Biography (2016)

St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate by Karen Armstrong


Paul (5-67CE) is a seminal, if controversial, figure in world religious history. Most people are familiar with the story of his astonishing conversion, on the road to Damascus, from bitter enemy of the fledgling movement surrounding Jesus, to founder of multiple communities of Jesus’ followers all throughout Asia and Europe. Armstrong’s brief (125 pages) study concentrates upon the picture of Paul and his interpretation of Jesus’ message found in the seven letters (epistles) scholars agree were certainly his own work. She asserts that Paul’s efforts, his travels and his writings, were instrumental in turning a small sect, rooted in Judaism, into one of the largest religions practiced in the world. Truly, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Paul’s life changed the course of history!


This is a serious book, scholarly in tone, and requires careful attention on the part of the reader. Suggest it only to those interested in religious history and spirituality, or Christianity.

Read-alikes:
Who Made Early Christianity: The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul by John Gager
The Call: The Life and Message of the Apostle Paul by Adam Hamilton
What Paul Meant by Gary Will

Suzanne McGuire, Commack Public Library



Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate

Was Ted Hughes, an academic babe magnet born to a Yorkshire shopkeeper and his Celtic wife, a “rotter”?  Most famous in this country as Sylvia Plath’s errant husband, he rose to Poet Laureate status at home, where he enjoyed fishing trips with the Queen Mother and fulfilled his civic duties with gusto. Hughes was a great poet, good provider, canny businessman, and caring father, but he was also an unrepentant womanizer.

Given access to Hughes’ personal archive, biographer Jonathan Bate took on the task of making the personal information it contained available to future biographers and interested general readers. His scholarly account opens with a deposition taken in a Boston law office well after Sylvia’s suicide, in a civil suit seeking damages from Ted, among others, for defaming a patient in a mental hospital in a film based on Sylvia’s novel, The Bell Jar. Bates continues at a measured pace, alternating chapters dense with complex anthropological (Graves) and psychological (Freud) theory in vogue at the time with simple historical accounts of Ted’s life.  He includes telling photographs, a useful index, and extensive footnotes.

Read-alikes:
Coleridge:  Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 by Richard Holmes
The Hawk in the Rain by Ted Hughes
Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes
John le Carre, The Biography by Adam Sisman
Sylvia Plath:  A Literary Life by Linda Wagner-Martin
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Jackie Malone, Bellmore Public Library



Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin

I was 3 years old when Johnny Carson retired from late-night television, and my only experience of him prior to this book was a “best of” DVD that I once watched on a bus trip. Since this book is partially an exposé of Carson’s character, the fact that I didn’t have any emotional investment in Carson’s public persona reduced the impact the book could have on me. That being said, Johnny Carson is an enjoyable biography. The author, Henry Bushkin, was Carson’s lawyer and confidante during the height of Carson’s fame. It’s packed with celebrity anecdotes, including a story about an event, hosted by Carson, at which Dean Martin was so drunk that he couldn’t go on stage.

Carson comes off as vengeful and deeply insecure (Bushkin blames Carson’s mother) and has the moody temperament common to comedians, but he is also generous to a fault with those he deems his friends and quick to cut people out of his life if he thinks he’s been wronged. In the eighteen years the book covers, Carson divorces twice, Bushkin once, and they both repeatedly burn bridges with various friends, girlfriends, and business associates. There is sadness on Bushkin’s part when Johnny does eventually drop him, but no surprise.

Overall, an entertaining biography, both funny and nostalgic. I imagine that those with first-hand experience of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson would find it even more interesting. Recommended for readers interested in ‘70s and ‘80s Hollywood, and for all fans of gossipy memoirs.

Read-alikes:

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and me by Pattie Boyd
Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher
Listen Out Loud: A Life in Music - Managing McCartney, Madonna, and Michael Jackson by Ron Weisner


Tabitha Johnson, North Babylon Public Library




Louisa May Alcott by Susan Cheever

Life for the Alcott’s was never easy and Louisa and her family experienced financial difficulties almost her entire life. Alcott worked to help support her family from an early age. Over the years she worked as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, and writer. She also served as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C. While working as a nurse she contracted typhoid. Although she eventually recovered, for the rest of her life Louisa would suffer from horrific headaches and pains in her legs and joints which are believed to have been caused by mercury poisoning. One of the accepted treatments for typhoid at that time was to be given a compound containing mercury. The letters she wrote home during her time as a nurse would eventually be revised and published as Hospital Sketches (1863) in The Commonwealth.

