The World’s Greatest Showman by J. Bryan III

The World’s Greatest Showman: The Life of P.T. Barnum by J. Bryan III.

I’m going with some of the urchins to see The Greatest Showman, the new movie musical starring Hugh Jackman as Phineas Taylor Barnum, the great huckster, advertiser, showman, lecturer, and promoter of nineteenth century America. So I had to pull out the Landmark history book about the life and times of Mr. Barnum so that I could check the movie against reality. I’m told that there’s not much reality in the movie.

If so, that’s probably a tribute to the real P.T. Barnum, who included about as much truth and reality in his shows and his advertisements and media campaigns as the average Hollywood movie mogul does in his, not very much. Everything in Barnum’s shows, first his New York museum, and then his circus, was colossal, unique, amazing, stupendous, prodigious, and/or fantastic—because Barnum said so. He was a liar and a humbug (one of his favorite descriptors), but the public knew it and ate it up. He made a fortune first for himself, but also for Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb, for The Swedish Nightingale singer Jenny Lind, and for numerous other performers and partners who worked with and for him.

He also lost more than one personal fortune. Five different fires destroyed his various businesses and homes at different times, and he never did learn to adequately insure his holdings against disaster. Each time, according to the book, he was under-insured and had to start all over again building up his museum or circus or house to come back from the brink.

The World’s Greatest Showman portrays Barnum as a joker and a salesman, certainly not averse to exaggeration or downright lies as long as he could put on a good show and rope in a big audience. His views and actions in regard to racial issues and and slavery and justice were mixed, as befits the time in which he lived (1810-1891). But he was all-in-all a likable character, generous and a sharp businessman at the same time, a teetotaler and a “religious man”, according to Wikipedia, a dedicated member of the Universalist Church.

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I’ve been to see the movie, and it was a great show, but not at all true to the life of P.T. Barnum. The movie took many liberties with the timeline and events of Barnum’s life, but that’s to be expected. Barnum would probably not have minded a bit or a even a lot of “humbug” in the interest of a good show. However, two elements of the movie plot would emphatically not have been to Mr. Barnum’s taste.

As I said, Barnum was quite dedicated to the temperance movement, didn’t drink alcohol at all, and encouraged others to abstain from alcoholic beverages, too. In the movie, he not only drinks, he’s rarely seen without a drink in his hand or sharing champagne or whiskey with friends, associates, and strangers. In fact, in the movie, alcohol almost becomes a symbol of the joie de vivre that Barnum tries to share with everyone he meets.

Also, Jenny Lind was Barnum’s friend and associate, and he did sponsor, finance, and arrange her American tour. But she would never have kissed him or tried to seduce him, on stage or off. Jenny Lind was, indeed, a devout Christian, and she gave most of her money, if not all of it, away to charities and churches. She and Barnum parted amicably before her contract with him had quite expired because she was tired of his commercialism and relentless promotions, even though she wanted to make as money as she could for her charitable endeavors.

Still, I recommend the movie and the Landmark book about his life. Each tells the story of a different man, one factual and the other fictional. I enjoyed both stories, and the music in the movie and Hugh Jackman’s performance as Barnum were worth the ticket price. (The movie reviewer at EW didn’t cut the movie any slack at all, and that wasn’t the only bad review I found in a cursory search. So you may want to ask yourself how much you can abide in the name of humbug from a fictionalized musical bio-pic.)

Quoting P.T. Barnum:

“Men, women, and children who cannot live on gravity alone need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is, in my opinion, in a business established by the Creator of our nature. If he worthily fulfills his mission and amuses without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain.”

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity. I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”

“Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd.”

“More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing in nothing, than by believing too much.”

“I am a showman by profession… and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.”

“The bigger the humbug, the better people will like it.”

10 Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. I think I am a “hillbilly” from the flat, desert lands of West Texas, if that makes any sense at all. There were so many cultural and familial traits and traditions that I recognized and identified with in Mr. Vance’s family narrative: the fierce independence, the tendency to eccentricity, the strength, the commitment to faith and family, and even some of the dysfunction.

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. The call for community and community-building in Mr. Dreher’s book is a topic dear to my own heart, and I am glad to see it treated with the serious consideration and wide-ranging discusion that it deserves.

Ten Fingers for God: The Life and Work of Dr. Paul Brand by Dorothy Clarke Wilson. Dr. Brand is an inspiration, and reading about his life was both encouraging and challenging.

