New Biographies

This is a very good year for biographies and memoirs. Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Edison by Edmund Morris
   Edison was arguably the most famous man in the world when he died in 1931. Morris has combed the archives and given a history of Edison the botanist, the naval strategist, the iron miner, the chemist and telegrapher and audio producer and publisher. The eight parts of the book describe a decade of Edison’s life, beginning with the last decade of his life and ending with his early years. This is my pick of Best Biography of 2019.
   Sadly, Morris died on May 24, 2019, but publisher materials for this new biography included a list from Edmond Morris dated May 13, 2019, meant to entice readers. Here is my somewhat abridged version of  his list:

Ten Little-Known Facts About Thomas Edison
Edison was married twice. Each wife presented him first with a daughter, then two sons.

He was so deaf, from age 12 on, that he had to bite into the wood of pianos and record players in order to “hear” them through his teeth.

He had little interest in wealth and plowed so much money back into experimenting that he was often on the verge of bankruptcy.

Throughout his life he deliberately starved himself, believing that too much food dulled the brain.

He contributed the word bug to technology, and the greeting “Hello” that we all use when we pick up the phone.

Unlike other technology-obsessed inventors of his day, he had an avid interest in liberal arts, particularly music and literature.

Famous for his work in the technologies of sound and light, he was always happiest when practicing chemistry.

For a number of years in the early 20th century, Edison was the most powerful movie executive in the United States.

In his youth he was one of the fastest telegraph “takers” in the country, producing reams of minute yet perfectly legible handwritten print.

Edison’s inventive fertility did not prevent him coming up with some occasionally loony ideas, among them concrete furniture, a metal violin, and a piston-operated “vape” cigar.

The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir by Samantha Power

   From the preface…
   We make sense of our lives through stories. Regardless of our different backgrounds and perspectives, stories have the power to bind us. In my Irish family, being able to tell a lively story has always been a means of fitting in and drawing people together. As a war correspondent, storytelling was the most effective tool I had to bridge the vast space between those suffering the wounds of distant conflict and my American readers. As a diplomat, when foreign officials refused to budge in negotiations, I would try to shake up stale debates by sharing authentic, firsthand sorties of the many lives that were being affected (for good and bad) by our decisions. And as a woman in national security and the mother of two young children, I used stories to make bearable the tensions inherent in balancing a demanding career and a fulfilling family life.
   This story is one of sorrow, resilience, anger, solidarity, determination, and laughter, sometimes jumbled together. This is also a story of idealism---where it comes form, how it gets challenged, and why it must endure.

   I was amazed what I did not know about Samantha Power and came away in awe of what she has achieved in her life. I am thankful for her writing and look forward to what she will achieve next.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, co-writers Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and artist Harmony Becker    George Takei is well recognized worldwide with his stage performances and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, in 1942, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father’s—and their entire family were forced from their home into a relocation center, where they would be held for years under armed guard.
   They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future. Using the format of graphic memoir will appeal to younger fans and expose them to the ideas of what it means to be American, as well has who gets to decide. Takei, his co-writers and illustrators have given us a timely lesson.
In the Country of Women: A Memoir by Susan Straight    In inland Southern California, near the desert and the Mexican border, Susan Straight, a young white woman and self-proclaimed book nerd, and Dwayne Sims, an African American basketball player, started dating in high school. After college, they married and drove to Amherst, Massachusetts, where Straight met her teacher and mentor, James Baldwin, who encouraged her to write. Once back in Riverside, at driveway barbecues and fish fries with the large, close-knit Sims family, Straight—and eventually her three daughters—heard for decades the stories of Dwayne’s female ancestors. Some women escaped violence in post-slavery Tennessee, some escaped murder in Jim Crow Mississippi, and some fled abusive men.
   A Pakistani word, biraderi, is one Straight uses to define a complex system of kinship and clan—those who become your family. An entire community helped raise her daughters. Of her three girls, now grown and working in museums and the entertainment industry, Straight writes, “The daughters of our ancestors carry in their blood at least three continents. We are not about borders. We are about love and survival.”
   I have been a fan of Straight’s writing since 1993 when I read I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. Reading this memoir answered many questions about her storytelling and mixed race background. What a beautiful book of what makes a family.

Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World's Most Notorious Jewel Thief by Doris Payne    Growing up during the Depression in the segregated coal town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, the bright and willful Doris Payne vowed that neither racism nor poverty would hold her back. At an early age she was thrown out of a jewelry store when a white customer arrived. Using her southern charm, quick wit, and her mother’s extraordinary sewing kills, Payne began shoplifting small pieces of jewelry from local stores. Over the course of six decades, she became an expert world-class jewel thief. Doris’s criminal exploits went unsolved well into the 1970s—partly because the stores did not want to admit that they were duped by a black woman.
   As I was reading I had to continually remind myself that this is a true story. Indeed Doris continues to charm people with her story, aside from this biography there is a Netflix documentary called The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne. It is fascinating to learn about a young determined girl rising from poverty but I do not see her as a role model.