Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mostly New, All Boswell's Best--Four Biographies, inculding Jefferson, Kennedy, Burton, Streisand.

Jason told me last night that this is the last release date of the year with a large selection of titles from multiple publishers. After that, they trickle out one at a time until the spigot turns out again in January. Here are a few biography selections that are currently on the Boswell's Best, 20% off through at least November 19.

The biggest release by far is Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham (Random House). Not that I am not excited about The New York Times, but if we're talking blockbuster, Meacham is the way to go, a crowd pleaser who has also won the Pultizer. And the paper quality is fantastic for a large first printing--just feel it!

The book has advance praise from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Annette Gordon-Reed, Walter Isaacson, Stacy Schiff, and Michael Beschloss. No second rate biographers on this advance praise list. And the front page New York Times Book Review essay is by Jill Abramson, executive editor of the Times.  Here's a tiny excerpt:

"It is easy to see why such a life, with its grand sweep and many events so central to American history, took up so many volumes by Henry Adams and then Dumas Malone. Meacham wisely has chosen to look at Jefferson through a political lens, assessing how he balanced his ideals with pragmatism while also bending others to his will. And just as he scolded Jackson, another slaveholder and champion of individual liberty, for being a hypocrite, so Meacham gives a tough-minded account of Jefferson’s slippery recalibrations on race..." Read the rest here.

There's no two ways around it. They are still doing high-quality books when it comes to serious biography. The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw (Penguin Press) is another fabulous doorstop.

Nasaw has won the Bancroft prize for history and has been shortlisted for the Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle award. The new book tracks Kennedy's rise from, as the publisher puts it East Boston outsider to supreme Washington insider. Julia M. Klein in the Boston Globe says that The Patriarch is "the sort of biography that begs to be called magisterial." The work was actually written at the request of the late Edward Kennedy and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, Joseph's lastsurviving child. Her only quibble is the lack of inside regarding Joseph and Rose's marriage.

There's no question that Yale University Press has one of the broadest lists in academic publishing, and not book displays their range better than The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams. The private journals of the esteemed actor (and, as noted by the publisher, jet setter)  paint a different picture than one would expect, showing the insecurities behind the glories of a life on stage and screen. Sarah Crompton calls the work "savagely honest" in the Telegraph. He fancied himself a writer, you know.  It all sounds a bit like Emma Straub's recent novel, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, though Burton might come off more like her director-husband.

Dwight Garner in The New York Times had a lot of fun with the book, reveling in Burton and Taylor calling their favorite drink (Compari, vodka, soda) a "Goop." A short excerpt: "'He is honest about their quarrels, which could be racking. At times it’s as if they’re delivering outtakes from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols’s 1966 film version, in which they starred). 'We drank Sambuca and said nasty things to each other' is a not-untypical line here. So is: 'If you can marry Eddie Fisher you can marry anybody, I said.'"There's a lot of juicy stuff in the review, and judging from the almost 700 pages (once again, heavy!), that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Speaking of acting legends, William J. Mann's Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) has been out for a bit, but is still Boswell's Best, and made a better thematic connection than did say, Jon Ronson's Lost at Sea, though maybe I'll right about that one later. James Gavin proclaims in his New York Times review that Streisand's career is " the most triumphant case of revenge in show business history." "Fifty years after enduring so much rejection on her way to the top, Streisand is still making them pay"

In the Hartford Courant, Mann discusses his concerns about being a Streisand biographer. He didn't want to be a chronicler of divas, and he sees himself as more of an admirer than a fan. "'What always interested me in these very famous people that I write about is how do they create that public image,' says Mann. "How do they manufacture it and how they are able to sustain it." She has sustained it better than most, but I still haven't figured out whether Streisand and Donna Summer were yelling with each other or at each other in "No More Tears", the song that had to be renamed to fit a water-themed album.

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