Authoritative and exhaustive—another jewel in Lee’s literary crown.

TOM STOPPARD

A LIFE

The celebrated playwright gets the Lee treatment.

Stoppard (b. 1937) asked award-winning literary biographer Lee to write his biography, giving her “access to a wealth of materials and permission to quote from them.” In this thorough, sympathetic, and eminently readable text, the author tracks his early years in Czechoslovakia through his time in Singapore, India, and England, where he met his stepfather, Maj. Kenneth Stoppard. Interestingly Lee notes that Stoppard, who dropped out of college, didn’t show much interest in the theater until he was a reporter for a Bristol newspaper. The city’s vibrant arts scene motivated an “anxious, eager, ambitious, shy and unworldly” young man who became friends with Peter O’Toole. A job with another paper had him writing film and play reviews, covering “everything that came out, from new European cinema to Hollywood romances, from Westerns to film noir, from musicals to disaster movies.” As she has done in her previous top-notch books, Lee carefully unwinds autobiographical links between her subject’s life and works. Despite his newspaper work, Stoppard knew that plays were “his business” and “theatre was where he might find rapid success.” His first play, A Walk on the Water, was produced in 1963, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which began as a one-act play, debuted in 1966. Though the “first reviews” were “terrible,” most were “ecstatic,” making Stoppard “all at once successful and famous.” As Lee masterfully explores both her subject’s life and work, she portrays a uniquely talented writer fully in tune with a wide variety of influences. She pays close attention to his screenplays, as well, including Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, Shakespeare in Love (“one of his best-loved pieces of work”), and a TV adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. He enjoyed doing films but noted that they weren’t a “continuation of one’s life as a writer” but rather “a detour.” Ultimately, this expansive portrait of a significant 20th-century artist is a biographical masterpiece. Stoppard chose his biographer well.

Authoritative and exhaustive—another jewel in Lee’s literary crown.

Pub Date: Feb. 23, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-451-49322-4

Page Count: 896

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2020

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A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

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A PROMISED LAND

In the first volume of his presidential memoir, Obama recounts the hard path to the White House.

In this long, often surprisingly candid narrative, Obama depicts a callow youth spent playing basketball and “getting loaded,” his early reading of difficult authors serving as a way to impress coed classmates. (“As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless,” he admits.) Yet seriousness did come to him in time and, with it, the conviction that America could live up to its stated aspirations. His early political role as an Illinois state senator, itself an unlikely victory, was not big enough to contain Obama’s early ambition, nor was his term as U.S. Senator. Only the presidency would do, a path he painstakingly carved out, vote by vote and speech by careful speech. As he writes, “By nature I’m a deliberate speaker, which, by the standards of presidential candidates, helped keep my gaffe quotient relatively low.” The author speaks freely about the many obstacles of the race—not just the question of race and racism itself, but also the rise, with “potent disruptor” Sarah Palin, of a know-nothingism that would manifest itself in an obdurate, ideologically driven Republican legislature. Not to mention the meddlings of Donald Trump, who turns up in this volume for his idiotic “birther” campaign while simultaneously fishing for a contract to build “a beautiful ballroom” on the White House lawn. A born moderate, Obama allows that he might not have been ideological enough in the face of Mitch McConnell, whose primary concern was then “clawing [his] way back to power.” Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the book, as smoothly written as his previous books, is Obama’s cleareyed scene-setting for how the political landscape would become so fractured—surely a topic he’ll expand on in the next volume.

A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6316-9

Page Count: 768

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

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A conversational, pleasurable look into McConaughey’s life and thought.

GREENLIGHTS

All right, all right, all right: The affable, laconic actor delivers a combination of memoir and self-help book.

“This is an approach book,” writes McConaughey, adding that it contains “philosophies that can be objectively understood, and if you choose, subjectively adopted, by either changing your reality, or changing how you see it. This is a playbook, based on adventures in my life.” Some of those philosophies come in the form of apothegms: “When you can design your own weather, blow in the breeze”; “Simplify, focus, conserve to liberate.” Others come in the form of sometimes rambling stories that never take the shortest route from point A to point B, as when he recounts a dream-spurred, challenging visit to the Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, who offered a significant lesson in how disagreement can be expressed politely and without rancor. Fans of McConaughey will enjoy his memories—which line up squarely with other accounts in Melissa Maerz’s recent oral history, Alright, Alright, Alright—of his debut in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, to which he contributed not just that signature phrase, but also a kind of too-cool-for-school hipness that dissolves a bit upon realizing that he’s an older guy on the prowl for teenage girls. McConaughey’s prep to settle into the role of Wooderson involved inhabiting the mind of a dude who digs cars, rock ’n’ roll, and “chicks,” and he ran with it, reminding readers that the film originally had only three scripted scenes for his character. The lesson: “Do one thing well, then another. Once, then once more.” It’s clear that the author is a thoughtful man, even an intellectual of sorts, though without the earnestness of Ethan Hawke or James Franco. Though some of the sentiments are greeting card–ish, this book is entertaining and full of good lessons.

A conversational, pleasurable look into McConaughey’s life and thought.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-13913-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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