Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Day 21: A Painter and a Writer

Welcome to Day 21 in our 24 Days of Books. As always at this time of year, major biographies are all the rage. This year is no exception. Of course one of the biggest biographies of the season is Steve Jobs, by the eminent biographer Walter Isaacson. But when I think of holiday biographies I tend to think of historical biographies.

One of the major historical biographies this year is Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin. This new biography, published by Penguin Press, gives full measure to Dickens's heroic stature -- his huge virtues both as a writer and as a human being -- while observing his failings in both respects with an unblinking eye. Dickens's own grim upbringing, including his father's time in a debtor's prison, helped him to develop his remarkable eye for all that was absurd, tragic, and redemptive in London life.

Tomalin crafts a story worthy of Dickens's own pen, a comedy that turns to tragedy as the very qualities that made him great -- his indomitable energy, boldness, imagination, and showmanship -- finally destroyed him. With a focus on the man and his life, rather than his writings, the man who emerges in this book is one of extraordinary contradictions, whose vices and virtues were intertwined as surely as his life and his art.

Another significant historical biography this season is Van Gogh: The Life, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith and published by Random House. Working with the full cooperation of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Naifeh and Smith have accessed a wealth of previously untapped materials, drawing liberally from the artist’s famously eloquent letters and wading through hundreds of unpublished family correspondence. This detailed biography provides a tour through both the life and the work of the Dutch painter, beginning with his parents' family tree, and postulates a new theory about Van Gogh's death at the age of 37.

According to The New York Times, "What Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith capture so powerfully is Van Gogh’s extraordinary will to learn, to persevere against the odds, to keep painting when early teachers disparaged his work, when a natural facility seemed to elude him, when his canvases failed to sell. There was a similar tenacity in his heartbreaking efforts to fill the emotional void in his life: ostracized by his bourgeois family, which regarded him as an unstable rebel; stymied in his efforts to pursue his religious impulses and become a preacher; rejected or manipulated by the women he longed for; shunned and mocked by neighbors as crazy; undermined by a competitive Paul Gauguin, with whom he had hoped to forge an artistic fraternity."

Recently CBS's 60 Minutes aired a segment focusing on Van Gogh and the new theory around his death and interviewing Naifeh and Smith.

A few of the other major biographies this season from the literary world include Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller, by Oregon Book Award winner and OSU professor Tracy Daugherty; Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961, by Paul Hendrickson; and
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields.

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