Book List

Best Biographies of 2018

A lively, richly detailed, and sharply perceptive biography.

THE LIFE OF MARK TWAIN

THE EARLY YEARS, 1835-1871

The transformation of newspaperman Samuel Clemens into popular essayist and entertainer Mark Twain.

Although Twain (1835-1910) has been the subject of scores of biographies and studies, his life story has never been told, asserts Scharnhorst (Emeritus, English/Univ. of New Mexico; Owen Wister and the West, 2015, etc.), “from beginning to end from a single point of view on an expansive canvas.” The author brings considerable authority and astute analysis to the first volume of his planned multivolume biography, drawing on Twain’s writings, letters (more than 5,000 made available since Justin Kaplan’s acclaimed biography of Twain was published in 1966), memoirs by Twain’s contemporaries, and nearly everything—reviews, remarks, and scholarship—written about Twain. Although Scharnhorst admits that he has discovered no “bombshells” or “dark secrets,” he offers a cleareyed, balanced portrait of the restless, irreverent, hard-drinking writer and lecturer who, no matter how much money he earned, seemed perpetually in debt. Twain worked for several newspapers after he gave up piloting on the Mississippi, with varying success. He was not well-liked by his colleagues on Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise, for example, recalled for being “a notoriously lazy grinder” who, when he should have been cranking out copy, instead sat “drumming on a cracked guitar.” As a young man, he held decidedly racist views, which he “outgrew” after he moved to cosmopolitan San Francisco in 1865. As far as sex, “little is known,” Scharnhorst asserts, although judging from some ribald writings, Twain “seems to have been thoroughly familiar with western bordellos” and may have been treated for venereal disease. Twain was an enthusiastic world traveler whose jaunts were funded by newspapers to which he contributed “letters” from abroad. He supplemented his income by performing as a “literary comedian” in the manner of renowned Artemus Ward, to whom he was often favorably compared. Scharnhorst ends his first volume with the publication of Twain’s well-received The Innocents Abroad (1869), his marriage to the heiress Livy Langdon, and the birth of their son.

A lively, richly detailed, and sharply perceptive biography.

Pub Date: March 30, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-8262-2144-5

Page Count: 600

Publisher: Univ. of Missouri

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2018

This excellent book makes a powerful argument for why the U.S. should always remain a place of sanctuary, benefiting...

PATRIOT NUMBER ONE

AMERICAN DREAMS IN CHINATOWN

Affecting portrait of a Chinese dissident who found a home among like-minded democrats in faraway New York.

Journalist Hilgers, who has covered China for the New Yorker and Businessweek, among other publications, met Zhuang Liehong in his home village on the southern coast of China. There, in 2011, as she reported, villagers had rebelled against corrupt officials, who had returned to power with a vengeance, backed by a brutal police force. “A proud former village leader on the ragged outskirts of Guangdong Province’s manufacturing boom,” Zhuang knew he had to get out while he could, and he weighed three plans to escape, including finding a boat to take him to the American territory of Guam. He settled on an expensive solution, signing himself and his wife, Little Yan, up for a tour of the United States that they then overstayed, making their way to Flushing, where, in time, they encountered other dissidents, notably the Tiananmen Square protest leader Tang Yuanjun. Hilgers closely chronicles Zhuang’s travails, among them the struggle to attain legal residency against the backdrop of an immigration regime that worried about offending China and seemed reluctant to house so public a figure, even if his renown had not spread widely in his adopted country. Finally, thanks to the pragmatic Little Yan, he found suitable work—and, thanks to Tang, continued his anti-corruption campaign in New York, protesting at Trump Tower, where an unimpressed Trump supporter yelled at him, “why do we have to pay attention to your problems?” Hilgers answers that question with admirable attention to narrative detail, giving a nuanced portrait of a vibrant working-class immigrant neighborhood comprising a “community of activists” who have lent dissidents like Tang and Zhuang their support.

This excellent book makes a powerful argument for why the U.S. should always remain a place of sanctuary, benefiting immensely from those who arrive from other shores.

