Genre: Popular Biographies

Meeting: Tuesday, May 27, 2013 at the Tewksbury Public Library

Handouts: “Biography.” Cords, Sarah Statz. The Real Story: A Guide to Nonfiction Reading Interests, LU, 2006. p.197-200.

Popular Biography assignment for May 27, 2014:

Benchmark: Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra

Read 2nd title in the Popular Biography genre (Suggestions found on below.) No autobiographies or memoirs for this meeting.

Please post your RA review of your 2nd Nonfiction Biography choices under Submit 2nd Title Info on the above menu.

Appeal to be read for May meeting: Focus on all the appeal factors, but really think about detail, pacing, and tone.

NOTES submitted by Tatjana Saccio
Popular Biography Tuesday May 27, 2014 at Tewksbury Public Library

Stephanie, Anna, Jessica F., Becky, Michelle, Jim, Cindy, Tatjana, Laura, Jessica A., Eileen, Jan and, of course, Leane in attendance.

The Unconference held in Darian, CT recently was well received by those who attended (Laura, Anna, Leane, Stephanie, and Jan). It was exciting to have a conference all on readers’ advisory and it was pretty well organized, streamlined, and collaboration was key.

Leane encourages us all to contribute to the blog over the summer. Email Michelle ( with any graphic novel annotations, summer reads, and RA news. Summary of historical fiction arc has now been added to the blog.

BENCHMARK: Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff
– Central to the book was the difficulty of separating fact from fiction. Schiff had to bead the story together from various biased sources most of which were written after the fact.
– Sometimes Schiff did not carry through with examples of declarations that would have been interesting to explore.
– There’s an assumption that the reader will already know about Cleo’s relationships with Caesar and Mark Antony.
– This was not written for an academic audience; has narrative flow, accessible (colloquial) style, entertaining
– Political expediency is a theme throughout Cleo and compatriots’ lives.
– Great sense of scale: as much time existed between the pyramids being built and Caesar’s time than between Caesar and modern times.
– Setting, frame was done well. The city of Alexandria is almost another character in this book with its rich cultural and literary heritage, technological innovations, vast monetary and agricultural wealth, and politically vocal populace. There is a great contrast between wealthy and sophisticated Alexandria and pre-golden day Rome.
– Tone is of regret. Cleo is not seen as powerful outside of Egypt; male winners write the history.
– Pace is fast; almost like a collection of short stories; too many tangents, though?
– Questions to ask potential readers: How do you feel about footnotes? Factual accounts and accuracy?
– Recommended to readers who like Roman historical fiction/mysteries; important political figures in history; popular, celebrity figures in history. Would also recommend to young adults. Read-a-likes might be Alison Weir, but denser; “Last Hurrah” by Edwin O’Connor about Boston Mayor James M. Curley for its political machinations.


Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley (Stephanie)
-Denser because of tangled alliances; gaps in source materials due to burnt letters; interesting narrative and relationship with Queen Victoria; enjoyable and easy to read; good overview of all of Europe and their rulers; linear in anecdotes.

Washington, a Life by Ron Chernow (Anna) in audio format
-Long slog through the Revolutionary War, just hanging in there; more adept as a politician than a general; strips the myth, but still elevates the man; owning slaves was/is controversial issue. For readers interested in the Revolutionary War, founding fathers, and political history—not military history! Forgotten Patriots by Edwin Burrows would be a good counterpart for military history.

Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw (Jessica-Chelmsford)
-Wealth of information; dense because of length and wealth accounts; tender portrait: concerned with benevolence, education; nice anecdotes. For readers interested in the birth of big business, Mr. Selfridge PBS TV series, maybe even Steve Jobs.

John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (Becky) in audio format
-Seems that major parts (pre-Beatles band, meeting Paul) were left out of audio version? Clear-eyed, objective, good representation; had to rely on background information, though. Good for pop culture fans. [Leane: Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us as even better read-a-like.

