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Biography.

NONFICTION

****

Chagall

A Biography

By Jackie Wullschlager

Jackie Wullschlager, author of Hans Christian Anderson: The Life of a Story Teller (2002) and chief art critic for the Financial Times, paints an enlightening and detailed portrait of Russian modernist Marc Chagall.

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THE TOPIC: Marc Chagall invented a distinct, fairy tale cast of characters that appeared in his paintings time and time again--fiddling farm animals, floating brides, flying fish. Wullschlager takes a deeper look into where they came from and more important, what they meant for the modern art movement. Chagall was born in the Jewish settlement of Vitebsk in 1887; his hometown and modest up-bringing made a permanent mark on his artistic output. Almost every image fantastically portrayed in his paintings came from this little town, now located in Belarus. However, it was their impeccably timed presentation in Paris in 1911, mere days after the Salon des Independants, that permanently cemented his (early) work into the canon of modern art.

Knopf. 582 pages. $40. ISBN: 037541455X

Economist ****

"Ms. Wullschlager ... gives us sympathetically and in full a man whom friends and rivals alike remembered for his gentle charm. ... Though [she] is fair and never sneering about his painting after he left Russia forever in 1922, she is firm that his art was never as good again."

Guardian (UK) ****

"The paradoxes of Chagall's personality only became clearer with time. ... Jackie Wullschlager shows us all this and more, in her beautifully produced book." ANDREW MOTION

Wall Street Journal ****

"[Chagall] is an outstanding biography, combining psychological nuance with critical insight, and its narrative energy does full justice to the drama of Chagall's extraordinary life and times. ... [It provides] an overdue re-appreciation of the work with which chagall shocked the world between 1908 and 1920, establishing himself thereby as one of the last century's most original modernists." MARK ARCHER

Washington Post ****

"If this biography has a shortcoming, it is its unruly length of almost 600 pages in which chagall himself sometimes gets lost behind too-detailed descriptions of the supporting players. Yet Wullschlager has a sensitive understanding of his contribution that makes the book especially valuable. This biography presents Chagall's moving portraits of a vanished age in colors as glowing and haunting as his own canvases." MERYLE SECREST

Ny Times Book Review ***

"In her engaging, almost painting-by-painting biography, she backs up her dislike (drawing on archival letters and memoirs). ... After the exit of Virginia in 1952 and the entrance of her Russian-Jewish replacement, Vava, who became Chagall's wife and bulldog, [the book is] a blur of commissions, exhibitions, murals and stained-glass windows until he died in 1985." SARAH BOXER

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Thanks in large part to her access to a formally closed cache of Chagall's letters and papers, now belonging to his granddaughter Meret Meyer Graber, Wullschlager offers a thorough, fair, and intriguing look at the life and work of an artist who never really left home, despite permanently leaving Russia in 1922. Wullschlager writes that he "transformed the cramped, dull backstreets of his childhood to a vision of beauty and harmony on canvas." Chagall, a paradoxical figure in modern art, never quite fit into a particular movement, as Wullschlager's detailed examination of his paintings shows. A few critics seemed to search hard for flaws, and what emerged was the book's length and, as the reviewer from the New York Times Book Review claimed, a rather too-complete exploration of Chagall's dreamlike works. This is an excellent biography.

****

Fred Astaire

By Joseph Epstein

Essayist and former editor of the American Scholar, Joseph Epstein is the author of Snobbery (**** Nov/Dec 2002), Friendship, and Fabulous Small Jews (*** Nov/Dec 2003). Fred Astaire is the latest installment in Yale University Press's series Icons of America.

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THE TOPIC: Despite his "enormous ears" and a "bad chin line," Fred Astaire (born Frederick Austerlitz II in Omaha, Nebraska) became, thanks to the advent of film, one of the world's best-known and most innovative dancers. He is still idolized, of course, for his work with Ginger Rogers, though the two had little love for each another offscreen. For his part, Astaire never liked to give up the spotlight. So much for chemistry. What Epstein reveals in this brief biography is that Astaire was both a transcendent talent and, well, just a little dull, a hard worker who "acted the part it was given to him to act, and at the end of the day, like a good artisan, packed up his tools and returned home." These days, that revelation makes his talent seem all the more magical.