Pub Date: March 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-451-49613-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 11, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

Not quite as attention-getting as memoirs by Ismail Beah or Scholastique Mukasonga, but a powerful record of the refugee...

THE GIRL WHO SMILED BEADS

A STORY OF WAR AND WHAT COMES AFTER

Record of a childhood in flight from war and terror.

“I hated that I had to eat,” writes Wamariya. “I hated my stomach, I hated my needs.” Growing children are always hungry, but the author, forced at the age of 6 to flee her native Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, was for years as a refugee never able to satisfy those elemental needs. Intercut with her chronicle of experiences in a series of refugee camps are moments from her new life in America, where she landed at the age of 12, adopted into a welcoming home in a bit of fortune that she did not trust: “I was callous and cynical….I thought I could fool people into thinking that I was not profoundly bruised.” She had reason to worry, for on a six-year trail that passed through one African nation after another, she witnessed both generosity and depravity coupled with the constant worry that the older sister with whom she had fled would decide that she was too much of a burden and abandon her. She did not: Her sister’s presence through one fraught situation after another is a constant. Wamariya’s experiences adjusting to life in a country where, her sister declared, beer flowed from faucets and people owned six cars at a time are affecting, and there are some Cinderella moments in it, from being accepted to Yale to appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s show. But more, there are moments of potent self-reckoning; being a victim of trauma means that “you, as a person, are empty and flattened, and that violence, that theft, keeps you from embodying a life that feels like your own.” The work of finding home and feeling safe—it’s something that every foe of immigration ought to ponder; in that alone Wamariya’s narrative is valuable.

Not quite as attention-getting as memoirs by Ismail Beah or Scholastique Mukasonga, but a powerful record of the refugee experience all the same.

Pub Date: May 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-451-49532-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

Outstanding. Not the book for a budding Marxist to start with, but certainly one to turn to for reference and deeper insight.

A WORLD TO WIN

THE LIFE AND THOUGHT OF KARL MARX

Readers of all nations, get to work: Swedish scholar Liedman (Emeritus, History of Ideas/Univ. of Gothenburg) turns in a study worthy of Isaiah Berlin of communism’s most influential theoretician.

According to conventional wisdom, Karl Marx (1818-1883) was right about everything but communism. Yet, as Liedman writes toward the end of this long, overstuffed history, his ideas remain relevant. “It is the Marx of the nineteenth century, not the twentieth, who can attract the people of the twenty-first,” he writes, meaning that despite the deformities introduced to Marxist doctrine by way of the practical—and totalitarian—politics of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, there are still good bones in the house that Marx built. Liedman examines the man and his ideas alike, sometimes finding unpleasant moments in both—for instance, the ugly anti-Semitism and more-than-casual racism of his essay “On the Jewish Question,” which manifested in a dark tradition of anti-Semitism among “various socialist and communist traditions.” Marx was also famously fractious, and in some instances even his closest collaborators found themselves targets of his mouth and pen. Even when he was not aroused to anger, he found constant reason to take up contrary positions, so that within the pages of the Communist Manifesto, one finds both Friedrich Engels’ attack on and Marx’s defense of marriage. Throughout, Liedman notes, Marx remained true to his Hegelian roots, making particular use of the concept of sublation, meaning, perhaps confusingly, that “something was both abolished and raised to a higher level,” whether marriage or private property or, to name a darker instance, the state. Some readers may wish that Marx had gone with his earlier desire to become a poet instead of a philosopher of such matters, but this book makes clear that Marx’s ideas, going on two centuries old, still have meaning in the present.

Outstanding. Not the book for a budding Marxist to start with, but certainly one to turn to for reference and deeper insight.

Pub Date: May 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-78663-504-4

Page Count: 768

Publisher: Verso

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

A well-wrought life of an eminent Victorian who merits our broader acquaintance.

MR. LEAR

A LIFE OF ART AND NONSENSE

“They dined on mince, and slices of quince, Which they ate with a runcible spoon”: spirited biography of the often dispirited master of the nonsense rhyme.

