Julie Andrews: An Intimate Biography
by Richard Stirling (St. Martin’s)
Home: A Memoir of My Early Years
by Julie Andrews (Hyperion)
Several adjectives aptly describe Stirling’s biography—tactful, judicious, informative—but intimate is decidedly not one of them. The book’s value lies in its full account of its subject’s work on stage and screen, rather than in its report of her personal life. We do learn that she embraced psychoanalysis before her marriage to the equally enthralled director Blake Edwards, and that actually they met coming to and from their mutual psychoanalyst. For a measure of what all that time on the couch wrought, Andrews’s memoir, beautifully told in a remarkably natural, authentic voice, is the place to go. Revisiting a childhood filled with pressures and trials of all sorts, with too much stage-door parenting and too little of the more supportive variety, the mature woman, liberated to tell her tale, reveals herself at last, like Chaucer’s Criseyde, truly “myne owene woman, wel at ese.”
Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef
by Ruth Cowen (Trafalgar Square)
Many great French chefs have conquered England and become culinary celebrities, but Alexis Soyer stands alone. Unlike Escoffier, he didn’t just come and cook in great hotels. Forever associated with the London club where his classic, eponymous dish, Lamb Cutlets Reform, is still on the menu, Soyer cut a swath wide and deep through Victorian society. Everyone who was anyone, from Disraeli to Dickens, ate his food in grand houses and at banquets, but he also licensed Crosse & Blackwell to market his sauces and relishes for wider consumption. He fed the starving from a soup kitchen during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and, a decade later, revamped army food in the Crimean War. His personal story is a roller coaster of fortunes made and lost, his ending ignominious. Relish tells it all with verve and conviction, although anyone who has actually tried Lamb Cutlets Reform will realize how tastes have evolved in the time since Soyer ruled.
Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante
by Lily Tuck (HarperCollins)
Equal parts literary biography and liberation tract, this engaging volume—the first nonfiction foray by the acclaimed novelist Tuck—elegantly achieves its dual aims. Informed by her own early experiences in Italy’s capital, the author traces an unconventional life and a volatile spirit, from Morante’s modest beginnings to her self-willed work to her flight from Fascists to her tempestuous marriage (to fellow writer Alberto Moravia, with whom she enjoyed “Sartre/Beauvoir of Italy” status and ran in similarly heady boho circles—think Bertolucci, Visconti, Pasolini, Calvino, Levi, et al.). After that come prize-winning tomes (Arturo’s Island, History), and an oddball exhumation, among other surprises. Though Tuck’s style is crisp and her tone cool, she takes the measure of Morante’s controversial writing with care and compassion. Rarely have subject and biographer been so aptly matched.
by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)
In this superb “novel in stories,” at once poignant and hopeful, Strout has hit upon a form that highlights her considerable skill at revealing a character by coming at her from every angle. Only a few of these stories, set in a coastal Maine town, center on Olive Kitteridge, who is flinty, tactless, defensive, more honest with others than with herself—in other words, strikingly believable—but she appears at least peripherally in each of them, underscoring the idea that one person can play myriad, sometimes surprising roles within her circle of acquaintance. As Strout explores relationships between parents and children, and lovers young, old, illicit, and married, she’s particularly adept at showing the complex coincidence of tenderness and fury, appreciation and disappointment that exists between those who are closely tied. And ultimately, by eschewing sentimentality in favor of clear-eyed understanding, she renders her prickly character sympathetic.
The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796
by Christopher Duggan (Houghton Mifflin)
The story of how an Italian-speaking region of Europe moved from a patchwork quilt of states and foreign-occupied territories into a true nation usually begins with Garibaldi, Cavour, and the mid-19th-century Risorgimento, or national resurgence. This absorbing study, however, traces the beginnings of that progression to the forces unleashed by the Napoleonic incursions into the Italian Peninsula. Duggan takes his title from Verdi’s opera, and it suits his book perfectly, because of the dramatic tale he unfolds as well as his attention to the crucial role played by cultural forces in the evolution of Italy as a nation-state. This is the story of how Italy came to be; it’s also the scarcely less colorful story of its monarchy and descent into Fascism and (eventually) its turbulent but nonetheless enduring democracy. Duggan concludes with a disquieting look at the forces that threaten to pull the still-fragile nation apart in the 21st century.