Tag Archives: Biography

In Praise of Solitude

BUKOWSKI: A LIFE by Neeli Cherkovski

This is the book that I had been waiting for. This biography came out last year in time for Charles Bukowski’s 100th Birthday, August 16, 2020. It is a rewrite of Cherkovski’s 1990 book Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski. It is updated as Hank (Charles Bukowski’s nickname) died in 1994.

Most people have heard of Bukowski and form polarizing opinions of him. He is either seen as a drunken, womanizing, slob and bum. Or as the King of the Streets and the working underclass. Especially the drinking kind. Like all of us, he was mostly somewhere in between the extremes that the world can see us as.

Cherkovski, a fine poet himself, was a friend of Hank’s and knew him well from the 1960’s until Hank’s death in 1994. He humanizes Hank and sees the wild man, but also sees the sensitive poet within. Hank was probably the most prolific poet ever. He lived to write. He often starved to write. The rest was just a rebellion against a phony society and abusive parents. His father beat him often with a razor strap and his mother offered no help. He also had really bad acne and was a total outcast in school. All of this oppression made one great poet with no pretensions except the one he created as himself, but he winks to let you in on it.

He began writing short stories, with very few getting published. Later he wrote poems that often were like short stories. He worked at the Post Office for about a decade. He was freed from that mental slavery and physical pain at age 50 by a publisher who paid him to just write. Since poetry doesn’t make a lot of money, Hank finished a novel in three weeks called Post Office. It is short and funny. He wrote five other novels and countless books of poetry. He endured the loneliness and solitude it takes to be a prolific writer. He starved for his art like few others.

So, read this book. Read his poems and novels. You will find he was a true philosopher of human nature, much like fellow Californian Eric Hoffer, but with poems.


AT THE CENTER OF ALL BEAUTY by Fenton Johnson

This is a book that I found by accident, and being a person who writes and craves solitude, this was a must read. The author’s name sort of rang a bell, but I couldn’t place him. Later I found out that Johnson grew up in Kentucky and he teaches half of the year right down the street from where I work at Spaulding University.

Much to my surprise, I had much in common with the author. His great grandfather and I have the same name. His family was close to the monks at Gethsemani. I have visited and know two friends of Thomas Merton, their most famous monk. And I got to meet Merton’s secretary. Although I’m not Catholic, I have an affinity for the monks. Johnson and I both have spent long periods of our lives living alone. Fate had a hand in this for both of us. We both crave SILENCE!  And Thoreau’s simplicity, too, as a direct rebellion against consumerism as happiness.

He quotes many of my favorite people, such as Van Gogh, Eudora Welty, Henry David Thoreau, Colin Wilson, Nietzsche, James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf. Johnson is gay, and I am not, but that doesn’t really matter. We are both outsiders by nature and circumstance. Toward the end he goes into personal Queer experiences which I have no understanding of. But, I am truly grateful that they are getting the human rights and freedoms they deserve.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal said it best, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. So, go sit in a room alone and read At the Center of All Beauty. You’ll be glad you did.

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

Dutch Girl by Robert Matzen

Warning: This review contains allusions to disordered eating, parental emotional abuse, trauma and PTSD.

With the release in December 2020 of the recent documentary, Audrey, providing a personal glimpse into internationally beloved actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn, fans of her activism, her iconic style and her legend will likely find themselves reaching for other works to provide insight and a feeling of closeness to her. I cannot more strongly recommend Robert Matzen’s Dutch Girl, an addicting biography of Hepburn’s adolescence in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands that reads like historic fiction written by your favorite World War II scholar. It is a marriage of emotion and adrenaline, crafted by a historian whose awe of his subject is apparent throughout the work, and in this intimate tribute to the origins of Hepburn’s legacy of empathy and philanthropy, it doesn’t take readers long to see his point.