Louisa’s began her writing career writing under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. As Barnard, she wrote thrillers and what she called “blood and thunder” novels and stories such as Pauline’s Passion and Punishment, Behind a Mask, and A Long Fatal Love Chase.  She also wrote over three hundred stories, some of which were exclusively for children. Louisa wrote over a dozen more stories under her own name, including the novel which brought her fame and financial success, Little Women.

A biography about Louisa would be incomplete without discussing her father, who went by the name Bronson. Bronson was an educator with a progressive, Transcendentalist vision. Bronson began Temple School in Boston which initially was well received and thriving but eventually was rejected by the public and petered out within a few years. Bronson would attempt to start other schools but they would all eventually meet with failure as well.  Frequent guests to the Alcott home included well-known intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller.

Days before he died, Bronson said to Louisa, “I am going up. Come with me.” She replied “Oh I wish I could” to which her father replied “Come soon.” On March 6, 1888, two days after Bronson’s death, Louisa May Alcott passed away. She is buried in Concord near longtime friends Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau.


Susan Cheever has written a well-researched, well-written biography. The one criticism I have is the interjections that Cheever makes about a parallel between her and Alcott’s life. Louisa May Alcott would appeal to anyone, but especially to someone like myself, who has loved Little Women since they were a young girl. In fact, by the time you’re done, you may get an urge to read Little Women.

Read-alikes:
The Journals of Louisa May Alcott - Jed Myerson and Daniel Shealy (eds)
The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott - Jed Myerson and Daniel Shealy (eds) 
Louisa May Alcott: A Biography by Madeleine Stein

Susan Ketcham, B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library, LIU Post




A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction by Patrick J. Kennedy

Patrick Kennedy was a Congressman from Rhode Island when a minor crash while driving "under the influence" in Washington, D.C. became the first step in a long rehab...and his eventually taking control of his life. He grew up in a family that did not discuss their problems: divorce, his mother's drinking, his father's drinking, bipolar disorder, depression and substance abuse - all swept under the rug.

He had already been in rehab as a senior in prep school for cocaine and alcohol abuse. In 1988, when a tumor was found on his spine, he was relieved (the tumor turned out to be benign) because those around him would be inclined to be sympathetic to his drug use believing he was in pain.

His trials during rehab made him determined to persevere. His father turned his back on him telling him not to bother contacting him for a while, and there was little support from the rest of the family. Some were embarrassed by his revelations. Others were angry with him for divulging family secrets. Well-written with chilling details...much sadness and pain...and finally a successful outcome. Patrick has made it his life's mission to bring mental illness into the public discussion as a disease, the same as chronic physical ailments.
 
He decided to leave Congress in 2011 not long after his father’s death to devote his career to advocacy for brain diseases and to create a new, healthier life and start a family. He has since founded the Kennedy Forum, which unites the community of mental health, and co-founded One Mind for Research, which sponsors brain research and open science collaboration. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Amy, and their four children.

This is a good read for men and women of all ages. There are insights into the Kennedy Family, sympathetic details for others fighting mental disease or addiction and a great deal of information for laypeople and professionals.

Read-alikes:
Fast Girl: a Life Spent Running from Madness by Suzy Favor Hamilton
Drinking in America: Our Secret History by Susan Cheever
But Enough about Me: A Memoir by Burt Reynolds

Grace O'Connor, West Islip Public Library, Retired



Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero by Douglas Perry

Eliot Ness known as leader of the legendary “Untouchables” honest lawmen who could not be bribed and taking down Chicago’s Al Capone during the Prohibition Era, Ness emerges as a much more complex individual than the boy scout image Hollywood depicted. Eliot had a Criminal Law teacher, August Vollmer, known as The Father of Modern Law Enforcement who became Eliot’s mentor.  Some of Eliot’s firsts were to train cadets before putting them on the beat; previously the cadets were given a badge and a gun and sent out on patrol. Ness also encouraged the hiring of black cadets who he felt would do a better job patrolling their own neighborhoods. After Capone’s downfall and the targeting of Chicago  speakeasies, Ness rose to Cleveland’s Director of Public Safety and took on the illegal gambling rackets and the corrupt police and politicians. Ness was also interested in joining the FBI but J. Edgar Hoover did not hire him because he did not want to be overshadowed by the charismatic Ness.  

Perry superbly depicts the meteoric rise and eventual decline of Ness, who had his demons and died at 55 an alcoholic, alone and penniless. While reading this biography I couldn’t help but think that we could use the young idealistic Eliot Ness today to combat the graft and general dishonesty in politics where those to which we have entrusted our public funds and policy decision making are lining their own pockets.

