Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best Books of 2011: Biography

This is the biography segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2011 feature. You can see other sections as follows: Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Books for Children and Young Adults, Best Cookbooks, Best Science Fiction/Fantasy, Best Crime Fiction (part I) and Best Crime Fiction (part II).

An Improvised Life: A Memoir by Alan Arkin (Da Capo)
While Alan Arkin’s An Improvised Life is disguised as a memoir, it’s really something more than that; though some would say less. While some personal details are included, An Improvised Life is no one’s idea of the tell-all biography readers seem to hunger for. It’s more like a journeyman’s thoughtful look back at a long and distinguished career. More than anything, the book brings us not Arkin the thrice-married father of three. Rather it is a working actor’s contemplation on a vocation that can be consuming, both personally and professionally. Alan Wolf Arkin was born on March 26th 1934 in New York City. Arkin says he knew he was going to be an actor from early childhood: “At five, acting was already a fever in my blood, and somehow I knew, even then, that the decision was made and there would be no turning back …. Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was.” Fans and admirers of the Academy Award-winning star will enjoy An Improvised Life for the insight to be gained from this personal visit with an actor who proves to be quite deft with a pen. Those who share Arkin’s interest in the acting life will find a great deal to like here, as well. -- Aaron Blanton

Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall by Frank Brady (Crown)
Though he was once considered to be the Mozart of the chess board, by the time he died at the age of 64 in 2008, chess champion Bobby Fischer was widely thought to be a kook who died notorious and maybe crazy in Iceland. No one is better equipped to tell this story than Frank Brady. The founding editor of Chess Life, Brady has written biographies of two other large and eccentric personalities: Orson Welles and Aristotle Onassis. At least as important, Brady and Fischer knew each other well. They met when they were children and, as adults, their lives and professions often intersected. This actual familiarity with Fischer results in a book that often has a fictional tone, though in fairness, that’s part of Brady’s style: using source material to recreate scenes that the author could not possibly have seen. “At his seat,” Brady writes at one point, “Bobby studied the stage from the audience’s perspective, seeing it as they must have seen it for two months, when they’d watched the combatants in profile.” It mostly isn’t irritating, except for when it is. I know these little visions are meant to be artful, but quite often I find them jolting: an unwelcome reminder that the author couldn’t possibly have seen or felt quite what is being claimed. Despite the occasional roughness in tone, Endgame is compellingly good. Brady, who is an experienced biographer, is working with some fabulous material here. Most of it quite close to his heart. -- David Middleton

The Garner Files: A Memoir by James Garner and Jon Winokur (Simon & Schuster)
OK, I’ll admit it: There’s a good bit of nostalgia behind my choosing Garner’s autobiography as one of the best books of 2011. He was one of my first favorite actors, and remains among the TV and film performers I most enjoy watching. My father introduced me to his work in Maverick (1957-1962), and I continued to follow Garner in The Rockford Files (1974-1980) as well as in films such as Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), Marlowe (1969), Skin Game (1971), Victor Victoria (1982), Murphy’s Romance (1985) and Twilight (1998). However, The Garner Files isn’t intended solely for fans of this now 83-year-old actor. It’s an unusual memoir, in large part because Garner didn’t put it together by himself in some Sunset Boulevard garret. He apparently sat down with his co-author, Jon Winokur (The Portable Curmudgeon), twice a week over a period of 18 months, and they talked about the ups and downs of Garner’s life while a tape recorder ran through batteries. As a result, The Garner Files resonates with its subject’s voice -- wry, witty, warm and frequently self-deprecating. The story is told in generally chronological order, beginning with the actor’s difficult Oklahoma childhood, then continuing through his service in the Korean War, his meeting and falling in love with his wife-to-be at an Adlai Stevenson for President rally in 1956, his serendipitous start as a Hollywood performer (“The only reason I’m an actor is that a lady pulled out of a parking space in front of a producer’s office”) and his widely assorted on-screen roles. He also talks about other stars he’s admired (especially Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman), his occasional battles to win fair deals from entertainment studios, his love/hate relationship with golf, his attendance at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (Garner was seated in the third row at the Lincoln Memorial when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech) and the constant pain from arthritis he’s endured since the 1960s. Garner insists that he’s unlike the easygoing, lighthearted, self-confident and sometimes self-interested characters he’s played on screens large and small. He says he has a bad temper and a tendency toward pessimism, and insists that he is “really an old curmudgeon.” But then, some of his characters over the years have been that way too, and viewers have delighted in their company all the same. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin (Da Capo)
Though many people aren’t familiar with his name, most Americans know his work, even if just through photographs and film. Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the most important landscape designers of all time. He designed both Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City, Back Bay Fens and Franklin Park in Boston, the Capitol Grounds in Washington, DC and to my mind the most stunning of all, the fabulous interconnected public parks and parkways of Buffalo, New York. So though I thought I knew something about Olmsted when I came to Justin Martin’s (Greenspan, Nader) new biography of a green pioneer. Not only does Martin outline Olmsted’s impressive credentials as a designer, but also his less well known contributions as a champion for America’s parks, an essayist on the abolitionist movement and his work as an early environmentalist. Included for context are details of his stormy marriage and a personal life that was sometimes plagued with tragedy and illness. Genius of Place is a very good biography of a man whose contributions to the beauty of the United States is incalculable. -- Aaron Blanton

Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain by Hal Holbrook (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Here’s Hal Holbrook, remembering when he was a veteran of World War II and an apprentice actor, visiting New York with fellow students from Denison University for a week and a half of theater-going, reveling in the craft and art of the Broadway stage at one height of its glory: “We saw plays and performances … I have never forgotten. John Gielgud in The Importance of Being Earnest; Oklahoma!; Brigadoon; Helen Hayes … Fredric MarchAll My Sons, by a new playwright named Arthur Miller … Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire … This galaxy of theatrical magicians seem like a distant heaven now. … [E]leven plays and the show at Radio City Music Hall in nine days, and the whole thing cost about $100.” Whatever Holbrook writes about in this fine, hefty, first volume of memoirs seems magical and reads like a dream. The actor who found the role of a lifetime playing Mark Twain learned more than a little about writing from that great author. Harold flows like a brilliant monologue, with laughter and tears, joy and heartache in excellent balance. It’s a remarkable story, or anyway Holbrook makes it so, writing with the grace of the great actors he saw in his youth: “They did not alter or distort the reality taking place on the stage -- they increased it. This happened because suddenly a confidence born of professional stagecraft had appeared. … Fredric March was an actor whose … conviction inhabited everything he did, and we reached out to him with our feelings, because he was reaching out to us.” Same with Holbrook, who recounts his thespian’s progress from New York soap-opera player to the brink of household-name success with great intensity, candor, humor and conviction. How marvelous that Hal Holbrook’s second great role should be: himself. -- Tom Nolan

Joe Simon: My Life in Comics by Joe Simon (Titan)

While biographies of the real superheroes in the world of comics are, sadly, few and far between, it’s difficult to imagine one much better than Joe Simon: My Life in Comics. Simon is, of course, best known as the co-creator of that most enduring of superheroes, Captain America. And though that collaboration is nothing to sneeze at, there is so much more to Simon’s life and career than that. Another important collaboration was Marvel Comics, where Simon was the first editor and one of the very important things Simon did while at Marvel was give legend-to-be Stan Lee his first job. Simon’s voice here is much as you’d expect: forthright, enthusiastic and with a feeling of candor. It’s fun to read about the early years: Simon’s connections with the writer Damon Runyon, boxer Jack Dempsey and other members of the comic and entertainment elite. Unsurprisingly, Simon’s autobiography is also partly a biography of the industry he helped create: its triumphs, losses and near losses and what, more than 60 years later, he sees now. Simon’s story is fascinating and his journey has been important to the industry. Comic lovers will find Joe Simon: My Life in Comics to be an enjoyable and satisfying read. -- Lincoln Cho