Meticulously researched and assembled with the care and sentiment of a personal scrapbook, Dutch Girl is a window into Hepburn’s childhood, defined by parents whose Nazi sympathies nearly destroyed her family and contributed to the occupation and abuse of the Netherlands by Germany during World War II. We are treated to the story of a child of respectively absent and dominant personalities in a wealthy, titled family that had already begun to decline by the time Adolf Hitler rose to power, and how far that family had still to struggle. To say young, mild-mannered Audrey (so-called Adriaantje in Dutch) is the perfect perspective for readers to experience life in the Netherlands as it existed under German occupation is an understatement, and Matzen’s detailed yet fluid writing style adds to the sensation that you’re simply reading a novel about a young girl set during this time. As someone for whom ADHD makes focusing on sitting through an entire book difficult, it surprised me how quickly and easily I was sucked in to this wartime account. Even before Matzen compares the two, it’s easy to see through the story of another girl experiencing the same events from a different perspective why Otto Frank initially asked Hepburn to portray his daughter Anne when her famous diary was made into a film.

Dutch Girl sometimes veers away from a focus on Hepburn to describe significant military maneuvers by Allied or German troops and what their operations meant for Velp, the town in which Hepburn’s family relocated to try to survive the war and unwittingly placed her in both extreme danger and as privy to some of its major events in the Netherlands. But these digressions into what the S.S. was also up to at a certain time or Hepburn’s mother’s lineage and what it meant for her rarely feel distracting: Matzen is an experienced biographer who spins his historic narrative with its seemingly-unrelated factual events in an engaging way that you barely mind, and sometimes forget about Audrey Hepburn the fifteen-year-old a bit in the middle of all the excitement. When we steer back to her it is as a palate-cleanser from the adrenaline of an exciting wartime account and the emotional anchor of the book. As Hepburn’s son Luca Dotti notes in his foreword, after reading the biography, “Even I immediately forgot that there would be a happy ending for Audrey. As I read, I realized that bomb, that bullet, that German truck and its load of prisoners could simply be The End.”

We are led with Hepburn on a journey as she witnesses atrocities experienced by Jewish friends and neighbors; experiences her uncle being murdered by the SS in an assassination that would become infamous; volunteers as an errand-runner for members of the Dutch Resistance; and experiences the “Hunger Winter” of 1945 in brutal detail. But these are just the major placeholders between dozens of everyday accounts that fill the book, curated from the few occasions Hepburn ever spoke of the war and from others in her immediate community who gave accounts as well. Matzen’s thoroughness in bringing multiple facets of her experiences to life through others introduces us in depth to figures like Hepburn’s mother, the complicated and flawed Ella van Heemstra, who transitions from an outspoken supporter of Hitler’s genocidal plans to someone who finds her mind changed when it’s her own family impacted, bombed and starved, and her sons are in hiding from the threat of being drafted while she struggles to keep her daughter safe from German soldiers.

We also learn about everyday heroes of the Dutch Resistance active in Velp that Hepburn had links to: especially Dr. Hendrik Visser ‘t Hooft, an illegal-motorcycle-riding, Nazi-evading, charismatic figure in the Resistance for whom Hepburn volunteered at his hospital and who was likely the person through whom she worked with the Dutch Resistance. I have never heard his name in a history class or anywhere else, and I’m sure most people haven’t, but it was just plain fun reading about this everyday hero who used his privilege in his own community to work to safeguard his Jewish neighbors and facilitate efforts to resist fascism, even with Nazis actively marching down his streets. I now have about six books on the Dutch, German and French Resistances lined up to read, and it’s completely his fault.

From “Dutch Girl”, Robert Matzen. Somebody arrest this man…for stealing my heart.