Read-alikes:
Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye by James A. MacKay
The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition by Athan Theoharis

Peggy McCarthy, Smithtown Library, Retired



Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Yes Please is the autobiography of actress and comedian Amy Poehler who has starred on television shows like Saturday Night Live and Parks & Recreation as well as movies such as Baby Mama and Wet Hot American Summer. Poehler touches briefly on her childhood and time in college but mostly focuses on how she got started as a comedian and the people and jobs that got her where she is today. Interspersed with photographs from when she was young and from the different projects she has worked on, Yes Please can almost be considered a mixed media project with the artwork, scripts pages, etc. helping to break up the narrative of her life.

Yes Please isn’t linear, it doesn’t start at point A and end with the present day but instead goes back and forth and tell anecdotes of what is was like to work on various projects, how she’s known many of the people she’s worked with for years, including one her best friends, fellow comedian Tina Fey, and is a snapshot into Poehler’s self-described chaotic mind. Poehler talks about subjects such as how she has trouble sleeping, what it was like to try to make it as a comedian in the early 90s in Chicago then in New York City, jobs she’s held to make ends meet, being a female comedian in a mostly male dominated field and while not going into details, she shares a little bit about her feelings on her divorce from actor Will Arnett and about how happy her two sons make her.

Being written by a comedian, one would think the book would be funnier, and although there are times when I laughed out loud, overall I found the book to not be as interesting as I’d hoped. The choppiness of the narrative, which is quite like Poehler’s real thought process, made the back and forth a bit annoying and at times I found myself wondering if I even cared about finishing the book. That said, Poehler is brutally honest about herself and readers will like that aspect of the book; some of the things she says will make people think. She also has a dirty mind which makes for some fun reading. For lovers of biography and those who like comedians/comedy.

Read-alikes:
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Dirty Daddy: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy Comedian by Bob Saget
I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend by Martin Short
Almost Interesting: A Memoir by David Spade

Azuree Agnello, West Babylon Public Library




Troublemaker by Leah Remini

In Troublemaker, Remini begins her story when she’s nine years old and finishes in 2013 when she disengaged from the Church of Scientology.

Remini and her sister were introduced to Scientology by their mother when they were children in Brooklyn. They continued their servitude at the Fort Hamilton Hotel in Clearwater, Florida, working and studying the science, not going to conventional junior high school. At 13, they moved to Los Angeles, where Remini pursued her acting career and continued her studies in Scientology. 

As an adult, Remini gave over $2,000,000 to Scientology in the form of books, classes, and donations. Her first inkling of something amiss, was when the Church showed pictures of staff members handing out brochures to flood victims when they should’ve been handing out bottled water. She asked what her money was going to, as she had been told it was going for food and water, but never received a clear response.

Things started going really bad when Remini and her husband were invited to Tom Cruise’s house for a dinner party (where he wanted to play Hide n Seek). Remini witnessed him throwing a tantrum over cookies and noted unbecoming behavior from other Church members. In the Church, members are encouraged to write up others’ aberrant behavior supposedly so those members can “overt” (kind of like confession). However, once Remini did this (she had been reported on many times) the Church became her enemy, keeping tabs on her constantly, making her take extra training classes at her own expense, etc.

Finally, she was deemed a Suppressive Person, meaning all her friends and family were ordered to have nothing to do with her. In 2013, she and her family left the Church losing almost all their Scientology friends, but gaining their freedom.

In 2013, after leaving the Church, she was on the TV show, Dancing with the Stars, where she performed as a puppet, with her dance partner pulling the strings to show how she had felt when she was with Scientology.

Written in a conversational style, the reader feels as if she is having a conversation with the actor. Though not quite linear, and only scratching the surface of her ordeal, it is a quick, easy read. A good read for any Remini fans or anyone looking for insight into Scientology.

Read-alikes:
The Creation of Human Ability: A Handbook for Scientologists by L. Ron Hubbard
The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology by John Sweeney
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Lori Ludlow, Babylon Public Library




Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse


In this memoir, Brando Skyhorse, tells his story of survival in a dysfunctional family that lived in the rough neighborhood of Echo Park, Los Angeles. Skyhorse believed throughout his life that he was American Indian when in reality; both his mother and biological father actually were Mexican American. Skyhorse’s mother was a young and attractive woman who was emotionally unstable and suffered from bouts of rage. When Skyhorse was three years old, his mother in one of her rages, forces Skyhorse’s father to leave. Skyhorse’s mother, wanting a more interesting life, reinvents herself and Brando as American Indians. It took Brando Skyhorse almost 30 years to learn about his true background and meet his real father.

