Since the silent era, Lon Chaney has been known as “The Man of A Thousand Faces.” Very little has been known about how he created those faces, though, let alone about his personal life or many of the early films he made. Michael Blake’s Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces details nearly every aspect of the actor’s life, listing review after review, every detail known about movies both lost and extant and quoting many dozens of newspapers and magazines. The sheer amount of information is staggering, and while that leads to some dull prose now and again – the book is more informative than imaginative – you can’t go wrong if you ever wanted to know about Chaney’s life. The best part of this book is when Blake, an accomplished Hollywood makeup artist, tells us how Chaney created his disguises. – Stacia Kissick Jones
Shakey by Jimmy McDonough
Critics and fans of pretty much any rocker who’s been around for four or five decades will opine that they’ve had an “unconventional” career or “never played by the rules.” But Neil Young, with his detours into avant-garde filmmaking, model trains, record label spiting and now the demolition of the MP3, is one of the few who has consistently fit the bill. So it is apt then that he moved forward with a different route for the late-career tell-all: Shakey by Jimmy McDonough, a riveting biography/autobiography hybrid that spans Young from A (an awkward Canadian teen fiddling with a guitar amp for the first time) to Z (Young attempting to emulate the recent success of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind). While McDonough gets a bit carried away with hyperbole and inserts himself into the story towards the end, the detailed anecdotes – told in Young’s italic interludes or from McDonough’s 300 sources – about Young’s early days with Rick James, marriage to Carrie Snodgress, experience at The Last Waltz, and everything in between are must-reads for fans of “Bernard Shakey” or simply artists who, yes, don’t play by the rules. – Kyle Wall
Exhaustive in the best possible sense, Neal Gabler’s Disney is the ultimate text on Walt Disney, one of the leading pop culture figures in the 20th century and arguably a central component in the development of America’s post-war identity. Gabler’s weighty tome traces Disney’s life through his modest upbringing and early adult failures to the eventual massive success he found after the introduction of a certain mouse to his creative repertoire. Disney succeeds largely in part because of Gabler’s emotional detachment from his subject, which enables him to be frank about Disney’s shortcomings– his bouts of racism, his inhumane treatment of his employees– while simultaneously celebrating his progressive ways and his ability to anticipate the American public’s ever changing tastes.
Though by no means light reading, Gabler does his subject justice by illuminating all of the seemingly minor elements that led to Disney’s inescapable public persona, with Gabler theorizing that Disney’s talent was in his storytelling skills more than anything else. Positing Disney as a curator of others’ skills, Gabler reveals how the greatest storyteller in America’s 20th century knew that a brand and an image were what the American public wanted more than anything else and his capitalization on that– interweaving it with the story of America in the 20th century itself — is what led to his triumph. Where other biographies often try to limit their subjects to one linear story, Gabler understands that the immensely complicated figure at the heart of Disney can never be fully explained, only presented from myriad perspectives and set against their specific era. - Nick Hanover
Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan
The fact that I haven’t read many biographies stems mostly from personal preference, but I think this apprehension has a lot to do with how conventional many of these accounts tend to be, following a roughly chronological path, sanding down people’s edges to fit them into a certain mold. It’s the diversion from this method that makes Bob Dylan’ fragmented, maddeningly incomplete take on his life story so weirdly rewarding. Zeroing in on a few choice sections of the singer’s weird journey, it’s a far cry from the usual attempts at comprehensiveness. – Jesse Cataldo
At an exhaustive 679 pages (not including another 100 pages of notes), Cheever reads like the best fiction, presenting us with a meaty, well-rounded look at one of our most beloved writers. But like the best biographies, such as Nancy Milford’s look at Edna St. Vincent Millay in Savage Beauty, Cheever is about more than its subject. It’s about a time and a place, a chronicle of the world that shaped the writer. Blake Bailey intricately follows Cheever’s life from 1912 to 1982, logging in painstaking detail not only the changes happening within Cheever, but also in the America around him. - David Harris