Giving the Gift of Biography

What better gift is there than books? With Christmas shopping at hand, I have a few biographies and memoirs in mind for people on my list.

John James Audubon: The Making of an American (2006). Don’t know how I missed this when it was first released in 2oo4 since Audubon is a figure who’s long fascinated me and my husband and I are both fans of big biographies. After I heard the author Richard Rhodes speak last summer at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, I rushed out to buy this for someone special on my Christmas list (which means I’ll get to read it when he’s done). Born in 1785 in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) as the bastard son of a French naval officer and a chambermaid, Audubon went to America as a young man to escape military conscription. Fascinated by birds, he spent 35 years wandering the American wilderness to paint them, resulting in his famous multi-volume Birds of America. Amusing observation in Jonathan Rosen’s New York Times review: “His birds are weirdly anthropomorphic (his white pelican looks as if it might consult a pocket watch before flying) and yet they are preternaturally realistic. They look like people who have been turned into birds and might turn back at any enchanted moment, but they have the simultaneous effect of returning their viewers to the wilderness.”

The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010). Biography, botany, history, memoir, art — all come together in this account of Mary Delaney, a British woman in the late 1700s who, after being widowed, picked up a pair of scissors one day and began making paper collages of flowers. She produced nearly a thousand of them, astonishing in their detail. They’re now housed at the British Museum and known as the Flora Delanica. The author, Molly Peacock, is an award-winning poet, and she’s made the book itself something of a collage. The story is a wonderful testament to late-life creativity and the human spirit. I love the very look and feel of this book (my copy is in paperback): beautifully designed, hefty but compact, nice typography, lush illustrations. Kind of evokes the feeling of what it was like holding a catechism or Catholic missal as a child.

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West (2011). I had a eureka moment at the bookstore last week in realizing this book would be perfect for my mother-in-law, who lives in western Colorado. Dorothy Wickendan, executive editor of The New Yorker, used a stash of family letters and photos to reconstruct the adventures of her grandmother and a friend, both college-educated society girls from upstate New York. Chafing at social expectations, they set off in 1916 to teach school for a year in the wilds of Colorado. The pleasure of this book is how meticulously Wickenden details time and place, capturing the spareness and hardships of frontier life and homesteading. It’s a “small” and charming family memoir/biography that’s beautifully rendered. I’ve bought multiple copies of this one.

http://images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/macmillan_us_frontbookcovers_1000H/9780312569372.jpgThe Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2010). A real gem: original, labyrinthine, engrossing. Edmund de Waal set out to trace the history of a large collection of tiny wood and ivory carvings from Japan, called netsuke, that was passed down to him through several generations of his family in Europe. An artist himself (he makes ceramic pottery), de Waal is intrigued as much by the sensual experience of the people who touched the objects as he is by their provenance: “I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers … and where it has been … I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows … I want to know what it has witnessed.” Wonderful evocation of fin-de-siècle Paris, where Charles  Ephrussis, a cousin of de Waal’s great grandfather, was an art critic and one of the earliest collectors of Impressionism. He’s among the figures portrayed in Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” on display at the Phillips Collection here in Washington.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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