Good biographies can be useful or delightful. The former tend to be of the great and the good; the latter of those lesser people whom we wish we'd met.
Diarmaid MacCulloch deservedly won the 1996 Whitbread Biography Award for his comprehensive Thomas Cranmer (Yale #163;12.50). Its near-700 pages detail the life of the man whose sublime creation, The Book of Common Prayer, may finally become a historical curiosity when the Church of England ushers in the new millennium with yet another modern prayer book.
Although MacCulloch sheds fascinating light on Henry VIII's divorces, his is largely a book for those concerned with the minutiae of theology in a period when a phrase inserted in the communion service could ignite the kindling at the foot of your stake. From all this church politics, however,there emerges an engaging portrait of someone who became more radical with age.
Described as "a novel based on a true story", Patricia Cumper's One Bright Child (BlackAmber Books #163;6.99) is, in effect, a memoir of her mother, Gloria Carter. Aged 13 in 1936, Gloria was sent to a London grammar school from her native Jamaica; read law at Girton, Cambridge; had her education interrupted by the war but then became the first black woman to graduate from the university - with first-class honours. It is a powerful evocation of the period: cold winters, shortages and rationing, not to mention the barely suppressed racism and misogyny of Cambridge and the blatant racism of her white husband's mother. It is an inspiring, heart-warming and loving story.
Bruce Chatwin became famous for being famous in circles such as Sotheby's and The Sunday Times. And for his looks. Men and women fell for him. He selectively returned the compliments. He wrote six memorable books based on his exotic travels but denied he was a travel writer. With Chatwin by Susannah Clapp (Vintage #163;6.99) is his editor's portrait of, and tribute to, a man who looked like an angel, wrote like a dream but accepted the necessity of heavy editing. "Chatwin trimmed and tucked and compressed his sentences before they got into print." Effortless style isn't always effortless.
Equally stylish is Richard Pipes's short history, Three Whys of the Russian Revolution (Pimlico #163;8). The enigmas of his title are: Why did tsarism fall? Why did the Bolsheviks gain power? And why did Stalin succeed Lenin? Using Russian sources only recently opened up to scholars, he argues that the answers owe more to political will than to social pressure. That is, the Bolsheviks took power rather than being swept along by the masses. Given that Pipes also suggests that Nazism, World War Two and decolonisation would never have occurred without the 1917 revolution, this book will make provocative reading for anyone teaching 20th-century history.
Night Thoughts (Penguin #163;2.99) is a shameless trailer for the Penguin Black Classics, an anthology of prose and verse designed to get you buying titles you might not have heard about. Except that this collection is a useful reminder that there is such a genre as night writing and that wilful melancholia can be a satisfying indulgence. Why not spend bedtime pondering with John Donne "whether I shall see any tomorrow... or begin my eternal day this night".