June 21, 2007

Plan my summer reading

So I'm toying with the idea of writing a biography. Which is a little odd, since I don't often read biographies. I should probably start, right? But where? Well, you tell me.

I'm seeking recommendations for popular biographies with strong narratives about subjects who were no longer living (preferably by at least a few decades) when the books were written. Bonus points if the subject was not widely known at the time the biography was published and/or if the biography was the first one about the subject.

The ideal would be a book like Ben Macintyre's The Napoleon of Crime, except not that, because I've already read it.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand

You've probably already read it, but Paul Collins's "Banvard's Folly" is a terrific collection of mini-biographies of obscure, grandiose failures. And while they don't exactly fit your criteria, Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" is a great in-depth group bio of the contenders for the '88 presidency, and Neal Gabler's "Winchell" is a really thorough book on a public figure who'd largely been forgotten. Oh, and to continue the books-into-movies theme, Sylvia Nasar's "A Beautiful Mind" is extremely well-written, and much better and more complicated than the Russell Crowe movie might lead you to expect.

The Frozen Water Trade by Gavin Wightman. A biography of Fredric Tudor, who made his fortune shipping ice from Boston to Calcutta (and London and Buenos Aires), on sailing ships without benefit of refrigeration or an engine. Bonus: Ice is a great topic for Summer reading.

I know you aren't a sports guy, but The Wizard of Odds, by Charley Rosen. About Jack Molinas and the college basketball fixing scandal in the 1950s. It wasn't great but it was pretty good.

It's not a great book either (more like a stretched-too-far New Yorker article), but "The Professor and the Madman" is still pretty interesting.

well known would be A. Scott Berg's Goldwyn.

Ben Hecht's autobio Child of the Century

Zuckoff's Ponzi's Scheme

"Tolstoy," by Henri Troyat, is my idea of a great fricking biography.

Scott Berg's "Max Perkins" is a fantastic biography about someone who was not well known by the general public. Scott was 22 when he wrote it.

Prick up your Ears by John Lahr. It's about playwright Joe Orton whose lifearc comes off as a sortof English 1960's gay Selena. If you like Lahr's stuff in the New Yorker (a big if), you'll like this.

No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith


Mini-bios: The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody

Can't think of the last time I read a biography, but let me tell you who needs one written about him: Joshua Norton, the dude who declared himself emperor in San Francisco in the 1800's. Write it so I can read it.

>>who needs one written about him: Joshua Norton, the dude who declared himself emperor in San Francisco in the 1800's.

Do I really need to know more than what's in Sandman #31? Because everything in there's all, obviously, true.

"Hellfire" by Nick Tosches, about Jerry Lee Lewis...

"After the ball" bio of James Hazen Hyde, gilded age insurance industry titan. Includes stories about "bad behavior by people with bathtubs full of money". A relatively obscure figure whose life illuminates an interesting period in American history. Bonus: set in the sordid and turbulent world of the Connecticut insurance industry (I kid you not!)

Do I really need to know more than what's in Sandman #31

Just what's in the Principia Discordia.

A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard & Isabel Burton by Mary S. Lovell.

Richard Burton (not the actor) traveled all over Asia and the Middle East in the 19th century, was the first to translate the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra, spoke a zillion languages, was the first non-Muslim to make the Haj (in disguise, obviously).

His wife was cool, too.

I recently learned that an acquaintance of mine in California is a descendent of Joshua Norton. (And I hear she can be somewhat imperious.)

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss. Amazing biography of Lev Nussibaum (aka Essad Bay, aka Kurban Said) a forgotten pre-WWII author. Lots of detail on Nussibaum's amazing life, plus great background on pre-Soviet Azerbaijan, Europe in the inter-war period, the rise of Hitler, etc. The only problem is that the last chapters feel a little skimpy, as if Reiss were rushing to meet his deadline and had to start leaving things out.

And I second Seabiscuit and Winchell.

Dear Dan,

I recommend checking out HOMESICK AT THE NEW YORKER by Angela Bourke, which is a biography of the writer Maeve Brennan. Maeve, an Irish emigre, wrote crystalline short stories and a New Yorker column entitled "The Long-Winded Lady." I found Bourke's book fascinating, moving, eminently readable, and very well documented. People still have no idea who Maeve is, but she seems to have been awesome.

Squanto, Friend Of The Pilgrims - 112 pages. I Read it in 5th Grade. I cried. Had my first crush on a teacher that year. I dreamed she was covered from head to toe with freckles. If you're still interested when you're done you can read _1491_ which is pretty extraordinary although not a biography.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Caro) 1344p

Average #pages 728.

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