Yale University Press. 198 pages. $22. ISBN: 0300116950

Baltimore Sun ****

"Epstein's strengths show best when he explains why Astaire achieved immortality with Rogers, whom he doesn't seem to have liked much, instead of with better dancers like Rita Hayworth, eleanor Powell or cyd charisse. ... Yale has matched subject and author in a way that sets the bar for the rest of the series mighty high." JEFF LANDAW

Boston Globe ****

"[Joseph Epstein] tries to pin down Astaire's magic, sublimity, and allure. A deeply personal book, slim, lightly researched, but insightful and elegantly written, Fred Astaire is an homage to a perfectionist, 'guarded about his personal life,' who did most of his talking with his feet." GLENN C. ALTSCHULER

Chicago Tribune ****

"It's a joy to read Epstein on virtually any subject upon which he decides to write, but Epstein on Astaire is especially magical. Fred Astaire, in fact, made me want to dance a little jig of celebration--but I stopped myself, just in time." JULIA KELLER

NY Times Book Review ***

"Fred Astaire is a very readable and glowing 50,000-word portrait, notwithstanding Epstein's determination not to subject Fred to rough cross-examination or prolonged background scrutiny. ... If you're introducing Astaire to a novice, know that this book not only rejects depths to explore, it prefers to believe they do not exist." DAVID THOMSON

CRITICAL SUMMARY

A veteran writer, Joseph Epstein comments ably on the career and the legend of Fred Astaire, but he's hamstrung by a problem that rarely arises in entertainment today: regarding Astaire and salacious details, stories of infidelity and reckless behavior, there's no dishy information (or, as the critic for the New York Times Book Review astutely points out, "Astaire is never going to be 'rescued' for a trashy age by the revelation of a sordid private life"). But Epstein's subtle passion for his subject and a keen eye for the details of Astaire's quest for perfection accomplish just what the author sets out to do--to trace the genius and the sublime talent that continue, more than 70 years after his heyday, to fuel our fascination with Fred Astaire.

THE ICONS OF AMERI CA SERIES

Yale says Icons of America is "a series of short works by leading scholars, critics, and writers on American history, or more properly the image of America in American history, through the lens of a single iconic individual, event, object, or cultural phenomenon." Other titles include Wall Street: America's Dream Palace by Steve Fraser; Frankly, My Dear: "Gone with the Wind" Revisited by Molly Haskell; and The Hamburger: A History by Josh Ozersky.

****

John Lennon

The Life

By Philip Norman

Philip Norman has written biographies of several musicians, including Buddy Holly and Sir Elton John, as well as an earlier book about The Beatles, Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation (1981).

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THE TOPIC: Norman sought to produce a semiofficial biography of Lennon, portraying him as both violent and manipulative, and warm and sensitive. Norman secured the first comprehensive interviews with some of Lennon's closest associates. While some of them (most notably Yoko Ono) withdrew support from the project, Norman backed up his claims with extensive archival work and an extensive knowledge of The Beatles based on the years he spent covering the unraveling of their record company. The result is a Lennon biography of unprecedented size and scope.

Ecco. 864 pages. $34.95. ISBN: 006075401X

Christian Science Monitor ****

"At once retrospective and immediate, the author pulls us through time with luminous detail, wisely resisting the temptation to psychoanalyze Lennon from afar. The result is a wonderful unfolding of Lennon's life with all its talent, tenderness and tragedy." LORNE ENTRESS

Dallas Morning News ****

"Mr. Norman, author of the well-regarded Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation, provides enormously detailed accounts of John's childhood in middle-class Liverpool and his lifelong insecurities; the birth, rise and contentious death of the Beatles; and the Yoko years. ... In the end, neither Ms. Ono nor Mr. McCartney seemed pleased with Mr. Norman's book. the reader should have no such problems." MICHAEL YOUNG

Toronto Star ****

"The witness accounts, verbatim conversations and reconstructed minutiae are evidence of Norman's exhaustive research--three years in the gathering, a year in the writing and editing--but nothing we didn't know or suspect about his complex and troubled subject. What really sets his book apart are the writer's attention to and firsthand understanding of the economic, class, geographical, historical, cultural and sociological details of Lennon's upbringing and circumstances." GREG QUILL

