Between the Lines: Life: Not Just a Breakfast Cereal By David Pitt (December 2004)
I like to read biographies. It's not voyeurism, you understand. More a way of seeing how other people deal with the same things I have to deal with: love, anxiety, ambition, failure, those kinds of things. I especially like biographies of writers, and I especially especially like biographies of writers whose work I know, which is why Wodehouse: A Life (W.W. Norton & Company), by Robert McCrum, feels like it was written just for me.
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, of course, is the man who created upper-class twit Bertie Wooster and his faithful manservant, Jeeves. He also gave us Psmith, Blandings Castle, and many other classic comic creations; wrote for the stage and (after a fashion) film; and got himself in a spot of trouble during World War II. Wodehouse was a vastly important contributor to twentieth-century literature, in many ways a genre unto himself, and McCrum illuminates the man, and his writing, splendidly.
Like Wodehouse, novelist Paul Bowles also wrote for stage and screen, but that's pretty much where the resemblance between the two men ends. Wodehouse was a chronicler of (and enthusiastic dweller in) the Jazz Age; Bowles, on the other hand, although he was born in 1910, was, creatively speaking, a product of the Beat Generation. The novel most often associated with him is The Sheltering Sky, but that's just the tip of the literary iceberg; Bowles was a prolific and quite unique writer.
In Paul Bowles: A Life (Scribner), Virginia Spencer Carr gives equal weight to the author's professional and private lives. A man known as much for his flamboyant lifestyle as for his writing, Bowles was a card-carrying communist, a sexual experimenter, a wanderer, a compulsive list-maker. His list of friends and acquaintances reads like a roster of twentieth-century genius: Aaron Copeland, W.H. Auden, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Gertrude Stein. He deserves a biography that explores all of his many aspects, and this one does just that.
You've probably never heard of Maeve Brennan, but that's okay. In Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker (Counterpoint), Angela Bourke tells you all you need to know, and more. Brennan was born in Ireland, in 1917; she went to the U.S. in the mid-1930s, with her father, who was the Irish ambassador. She began her career as a writer for Harper's Bazaar, and then moved to The New Yorker, for which she wrote the short fiction that a lot of people (including many writers) prize for their honesty and their craftsmanship.
Brennan died in 1993. She had all but disappeared by then, having stopped publishing thirty-odd years before. When she died she was homeless, her sharp mind devastated by mental illness. Bourke, whose respect and admiration for her subject is abundantly evident on every page, brings Brennan back out of obscurity and places her where she belongs, among her literary contemporaries.
Some people say, although I think they're overstating things, that there would be no English literature without William Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt, editor of The Norton Shakespeare, wants you to know that, while the Bard might be revered today, he was an ordinary man, born into an ordinary life -- a gifted and curious man, to be sure, but not necessarily someone you would expect to write things that are, to this day, among the best things you will ever read in the English language.
In Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (W.W. Norton & Company), Greenblatt introduces us to the young William, who was not born into an influential family, did not possess any wealth (which meant he was going to have to work for a living), and did not have much in the way of a formal education. How did this ordinary dreamer, this young man with big plans and virtually no way to turn them into reality, write himself into immortality? It's an endlessly fascinating story, and Greenblatt tells it with aplomb.
I'm going to assume you've seen at least some of the films of Buster Keaton. If you haven't, get up right now and get yourself down to the video store and rent The General, or Sherlock, Jr., or Cops (if you can find them). Then come back and we'll talk about Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat (Faber and Faber), Edward McPherson's entertaining biography of this great performer.
I know that most people believe Charlie Chaplin was the greatest comedian of the silent era, but not me. For me, it's Buster Keaton. He's the giant, the king, the ultimate. Remember the television series Family Ties? There's a scene in which Stephen Keaton is arguing with someone, and says something like, "Listen, buster," and the other guy says, "Don't call me 'buster,' Keaton," and Stephen says, "I didn't call you Buster Keaton!" Well, that scene kills me every time, I swear I'm laughing louder than the laugh track is.