Tesla: Inventor of the Electric Age by W. Bernard Carlson (Michelle)
-Fascinating account of a very accomplished man who made huge scientific contributions to our modern life. Scrupulously sourced, objective and written with heart. Hard-core science (too many step by step details of inventions may be a stumbling point, though pace is quicker elsewhere.) Tesla’s own writing is imaginative, can really see the charisma and showman in him. Giants of industry of the times are included. For steampunk fans and those into hard-core sci-fi. Atomic Robo and RASL are graphic novels that a Tesla fan might like as well.

Catherine De Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda (Jim)
-Dense because of complicated time period (7 French wars of religion!); being extremely unpopular at the time due to being a woman, Italian and a lover of the Occult led to many myths about her which the author sometimes went with. Lots of political intrigue. The author is good at explaining the situation. An Alison Weir read-a-like.

Shakespeare: the World as Stage by Bill Bryson (Cindy)
-Fast, short, light read; not so much is really known about Shakespeare, but there is little filler in this book. You leave with more questions than you came with! A deconstruction of the man. Concentrates on him being a wordsmith and on his plays and poems. Good for anyone wanting an accessible introduction to the man. Not a lot of Bill Bryson quips, so not for Bryson fans who want more of Bryson’s memoirs and escapades.

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell (Tatjana)
-Fascinating woman who did well in everything she endeavored to do—a real Renaissance woman; often referred to as the female version of Lawrence of Arabia, but it fails to give her full due. Well researched and documented with G’s many diary entries and letters, can actually slow the narrative down a bit. More or less linear (not quite a straight line-by subject as well as chronology), but can almost be divided by pre- and post- Arabia. An accessible, sympathetic portrait of an overlooked mover and shaker of the times who believed in the impossible: Arab self-determination. Sheds light on contemporary unrest in the Middle East. For readers interested in strong, influential and daring women; interest in the Middle East (history, culture); empire-makers; or just well-rounded fascinating figures. An interesting comparison to Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, a walking trek across Afghanistan in 2002, a hundred years after Gertrude’s but with remarkably similar experiences.

Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin (Laura)
-Well researched with many interviews; affectionate but not completely worshipful. Association with the Kennedys and other celebrities of the golden age of Hollywood make for entertaining reading. Reads like an oral history, complete with backstage gossip. Pacing is leisurely with a lot of quotations. For anyone who has enjoyed the Eloise books or who is interested in the golden age of Hollywood. May also like Robert Wagner’s You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age.

I’m Your Man: the Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons (Eileen)
-Interviews with friends and access to Cohen’s personal papers; a real “musician’s musician” who has been influential as a poet and singer/songwriter; a sympathetic portrait of the man. For his cult following, those interested in the history of music during those times, and pop culture.

Jim Henson: the Biography by Brian Jay Jones (Jan)
-Very human story about the man behind the Muppets and Sesame Street TV series; developed innovative puppetry techniques; interesting technical aspects behind the show. Linear story frame. For those interested in pop culture, contemporary bios, and the impact of Muppets on our society.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie (Leane)
-Fascinating and well researched; goes off in tangents, esp. serfdom; great history of Europe as well as Russia.

SUGGESTED Popular Biography

Andersen, Christopher P. Mick: The Wild Life and Genius of Jagger.

Berg, A. Scott. Wilson. Woodrow Wilson

Caro, Robert A. The Path to Power, V.1. Lyndon B. Johnson.

Chernow, Ron. Washington. George Wasington.

Ellis, Joseph. American Sphinx. Thomas Jefferson

Erickson, Carolly. Alexandra: The Last Tsarina.

Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette.

Goldsmith, Barbara. Obsessive Genius. Marie Curie

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time. Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt

Greenblatt, Stephen J. Will in the World. Shakespeare.

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs.

Jones, Brian Jay. Jim Henson.

Kelley, Kitty. Oprah.

Klein, Edward. Ted Kennedy: The Dream that Never Died.

Lepore, Jill. Book of Ages. Jane Franklin.

