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Biography

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A heart made to be broken

18 June 2011
Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde Franny Moyle

John Murray,, pp.374, 20

Very useful in modern conversation, Oscar Wilde. Not for the quotable quips — everyone knows those already. His real value comes when you’re trying to guess someone’s sexuality. ‘He can’t… Read more

Backs to the wall

28 May 2011
Call of the Litany Bird Susan Gibbs

Loose Chippings, pp.272, 17.99

Susan Gibbs begins her book by describing the death from cancer of her first husband after 13 years of happy marriage. She ends with her farewell to Africa and her… Read more

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Sixties mystic

28 May 2011
Memoirs of a Dervish Robert Irwin

Profile, pp.239, 14.99

The misery memoir is the fad of the moment. We seem to have a limitless desire to delve into other people’s hardships. Robert Irwin has gladly shown the way to… Read more

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Dreaming of cowsheds

21 May 2011
The Smell of Summer Grass Adam Nicolson

Harper Press, pp.306, 20

In 1999, Adam Nicolson published a very good book called Perch Hill: A New Life, about his escape from London and a break-down, after his divorce and a nasty mugging,… Read more

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Bookends: Unbalanced chorus

14 May 2011

Imagine a 77-year-old woman hanging around, say, Leicester bus station, telling people about her life. She confides her belief that she is under surveillance by the military. She maintains that… Read more

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The choppy sea of family life

7 May 2011
The Children of Lovers Judy Golding

Faber, pp.256, 16.99

This is a lovely book. Judy Golding writes of her father —indeed of both her parents — with candour, humour and great insight and perception This is a lovely book.… Read more

A certain tragic allure

23 April 2011
The Shah Abbas Milani

Palgrave Macmillan, pp.496, 14.99

Towards Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), the last or most recent Shah of Iran, there are two principal attitudes. Towards Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), the last or most recent Shah of… Read more

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The man mountain of Fleet Street

23 April 2011
G. K. Chesterton: A Biography Ian Ker

OUP, pp.747, 35

A. N. Wilson has a queasy feeling that he won’t be re-reading the works of G. K. Chesterton for a while Yet another book on Chesterton! William Oddie is only… Read more

A fate worse than death

16 April 2011
Behind Closed Doors: The Tragic, Untold Story of the Duchess of Windsor Hugo Vickers

Hutchinson, pp.462, 25

Hugo Vickers has already produced a well-documented and balanced biography of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. To follow this with the Duchess of Windsor is as bold a left-and-right as… Read more

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The wisdom of youth

9 April 2011
People Who Say Goodbye P.Y. Betts

Slightly Foxed, pp.312, 15

‘You must write it all down’ is the age-old plea to elderly relatives about their childhood memories. ‘You must write it all down’ is the age-old plea to elderly relatives… Read more

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Cuckoo in the nest

9 April 2011
Problem Child Caradoc King

Simon & Schuster, pp.324, 16.99

Caradoc King, the well-known literary agent, was adopted in 1948 as a baby into a family of three girls, shortly joined by a fourth, presided over by a difficult, unhappy… Read more

A world of her own

2 April 2011
Behind the Black Door Sarah Brown

Ebury, pp.452, 18.99

This book, written by someone whose husband was for three years prime minister of Britain, is impossible to review. Yes, it is dull, but it is so triumphantly, so ineffably,… Read more

A bit of a softie

12 March 2011
No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone Tom Bower

Faber, pp.432, 18.99

Bernie Susan Watkins

Haynes, pp.416, 19.99

Tom Bower’s fearsome reputation as a biographer preceded him in the Formula One paddock. Tom Bower’s fearsome reputation as a biographer preceded him in the Formula One paddock. His devastating… Read more

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Black swan

5 March 2011
Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius Richard Greene

Virago, pp.532, 25

At a time when publishers seem chary of commissioning literary biographies, the conditions for writing them have never been better. Major authors born in the 1890s and early 1900s were… Read more

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A serious man

19 February 2011
Arthur Miller 1962-2005 Christopher Bigsby

Weidenfeld, pp.602, 30

For much of the second half of his life Arthur Miller was a man whose future lay behind him. The acclaimed American playwright, celebrated for classics such as The Crucible,… Read more

Care or cure?

5 February 2011
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer Siddhartha Mukherjee

Fourth Estate, pp.571, 25

Cancer is usually associated with death. For the cancer specialist, however, cancer is more about life: not just patients’ lives; the cancer itself often lives the life of Riley. If… Read more

Consummate con artist

5 February 2011
The True Story of Titanic Thompson Kevin Cook

Picador, pp.247, 12.99

‘Taylor, I dreamt of your lecture last night,’ the polar explorer Captain Scott was once heard to exclaim, after sitting through a paper on icebergs by the expedition physiographer, Griffith… Read more

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Pig in the middle

22 January 2011
The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age Jane Shilling

Chatto, pp.241, 16.99

Writing an autobiographical account of middle age is a brave undertaking, necessitating a great deal of self-scrutiny at a time of life when most of us would sooner look the… Read more

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Lessons for life

18 December 2010
A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers Michael Holroyd

Chatto, pp.258, 16.99

All modern biographies, one could say, are books of secrets; certainly all biographers during the past four decades have felt entitled to ferret around in their subject’s private as well… Read more

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BOOKENDS: Inspiration for a cult hero

6 November 2010
Vivian and I Colin Bacon

Quartet, 12

This is an odd book: the exhaustive biography of a complete nobody. Vivian Mackerrell was the primary inspiration for the cult that is Withnail. In that, at least, he doesn’t… Read more

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His own best invention

6 November 2010
Romain Gary: A Tall Story David Bellos

Harvill Secker, pp.518, 30

Just as it will sometimes happen that a critic feels obliged to preface a review with a declaration of interest, so I should now declare a lack of interest. Prior… Read more

Merging poetry and song

25 September 2010

The best book so far about Bob Dylan, the only one worthy of his oeuvre, is his own astonishing Chronicles, Volume One (2004), but while we wait for the next… Read more

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Welsh wizardry and venom

18 September 2010
The Great Outsider: David Lloyd George Roy Hattersley

Little Brown, pp.709, 25

Paul Johnson reviews Roy Hattersley’s life of David Lloyd George No politician’s life is so difficult to write as Lloyd George’s. All who have tried have failed, and wise heavyweight… Read more

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Land of lost content

11 September 2010
My Father’s Fortune Michael Frayn

Faber, pp.255, 16.99

Tom Frayn, says his son Michael in this admirable memoir, trod lightly upon the earth. He belonged to a class and a generation who didn’t think their story mattered. Even… Read more

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Beating his demons

11 September 2010
Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl Donald Sturrock

Harper Press, pp.656, 25

Some of us are still startled that Wallace Stevens was 44 when he published Harmonium. So what to make of the fact that Roald Dahl was past the midpoint of… Read more