RaveThe Guardian (UK)Exhilarating, gnarly ... The impulse to farm out the decision to an external authority sounds hopelessly naive – but then, asks Dederer, isn’t there something equally ridiculous about thinking that whether we choose to enjoy a particular piece of art or not is going to change anything?
RaveThe Times (UK)Exhilarating ... Looking for saints and heroes is not the humanist way, but Bakewell finishes this bracing book by urging us to draw inspiration from these earlier men and women as we try hard to live bravely and humanly in what sometimes seems like an aridly abstract and loveless world.
Mary Trevelyan, Erica Wagner
PositiveThe Times (UK)Erica Wagner shows herself to be a forensically astute reader of the memoir and letters that Trevelyan left behind ... Wagner is careful not to judge either Eliot or his women. While the reader longs to scream at Hale and Trevelyan to just walk away, you are also left with the sneaking suspicion that being present at the making of work that shook the 20th century was probably — just — worth the humiliation and heartache.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)These accounts of how discoveries in the 20th and 21st centuries have allowed for the rewriting of ancient women’s lives are easily the best part of Janina Ramirez’s survey of current scholarship ... Queerness, in its broadest sense of a point of view or set of behaviours running at a slant to received ideas, remains the key to Femina ... Here is a story of more ordinary female existence in the middle ages to balance against that of the ferocious Birka warrior or the eccentric Margery Kempe. While Ramirez’s clunky prose doesn’t always serve her particularly well, there is no disguising her excitement as she sets these revelatory scenes before us.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Runcie has written a love letter to the woman who, when he announced to his parents that he was going to marry her, prompted a less than ecstatic response ... Runcie... credits Imrie with turning him into a novelist. For all her lavishness of speech... she had a scalpel sense when it came to text. She encouraged Runcie to cut anything slack or sloppy from his drafts, so what was left was the pure essence of character and the logical energy of a story that could only end one way. These are qualities that Runcie brings to this memoir.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Meticulously researched ... Morris was such a compellingly flighty writer that her biographer is obliged to tether his book to solid earth, in part to avoid giving the suggestion that he has fallen too hard under her spell.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... brilliantly written ... a love song to the book as a physical object. In tactile prose Smith reminds us of the thrills and spills of shabby covers, the illicit delight of writing in margins when you have been told not to and the guilty joy that comes from poring over traces left by someone else. It is these haptic, visceral and even slightly seedy pleasures of \'bookhood\' that she brings so brilliantly to life.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)Exquisitely nuanced ... Careful not to judge either Eliot or his women. While the reader longs to scream at Hale and Trevelyan to just walk away, you are also left with the sneaking suspicion that being present at the making of work that shook the 20th century was probably—just—worth the humiliation and heartache.
Haruki Murakami, trans. by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
RaveThe Guardian (UK)They deal with all the things that you’d like to ask the author of Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore in the highly unlikely event that you were able to corner him at a book-signing session ... Murakami gives an extraordinary account of how, at first, he couldn’t produce a literary voice that he could bear to read ... You end this collection of beautiful essays vowing to never let life, or writing, get so complicated again.
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)In this spirited book Katie Hickman does her best to go beyond such causes célèbres to tease out the experiences of ordinary women — Europeans, indigenous, Africans and even Chinese — who lived and worked west of the Rockies from 1830 to 1880 ... Drawing on a rich store of letters, diaries and memoirs, she recounts the loneliness and terror of giving birth in an encampment hundreds of miles from the nearest medical help; dealing with a miscarriage when the wagons are due to depart at dawn; and watching your starving child gnaw at tree bark ... In the past 50 years there has been an explosion of scholarly research that has served to dismantle those hoary old myths about the Wild West as a white male space in which women wore pinnies and looked worried or sashayed into a saloon bar looking for trouble. In Brave Hearted Hickman makes deft and sensitive use of this new material. The result is a glorious patchwork, which can at times feel like a hotchpotch as we jump from life in the governor’s mansion to getting by on the reservation, but which does these extraordinary women proud.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)It is the Sassoons’ fall from fortune that gives this somewhat dry family history its emotional heart and narrative pace ... Fascinating.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)The story of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes has been told many times before, but no one is able to master it more engagingly than Rupert Christiansen, the veteran opera critic and self-confessed \'incurable balletomane\'. He comes to his subject with a head stuffed full not just of pas de deux and grands jetés but also all the gossip and scandal that trailed in Diaghilev’s choppy wake ... In deft, elegant prose Christiansen takes us through the postwar period, showing us how Diaghilev’s revolutionary vision was carried forward by a corps of British-based star choreographers and dancers including Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan, Robert Helpmann, Ninette de Valois, Anton Dolin and Margot Fonteyn.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... kind and lucid ... As in all her best work, Worsley proves adept at synthesizing current scholarship while always being careful to name her sources ... Worsley deals unflinchingly with the changing quality in Christie’s work as she approached old age.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)... frankly brilliant ... At the heart of Rundell’s thrilling reassessment of Donne’s oddly hinged career is an argument for transformation rather than rupture ... Particularly brilliant is Rundell’s ability to enter Donne’s inner world through his verse without ever falling into the easy assumption that his poetry must be autobiographical ... The fact that this is Rundell’s first non-fiction book — she has previously written children’s novels that have scooped multiple awards — is something of a wonder. On reading this extraordinary biography you are left concluding that her talent, like that of her hero’s, must somehow be super-infinite.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Andrew Nagorski spikes his thriller with truly terrifying notes...Shortly before the dash for freedom, two of Freud’s children, Anna and Martin, were questioned by the Gestapo...They had taken the precaution of asking Schur for a deadly barbiturate to take if torture ensued...Moreover, four of Freud’s elderly sisters stayed in Austria; three perished in Treblinka, while the fourth starved to death...At the end of this otherwise excellent book we are still left pondering how Freud himself, whose work was all about facing up to the unpleasant realities of human life, could carry on believing for so long that he alone could give History the slip...A gripping account of how colleagues and admirers spirited the psychoanalyst from Nazi-controlled Vienna to London.