USA Today ****

"Densely detailed, intricately woven and elegantly told, John Lennon: The Life neither condemns nor condones, nor does it consecrate is subject. It does, however, examine the lingering myths and uncomfortable realities of the life of Lennon--some of them shocking even today." JAMES ENDRST

Miami Herald ****

"Norman admires Lennon's writing and musicianship and even appears to have some personal affection for Lennon. But he's undone by his reporting, which again and again butts up against the ruthlessness and self-indulgence with which Lennon conducted his life." GLENN GARVIN

Rocky Mountain News ***

"If Norman had gone with a 200-page book called The New Stuff I Learned About John Lennon everyone might have been better off. ... That said, there's much to enjoy in the book; even with some missing or misconstrued facts, Norman is, for the most part, a meticulous researcher, sprinkling fine details into the anecdotes and memories that give a real sense of place and time." MARK BROWN

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Critics generally praised John Lennon: The Life, though they often seemed shocked at how much hate and violence could be found in one of the 20th century's most famous proponents of peace and love. Some were also taken aback by the book's length--over 800 pages for a figure who famously lived only to age 40. But most reviewers concluded that the bulk of this biography was appropriate, not only because Norman is the first author to investigate Lennon in such detail but because his sense for which details are interesting (a well-developed portrayal of the young Lennon's Liverpool) and which are not (Beatles ephemera) keeps the book moving at a steady pace.

****

The Snowball

Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

By Alice Schroeder

Warren Buffett chose former securities analyst Alice Schroeder to pen his authorized biography. The Snowball is the voluminous result.

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THE TOPIC: Sure, Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha and the mastermind behind the success of the nearly mythical Berkshire Hathaway, is the world's richest man (a reputed $62 billion upon the book's publication). But what makes him tick? Even as a child, he was fascinated with money and numbers, saving enough from a paper route to buy a farm while still in his teens. He was a millionaire by the time he was 30. Now, despite being a billionaire many times over, Buffett still lives in Omaha in the modest home he bought more than 50 years ago. Alice Schroeder's warts-and-all biography paints as complete a picture of the obsessive finance titan as readers are likely to get. "Whenever my version [of events] is different from somebody else's, use the less flattering version," Buffett told Schroeder. And in The Snowball, she obliges.

Bantam. 960 pages. $35. ISBN: 0553805096

Houston Chronicle ****

"What [Schroeder] delivers is the portrait of a middle-American Midas with enough anxiety about parents to rival Hamlet's. Her tendency to psychologize is the one notable flaw in what is otherwise an excellent and highly enjoyable look at the business titan." EDWARD NAWOTKA

New York Times ****

"Ms. Schroeder is as insightful about her subject's precise anticipation of current financial crises as she is about his quirky personal story. And she is a clear explicator of fiscal issues. This sprawling, colorful biography will mesmerize anyone interested in who Mr. Buffett is or how he got that way." JANET MASLIN

Los Angeles Times ****

"The Snowball ... is likely to remain the most authoritative portrait of one of the most important American investors of our time. ... Unless you are one of those tens of thousands of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders who live on Buffett's word, there are long stretches of the book that may be of little interest, including his unconventional wife-mistress triangle in which both knew and liked the other, and the endless history of deals." ZACHARY KARABELL

Washington Post ****

"To be sure, Schroeder could have used an editor; at 960 pages, her book devotes pages and pages of description, however thoroughly researched, to peripheral characters, family histories and houses that could have been sketched, no less ably or helpfully, in a few sentences. ... If the replication of any great achievement first requires knowledge of how it was done, then The Snowball, the most detailed glimpse inside Warren Buffett and his world that we likely will ever get, should become a Bible for capitalists." JAMES ROSEN

Kansas City Star ***

"This is a fast-paced, precisely drawn profile of a man who, despite his high visibility in the financial world, isn't someone we've known much about. ... Good as schroeder's writing is, and interesting as Buffett is, a good editor could have trimmed this book to a more manageable length." JOHN MARK EBERHART

