Sign Up

Get the latest ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

All , , Coverage

All Biography Coverage

In her autobiography, All In (18 hours), Billie Jean King tells of her triumphs and struggles both on and off the tennis court, from her hardscrabble childhood in Long Beach, California, to her present-day life in New York City.

Growing up in the 1960s, King’s inquisitive and rebellious spirit reflected the era, as she refused to wear white skirts as a young player. Later, she launched the Women’s Tennis Association and built a career with her husband and business partner. But years of keeping her sexual orientation a secret took a toll on King, physically and emotionally. Her book celebrates the honesty, hard work and love that bolstered her and encouraged her to fight for inclusion and equity.  

In the energetic audio production, King brings her punchy, passionate personality to her percussive narration. Her voice is compassionate and down-to-earth as she relates her experiences of forging relationships with a colorful cast of characters who have joined her in her journey. In moments of pain and joy, King connects deeply with her audience through audible tears and laughter, culminating in an inspiring and cathartic listening experience.

In the energetic audiobook edition of her autobiography, Billie Jean King connects deeply with her audience through audible tears and laughter.

When B.B. King died in May 2015, the world lost an artist whose distinctive style shaped several generations of musicians. King’s fluid guitar riffs and lead runs still define the blues for many fans. Eric Clapton called King “the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” but as journalist Daniel de Visé points out in his absorbing new biography, King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King, King’s journey to such acclaim was never easy. Even King himself might have deferred to other blues artists, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, as more worthy of Clapton’s accolade.

Drawing on extensive interviews with almost every surviving member of King’s inner circle, including family, friends and band members, de Visé chronicles King’s life from his birth into a sharecropper family in Mississippi, to his parents’ split, to his early years being raised by his grandmother. King loved gospel music and sang in the choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church, but as much as he liked the Soul Stirrers and other gospel groups, he noticed they didn’t have a guitar, the instrument he most wanted to learn. One of his ministers taught King three chords on the guitar, and when he turned 16, King bought the fire-red Stella that would kick off his journey to becoming a master of the instrument. Recalling his exquisite joy at having a guitar in his hands, King said, “Never have been so excited. Couldn’t keep my hands off her. If I was feeling lonely, I’d pick up the guitar . . . happy, horny, mad, or sad, the guitar was right there, a righteous pacifier and comforting companion.”

Soon enough, King left Mississippi for Memphis and became an international star. As de Visé points out, though, King always looked over his shoulder at the poverty and scenes of racial injustice out of which he had grown, incorporating those deep feelings of loss into his music so that his listeners could feel his sorrow as he bent the blues through his guitar strings. King of the Blues is the first full and authoritative biography of King, and it accomplishes what all good music books should: It drives readers to revisit King’s music and savor it again.

King of the Blues is the first authoritative biography of B.B. King, and as all good music books should, it will drive readers to revisit King’s iconic music.

In a powerful confluence of history, culture and color, poet and author Jackie Kay tells the story of the legendary American singer and songwriter Bessie Smith, known in her day as the Empress of the Blues. As an orphaned child, born in 1894 (or 1895; statistics about Black Americans were not considered important enough to make accurate), Smith sang for her supper on the street corners of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then rose to fame as a teenager while singing and dancing in traveling Black minstrel shows. Blues singers like Ma Rainey, immortalized in her own right as the Mother of the Blues, helped Smith find her way in the Jim Crow South, and the popularity of Smith’s songs brought her stardom.

If Smith’s voice embodied the blues, her personal life illustrated them. Songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” mirrored her own experiences. She drank, fought and had tempestuous affairs with men and women. She was a devoted adoptive mother, until she lost her child. Amid the abundant parties of the Harlem Renaissance, she refused to be patronized and once slugged the wife of one party’s white host. (She had tried to thank Smith with a kiss.) Smith’s husband, Jack Gee, stole her money, beat her and left her for a rival.

After 1929, Smith’s fame crashed like the country itself. Then, on her way to a comeback in 1937, she died a tragic death at the age of 43, and Gee stole the money raised for her headstone. Three decades later, Janis Joplin helped fund the stone and its inscription: “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.” Kay’s white adoptive father first introduced her to Smith’s vinyl recordings when, as a young girl in the Scotland village of Bishopbriggs, Kay was the only Black person. Smith’s raw voice drew Kay into the history of the blues and the American Black women who made it their own. In Bessie Smith: A Poet’s Biography of a Blues Legend, Kay entwines her own poetic voice with these women’s stories and music, and the result is a mesmerizing, fierce mix of sorrow and woe, love and lust, and—above all—resilience.

Jackie Kay’s biography of blues legend Bessie Smith is a mesmerizing, fierce mix of sorrow, love and resilience.

When it appeared in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five turned Kurt Vonnegut—until then an admired, if pigeonholed writer—into a bestselling celebrity overnight. The novel, which drew on Vonnegut’s wartime experiences as an American soldier during the Battle of the Bulge and, most saliently, the Allied firebombing of Dresden, which occurred while he was held there as a POW, was anything but a straightforward war chronicle. With its darkly humorous tone, time-traveling structure and groundbreaking use of the author as a character/narrator, the novel hardly seemed mainstream. But its absurdity struck a chord with America in the midst of cultural upheaval, and Vonnegut’s unique vision spoke to two generations at once: those who had fought in World War II and those who were coming of age amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War.

A journalist outlines the story behind Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, and the wartime trauma that inspired it.