Remembered mostly as a writer of limericks, a poetic form he made his own, and other frivolities, Edward Lear (1812-1888) had a much broader range: In the Victorian era, ushered in when he was still a teenager, he was widely regarded as an illustrator and, moreover, as a scientific illustrator with a particular gift for painting birds. According to British biographer and historian Uglow (In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815, 2015, etc.), he was also “an intelligent, self-aware depressive” who battled the black dog of melancholy during his long and productive life. Depression aside, Lear was the kind of man who threw himself into projects: He knew everyone who was anyone, teaming up with Tennyson for adventures and working off a considerable head of steam by writing. “Nonsense is the breath of my nostrils,” Lear confessed, but he was capable of much considerable seriousness as well. Throughout the book, Uglow turns up wonderful moments, as when Lear set to work contributing to the “great visual filing system” devised for a scientific collection assembled by the retiring Lord Derby and when he met with Queen Victoria a few times in order to teach her, at her request, how to draw: “A diligent pupil, she copied Lear’s drawing and he, hardly surprisingly, was pleased and encouraging.” Apart from the workhorse Uglow chronicles, Lear was also a peripatetic man of broad interests who seemed, at least outwardly, cheerful. He was, in short, a Victorian man of many parts: a scientist, artist, writer, and spiritual searcher who struggled to overcome what, in one of his “darkest negatives,” he called the condition of being “blank.”

A well-wrought life of an eminent Victorian who merits our broader acquaintance.

Pub Date: April 17, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-11333-9

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

A long but excellent, highly useful addition to the library of modern European history as well as the political history of...

DE GAULLE

Nearly 50 years after his death comes this exhaustive biography and reassessment of Charles de Gaulle’s political career.

As Jackson (History/Queen Mary Univ.; The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940, 2003, etc.) notes, de Gaulle was not easy to peg politically. He emerged from a tradition of “social Catholicism” that “sought to overcome class struggle by finding a middle way between capitalism and socialism.” What de Gaulle was, pre-eminently, was French, fervently devoted to his nation. During World War I, he had been a junior officer under Marshal Pétain, whom he would oppose when France capitulated to the Germans at the beginning of World War II; Pétain’s role, de Gaulle thundered, put him “on the road to treason.” De Gaulle evacuated to London and set up a Free French government in exile, and he was so much of a thorn in the side of the Allies in demanding an equal place at the table that Jackson writes Churchill said something along the lines of, “Each time I have to choose between you and Roosevelt, I will choose Roosevelt.” Yet, because of de Gaulle, France did have an equal part as an occupying power of Germany after the war. Jackson writes clearly, if sometimes with a touch too much lingering detail, of de Gaulle’s maneuvering to play both sides against the middle in such instances as the near civil war that broke out in France over the anti-colonial war in Algeria, which nearly led to a modern coup d’état, and of de Gaulle’s elaborate efforts to calve the European powers away from American influence and into the French sphere. Throughout, Jackson insists, de Gaulle, though often considered conservative, was a modernizer who “celebrated scientific progress, economic and social reforms and the modernization of the armed forces.”

A long but excellent, highly useful addition to the library of modern European history as well as the political history of World War II and the Cold War.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-674-98721-0

Page Count: 944

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

A masterful, comprehensive biography, particularly of Douglass’ Civil War, Reconstruction, and Gilded Age years and...

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FREDERICK DOUGLASS

PROPHET OF FREEDOM

A lengthy but easily digestible biography of the famed ex-slave, abolitionist, and autobiographer.

