True Originals: Biographies That Defy Expectations

Dec 28, 2012

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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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.


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.


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") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.