The best biographies for Christmas

A human touch for art
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Literary academics loathe biography, and a prize specimen has just squeaked in the London Review of Books that "intelligent people" should not write (or, presumably, read) the lives of writers. Take that, Dr Johnson. Yet gifted biographers don't pretend to close the gap between artist and work, but to explore their mysterious interactions. Claire Tomalin's splendid Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (Viking, £25) never reduces the poetry or fiction to the strange, often sad life of its maker, but illuminates it by finely observed contexts of class, character and culture. As does Maggie Fergusson's life of the Orcadian wizard of verse and prose, George Mackay Brown (John Murray, £25), which memorably traces the affinities of place and personality without ever supposing that one defines the other.

A satisfying trio of poets' biographies, each of which grapples with conflicts between art, faith and desire, is completed by John Stubbs's Donne: The Reformed Soul (Viking, £25). Donne, rake and courtier turned cleric, may be canonised as one of Shakespeare's greatest peers. But to deny to newcomers - as the academic would - the chance to meet him, and his genius, via an engaging narrative is truly philistine.

Yet biography does evolve, changing its focus and its boundaries. Fashionably, but with assured scholarship and storytelling flair, Ross King selects one decisive passage in the career of Manet and his friends and foes in The Judgement of Paris (Chatto & Windus, £17.99): an engrossing account of how avant-garde artists' battle with the salons helped to fix the visual style of our world.

Jenny Uglow's warmly sympathetic depiction of the Romantic-era woodcut artist Thomas Bewick and his circle, Nature's Engraver (Faber, £20), puts a once-patronised Tyneside innovator centre-stage, weaves his story into the radical politics and natural-history cults of his age, and reclaims his lovingly attentive art. The new biography often opts to look at the figures around over-familar icons. Rodney Bolt does so in his pacey and spirited life of Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte (Bloomsbury, £20), tracing this unsinkable scamp from Venice to New York.

Biography-phobes might also deplore the idea of artists writing on their own memories and motives. They will miss, for instance, Susan Tomes's wise and winning A Musician's Alphabet (Faber, £12.99), in which the distinguished pianist crafts a set of intimate variations from her own experience as a performer. The year's most appealing Shakespeare book also chose a personal route. Dominic Dromgoole's Will & Me (Allen Lane, £17.99) takes an irreverent director's cut into Bard World, telling with dash and warmth how the plays hijacked his life. Two fine memoirs by leading poets address the tangled roots of talent. John Burnside's A Lie about my Father (Cape, £12.99) brings to tender, painful life the poet's damaged and damaging parent, "falling at his own velocity" from Cowdenbeath to Corby. Just as evocative, but quieter in its family passions, is Andrew Motion's In the Blood (Faber, £16.99). It balances the pastoral pleasures of a minor-gentry childhood with a prickle of risk that presages the shocking climax.

Two ruefully amusing American writers' memoirs emerged from the mid-century mid-West, and helpedto explain a generation that later blundered into global power. Jonathan Franzen's The Discomfort Zone (Fourth Estate, £16.99) is the more obviously artful: its self-deprecating fragments take in shared icons such as Peanuts and the Pythons, as well as private passions - German literature, or the solitary poetry of birdwatching. Fans will find Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Doubleday, £18.99) as adorable as they could wish, but it hides a chill beneath its charm. His anecdotes from a blessed 1950s childhood in Des Moines build into a rather sophisticated book about "heartland" simplicity.

We should end with a (big) bang, although I might be on shaky ground in classifying Michael Frayn's formidable, but friendly, The Human Touch (Faber, £20) as a creative autobiography. Yet this is a wittily discursive summing-up of Frayn's career-long immersion as playwright and novelist in the philosophical questions posed by post-Einstein science. He argues we're all on shaky ground, as we struggle via our senses and our selves to make sense of an incorrigibly mobile reality.