RaveAirmailIn 1989 John Walsh found himself unaccustomedly lost for words...As the newly minted literary editor of The Sunday Times, one of his first duties was to have lunch at the Savoy Grill with the brilliant academic polymath and reviewer George Steiner...Walsh had mugged up on some topics in readiness...It is this mixture of high and low, sacred and profane, running through Walsh’s account of literary London in the 1980s that makes it such a joy...There is no disguising his excitement as he recalls how, after a decade in the doldrums, the novel burst out in thrilling new shapes and colours...Alongside these comic beats Walsh offers a shrewd analysis of the structural shifts that allowed the literary industry to transform itself from drab and worthy in the 1970s to hip and cool ten years later...The great joy of this book remains the gossip that swirls around la vie haute bohème...The circus was moving on and Walsh, like the literature he loves, was bound for pastures new.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)... fizzingly written and sumptuously illustrated ... What makes this biographical dictionary of British painters and sculptors so readable is that Morris is writing about people he once knew very well indeed ... Morris writes with an insider’s understanding as to why so many of the so-called British surrealists felt ambivalent about having their work included in the 1936 exhibition ... this beautifully illustrated book — each artist’s bio is accompanied by two or three paintings — is a reminder of the extraordinary work of such Britons as Carrington and Agar, whose reputations as surrealists of the first order, able to stand comparison with Duchamp, de Chirico and the rest, have been soaring in recent years.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)In this deeply affectionate biography, Paula Byrne claims her as a \'cult author\' but that doesn’t seem quite right. Pym is no one’s idea of a well-kept secret. Although she is frequently described, not least by Byrne, as a modern Jane Austen, in fact her work is far closer to Elizabeth Gaskell in her Cranford days ... In this excellent – a word that always carried extra heft in Pym’s universe – biography Byrne explores how her art emerged from three distinct yet porous registers of experience ... Although Pym’s archive has already been well picked over by scholars and fans, Byrne’s book is the first to integrate its revelations into a cradle-to-grave biography. She gives a seamless timeline of Pym’s life ... Byrne doesn’t dodge the uncomfortable implication that Pym’s phase as a Nazi sympathiser (she even had a swastika pin that she wore around Oxford) went on longer than most middle-class Britons in the 1930s, but she is clear too how completely it was bound up with Pym’s feelings for prewar Germany as a land of music, mountains and philosophy and, above all, as a crucial bulwark against the terrifying threat of communism from Russia ... Oddly, though, Byrne does not delve very deeply into the less toxic business of why Pym had such a masochistic habit of going after men who were either gay or already committed to prettier or socially smarter women.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... exhilarating ... Eagleton’s great achievement here is to look beyond the scrim of five tricky personalities to identify the continuities in their work, which added up to a revolution in the way that people – not just professional academics, but the whole community of readers throughout the English-speaking world – thought and talked about books ... It would be hard to think of any writer better able to lay out the dust-ups and love-ins of interwar literary culture than Terry Eagleton. His own critical interventions have always been distinguished by an exemplary clarity, not to mention a generous humour ... Eagleton’s goal here is not to mock or diminish. His respect for these thinkers, in whose tradition he is perhaps the last member (he was taught by Raymond Williams, the youngest of the Cambridge group) shimmers gratefully and lovingly on the page.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Damrosch, a Harvard literary historian, is in turn clear that he is writing a post-MeToo Casanova. At the same time, he is also keen that we should understand just what a valuable document Histoire is for scholars working on the 18th century. It has only recently become available in its entirety and, despite some fantasy elements, bears unparalleled witness to the social, political and intellectual mindset of the time.
Clare Mac Cumhaill
RaveDaily Mail\"In this terrific book, Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman aruge that it was [Elizabeth] Anscombe, together with Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot, who dragged the ancient metaphysicians Aristotle and Plato from their pedestals and made them relevant to a post-war world...Metaphysical Animals follows this charismatic quartet as they plot to overturn the moral relativism of male colleagues such as A.J. Ayer who argue that there is no such thing as good or bad, merely self-interest...The result is a group biography that is both gossipy and gripping but also, like the women themselves, profoundly serious...A triumph.\
RaveTimes Literary Supplement (UK)Antonia Fraser is particularly good on Caroline Norton as a professional writer, a topic that tends to get buried ... Fraser’s generous and humane biography is a reminder that Caroline Norton was much more than either a pioneer in legal reform, or a demi-mondaine who kept the gossip writers going.
