Tag Archives: biography

Review: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Recap: LBJ was the 36th President of the United States. I like to say that separately from the fact that he was inaugurated after the assassination of John F. Kennedy because those two facts are often lumped together and LBJ deserves a little more recognition than that. Because he didn’t just step in. He changed America. He took our country through the turmoil and trauma of the 1960s. He signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He put into place legislation that still impact us through the present. He also entered the U.S. into the Vietnam War.

And yet, he was much more than all of this. LBJ was a tall, broad man who loved his wife Lady Bird more than anything. He was awkward at public events, but fantastic negotiating in small groups. He grew up with a deep-seeded fear of paralysis and death only to succumb to a heart attack alone – his worst fear realized. Biographer and author Doris Kearns Goodwin takes us through his entire life, from his parents and the generations before he was born to the last day of his life. She shines a light on everything he did, everything he succeeded in and failed at, and the lasting impact he’s had. She paints LBJ not only as a President, but as a person.

Analysis: Here’s the thing. I have to admit I didn’t know much about LBJ before reading this book. The extent of my knowledge was that he took over after JFK was shot. But after a trip to Austin, Texas last year and a stop at the LBJ Presidential Library, I was fascinated by everything he had done for the Civil Rights movement. Why didn’t that ring a bell? I’d never read a presidential biography before, and LBJ had piqued my interest just enough to encourage me to buy this one.

It took a long time for me to get through it – months! It’s not because it wasn’t a good book. He is a fascinating man with both good qualities and bad. And author Doris Kearns Goodwin was not only close enough with him to know him well, she’s also an excellent writer. Plus, I’m giving myself a little extra grace with how little I read this year – there was a global pandemic after all, and with everything going on in the world, I found that most days, the last thing I wanted to do was read.

The book is simply dense. There is a lot – and I mean a LOT of information – detailing each of his policies, the men he worked with, his childhood, his struggles during Vietnam, his struggles with the Kennedys. Everything you could want to know about the man is in this book. The same thing that makes it dense is the same thing that makes it delicious and fast-moving once you get into it.

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Review: Notorious R.B.G.

RBGRecap: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is only the second woman to ever rule on the U.S. Supreme Court, and she made it to the top with good reason. As a hardworking Jewish girl from New York, she grew up in a time when women weren’t expected to have careers, but she decided she wanted more out of life than a husband.

Notorious R.B.G. started as a Tumblr page  whose creators then turned it into a book. The near coffee table-sized book details RBG’s rise to the Supreme Court — including her years in college and law school — as well as the feminist qualities that allowed her to build a career and a family simultaneously when women didn’t typically do that. The book includes photos, doodles and annotated Supreme Court decisions, more or less mixing biography with history book. It’s an interesting read for anyone who may want to learn more about law, the Supreme Court or just feminist badassery. For all those reasons, Notorious RBG totally worked for me.

Analysis: Okay, so maybe this book was given to me as a gift with me not having very much care for the Notorious RBG. And maybe this book was given to me even though I was clueless about the fact that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had famously became an internet sensation several years ago. But I was still intrigued, if for no other reason than RBG and I share two letters in our monogram (I was LBG before I got married) and she was a small, Jewish woman — like me. So I read it and was naively astounded to learn how truly prolific this feminist woman is. What she has done for our country’s judicial system, people fighting for their rights and women around the country and world is incredible. She is a true force to be reckoned with.

The writing style itself was nothing special. Some of the sections — though cleverly sectioned and titled based on Notorious B.I.G. lyrics — skipped around with the timeline of her life, and at points I found that confusing. A more linear timeline may have worked a bit better. Some of the explanations of the court cases also could have been simplified — though to be fair, details of court cases sometimes make my head spin, so maybe that’s just a personal issue? But mostly, it was funny, inspiring, easy to follow and transforming.

