous, this fast-paced, densely detailed book is the narrative of first...

THE SNOWDEN FILES

THE INSIDE STORY OF THE WORLD'S MOST WANTED MAN

A newsworthy, must-read book about what prompted Edward Snowden to blow the whistle on his former employer, the National Security Agency, and what likely awaits him for having done so.

In June 2013, the Guardian published the first of the revelations of the “Snowden file”—a huge trove of data, “thousands of documents and millions of words”—put in its lap by way of columnist Glenn Greenwald. Guardian foreign correspondent Harding (co-author: WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, 2011, etc.) re-creates the curious trail that led Snowden to Greenwald and that led him to leak those documents in the first place. The author casts the prime motivation as a kind of revulsion born of Snowden’s experience as an analyst knee-deep in material that—it is very clear—was none of the NSA’s business, reinforced by Snowden’s time stationed in the relative freedom of Switzerland. It is also clear that Snowden’s act was premeditated, though not out of anti-Americanism (he’s a Ron Paul–type libertarian, it seems) and not for monetary impulse, though he could have sold the documents to any one of a number of foreign powers. Harding’s narrative covers numerous serial stories that developed from Snowden’s decision: first, the cloak-and-dagger work that got the files to Greenwald, then the NSA’s efforts and those of the larger American government to curb the post-publication damage (sometimes via British proxies), then Snowden’s flight into Russian exile in order to avoid the fate of fellow whistle-blower Bradley Manning. Harding closes with the thought that Snowden may have no other home for some time to come—but that even wider implications remain to be explored, including the possibility that British activists might be able to introduce something like the First Amendment to protect its press in the future.

Whether you view Snowden’s act as patriotic or treasonous, this fast-paced, densely detailed book is the narrative of first resort.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8041-7352-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Vintage

Review Posted Online: Feb. 11, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2014

An urgent report on the state of American aspirations and a haunting dispatch from forsaken streets.

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THE SHORT AND TRAGIC LIFE OF ROBERT PEACE

A BRILLIANT YOUNG MAN WHO LEFT NEWARK FOR THE IVY LEAGUE BUT DID NOT SURVIVE

Ambitious, moving tale of an inner-city Newark kid who made it to Yale yet succumbed to old demons and economic realities.

Novelist Hobbs (The Tourists, 2007) combines memoir, sociological analysis and urban narrative elements, producing a perceptive page-turner regarding the life of his eponymous protagonist, also his college roommate. Peace’s mother was fiercely independent, working nonstop in hospital kitchens to help aging parents keep their house. His father, a charming hustler, was attentive to Robert until his conviction on questionable evidence in a double murder. Mrs. Peace pushed her bright son toward parochial school, the best course for survival in Newark, already notorious for economic struggles and crime. Compulsively studious, Robert thrived there—a banker alumnus offered to pay his college tuition—and also at Yale. Hobbs contrasts his personal relationship with Robert with a cutting critique of university life, for the privileged and less so, capturing the absurd remove that “model minority” and working-class students experience. At Yale, Peace both performed high-end lab work in his medical major and discreetly dealt marijuana, enhancing his campus popularity, even as he held himself apart: “Rob was incredibly skilled in not showing how he felt [and] at concealing who he was and who he wanted to be.” After graduation, Peace drifted, as did many of his peers: Hobbs notes that even for their privileged classmates, professional success seemingly necessitated brutal hours and deep debt. But Peace drifted back into the Newark drug trade; in 2011, he was murdered by some of the city’s increasingly merciless gangsters due to his involvement in high-grade cannabis production. Hobbs manages the ambiguities of what could be a grim tale by meticulously constructing environmental verisimilitude and unpacking the rituals of hardscrabble parochial schools, Yale secret societies, urban political machinations and Newark drug gangs.

An urgent report on the state of American aspirations and a haunting dispatch from forsaken streets.

Pub Date: Sept. 23, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-3190-2

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

There is only one word for this biography: superb.

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TENNESSEE WILLIAMS

MAD PILGRIMAGE OF THE FLESH

The tormented life of a celebrated American playwright.