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)... absorbing ... what Fischer does do is bring sharp forensic skills and a cool head to a narrative that has become hijacked by wild conspiracy theories ... Despite deflating the drama, Fischer tells the bigger story well ... It is a veritable second Enlightenment, a time of extraordinary creativity as the inherited boundaries of time and space dissolve. And if at times Fischer does veer towards the hagiographic when dealing with Le Prince, we can at least admire the tenacious way he unsettles the persistent idea that Edison bestrides the modern world like a Colossus.
PositiveSunday Times (UK)[A] gossipy, fluent dual biography ... Details are already familiar from the many good biographies in existence. Even so, Galloway is careful to bring out the kind of nuance that often gets lost in the rush to extract the last bit of gossip from a drama that boasts a supporting cast that reads like a Who’s Who of the mid-20th century ... Here lies the central problem of this entertaining book. Galloway, rightly, reads Leigh’s behaviour through modern understandings of bipolar disorder, quoting extensively from the work of contemporary psychiatrists. In light of this he, and we, can feel only profoundly sorry for Leigh that she was born decades too early to get the medical interventions that would have made her life less of a torment. Yet at the same time Galloway wants things the older, cruder way, with \'Vivien Leigh\' as an avatar for the sexy tragic madwoman, all wild hair and vixen cunning. His attempt to square the circle in a clumsy final passage by suggesting that romantic passion is, in essence, a species of madness feels disingenuous.
PositiveDaily Mail (UK)[A] brisk retelling ... For her latest biographer there is something quite admirable about the Duchess Countess, a girl who battled the law of the land, not to mention a good chunk of Britain’s aristocracy, in order to become her own woman.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Whatever the eventual verdict, it’s clear that Sullivan’s book struggles to find a form and style that serves her material. In particular she seems uncertain about how much prior knowledge she can assume in her readers, which means that two thirds of this book are spent rehashing the story of the Franks’ murder, and the postwar publication of Anne’s diary. Only once Sullivan moves on to actual \'persons of interest\' does the narrative begin to pick up, even though here again much of this information has long been in the public domain ... what Sullivan does manage to do is assemble a compelling picture of what it was like to live in Amsterdam under Nazi occupation: here is a collection of increasingly isolated individuals, hungry, terrified and daily faced with impossible choices about whether to save themselves, their loved ones, or the nice family that lives next door. And it is this moral vacuum that follows in the wake of antisemitism, rather than any particular \'perp\', that betrayed Anne Frank.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)One of the great pleasures of this panoramic history of getting dressed is Sofi Thanhauser’s ability to spot moments...where human desire and material culture collide ... Worn, though, consists of much more than a string of entertaining anecdotes about people raiding the dressing-up box and embarrassing themselves in the process ... None of this is logistically or morally simple and the great virtue of Thanhauser’s analysis is how alive she is to the difficulty of making these networks legible, even when they lie relatively close to come ... Thanhauser’s approach to exposing a system gone so horribly wrong is to synthesise the existing literature, add fresh insights drawn from her own fieldwork, and deliver the findings in a richly evocative narrative powered, but never overwhelmed, by a sense of righteous anger.
James R. Gaines
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... revelatory ... [Gaines] sheds light on a whole range of underground movements tackling everything from race relations to working-class feminism by way of non-binary sexuality ... Gaines’s great skill is to use individual life stories, with all their messy contradictions, to dislodge entrenched narratives about life in postwar America ... By attending to the experience of historical actors as they move through the world, he builds an account that is full of the complexity of lived experience. The result may not make for a simple read, but it is an infinitely rich one.
RaveThe Washington Post... tautly constructed ... masterly ... As narrator, [Birmingham] sits as tightly on Dostoevsky’s shoulder as Dostoevsky does on Raskolnikov’s, so that we feel as if we are seeing the world — a terrifying, claustrophobic world — from their doubled perspective. Birmingham sketches out Russia’s mid-century byzantine chaos with a deft hand ... gripping, even for those who have not read Crime and Punishment for years or, indeed, have never even skimmed it. Birmingham provides just enough of Dostoevsky’s plot to make the novel intelligible without feeling the need to spend pages on deadening summary (so often a failing in books about books). Particularly fascinating is the scrutiny he gives to Dostoevsky’s working notebooks.
RaveTimes Literary Supplement (UK)This isn’t to suggest that the book is bland or conceited – too much goes wrong for that – but we do get a version of his life that we haven’t quite seen before. This is an existence of first-class carriages and cabins ... The scatological references that abound throughout the diaries are a reassuring sign that Sedaris has not cleaned up his act to reflect his role as elder statesman ... Sedaris has always written with tender insight about his difficult family, especially his staunch Republican father Lou and troubled sister Tiffany ... One of the great attractions of Sedaris’s writing has always been its unvarnished quality. Just when the cosy chattiness could begin to cloy, he tells us something about himself that cuts like a sword. Which means, of course, that you warm to him more than ever.
