Summer is just the time for lovely, doorstop-sized biographies of wonderful women writers. Some of these aren’t that recent, but still good reads nonetheless. For your long sunny hours at the pool or beach, femmeliterate recommends:
The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion, by Tracy Daugherty
As the LA Times review concedes, the best biographer of Joan Didion is Joan Didion. But for those who want an overview and some connective tissue between her nonfiction and fiction, a behind-the-scenes look at the writing of A Star is Born, and funny stories about those times that Harrison Ford came to work on the house, Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song is a worthwhile read.
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin
Ruth Franklin makes a page-turning narrative out of the life of Shirley Jackson, who, when she wasn’t writing spine-tingling horror stories, was tossing off excellent and hilarious observations on motherhood and parenting for Good Housekeeping and places like it. Franklin is perceptive, generous, and a wonderful reader of Jackson’s early novels and stories, going beyond biographical parallels between the life and the work to explore Jackson’s favorite themes, obsessions, interests, and fears. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is entirely engrossing.
Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Therese Svodoba
In addition to a history lesson and an insight into a now-overlooked force on the literary scene, Therese Svodoba gives wonderful force and insight into her reading of the poetry of Lola Ridge in Anything That Burns You. Given the many recognizable names and memorable events—both literary and historical—that pepper every page, it’s remarkable that Lola Ridge isn’t more well know. It will take a dedicated fan or a very determined curious person to make it through the whole book, but reading is an education in itself, and Ridge’s poetry is powerful and haunting.
Coming of Age: The Sexual Awakening of Margaret Mead, by Deborah Beatriz Blum
This biography of Mead’s early life is an account, more than anything, of how she got to Samoa; the process of writing of the work that made this early anthropologist famous is unfortunately sketched over in this book, and replaced with accounts of logistical difficulty and the weather. However, it’s made beautiful by the time and care given to Mead’s dearest friends and lovers, who are written as point-of-view characters, and gives wonderful glimpses into their lives and motivations as they are interwoven with (and left behind by) Mead’s restless spirit and relentless ambition. Coming of Age explores a new dimension of this American icon and adventurer.
Never enough Charlotte Brontë
Here’s a two-fer: The Secret History of Jane Eyre offers a thoughtful exploration of the events of Charlotte Brontë’s life that infused her famous novel with such power and depth. Hardcore fans will enjoy seeing the book brought to life by the Charlotte seen through her letters and other writings, from the devotion to her family, the love of the wild place where she lived, and her painfully doomed love for Constantin Heger.
For true biography, however, turn to Claire Harman’s A Fiery Heart for a narrative of Charlotte’s life written in prose almost as luminous and beautiful as her own.
Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, by Wayne Flynt
And if you’re looking for a slimmer read that offers a slighter but no less lovely insight into the mind of a beloved author, take a peek at Wayne Flynt’s Mockingbird Songs. His correspondence with Harper Lee, though it finds her late in life and much concerned with things like illness and where they shall go to lunch, is a wonderful reflection on Lee’s relationship with her fame and the remarkable legacy of her very remarkable book.