In our last, very exciting episode, I began the saga of Run-DMSteve’s Big Fat 2014 Reading Theme. I told you about the four biographies I read that had their moments but never reached escape velocity. Today we’re going to leave Earth orbit with the five best biographies of the year.

I should note that I like to read about the lives of people I could imagine myself being; for example, famous writers and editors or the occasional magician or Arctic explorer. I’ve never imagined myself to be the queen of Egypt, but I was mesmerized by Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (2010).

Cleopatra may have been one of the most influential leaders in the formation of the Western world, but her story has never been her own to tell. We’ve been suckered by 2,000 years of anti-Cleopatra propaganda. We’re not even sure what she looks like.

Schiff sweeps aside centuries of lies and does a brilliant job of revealing the smart, daring woman who led her kingdom in an era as dangerous as Europe before World War I. Sadly, she backed the wrong man in the war that created the Roman Empire. Mark Antony wasn’t good boyfriend material after all. Octavian took “Emperor” as his new job title, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Egypt became a Roman province.

Cleopatra: A Life (which won Schiff her second Pulitzer) reminds me of another superlative book, Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (1984). Connell pulls off the same trick, wading through the myths to find the truth about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Cleopatra Fun Fact: Cleopatra had about as much Egyptian DNA as Elizabeth Taylor.

Bonus Cleopatra Fun Fact: Egypt is so old that when the action in this book begins, the Sphinx had just had a face-lift…1,000 years before.

Extra Innings Cleopatra Fun Fact: When Cleopatra needed some muscle, she hired Jewish mercenaries from Judea.

Back to the dead white guys. (My people!) Next up is A. Scott Berg’s Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978). Max Perkins was the first to publish F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. By the standards of his time, Perkins took a risk with all three. All three were fascinating characters, though I found Wolfe’s behavior intolerable. I couldn’t wait for him to die and get the hell out of the book, but I have to admit, he stole the show.

This seems appropriate for a man who never stopped writing. If you asked him to cut 10,000 words, he’d come back a week later with an extra 20,000. Actually, he wouldn’t come back, you’d have to go get him. The day that Perkins went to Wolfe’s apartment and informed him that Of Time and the River was done, just put the pages in order and surrender it, is one of the classic moments in U.S. literature.

Berg demonstrates the gifts Perkins brought to his work and shows why everyone loved him, where his sense of duty came from, and why he was always so damn unhappy (see sense of duty). I enjoyed reading about all the writers who were Perkins’ boys and girls (to the Big Three you can add James Jones and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings). Afterwards I felt as if I had lived all the decades I’d just read about.

Max Perkins Fun Fact: Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe were father and son, teacher and student, guardian and rebel, and finally adversaries (Wolfe’s choice). Wolfe died in 1938. The last thing he wrote was a letter to Perkins. Perkins died in 1947. The last thing he edited was an introduction to a collection of Wolfe’s papers at Harvard.

Now let’s ride the elephant in the room: the 6’6” Thomas Wolfe. (He was the same height as Michael Jordan and one inch taller than Chuck Connors.) David Herbert Donald, who won a Pulitzer for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1989), favors the idea that Wolfe was a genius. He believes that Wolfe’s editors put a strait-jacket on his prose to make it fit into conventional books.

But he also makes it clear that Wolfe had all the stability of the San Andreas Fault. John Dos Passos called Wolfe a “gigantic baby.” A psychologist who met Wolfe on a train and had dinner with him said that he “ate somewhat the way he talked [continuously], except that things were going the other way.” Inviting this guy over to your house was asking for trouble.

Wolfe never held a job, never learned to type or drive, never had a successful relationship. He couldn’t manage any device more complicated than a zipper – which was handy, because after he became famous, he was thrilled to find that he no longer had to pay for sex.

Somehow, Wolfe attracted many devoted friends, male and female. Fitzgerald said that of all the writers of their generation, Wolfe had the “deepest culture.” Maxwell Perkins tried to teach him how to write novels, his agent Elizabeth Nowell tried to teach him how to write short stories, and his women friends tried to teach him how to be a man. None of them got very far. And yet as gross as Wolfe was, this book is engrossing.

Thomas Wolfe Fun Fact: It was Wolfe who figured out why most protagonists in fiction are young: no one lives long enough to know how to write old characters.

Julie Phillips did a noteworthy job in James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2006). Tiptree was an acclaimed science-fiction writer of the 1970s and ’80s. I knew nothing about him, except that he was actually a woman and that she and her husband committed suicide when they were old and her husband was sick.

Now I am stunned by her life. Alice Sheldon, who was born in 1915, started out as a spoiled rich kid. She was headed for a debutante’s ball and an early marriage into wealth. Instead, she became a bohemian painter, a WWII photo interpreter for the Air Force, a CIA bureaucrat, a psychologist, and finally a trail-blazing, feminist writer. This doesn’t count her youthful sideline as a sexual hellcat.

She was probably bisexual, but she had no knowledge or even a vocabulary for what she wanted from women. She came to believe she was an “alien artifact” in a woman’s body; she was a woman who could only write about women by becoming a man. She was so isolated socially that she once claimed she had never held a baby.

Even if Tiptree’s fiction is not the sort of fiction you like to read, this is the kind of life you should read about. Of all the biographies I read last year, her life was the most strange, and yet her soul was the most…human.

James Tiptree Fun Fact: I’ve met some of the writers who corresponded with Tiptree. This gave me the chance to be nosy and read their correspondence.

Finally, my favorite book of the year: Updike, by Adam Begley (2014). John Updike was my writer hero, and after his death in 2009 I was eager to read the first biography. I was not disappointed. This is not just a book, this is an event.

I used to think that the gap between me and John Updike was about the size of the Grand Canyon. I was wrong. It’s from here to the Moon.

I can’t write objectively about Updike or this awesome biography. Instead I’ll just quote from Orhan Pamuk’s review in The New York Times: “This book’s overall effect on me is a desire to sit down at my desk and work harder and write more.”

John Updike Fun Fact: Lots of children have imaginary friends, but how many adults write 179-page books about their imaginary friend? That’s what Nicholson Baker did in U and I: A True Story. Almost nothing in this true story is true, and yet everything is true, and it was all inspired by Baker’s love for Updike, “a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!” Possibly the weirdest book on my lifetime reading list, not counting Baker’s other books.

Thanks for reading along, even those of you who clicked away in the first sentence and the rest of you who never scroll down. I am caught up with 2014. Back to the music!


  1. thecorncobb says:

    OK, still not about tunes, but lit is right in there, in the Humanities Group, and your discourse on your readings were both interesting and insightful. Thanks for that, Run-DMSteve!

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