RaveThe New York Review of Books... a text that feels as if it had tumbled out in the white heat of conviction. There is nothing balanced in Burning Man, nothing judicious, careful, or patient, which is exactly how Lawrence would have wanted it. Above all, Wilson resists any expectation that it is the biographer’s duty to resolve the dips, bumps, and tangles of her subject’s life. Instead, she makes a point of leaning into Lawrence’s contradictions, convinced that this is where the engine of his genius lies ... [a] fine biography ... Matching her methodology to her man, Wilson comes at Lawrence’s work with a thrilling indifference to the old categories ... So convinced is Wilson of Lawrence’s engagement with this medieval schema that she even maintains that each house he lived in \'was positioned at a higher spot than the last,\' in imitation of the upward thrust of The Divine Comedy. This is difficult to square with Lawrence’s evident love of contingency ... Even with this unconvincing and cumbersome apparatus, Burning Man is an exhilarating ride.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)English has written a terrific book, taut and thematic where it could so easily have been slack and baggy. Finding a focus cannot have been easy ... And Hitler is so huge a figure that a less assured writer would have had trouble cutting him down to size and keeping him in play. But English manages all this deftly; the result is a book as beautiful as it is bleak.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... what Hussey wants us to see in this revelatory book is just how different, how much of an outsider in Bloomsbury Clive Bell really was ... While none of this may sound very edifying, it provides a fascinating starting point for Hussey’s meticulously researched and hugely well-informed account of how modern art entered the British bloodstream in the first decades of the 20th century ... You certainly don’t end Hussey’s biography liking Bell. At times he seems to combine bad bits of cliquey, snobbish Bloomsbury with the even worse parts of anti-Bloomsbury—hearty, noisy and frequently brandishing a brace of dead partridge. Still, Hussey’s patient recuperative work is important in reminding us that the significant players in last century’s art history often refuse to fit our sentimental requirements.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)It is this publicly engaged Elizabeth that Fiona Sampson sets before us in this fine biography, the first since Margaret Forster’s more than 30 years ago. For her frame and point of reference Sampson uses Aurora Leigh, the verse novel that Barrett Browning wrote in 1856, which tells the story of a young female writer’s career, specifically an artist’s development. At first glance this might seem to mark a retreat to the personal and the biographic, but Sampson’s point is that Aurora Leigh provides us with a map and model for how Barrett Browning forged a new relationship between female subjectivity and public utterance ... Sampson is not too fastidious to deprive herself – or us – of the schlockier pleasures of biographical speculation ... Sampson is too judicious to say whether she really thinks that Browning bumped her off, but she understands enough about the pleasures of transgression to leave the possibility in play.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... terrific ... [Summerscale] has achieved the perfect balance between her central story and its cultural context ... Most deft of all is Summerscale’s reading of the Fodor-Fielding relationship, not as some folie à deux but as a piece of collaborative sense-making.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)A beguilingly supple narrative, able to absorb all the contradictions and revisions that mark a long, well-remembered life ... These revelations, from someone who insists on rereading a chapter of Anna Karenina every night, come as a jolt. But that, of course, is the great joy of the diary format. It allows a personality to unfold without any requirement that the author smoothes out the snags. The result isn’t exactly unvarnished – Morris admits that she still spends an inordinate amount of energy crafting her prose before setting it before us – but it gets us closer to the sources of her art than we have been before.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Hewitt...searches for radical credentials in Bonheur’s domestic life ... Bonheur spent much of her life cross-dressing ... Such an apparently non‑binary performance is a gift to the biographer, who is always under pressure to illustrate the contemporary resonance of her subject. But Hewitt never really pushes further into the muddling contradictions of Bonheur’s life and times. Here was a cross-dressing lesbian who liked to opine that other women should stick to frocks and an animal painter who insisted on the dignity of her dumb subjects while simultaneously making a fortune out of them. Not all of which is quite apparent from this diligently researched, beautifully produced and insistently sympathetic biography.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Perhaps this scrupulous biography’s greatest achievement is to remind us that Bedford had a second string to her writerly bow. From the 1950s she became a high-grade court reporter, writing several long-form essays about legal cases, including the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial and the Profumo affair. Because writing journalism for a contracted fee didn’t count as \'art\', Bedford finally found an ease and a fluency and a certain artisanal satisfaction in a job well done.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)It says something about how close the abdication of 1936 has come to slipping from living memory that Alexander Larman feels obliged to plant broad reminders early on ... [Larman] doesn’t go in for startling revisions, but instead makes use of the new sources and interpretive lenses that have become available in the intervening four decades. In particular Larman insists on bringing the Germans back into the narrative, reminding us just how badly Hitler wanted to keep Edward on the throne ... The centrepiece of Larman’s book, though, is the 1936 assassination attempt on Edward ... When it comes to Wallis Simpson, Larman follows recent revisionary accounts in suggesting that she was more sinned against than sinning ... Larman shows a delicate touch too in not banging home the obvious contemporary resonances. Instead he lets us find our own fun ...
