Top 5: Kate Buford

The author on her five favorite biographical works



 

Kate Buford is the author of such acclaimed biographies as Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe—a New York Times Editors’ Choice—and Burt Lancaster: An American Life. “All biographies are written to tell the story of a life that made a difference,” says the Yonkers resident. “And the best ones are written to solve a mystery—why did this life happen the way it did?” Here she shares the titles of five bios that solve that mystery in particularly compelling fashion.

 

James Joyce (Richard Ellmann)
“This book is to biography what Middlemarch is to fiction—the greatest,” says Buford, who read this work in college and credits it with sparking her interest in this literary form. “Not only is it a work of masterful research,” she says, “but is written with such grace, wit, and style. Pretty impressive,” she adds, “given that Ellmann was writing about one of the great Irish stylists of the English language.”


My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life (Ted Williams)
Conceding that this choice is “sort of an autobiography—but we have to have a sports book here,” Buford praises both the way co-author John Underwood got Red Sox star Williams to talk freely and frankly, and his skill in translating that talk to the page “with all the irascible man’s originality and voice intact.” Buford adds that, not only does the book convey this great player’s obsession with hitting a baseball, it’s delightfully funny.

Balzac (Stefan Zweig)
Buford describes this work about Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), the prolific, indefatigable French author of La Comédie Humaine, among many other works, as a “classic, old-fashioned life story brimming with passion and detail.” Buford notes that this book was published in 1946, four years after Zweig, a hugely popular Austrian-Jewish novelist and biographer who worked on it for years, committed suicide in Brazil.
Robert E. Lee (Roy Blount, Jr.) 
Noting that Virginia’s Lee has always seemed to her “a tragically weak and tortured figure,” Buford says that this book is a particularly appropriate choice this year, the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. “Blount’s short biography of the Confederate general gives a piquant and not particularly flattering picture of the man referred to as the ‘Marble Model,’” she adds.

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña & Richard Fariña (David Hajdu)
In case you tuned out of the 1960s folk music wave—or were born too late—Buford highly recommends this book in which author David Hajdu “re-creates the intersection of these four lives, their impact on each other and, eventually, American culture.”


 

 

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