Anyway, if (like me) you're such a fan of Keaton that you love everything he does, even the (let's be honest) middle-of-the-road stuff he did later in his life, then you'll want to read this wonderful biography, written by someone who's clearly a big fan.
Speaking of movies, you must have seen Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg's brilliant and deeply moving film about Oskar Schindler, the industrialist who, while working for Nazi Germany, saved the lives of thousands of Jews. That movie was based on Thomas Keneally's novel, Schindler's Ark; the truth about Schindler is somewhat different.
The list, for example, the names of the people he would attempt to save: Schindler was only peripherally involved in its creation. Also, he wasn't quite the noble man portrayed in Spielberg's movie (although he did suffer from the kind of moral quandaries that would have incapacitated a lesser men). Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List (Westview Press), by David M. Crowe, is one of those massively detailed, vividly told life stories you just sink into, become a part of. It may be a different story from the one you're familiar with, but it is, ultimately, far more affecting.
If you're a sports fan, you'll want to pick up Catch This! (Simon & Schuster), by Terrell Owens and Stephen Singular. Owens, in case the name rings only a faint bell, is a wide receiver who holds the NFL record for the number of catches in a single game. He's also a bit of a character, and his on-field antics have garnered both praise and criticism.
This is a pretty standard autobiography. The facts are here, except the ones Owens would presumably want to keep to himself, and it's fun to play the who-wrote-what game: how much of the book is Owens, and how much is his co-writer? Still, if you're a football enthusiast, you'll find lots of behind-the-scenes information, and you can't deny that Owens has got plenty of personality.
Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (McClelland & Stewart), by golf journalist Lorne Rubenstein, follows the golfer's career from its beginning to the day, in April, 2003, when Weir won the Masters. Like Catch This!, it's very much a just-the-facts book, not so much a biography as a play-by-play account of Weir's evolution as a golfer.
I'm a fan of Weir, only partly because he's Canadian, like me, and a leftie, like me. I'm also impressed by his sportsmanship, his (apparently genuine) good nature on and off the course, and his determination to make it to the top of his game. Not, perhaps, a great sports biography, but a very enjoyable and somewhat inspiring one.
Michael Leahy, a noted sports journalist, chronicles Michael Jordan's highly publicized, and ultimately catastrophic, return to basketball in When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordon's Last Comeback (Simon & Schuster). As you may recall, Jordan, one of the giants of pro basketball -- no pun intended -- retired in 1999. But I guess he's just one of those guys for whom retirement doesn't work, because he came back in a few years later, returning to the court at age 38, which doesn't seem too old, but trust me, for a professional athlete in a sport like basketball, it's ancient.
Leahy paid close attention to Jordan for two seasons, and in this hard-hitting yet compassionate book he shows how Jordan's comeback, not to mention his executive position with the mediocre Washington Wizards, took its toll on the man who, once upon a time, was the greatest of the great. The book isn't one of those simplistic how-the-mighty-have-fallen stories; it's complex, many layered, and remarkably perceptive.
Last, but not least, here's Copies in Seconds: Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine (Simon & Schuster), by David Owen. Now, I would have been willing to bet you any amount of money you wanted that the biography of the guy who invented xerography (simply put: photocopying) would have been a pretty dull book. I would have lost the bet. Because xerography was not just any scientific development, it was a process that literally changed the world; and Carlson was not just any inventor, he was a self-made man, a self-taught genius, an independent thinker in the truest sense.
You know how they say that a lot of major inventions would have been invented anyway, even if the people who invented them hadnít? If Alexander Graham Bell hadn't built a telephone, somebody else would have. Same for the printing press, the lightbulb, the internal combustion engine. Even many of your great ideas, like the theory of evolution, would have come up eventually, even if the person credited with conceiving them had not. But, Owens says, the process of xerography was such an unusual combination of inspiration, common sense, and out-of-left-field genius that, if Carlson hadn't come up with, it's quite possible no one ever would have.
Honestly, of all the biographies I have read recently, this is the one that swept me away with its sense of adventure, discovery, against-all-odds perseverance, and sheer, unadulterated, breathless excitement. I'm not kidding. You absolutely must read this one.
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