Category Archives: Literary Biographies

Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury by Carolyn Burke

Foursome by Carolyn BurkeTitle: Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury
Author: Carolyn Burke
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780307957290
Genre: Art History, Literary Biographies
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I had only known of Georgia O’Keeffe before reading this book. The others were merely names till I read this biography. Of course, I was aware that Alfred was Georgia’s mentor and love, but that’s that. This book is not about the gossip, as much as it is about art and what it does to artists. Foursome is a read about four brilliant artists and their place in the world. It is about an “inner circle” – their turmoils in relation to art, their successes, the places they lived and visited, and the relationship they shared with each other.

Foursome is a book that takes its time to grow on you. You cannot jump into it expecting immediate gratification as a reader. You have to be patient with it for itself to be shown to you. Burke’s new impressive book Foursome is also about America in the making. This book also made me see that perhaps personal relationships (no matter how crucial to artists) are not larger than the artistic ones that develop between people who would go to any lengths for their creative passions.

The centre of Burke’s research are the years from 1920 to 1934 in which the four companions (can term them that) flirted, developed and knew their passions, experimented artistically, and also saw fame – some greater, some lesser. It is almost like living in a bubble surrounded by people you can feed off artistically. And I think this is what led them to become such sources of gossip. Burke looks at all of this and more. She strives to write about what went on in the world as well, while their stories and lives were unfolding. History then becomes a parallel story-teller of sorts, drawing upon what changed and therefore how their relationships altered.

Foursome is the kind of biography that makes you want to jump right in and read more about the world at that time and the people who inhabited them. It is about people who take their chances, and are aware of their flaws, strengths, and all of it. The nature of art and its relationship with artists is of course the crux of the book but Burke goes further and gives us journal entries, letters, and conversations (some recorded, most not) that adds to the telling of lives that is fascinating, intriguing, and above all just makes you think about people who influenced the structure of twentieth-century art.

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Figuring by Maria Popova

Figuring by Maria Popova Title: Figuring
Author: Maria Popova
Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 978-1524748135
Genre: Biographies, Memoirs, Science
Pages: 592
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

How does one begin to explain a book like Figuring? Honestly, I don’t know, however, I shall try. The book Figuring is much like Popova’s site, brainpickings.org: it is sort of a Russian doll, revealing layer after layer after layer, only if you wish to see it, or perhaps experience it. Figuring is a book that you should read with the mindset of allowing the book to take it where it wants to, without expecting something too traditional or run of the mill.

Figuring is a beautiful combination of science with art. The alignment sticks – how each of them is intertwined and how art inspires science and vice-versa. It is like her website, only more detailed – pieces that go on and go and that’s what I loved as a reader, knowing I didn’t have to scroll up or down and could be after reading one paragraph or two and going back to it after a cup of tea.

Maria Popova’s book brings the wonder of scientists and then combines it with hearts and emotions of people, mainly women scientists and that to me was most unique. Figures looks at love, and truth through the interconnected lives of historical figures across four centuries. She begins with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and it ends with Rachel Carson who was so important in the environmental movement.

And in all of this, Popova includes more artists, writers, and scientists (which makes it even more fun to read) – women, and queer and their contribution. What I love about Figuring is that it is like a rabbit hole that you would love getting into. Maria Popova interconnects, segregates, and makes you question matters of life, love, and the heart and what are we doing to leave an impression on the world.

Figuring asks big questions and it isn’t afraid of doing that. There is so much happening in the book that it takes some time to assimilate all of that, and only then can you get into its groove (or at least that’s what happened to me). Figuring would seem disconnected and disjointed in most places, till it all falls into place and that’s when you as a reader start seeing it for what it is. The book is a marriage of art, life, science, music, philosophy, feminism, decline of religion, free love, astronomy and poetry, and honestly no one better to do it than our very trusted Brain Picker.

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

VWTitle: Virginia Woolf
Author: Alexandra Harris
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
ISBN: 978-0500290866
Genre: Biography, Literary Biography
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I remember being all of 13 and attempting to read Mrs. Dalloway. It didn’t make any sense to me back then. Nothing whatsoever. In fact, I also remember dumping it and not picking up any Woolf till I turned 21. That’s when life truly made sense. Virginia Woolf’s writing has captivated me like no other author, not even Murakami for that matter.

Having said that, I wish I had read this book before reading her works, as it provides so much insight and fodder into who she was as a person and how that impacted her writing. Not only that, it goes a step ahead speaking very closely about her family, husband, and influences when it came to The Bloomsbury Group.

This edition by Alexandra Harris might be a brief one when it comes to Woolf’s life, but might I say that she has captured every phase and essence of the writer’s life and works to perfection. I say this because I have read Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee and that is quite an extensive work. Harris does not gloss over anything and provides a view that is completely unbiased and yet thankfully you can see the admiration for Woolf shine in this short biography.

Harris also takes into account Woolf’s relationship with her contemporaries and how she worked on building the Bloomsbury group. Those chapters swept me away, not to also forget how she came to write the novels that she did and her mental health always there -sometimes in the background and sometimes right there at the front.

“Virginia Woolf” by Alexandra Harris captivated me more than any tome on her could have. The writing is crisp and engaging and works well with the accompaniment of 46 photos of Woolf, only adding to the entire narrative. A read for all Woolf lovers and also for those who are afraid of her writing, just so you are encouraged to pick any of her books and read her, thus converting for life.