A rare, welcome look at the art and craft of biography.



A biographer recalls the challenges of writing her first books.

Bair (Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, 2016, etc.), who won a National Book Award for her first biography, of Samuel Beckett, and critical acclaim for her biography of Simone de Beauvoir, has been asked, time and again, “what were they really like?” In a candid and engrossing memoir, Bair creates unvarnished portraits of those two headstrong, demanding, and brilliant individuals as well as of her growth as a researcher, writer, and feminist. The author had just completed her doctoral dissertation on Beckett when she asked for his cooperation in writing his biography. He replied immediately, agreeing to meet her in Paris. “I will neither help nor hinder you,” he told her. “My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.” During many years of research, she discovered the truth of his remark, as she interviewed scores of his friends, relatives, hangers-on, and vociferous enemies, all of whom she renders in lively detail. Although Beckett did not overtly interfere, he kept tabs on her research, often making her feel “like a marionette whose strings he was pulling.” After her book was published, she found that she had made her own enemies among critics and scholars she calls Becketteers, who reviewed her book with “unrelenting hostility.” Suffering “a minor breakdown,” Bair thought the biography would be her last. When an admiring editor encouraged her to think of a new subject, however, de Beauvoir quickly came to mind. She was, Bair thought, “the only modern woman who had made a success of everything,” an achievement that astonished Bair, who was juggling the responsibilities of a wife, mother, writer, and professor. She often considered the aging de Beauvoir to be “lumpy, dumpy, frumpy, and grumpy”; although agreeing to cooperate, she was reluctant to discuss sensitive issues, notably regarding sexuality. Besides offering privileged views of her celebrated subjects, Bair reveals herself struggling with structure and style and negotiating a world of publishing and academia not welcoming to women.

A rare, welcome look at the art and craft of biography.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54245-6

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Aug. 26, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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