Different: The Story of an Outside-The-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him by Sally Clarkson. Don’t we all have “different” kids? And isn’t it a gift to be able to appreciate them for who they are, no matter how difficult and challenging the journey? This book and Cindy Rollins’ Mere Motherhood are the best homeschooling/parenting/Christian living books I’ve read in years.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer. Classic mountain-climbing adventure—and tragedy.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. By living with and among the poor, first in a run-down tailer park and then in a tenement building, Mr. Desmond is able to describe first-hand the plight of a few of these millions whose housing situation is unstable at best and tragic at its worst.

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. I’ll read almost anything about Churchill, and Candice Millard is an excellent writer of narrative history.

The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ by Andrew Klavan. I bought this book for my son for Christmas—so that I could read it. And Mr. Klavan’s conversion story did not disappoint. This story of a Jewish boy with father issues who became a writer and a conservative news commentator and also something of a comedian is fascinating and never dull or overtly pious. Full review to come soon.

Mere Motherhood: Morning times, nursery rhymes, and my journey toward sanctification by Cindy Rollins. Except for the fact that I have six daughters and two sons while she has eight sons and one daughter, I almost felt as if Cindy and were twins or doppelgängers or something. Cindy Rollins writes about homeschooling and Christian living and motherhood in this book in a way that spoke to my heart and my mind, and she is able to articulate many of the inchoate and unspoken thoughts that I would love to be able to communicate about these important parts of my life. Thanks, Cindy.

The Turquoise Table: Finding Community and Connection in Your Own Front Yard by Kristin Schell. This book shows a way to the kind of hospitality and community I would like to foster in my own neighborhood, but I’m way too introverted and reserved to do it—so far. Here’s to “finding community and connection” in 2018.

Flaming Arrows by William O. Steele

Another book that is well-written and sure to appeal to adventure-loving kids, with good themes of reserving judgment and not visiting the sins of the fathers on their children, BUT it’s full of guns and violence and “savages” who are all bad and practically discounted as not human.

If you can get past the fact that this book presents a very one-sided view of the wars between the settlers in Kentucky and the Native Americans who were being displaced from their lands, it’s a good book. Mr. Steele doesn’t set out to tell a story about the Native American view of these events, and indeed, he doesn’t tell us anything about the Chickamauga “Injuns” in this story, except that they come every year to kill and burn and destroy.

The story is about Chad, an eleven year old boy who is forced to take refuge along with his family in the fort when the Injuns come on their yearly foray. Chad’s family and the other families in the fort are joined by the Logans, a woman and her children whose father, Traitor Logan, is in league with the Chickamauga. When the others in the fort want to throw the Logans out because of their father’s traitorous ways, Chad’s father and the scout, Amos Thompson, stand up for the Logans, saying, “I reckon they’re harmless. They’ve left Traitor to home. Or maybe he’s left them.”

The rest of the book is about Chad’s growth, both in courage and in understanding and empathy. He becomes more mature as the settlers suffer together and fight off the Indians, and this maturity is accomplished both by Chad’s courage and steadfastness in fighting and guarding the walls of the fort and by his growing understanding of what it must be like to be Josiah Logan, the Logan boy whose father has not provided for the family.

If you want a book in which the protagonist grows to learn that violence is not the way to deal with problems, that story is not in this book. If you want a book that presents the realities of frontier life as the the frontiersmen experienced and thought about them, Flaming Arrows does a good job. The settlers on the Cumberland frontier just didn’t have time or inclination to spare much thought for the Indians who were attacking their homes and their fort: they were too busy trying to stay alive and protect their families. Illustrated by the famous and talented illustrator, Paul Galdone, Flaming Arrows shows that reality in the text and in the pictures. I will keep this book in my library because I believe it speaks the truth about one perspective on the lives our early American forbears. And it’s a good story, taken on its own terms. It shouldn’t be the final word on this subject, but it is a valuable look at how people of the time period thought and lived and grew.

The Mississippi Bubble by Thomas B. Costain

I’m on a mission to read all of the Landmark series of children’s history books, and Thomas B. Costain is one of my favorite authors, especially his series of books on the medieval history of England: The Conquering Family, The Last Plantaganets, The Magnificent Century, The Three Edwards. I love those books and have read through them more than once. So I was excited to read Costain’s Landmark history (#52) of the founding of Biloxi and New Orleans, The Mississippi Bubble.