In The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five, journalist Tom Roston revisits the story behind the book, which Vonnegut struggled to write for many years until he finally found the right voice to use. The engrossing tale Roston reconstructs is twofold. It begins with an absorbing biographical study that explores what made Vonnegut Vonnegut, including not only the events of his war years but also traumas from his Indianapolis childhood and early adulthood that shaped his singular blend of pessimism and humor. Famously quirky in his demeanor as well as in his manner of writing, Vonnegut played by his own rules, even if that meant being incorrectly viewed as only a science fiction writer at the start of his career.

Roston ties Vonnegut’s sometimes peculiar behavior and outlook to his past, and in the latter part of The Writer’s Crusade (whose title is an homage to The Children’s Crusade, the alternate title of Slaughterhouse-Five), he contemplates whether Vonnegut suffered from what has come to be called PTSD. To this end, Roston speaks with other novelists whose work focuses on war, such as Tim O’Brien and Matt Gallagher, as well as with a number of veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He also talks with Vonnegut’s three adult children and others who knew him well. The verdict is inconclusive, but Roston does make a strong case that the roots of the novel—and its ultimate message—stem from Vonnegut’s attempts to process all he had witnessed in the war. Interestingly, Roston suggests that one of Slaughterhouse-Five’s legacies may be the role it played in changing public perception of PTSD, helping Americans recognize its existence and causes.

There will always be mysteries surrounding what is truth and what is fiction in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut himself was cagey and inconsistent when talking about what happened to him or what transgressions he may or may not have committed in Dresden. “So it goes,” he enigmatically wrote after each death in the novel. Still, Roston hopes its writing brought the author some closure and that Vonnegut was able to make peace with his past.

Journalist Tom Roston outlines the story behind Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, and the wartime trauma that inspired it.

When people think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry, they might think of the greeting cards in which they’ve read her most oft-quoted lyric: “How do I love thee? / Let me count the ways.” Fiona Sampson’s dazzling and absorbing Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is likely to change that.

Sampson challenges the usual portrait of Barrett Browning as a “swooning poetess” whose identity is closely bound up with her father and husband. Modeled on Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning’s narrative poem divided into nine books, Two-Way Mirror chronicles Barrett Browning’s growth as a poet, her long-term illness, her marriage to Robert Browning and their subsequent lives in Italy.

Drawing on Barrett Browning’s copious correspondence, Sampson illustrates that the poet was a “pivotal figure” who was acknowledged during her lifetime “as Britain’s greatest ever woman poet” and who attracted international acclaim. Barrett Browning’s use of the female voice in lyric and narrative poetry represented a radical departure from other narrative poems, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath,” in which women characters were, as Sampson writes, “ventriloquized by men.” In the end, according to Sampson, “Elizabeth’s poetry too composes a kind of self-portrait, or rather mirror. As she became herself through writing, her writing reflected that developing self. And so her body of work creates a kind of looking glass in which, dimly, we make out the person who wrote it: her choices and opinions, what moved her, habits and characteristic turns of phrase.”

Two-Way Mirror will enthrall readers and encourage them to read Barrett Browning’s poetry, whether again or for the first time.

People often think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a “swooning poetess,” but Fiona Sampson’s dazzling and absorbing biography is likely to change that.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt described Joseph Patrick Kennedy as “a very dangerous man.” Kennedy became wealthy on Wall Street and in the movie industry and had political ambitions to be secretary of the treasury and then the first Roman Catholic president (a title that eventually went to his son John F. Kennedy). He became a prominent financial backer of FDR’s first two presidential campaigns and successfully served in two key governmental positions during FDR’s administration. Then he campaigned to be ambassador to Great Britain. Despite serious reservations, FDR agreed to the appointment for his own political reasons. The result was a major diplomatic disaster.

Using many newly available sources, Susan Ronald brings this pivotal point in history vividly to life in her meticulously researched The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court of St. James’s, 1938–1940. As ambassador, Kennedy was primarily concerned with avoiding war. He grew close to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and became a fervent supporter of Chamberlain’s appeasement approach to dealing with Hitler. In a conversation with King George VI, Kennedy expressed his opinion that, if it came to war, “Britain will be thrashed and there will be nothing left of civilization to save after the war.” Kennedy was strongly anti-communist but failed to appreciate that fascism was not a better alternative.

The ambassador often differed with FDR on policy, so they maneuvered around each other for the most part. Despite the fact that Kennedy’s views often differed with his government’s, Ronald explains that Kennedy liked to give the impression that he was a policymaker and not just carrying out instructions. By tracing the opinions Kennedy expressed, Ronald outlines the likelihood that he was antisemitic and a fascist sympathizer. “He was bedazzled by the Vatican, which sympathized with Franco and Mussolini for religious and venal reasons,” she writes, “and sought to placate Hitler before he turned on Catholics once the Jews had been exterminated.” She adds that Kennedy was antisemitic “through his own ignorance and prejudices” and “placed prosperity above human life and liberty, above democracies being crushed.”

Although Kennedy failed as an ambassador and never again served in any public office, his wife and their large, attractive family made a positive impression on the American public. Three of his sons, with quite different political views from their father, were elected to high political offices. As John F. Kennedy said years later, “He made it all possible.”

When Joseph P. Kennedy campaigned to be ambassador to Great Britain, FDR made the appointment despite serious reservations. The result was diplomatic disaster.

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!

Recent Reviews

Author Interviews

Recent Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!