In time for the holidays—a comprehensive selection of books highlighted in The Atlantic in 2007

In time for the holidays—a comprehensive selection of books highlighted in The Atlantic in 2007


The Gentle Subversive
by Mark Hamilton Lytle (Oxford)

A brief biography by an environmental historian, focusing on Rachel Carson’s development as a writer and the many battles she fought (against breast cancer and a skeptical scientific establishment) to see Silent Spring into print. In defending Carson against critics past and present, Lytle demonstrates the quiet radicalism of her work.

Ronald Reagan
by John Patrick Diggins (Norton)

The author, a prominent conservative historian, concedes that Reagan was a relativistic enabler of Big Government and had little use for organized religion, but nevertheless regards him as a truer conservative than many who claim the mantle today. Diggins’s ability to glimpse Reagan’s contradictions clearly (and explain why those contradictions made Reagan, in a way, all the more himself) leaves his subject at once more legible and more mysterious.

Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind
by Peter D. Kramer (HarperCollins)

A brief, compelling reassessment of Freud by the author of Listening to Prozac. Although the great analyst was “more devious and less original than he made himself out to be,” Kramer generously concludes that “the gradual revelation of a less straightforward, less competent, less lovable Freud contains an affirmation of Freudian precepts”—particularly that “what is hidden in people may not be admirable.”

Leonard Woolf
by Victoria Glendinning (Free Press)

The husband of Virginia Woolf provided so much information in his brilliant autobiography that perhaps there has seemed no need till now for a full, well-researched biography. But Glendinning—one of Britain’s most celebrated biographers—presents us with a perceptive, understated account, especially for the years after Virginia’s death. She describes, in ways Woolf himself could not, the trials of a semi-outsider in the Bloomsbury world—a Jew; a poor man; a practical, persistent intelligence amid genius. Civil servant in the Empire (with the conscience and prescience of Orwell), novelist, distinguished publisher, historian, political analyst and adviser, journalist, and editor, Leonard Woolf famously summed up his career as so many hours of “perfectly useless work.” Glendinning doesn’t buy it, and offers a more apt and cheerful assessment.

Thomas Hardy
by Claire Tomalin (Penguin)

Tomalin’s book appears only a few months after the revised edition of Michael Millgate’s magisterial biography of Thomas Hardy, and the author acknowledges her debt to Millgate. But readers of her earlier biographies, especially Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (2002), will know that Tomalin has something special to offer. In a style both scholarly and entertaining—often in short, fast-paced sentences—Tomalin examines the emotional paradoxes of her notoriously opaque subject. She turns fresh attention to Hardy’s first marriage: the book opens with Emma’s death—the moment, Tomalin writes, “when Thomas Hardy became a great poet.” Sympathetic and often wry, Tomalin is most innovative when exploring the biographical ironies of Hardy’s poems.

George Gershwin
by Howard Pollack (California)

At nearly 900 pages, Pollack’s study intends to be definitive—as did its shorter predecessor, William Hyland’s George Gershwin (2003). Pollack devotes fewer than 200 pages to straight biography, but in the rest he discerningly surveys Gersh­win’s compositions (including recently discovered ones) in historical and musical detail. The book, in fact, is a remarkable compendium of detail. This alone will probably make it definitive, though Hyland writes more subtly about Gersh­win’s personality. Still, one is grateful for Pollack’s wealth of anecdotes, like Kitty Carlisle’s dismissal of Gersh­win’s love letters as “hardly of a tone to inspire serious feelings.”

Mae West: “It Ain’t No Sin”
by Simon Louvish (St. Martin’s)

Onscreen, Mae West was the ultimate sex goddess, all slink, allure, and come-hither. Offscreen, she was a tough, smart old bird who worked her whole life to create and preserve that sexy image. Louvish’s painstakingly researched and shrewd biography tells all about Mae—body, libido, and, perhaps most surprisingly and fascinatingly, mind.

by Valerie Browne Lester (Pimlico)

A sparkling portrait of Charles Dickens’s longtime illustrator, Hablot Knight “Phiz” Browne, whose creations are nearly as responsible as his collaborator’s for our enduring impressions of Victorian life.

William Empson: Against the Christians
by John Haffenden (Oxford)

The first installment of this monumental work has been hailed as one of the best literary biographies ever written in English. This second volume, at once exhaustive and exquisite, picks up where its predecessor left off, tracking the eccentric and heretical critic and poet from his stint as a BBC propagandist during World War II through the publication of Milton’s God (his most controversial work) and up to his death.

