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True Originals: Biographies That Defy Expectations

It's probably not true that truth is stranger than fiction, but in the hands of a great biographer, it can be just as compelling. Novelists can create unique and unforgettable characters — there's never been anyone quite like Jane Eyre or Ignatius J. Reilly — but there's no shortage of fascinating literary protagonists who just happened to exist in real life.

This year brought us some brilliant biographies of world-famous leaders like Lyndon B. Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, but this list focuses on books that chronicle the lives of some true originals from many different walks of life. From a spy turned chef to the highest-ranking black military leader in European history, the subjects of these biographies spent most of their lives well off the beaten path and gained fame for their stubborn refusal to conform to other people's expectations. You could say the same thing about the biographers. These books are written with extraordinary style and originality, by masters of the craft who can spin a tale as adroitly and memorably as any novelist out there.

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Dearie

If Julia Child didn't exist, not even the most imaginative novelist could have invented her. America's most famous culinary celebrity started her career working for the Office of Strategic Services (the country's spy agency before the advent of the CIA) during World War II, before discovering that her true passion was not espionage but French cuisine. And in an era when a 50-year-old, 6-foot-2-inch woman with a funny voice wasn't supposed to become a television star, Child revolutionized the medium with The French Chef, probably the most influential cooking show in world history. Journalist Bob Spitz treats Child with an infectious mix of affection and something like awe, tracking her life from childhood in California to death at the age of 91. Dearie significantly expands the portrait of Child that many Americans saw in the 2009 film Julie & Julia (based both on Julie Powell's memoir of the same name and on Child's own autobiography, My Life in France). It's a fitting tribute to a singular personality who taught the world that cooking didn't have to be intimidating, and that it's perfectly OK to make mistakes, as long as you have fun. "[Fun] was the axis on which Julia's world turned," Spitz writes, "the pivotal component in a groundswell of social change that would not only reshape the way Americans ate but the way they lived, as well."

I'm Your Man

"Like a bird on the wire," sings Leonard Cohen in one of his most famous songs, "like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free." It's a bit of an understatement. The legendary writer and musician has done everything his own way — Cohen began his career as an obscure, somewhat transgressive poet, and eventually became Canada's greatest, most original singer-songwriter. In I'm Your Man, music journalist Sylvie Simmons does a wonderful job explaining how the scion of "one of the most prominent Jewish families in Montreal" became the world's unofficial poet laureate of "survival ... sex, God and depression." It's a startlingly effective biography — Simmons seems to understand her subject almost instinctively, and she shares his somber outlook tempered with a wry, but playful sense of humor. Cohen's life wasn't always easy, Simmons writes, but his darkest moments made him who he is now. Or as Cohen himself once sang: "Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in."

Barack Obama

When David Maraniss' biography of the president of the United States was released this summer, political journalists pounced on the most salacious parts: Barack Obama's relationships with his college girlfriends, and his (apparently frequent) use of marijuana as a young man. But there's much more to Barack Obama: A Life. Maraniss does a fine job chronicling the early years of the first African-American to become leader of the free world, vividly describing his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his intellectually nomadic college career and his days as a Chicago community organizer. The book is a story of a young man looking for his identity, for his place in the world, "moving not only from culture to culture but also from political group to political group ... never staking a home, never grabbing hold of something and making it his." Maraniss keeps an appropriate distance from his subject, but by the end of the book the reader feels he or she knows at least a little more about a man who is famously hard to get to know. Barack Obama: A Life is both a compelling story and a fine biography of a notoriously enigmatic subject.

A Difficult Woman

It's possible to read the title of Alice Kessler-Harris' biography of American playwright Lillian Hellman as a kind of a bitter joke — for decades, any female who dared express an opinion was dismissed as "a difficult woman." (Unfortunately, the loaded phrase still persists today.) But Hellman, who was indisputably subjected to undisguised sexism over the course of her career, was never exactly easy to understand — she was a Stalinist, except she wasn't; an intellectual, but one who seemed to despise other intellectuals. Her plays The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes endure despite the best efforts of McCarthyists to wipe her off the cultural map. Kessler-Harris does an admirable job of defending Hellman's places in the literary and political canons, while still acknowledging the playwright's faults — specifically, her tendencies toward self-aggrandizement and angry moralism. In the end, Kessler-Harris writes, Hellman fell prey to her own "politically naive" idealism: "[S]he invented a world in which she did not live. That invention brought her castle tumbling down." In the process, though, she built something far greater: a literary legacy that still stands today.

The Black Count

Even the most imaginative novelists have their limits, and it would take an incredibly fertile mind to invent a character as compelling, exciting and unlikely as Gen. Alexandre (Alex) Dumas. The father of the famous novelist with the same name, the elder Dumas was born in Haiti in 1762; his father was a French aristocrat, his mother, a black slave. Dumas joined the French army at a young age, and it didn't take him very long to become one of the highest-ranking commanders in that country's military. You might forget, while reading, that The Black Count is a work of nonfiction; author Tom Reiss writes with such narrative urgency and vivid description, you'd think you were reading a novel — the swashbuckling, action-packed kind of story for which the younger Dumas was famous. Indeed, as Reiss points out, Alex Dumas was the inspiration for his son's most famous novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. "The life of General Alex Dumas is so extraordinary ... that it's easy to forget the most extraordinary fact about it," Reiss writes, "that it was led by a black man, in a world of whites, at the end of the eighteenth century." The Black Count reminds us of how essential stories, whether true or invented, can be.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NPR's book critics have been compiling their lists of best books of the year. Reviewer Michael Schaub has put together of his favorite biographies, and it includes books about President Obama, Julia Child and Lillian Hellman. But Schaub's favorite is the story of the man with this distinctive voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, I'M YOUR MAN")

LEONARD COHEN: (singing) If you want a lover, I'll do anything you ask me to.

MICHAEL SCHAUB, BYLINE: That's singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen. In Sylvie Simmons' new biography, "I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen," she does a wonderful job explaining how a small charismatic kid from Montreal became the world's unofficial poet laureate of, as Simmons writes, survival, sex, God and depression. "I'm Your Man" is one of the best biographies of the year in large part because Simmons shares Cohen's wry sense of humor and love for the unexpected.

She tells the story of the first time Rufus Wainwright met Cohen. Leonard was in his underwear chewing a boiled hot dog into tiny little bits and spitting it out and putting it on a toothpick and feeding this little bird that had fallen from a nest.

Cohen is known for his often depressing lyrics, and his life has been far from easy, but as Simmons points out, his darkest moments made him who he is now, or as Cohen himself once sang: Forget your perfect offering, there's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANTHEM")

COHEN: (Singing) There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

CORNISH: The biography of Leonard Cohen is called "I'm Your Man," and the man who recommended it is Michael Schaub.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANTHEM")

COHEN: (Singing) We asked for signs. The signs were sent. The birth betrayed the marriage spent... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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