Washington, Mantle and Richards: Three Great Biographies
I’ve been an avid fiction reader all my life and it takes a lot for me to choose nonfiction, even the “so-called” nonfiction that reads like fiction. It’s not that I don’t want to learn—I could get into a whole debate with anyone who thinks nonfiction is “truer” than fiction. Oliver Wendell Holmes says it better than I. “History tells lies about real people; fiction tells the truth about imaginary ones.”
Of course, this debate is unwinnable. We have our reading preferences and we don’t have to defend them to anyone. I majored in History in college so I will gravitate occasionally to a biography and this year I read (or listened to) three biographies that I enjoyed tremendously. Here are a few things I learned about each subject.
"Washington: A Life'' by Ron Chernow
Chernow’s goal is to make Washington less austere and more human. I learned that Washington’s mother was not at all supportive or proud of her son’s accomplishments and their relationship was “frosty.” Washington was self-conscious about his teeth. He never had wooden teeth but over time his fitted and stained ivory or walrus teeth resembled wood grain. By the age of 30, Washington had survived dysentery, smallpox and malaria, diseases that would have killed a less robust man. He lived to the age of 67. Check our catalog
"The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood'' by Jane Leavy
I learned that Mickey Mantle was a tortured and flawed man who was catapulted to early stardom playing a boy’s game. His dad died during his first pro years which left him without a guiding influence as he was exposed to the ultimate celebrity life. I learned that he suffered crippling injuries, that he could be crude yet sweet, unlikeable yet generous. He’s still a hero to many. Check our catalog
"Life'' by Keith Richards with James Fox
I learned that Keith Richards’ life is way more complex than that of a privileged, addicted guitarist in the greatest rock band. His stories are smart, nasty and honest. His relationship with Mick Jagger is more like that of brothers than friends. Keith’s story is a love story about music: "Music was a far bigger drug than smack. I could kick smack; I couldn't quit music. One note leads to another, and you never know what's going to come next, and you don't want to. It's like walking on a beautiful tightrope." Check our catalog
Biographies in audiobook format are entertaining and my preference when I’m commuting to and from work. I learned, too but even better my curiosity is peaked about some of their contemporaries. What will I read next? I’ve already read Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. I’m looking for a good biography of Thomas Jefferson. A biography about Roger Maris would give another side of a baseball celebrity whose life was much less controversial. Too many music stars to choose—maybe George Harrison.
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“Night Circus’’ by Erin Morgenstern
“Le Cirque des Reves’’, or “The Night Circus’’, is not an ordinary “Barnum & Bailey’’ sort of show. The tents suddenly pop up with no warning. The gates open at dusk and close at dawn. The performers create illusions and exhibitions that are beyond reason. Every part of the production, from the tents to the costumes, is done in black and white.
Against this enchanting backdrop, two young magicians, Celia and Marco, are destined to face each other someday in a magical competition. The challenge arises from a cruel wager between Celia’s father, “Prospero the Enchanter’’, and his nemesis, a man who always dresses in a gray suit. They decide to create a magical circus that will one day provide the venue for the duel.
Prospero inflicts great pain on his daughter to prepare her for the eventual match. Marco is picked from an orphanage by the gray man, who coldly trains his pupil in a townhouse in London. Marco and Celia eventually learn they will have to face each other in the duel. They also discover that only one of them will survive. When they realize they are in love, the star-crossed lovers incite the wrath of their trainers.
The novel unfolds over a period of 30 years, starting in 1873. The story is rounded out by delightful characters, including red-headed twins named Poppet and Widget. Beautifully and imaginatively written, Morgenstern's debut novel creates an enchanting but sometimes dark world like no other. Check our catalog
The Doctor Is In ... the Fiction Room!
I’ve just finished reading the lush, lyrical Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, MD, which seamlessly weaves together the experience of being a physician with a compelling family story. Besides laying out fascinating details of illness and surgical procedures (at times more than I could stomach), the book got me to wondering how many other authors are trained as physicians, and why they choose to depart from their professional training to write books.
As it turns out, there is a long literary tradition of doctors writing fiction. A few of the classics are Anton Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mikhail Bulgakov, John Keats, and W. Somerset Maugham. (Who knew?) There is also a long and growing list of modern examples. Tess Gerritsen, author of the Rizzoli & Isles suspense series (now also a hit show on TNT), was a successful internist before she became a novelist. Along with fellow doctor-turned-author Michael Palmer, Gerritsen has led workshops for doctors who want to become writers. She states in her blog that often doctors have a hard time accepting that writing is hard work, and it doesn’t always come naturally “for people who’ve been educated in the hard facts of science. They wanted formulas. They expected algorithms. They don’t like this “you’ll know it when you feel it” stuff.”