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Warren Buffett should be applauded for allowing such open access to his life. Alice Schroeder, who interviewed friends and family, pored over Buffett's personal archive, and spent thousands of hours with Buffett, comes away with an unprecedented look at the hidden life of an American icon. At more than 900 pages (100 of which are notes), The Snowball--the title is a metaphor for the relentless growth of Buffett's portfolio--sets the bar high for future efforts. Schroeder's account is comprehensive and her eye for the telling detail keen; while she explains the financial deals, she also explores Buffett's childhood quirks and his unconventional marriage. Enough is enough, though, and John Mark Eberhart of the Kansas City Star speaks for several critics when he points out, "I just could have done with a little less bang for my buck."

***

Emily Post

Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners

By Laura Claridge

Laura Claridge, whose previous works include biographies of Norman Rockwell and Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, has penned the first-ever biography of Emily Post. She illuminates the woman behind the name while charting Post's rise from vivacious Gilded Age debutante to "the autocrat of etiquette."

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THE TOPIC: In 1905, neglected society wife Emily Price Post endured unimaginable public humiliation when her stockbroker husband's extramarital exploits made front pages across New York City--the direct result of his refusal to be blackmailed. She dutifully supported him at the subsequent trial but sued him for divorce in 1906. Faced with having to provide for herself and her two sons, she began to write, producing novels and magazine articles until publishing Etiquette in 1922 at the age of 50. An immediate success, it sold more than 1.5 million copies before Post's death in 1960. Post's emphasis on manners over money and her steadfast belief in an egalitarian "Best Society" comprised of the "best behaved" appealed to a regimented social order on the cusp of great change.

Random House. 544 pages. $30. ISBN: 0375509216

Los Angeles Times ****

"Claridge's book hints at becoming a cultural or literary analysis, offering glimpses of Post's historical context and writing style. But it remains a highly competent biography, the beginning, one hopes, of a whole new field of Emily Post Studies." LIZ BROWN

New York Times ****

"An exhaustive researcher, Ms. Claridge ... has in this book provided beguiling new details about the taxonomies that governed Post's life. ... Sometimes Ms. Claridge's insights into Post's behavior seem speculative." DINITIA SMITH

Entertainment Weekly ***

"Only a few terse sentences go to the mistress who put emily and her soon-to-be-ex husband on the front pages of every new York paper. Emily Post is a rich portrait of an era, but--like its subject--it has little time for idle gossip." KATHARINE CRITCHLOW

Washington Post ***

"Much of Claridge's narrative is devoted to an examination of Post's career, and accounts of contractual negotiations--not to mention tallies of sales and circulation figures, exegeses of revisions and lengthy quotes from reviews--don't always make for compelling reading. such details do, however, provide a measure of the ways in which a girl who just wanted to be a worthy heir to her father turned herself into one of the most powerful women in America, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt, according to a 1950 poll of women journalists." AMANDA VAILL

NY Times Book Review **

"Claridge hails from the leave-no-detail-undisturbed school of biography; she can't resist a quiver of the thermometer or of the stock market, of which there were rather a few between 1872 and 1929. ... At times she strains against the facts, or seems willfully to misread them." STACY SCHIFF

Boston Globe **

"Claridge undercuts her subject in the introduction with the cruel and unwarranted statement that Post was 'lacking the intellectual skills to articulate her own cultural philosophy.' Rather, it is the author who is lacking. She has not researched the subject of etiquette, and yet draws conclusions based on mistaken notions." JUDITH MARTIN

Wall Street Journal **

"Infelicitously subtitled Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners, it's a clumsy fusion of biography and social history. ... Sad to say, no detail, no information, no analysis has been left behind, however puzzling, however awkwardly appended, however superfluous." JOANNE KAUFMAN

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Despite her limited access to Emily Post's personal papers, Laura Claridge does her best to bring Post to life against the ever-changing cultural landscape of the early 20th century. While the New York Times praised Claridge as an "exhaustive researcher," other critics complained of the author's frequent digressions and the glut of useless information: "Do we need the curtain time of the production in which Emily had a bit part at age 6?" bemoans the New York Times Book Review. Some critics also questioned Claridge's interpretation of facts and her unfamiliarity with matters of etiquette. However, Claridge does succeed in unveiling the fun-loving, banjo-playing workaholic behind the myth--and forever demolishes the image of the fussy prude obsessing over fork usage.