Marshall, Megan. Margaret Fuller.

Massie, Robert. Catherine the Great.

McCullough, David. John Adams.

Mitford, Nancy. Savage Beauty. Edna St. Vincent Millay

Morton, Andrew. Diana: Her True Story.

Nasaw, David. Carnegie.

Ridley, Jane. The Heir Apparent. Edward VII

Simmons, Sylvie. The Life of Leonard Cohen.

Smith, Sally Bedell. Elizabeth the Queen.

Spoto, Donald. High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly.

Theoharis, Jeanne. Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks.

Weir, Alison. Mary, Queen of Scots.


Laura Bernheim

Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise – Irvin, Sam
Appeal Factors: Pacing: leisurely Characterizations: quirky strong independent woman (was only married twice and briefly) who was also a bit man mad in her early years. Interviews with several Hollywood notables, such as Robert Wagner, Lena Horne, as well as countless others round out the book. Story Line: character driven — Irvin paints a well detailed portrait of Miss Thompson as well as a portrait of Thompson’s alter ego, Eloise. Setting: Theater and movie world from the 1930’s – 1940’s, during the strong studio system in Hollywood. The world is practically a character in the story. The publishing world and continued rise of children’s literature from the 1950’s Detail: lots of backstage gossip (Vivian Vance from I Love Lucy slept her way to get ahead in a musical, Van Johnson and Keenan Wynn were having an affair), extremely well researched, resembles a written oral history Tone: affectionate but not deferential Language: flowing

Well researched biography of Kay Thompson, most known today as the author of the Eloise books, but whose main profession was as a singer and music arranger for many famous stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Eccentric and self centered, Thompson could also be extremely generous and open minded, and had a fantastic sense of humor (as long as she wasn’t the butt of the joke). Irvin uses a lot of original and previously published interviews to tell the story of this quirky woman who went from being the center of the Universe to becoming a bit of a recluse.


  • Lion of Hollywood by Scott Eyman (biography of Louis B. Mayer, studio boss at MGM in its heyday. Covers a lot of the backstage gossip)
  • Get Happy by Gerald Clarke (biography of Judy Garland, a dear friend of Kay Thompson. Thompson is referenced as well as several of the other “characters” in this book)
  • Big Bam by Leigh Montville (biography of Babe Ruth, A bit of a stretch, though the writing style is similar. It also strives to put together a portrait of a larger than life and famous person about whom there is a lot of apocryphal information)
  • Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis (a novel about a larger than life female character. To that end, Uncle Mame by Eric Myers, the biography of the equally eccentric Patrick Dennis is also a good readalike)
  • Dear Genius edited by Leonard Marcus (the letters of longtime children’s book editor, Ursual Nordstrom, who briefly worked with Kay Thompson) and Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon by Leonard Marcus (biography of the author of Goodnight Moon detailing her role in the rise of children’s literature) are good for those who are reading this for the children’s literature angle.

Anna Call

Washington: A Life – Ron Chernow
Appeal Factors: Historical relevance, well-known character

Chernow examines the life of George Washington through his phases as a farmer, a soldier, and a politician. In doing so, he walks the reader through early American history and presents a cast of colorful characters, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, about whom Chernow has written another book. I think the author skews heavily in Washington’s favor. While he addresses a number of problematic aspects of Washington’s social life, including his heavy reliance on slaves, he also likes to paint even drawbacks in a positive light, for example, discussing how well Washington treated said slaves. Many critical issues with Washington’s military and political strategy are clear, but aren’t really addressed as issues. The emphasis is on how awesome is Washington as a morally decent and humble man.

It’s a good read for someone who likes the Revolution and Washinton. I’d definitely pair it with a more general Revolution text, like “1776.”