It was an exciting story of intrepid explorers and land speculation and fortunes made and lost, with both heroes and villains, winners and losers, and a narrative thread of consistent and faithful service on the part of one man in particular with the goal of building a “New World” in America at the mouth of the Mississippi River. However, the book shows the strengths and weaknesses of its date of publication, 1955, as Mr. Costain loses his attention to historical detail and his concern to portray all of the parties to the situation fairly and accurately when it comes to Native Americans and enslaved Africans.

The story begins with a “group of Indians . . . busy fishing in the mud-colored waters of Mississippi.” These “savages” encounter Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and although at first they are wary, they “liked La Salle.” These Native Americans are then compared to the Iroquois of Canada and the north, with whom the French had already met and fought and allied and co-existed. According to Costain:

“And while the Indians of the delta country—the Bayougoulas, the Quinipissa, the Moctobys, the Tensas, the Pascagoulas—were not more fierce or brave than the tribes of the north, they were sly and treacherous and with a brand of savagery all their own.”

Readers are left to imagine what that “brand of savagery” looks like, but Costain does say many pages later in the story that “the savages worked swiftly and cunningly” to attack the French forts in various places, incited by the English or the Spanish. Then, a few pages later, we read that “many times the Indians had saved the lives of the colonists with supplies of food from their own stocks.” By treating the Indians as a monolithic group and by stereotyping them as savages, mostly, Costain gives a very confusing and contradictory picture of the Native Americans of the Louisiana and Mississippi regions and of their relationship with the French invaders. In other words, the Native peoples and individuals in this version of history are stereotyped and written off as foils to the conquering French European heroes who are the real story.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t write off this book because Mr. Costain has another story to tell: in addition to giving us his account of the exploration and settlement of the Mississippi River delta, Mr. Costain in his little book also tells of an economic bombshell back in France. So, in the meantime back in Paris, c.1719-1726, while Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville was literally holding down the fort in Louisiana, a Scotsman named John Law was busy taking over the financial system of France. I read about John Law’s financial plans, ideas, and schemes both in The Mississippi Bubble and on Wikipedia, but I can’t say either source successfully explained his theories and his financial dealings in a way that I could fully understand. But the history is exciting with kidnappings and violence and huge fortunes made and lost and gambles and success and disgrace all combined. It’s worth reading about, and Costain tells this story of financial chicanery, speculation, and panic with a great deal of drama and human interest.

Here’s an animated short movie that deals with the economics of The Mississippi Bubble in France in as straightforward a way as I could find:

The Mississippi Bubble is not the best of the Landmark books I’ve read, but it’s a worthwhile introduction to the history of Louisiana and New Orleans and Biloxi with a lot of economic history throw in. John Law is the villain of the piece, and Bienville is the hero. And the Native Americans and the black slaves? Marginal and mostly disregarded or stereotyped.

Other books about the early history (antebellum) of Louisiana and the Mississippi delta region:
The French Explorers in America by Walter Buehr
The Explorations of Pere Marquette by Jim Kjelgaard.
LaSalle And The Grand Enterprise by Jeannette Covert Nolan.
The Louisiana Purchase by Robert Tallant.
The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans by Robert Tallant.

Fiction:
Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling.
Swift Rivers by Cornelia Meigs.

Music, Part IV by Henry Van Dyke

O lead me by the hand,
And let my heart have rest,
And bring me back to childhood land,
To find again the long-lost band
Of playmates blithe and blest.

Some quaint, old-fashioned air,
That all the children knew,
Shall run before us everywhere,
Like a little maid with flying hair,
To guide the merry crew.

Along the garden ways
We chase the light-foot tune,
And in and out the flowery maze,
With eager haste and fond delays,
In pleasant paths of June.

For us the fields are new,
For us the woods are rife
With fairy secrets, deep and true,
And heaven is but a tent of blue
Above the game of life.

The world is far away:
The fever and the fret,
And all that makes the heart grow gray,
Is out of sight and far away,
Dear Music, while I hear thee play
That olden, golden roundelay,
“Remember and forget!”

The Camping Trip That Changed America by Barb Rosenstock

“I do not want anyone with me but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.” ~Theodore Roosevelt’s letter to John Muir, March 14, 1903.