As a boy, Skyhorse accompanied his mother on trips to meet potential new husbands she found through personal ads. Skyhorse’s mother became interested in American Indian political activists and developed a correspondence with an American Indian stranger in prison, Paul Skyhorse. In a visit to the prison, she introduced this stranger to Brando as his father. Paul Skyhorse eventually adopts Brando and legally gives him the American Indian name. But Paul Skyhorse is just one of five stepfathers that Brando Skyhorse has throughout his life with his mother.

Brando Skyhorse never had a chance to live a normal child’s life. He was often blamed for things that went wrong by both his erratic mother and his bitter grandmother. His mother isolated herself in her bedroom as she worked as a phone sex operator. He lived in fear of his mother’s rages, of her threats of killing him or throwing him out of the house and he lived with the need of a father’s love. Every step-father his mother found, losers from prison or conmen, who stole from employers or from Brando’s mother, filled the boy with hope for a father. These men eventually leave, either driven away by Brando’s crazy mother or by their own restlessness.  

Skyhorse writes a darkly comical memoir. His writing is at times lyrical and moving. Skyhorse’s tone is matter of fact as he relates all the awful and strange experiences. The reader comes to understand that there was love in this strange family. Brando’s mother never left him although she drove him crazy. The life of lies showed him how to tell his story and he learned that “stories sustain us” and “carry us through lives we convince ourselves we can’t escape to get to the lives we ought or need to live instead.”

Take this Man is a book that would appeal to readers who enjoy reading about survival. These stories show other people’s experiences lead to new understanding of life. Take This Man shows the impact of one’s identify can have on one’s life as well as the importance of a father’s presence in a child’s life.

Read-alikes:
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

Myrna Velez, Brentwood Public Library



Just Kids by Patti Smith


Musician, poet and visual artist Smith chronicles her intense life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe during the 1960s and '70s, when both artists came of age in downtown New York. Writing with wonderful immediacy, Smith tells the affecting story of their entwined young lives as lovers, friends and muses to one another. Eating day-old bread and stew in dumpy East Village apartments, they forged fierce bonds as soul mates who were at their happiest when working together. To make money Smith clerked in bookstores, and Mapplethorpe hustled on 42nd Street. The book abounds with stories about friends, including Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, William Burroughs, Sam Shepard, Gregory Corso and other luminaries, and it reveals Smith's affection for the city—the "gritty innocence" of the couple's beloved Coney Island, the "open atmosphere" and "simple freedom" of Washington Square. Despite separations, the duo remained friends until Mapplethorpe's death in 1989. "Nobody sees as we do, Patti," he once told her.

Read-alikes:
Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews by Bob Dylan
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell
The Virgin at Bennington by Kathleen Norris
I'm You're Man by Sylvie Simmons
M Train by Patti Smith

Kathy Carter, Mastics-Moriches-Shirley Community Library, Retired 



George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson

George Harrison was known as “The Quiet Beatle.” (For anyone that’s been living under a rock for the last half-century, The Beatles were four young “Liverpudlian” lads that captured the world of music by storm, and virtually defined the course of cultural history for decades to follow.) Harrison most likely acquired the distinction of being “The Quiet One” because his three bandmates were a bit more flamboyant than he. The fact that he was the youngest of the lot probably played a part as well. Harrison’s moniker resulted in a veil of mystery, a general feeling that we could never really “know” him as we felt we “knew” the other members of the band. In fact, Harrison was an extremely complex, sometimes contradictory, individual. He had one foot in the world of rock and roll superstardom, and another foot in the world of spirituality; he had a social conscience and, at times, a sense of entitlement; he lived on a grand scale, yet enjoyed the simplest things in life, like tending to his garden.

Harrison was an accomplished songwriter, although his songs were often overlooked for inclusion on The Beatles’ albums because of a dominant Lennon/McCartney writing team. His song Something is one of the most popular songs ever written, with at least 200 covers recorded. In addition to his musical compositions, Harrison supported the advancement of independent filmmaking, introduced the Western world to the spiritual practices and music of India, and with his Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, provided the model for the charity concerts that we are familiar with today.

