A vast subject confined in a small but well-illuminated room.

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BIOGRAPHY

A BRIEF HISTORY

The story of life stories, from cave paintings and Gilgamesh to Michael Holroyd and James Frey.

Hamilton may be the best friend biography has ever had. A skilled laborer in the life-story vineyard (Bill Clinton, 2003, etc.), he is also a fierce advocate for the importance of the genre—with some axes to grind. He wonders why the University of Hawaii at Manoa is the only one in the world with a department devoted to the study of biography. He rails against the OED, which he claims has insisted on limiting the definition of biography to written accounts only. Hamilton’s much broader category includes portraits, sculpture, painting, plays, films, TV shows, comic books and much of popular culture. Although he does pause periodically to discuss unconventional forms (Shakespeare’s dramatic studies of kings, for example), he focuses primarily on traditional biographies. Hamilton believes biography serves significant cultural functions. It is a way we learn about the past and (in the West at least) celebrate the primacy of the individual. His text hopscotches through history, staying put now and then to discuss great moments in biography and autobiography: the Gospels, St. Augustine, Plutarch, Raleigh, Rousseau, Boswell, Freud, Strachey and Woolf, who wrote Orlando because she decided that “if print biography could not batter down the doors of English decorum . . . it would have to mask itself as fiction.” Hamilton declares Citizen Kane the most powerful of all biographies, even though fictionalized. He looks hard at forces that oppose the biographer—religion, tradition, prudishness, libel laws, totalitarianism—and casts particular opprobrium on copyright laws that keep permission to publish in the hands of a subject’s surviving relatives. (He does not mention his own struggles with the Kennedys after the 1992 publication of JFK: Reckless Youth.) The author believes that democracy has been the propellant for biography’s rocket-like rise in the last half-century . . . and for biographers’ newfound freedom to write about their subjects’ sex lives. Many illuminating excerpts illustrate the text.

A vast subject confined in a small but well-illuminated room.

Pub Date: March 1, 2007

ISBN: 0-674-02466-4

Page Count: 316

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2006

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Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

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UNTAMED

More life reflections from the bestselling author on themes of societal captivity and the catharsis of personal freedom.

In her third book, Doyle (Love Warrior, 2016, etc.) begins with a life-changing event. “Four years ago,” she writes, “married to the father of my three children, I fell in love with a woman.” That woman, Abby Wambach, would become her wife. Emblematically arranged into three sections—“Caged,” “Keys,” “Freedom”—the narrative offers, among other elements, vignettes about the soulful author’s girlhood, when she was bulimic and felt like a zoo animal, a “caged girl made for wide-open skies.” She followed the path that seemed right and appropriate based on her Catholic upbringing and adolescent conditioning. After a downward spiral into “drinking, drugging, and purging,” Doyle found sobriety and the authentic self she’d been suppressing. Still, there was trouble: Straining an already troubled marriage was her husband’s infidelity, which eventually led to life-altering choices and the discovery of a love she’d never experienced before. Throughout the book, Doyle remains open and candid, whether she’s admitting to rigging a high school homecoming court election or denouncing the doting perfectionism of “cream cheese parenting,” which is about “giving your children the best of everything.” The author’s fears and concerns are often mirrored by real-world issues: gender roles and bias, white privilege, racism, and religion-fueled homophobia and hypocrisy. Some stories merely skim the surface of larger issues, but Doyle revisits them in later sections and digs deeper, using friends and familial references to personify their impact on her life, both past and present. Shorter pieces, some only a page in length, manage to effectively translate an emotional gut punch, as when Doyle’s therapist called her blooming extramarital lesbian love a “dangerous distraction.” Ultimately, the narrative is an in-depth look at a courageous woman eager to share the wealth of her experiences by embracing vulnerability and reclaiming her inner strength and resiliency.

Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-0125-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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