SUPPLEMENTAL READING EMILY POST'S ETIQUETTE 17th Edition | PEGGY POST (2004): Updated by Emily Post's great-granddaughter-in-law, this latest version of the 1922 classic guides the reader through the pitfalls of 21st-century life--from online dating and cell phone usage to questioning a potential sex partner's past and displaying body piercings at a job interview.

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RELATED ARTICLE: BOOKMARKS SELECTION

****

Factory Girls

From Village to City in a Changing China

By Leslie T. Chang

A former China correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Leslie T. Chang draws on extensive research, dozens of worker profiles, and her own family history in Factory Girls.

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THE TOPIC: With the help of a young, hungry workforce made up primarily of women, China is growing at an unprecedented rate, building infrastructure and manufacturing in order to maintain its astounding double-digit growth. Those workers are called "Factory girls," 130 million strong and on the move from China's villages to its rapidly growing cities--and part of what Chang describes as the "largest migration in human history." Despite giving the West a glimpse of itself in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China divulged few of its secrets. Primarily through the story of two young female assembly-line workers, Chang explores the country's transformation from Mao's fanaticism to a kind of inevitable capitalism where "everything is in the process of becoming something else."

Spiegel & Grau. 420 pages. $26. ISBN: 0385520174

Christian Science Monitor ****

"Factory Girls is highly readable and even amusing in many places, despite the seriousness of the subject. In the pages of this book, these factory girls come to life. ... chang also weaves in her own family history, which dramatizes the contrast between chinese caught in the past and those who, like the factory girls, forget the past and create new lives." DAN SOUTHERLAND

New York Times ****

"In the course of her narrative, [the author] builds a quiet but powerful case that through their tireless work and self-sacrifice, these women, invisible to the outside world and to most chinese, are this era's true heroes. ... Ms. chang's rich narrative takes us deep inside a country that is changing too fast for any reckoning about the outcome or even direction, and she is wise in avoiding easy conclusions or even approval." HOWARD W. FRENCH

San Francisco Chronicle ****

"Chang deftly weaves her own family's story of migrations within China, and finally to the West, into her fascinating portrait of Min and chunming. ... Factory Girls is a keen-eyed look at contemporary chinese life composed of equal parts of new global realities, timeless stories of human striving and intelligent storytelling at its best." JULIE FOSTER

Washington Post ****

"In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang delves deeply into the world of migrant workers to find out who these people are and what their collective dislocation means for China. Chang skillfully sketches migrants as individuals with their own small victories and bitter tragedies, and she captures the surprising dynamics of this enormous but ill-understood subculture." SETH FAiSON

CRITICAL SUMMARY

When it comes to global economics, Leslie T. Chang knows both sides of the equation well--that is, from the vastly different perspectives of East and West. Her readable, compelling account of human migration in Factory Girls will open many eyes, particularly in her in-depth profiles of young women who face nearly intolerable working conditions and ruthless competition ("People who are too honest in this society will lose out," the instructor of a turnkey school told Chang) as they struggle to make their way. Chang's own ancestors are on the periphery, and the author ably recounts her family's varied, tragic past in the context of a story whose ripples will surely have global repercussions in the coming years. The only complaint? Chang's own family story is worthy of its own book.

SUPPLEMENTAL READING

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OUT OF MAO'S SHADOW The Struggle for the Soul of a New China | PHILIP P. PAN: **** Sept/Oct 2008. Pan, the Washington Post's bureau chief in Beijing between 2001 and 2007, offers an eye-opening look at the battle for China's soul--and the everyday people trying to wrest control of its future and secure true freedom.

RATINGS

***** CLASSIC

A timeless book to be read by all

**** EXCELLENT

One of the best of its genre

*** GOOD

Enjoyable, particularly for fans of the genre

** FAIR

Some problems, approach with caution

* POOR
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Date:Jan 1, 2009
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