When The Glass Menagerie debuted on Broadway in 1945, the opening-night audience erupted in thunderous applause. After 24 curtain calls, shouts of “Author, Author!” brought a “startled, bewildered, terrified, and excited” Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) to the stage. At 34, after a decade of failed productions, he had achieved the success for which he had been desperately striving. Arthur Miller called the play “a revolution” in theater; Carson McCullers saw in it the beginning of “a renaissance.” But praise could never quash the demons that haunted Williams throughout his life. In this majestic biography, former longtime New Yorker drama critic Lahr (Honky-Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People, 2005, etc.) delineates the fears, paranoia and wrenching self-doubt that Williams transformed into his art. “I have lived intimately with the outcast and derelict and the desperate,” Williams said. “I have tried to make a record of their lives because my own has fitted me to do so.” In stories, poems and such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams drew upon his stultifying childhood; his anguish over his sister’s mental illness; and his promiscuity and failed love affairs. Addicted to alcohol and a pharmacopeia of narcotics, Williams at one point sought help from a psychoanalyst; however, when the treatment forbade him to write, he fled. His self-worth, Lahr concludes, “was bound up entirely in his work” and consequently in how directors, actors and especially critics responded to what he produced. Feeling “bullied and intimidated” by others’ expectations, he projected onto them (director Elia Kazan, most notably, or his long-suffering agent Audrey Wood) “his own moral failure and turned it into a kind of legend of betrayal.” Lahr knows his subject intimately and portrays him with cleareyed compassion. Drawing on vast archival sources and unpublished manuscripts, as well as interviews, memoirs and theater history, he fashions a sweeping, riveting narrative.

There is only one word for this biography: superb.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-393-02124-0

Page Count: 736

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 15, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

An extraordinary story of a complex personality presented with a wise dose of irony and respect.

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF PAUL DE MAN

A riveting biography of master confidence man Paul de Man (1919–1983), manipulator of the facts and influential literary instructor—a character both preposterous and irresistible.

Barish (English/City Univ. of New York Graduate Center; Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy, 1989) leaves de Man’s deconstructionist contradictions mostly off to the side and concentrates on the wildly chameleonic personality and the upbringing of this charismatic character who eluded justice from Nazi-occupied Belgium and later fabricated his academic reputation at Harvard and elsewhere by wily connections and sheer boldness. The tale of de Man is not only the tangled trajectory of a psychically scarred young man from a deeply problematic family who saw an opportunity to advance himself through Nazi collaboration, but also the story of the striking gullibility of an American elitist intellectual milieu that never questioned his credentials due to its own postwar sense of inferiority compared to European literature. Barish gets underneath the objectionable journalistic pieces de Man wrote during the war and his skein of publishing embezzlements in Brussels by exploring the pattern of secrecy and shame in his own upper-middle-class Antwerp family: a depressed mother who hanged herself; a troubled older brother who was killed by an oncoming train; an uncle who was a high-ranking minister in Belgian government, advocating appeasement and anti-Semitism and whom Paul highly revered and passed off later as his father. De Man became an “intellectual entrepreneur,” autodidact, university dropout and superb bluffer who saw his chance to “take a place” in the new Nazi order. While his collaborationist colleagues were imprisoned after the war, de Man fled to the United States. His entry into intellectual circles, thanks to Mary McCarthy and Henry Kissinger, among others, allowed him immunity and a disguise as he forged a brilliant academic career.

An extraordinary story of a complex personality presented with a wise dose of irony and respect.

Pub Date: March 17, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-87140-326-1

Page Count: 564

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 14, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2014

A solid biography of a deserving subject.

WILLIAM WELLS BROWN

AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN LIFE

A scholar fills in the gaps in the life of a former slave who became one of the most famous African-Americans of the 19th century.

