Google Search

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writers are stars of the story in four new bios

Four major novelists —Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens— are the stars of the story in new biographies. USA TODAY takes a look.

And So It Goes:

Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

By Charles Shields

Henry Holt, 513 pp., $30

* * * out of four

Having tackled the reclusive Harper Lee in Mockingbird, his first major biography, Charles Shields now takes on Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007 at age 84. The result is an engaging, surprising and empathetic page-turner that will make you want to reread Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Like Joseph Heller and J.D Salinger, Vonnegut was shaped as a man and as a writer by serving in World War II. Shields explores that experience but also probes Vonnegut's Midwestern roots. The descendant of once-wealthy German-Americans who built Indianapolis, Vonnegut grew up overshadowed by brilliant older brother Bernard, a top scientist. The upside was Vonnegut's exposure to science and machines, which inspired his fascination with how technology affects humans. Though he became the counterculture's Mark Twain, fame, money and his difficult second marriage — to Manhattan photographer Jill Krementz— left Vonnegut lonely and often alienated from friends and family. — Deirdre Donahue

Virginia Woolf

By Alexandra Harris

Thames & Hudson, 170 pp., $24.95

* * *½ out of four

In her introduction to Virginia Woolf, young English scholar Alexandra Harris presents her lively little volume as a "first port of call for those new to" the formidable British novelist (To the Lighthouse). And she hopes to set off "fresh ideas" in those already passionate about Woolf. She accomplishes both in this wonderfully nimble book, which is easily accessible to newcomers and surprisingly enriching for the acolyte. Deftly weaving biography with astute readings of Woolf's fiction, Harris paints a perceptive portrait of the writer (who famously drowned herself in 1941 at age 59) as a romantic who embraced life. Exhibit A: Harris' convincing case for Woolf's underappreciated wit and humor as a novelist. Afraid of Virginia Woolf? You won't be after reading Harris's warm, charming study. — Jocelyn McClurg

Tolstoy: A Russian Life

By Rosamund Bartlett

Houghton Mifflin, 454 pp., $35

* * *½ out of four

Rosamund Bartlett, a British expert on Russia and Chekhov, distinguishes her biography of the great author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina with material unfrozen after the U.S.S.R.'s dissolution. Titanic Tolstoy (1828-1910) becomes, in her telling, human. The reckless aristocrat, gambler, hunter, womanizer and soldier grew to be a vegetarian and advocate for the poor and illiterate. He gave away money, property, even the copyright to his oeuvre, and adopted a Christian philosophy of non-violence that inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Then he fled the Orthodox faith, which — in his final decade — excommunicated him. Bartlett dwells on his extravagant fathering of 13 children and details how he neglected them. This literary lion loved his land, she tells us, but loathed its government. Bartlett portrays Tolstoy, above all, as the epitome of Russia. — Jerelle Kraus

Charles Dickens: A Life

By Claire Tomalin

Penguin Press, 527 pp., $36

* * * out of four

The life and works of Charles Dickens (1812-70) continues to fascinate other writers. Claire Tomalin, a British biographer of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Dickens' mistress, actress Nelly Ternan, does better on Dickens' complex life, filled with contradictions, than on his literary imagination, which created epic novels including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, delivered in monthly installments. As a reporter, then novelist, Dickens, who went to work at 12, "saw the world more vividly than other people, and reacted to what he saw with laughter, horror, indignation — and sometimes sobs," Tomalin writes. Parts of her biography should provoke those same reactions in readers. — Bob Minzesheimer

View the original article here