Given the endless parade of biographies of Founding Fathers and Tudor monarchs, one might be forgiven for wondering whether there are any fresh candidates for a lengthy life study left. Canadian writer Rosemary Sullivan (Villa Air-Bel) proves the answer is yes with Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, the masterfully told and meticulously researched story of a truly remarkable life.
Not long after his family moved from Memphis to rural Mississippi, young Harrison Scott Key began to notice how out of step he was with his surroundings. Willing to rise at 4 a.m. to accompany his father and brother on hunting trips, he nevertheless preferred to read, or bake, or simply not shoot things. With The World’s Largest Man for a parent, though, those options often took a backseat to a day spent in camouflage with gun at the ready.
From the time she was 5 years old, Deborah Voigt was singing with all her heart, joyously belting out hymns like "His Eye is on the Sparrow" in church. In this sanctuary of spiritual sweetness, she discovered her tremendous vocal gift, as well as her love of performing for an attentive crowd. By the time she was a teenager, music possessed Voigt; she was immersed in piano lessons, singing Broadway tunes and eventually discovering and tuning into the pop music of Bobby Sherman and Donny Osmond. It was the voice of Karen Carpenter, however, who helped her realize she could have a career in music, and the voice of God, who told her, "you are here to sing" one morning and propelled her on the path to becoming an acclaimed operatic soprano.
In 1971, 10-year-old Allen Kurzweil arrived at a Swiss boarding school called Aiglon. He was a Jewish boy from New York; his father had died, and his mother was “test-driving her third husband.” Kurzweil was happy to be back in the Alps—his Viennese father had brought him there for winter holidays and imbued him with a love of alpine hiking and skiing.
This fall, music keeps playing around in our heads thanks to a crop of books by and about some of rock's most elusive artists, as well as its most treasured songs.
There are many reasons to love a good misery memoir: In my case, reading about other people’s dysfunctional childhoods offers a sense of community, a sisterhood of resilient Gen Xers who survived a 1970s childhood. Cea Sunrise Person’s engaging new memoir, North of Normal, evokes both the miserable excesses and occasional beauty of growing up in a counterculture family in the wilderness of the Me Decade.
John Quincy Adams was devoted to literature, and had he been able to pursue his ideal career, he wrote in 1817, “I should have made myself a great poet.” He did write poetry throughout his extraordinary life, but, from a very young age, his parents strongly encouraged him toward life as a leader in the new republic. His literary skills, however, were not wasted.
From the Duke boys’ car named the General Lee on the “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show to his appearance on a U.S. postage stamp, Robert E. Lee has come to “embody and glorify a defeated cause,” Michael Korda asserts in a monumental new biography, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee.
These four books add unique insights to this essential question, with subjects including an irrepressible immigrant mother, birth mothers and adoptive mothers, and a crusading mom who wants to liberate others from their guilt.
Was John Updike one of America’s great writers or merely, as Harold Bloom famously said, “a minor novelist with a major style”? In Updike, his meticulously detailed and highly readable new biography—the first full-fledged life of the writer, who died in 2009—Adam Begley makes a convincing case for the former view while providing a rich account of the events that shaped Updike’s fiction.