Greenspan (English/Southern Methodist Univ.; editor: William Wells Brown: A Reader, 2008, etc.) mined the archives to discover how William Wells Brown (a name adopted long after his birth) rose from a nondescript slave probably born in 1814 to become a man of letters, not to mention a medical doctor, before his death in 1884. During the later decades of his life, Brown was the equal of Frederick Douglass as an influential African-American polymath. Like Douglass, Brown crusaded for civil rights. Even after he had won esteem and could live comfortably, he would travel alone to the Deep South, knowing he would be harassed and possibly even murdered. Greenspan is no hagiographer. He understands, for example, that Brown's written works (most famously the novel Clotel) are far from canonical. But the author is openly admiring, and rightly so, of Brown's daring escape from slavery, self-education, powerful public speaking on the anti-slavery circuit, creative approach to the civil rights campaign and efforts to win public office through candidacy in legitimate elections. During the 19th century, the lives of slaves yielded almost no reliable documentation, so Greenspan immersed himself in pre–Civil War chronicles of slave culture to calculate the most likely circumstances of Brown's life. The author’s informed speculation offers a window not only into Brown's suffering and rise, but also the travails (and occasional triumphs) of countless slaves who tried to use their freedom wisely. Greenspan ably navigates Brown’s life and demonstrates how he became a problem to both his slave masters and to any other bigots who could not fathom such intelligence in a lowly slave from Kentucky.

A solid biography of a deserving subject.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-393-24090-0

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

In this rich and entertaining work, Zoglin pulls no punches but also remains an astonished admirer.

HOPE

ENTERTAINER OF THE CENTURY

A contributing editor and theater critic for Time weighs in with what will immediately become the definitive biography of the legendary comedian, born Leslie Townes Hope (1903-2003).

Born in England at a time when movies were new—and talkies were still decades away—Hope, whose family immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1908, lived to see moon landings and the Internet. Zoglin (Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America, 2008) credits Hope for a number of things (including stand-up comedy itself), and he writes at times in jaw-dropped amazement at how Hope succeeded in, even dominated, every medium available to him: Broadway, vaudeville, movies, radio, TV and live appearances of all varieties. He wrote best-sellers and popular newspaper columns as well—though, as Zoglin points out continually, after success began to arrive, Hope had a large team of writers. The author notes that Hope had a quick wit, impeccable timing and, later, the ability to read cue cards, which became his preferred performance aid (he did not like teleprompters). Zoglin’s presentation is generally chronological, but with Hope’s many activities—tours to military zones, TV specials, “Road” movies with Bing Crosby—the author sometimes groups things thematically. Those who knew Hope only in his later cue-card–reading days will be surprised to learn about his grace as a dancer, his cool (not warm) relationship with Crosby, his myriads of sexual escapades (despite a marriage of nearly 70 years), his temper, his ferocious work ethic and his vast real estate holdings in California. Older readers will once again live through Hope’s public support of the Vietnam War, his friendship with alpha Republicans and his post-Vietnam return to his well-earned status as an American institution.

In this rich and entertaining work, Zoglin pulls no punches but also remains an astonished admirer.

Pub Date: Nov. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4391-4027-7

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Aug. 27, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

An exhaustive feat of research with a focused structure and robust prose.

LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS

THE WAR FOR PUBLIC OPINION

Hefty study of partisan journalism as vigorously embraced by Abraham Lincoln and the warring New York dailies.

Lincoln knew the power of the press (“public sentiment is everything,” he declared in 1858), and he made sure his views were published in supportive journals and even secretly purchased the newspaper for the German-American community in Springfield, the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger. In this engaging history of one of the most divisive periods in American politics, the buildup to the Civil War, Lincoln historian Holzer (The Civil War in 50 Objects, 2013, etc.) tracks how the great political clashes played out in the lively press of the day, creating not-so-delicate marriages between politicians and the journalists writing the “news” (which was more opinion than actual news). From the early penny presses emerged the New York Herald, published by the formidable Scotsman James Gordon Bennett, a scandalmonger and disputatious contrarian who regularly skewered both parties, Democratic or Whig (Republican), while remaining anti-abolition and a fierce critic of Lincoln; the New York Tribune, founded by Horace Greeley, crusader for faddish causes from utopian socialism to gender equality, who regularly ran for office and both supported Lincoln and later tried to unseat him; and the New York Times, established by Henry Jarvis Raymond as a “mean between two extremes,” promising a more “sober” and “mature” approach yet unabashedly pro-Lincoln, especially as Raymond became head of the Republican Party. The newspapermen bristled at the others’ successes and unloosed competitive salvos in their respective pages over the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Compromise of 1850, the roaring 20-year rivalry between Stephen Douglas and Lincoln, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry—and, especially, the contentious presidential elections of 1860 and ’64. Other regional newspapers establishing fierce positions on slavery struggled for survival, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’ Paper (later Monthly).