Michelle Deschene

Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age – W. Bernard Carlson
Appeal Factors: Character; Detail; Tone

Born in 1856 in Croatia, Tesla followed his mother’s lead, tinkering with things and dreaming of devices he was certain he would one day make a reality. He studied physics and mathematics at Joanneum Polytechnic School in Graz, where he began to experiment with electricity and alternating current. After graduating, Tesla moved to Paris to work for Edison, following the job to New York, where he finally broke away to dedicate his time to his own inventions. Over his lifetime Tesla filed at least 278 patents, but the seemingly endless list of his accomplishments is perhaps best summed up by the Vice President of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, who in 1917 awarded Tesla the Edison Medal and said in his speech: “Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the result of Mr. Tesla’s work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark and our mills would be idle and dead. His name marks an epoch in the advance of electrical science.”

Well-written, told in an authoritative voice, and scrupulously sourced, I struggled only with the chapters that offered a step-by-step look at the creation process of Tesla’s early inventions; the information was baffling and it slowed the pace considerably. (Science-minded folks will likely love the attention to detail.) Carlson has on his hands an informative and engaging biography that reveals not just so many remarkable layers of the man himself, but also the time in which he lived and shaped and was in turn shaped by.

(I particularly liked the inclusion of Tesla’s own writing; his rich imagination was not reserved solely for his inventions. I now have every intention of reading My Inventions, Tesla’s autobiography.)

Leane Ellis

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman – Robert K. Massie
Appeal Factors: Character-Driven/Compelling style/Comprehensive & Detailed

Massie turned over every stone and gives us as much information as possible in a very accessible and compelling style. You know he has researched and often lets the reader know where there is a gap in reliable resources. Catherine was a fascinating woman who reads like an invented character although the specific details of day-to day life convinces you that living with money and rank was certainly more attractive than almost anyone else’s. Massie paints a picture of all the places Catherine lived and enlivens the narrative with a subset of supporting players that are very real on the page. This becomes a character-driven drama at times, and others a bit of farce. I learned more about serfdom than I will ever need to know but for the most part enjoyed listening to this book.

Jan Resnick

Jim Henson: The Biography – Jones, Brian Jay
Appeal Factors: Pace – quick; Character – engaging, familiar; Language – engaging, thoughtful, accessible; Story – chronological; Tone – upbeat; Frame – Maryland, D.C., and New York, 1936-1990.

This biography provides the background and story of Muppets creator Jim Henson from childhood to his early and unexpected death. Fans of his work will learn about his innovative puppetry techniques, high standards, and creative collaborations. This is, according to NoveList Plus, the first complete biography. The text is approachable and warm. The biography is enhanced by black and white photos and 95 pages of acknowledgements, notes and an index. Listed as one of Booklist Editors’ Choice Best Biography Books of 2013 and the Goodreads Choice Awards 2013.

Similar authors/titles: Davis – Street Gang; Henson – It’s Not Easy Being Green; Spinney – The Wisdom of Big Bird; Engel – Gene Roddenberry; Battaglio – David Suskind

Eileen Barrett

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen – Sylvie Simmons
Appeal Factors: Main character has a lot of appeal.

Virginia Woolf said, “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many as a thousand.”

Leonard Norman Cohen, poet, musician, singer-songwriter, novelist, Zen Buddhist monk, son, father, and ladies’ man, is many selves. In I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, author Sylvie Simmons begins Cohen’s story in Montreal, his birthplace, and brings us to the 2012 where he is working on a new album. As a teenager Cohen would write and draw passionately. He was never without a notepad. In high school Cohen studied music and poetry. He especially liked the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s work. It was during high school Cohen learned to play guitar as a teenager. In college, strange as it may seem, “the Prince of Bummers” as journalist Blythe Sheldon called him, formed a country western square dance band with two friends. Although his music cannot be classified as country he still writes and sings of love and loss. He does not mince words and to quote again, this time journalist Kitty Empire in a review of his biography, “those of us in his thrall, have no trouble claiming that he leaves Dylan in the dust for skewering the human condition.”

For all of his talents, Cohen had always been more popular in Europe than in the United States, but to me he is like a good wine (or whine ha-ha), improving with age.


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