Biography, as many of you will know, is my favorite genre – it’s as improbable as the wildest-eyed fiction, as grounded in events as the most sober history, and often as unpredictable as any fantasy novel, and best of all, it very often brings out the best in its practitioners, many of whom are faced with the task of writing hundreds of new pages about subjects on which thousands of old pages have already been written. It can be a proving ground, in other words, not only for innovation in research but also for creativity in narrative. It’s a place for stately authorized biographies, multi-volume lifetime obsessions, and nimble-footed new approaches, and 2015 saw all three. These were the best of them:
10. Young Eliot by Robert Crawford (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – I’m no big fan of the poetry of T. S. Eliot, so I went into this biography with the wariness you might feel when somebody wants to tell you what a great dancer Josef Stalin was – the worry is that being a fan is the price of admission. But no: Crawford’s goal is not to make converts but to tell the admittedly interesting story of Eliot’s early years. You can read my full review here.
9. The Strategist by Bartholomew Sparrow (Public Affairs) – As mentioned, biographies can often be downright strange; certainly in 2014 I wouldn’t have expected to see a very long biography of the career of policy wonk and US government eminence grise Brent Scowcroft in 2015, let alone expected to like it as much as I did, both on first reading and even more on second reading. You can read my full review here.
8. Virginia Woolf by Vivane Forrester (trans by Jody Glanning) (Columbia University Press) – This slim, unforgettable book is a perfect example of how the sheer passionate beauty of a biographer’s engagement with her subject can make even the most familiar material feel new and electrifying again. Forrester’s prose is sinuous and powerful enough to match the hyper-smart and sensitive Woolf who comes to life in these pages. Other Virginia Woolf biographies are of course longer and more detailed, but this one feels like art in its own right.
7. The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams by Phyllis Lee Levin (St. Martin’s) – It’s a slight theme running through some of this year’s best biographies, this tactic of concentrating on part of a life instead of the whole, and it often pays benefits – as in this wonderful book, where Phylllis Lee Levin tells the story of the growth and development of the most remarkable US President of them all. You can read my full review here
6. The Fortunes of Francis Barber by Michael Bundock (Yale University Press) – Samuel Johnson was happy to collect odd and stray people as he shambled through life – he was bottomlessly generous and could be very, very kind – and one of them was the former Jamaican slave Francis Barber, the subject of Michael Bundock’s sprightly, enjoyable book. You can read my full review here.
5. Going into the City by Robert Christgau (Dey Street Books) – This gritty, sensuous, utterly engaging memoir by legendary Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau completely surprised me as far as how much I loved it. I’ve always somewhat distantly enjoyed Christgau’s writing, but mainly because some of our fondest New York memories are of the same New York, a city now largely vanished – the actual things he tended to write about always left me stubbornly indifferent. But in these pages every subject comes alive with the touch of a master storyteller.
4. James Merrill by Langdon Hammer (Knopf) – When it comes to the aforementioned stately authorized life-stories, this was by far my favorite example in 2015, a big, sumptuous account of great poet’s long, privileged, and episodically vivid life spent traveling, hob-nobbing, buying things, and even occasionally writing. And Langdon Hammer chose a narrative voice as clear and elegant as his subject. You can read my full review here.
3. Ty Cobb by Charles Leerhsen (Simon & Schuster) – Some biographies – not always my favorites – take up a subject like a dusty memento and blow all the dust off it, revealing something entirely new. Such biographies are almost always too angrily earnest to make good reading, but this revelatory look at legendary baseball player Ty Cobb is an exception: Leerhsen investigates every single canard handed into public knowledge by Cobb’s previous biographer, discredits almost all of them, and presents the reader with an entirely new take on his subject. A thrilling performance.
2. Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand (Bloomsbury) – This is the hugely enjoyable story of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, and Anita Anand indulges herself in the great tale of Princess Sophia’s life and times (indeed, the book begins before her life, with the juicy I,Claudius-style drama of her home kingdom during the heady days of the Raj), following her to England and to causes undreamt of by her royal ancestors. It’s a very winning performance; you can read my full review here.
1. Young Ovid by Diane Middlebrook (Counterpoint) – I never expected to see this book. It was originally intended to be a grand omnium gatherum life of the great Roman poet Ovid (by a remarkably powerful and insightful biographer, as we saw during the Donoghue Interregnum), but the wonderful Diane Middlebrook died in 2007, and it seemed like this book died with her. This lovely volume from Counterpoint, the Stevereads Best Biography of 2015, presents readers at last with as much of Ovid’s life as the author had been able to research and write, and it’s all heartbreakingly fantastic.
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