Best biographies to read in October: From Beyonce to David Hockney

Beyonce was 'born with music running through her veins'

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The Independent Culture

In Young Lawrence (John Murray, £25), Anthony Sattin explores TE Lawrence’s first adventure.

Lawrence was 20 when he left Oxford for Ottoman Syria, which he toured while working as an archaeologist. During his five years in the Middle East, Lawrence formed attachments which in part motivated his involvement in the Arab Revolt of 1916. His mother begged him to come home but he told her: “I don’t think anyone who had tasted the East as I have would give it up half-way, for a seat at a high table and a chair  in the Bodleian.” This note captures the occasionally fusty tone of a book, which reveals young Lawrence “without the distortions of the legend”.

Lawrence, along with Captain Scott, has overshadowed Ernest Shackleton in the popular imagination, according to Michael Smith in Shackleton:  By Endurance We Conquer (Oneworld, £20). Scott’s legend appeals to our appetite for glorious failure but Shackleton’s Anglo-Irish background means that, when it comes to celebrating his legacy, he has often fallen between cultures. “A new comprehensive biography is overdue,” writes Smith whose book contrasts his subject’s heroics in the South Pole with  his chaotic life at home. As his subtitle indicates, Smith has  an appetite for hyperbole – and the poetry-loving Shackleton would have enjoyed being hailed as a “gale of humanity”.

Bolaño: a Biography in Conversations (Melville House, £16.99) is Mónica Maristain’s “provisional” account of the life  of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. By interviewing his family, friends and fellow writers, Maristain assembles a portrait of Bolaño’s youth in Mexico’s “Infrarealist” literary movement, the inspirations for his masterpieces – The Savage Detectives and 2666 –  and his death from liver failure  in 2003, aged 51. We also learn that he had to be dissuaded from entitling By Night in Chile, one  of his most mesmerising fictions, “Shitstorm”. The interview format works best when writers relax into talking openly of their friend and his books, as the critic Ignacio Echevarría does when he says Bolaño’s novels grow every time he reads them. Over all, though, this book feels hurried and fails to deepen our understanding of a writer who inspires “renewed faith in literature”.

Bolaño believed great novelists should inspire readers to write and, in Christopher Simon Sykes’ Hockney: the Biography Volume 2 (Century, £25), David Hockney says seeing an exhibition of Picasso’s paintings in New York “made me just want to paint”. Sykes’ enjoyable book follows Hockney from 1970s London, through his decades in Los Angeles, to his 2012 exhibition  at the Royal Academy. With wit and poignancy, he captures Hockney’s relationship with his parents and his heady social life. The period between 2007 and 2012, when Hockney was painting rural Yorkshire landscapes for the RA show, was among his most productive and, while some critics judged the results shallow, you must admire a septuagenarian artist who claims: “Things are barely just beginning.” 

Sykes enjoys the kind of insider’s access that Anna Pointer can only dream of in Beyoncé: Running the World (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99). “She was born with music running through her veins,” Pointer writes of the girl who won talent contests in her native Houston before forming Destiny’s Child as a teenager. Her transformation from shy choirgirl to Queen Bey is meticulously researched but, while there’s lots of fashion (“dressing those famous curves”) and a little feminism, wide-eyed descriptions of the star’s lavish lifestyle make for a one-dimensional picture of modern fame. Aside from gossip about Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s rumoured marital problems, the tone is reverential. It isn’t aimed at me but who wants to read an anodyne biography?