A wide collection of works documenting the life of Audrey Hepburn as a starlet and later ambassador have been produced, but as the kids say, Dutch Girl just hits different. It tells the story of a complete human whose world was so much more than many know, and relatable at every turn despite taking place nearly a century ago in what likely felt like a completely different world. Artists and performers pushing themselves physically to the limit to pursue their dreams around multiple side-hustles can see themselves in Matzen’s account of Audrey’s post-war struggles, newly arrived in a different country and flinging herself from ballet to theater while still a teenager in order to earn enough money to support herself and her mother. Her complicated, lifelong relationship with food first as a child studying a physically intensive sport, nearly starving along with her entire family on “war rations”, and joyfully, chronically overeating when once again able and describing herself as a “…swollen, and unattractive, as a balloon…” when from a lifetime of photographs we know this to be an untrue perspective on her own body, will resonate with many. Children of domineering parents may recognize the origins of Hepburn’s self-criticism in her mother early on in this account of her childhood, only to be proven right towards the end of the book at Hepburn’s self-deprecating account of her mother’s casual, backhanded insults of her even at the height of her Hollywood career.

While it is impossible for those of us living in 2021 to comprehend the horrors of World War II, it feels almost familiar to read, over a year into pandemic quarantine, of a young girl forced to shelter in a basement with her family, sneaking out for a bit to get some sun in the backyard one day (and almost getting bombed by the war literally playing itself out in her backyard). It feels like a balm, or even a promise, to read about that time in her life when hope was in short supply and then celebrate with her as Matzen describes the final liberation of Velp by Canadian troops with accounts of joyful reunions with long-lost neighbors and families reuniting to rebuild. The war never ended for Audrey Hepburn in many ways that she barely let on in her lifetime, but her actions as a tireless advocate for those devastated by wars and disasters speak more loudly than the quiet interviews that earned her a reputation for mystery ever could.

Review by Sarah, Middletown Branch

Never A Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren by Colin Asher

This is the latest biography of a writer you have probably never heard of. But his story and reputation have made a bit of a comeback of late. There have be a couple of biographies and three documentaries on Nelson Algren in the past few years. He was considered one of America’s greatest novelist in the 40’s and 50’s, but during the Red Scare, his stature took a tumble. He won the first ever National Book Award. It was presented to him by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1950 for his 3rd novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.

Five years later, Otto Preminger broke the Production Code and it became the first major motion picture about morphine addiction, and it starred Frank Sinatra. But Hollywood and Preminger cheated Algren out of money and respect. Preminger thumbed his nose at the lowlifes Nelson hung around with, and Nelson saw Hollywood as fake.

Algren held a lifetime grudge and he became sour on the American Dream quickly. He got a decent amount of money, but he was a gambler and lost it all quickly. He preferred the losers in life to the winners. So he hung around junkies, prostitutes, gamblers, and con men.

In 1956, he published A Walk on the Wide Side (WALK). It was a re-write of his first book, Somebody in Boots, a depiction of his travelling days throughout Texas and New Orleans during the Great Depression looking for work. Louisville’s Hunter S. Thompson was a big fan of his and WALK, and would getting into a letter writing feud with him about the amount of a long quote that Hunter used in his first book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Lou Reed would take this title in the early 70’s and make one of the most iconic rock songs ever about a different kind of misfits.

He had many fans, Richard Wright, Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut to just name a few. He had famous lovers and many one night stands. He had a relationship with a junkie prostitute that was being abused by her husband and he helped her get clean and remarried.

The world’s leading feminist Simone de Beauvoir would visit him in Chicago from Paris in 1947. They would become soulmates. He showed her the underworld of Chicago and she was hooked. In the 1950’s, the FBI and State Department had him under surveillance for his days as a Communist in the 1930’s alongside Richard Wright and Studs Terkel. So he couldn’t leave the U.S. and his relationship with Simone fizzled. But she was buried wearing a ring he bought her.

He was able to visit Cuba and while there he called on Hemingway, who had just survived his second plane crash at the end of 1955.

In the 60’s, Algren wrote mostly for money. Quick books about his worldly travels. A book defending Hemingway after his death. Many magazine articles. He had never made the money or got the prestige that he deserved, so he made a mockery of his life and work, because that’s how the world treated him.

He taught a semester at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the mid-60’s, but he was a terrible teacher and didn’t think creative writing could be taught. He was the highest paid writer there and he got his third wife a position too, but he gambled all their money away.