MixedThe Guardian (UK)All of this is fascinating, but it is not really new ... Bradford is much less interested in [a] sociological approach, preferring to pathologise Highsmith instead. At one level this makes sense—her virulent antisemitism, misogyny and general awfulness really can’t be explained away by cultural fault lines. But at the other it does mean that Bradford’s Highsmith becomes a figure bordering on the grotesque. There’s also something odd about the way he deals with what he terms Highsmith’s \'lesbian inclinations.\' One minute he sounds like a maiden aunt, the next like a voyeur ... The result is a biography that manages to be both plodding and salacious at the same time.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)One of the great pleasures in this collection of pieces is seeing how determinedly [Macdonald] picks away at conundrums first encountered in H Is for Hawk, her hugely successful memoir of 2014 ... Visceral pieces are balanced by some marvellously cool-headed analyses in which Macdonald brings to bear her expertise as a historian of science ... Macdonald makes us see that the love and pride that disenfranchised people lavish on their captive birds is as fierce and contradictory as that of a squire surveying his mallards through binoculars.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)The great achievement of this revelatory book is to demolish any assumption on the part of English language readers that pre-modern Japan was all blossom, tea ceremonies and mysterious half-smiles. Instead, by working through the rich archive of letters and diaries left by Tsuneno and her family, Stanley reveals a culture that is remarkably reminiscent of Victorian England, which is to say deeply expressive once you’ve cracked the codes ... Stanley works hard throughout this compelling book to make Tsuneno into a feminist heroine, a brilliant girl born ahead of her time who \'always claimed what was hers\'. But on the evidence provided here, it really wasn’t like this. Tsuneno is interesting and admirable precisely because she was of her time and had to make the best of the hand she had been dealt. It is her ordinariness, and her multiple failures at not getting what she wanted, that make her story so deeply absorbing.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksRadical Wordsworth is Bate’s attempt to return the poet to his more palatable incarnation as the bold spirit who \'made a difference\' by changing both the literary culture and our relationship with the natural world. Bate says he is aiming here for the kind of biography that follows the growth of its \'subject’s imaginative power\' rather than one that trudges dutifully from cradle to grave. The result is a book that is recognizably Wordsworthian in the way it abjures the calendar in favor of the \'spots of time\' identified in The Prelude as those moments of piercing self-awareness that direct and define the growing self. Yet while this makes Radical Wordsworth episodic, it is never superficial. Bate, who until recently taught literature at Oxford, issues a stern instruction to his readers not to skip the long, indented blocks of poetry around which he builds his narrative. Instead, we are urged to slow down, savor, and even read the verse aloud. Radical Wordsworth succeeds where longer literary biographies often fail, by keeping the subject’s work, rather than the minutiae of his pocket diary or his tailor’s bills, lodged at its heart ... Bate is excellent on how Wordsworth forged a blank verse that shed its grand Miltonic subject matter while taking advantage of the form’s capacity for suppleness and intimacy ... it would be hard to think of a better poet to read just now, when our abuse of natural systems has brought us to this moment of terrible reckoning. And Bate is the right guide for the occasion, blowing the dust off familiar poems to reveal their startling resonance.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)There are so many Warholian moments in this superb biography that it’s hard to know where to start ... it would be wrong to imply that Gopnik’s book is one that Warhol might have written himself or, indeed, even liked very much. Far from being a ready-made, assembled from the detritus of the scholarly-industrial complex, Warhol: A Life As Art is the product of years studying 100,000 or so original documents housed in Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. The artist was a lifelong hoarder, and Gopnik’s research is intricately based on a florid haul of engagement diaries, business letters, love notes, theatre tickets and tax returns ... The first, and most audacious [claim], is that Warhol has \'overtaken Picasso as the most important and influential artist of the 20th century\' ... This is big talk, but Gopnik persuasively assembles his case over the course of this mesmerising book, which is as much art history and philosophy as it is biography ...Gopnik is also keen to dislodge the many canards about Warhol’s private life. The most adhesive of these is the one about him surrounding himself with every kind of kink and freak while remaining fastidiously hors de sexual combat. Gopnik carefully rummages through the laundry basket to reveal plenty of evidence that Warhol was an enthusiastic player in the NYC gay scene from the moment he first stepped off the Greyhound bus from Pittsburgh in 1949 ... If we are determined to continue seeing Our Andy as fey and de-natured, Gopnik suggests, then it says more about our lingering homophobia that cannot bear to contemplate an artistic genius \'caught in the act with men.\'
RaveThe New York TimesJust at the point when some of this might begin to feel too familiar — there are structural and tonal elements that sharply recall