As women, we could all use someone like RBG to look up to. Now with my understanding and knowledge of her life and work, I can’t wait to read and follow the rest of her court decisions, dissents, and career.

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Review: Ann M. Martin: The Story of the Author of the Baby-Sitters Club

IMG_3463Recap: Ann M. Martin is the brilliant creator and writer of The Baby-Sitters Club series that I binged ferociously throughout elementary school. I wanted friends like the girls in the club, and I wanted a side job like they had so I could make money to shop at Claire’s. Ann M. Martin was J.K. Rowling before J.K. Rowling. She was a badass woman who created an entire world of people and problems to which every kid could relate. Finally learning a little more about her as a person was exciting and interesting.

The book is a true biography of her life and climb to the top as a children’s author. It includes details of her family, her childhood, the fall that caused her to deal with lifelong pain and illness and how she started writing professionally. When you read her biography, it becomes clear why she wrote about what she wrote about. She always loved children, writing and babysitting. For most of her young life, she thought she would be a teacher, but things ultimately changed direction as they so often do.

It was also interesting, maybe not so surprising, and a little disappointing to learn that once the series became so popular, she wasn’t necessarily the author writing all The Baby-Sitters Club books.

Analysis: A little backstory on this: I received this book in the mail as a response to a fan letter I wrote to Ann M. Martin probably when I was about eight years old. Clearly, author meant for me to read it then, but I didn’t and it fell into the abyss of my childhood bedroom. I rediscovered the book several years ago when my family moved out of that house, so I finally decided to read it.

It was extremely thoroughly and painted a beautiful, wholesome picture of the woman who will always remain wholesome in my pain.

That said, I wish I’d read it when I was eight. Though her story was interesting, it was clearly written for kids. The writing is extremely basic, especially when compared to some of the other adult memoirs and biographies out there. (I mean hell, I read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton a few years ago.) But it is the perfect biography for children who probably love Ann M. Martin as much as they love her books.

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Review: The End of the Age of Innocence

9780312176778-us-300It wasn’t easy being a woman at the turn of the century, being a woman who couldn’t vote, being a woman through World War I, being a woman through the Great Depression. But that’s what Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edith Wharton did. Not only did she survive, she thrived, writing fascinating literature and doing great journalism. She also made charitable work her main focus through the Great War.

I wouldn’t have known any of this had I not picked up the book The End of the Age of InnocenceEnd of Age is a non-fiction book that details the life of author Edith Wharton — who wrote The Age of Innocence —  during the years of World War I, a particularly exhausting time in her life. As an avid fan of The Age of Innocence, I felt it was only fair that I give the author of my favorite book the attention I felt she deserved, and that’s exactly what happened when I read this book.

Included in it is every detail about her personal and professional life during those years — who she flirted with, who she traveled with, how she wrote about the war for newspapers, and how she fought to keep as many charities running as possible to help those in need during the war. The book also explains how the war years influenced her writing during and afterwards.

The book starts off simply enough, explaining what it’s about to lay out. But the execution does not live up to the introduction. The book is so detailed, it’s almost too detailed. It seemed to name virtually every single person Wharton came into contact with over the years, and the intricate web of people, their roles and accompanying organizations was impossible to maneuver. While the book promised to explain how Wharton’s experienced influenced her writing, it did so in just a few pages at the very end. That was the section that most intrigued me. I looked forward to reading some literary criticism that would dissect the ways in which WWI crept into The Age of Innocence and House of Mirth. Again, the book does that, but without very much detail. The beginning of the book was so dense and boring, I’m not sure it was worth it for the short section at the end to which I had most looked forward. The book is, of course, highly regarded for its in-depth look into Wharton’s life, but it was a little much for my taste.