Nelson always had a love-hate relationship with Chicago and after living there for almost six decades, he left to write a book about the Boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in 1975. He would call Carter “the sanest man that I ever met.”

Nelson died in 1981 on Long Island at the age of 72. He was alone much of his time, despite many friends and lovers (and three brief marriages). In the documentary, The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All, Terkel called him two images, the Cat and Art Carney (from “The Honeymooners”). Vonnegut, who had met Algren at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, says Algren was the loneliest man he ever knew. 

If you want to read some of the greatest prose ever written, read Algren. If you want to read a great biography of an interesting life, read this work by Colin Asher.

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

Is This Guy for Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by Box Brown

Andy Kaufman skirted the line between nonsense and reality in his performances where during his comedy career; he brought many unique characters to life.  Two of the most recognizable are Latka Gravas, a lovable kook on the TV series Taxi, and Foreign Man, a character he created for Saturday Night Live. Kaufman and his work  were immortalized in a film called Man on the Moon, where Jim Carrey portrayed him.. Author Box Brown has now brought Kaufman’s life to another generation in a biographical graphic novel, Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman.  

The novel follows his life beginning as child and his appreciation of performing arts, music and wrestling.  He enjoyed wrestling so much that he created parodies of his favorite stars bit of humor to the violent world of pro-wrestling. For a time, he put his dream of becoming a wrestler on hold while honing his showman skills with improvisational comedy and television appearances.  However, he felt this was not the direction in which he wanted to go. He finally jumped into the wrestling ring, putting on amazing acts and stirring up trouble along the way. His most notable appearance was the controversial debacle with former wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler.

Box Brown’s simplistic pencil drawings and limited color illustrations capture the story of a young man who was sensitive, thoughtful, and very funny. He uses traditional boxed-in scenes throughout the entire book which reads like an original comic strip. The nostalgic style draws (pun intended) you into the story, while moving swiftly through Kaufman’s short life.  Brown has made this book more than a biography of Kaufman by including footnotes about the world of professional wrestling without interrupting the flow of the story.  There is also an in-depth bibliography of references, websites, television episodes, and personal interviews, as well as a list of books by people in the wrestling industry.

If you enjoy this journey into the life of a comedian turned wrestler, check out Brown’s book about another famous wrestler, Andre the Giant.  

Format Available: Graphic Novel

Review by Micah, St Matthews Branch

Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis

William Burroughs commented on Paul Bowles‘ autobiography, Without Stopping, saying it should have been, “Without Telling.” The opposite is true of this new bio on Lou Reed. It could be subtitled TMI.

Some called Lou names like The Prince of Darkness, Darth Vader of Rock, and those were the nice ones. His fans called him Lou. Andy Warhol called him Lulu. He called Warhol, Drella. A lot of people today don’t know who Lou Reed was (that’s fine…here is your shot to learn), or they confuse him with Lou Rawls (not cool). I call him the 2nd greatest songwriter ever, slightly behind Nobel Prize Winner Bob Dylan.

Lewis Allan Reed was born into an upper middleclass Jewish family on March 2, 1942. He was in Doo Wop and Rock groups as a teenager. He was on record by age 14, but his “true fame” wouldn’t come until after he finished College at Syracuse and had a lot of out of the norm personal experience. His parents had electroshock treatments performed on him, either because of his bisexuality (Lou’s version) or his according to his mother, doctors thought he may be schizophrenic.

Although, college was a dreadful experience for the non-conformist and drug user, Lou met someone there who changed his life. Delmore Schwartz was a renowned poet/professor on his way down. He had been a top poet in the 30’s but paranoia and speed had caught up with him by the 60’s. Of course, Lou chose him as a mentor. Schwartz would hold court at a little off campus bar and read James Joyce to his followers. Schwartz told Lou that if he ever “sold out” his talent as a writer, his ghost would haunt him. And it did to some degree.

After graduation in 1964 with a B.A. in English, Lou moved to NYC and became a songwriter for a small company called Pickwick, which produced cheap exploitation albums of the newest musical fads. He also made frequent trips into Harlem to buy heroin.

