Honor roll: Costa Book Award for Biography

Each of these works has been nominated for one of these awards: Costa Book Award for Biography, Whitbread Book Award for Biography. They are ranked by honors received.

Book:Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

Andrew Wilson

The first and highly anticipated biography of the author of such classics of suspense as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

The life of Patricia Highsmith was as secretive and unusual as that of many of the best-known characters who people her “peerlessly disturbing” writing. Yet even as her work—her thrillers, short stories, and the pseudonymous lesbian novel The Price of Salt—have found new popularity in the last few years, the life of this famously elusive writer has remained a mystery.

For Beautiful Shadow, the first biography of Highsmith, journalist Andrew Wilson mined the vast archive of diaries, notebooks, and letters that Patricia Highsmith left behind, astonishing in their candor and detail. He interviewed her closest…[more]

Book:Young Stalin

Young Stalin

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Stalin remains one of the creators of our world—like Hitler, the personification of evil. Yet Stalin hid his past and remains mysterious. This enthralling biography that reads like a thriller finally unveils the secret but extraordinary journey of the Georgian cobbler’s son who became the Red Tsar. What forms such a merciless psychopath and consummate politician? Was he illegitimate? Did he owe everything to his mother—was she whore or saint? Was he a Tsarist agent or Lenin’s chief gangster? Was he to blame for his wife’s premature death? If he really missed the 1917 Revolution, how did he emerge so powerful?

Based on astonishing new evidence, Young Stalin is a history of the Russian Revolution, a pre-history of the USSR—and a fascinatingly intimate biography: this is how Stalin became Stalin.

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:Victor Hugo: A Biography

Victor Hugo: A Biography

Graham Robb

The life of a writer whose books were such powerful social and political statements that he lived in exile from both France and England. Victor Hugo was the most important writer of the nineteenth century in France: founder and destroyer of the Romantic movement, revolutionary playwright, seminal poet, epic novelist, author of the last universally accessible masterpieces in the European tradition, among them Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He was also a radical political thinker (and eventual exile); a gifted painter and architect; a visionary and mystic who conversed with Virgil, Shakespeare, and Jesus Christ—in short, a tantalizing, protean personality who dominated, distracted, and maddened his contemporaries.

Attempts to explain Hugo’s bewildering complexity have generated a literature of memorable paradoxes. If there were a being higher than God, wrote Ford Madox Ford, one would have to say that it was Victor Hugo. Andr Gide, asked who the greatest French…[more]

Book:Somewhere Towards the End

Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir

Diana Athill

Diana Athill will be ninety in December, 2007. “Somewhere Towards the End” tells the story of what it means to be old: how the pleasure of sex ebbs, how the joy of gardening grows, how much there is to remember, to forget, to regret, to forgive—and how one faces the inevitable fact of death. Athill has lost none of her skill or candour as a writer, her love of the intimate detail. Her book is filled with stories, events and people, and the kind of honest, intelligent reflection that has been a hallmark of her writing throughout her long career. ‘We rarely did anything together except make ourselves a pleasant little supper and go to bed, because we had very little in common apart from liking sex,’ she writes of her last affair, when she was in her late sixties. ‘We also shared painful feet, which was almost as important as liking sex, because when you start feeling your age it is comforting to be with someone in the same condition.’Diana’s previous books are: “Instead of a Letter”, “After a…[more]

Book:The Strangest Man

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius

Graham Farmelo

Paul Dirac was among the great scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, the most revolutionary theory of the past century, his contributions had a unique insight, eloquence, clarity, and mathematical power. His prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics. One of Einstein’s most admired colleagues, Dirac was in 1933 the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

Dirac’s personality is legendary. He was an extraordinarily reserved loner, relentlessly literal-minded and appeared to have no empathy with most people. Yet he was a family man and was intensely loyal to his friends. His tastes in the arts ranged from Beethoven to Cher, from Rembrandt to Mickey Mouse.

Based on previously undiscovered archives, The Strangest Man reveals the many facets of Dirac’s brilliantly original mind. A compelling human story, The Strangest Man also depicts a spectacularly exciting era in scientific history.

Book:Matisse the Master

Matisse the Master: Volume 2. The Conquest of Colour: 1909-1954

Hilary Spurling

“If my story were ever to be written down truthfully from start to finish, it would amaze everyone,” wrote Henri Matisse. It is hard to believe today that Matisse, whose exhibitions draw huge crowds worldwide, was once almost universally reviled and ridiculed. His response was neither to protest nor to retreat; he simply pushed on from one innovation to the next, and left the world to draw its own conclusions. Unfortunately, these were generally false and often damaging. Throughout his life and afterward people fantasized about his models and circulated baseless fabrications about his private life.

Fifty years after his death, Matisse the Master (the second half of the biography that began with the acclaimed The Unknown Matisse) shows us the painter as he saw himself. With unprecedented and unrestricted access to his voluminous family correspondence, and other new material in private archives, Hilary Spurling documents a lifetime of desperation and…[more]

Book:Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer: A Life

Diarmaid MacCulloch

Thomas Cranmer was the architect of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. He was the Archbishop who guided England through the early Reformation, and Henry VIII through the minefields of divorce. This is the first major biography for more than three decades, and the first for a century to exploit rich new manuscript sources in Britain and elsewhere.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, one of the foremost scholars of the English Reformation, traces Cranmer from his east-midland roots to early Tudor Cambridge, into the household of the family of Anne Boleyn, and through the political labyrinth of the Henrician court. By then a major English statesman, living the life of a medieval prince-bishop, Cranmer navigated the church through the king’s vacillations and finalized two successive English Prayer Books. MacCulloch skillfully reconstruction the crises which Cranmer negotiated, from his compromising association with three of Henry’s divorces, the plot by religious conservatives to oust him,…[more]

Book:Chagall

Chagall: A Biography

Jackie Wullschlager

"When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.”

Picasso said this in the 1950s, when he and Chagall were eminent neighbours living in splendour on the Cote d’Azur. Born the son of a Russian Jewish herring merchant, Chagall fled the repressive “potato-coloured” czarist empire in 1911 to develop his genius in Paris. Through war and revolution in Bolshevik Russia, Weimar Berlin, occupied France and 1940s New York, he gave form to his dreams, longings and memories in paintings which are among the most humane and joyful of the 20th century.

Wullschlager has had exclusive access to hundreds of hitherto unseen and unpublished letters from the Chagall family collection in Paris, lending Chagall’s own unique voice to this account. Drawing also on numerous interviews with the artist’s family, friends, dealers, collectors, and illustrated with two hundred paintings, drawings and photographs, this elegantly written biography gives for the first time a full and true account of Chagall the man and the artist—and of a life as intense, theatrical and haunting as his paintings.

Book:Stuart

Stuart: A Life Backwards

Alexander Masters

Stuart, A Life Backwards, is the story of a remarkable friendship between a reclusive writer and illustrator (a middle class scum ponce, if you want to be honest about it, Alexander) and a chaotic, knife-wielding beggar whom he gets to know during a campaign to release two charity workers from prison. Interwoven into this is Stuart’s confession: the story of his life, told backwards.

With humour, compassion (and exasperation) Masters slowly works back through post-office heists, prison riots and the exact day Stuart discovered violence, to unfold the reasons why he changed from a happy-go-lucky little boy into a polydrug-addicted-alcoholic Jekyll and Hyde personality, with a fondness for what he called “little strips of silver” (knives to you and me). Funny, despairing, brilliantly written and full of surprises: this is the most original and moving biography of recent years.

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