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Staff Picks Category: Biography

Don’t Explain: A Song of Billie Holiday by Alexis De Veaux []

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This book is written as a prose poem that the tells the story of American jazz singer, Billie Holiday’s life. De Veaux writes,

“It was 1935.

American was in between wars.

Harlem was between jobs and riots.

Billie was between 20 and stardom.”

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Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Alyn Shipton []

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John Lennon once stated “Nilsson’s my favorite group.”

Harry Nilsson, the tenor with the golden, three and a half octave  vocal range/the brilliant songwriter/the ultimate interpreter of songs/the boozer/the raconteur/the sometimes screenwriter, lived the most of his 52 years. His life was a colorful one that began with much sadness. Despite his setbacks and despair, Nilsson managed to keep his spirits high and he chose the path of adventure. He sang the theme song to Midnight Cowboy, released a brilliant run of albums from 1966-1980 (with music ranging from ballads to Beatlesy pop to country send-ups to wild rockers to standards from the Great American Songbook to Calypso to rude comedy numbers), conceived the animated children’s classic The Point!, collected a couple Grammy’s, raised hell with Ringo Starr and other music royalty, started a film production company and eventually settled as a family man.

Using a myriad of resources, interviews and quotes from Nilsson’s unfinished autobiography, Alyn Shipton writes a loving biography without sensationalizing the life of this sensational artist.

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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie []

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This is a detailed biography of Catherine II, from her childhood as a minor princess in a small German principality to her long reign as empress and autocrat of all the Russias and one of the most powerful women in Europe. My favorite part: when Catherine donned a uniform and the led the army to arrest her husband and seize his throne! And what lover of books and libraries can resist the story of how Catherine made Denis Diderot her personal librarian? When Catherine heard that the great encyclopedist had run into financial difficulties and wished to sell his library, Catherine bought the entire collection for more than his asking price, insisted that the books stay with Diderot in Paris, and paid him a handsome salary so he could continue his work.

Catherine’s life was full of court politics, international intrigues, subtle power struggles, and secret plots, but also scholarly pursuits, intimate correspondences, lavish parties, extravagant gifts, and love affairs, secret and private. Massie pays great attention to Catherine’s personal life—the excerpts from her love letters are wonderful to read.

Massie’s approach is direct and readable, with chapters based upon subject matter more than chronology.In this book he provides an interesting slice of European and Russian history, a fascinating glimpse of 18th century politics and the influence of Enlightenment thought on a powerful monarch, and an appealing tale of personal struggle and transformation.

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The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of murder, insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester []

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The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary containing 414,825 definitions was begun in 1857 and took 70 years to complete.  The first edition of the OED was given to President Coolidge and is in the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library & Museum at Forbes Library.  The “Professor” is  James Murray, a former schoolmaster and bank clerk, and the editor and leader of the OED project. The “madman” is Dr. W. C. Minor, a retired American Civil War surgeon who was the largest contributor with over 10,000 entries to the OED project.Minor was an extraordinary contributor but he was also a murderer, clinically insane, and incarcerated in  Broadmoor, England’s asylum for criminal lunatics. Winchester tells the history of the dictionary as well as the biographies of Murray and Minor.  While parts are long-winded, the story of the dictionary appeals to those who love words, books and libraries.  The biography of Minor appeals to those interested in the mind, behavior and psychology.  Readers who enjoy psychological fiction and are looking for a non-fiction bookmight also enjoy this.

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Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys by Mark Dillon []

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Mark Dillon’s book is an entertaining look at fifty Beach Boys tunes.  The selections are listed chronologically and an admirer (most often a musician) shares a personal memory attached to each song.  Some contributors were colleagues and spent time with the guys, others grew up listening to the records.  The surviving Beach Boys are also among the fifty selected.  In addition to the recollections, Dillon provides historical recording notes, songwriting origins and wonderful Beach Boys factoids.

Memorable bits for me come from the Byrd’s Roger McGuinn on “Don’t Worry Baby”, Beach Boys session player Carol Kaye “California Girls”, actress/musician Zooey Deschanel on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, director Cameron Crowe on “Feel Flows” and brief-Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin’s take on “Sail on Sailor”.

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George Harrison: Living In The Material World by Olivia Harrison []

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The gorgeous and painstakingly assembled Living in the Material World book is a companion to the Martin Scorsese documentary of the same name.  It’s a thoughtful collection photographs and essays with the subject being the late George Harrison.

Not only do we have large color and black and white photographs of George from childhood up until his last years, the book features the musician’s handwritten letters and lyrics, personal photographs and collected ephemera.  His career as a musician, childhood, family life, friendships and spiritual life are recollected.  Scorsese, Paul Theroux, Eric Clapton and Dhani Harrison are among the many contributors.  Living in the Material World works both as a engrossing read and/or a picture flipper.