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Show vs. Book: Hamilton

Before having seen the critically-acclaimed musical Hamilton, I knew as much about Alexander Hamilton as I imagine many other Americans know — he’s the guy on the $10 bill, right? Was he a president? I think so? Well, Alexander Hamilton wasn’t a president. Spoiler alert: he was a founding father who was shot and killed at the age of 49 by then-Vice President Aaron Burr. But he is a legacy, who I finally started to care about thanks to lyrical genius and creator of the new hit musical Lin Manuel Miranda.

The show is based on the Ron Chernow biography entitled Alexander Hamilton, a 700+ page behemoth. Yes, it’s a monster of a book, but a fascinating one nonetheless. It takes the reader quickly through his young life as an illegitimate child born on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. His intelligence and ability to write and speak eloquently was enough to get his fellow islanders to pay for him to go to school in the United States. His rise to the top from a bleak childhood is a classic rags to riches story — one that Lin Manuel Miranda equated with that of a hip hop star. Hence; the hip hop musical version of Hamilton’s life, which includes lines like “I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot.”

Hamilton, the show, lasts three hours, which is fairly long by today’s standards. It’s amazing and astonishing to learn about Hamilton’s life: his rise to the top, his love for his wife (and sister-in-law), his sex scandal, his kinship with George Washington and the relationship with his frenemy Aaron Burr. Reading the book, however, filled in several blanks. For instance, the show highlights Hamilton’s oldest son, but doesn’t make clear that he had a total of eight children, plus additional orphans he and his wife, Eliza, took in. Nor does it include that one of Hamilton’s daughters had a mental breakdown after her brother (Hamilton’s son) died. There’s also a large chunk of the book that focuses on the time during which John Adams served as president, but the ongoing feud between Hamilton and Adams is left out of the show, with the exception of a single lyric. Upon further research, I learned a rap about Adams was written but had been cut — probably for time.

Instead the musical focuses less on Hamilton’s family and political feud with Adams and emphasizes his relationship with Burr. Of course, this makes sense. After all, it’s a Broadway musical, and the show needs to lead up to the big deadly duel finale. But in reality, Burr wasn’t as big a figure in Hamilton’s life as some of the other men of that time. Sure, Hamilton and Burr ran in the same circles. Sure, toward the end of Hamilton’s life, the two hated each other — hey, they didn’t duel for nothing — but, based on the book, their lives didn’t entirely revolve around each other like the show makes it seem.

The show is amazing. Alexander Hamilton is an amazing figure. After seeing the show, you’ll feel hungry to learn more about Hamilton, and for that reason, I highly recommend you not throw away your shot and make it a point to see the show and also read more about the guy who happens to have his face on those $10 bills of yours.

Get Alexander Hamilton in paperback for $14.96.

Or on your Kindle for $15.99.

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No R-E-S-P-E-C-T for Aretha Franklin In New Biography

Some people just can’t get any respect.

According to Entertainment Weekly, soul singer Aretha Franklin is claiming to be one of those people, after she says a new unauthorized biography about her is “trashy” and “full of lies.”

David Ritz wrote the new biography, entitled Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. In it, he writes that Franklin dealt with teenage pregnancies, family dysfunction, and alleged alcoholism. He also claims that she’s jealous of singers like Diana Ross and Whitney Houston.

Franklin then released this statement:

“As many of you are aware, there is a very trashy book out there full of lies and more lies about me. Clearly the writer has no class, no conscience or standards! His actions are obviously vindictive because I edited out some crazy statements he had the gall to try and put in my book written 15 years ago. Evidently, he has been carrying this hatred ever since.”

Interestingly, this is not the first biography Ritz has written about Aretha Franklin. He penned her authorized biography, Aretha: From These Roots back in 1999. He also wrote the album notes on her 1992 box set release of Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings.

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Bill Cosby Biography Will Not Be Revised

The bad news keeps coming for Bill Cosby, who today resigned from his position on the Temple University Board of Trustees. While his status and job offers continue to change, one thing is staying the same: the details of his recently-published biography.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Cosby: His Life and Times will not be revised to include the latest news and allegations of sexual assault. The book’s author, Mark Whitaker, published the biography in September. Whitaker has said he may revise future editions of the biography since “the story has changed,” but he’s also defended Cosby.