Mothering Sunday Swift’s most recent and much-praised novel — we are propelled into something extraordinary ... Swift’s closing account of a mundane world momentarily pierced by a shaft of numinous mystery is magnificent.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)...[a] clever, subtle book ... Although her writing is critically informed – Foucault, Deleuze, Cixous and Irigaray all rock up here to chat about schmutter – [Bari\'s] tone is insistently personal, intimate even. Between her main chapters she drops in lyrical accounts of her own encounters with specific items of clothing ... Other passages are determinedly oblique ... Bari wants us to think not so much about what clothes say as how they make us feel ... Although the appeal of the suit is that it doesn’t look as if it’s trying too hard, Bari is convinced that beneath that sheeny worsted surface it is doing important work ... Bari is particularly good on how a dress looks while on a hanger – like a second skin waiting for flesh and blood to make it live. It is this sense of the dress as an alternative self that makes it so potent, far more charged, say, than a well-cut pair of trousers or a merino jumper.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)...one of the chief revelations of Lady in Waiting is just how cruel and wasteful the aristocratic system has historically been to women ... [Glenconner\'s] real focus, at least in this book, is on her best friend Margaret, who she believes has been horribly traduced in recent years as a narcissistic monster of rudeness and self-regard. While never resorting to a cover-up, Glenconner provides a nuanced character portrait of a woman whose life sounds truly wretched ... discretion and honour emerge as the hallmarks of Glenconner’s career as a royal servant, culminating in this book which manages to be both candid and kind.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)...[an] energising study of how an everyday commodity has ploughed up the world’s surface and hacked deep into its economic and political design ... Coffeeland is a data-rich piece of original research that shows in compelling detail how coffee capitalism has delivered both profit and pain, comfort and terror to different people at different times over the past 200 years ... could all feel dauntingly abstract, but Sedgwick’s great achievement is to clothe macroeconomics in warm, breathing flesh.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewJohnson, who... reveals that he has remained largely uncoupled in his adult life, is exquisitely alive to the bad chatter that \'solitaries\'— his ter for those who are solo by choice — attract ... In this lyrical yet finely argued book, Johnson sets out to show that being alone — so different from loneliness, its direct opposite, in fact — is absolutely essential to the creative life ... The revelation that artists are tricky to live with hardly seems sufficient roughage for a whole book. But Johnson is clear that when he talks about the \'creative life\' he means far more than the pursuit of individual excellence and glittering prizes. He is thinking instead about something closer to communal service, a caring for the world that depends on the setting aside of self ... What is this special quality, then, that is available only once we have learned to be truly alone? ... the deeper [Johnson] looks, the more distinct each of his emblematic figures becomes, so that, by the end of the book, it seems foolish to expect some secret formula by which Rabindranath Tagore, Eudora Welty and Nina Simone can be bound together. Ultimately Johnson’s answer seems to be that the more fully we can learn to exist without the \'social fiction\' of coupled togetherness, the more likely we are to be able to live most fully, and usefully, in the world, whether as librettist or librarian, wife or friend.
Emmanuel Carrere Trans. by John Lambert
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)It is difficult to like Emanuel Carrère, yet impossible not to fall in love with him a bit too ... While Carrère is happy for us to see him at his least heroic, he’s not shy about showing us what he describes as his \'amiable pornographer\' side either ... At a time when \'creative non-fiction\' seems to have become a synonym for memoir, it is a joy to be reminded of all the wonderful things that it can do when it looks beyond individual ego. While Carrère is hardly averse to writing about himself, he is equally happy to let other people and subjects take the spotlight ... There are wonderful explorations of what it was like to live in Calais in the \'jungle\' years, or what happens behind the scenes at Davos. There’s even an excellent piece on why Janet Malcolm was wrong in her famous remark that all journalists whose work involves interviewing other people know at some level that what they are doing is morally indefensible. All this is delivered in Carrère’s spare and supple prose.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... 20 sparkling mini-essays ... Skilfully deploying biography, close reading and psychogeography, Hardyment creates a series of charming house portraits ... In truth, Hardyment has not found much new to say about these literary homes but, like an excellent housekeeper, she rearranges and polishes up the furniture in such a way that you find yourself inclined to linger. Nor is her job always quite as easy or obvious as you might at first think. Literary houses have a disconcerting habit of either disappearing halfway through a text, or switching places with an uncanny twin.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)People who consume one thing about the Titanic tend to consume many, and there is always a shivery pleasure in accompanying old friends as they climb aboard once more, unaware that they are walking not only into a deathtrap but into a metaphor that will rattle down the ages ... It is fun too to wander once more through the Titanic’s preposterous interior ... In truth it is hard to see what Russell adds to a story that has been worn smooth by a century’s worth of popular histories, Hollywood blockbusters and TV documentaries with terrific underwater footage. Even his decision to concentrate on a cluster of individual passengers has been done before by Richard Davenport-Hines in his excellent Titanic Lives. Russell’s variation on this methodology is to spend much longer on his travellers’ backstories in the hope that, plaited together, the result will be something like a synoptic account of the 20th century in its debutante days ... In principle there is nothing wrong with wrenching the Titanic away from its frozen moment and restoring it to the ebb and flow of ordinary time. The problem is that this isn’t what Russell really wants to do. As his portentous title suggests, he is in the business of making the Titanic story huge and metaphorical, a morality tale about the collapse of a somewhat slipshod civilisation. The result is as unconvincing as the ship’s haphazard interior, a pile-up of the gaudy and the mundane.
RaveThe GuardianFor Mantel, childhood is a state of war and, within that, a place of siege. All around are the barbarians - teachers, especially, but other children too - who attempt to get a purchase on \'Ilary\'s inner world ... She is unsparing about the horrible oddness of spending the first 25 years of her life as a sylph and the next 25 obliged to wear floating tents to cover her galloping fatness ... She muses on the temptation to use charm to make herself lovely and works hard at the problem of how to inhabit the mind of a child as well as an older self without lurching clumsily between the two. She is wise, too, to the expectations of the genre, balking at those points when her life does not quite fit the template.