Lou and his fellow musicians wrote a song called, “The Ostrich,” that got some notice and airplay. It was recorded by studio musicians, so when a local TV station wanted the band (The Primitives) to perform, that had to search for a stage band quickly. One of the guys chosen was John Cale because he had long hair. Cale was an avant-garde classical musician from Wales. In time, the band evolved into The Velvet Underground. They played dives in NYC and got fired, but were discovered by Andy Warhol.

On July 11, 1966 Delmore dies. Lou was in the hospital for Hepatitis C and checked himself out to attend Delmore’s wake. So, in Warhol, Lou had found another 2nd father and genius to learn from. Andy is credited with producing the first Velvet Underground album. VU would go on to record 4 studio albums from 1967-1970, and go through many personnel changes (Lou was difficult to work with.) Lou fired Andy, but stayed friends until a later falling out.

Along the way Lou became a great guitarist noted for his use of distortion. When Lou left VU on August 23, 1970, he had had enough of the R&R business. VU had not been a financial success and they were only famous among the people living outside the mainstream. He had legal problems and was burned out on every level.

So he moved into his parent’s house and worked as a typist in his father’s business for $40 a week. Eventually he drifted back into his only true love. From 1972 to 2011, he released 22 solo albums, 13 live albums, and 16 compilation albums. He married 3 times to three distinct women. Lou was polysexual and experimented with various drugs, mainly speed, heroin, and alcohol. He was at times sweet and violent, and his songs reflect this. Some are soft and sensitive, others will offend most. In the end, after AA and laying off most drugs, Lou was mellow most of the time. Although reporters and critics were always fair game for him.

Lou died on a Sunday (Oct 27, 2013). One of his sweetest and most haunting songs was titled, Sunday Morning. For me, Lou had a good soul – wild, free, and full of anger as a young man. But in time, he would find some peace in the world.

A young writer named Vaclav Havel on a visit to the U.S. in 1968 bought the 2nd VU album. He would go on to lead the Velvet Revolution and become President of Czechoslovakia in 1989, and the First President of the Czech Republic. Lou interviewed him in 1990 and they became friends.

Lou was influential to many younger musicians and he could be called the Father of Punk, New Wave, Glam, and Alternative. All his albums are distinct. Read the book and listen to his albums! You’ll be glad you did.

Format Available: Large Type, Regular Type, eBook

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

 

Dorothea Lange

I was recently introduced to the photography of Dorothea Lange and I became instantly intrigued and immediately reserved several books on her. The first being a new children’s non-fiction book called Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression by Carole Boston Weatherford. In this picture book biography I learned Lange had polio as a child and although she survived, it left her with a limp. A limp that caused her classmates to bully and avoid her. This later would influence Lange’s empathy toward people’s “otherness” and apartness.

When the Great Depression struck Lange took her camera to the streets. She photographed men waiting in bread lines and sleeping on sidewalks. The Depression had stolen their livelihoods and they had nowhere to go. Lange took their photos for the world to truly see them. This becomes a recurring theme in Lange’s work; seeking the downtrodden and showing the world their stories.

Weatherford’s book also includes beautiful illustrations about this inspiring and motivated woman.

Next I chose an adult non-fiction title, The Photographs of Dorothea Lange, where again I learned her most significant body of work was in the 30’s and 40’s documenting the Depression years. But my favorite work of Lange’s stems from her experiences working for the government photographing starving migrant workers in California. She also has some incredibly heartrending photographs of Japanese Americans interned on the West Coast during World War II. Lange managed to capture some of the darkest episodes of America’s history and her black and white photos evoke such emotion and empathy.

 

Finally, I chose a teen non-fiction title, Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange by Elizabeth Partridge (Lange’s goddaughter), which is a more personal portrait of a woman who struggled to balance her passion for her career and her love for her family. Dorothea Lange was way ahead of her time. She existed during a period in America when women mainly stayed home with their children and husbands. Lange basically farmed out her children to others to be on the road pursuing her dreams. It’s easy to see and hear her frustration in her writings and photos of her love for her children but her desire and need to pursue her art.