Nica’s Dream by David Kastin (Norton)
Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness is one of those books that you wouldn’t find credible if it were fiction. It has everything a good story requires. A glamorous baroness from a famous family. She is a pilot, mother to five children and a former fighter in the French resistance. Then she hears jazz music and is entranced: terminally. The music -- and the people who make it -- will alter the course of he life. She styles herself as a patroness of the arts which, in the case of jazz music at the middle part of the last century also means she becomes a fighter in the rights of racial equality. Kathleen Annie Pannonica (“Nica”) Rothschild de Koenigswarter’s life of privilege was challenged when Charlie Parker was found dead in her suite at the Stanhope Hotel. Music historian and educator David Kastin (I Hear America Singing) brings a deep knowledge of music and a storyteller’s passion for his tale to Nica’s Dream. “Whether frozen in Weegee’s tabloid flash,” Kastin begins, “or shrouded in the murky chiaroscuro of the era’s low-budget movies, New York in the 1950’s is a city in black and white.” And we’re entranced. This is not only the biography of a deeply interesting woman but in many ways, it’s the story of the birth of bebop and the maturation of cool. A fantastic story and a great book. -- David Middleton

Pitch Uncertain by Maisie Houghton (Tidepool)
“I was born in 1940, a bad time for the world, but I never did anything bad until the day I cut off my hair and left it on the floor for my mother to find, a bright, hot pool of yellow curls.” So begins Pitch Uncertain: A Mid-Century Middle Daughter Finds Her Voice. And you almost want to answer: And how! Houghton’s account of growing up in Cambridge, the middle child of an aristocratic American family, is beautifully rendered and touchingly sad. Houghton’s pen reveals a portrait of cultured America in the middle part of the 20th century as we always suspected it was: the perfect facade of Houghton’s privileged life masking a disconnection even the participants were barely aware of; their golden life an illusion for so much unsaid. Houghton writes with the grace and surety of a novelist. Pitch Uncertain is quiet, surprising and astonishingly good. Is there a film on the way? There should be. -- Linda L. Richards

Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War by Hal Vaughan (Knopf)
From the beginning, I was entranced by the cover. Simple black sans serif type on a plain white background, and the whole is framed by a strong black box. Anyone who was ever at all familiar with the work of designer Gabriele “Coco” Chanel would recognize the design: it is Chanel: elegant, simple, sophisticated. Here captured perfectly in a book cover by legendary designer and long-time Knopf art director Carol Devine Carson. And there’s more to a book than its cover, sure. But in this case, it’s a very good place to start. Much has been written about Chanel in the years since WWII, but all of it has played down most if not all of her romantic life and her serious entanglements. But in Sleeping With the Enemy, author and journalist Hal Vaughan has dug in deeper and here reveals new information about many things, including Chanel’s romantic involvement with a high ranking Nazi during Paris’s occupation and, even more explosive, her recruitment and activities as a spy. This is a very different look at Chanel. Vaughan looks not at her talent or the fabulous aspects of her life that other writers have, in any case, gone over very well. Instead he reveals the secret Coco… and it’s a revelation that will not sit well with all of her fans. A fascinating, well-researched and executed book that, nonetheless, leaves one with a sour taste. -- Linda L. Richards

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (Knopf Canada/Jonathan Cape)
Those who remember and enjoyed Jeanette Winterson’s debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, may be surprised to discover that the book was semi-autobiographical. In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal Winterson (The Passion, Sexing the Cherry) shares an almost gothically bad childhood. Adopted by a strongly religious family with a mother who is awaiting Armageddon; it was hoped Winterson would grow to be a missionary, but she fell in love with a woman instead. Winterson’s memoir is by turns very funny and deeply sad and sometimes the two things are skillfully interwoven. You see an example of this on the very first page. “When my mother was angry with me,” the book begins, “which was often, she said, ‘The devil led us to the wrong crib.’ The image of Satan taking time off from the Cold War and McCarthyism to visit Manchester in 1960 -- purpose of visit: to deceive Mrs. Winterson -- has a flamboyant theatricality to it.” Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a beautiful, heartfelt book, one of the most touching and complete memoirs I’ve read for a while. A note: though the book came out in Canada and the United Kingdom during the last half of 2011, those in the US have to wait until Grove releases it in that country in March of 2012. In that case, anticipate this one making various Best of lists two years in a row. In any case, it is that good. -- Sienna Powers

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