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Biography

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Hero or villein?

Tolstoy A.N. Wilson

Atlantic, pp.572, 25

‘Not one word’, exclaimed Turgenev of Tolstoy, ‘not one movement of his is natural! He is eternally posing before us!’ The recurrent underlying theme of A.N. Wilson’s prize-winning biography of… Read more

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The pen was mightier than the brush

2 June 2012
Joanna, George and Henry: A Pre-Raphaelite Tale of Art, Love and Friendship Sue Bradbury

Boydell, pp.336, £25

Of the making of books about the Pre-Raphaelites, it appears, there is no end. Like the Bloomsberries, most of the PRB are more interesting to read about than the study… Read more

Going to the fair

28 April 2012
Sweet Revenge: The Intimate Life of Simon Cowell Tom Bower

Faber, pp.422, 18.99

Why would anyone want to buy this dreadful book? The frightful Simon Cowell appears to have co-operated with the author, and it is littered with repellent photographs — chiefly of… Read more

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Hero of his own drama

17 March 2012
Strindberg: A Life Sue Prideaux

Yale, pp.371, 25

Sam Leith is enthralled by the larger-than-life genius, August Strindberg — playwright, horticulturalist, painter, alchemist and father of modern literature When I’m reading a book for review, it’s my habit… Read more

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Bookends: A life of gay abandon

17 March 2012

Sometimes, only the purest smut will do. Scotty Bowers’s memoir, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars (Grove Press, £16.99) is 24 carat,… Read more

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Godfather of rap

28 January 2012
The Last Holiday: A Memoir Gil Scott-Heron

Canongate, pp.319, 20

At a funeral in New Orleans in 1901, Joe ‘King’ Oliver played a blues-drenched dirge on the trumpet. This was the new music they would soon call jazz. A century… Read more

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A feast of vanities

28 January 2012
Savonarola Donald Weinstein

Yale, pp.379, 25

The name of Savonarola slides off the tongue as if concocted for an orator’s climax. But when it came to names, whether by melody or reputation, the Florence he knew… Read more

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A horrid story of intellectual corruption

14 January 2012
Monopolizing the Master Michael Anesko

Stanford University Press, pp.208, £30.50

The death of a great author often causes interminable displays of corrosive envy. Heirs, acolytes, interpreters and academics resent one another’s claims on the literary estate or cultural heritage. They… Read more

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Bookends: An unreal world

31 December 2011

Even by Hollywood standards, Carrie Fisher is pretty crazy. She was born a Hollywood princess, and remembers her parents — Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher — as ‘not really people… Read more

Settling old scores

10 December 2011
Outsider: Almost Always, Never Quite Brian Sewell

Quartet, pp.343, 25

As a boy, Brian Sewell was unimpressed by opera but enraptured by pantomime which, he reveals in Outsider, sowed in him ‘an undying ambition, never fulfilled, to play the Widow… Read more

Forthright to a fault

3 December 2011
Edy Was a Lady Ann Rachlin

Matador, pp.194, 16.99

Her mother was Ellen Terry, the most admired actress of the day. Her brother was Edward Gordon Craig, the celebrated stage designer. Little wonder then that Edith Craig was overshadowed… Read more

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Lust for life

3 December 2011
Hockney: The Biography, Volume I, A Rake’s Progess Christopher Simon Sykes

Century, pp.363, 25

Seduced by the hayseed hair and the Yorkshire accent it’s tempting to see the young David Hockney as the Freddie Flintoff of the painting world: lovable, simple, brilliant, undoubtedly a… Read more

A man who quite liked women

19 November 2011
Wits and Wives: Dr Johnson in the Company of Women Kate Chisholm

Chatto, pp.40, 25

It is noticeable that the kind of young woman that a clever public man most likes talking to is intelligent but totally unchallenging. This is pleasant for both. She gets… Read more

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Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford

5 November 2011
Martin Amis: The Biography Richard Bradford

Constable & Robinson, pp.418, 20

Where’s Invasion of the Space Invaders? That’s what I want to know. Only by consulting Richard Bradford’s bibliography would you know that in 1982 Martin Amis published a book —… Read more

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson

5 November 2011
Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography Walter Isaacson

Little Brown, pp.656, 25

America has always idolised its entrepreneurs, even when it has proved a thankless task — if you can glamorise Bill Gates, you can glamorise anyone. Especially Steve Jobs, whose death… Read more

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller

5 November 2011
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Alexandra Fuller

Simon & Schuster, pp.238, 14.99

There is always a special risk, says Alexandra Fuller, when putting real-life people into books. Not all those who recognised themselves in her terrific memoir of 1960s and 1970s white-ruled… Read more

Low Life: One Middle-Aged Man in Search of the Point by Jeremy Clarke

29 October 2011
Low Life: One Middle-Aged Man in Search of the Point Jeremy Clarke

Short Books, pp.285, 12.99

Some may question whether a review of a columnist’s work in the magazine in which that columnist’s work appears can ever be impartial. It can, and not just because this… Read more

Pakistan: A Personal History by Imran Khan

29 October 2011
Pakistan: A Personal History Imran Khan

Bantam, pp.400, 20

Imran Khan’s Pakistan: A Personal History describes his journey from playboy cricketer through believer and charity worker to politician. His story is interwoven with highlights from Pakistan’s history. At times… Read more

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Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller by Jennifer Kloester

29 October 2011
Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller Jennifer Kloester

Heinemann, pp.464, 20

Those of us who have spent an embarrassing number of hours immersed in the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer have learned to live dangerously. We have been overturned in high… Read more

What is it about Stieg Larsson?

13 August 2011
Stieg & Me: Memories of my life with Stieg Larsson Eva Gabrielsson (with Marie-Fran

Orion Books, pp.211, £12.99

Stieg Larsson was a rather unsuccessful left-wing Swedish journalist who lived off coffee, cigarettes, junk food and booze, and died aged 50 after climbing seven flights of stairs, having recently… Read more

The short life of Tara Browne

13 August 2011

I received a call from the Irish writer Paul Howard, who, as Ross O’Carro-Kelly (‘Rock’) has written a number of popular satires about Ross and the Celtic Tiger, a series… Read more

Lucky miss

9 July 2011
The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father Sally H. Jacobs

Public Affairs, pp.297, 20

In Dreams From My Father, his exploration of race and roots, Barack Obama recalled the tales heard in childhood about the man who gave him his name. His father, they… Read more

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The gay Lambeth way

9 July 2011
As Good as God, As Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson Rodney Bolt

Atlantic, pp.362, 22

Archbishop Edward Benson was the ideal of a Victorian churchman. Stern and unbending, he was a brilliant Cambridge scholar and a dreamily beautiful youth. Older men fell over themselves to… Read more

The biography of a nobody

2 July 2011
Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre

Biteback, pp.336, 17.99

A biography of Ed Miliband has to try hard not to be the sort of thing one buys as a present for someone one avidly dislikes. This effort, the first… Read more

A far cry from Dr Finlay

2 July 2011
A.J.Cronin Alan Davies

Alma Books, pp.384, 20

If he is remembered at all, A.J. Cronin is known now for Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which ran for many years on both BBC television and radio, and today resonates with… Read more