In this superbly written book, Civil War and Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895) scholar Blight (American History/Yale Univ.; American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, 2011, etc.), a winner of the Bancroft, Abraham Lincoln, and Anisfield-Wolf prizes, ably captures his complex subject from all angles. While many readers may be familiar with Douglass’ escape from slavery, self-education, and early life (thanks to his autobiographies), most nonscholars are not as well-versed in the details of his later life—e.g., his role in the Civil War, political campaigning, fight for suffrage, complicated family relationships, and more. It’s in these later years that Blight’s work really shines; in fact, Douglass’ early slave life and escape only cover roughly the first 100 pages of the 760-page narrative (followed by 100 pages of notes). From there, Blight makes the case for Douglass as an American prophet in the mold of the Old Testament’s Jeremiah or Isaiah. Though he often scolded and admonished in his speeches and writings, often in King James–style vernacular, he also never gave up hope of a coming time of freedom for his black brethren. Douglass truly was the “prophet of freedom” all the way until his death in 1895, fighting for civil rights until the very end. While some readers may want more coverage of his early life, and perhaps more analysis of what Douglass means today, Blight viscerally captures the vitality, strength, and determination of his subject. For such a renowned figure, who was perhaps the most photographed and recognizable person of the 19th century, there is surprisingly little in the way of modern, full-scale, accessible biographies. Blight delivers what is sure to be considered the standard-bearer for years to come.

A masterful, comprehensive biography, particularly of Douglass’ Civil War, Reconstruction, and Gilded Age years and occupations.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4165-9031-6

Page Count: 896

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

A monumental biography of one of the most influential and revered Supreme Court justices of the last century.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG

A LIFE

The first comprehensive biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933), Supreme Court justice and cultural icon.

Ginsburg grew up in a Jewish community in Brooklyn; early in her career, she repeatedly suffered discrimination both as a woman and as a Jew. Nevertheless, she attended Cornell University and then law school at Harvard and Columbia (after she transferred), joined law school faculties, and was appointed to the federal bench at a time when those achievements were rare for women. Political historian De Hart (co-author: Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA: A State and the Nation, 1990, etc.) describes in absorbing detail the behind-the-scenes campaign to obtain her appointment to the Supreme Court engineered by her devoted husband, Martin Ginsburg, a renowned tax attorney, gourmet chef, and her biggest cheerleader. Since her arrival in 1993, the court has shifted steadily rightward, leaving her a lionized but increasingly isolated voice of principled dissent. Ginsburg's influence on American law can hardly be exaggerated, particularly in areas regarding minority and women's rights. The author clearly explains how, as an ACLU lawyer, Ginsburg plotted a successful incremental strategy to attack legal discrimination against women, which at the time was pervasive and took remarkably egregious forms. Once Ginsburg reaches the Supreme Court, De Hart excels in explaining the majority opinions, and later the dissents, in which she participated with remarkable clarity, illuminating the issues, the competing positions, and the significance of each in language easily grasped by readers with no legal training (for a nonlawyer, De Hart has a remarkable grasp of court jurisprudence). While the author's primary focus is Ginsburg's professional achievements, she also covers such topics as her battles with cancer, her love of opera, and her unlikely friendship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia—though, as a notorious workaholic, it often appears she had little noteworthy personal life apart from the law.

A monumental biography of one of the most influential and revered Supreme Court justices of the last century.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4000-4048-3

Page Count: 768

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Aug. 5, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

Though sometimes overly detailed, this is a top-notch exploration of one of the most important midcentury writers.

THE LIFE OF SAUL BELLOW

LOVE AND STRIFE, 1965-2005

Leader (English Literature/Roehampton Univ.) concludes his exemplary life of the famed Canadian-American writer whose literary successes were matched by familial psychodramas, feuds, and other such mishegoss.

As the author picks up from The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964 (2015), the subject of his biography has attained great fame and fortune. Henderson the Rain King (1959) has had five years to make waves, building on earlier books such as The Adventures of Augie March and Dangling Man, and now Herzog (1964) is out, nearly universally hailed and climbing the charts, “supplanting John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” on the bestseller lists. At the time, however, Bellow was not satisfied. Having established himself as a top-flight novelist, he tried his hand at a play that ran for only a month and received some of the toughest reviews of his career, along with a note from Lillian Hellman that Bellow summarized as “I’ve written a lot of interesting soliloquies, but there’s not a play in sight.” Undaunted, Bellow returned to prose with a vengeance, putting into practice his pronounced habit of taking every element from real life and conversation and working it into his fictional narratives. Leader ably charts Bellow’s continuing evolution as a writer, which will cheer his fans: Bellow matched talent, after all, with an impressive work ethic. Less cheering are his relationships with children, lovers, and spouses, all of which involved considerable drama and, even on his deathbed, shouting and recriminations. His cantankerousness punctuates almost every page, as when he explodes in anger over a companion’s going off to see a popular movie while he attended his son’s wedding: “By eroding the standards of a wide literate audience,” Leader glosses, “M*A*S*H was debasing as well as debased." Always hard at work and always in battle mode, Bellow emerges as a brilliant writer who never minded being disliked—and offered many reasons to do so.