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature
by Linda Lear (St. Martins)

With Renée Zellweger playing Beatrix Potter in a biopic, it seems safe to say that the children’s book author and illustrator is, for now at least, more famous than Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. Of course, there wouldn’t be a movie if Potter hadn’t invented and immortalized those enchanting rabbits, but there might still have been this book, since she was also an important British conservationist and naturalist (mycologists later confirmed her findings on fungi and lichens). This comprehensive biography presents the multifarious facets of Potter’s life, from her quietly rebellious girlhood in a conventional family, through her literary and artistic work, to her role as the formidable Mrs. Heelis, chatelaine of virtually all she beheld and preserved in England’s picturesque Lake District.

John Betjeman: A Life
by A. N. Wilson (FSG)

John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man
by John Heilpern (Knopf)

Two biographies of 20th-century British men of letters bring us England’s teddy bear, John Betjeman, and its teddy boy, John Osborne. Wilson’s biography of Betjeman—minor poet, savior of England’s Victorian architecture—became infamous before it reached these shores, because it includes, embarrassingly, a rival biographer’s hoax. This hiccup shouldn’t eclipse the fact that the book is that rare thing: a first-rate biography of a second-rate figure. Osborne, for his part, was always tormented and tormenting, the scourge of the Establishment and also of those around him. The angry young man never stopped looking back in anger—he titled his last book, after all, with his catchphrase, Damn You, England—and Heilpern, in this comprehensive biography, tells us where all that rage came from. He also puts under a very necessary microscope Osborne’s two wonderfully compelling but not always reliable memoirs.

Ralph Ellison
by Arnold Rampersad (Knopf)

You don’t often find a biography as beautifully written as this one. Ellison, who wrote the Great American Novel but then allowed its achievement to prevent him from ever completing another, will always be something of an enigma. But if anyone can finally provide more answers than questions about this most complex of men, it is Rampersad in this vivid, graceful, and exceptionally intelligent work.

Edith Wharton
by Hermione Lee (Knopf)

Lee, the author of a magisterial biography of Virginia Woolf, uses her prodigious knowledge and uncommon perspicacity to bolster her claims for Wharton as a pioneering modern woman as well as a great writer, but not everyone will warm to the formidable figure presented in her book. It’s all very well to acclaim Wharton’s boldness and toughness, but when you read her vicious assessment of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance, along with some anti-Semitic and other very nasty racist remarks, you realize that modernism allowed the embrace of some dark gods.

by William Stevenson (Arcade)

Vera Atkins was a Romanian Jew who became more British in her manner than most natives, but whose intimate knowledge of Continental Europe enabled her to run a very successful undercover operation in Nazi-occupied territory. Her story, with its many successes bought at a terrible price by some of the female operatives, is far more intricate and exciting than the world of James Bond.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh: First Lady of the Air
by Kathleen C. Winters (Palgrave Macmillan)

While giving some attention to Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s poetry and best-selling prose, as well as the trauma of her son’s kidnapping and murder, this brief biography focuses on her crucial role as Charles Lindbergh’s co-pilot and navigator. Anne accompanied her husband in tiny two-passenger aircraft as they helped lay the groundwork for Pan Am’s transatlantic, transpacific, and intercontinental passenger routes. It would seem that after Amelia Earhart and her British counterpart, Amy Johnson, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was the most consequential woman pilot of her time—and unlike them, she didn’t die in the course of her exploits.

by Tennessee Williams, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton (Yale)

This tome provides an acute glimpse into the mind, art, and life of the preeminent mid-century American playwright. Williams’s world as recounted here is as messy and as haunted and as sad as might be expected, but the writer springs from these pages a humane, scrupulous, honest, and very likable man.

Europe’s Physician
by Hugh Trevor-Roper (Yale)

Best known for his sterling The Last Days of Hitler, Trevor-Roper was also a noted scholar of the Reformation and its era. For three decades before his death, in 2003, he worked on this absorbing study of Theodore de Mayerne, a once-famous but now-forgotten 17th-century royal physician and occasional diplomat/spy. The biographer, a lifelong student of diplomacy and the son and brother of doctors, brings his intriguing subject to life.

The Mistress’s Daughter
by A. M. Homes (Viking)

Those who have read A. M. Homes’s fiction would expect a memoir from her to be diamond-hard, with flashes of humor as well as brightness. They will not be disappointed by this book, in which she tells of her bruising adult encounters with the unappetizing pair who had given her up for adoption in her infancy 30 years earlier. In meeting with the adult Homes, the biological parents got both more and less than they were seeking, and Homes got only grief from them, but her readers get a story to treasure.