An exhaustive feat of research with a focused structure and robust prose.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 2014

ISBN: 978-1439192719

Page Count: 832

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Aug. 13, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

A strong, fascinating woman, Isabella helped to usher in the modern age, and this rich, clearly written biography is a...

ISABELLA

THE WARRIOR QUEEN

Downey (The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, 2009) brings her journalistic expertise to this excellent chronicle of the end of the Middle Ages and that time period’s most significant female figures.

Isabella (1451-1504) was queen of Castile and Léon in her own right, a kingdom much larger than that of her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. Even so, contemporaries and history have always given him preference of place. However, Isabella surely ranks as one of history’s greatest women. She insisted on marrying Ferdinand and no other, despite the opposition of her half brother. Upon his death, Isabella assumed the throne. Her reign was characterized by a series of wars, waged by her mostly unfaithful husband but organized and supplied by her. For the first few years, they fought incursions from Portugal, followed by three years of civil war and, finally, more than a decade fighting the Moors. The fall of Granada in 1492 and expulsion of the Moors was hailed by all, but it was a small benefit to offset the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. Isabella demanded that the defeated Moors, as well as the Jewish population, convert or emigrate. At this point, she introduced the Spanish Inquisition, which was initially aimed at backsliding converted Jews but expanded to include Muslims. Widely known as Christopher Columbus’ sponsor, she kept him waiting years before finally agreeing to fund his trip. Her strict instructions were to convert the Indians to Catholicism in the kindest possible way. Her life was devoted to the church, and she felt Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, with his many children and vast wealth, undermined it.

A strong, fascinating woman, Isabella helped to usher in the modern age, and this rich, clearly written biography is a worthy chronicle of her impressive yet controversial life.

Pub Date: Oct. 28, 2014

ISBN: 978-0385534116

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Aug. 27, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

An honest and genuinely respectful portrait of a true diva by a writer who feels the power of her art.

RESPECT

THE LIFE OF ARETHA FRANKLIN

A biography of the “Queen of Soul” by the co-author of her memoir, From These Roots (1999).

Grammy winner and prolific music writer Ritz (co-author, with Maceo Parker: 98% Funky Stuff, 2013, etc.) explains that this book came about because of Franklin’s refusal to discuss any aspect of her life that contradicts the image she has of herself. To correct the distorted portrait in her previous book, he draws on the accounts of family members and business acquaintances such as her longtime manager, Ruth Bowen, and Jerry Wexler, who produced her Atlantic recordings in the 1960s and ’70s. The story begins with her father, a charismatic preacher who took her and her sisters from their Detroit home on the gospel music circuit when their talent became evident. The influence of gospel and the black church remained an indelible part of Franklin’s music. At 18, she signed a record deal with Columbia, then the biggest label in the business. However, the Columbia approach never managed to capture the power of her music, and her insistence that her records include something for everyone was a marketing nightmare. Also, her then-husband, a shady character one of her friends describes as “a gentleman pimp,” controlled her career until she left Columbia for Atlantic and broke into the popular awareness as an unmatched performer. But great success did nothing to alleviate her deep insecurities. Ritz draws on the memories of Franklin’s sisters and her brother, Bowen, Wexler and others who were close to her to document her struggles—with her weight, with alcohol, and with the up-and-down business end of her career. As the years progressed, her hits became fewer and farther between, and her fear of flying caused her to cancel appearances. At the same time, Ritz fully praises Franklin’s abundant musical gifts and her work for causes she believes in, including civil rights.

An honest and genuinely respectful portrait of a true diva by a writer who feels the power of her art.