Though sometimes overly detailed, this is a top-notch exploration of one of the most important midcentury writers.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-101-87516-2

Page Count: 784

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Aug. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

In intimate, knowing ways, Goodwin crafts history as aspiration—or at least inspiration—for readers; let’s hope a hefty...

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LEADERSHIP

IN TURBULENT TIMES

With impeccable timing, the acclaimed historian focuses on the ways four presidents navigated the country through wrenching clashes and crises.

Pulitzer Prize winner Goodwin (The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, 2013, etc.) profiles Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, all of whom she’s written about previously. Lincoln’s “unmatched work ethic, rhetorical abilities, equable nature, and elevated ambition” steered him to the moment in 1862 when he gathered his Cabinet for the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. That document, writes the author, is “remarkable for its flat precision,” revealing Lincoln’s wisdom in reining in rhetorical flourishes “to reach across factions” and avoid moral condemnation of slaveholding states. Goodwin admires Theodore Roosevelt for his ability to change himself from a “nervous, unhealthy, fragile child” to a leader who, through the force of his personality and adept use of the press, protected working-class Americans from vast wealth inequality. Franklin Roosevelt’s amiable confidence and ability to lead by example pushed the country through the Great Depression, while Johnson’s mastery of legislative strategy eventually compelled many national politicians to see that civil rights were long overdue. The most remarkable aspects of this book are the astute psychological portraits of these leaders: comprehensive, human, and engaging, clearly the results of long study. In the final chapters, Goodwin uses short signposts, snippets of advice, to guide readers. For example, in the section about Johnson’s seemingly insurmountable passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she writes, “make a dramatic start” and “establish the most effective order of battle,” and then follows that line with several paragraphs about why Johnson fought to pass a tax cut before attempting the more momentous civil rights bill. These demarcations clarify the labyrinthine political and cultural issues the presidents confronted.

In intimate, knowing ways, Goodwin crafts history as aspiration—or at least inspiration—for readers; let’s hope a hefty portion of those readers have titles that begin with Sen. or Rep.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-9592-8

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

A top-notch biography.

IN BYRON'S WAKE

THE TURBULENT LIVES OF LORD BYRON'S WIFE AND DAUGHTER: ANNABELLA MILBANKE AND ADA LOVELACE

The tale of one of the most disastrous marriages in English literary history—and how it reverberated through generations to come.

Prolific novelist and literary biographer Seymour (The Pity of War: England and Germany, Bitter Friends, Beloved Foes, 2014, etc.) returns to the familiar Romantic era ground she covered in her 2001 biography, Mary Shelley, with this wide-ranging dysfunctional family portrait. Raised as a beautiful, pampered, privileged social princess, Annabella Milbanke married the great poet Lord Byron with the most delusional of intentions: She would reform the rake who famously seduced anyone who didn’t seduce him first. However, no sooner were they on their honeymoon than Byron brought his half sister, Augusta Leigh, into the game and all but made love to her under the nose of his naïve and oblivious bride. Annabella, who only dealt with the unthinkable when it became the unavoidable, fled within a year, taking along Ada, her newborn daughter by Byron. Her marriage made her vindictive and cruel; she could wield the unpleasant and unlawful facts as a cudgel against Byron and Augusta as well as their unfortunate daughter Elizabeth Medora. More than that, she raised and molded Ada by herself, with results that went well beyond her control. While she nurtured Ada’s genius—she was the mathematical prodigy who became the explicator and promoter of Charles Babbage’s groundbreaking Analytical Machine, the forerunner of the computer—Ada was every bit her father’s daughter. The self-proclaimed “bride of science,” she supplemented her marriage with affairs and a disastrous interest in racehorse gambling; she also bristled under the restraints of her tightfisted and domineering mother. Seymour’s great achievement is the resourcefulness and diligence she brings to both Annabella and Ada, complex figures who alternately invite and test readers’ sympathies. Their inner and outer lives—along with those of dozens of others who populate this tragic farce—are told with singular narrative skill.