PositiveThe GuardianMacCarthy neatly dramatises her point that Gropius’s real genius was for coming up with ideas and creating a context in which they could flourish ... In the history of 20th-century design, it is too easy to fall into the old trap of believing that modernists valued ideas and form – and more particularly ideas about form – over living, breathing people with all their warm mess. In this brilliantly recuperative biography MacCarthy provides the same service for Gropius as she did 25 years ago for William Morris. In short, she shows us the man behind the forcefield. Go to Ikea and you’ll see how much we still owe him.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Miller wants us to see LEL less as a great poet (she really wasn’t) and more as an interesting \'foremother\' of today’s performative culture. In this reading, her first-person voice, which often seems provisional or about to be overwritten by the next thought or a new poem, becomes akin to the serial self-staging that you see on Twitter and Instagram. Under the particular pressure of the age, which languished somewhere between Romanticism and Victorianism, Landon threw together an identity for herself that spoke to the commercial demands of mass market publishing, but also answered the decree that authenticity was everything. Although it is hard to imagine readers scurrying to rediscover LEL’s verse, they will come away from Miller’s excellent biography understanding why she matters.
MixedThe GuardianPower is not immune from using the cliches of the books she is trying to critique ... lightning bolts of real-life experience, including what sounds like a painful breakdown three-quarters of the way through her experiment, stop Help Me! from floating off into inconsequence ... Still, the book retains a certain generic weightlessness. Making art, really funny art, out of the gap between how young women are and how they think they ought to be is still possible 20 years on from Bridget Jones: just think of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s darkly sublime Fleabag. Help Me! floats over the same territory but left me, just like the self-help texts it sets out to interrogate, hungry for something more. What’s missing, ultimately, is that sharp crack of insight that tells us what it feels like to be youngish and female here, now, at this very moment in history.
PositiveThe GuardianThe story of this unhappy trio has been told before, but seldom with as much brio as it is here ... Seymour is alive to all the self-serving bluster here, but she is equally keen that we should hear about Annabella’s generosity towards people who neither knew nor cared about her year of living dangerously with a naughty poet.
PositiveThe GuardianAn eloquent case for the vitality of the vampire figure, from 18th-century Slavic folk tales to Twilight, via Dracula ... invigorating.
RaveThe Gurdian\"Here is Nietzsche as most of us have not encountered him before: self-deprecating (he loses his trousers and finds it funny), unpredictable and, above all, sociable – friends arrive and leave, he dribbles away time in a popular student restaurant before finally gearing up to meet the great man. Even more remarkably, Prideaux resists the temptation to editorialise, to tug nervously at our sleeve to make sure we’ve got the point that Nietzsche is so much more than the sinister pin-up of mid-century fascists and serial killers ... The great pleasure of Prideaux’s sprightly biography is watching philosophy in the making. Reading about Nietzsche’s life, which had as many false starts and wrong turns as anyone else’s, is to be reminded that systems of thought do not arrive unbidden in the library or the lecture hall, but are worked out in the mess of everyday life ... Academic philosophers may feel that there is not much new to detain them here. For the rest of us, this biography is nothing short of a revelation, a sort of word made flesh.\
PositiveThe GuardianCompelling ... Walsh insists on pulling Debussy’s compositions into the heart of this biography, treating them as the essential register of emotional and intellectual existence ... deploys a delightfully fluent prose to carry the general reader along in the right direction.
MixedThe GuardianThose who have a nodding acquaintance with work on what evolutionary biologists call \'female choice\' will doubtless be worried that Martin has simply cherry-picked the examples that support her argument, while passing silently over all those thousands of studies that don’t show research subjects behaving in ways we’re used to: prudent egg-guarding females, and splashy seed-scattering males. One also wonders whether this material, invigorating though it is, quite counts as the \'new science\' that is trumpeted by the publicity. Some of this work, including that by the pioneering biologist Hrdy, dates back to the 1980s. The tone and structure are awkward, with the interviews with academics mixed with case histories of women who have chosen to break cultural taboos by openly sleeping with a secondary partner while retaining their primary relation ... Martin’s own attempt at fieldwork is marked by a counterproductive coyness.
PositiveThe Guardian\"Much of [Orlean\'s] book is concerned not with the quaintness of the past... but with the urgencies of modern life ... In the end, Orlean produces modern forensic testimony that suggests the Llibrary fire could just as easily have been caused by bad wiring or a sneaky cigarette. In a less assured telling this might come over as an anticlimax, a dull narrative thud. For Orlean, though, there is something about this open-endedness... that fits exactly with the endlessly generative possibilities of a much-loved public library.\
Liv Strömquist, Trans. by Melissa Bowers
RaveThe Times Literary SupplementThe Swedish cartoonist’s sophisticated comic strip is a brilliantly drawn, cleverly researched and deeply funny account of a battle signposted by its subtitle: The vulva vs the patriarchy ... Strömquist portrays women throughout history looking baffled, angry, or resigned as a stream of priests, judges and husbands peer at their genitals and declare them to be deformed, wicked, or just too damn hot for their own good ... Strömquist’s meta-historical jokes are clearly informed by research.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewThere is a continuing literary trend in which (usually) female narrators twine their own life into that of a classic author ... What Stevens brings to the now-familiar form is an incisive wit that, more often than not, she deploys against herself ... Those who are familiar with Gaskell’s work—and she continues to inspire loving devotion around the world—may fret about the way Stevens has ruthlessly filleted the novelist’s life and reoriented it for her own purposes. Then again, this is exactly what Gaskell did to Charlotte Brontë in her revisionist (for which read \'borderline-fictionalized\') biography, so one could argue that there is a neat symmetry in play. Certainly, there can be no doubt about the genuine affection that drives Stevens’s project ... it would take a stonyhearted reader to begrudge Elizabeth Gaskell her happy ending.