So why do doctors become authors? Some, like Gerritsen, wanted to write before they became authors. “I was a writer long before I became a doctor,” she says. Others, like Ethan Canin, author of America America, believe that there is a strong connection between the two professions; one inspires the other. Doctors are exposed to extraordinary, life-changing events in their medical work, which becomes great fodder for good stories. They see the human experience in ways that are not often revealed to the rest of us, and books are a great way for them to share what they know.
Whatever their motivation, doctor-authors present us with challenging, emotionally charged tales, whether or not they actually involve medicine. Like many of our library patrons, I was moved and challenged by Cutting for Stone, and I’m eager to read more of what these writers have to offer. Here are some contemporary doctor-authors and books I’d like to try. If you read any of these, let me know what you think!
Chris Adrian, The Children’s Hospital
Ethan Canin, America America
Michael Crichton, Pirate Latitudes
Tess Gerritsen, Harvest
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Vincent Lam, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures
Daniel Mason, The Piano Tuner
Michael Palmer, The Sisterhood
“Emily, Alone’’ is an honest, moving portrayal about what it’s like for a woman to grow old and feel forgotten. Author Stuart O’Nan first introduced readers to Emily Maxwell in his 2002 book, “Wish You Were Here,’’ which takes a microscopic view of three generations during their annual vacation at the family lake house. In this first book, Emily, who was recently widowed, deals with her grief as well as disappointment in her two grown children.
Seven years later, O’Nan revisits Emily, now in her 70s, in “Emily, Alone’’. She still lives in her Pittsburgh home where she and her husband raised their family. She rues the changes in her neighborhood, now that she is the only one left of the old gang. She longs for more visits from her family, but regretfully knows her opinionated personality over the years has built a wall that keeps her son and daughter at a distance, except for rare obligatory holiday gatherings. She grows weary of having to go to funerals of old friends.
Despite her loneliness, Emily surprises herself with new-found strength to face life head on. She takes care of her ailing, chain-smoking sister-in-law, Arlene, who used to chauffeur Emily around. She buys her first car on her own while getting over her trepidation of driving. She braves the snow to walk her beloved, elderly dog, Rufus. O’Nan has an uncanny talent of writing about the minute details of a single day from the character’s perspective. Readers will want to cheer Emily on, wanting her to keep making the most of her twilight years. Check our catalog
TV Series at your Library: Party Down
Originally aired on Starz March 2009-June 2010
Recommended for fans of Parks & Recreation, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Judd Apatow films
Along with cult favorites Freaks & Geeks and Arrested Development- Party Down certainly earns its spot in the “Beloved Shows Cancelled Way Too Soon” club. Although, the show’s short run might not be such a bad thing now that the episodes exist on DVD at the library and, for the time being, are available on Netflix Instant. Party Down’s half-hour episodes only lasted two seasons which make it easy to digest without requiring a lot of time to commit to yet another show.
The show follows six aspiring Hollywood actors and writers working for the small-time catering company “Party Down.” Each episode is a different Los Angeles party or event that the catering team has been hired to work. The events range from Sweet 16 birthday parties and private school fundraisers to Russian mafia celebrations and senior citizen mixers. The guests and hosts of these parties usually lead exotic, affluent lives that add a new dimension of comedy to every episode.
While the parties are absurd enough to keep the show interesting, its really the “Party Down” team that hooks viewers. Each character has their own dreams and aspirations. There’s the screenwriter, the comedian, the pretty boy, the actress past her prime, and the team manager trying to inspire the team to care more about their catering job. They sound like caricatures, but the show is written so well and each cast member plays their part with such brutal honesty, earnestness, and nuance that its impossible not to like each one of them, even as their situations become more pathetic. This is especially true of Adam Scott who plays the main character Henry Pollard; an actor best known for doing beer commercials who decides to leave acting behind. He comes back to “Party Down” so he can earn an income while trying to figure out what to do next. Henry is lost and confused, but I realized that the show provides comfort by highlighting that nobody really has it all together, and this is just as true with the rich “successful” types that host the LA parties as it is with the down and out catering members.
Party Down’s comedic style is dark and situational. Fans of British and documentary style comedies will likely enjoy Party Down’s grim nature. The style feels very real and you get the impression that the show’s producers and directors (which include Paul Rudd and The Wonder Years’ Fred Savage) really understand the culture surrounding these struggling Hollywood wannabes. You wish the best for the team members, but the show is too honest about the cutthroat, bottom line, and dispensable nature of Hollywood to resolve any of these characters easily. Luckily, there’s plenty to laugh at and the show only gets funnier as you continue watching it. So check out the DVDs at the library, sit back, and enjoy the party.
What to watch next? Try HBO’s Extras starring Ricky Gervais.