A top-notch biography.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-68177-872-3

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: Sept. 11, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2018

A penetrating, spirited recounting of a courtier’s roiling life and times.

PATRIOT OR TRAITOR

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SIR WALTER RALEGH

A new biography of Sir Walter Ralegh (c. 1554-1618), a handsome, wily, politically astute, and powerful figure in Elizabethan England.

Beer (Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, 2016, etc.) creates a sharp, sympathetic, and discerning portrait of a charming man of “dark, Celtic, good looks” who became a favorite of Elizabeth I only to fall precipitously from grace under the queen’s successor, James VI of Scotland. Without a noble background, Ralegh’s unlikely rise to prominence was fueled by his “energy, vision and intelligence” mixed with “arrogance, violence and deception.” An improbable naval hero (he could not sleep onboard ship, he claimed), he survived sea battles; a womanizer, who married in secret without the queen’s approval, he rose above sex scandals. He was a “cultural relativist in a century of religious absolutism” and a “poster boy” for “a more decent form of British imperialism, concerned not with “trade and plunder” but with settlement. For a time, his loyalty to Elizabeth ensured that he would survive the rivalries that rent the fabric of the court; in 1584, he gained a coveted patent “to discover unknown lands, to take possession of them in the Queen’s name, and to hold them for six years.” His plan to found the colony of Virginia was, Beer acknowledges, “only a tiny part of a larger geo-political struggle; Protestant England’s war with Catholic Spain”—the adversary nation that Ralegh hated vehemently. The author is forthright about her subject’s failings and clear in her admiration, as well, especially for his talent for rhetoric: “He was the master of persuasion, a man who could make you believe that defeat was victory, that black was white.” In 1592, imprisoned by Elizabeth, he bribed his way to freedom; two years later, he was “a freewheeling adventurer” once again, in South America on a quest for gold. After Elizabeth died, he became “a small cog in the very large machine of international power politics,” imprisoned, condemned, and beheaded.

A penetrating, spirited recounting of a courtier’s roiling life and times.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-78607-434-8

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Oneworld Publications

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2018

Superb. On nearly every page, Guha offers evidence why Gandhi remains relevant in the world 70 years after his death.

GANDHI

THE YEARS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD, 1914-1948

Following Gandhi Before India (2014), noted political historian Guha continues with a massive and much-needed study of his subject’s emergence as a world leader.

Gandhi (1869-1948) arrived in India, after living in South Africa, in 1915 and immediately began to agitate for independence, renouncing what he called “violence and anarchy” and building an ashram-based movement of satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance to oppression. His earliest years in India were occupied with forging political alliances, building the case for independence with Annie Besant, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and other like-minded (but quite divergent) activists. As Guha writes, though profoundly influential and now sainted, Gandhi was human, with all the freight that carries. He may have renounced sex in his 30s, but he experimented with temptation late in life; he may have wished he’d been celibate before siring difficult heirs, only one of whom, he said, “had been born to compensate me for the dissatisfaction I feel from my other three sons.” The author portrays Gandhi as a masterful politician intent on a number of reforms apart from independence, including the dismantling of caste and religious barriers and advancement of gender equality. In his political dealings, he confronted numerous obstacles, including fellow Indians who wished to press for an established religion and the thorny question of whether to support the Allies in their war against the fascist powers in World War II, which afforded Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders a lever by which to insist that Britain relinquish empire in order to battle for democracy. If some of Gandhi’s ideas seem old-fashioned today—e.g., his insistence on the village and agrarian pursuits as the bases for a free nation—then many of them are resolutely forward-looking, as when he told a visiting delegation of African-Americans, “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”

Superb. On nearly every page, Guha offers evidence why Gandhi remains relevant in the world 70 years after his death.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-385-53231-0

Page Count: 1008

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Aug. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

A richly detailed and supremely sensitive portrayal of an artist obsessed with the “terrible and magnificent” act of...