Room for Doubt
by Wendy Lesser (Pantheon)

The three intensely personal essays that make up this trenchant little volume display Lesser’s talent for brilliant, merciless self-criticism. She emerges as quirkily attractive and consistently interesting.

The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein
by Martin Duberman (Knopf)

Few people have contributed more to ballet in America than Lincoln Kirstein, who imported George Balanchine and with him founded the New York City Ballet. Kirstein was also instrumental in creating Lincoln Center (which, contrary to popular legend, wasn’t named for him). One of the most perspicacious analysts of American culture, Duberman has painted a subtle, detailed portrait of a hard-driving force of nature. In addition, his profound knowledge of the byways of gay life in 20th-century America makes him superbly qualified to help us understand what made his subject—butch yet sensitive, bisexual yet lastingly married—tick.

Considering Doris Day
by Tom Santopietro (St. Martin’s)

Following the format of his book on Barbra Streisand, Santopietro makes a detailed survey of Doris Day’s career in film, records, and television. Breezy, adulatory, and long-winded (with plot summaries of nearly 40 films), this book offers serious insight into a relatively neglected life. The observations are apt—and often bold (“It is impossible to watch Pillow Talk today without responding to the gay subtext”).

Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters
by Elizabeth Brown Pryor (Viking)

Unlike his fellow warriors Grant and Sherman, Lee never wrote his memoirs. Nor are his extant writings, including his correspondence, readily available, since no modern editors have collected them (surprising, given Southerners’ veneration of this saintly rebel). Using the text of Lee’s letters to family and friends as her foundation, Pryor constructs a biographical narrative that successfully addresses the challenge Stephen Vincent Benét posed many years ago: “How to humanize / That solitary gentleness and strength / Hidden behind the deadly oratory / Of twenty thousand Lee Memorial days.”

John Donne: The Reformed Soul
by John Stubbs (Norton)

“No man is an island,” wrote Donne—and accordingly, Stubbs portrays him “back in the crowd,” a man whose soul was shaped by his relationship with the court and society of Reformation England, and whose mercurial shifts in public character were the result of his efforts to maintain his integrity during those troubled times. Though Stubbs examines the poems more for biography than for language, this is a major addition to Donne criticism.

The Last Mrs. Astor
by Frances Kiernan (Norton)
At the end of the 19th century, the then-Mrs. Astor was known for setting the parameters of New York society by the number of people who could fit into her ballroom. It is a measure of high society’s progress since those days that the current (and final) undisputed holder of the title has made her mark through intelligent philanthropy and discriminating patronage of the arts. Recently in the news because of an unseemly tussle between her son and grandson over her guardianship, the 105-year-old Brooke Astor deserves to be remembered for what she actually accomplished, and this sympathetic telling of her story should counterbalance all that gossipy sensationalism.

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr
by Nancy Isenberg (Viking)
National memory is inevitably drawn to melodrama, and Burr has historically been cast in the role of black sheep in the Founding Family. But Isenberg argues, with elegance and meticulous research, that the principled, adroit Burr shouldn’t be the fall guy in our early national narrative. On some issues, particularly those later espoused by feminists, he was far ahead of his time, and his political conduct was “no better, no worse” than that of his contemporaries Jefferson and Hamilton. In fact, in her assessment of Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s treatment of Burr, Isenberg reveals an unsettling truth: “Politics, then as now, causes ‘great’ men to speak irrationally and act deviously.”

George Kennan: A Study of Character
by John Lukacs (Yale)
The dean of the realist school of foreign policy wouldn’t seem to be a natural biographical subject for so passionate an opponent of totalitarianism as Lukacs. But mostly the author focuses on Kennan as the great American figure of his age: a sterling character and true font of wisdom, a man whose actual views were far more complex and nuanced than the gross public perception (based on his espoused policy to simply contain the Soviet Union). This beautiful little book is suffused with the love and respect that Lukacs has for his subject, whom he knew and revered as that rare breed: the foreign-policy expert who becomes a true statesman.

Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America
by Matthew Avery Sutton (Harvard)
This biography of McPherson explores how the evangelist combined old-time religion with newfangled technology to build a multimedia soul-saving juggernaut in 1920s Los Angeles. Even if Sutton’s efforts to connect McPherson to today’s evangelical resurgence are sketchy and unconvincing, his book (particularly in its analysis of the media coverage surrounding McPherson’s 1926 “kidnapping”—likely staged in an attempt to obscure an illicit affair) is a thorough and absorbing portrait of a wholly original figure.

