A devoted opera lover, Claire Tomalin resists dramatizing A Life of My Own (Penguin, $27) though much that she’s experienced—infidelity, her journalist husband’s killing by terrorists in Israel, her daughter’s suicide—are the stuff of opera. Instead, she treats crises and good fortune alike with an even hand, displaying the judiciousness and empathy that have made her such an outstanding biographer of figures like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Though Tomalin wrote poetry from childhood through college and always believed books were an essential “refuge,” she came late to writing her own: her life of Mary Wollstonecraft was published in 1974, when Tomalin was over forty. She prepared for her authorial career with a solid grounding in editing and reviewing; when she finally got a job in publishing, it was partly due to male interviewers giving her high marks on her looks. Tomalin notes such incidents without attacking or excusing anyone (with the exception of Rupert Murdoch, whose "mix of bullying and bribery" led her to resign as books editor of the Sunday Times in 1986). Throughout her varied professional roles, Tomalin stays firmly grounded in family life; hers is primarily the story of a daughter, wife, and, above all, a mother.
If you’ve read even one volume of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, you’ve probably wondered what drives the Norwegian writer’s shameless and exhaustive exploration of personal experience. In his slender Inadvertent (Yale $18), part of Yale’s Why I Write series, Knausgaard provides some thought-provoking and unexpected insights. He starts by talking about his love of reading—from comic books to Ursula Le Guin, Paul Celan, Malarmé, and Tolstoy. He reads to enter something unknown, “so that even without moving I was moving away from myself,” and this is also the impulse that drives him to write. But—“away” from himself? While delving so deeply inside his experience? How is that possible? In Inadvertent Knausgaard explores his search for meaning, his need to understand an overbearing father, and his humiliation at writing badly, yet continuing to write anyway (he recounts destroying an early manuscript when a poet he admired told him it wasn’t any good). This engaging little book will undoubtedly appeal to avid readers of Knausgaard but it will also introduce newcomers to his work, and will especially fascinate writers who want to understand the craft of one of the most important authors of our time.
We know Mr. Lear (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $45) now mostly for his nonsense, but he was a talented artist, writer, and composer. His other great gift was for friendship, most famously with Tennyson, whose poems he set to music. Mostly self-taught, he gained fame painting birds. Audubon was an admirer. Lear even gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria. Despite being epileptic and prone to depression, he travelled, almost constantly, throughout England, in Europe and in the east, producing books of his journeys illustrated with his landscape paintings. His first nonsense verse and absurd drawings were done to amuse patrons, friends, and their children, then delighted the public when published in 1846. In this engrossing biography, illustrated with numerous drawings and paintings, Jenny Uglow presents the contrasts of Lear, serious painter and sketcher of the ridiculous, travel writer and author of bosh.