HESSE

THE WANDERER AND HIS SHADOW

A top-notch biography of the Nobel Prize–winning writer, who suffered spiritual crises and suicidal depression.

German biographer and film and theater critic Decker, editor of Theater der Zeit, offers a masterful, penetrating biography of Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), adroitly translated by Lewis, that deserves the accolade “definitive.” Drawing on Hesse’s voluminous correspondence (including newly available letters to Stefan Zweig and psychiatrist Josef Lang), autobiographical writings, and 20 volumes of complete works, Decker lays bare Hesse’s complex, contradictory personality, his all-consuming dedication to the creative life, his tormented relationships with women, and the cultural and political forces that found their ways into his works. The son of Pietist missionaries, Hesse rebelled violently against his parents’ fanatical religious beliefs—so violently that his parents committed him to an insane asylum when he was 15. He repeatedly sent his poems and stories to his mother, who repeatedly withheld praise or encouragement; “nothing,” Decker asserts, “could have been more important than being acknowledged by his mother as a writer.” Yearning for her love, he was torn by his need “to distance himself from this world in which art was at best a pretty ornament on the Sunday-best dress of the bourgeoisie.” Although married three times, Hesse was by nature a loner and narcissist: moody, hypochondriacal, and self-absorbed. He could never see a woman as a friend, and he demeaned and ignored his wives and lovers. Yet he was capable of friendship, with German poet Hugo Ball, for one, and Thomas Mann. Several of Hesse’s most famous novels—Demian, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, and The Glass Bead Game—“touched the nerve of the age” by portraying a protagonist who felt alienated by society, “an outsider filled with a loathing for the world and self-disgust,” a man striving to reconcile the duality of his personality, or one compelled to wander, though longing for home. “How Ought One to Live?” Hesse asked, again and again.

A richly detailed and supremely sensitive portrayal of an artist obsessed with the “terrible and magnificent” act of creation.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-674-73788-4

Page Count: 780

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2018

The most comprehensive single-volume biography of Churchill that we have in print and a boon for any student of the...

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CHURCHILL

WALKING WITH DESTINY

Sprawling life of the great British leader, drawing on previously unavailable documents, including notes of wartime counsels kept by King George VI.

No stranger to big biographies or larger-than-life subjects, historian and commentator Roberts (Napoleon: A Life, 2014, etc.) faces a special challenge with Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who closely documented himself and still has managed to inspire a roomful of books. Roberts adds materially to the library by consulting troves of documents unknown or not open to other researchers. He also has a sense of both drama and character as well as the context of Churchill’s time. As the author writes early on, Churchill “was born into a caste that held immense political and economic power in the largest empire in world history, and that had not yet become plagued by insecurity and self-doubt.” Sometimes Churchill’s overconfidence led to disaster, as at Gallipoli; other times it helped his nation steel itself for war, as with his “fight them on the beaches” speech at the dawn of World War II. Roberts turns up fascinating fragments, including solid evidence that Churchill was not always the pro-American some biographers have claimed him to be: “You have to try and understand and master America and make her like you,” counseled his wife, Clementine. Better still, the narrative underscores Churchill’s attention to the smallest details while seeing the big picture of global strategy in matters such as handling an always-fraught alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler and laying the groundwork for a postwar world with plenty of tensions of its own, including the question of a Jewish state in Palestine. Roberts’ portrait comes warts and all, allowing, for instance, that the leader who decried Nazi air attacks on London would order the leveling by bombing of whole German cities. The author delivers a clear, well-limned view of a complex figure who, in no danger of being forgotten, continues to inspire.

The most comprehensive single-volume biography of Churchill that we have in print and a boon for any student of the statesman and his times.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-101-98099-6

Page Count: 1088

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2018

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