It’ll be interesting to see if/how this plays out in future editions of the book.

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Prince Charles Biography On the Way

We’re about to learn a lot about the British royal still waiting to take the throne. According to Entertainment Weekly, a new biography about Prince Charles is set to debut next year.

Written by Time magazine editor-at-large Catherine Mayer, Born to Be King: Prince Charles on Planet Windsor will include information gathered from friends of Charles, palace insiders, and the prince himself. Henry Holt and Company has purchased the book, which will be “slightly pared down from the U.K./international edition from WH Allen.”

The book will include information about the prince from his first marriage to Princess Diana until present day. The book is expected to be published in February 2015.

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Beyonce Biography Coming in 2015

In case you haven’t had enough of Beyonce, there’s more to come. The “first unauthorized biography” on the music powerhouse is due to be released next year.

 According to Vulture, Grand Central Publishing will release the Beyonce bio, written by J. Randy Taraborrelli. Taraborrelli has written biographies on Madonna, Michael Jackson, and the Hiltons. But keep in mind — this is an unauthorized biography, meaning there will be no sit-down with or access to Beyonce. All the information and interviews will be with secondary sources. So the real big Bey bio is still yet to come.

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Review: 27

Recap: When pop music sensation Amy Winehouse died of an overdose a little more than three years ago, the world was stunned — and then it wasn’t. Yes, the British singer was a 27-year-old, whose music was just starting to gain popularity in the United States. But ultimately, it was clear that Winehouse had been down a destructive, drug-consuming and alcohol-consuming path for years. Her singing voice had gotten worse. Her body had become visibly weak. She was in the media often for doing crazy and bizarre things, and her substance abuse problem was no secret.

But it resulted in an outcome that could either be considered morbid or legendary: she entered “The 27 Club.” That is to say, she “joined the club” of other famous rock stars and musicians who have also died at 27. The other big names in the club include Brian Jones, of The Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison of The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain. 27 explores the “club,” putting into perspective whether famous musicians are more likely to die at that age for some reason, and if so, why, or if it’s just coincidence.

The author’s point of view? Mostly coincidence. But he researched the backgrounds of each of these six most notable members of the “club,” examining their relationships with their parents, with drugs and alcohol, with sexuality, and with fame and success at a young age. He more or less explains that anyone who achieves such success so early in life may be more inclined to die young — especially when issues with confidence, substance abuse and family are at play.

Analysis: The research done for this nonfiction book is extensive, as one would expect from acclaimed biographer Howard Sounes, and that research proves how many things these celebrities had in common — aside from their innate musical talent.

As Sounes points out the similarities between these musicians, it’s less surprising their lives would lead to same ultimate outcome. Many of them had terrible relationships with their parents. All dabbled in drugs and alcohol at a young age, and were equally as experimental sexually. Most of that stemmed from self-esteem and confidence issues — not thinking they were good enough, scared to be alone, stage fright. Some even suffered from mental health problems, like Brian Jones, who was said to be bipolar. Most of them had already peaked professionally and had been kicked out of their bands, given horrible performances, and been arrested several times.

The book explores their deaths as much as it explores their lives. Brian Jones drowned in a pool after a night of drinking and drugs. Jim Morrison, after taking heroin and laying in a bathtub. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, overdoses. Amy Winehouse, alcohol. Kurt Cobain, the only suicide. But there are dozens of theories about how each of these people died  — murder, being the primary suggestion.

The author suggests it’s no surprise they died so young because by 27, most of them had lived full lives, accomplishing and going through more than what most people achieve in a lifetime. Whether you’re a big music fan or not, 27 is more than worth a read, with its six true tales of life, success and death.

Get 27 in hardcover for $18.74.

Or get it on your Kindle for $12.99.

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