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound
by Ben Ratliff (FSG)

Overheated prose seems to follow Coltrane like an insistent stream of bum notes, but Ratliff, the dauntingly omnivorous New York Times critic, manages cool restraint in this clear-eyed, nuanced consideration of the jazz giant’s influence. Central to Ratliff’s success is his avoidance of that most Ken Burnsian of pitfalls: the temptation to apply an evolutionary model when evaluating America’s greatest original art form—a temptation amplified when the subject is the visionary commonly held to be the “last major figure in the evolution of jazz.” Laudable, too, is the structural tack taken: The book is neatly bisected, with the first half devoted to the saxophonist’s artistic development (especially the spiritually questing final decade), while the second contextualizes and meditates on the transcendent frequencies that resulted.

The Diana Chronicles
by Tina Brown (Doubleday)

It seems to be the perfect fit of author and subject: two chic blondes adept at understanding image and how to manipulate it. Brown also has some genuine advantages, not least the distinction of actually having spent some time talking to (although not interviewing) both Diana and Charles. Her familiarity with the social and media milieus in which Diana played out her saga is evident throughout this knowing, glossy book, which is a lively read, with plenty of gossip. Some of it is all too familiar, though there is an occasional new tidbit, piquant if not always credible. But Brown fails to answer the admittedly difficult questions she has posed: Just who was Diana, and what did she signify? What was behind the extraordinary reaction to her death, and to what extent does that emotion linger, 10 years after her awful end?

The Lives of the Poets
by Samuel Johnson; edited by Roger Lonsdale (Oxford)

In his trenchant critical biographies of 52 17th- and 18th-century poets, Samuel Johnson assessed the characters and creations of the great (Milton, Dryden, Swift, Pope) and the now-all-but-forgotten (see his sweetly gallant defense of his friend, the fraud and inveterate sponger Richard Savage). True, Johnson’s judgment can be wacky—he pronounces Milton’s “Lycidas” “easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting.” But his writing—with its offhandedly authoritative tone—is so consistently felicitous that it almost doesn’t matter what he says. Now these masterpieces have a worthy scholarly edition. Lonsdale’s exhaustive notes and commentary and his stylish, penetrating introduction place the work in its historical and literary context. But more than that, they’re profoundly and truly illuminating—it’s impossible to imagine future readers absorbing Johnson’s work without Lonsdale’s insights and revelations.

Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry
by Holly George-Warren (Oxford)

Autry, the entertainment quintuple threat (five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) whose sweetness, swagger, and “chameleonic artistry” helped him overcome his hardscrabble origins and influence a generation, married Wild West tropes to vaudeville sensibilities and thus helped bridge the pop-culture divide of the 19th and 20th centuries. Along the way, he served in a world war, hobnobbed with presidents, bought a Major League Baseball team, and amassed a fortune; yet alcohol and infidelity dogged his progress. This is a thorough, no-nonsense account of a singular life, and the prolific music writer George-Warren employs a brisk, assured style that hews to the Cowboy Code.

Circling My Mother: A Memoir
by Mary Gordon (Pantheon)

Approaching her mother from many angles—via her work, her sisters, her husband, her love of singing, her friends, her priests—but filtering all through the lens of a daughter’s memory, Gordon assembles a collage-like portrait that is at once a particular and moving story of one woman’s life and a sketch of an American Catholic working-class experience over the course of the 20th century. Gordon, supremely skilled at both rendering a scene with vivid immediacy and extracting significance from it, writes with irresistible intelligence and honesty.

The Blair Years: The Alastair Campbell Diaries
by Alastair Campbell (Knopf)

“No man is a hero to his valet” may need updating to “No politician is a statesman to his spin doctor.” True, Campbell’s up-close-and-personal look at Tony Blair includes a comment on the former PM’s underwear, but these are fascinating diaries. Keen observers of Bill Clinton will not wonder that in unburdening himself about Monica Lewinsky, the then-president focused on his own feelings and sense of victimhood. George W. Bush emerges as a far more thoughtful figure than his critics would have him, and given the amount of time the author has spent talking to Bush and observing his interactions with others, Campbell’s is an assessment readers should heed. The author claims to have been careful about including details that would undermine current Prime Minister Gordon Brown; but given what remains, it’s hard to imagine what’s been cut. Still, Brown does shine here as unquestionably the most authoritative and consequential finance czar in modern British history. The author serves up all manner of insider-ish revelations and acute portraits, of everyone from Boris Yeltsin and Nelson Mandela to Queen Elizabeth II and the Princess of Wales. Unique access and sharp observation make this easily one of the most important political memoirs of recent years.