Pub Date: Nov. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-0316196833

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

Staggeringly wide in scope (note the 100-page bibliography), this work meticulously examines the structural forces that...

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STALIN

VOLUME I: PARADOXES OF POWER, 1878-1928

The first volume of a massive biography of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953).

Authoritative and rigorous in his far-flung research and fresh assertions, Kotkin (History and International Affairs/Princeton Univ.; Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, 2009, etc.) fashions a life of Stalin against the enormous political upheaval in czarist Russia at the turn of the century, which gave rise to the revolutionary socialist movement fomented in Germany. The author sketches Stalin’s early development as a poor cobbler’s son in the Caucasus town of Gori: Iosif “Soso” Jughashvili evolved into a diligent young man despite parental hostilities, attending seminary in Tiflis and becoming radicalized against the prevailing imperial rot. As the old order exploded in bombs around him, he became a Bolshevik pundit, V.I. Lenin acolyte, Trotsky nemesis and disputed successor. In January 1928, Stalin’s fateful trip to Siberia to begin consolidating his land collectivization scheme would transform—disastrously, it turned out—Soviet Eurasia. Kotkin has no patience with psychological explanations for Stalin’s obsessiveness, thuggery and paranoia—e.g., being beaten as a child or his later humiliation as a rustic “Asiatic” Georgian amid the Russian elite. What Stalin did have was the devotion of his mother and a drive to better himself, despite ill health and accidents that left him with a withered arm and limping gait. Steeped in Marxism thanks to his revolutionary mentor at seminary, “Lado” Ketskhoveli, Stalin quit school, went underground and became a self-styled “enlightener” to the workers, his political ideas solidified by the oppression of the collapsing czarist regime, frequent jailings or internal exile, and adherence to Lenin’s inexorable class war. Stalin’s elevation as Lenin’s “general secretary” in 1922 both spurred Stalin’s own personal dictatorship and aroused alarm—e.g., in Lenin’s disputed deathbed “Testament” urging Stalin’s removal.

Staggeringly wide in scope (note the 100-page bibliography), this work meticulously examines the structural forces that brought down one autocratic regime and put in place another.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2014

ISBN: 978-1594203794

Page Count: 960

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 8, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2014

An overdue comprehensive biography of a giant of mid-20th-century American politics.

ON HIS OWN TERMS

A LIFE OF NELSON ROCKEFELLER

Presidential library director and C-SPAN in-house historian Smith (The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, 1997, etc.) delivers a monumental biography of the charismatic vice president and four-term governor of New York.

Grandson and namesake of the two most hated men in Progressive-era America, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (1908-1979) was determined "to succeed despite his name” and to "polish the Rockefeller legacy like fine silver" through public service and the socially responsible use of the immense wealth and influence at his disposal. Rockefeller was the last of the titans of progressive Republicanism. "He had long believed that his country, like his family, must justify its riches through good works and the sharing of wealth,” writes Smith. He worked comfortably in appointed positions in Republican and Democratic administrations but ultimately "hungered for the legitimacy uniquely bestowed by the ballot box." As governor of New York, Rockefeller advanced measures combating discrimination in various forms and engaged in a building boom, much of it financed through constitutionally dodgy bonding schemes. In national politics, however, Rockefeller ultimately proved too liberal for the Republicans, the pillar of the "eastern establishment" at a time when the party was becoming more stridently conservative. In person, Rockefeller was a force of nature—optimistic, impatient, hard-charging and strikingly virile, engaging in sex with subordinates in a way that would never be hidden or tolerated today. Ironically, his presidential hopes were scotched by his very public divorce and remarriage, along with a considerable measure of tactical ineptitude. Rockefeller's enormously full life as a diplomat, bureaucrat, politician, businessman, and avid collector and proponent of modern art justifies the prodigious scale of this intensively researched work, presented in sturdy, confident prose with the occasional well-placed barb. The author maintains a dignified objectivity throughout, recounting events with penetrating perceptivity but refraining from intrusive editorial comment or analysis.

An overdue comprehensive biography of a giant of mid-20th-century American politics.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2014

ISBN: 978-0375505805

Page Count: 880

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 17, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2014

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