PositiveThe GuardianAn elderly woman whom no one liked was bludgeoned to death in her smart Glasgow flat. Within hours a man whom no one liked either was identified as her killer and, in due course, condemned to hang. The Oscar Slater case is often invoked as an example of how easy it was for the police to fit someone up in an age before DNA, when crime scene protocol mostly consisted of slapping handcuffs on the nearest wrong ’un. But its broader message is perhaps: if you want to stay alive, it helps if people like you ... Within a few days of Gilchrist’s murder it became clear that Slater’s pawn ticket did not relate to the stolen brooch, that his trip to New York had been planned weeks earlier and that he bore no resemblance to the man seen fleeing the flat. Put simply, the police were fitting Slater up, quite possibly to cover for the real murderer who was rumoured to be a member of Gilchrist’s own family ... the flaws in the police case are so blindingly obvious that even Dr Watson would have smelled a rat ... Fox has worked hard to reshape a classic Edwardian murder case to make it fit with our times.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksWhat did it feel like to find yourself cornered in the inglenook at Clouds with a Wyndham sister bearing down on you for a confidential chat? It is these missing textures that many historians have tried to recover ... no one, including Claudia Renton in her accomplished first book, Those Wild Wyndhams, has quite succeeded ... Much of this material is familiar; nonetheless Renton works hard to shape it into interesting new configurations. Particularly fine is the way she draws on the remarkably frank letters among the Wyndham women to map out their bodily realities, particularly their experience of menstruation ... Where Renton is less adept is in integrating these fine-grained intimacies into the broader political story. Nonetheless, she is quite right to try ... Renton wants to make it clear that she is not simply writing an upmarket soap opera of the Downton Abbey kind. But it is very hard to keep these differently scaled narratives developing together, and the result is paragraphs that lurch from the latest on the brewing Boer War to someone’s first trimester, or from the first Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910 to the campaign for a Home Defense Army.
PanThe GuardianDarwin, Wilson contends, was not the nervy but benign magus of Down House, labouring patiently for decades in rural Kent to unlock the origins of human life for the benefit of all mankind. He was actually an egotist with an unfailing eye for ‘the main chance,’ determined to go down in history as the greatest scientist of all time … Instead of subtitling this book Victorian Mythmaker, Wilson might have more accurately called it ‘J’Accuse.’ For despite a few pious throat-clearings on the dust jacket to the contrary, he has no interest in balance, no desire to be nice about the man whom he blames for pretty much everything that went wrong in the 20th century, from totalitarianism to the decline of organised religion.
RaveThe Guardian...[a] magisterial book ... For every 'but' in Hutton’s revisionary account of witchcraft there are two 'ands'; in other words, it is the continuities that excite him most. This is thrilling in the way it makes the subject live across time and place, but it also contains a warning. A belief in witchcraft, and all the horrors that can come in its wake, is demonstrably not a phenomenon that can be tucked up safely in a storybook past. Rather, on the evidence of Hutton’s analysis, it is a set of free-floating anxieties that can be conjured at those moments when the world seems out of joint and there is not quite enough of anything to go round.
RaveThe GuardianEach of the 17 short pieces in this book catches a famous historical animal just at the moment it dangles precariously between nature and culture. We meet a bear made to fight dogs in the stews of Elizabethan Southwark, and Clever Hans, a horse doing complicated fractions at a time when many working people still struggled with basic numeracy … Although these animal case histories lodge under the label of ‘essay’, Passarello tests and stretches the form in thrilling ways. Particularly brilliant – but, honestly, they are all brilliant – is an extended fantasy written from the point of view of Harriet, the Galápagos tortoise who Darwin reportedly brought back on the Beagle … The way that Passarello moves seamlessly between musicology, biography and the golden throat of a bird brain suggests that she is something of a virtuoso herself.
PositiveThe Guardian...[a] fine, fluent book ... a careful unpicking of cherished art historical narratives ... Readers of biography tend to require more than potted art history to keep them going. Above all, they like love affairs, and those are thin on the ground when the subject is over 80. Luckily for King, there is a candidate on hand for the role of Monet’s petit ami. It comes in the unlikely form of Georges Clemenceau.
MixedThe GuardianSummerscale is a scrupulous chronicler of recorded fact, never using rhetorical flourishes or speculation to fill the odd jumps and elisions in the Old Bailey transcript and its newspaper paraphrases. As a result, the case takes on a dreamlike quality ... Summerscale is far too subtle and confident a writer to feel the need to bang home the wider implications of her story.
RaveThe GuardianUsing her own emotional responses to the full range of Velázquez’s work Cumming pulls us so deeply into the painter’s world that it seems as if we can feel the breath of his subjects on our cheeks, and see the sheeny sweat on their brows. This is art as resurrection, which is why Snare could never bear to let his Charles go.