Annal: 2001 Whitbread Book Award for Biography

Results of the Whitbread Book Award in the year 2001.

Book:Selkirk's Island

Selkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe

Diana Souhami

Piracy and betrayal frame the epic story of solitary endurance that inspired Daniel Defoe’s classic novel.

Who was the real Robinson Crusoe? And what did he really experience during his solitary stay on a remote island in the Pacific? Diana Souhami’s revelatory account of Alexander Selkirk’s adventures on the high seas and dry land leads us to the answers to both these questions, and explores the reality behind the romance of privateering on the high seas.

Born to a poor Scottish family, Selkirk signed on with an ill-fated quest to sack the famous Manila galleon, one of the richest prizes on the southern seas. After a series of misfortunes and disagreements among the crew, Selkirk was put ashore on an island three hundred miles west of South America, where he spent four years learning to survive with little more than his bare hands. …[more]

Book:Boswell's Presumptuous Task

Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson

Adam Sisman

A heroic, brilliantly detailed portrait of the biographer as artist.

James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is the most celebrated of all biographies, acknowledged as one of the greatest and most entertaining books in the English language. Yet Boswell himself was regarded by his contemporaries as a man of no judgment and condemned by posterity as a lecher and a drunk. How could such a fool have written such a book?

Boswell’s “presumptuous task” was his biography of Johnson. Adam Sisman traces the friendship between Boswell and his great mentor, one of the most unlikely pairings in literature, and provides a fascinating and original account of Boswell’s seven-year struggle to write the Life following Johnson’s death in 1784. At the time, Boswell was trying—and failing—to make his mark in the world: desperate for money; debilitated by drink; torn between his duties at home and the lure of London; tormented by rival biographers; often embarrassed, humiliated and depressed. Boswell’s Presumptuous Task shows movingly how a man who failed in almost everything else produced a masterpiece.

Book:Flaubert

Flaubert: A Life

Geoffrey Wall

A blond giant of a man with green eyes and a resonant actor’s voice, Gustave Flaubert, perhaps the finest French writer of the nineteenth century, lived quietly in the provinces with his widowed mother, composing his incomparable novels at a rate of five words an hour. He detested his respectable neighbors, and they, in turn, helped to ensure his infamy as a writer of immoral books. Geoffrey Wall’s remarkable new biography weaves together the inner dramas of Flaubert’s provincial life with the social intrigues of his regular escapes to Paris, where he became a friend to Turgenev and was praised by the emperor, and the flamboyant excitements of his travels throughout the Mediterranean, on which he kept company with courtesans, acrobats, gypsies, and simpletons.

Flaubert’s contradictory experiences nurtured his peerless novels and stories, and Wall’s dynamic interpretation of…[more]

Book:Vermeer: A View of Delft

Vermeer: A View of Delft

Anthony Bailey

Set against the dramatic backdrop of the “golden age” of Dutch culture, the story of one of the world’s most beloved—and most elusive—painters.

In the seventeenth century, industry and commerce thrived in the Dutch city of Delft, as did art and culture. In 1653, the twenty-one-year-old son of an innkeeper, the artist Jan Vermeer, registered as a master painter with the city’s Guild. Vermeer married well, had many children, and enjoyed a respectable local reputation as a painter until his death in 1675. But it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that his genius was widely appreciated. Today, Vermeer’s thirty-five paintings are regarded as masterpieces.

In Vermeer, Anthony Bailey presents a compelling portrait of Vermeer’s life and character, long lost in history.…[more]

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