Graeme Thomson has written a definitive and detailed biography of one of the world’s most innovative and respected musicians to have lived in the 20th century. Thomson traces Harrison’s life from its humble beginnings, to a rise to unprecedented fame, to an untimely death in 2001. Conducting interviews with family members, fellow musicians and friends, and drawing upon scores of articles, interviews, books, and websites, Thomson has captured the essence of a complex and charmed life. Behind the Locked Door is a must-read for every baby-boomer “Beatlemaniac,” every musician that is interested in the band that influenced and changed the course of popular music history, and anyone else with a curiosity about what it may be like to be a celebrity of such enormous notoriety.
           
One note of caution for some readers: Thomson’s account of Harrison’s life is quite revealing. The reader is given a front row seat to all that went on both publicly and privately in Harrison’s life—before, during, and after the era of Beatlemania—and some of it is a little disillusioning. Some of us that remember the era have a vision of four, happy-go-lucky moptops, on top of the world and having the time of their lives! Let’s just say this: Thomson’s book reveals that it wasn’t all “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” 

Read-alikes:
Lennon: The Definitive Biography by Ray Coleman
Ringo: With a Little Help from My Friends by Michael Starr
Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes

Deborah Fermosa, Northport-East Northport Public Library



The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was better known as Mark Twain, America’s highly regarded writer. His last story was his autobiography, which he planned on being published posthumously so that he could speak freely and uninhibited. He did have a lot to say, and at seventy-nine chapters we seem to learn everything about his life. This book is rich with details of various people and events.

Mark Twain has a remarkable ability to tell a story, whether he is recounting pranks that he plays on his brother, (remind anyone of Huck Finn?) or describing stage fright. His first speech was jokingly titled “the trouble begins at eight,” and the trouble did indeed start at eight. He freezes in front of a large audience, but quickly recovers to winning laughter and applause. Ironically, he thinks one of his shortcomings was that he was not humorous, but he obviously was. 

Twain had to go to work at a young age to help support his family. He works at a variety of jobs that were of no interest to him until he discovers that he can make a living by writing, and then he says that he never “worked” a day in his life again. In addition to being a writer, he works the lecture circuit, telling his stories and travelling the world. 

He is intrigued with science and technology and invests and loses money in various projects. He also starts the Webster Publishing Company with his nephew–in-law, which later went bankrupt -- through no fault of his own. Twain doesn’t want to ruin his reputation, so he eventually pays back all of the creditors, even though he isn’t legally obligated to do so.

An added bonus in the book is the first-hand knowledge about life in 19th century America as he travels from place to place. Born in Florida and raised in Missouri, Twain moves several times and by the time the Civil War breaks out, he is a young man living on the West Coast. When he marries he decides to settle in New York and Connecticut with his family. One tidbit: he visits Manhattan frequently, and remembers all the construction going on at the reservoir and remarks; they are building a “big library.” Today we know it as the New York Public Library.

The most touching part of the book is when he talks about the love he has for his wife and children. In the last chapter his heart is broken- as he is now old and his wife and three of his children are deceased, and the fourth is married and living abroad. He says “I was once a very rich man- but now I am poor.” His honesty and sincerity touches us and shows us why he was America’s treasured writer.

Read-alikes:
The writings of Emily Dickinson
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The writings of Walt Whitman

Eileen Gazzola, Huntington Public Library



I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

I Am Malala is the inspirational story of a young girl’s courage to fight for peace, education and equality in the face of fear and Taliban control in Pakistan. Daughter of a progressive father who built schools and believed in educational equality, Malala developed a love for learning. Her passion quickly established her as an advocate for girls’ education. She used a pen name to create a diary for BBC Urdu describing what it was like to live under the Taliban, and won the Pakistan National Youth Peace Prize in 2011. Unfortunately, her outspokenness also attracted the attention of the Taliban, and Malala was shot at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school when she was just 15 years old.

Although this book is written with foreign news correspondent Christina Lamb, its voice is Malala’s own, which radiates with love for her family, pride for her country and passion for girls education and rights. Malala’s story delves deep into her personal ancestry as well as Pakistani history, which at times causes the narrative to slow. This attention to detail, however, would be appreciated by readers with an interest in Middle Eastern history and culture, international relations and current events.

This book is also a must-read for anyone who has followed Malala’s story since it appeared in headlines. For those who were shocked by her attack and inspired by her bravery, this book will provide insight into the events leading up to and following Malala’s shooting, her treatment and her new life in England. Malala’s youth also naturally makes her story appealing to teens, and for those who prefer it, a young reader’s edition of her book is available with additional photos. A documentary, He Named Me Malala, also premiered in 2015.

Read-alikes:
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Jill Wylie, Hauppauge Public Library