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Trippin’ with Terry Southern by Gail Gerber with Tom Lisanti []

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Gail Gerber’s memoir recalls her time spent with the famous novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove, the Magic Christian, Blue Movie, Candy, etc.).  Despite the title, the book is not filled with madcap, drug taking adventures.  Rather, we see an intimate portrait of a couple’s life together through a thirty year period.  It also focuses on Southern’s idiosyncrasies, humor and career highs and lows.

Gerber, a stage actress and ballet dancer, also shares several of her professional and personal experiences ranging from early 60’s appearances in Beach Ball, The Loved One and a couple of Elvis Presley films to life as a casual farmer.

Trippin’ with Terry Southern is an interesting memoir and is certainly essential read for Southern fans.  In addition, those who enjoy reading about 1960’s and 70’s escapades will be really enjoy the memoir… just peak at the back index to see a list of all of the exciting characters who will pop up (there’s Dennis Hopper, Rip Torn and Stanley Kubrick just to name a few)!

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A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney by Martin Gayford []

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Critic Martin Gayford has been interviewing David Hockney for many years and the two have developed a warm friendship that extends past their professional relationship. In A Bigger Message, Gayford collects several conversations with the famed British artist. Discussions range from new technology, photography, stage design, living in different parts of the world, various histories of classical art and Hockney’s own process.

Gayford frames each chapter with a theme that corresponds to the many phases of Hockney’s career. One very interesting segment discusses his attraction to creating work on an iPhone or iPad. The book exhibits several of these small scale works that look very much like detailed watercolors.

These pieces along with massive painted landscapes, stills of video installations and photographs of Hockney at work are weaved in and out of Gayford’s brief biographical information and extensive dialog with the tireless artist. Like many innovative, creative people, he is also very much a student of art. Hockney, and here I’ll sound redundant, is a thoughtful thinker and his meditations on artistic movements, motivation and life are extremely fascinating and inspiring.

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Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag by Sigrid Nunez []

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This very short memoir of the association between Ingrid Nunez and Susan Sontag recounts their friendship/mentorship during the time that Sontag was writing “On Photography” and New York literary life in the 1970’s. Nunez was hired by Sontag to help sort out her correspondence. She then became involved with Sontag’s son, David Rieff, and for a period of time the three of them lived in the same apartment. There are many glimpses into Sontag’s writing life and habits which I found very interesting. Susan Sontag is often portrayed as a very difficult person and Nunez does show some instances of how that was true but she also rounds out the portrait with other details that showed Sontag as a complicated person with many aspects including vulnerability, conflicted and humorous and loving.

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A Book of Secrets by Michael Holroyd []

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A fascinating combined biography of a place, the Villa Cimbrone on a hill above the Italian village of Ravello, and the people connected to it throughout different time periods. The work of biographer Michael Holyrod reads like a detective story and features such characters as Alice Keppel, the mistress of both the second Lord Grimthorpe and the Prince of Wales; to Eve Fairfax, a muse of Auguste Rodin; to the novelist Violet Trefusis, the lover of Vita Sackville-West and daughter of Alice Keppel. Having read extensively about some of these people already because of my interest in Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, this book was a wonderful way to fill in some of the missing gaps and to add to my interest of this subject.

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Art 21 []

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The Forbes DVD collection is impressive to say the least. One of my favorite sections is the Art documentaries that I regularly check to increase my knowledge and for inspiration. Being an avid reader of art in general and artists biographies in particular, I looked at the DVD ‘s for some visual candy.
I checked out Art 21: art in the twenty-first century, seasons 1&2 originally aired on PBS. The artists are grouped loosely according to themes (i.e. Place, Spirituality, Identity and Consumption) and shows them discussing their work, themes, and working styles. Being able to see how an artist created a work I was familiar with or discovering a new artist really kept my attention, led me to find books and other materials on a few artists and in some cases provided inspiration and a little push to work on my own projects. Naturally I didn’t like all the works, came away with favorites – Kara Walker, Collier Schorr, Vija Celmins – and found that it definitely was time well spent watching the artists that I didn’t particularly like or yet don’t understand.

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Any Day Now: David Bowie by Kevin Cann []

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Any Day Now covers Bowie’s early life and the beginning phases of his exceptional musical career. This painstakingly assembled biography/chronology lists studio session dates and concert appearances, presents press clippings and handwritten letters and also provides a complete discography for the said period in time. Most impressive is the multitude of incredible photographs of the adventurous singer; each page is filled with striking images, large and small. It’s an interesting read and account of the rapidly progressing artist in both appearance and musical style.

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