To the Last Salute: Memories of an Austrian U-Boat Commander
by Georg von Trapp (Nebraska)

Long before Georg von Trapp married the former postulant Maria and they became world-famous (through Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical play and then movie of their life), he had a distinguished military career as an Austro- Hungarian submarine commander in World War I (how many remember that the Dual Monarchy was a major naval power?), which he chronicles in his lively, amusing, at-times-gripping memoir of naval warfare in the Mediterranean, and U-boat life. This book, first published in Austria in 1935, has finally found an English translator: von Trapp’s granddaughter. One of its fascinating aspects is the glimpse it offers into the multiethnic makeup of this imperial navy, and the admirable attitudes and behavior of a patriotic officer on the losing side of a great conflict.

Shakespeare & Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story
by Stanley Wells (Pantheon)

Shakespeare was, in Ben Jonson’s view, “not of an age, but for all time.” Wells, for many years the director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, has built a distinguished career on the durability and transcendence of Shakespeare’s poems and plays, but in this book he asks us to consider Shakespeare in terms of the age in which the bard lived. He sets about with elegance and ease to chronicle Shakespeare’s relationships with his fellow workers, that remarkable collection of actors and playwrights without whom there would not have been a golden age of English drama—or, Wells vigorously argues, Shakespeare as we know him.

Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector
by Mick Brown (Knopf)

That a fresh biography of Spector—the unhinged music producer par excellence whose fame and misfortune are legendary (and cautionary)—was overdue is unquestionable. That a sordid Hollywood murder trial seemed to occasion it is unfortunate. (A British journalist, Brown conducted a revelatory December 2002 interview in the lavish manse of the “First Tycoon of Teen” a mere five weeks before the B-movie queen Lana Clarkson turned up dead there—an interview that provided the initial impetus for this volume.) In any event, the author does an admirable job of tracing his subject’s sometimes- reclusive, sometimes-aggressive, always-eccentric life, from youthful tragedy to trailblazing success to flamboyant decline. Though his book stints a bit on its titular promise (a more thorough analysis of Spector’s “Wagnerian approach to rock and roll” would have been welcome), and though it may ultimately serve as mere backstory (the denouement of the current drama seems a ways off), it nevertheless provides an absorbing portrait that is by turns harrowing, farcical, and edifying.

Peeling the Onion
by Günter Grass (Harcourt)

This book comes trailing clouds of controversy because of its revelation that Grass—the conscience (or scold) of his generation about its Nazi past—was himself a member of the Waffen SS at the end of World War II. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether his mea culpa is convincing or merely the ploy of a powerful literary manipulator. But Grass is devastatingly severe in his treatment of his youthful self. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this book is its portrait of the young soldier-artist as dedicated Nazi: Grass and other Germans really did believe that a hostile world was threatening them even as their nation was waging aggressive war. And when his Allied captors showed the young POW irrefutable evidence of the death camps, he refused to believe. The dialectic between his current and former selves gives this book its special resonance.

La Nilsson: My Life in Opera
by Birgit Nilsson (Northeastern)

First published in Nilsson’s native Sweden in 1995, a decade before her death, the celebrated soprano’s autobiography was intensely acclaimed after its 1997 translation into German. Finally translated into English from that edition, it’s worth the wait. Despite the double translation, this book still vibrates with Nilsson’s voice. Although copious photographs show her looking like a diva from central casting, her authorial persona is the opposite of what you’d expect: Warm, down-to-earth, joshing, never afraid to poke fun at herself, Nilsson is a delightful writer. La Nilsson, a welcome antidote to such attention-grabbing memoirs as fellow diva Régine Crespin’s, shows a star who knew how to keep drama where it belonged: onstage.

Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography
by Gail Levin (Rizzoli)

First published in 1995, this painstakingly detailed biography of the hard-wearing American master painter was “updated and expanded” in time for the blockbuster Hopper exhibition. Among the new materials are nearly 100 illustrations—most of them small, decently colored reproductions of Hopper’s now-nostalgically haunting paintings—and 40-odd pages of text dealing with Hopper’s persistence in American visual arts, including cinema. Most interesting, however, is Levin’s defense of her heavy reliance on the private diaries of the artist’s wife and collaborator of more than 40 years, Josephine Nivison Hopper—a woman whose considerable talent and insightful voice her husband frequently attempted to suppress. In the same spirit, the Whitney destroyed most of her paintings soon after it received the great Hopper bequest, in 1968, but her diaries survived and are largely responsible for making this one of the best biographies of any American artist.

Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life
by Mark Francis (Cornell)

Those of us who have studied 19th-century history, even casually, know something about the social philosopher Herbert Spencer. And much of what we think we know is wrong. The irony, according to Francis, is that this thinker who attempted to bridge various spheres of knowledge in his life’s work has been broken up into so many parts, seemingly unrelated, and each of them finally misleading. In this stunning intellectual biography, Francis provides a compelling portrait of the man and the work, by interpreting the writings within the complicated contexts of the technical debates of Spencer’s time. Tortured, full of self-doubts and admitted inadequacies, Spencer was an enormously subtle and complex thinker, empathetic and ironic in his self-deprecating dealings with the world. Still, his writings affected just about every area of modern intellectual life: ethics, metaphysics, sociology, anthropology, political theory, philosophy, and psychology.

Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself
by Ann Wroe (Pantheon)

Visionary poets like Shelley seem to inspire visionary critics like Wroe, who here puts aside chronology for something more daring. She describes Shelley’s search for himself metaphorically, as a journey through the Greek elements, beginning with earth (he had a horror of dirt), moving on to water and air, and ending in the pure fire of the poetic imagination. This sounds abstruse, but it’s all anchored gracefully in biographical and textual detail—especially from material in Shelley’s notebooks.

Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex
by Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury)

Does life imitate art, or is it the other way around? Few have confused the age-old question as thoroughly as Robbins, the “godfather of the airport novel.” Over the course of multiple marriages and a 50-year career, he sold some 750 million copies of his tawdry tomes—salacious, eminently readable stories of greed, sex, and moral compromise—and used the substantial means that ensued to largely decadent ends: drinks, drugs, boats, broads. Robbins met with early success as a grocery clerk (he claimed to have made his first million by age 20), lost his fortune, became a different sort of clerk at Universal Pictures, and worked as a bookkeeper before getting his break as a writer. He cited John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos as influences, counted James Baldwin and Pablo Picasso among his friends, and earned praise from the likes of Camille Paglia. The dissonance here is thus daunting and dizzying, and making sense of it no small task. Happily, the British journalist Wilson rises to the challenge: His account is appropriately chatty, but also crisp, elegant, and thorough—a mass-market tale told in near-literary terms. Robbins is brought to life, and would surely himself have turned page after page.

A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917–1932
by John Richardson (Knopf)

A meticulous biography and a subtle art history in one handsome edition, this third volume in Richardson’s ongoing study of Picasso’s life and work maintains the level of hushed excellence achieved by its predecessors (and may even surpass them visually, in that its expansive gallery—a fine case of show and tell—reveals the master in his prewar prime, painting, drawing, and sculpting his way through France and Spain). This time we find Picasso dabbling in the world of theater, cavorting with the Lost Generation, and making his way to love and marriage (or something akin: wife, child, mistress). We also get considered looks at Three Musicians, Crucifixion, and many other masterworks. In lesser hands such an ambitious project might err on the side of overmuch, but Richardson’s calm, doctorly ones deliver yet another magisterial winner.

Mandela: A Critical Life
by Tom Lodge (Oxford)

This brief, incisive study by a distinguished British political scientist is the best overall assessment of Mandela to date. Lodge is superbly attuned to the shoals and eddies of South African politics—old and new—and is equally adept at analyzing his complex subject. Readers who want to understand Mandela’s symbolic and actual achievements—and what he failed to accomplish during his presidency—will find more information, insight, and judgment in this slim volume than in the many weightier titles devoted to this protean figure.

Mr. Basketball: George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers, and the Birth of the NBA
by Michael Schumacher (Bloomsbury)

Proof that size does matter, at least in Dr. Naismith’s game, Mikan was the original “big man”: A 6-foot-10 gentle giant, he prefigured Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal; prompted league rule changes to accommodate his size; and later helped found the American Basketball Association (which in turn helped make the NBA a vast, multibillion-dollar sporting empire). Few such archetypal athletes have received such scant biographical due, and Schumacher wades into the breach with an exhaustively researched work of richness and rigor. His occasional lapses into hyperbole (the modulated hubris of the title is a good indicator) notwithstanding, this is a detailed, atmospherically true tale of tallness.