All three books give a wide view of Lange’s intimate triumphs and failures. She was a complex and driven woman. I think she should be required reading and viewing for all Americans to understand our history.

Anyone interested in photography, American history or humanity will find her work exceedingly powerful and compelling.

Formats Available: Regular Print

Reviewed by Heather, St. Matthews

George Lucas: A Life

Upcoming Author Event


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New York Times bestselling biographer Brian Jay Jones

Main Library, Tuesday, December 13, 7 PM

Join biographer Brian Jay Jones for a discussion of his latest book George Lucas: A Life, detailing the incredible life story of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones creator.

Jones is the New York Times bestselling author of Jim Henson: The Biography and the award-winning Washington Irving: An American Original.

This program is free, but tickets are required – click here to order.


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Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes

hedysfolly

Hedy Lamarr is best known today for being a gorgeous movie starlet. However, her most lasting contributions to history may well be her skill as an inventor, rather than her stunning looks on the silver screen. Richard Rhodes draws on a range of historical sources – military and show biz – to detail how Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil developed and patented spread-spectrum radio technology to make radio-directed torpedoes un-jammable – ultimately the seed of today’s digital wireless communications networks, from cell phones to wifi Internet.

Richard Rhodes is best known for winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 with The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Here, he writes well out of his usual history-epic comfort zone, and, in some respects, it shows. This book is terse, and more “dishy” in tone, attempting to emulate a movie industry gossip rag, equal parts frothy biography and dense technological history. Ultimately, whether you will enjoy this book depends on whether you like either or both of these genres, and can tolerate the other.

If you like this:

Publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr in “Let’s Live a Little” (1948)

You better like this with it, too:

USS Wahoo

USS Wahoo SS-238: one of the most successful US submarines of WW II. Lost with all hands in 1943.

If you do like your Hollywood gossip biographies with a hefty helping of technological wartime bureaucratic drama, or the reverse, then this is the ideal book for you.

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type and Large Type), e-Book, Audiobook (CD and Downloadable)

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Road Trip Essentials: Audiobooks

Summer is the season of family vacations and this means often long road trips accompanied by restless travelers of all ages. Regardless of your reading preference or road trip companions, the absolute best way to pass the time on a long road trip is by listening to an audiobook. Sharing an engaging story with your vacation companions can stave off the repetition of, “are we there yet?” and turn even the most reluctant reader into backseat book critic.

Below you’ll find a few of my favorites from a variety of genres and talented narrators. In most cases I have a personal preference for authors as narrators, but some very talented voice actors are noted below. Most genres listed feature children’s (C), teen (T), and adult (A) titles. Although the adult titles may not be appropriate for children/teens, adults should not restrict themselves to only adult titles. A well-executed audiobook, although geared toward a younger audience, can easily be enjoyed by all ages. No matter the variety of personal tastes filling your vehicle there is an audiobook (or two, or three) that will meet your needs.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

The graveyard book

Realistic/Historical Fiction

Code name Verity

Mystery

The Secret of the Old Clock

Memoir/Biography/Non-Fiction

The ultimate David Sedaris box set

Format: Audiobook

Reviewed by Magen, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch 

Upcoming Author Talks at LFPL

Bestselling author and historian

H.W. Brands

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Main Library, Monday, June 15, 7 p.m.

Join bestselling author and historian H.W. Brands for a discussion of his latest book Reagan: The Life. Brands teaches history and writing at the University of Texas at Austin. #LFPLAuthors

This is a free event, but tickets are required – click here.


Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

David Hoffman

hoffman

Main Library, Thursday, July 21, 7 p.m.

Join Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Hoffman for a discussion of his latest book The Billion Dollar Spy. Hoffman is a contributing editor at The Washington Post. #LFPLAuthors

Tickets available starting June 1, 2015.


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Welcome to LFPL’s “At the Library” series, an ongoing podcast featuring author talks, programs and events at the Louisville Free Public Library.

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