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Life stories: biographies rule this summer

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Say, just for a second, you decide to read the new Kingsley Amis biography this summer, The Life of Kingsley Amis (Pantheon, $39.95) by Zachary Leader. You read Lucky Jim in college, you remember it was funny, and you ve heard something about Amis being a womanizer, and that sounds like gossipy breeze, but just literary enough to make it count. Well, uh, if you started this weekend, and say you read 10 pages a day (it s summer, after all), you would be finished, oh, about the time Barnes & Noble put up Halloween decorations.

It s 1,008 pages long.

Too British anyway, right?

So you compromise and try the new Edith Wharton (Knopf, $35), Hermione Lee s masterful life of that most British of American novelists. Sexual hypocrisy, and snobbery, mansions who needs a hard time in a hot sun?

It s also 880 (dense) pages.

The old challenge of summer reading was digging into that doorstop of a classic you always meant to read in school, losing yourself in a big weighty Russian epic or a Dickens serial. The new challenge of summer reading seems to be finding time within your own life to make room for a famous life. With no huge founding-father biography dominating the nonfiction shelves this season no John Adams, or Doris Kearns Goodwin presidential tome a rush of new biographies are filling the void, and rain forests tremble in fear.

Even Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $30), an ambitious (if hollow) attempt to elevate the leader of the Clash into that mainstream rock heaven occupied by Lennon and Cobain, comes close to 700 pages.

A better choice, if you re lean more toward the pop culture end of the street, is Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector (Knopf, $26.95). It s a relatively modest 464 pages, but writer Mick Brown sees the legendary music producer s life as a brief period of genius followed by strange decades of self-destruction. A great rubbernecker s notion of a beach read.

Just as sad but more substantial is Arnold Rampersad s definitive Ralph Ellison: A Biography (Knopf, $35, 672 pages), which retells the tortured, self-conscious road that the author of Invisible Man took from being the most celebrated African-American author in history to becoming the Writer Who Could Not Write he never finished another novel, and died nearly 50 years after his early success, with one classic and a handful of essays to his name. But that s one more classic than Lincoln Kirsten. Martin Duberman s The Worlds of Lincoln Kirsten (Knopf, 736 pages, $37.50) is the unlikely epic of a wealthy man who never created much himself, but served as impresario, and rally point, behind everything from the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center in New York to Balanchine s City Ballet an art-world Trump with just as many issues, and better taste.

If you re looking for a biographical subject a little more conventional, there s the scandalous American history of Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (Viking, 540 pages, $29.95), and Walter Isaacson s Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster, 704 pages, $32) both of which go beyond the popular images and paint portraits of misunderstood men with provocative ideas and big mouths.

And finally, misunderstood or not, if you dare wade through the more than 1,100 pages of new Hillary Clinton biography, both from respected journalists Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Little, Brown, 448 pages, $29.99), by the New York Times Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, Jr.; and A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Knopf, 640 pages, $27.95), by no less than Carl Bernstein you can officially declare yourself free of 2008 campaign reading until, at least, summer of 2012.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.comor 419-724-6117.

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