Back in the days (1903) when a president could actually go off on a camping trip alone with a famous author and naturalist, President Teddy Roosevelt (Teedie) asked naturalist John Muir (Johnnie) to take him on a camping trip, and the rest was history. After Teedie’s and Johnnie’s journey through Yosemite, President Roosevelt became more than an outdoorsman; he “turned . . . into one of nature’s fiercest protectors. Roosevelt pushed Congress to pass laws saving the wilderness. He failed at first, but that didn’t stop him. He created national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and national forests.”

“Teedie” Roosevelt is my favorite president, and this story of his encounter with Johnnie Muir and the wilderness of Yosemite is a colorful and fascinating introduction to Roosevelt’s ideas and his personality. (“Bully!” said Teedie, stretching. “What a glorious day!”) It also introduces children to the concept of nature conservation and even the political concept of changing the president’s mind and direction by a little well-placed lobbying for a good cause. (Maybe someone needs to take our current president on a camping trip?)

There’s a touch of generalized “spirituality” in the imagined dialog between Teedie and Johnnie: “Everywhere nature sang her melody. Can you hear it?” And, of course, Muir adheres to the tenets of “old earth” geology: “a massive river of slow-moving ice carved the rock beneath them millions of years before.” Teedie is said to depend on “John Muir’s spirit as his guide” as the president goes about his work in preserving American parks and wildlife. However, these are minor and personal quibbles, things I would have worded differently, that don’t spoil the overall beauty and message of the book at all.

If you or your child is a fan of TR or John Muir or just a nature lover or even a wannabe naturalist, this book serves up a great slice of American history. The imagined dialog is taken from Muir’s books and from newspaper accounts of the famous camping trip.

Texas History: A Brief Tour

A couple of homeschool moms asked me to put together a reading list for Texas history so that they could do a (brief) literature-based Texas history unit. Well, the list grew a little longer than the request, but here are a few not-to-be-missed gems for children and adults who are making their way through Texas’s colorful and fascinating history.

TEXAS Unit Study:

Indians Who Lived in Texas by Betsy Warren. This is a nonfiction book, only 46 pages, but it is an introduction to the study that gives students a good overview of the Native Texans who lived here before the coming of the European explorers.

Walk the World’s Rim by Betty Baker. Read aloud fiction about the tragic story of a Native American boy named Chakoh and of Esteban, the slave who accompanied Coronado on his search for the Seven Lost Cities of Cibola.

Easter Fires by Wilma Pitchford Hays. A fictionalized version of the beginning of the custom of lighting bonfires at Easter time among the Indians of the Southwest. This short book also tells the story of how the Tonkawas were introduced to the wonderful story of Easter and of God’s son, Jesus.

Biography of early Texas heroes. Choose one (or read them all):
For younger children, grades 1-3:
A Picture Book of Davy Crockett by David Adler.
Davy Crockett: Young Rifleman by Aileen Wells Parks.
Stephen F. Austin: The Son Becomes Father of Texas by Mary Dodson Wade.

For older children, grades 4-8:
Wilderness Pioneer: Stephen F. Austin of Texas by Carol Hoff.
Make Way for Sam Houston by Jean Fritz
James Bowie by Shannon Garst.
Texas Yankee: The Story of Gail Borden by Nina Brown Baker.

Johnny Texas by Carol Hoff. “In the early days of Texas history, ten-year-old Johann comes from Germany with his family to settle in this vast land and soon grows to love his new home.” In the sequel, Johnny Texas on the San Antonio Road, Johnny travels over 600 miles to Mexico and back on the old San Antonio Road.

Caleb’s Choice by G. Clifton Wisler. In 1858 Caleb Dulaney feels an obligation to help the runaway slave who saved his life even though the Fugitive Slave Law makes it a crime to assist a runaway slave. Mr. Wisler wrote several other good books set in frontier days in Texas. If you like this one, check out Buffalo Moon or Winter of the Wolf or All for Texas.

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. Classic boy and dog story takes place just after the Civil War.

Texas Rangers: Legendary Lawmen by Michael Spradlin. This picture book packs in a lot of story and information about the men who were Texas Rangers. I have a couple of other books that are longer with more stories about the Rangers for kids who are particularly interested: The Texas Rangers (Landmark history) by Will Henry and The Real Book about the Texas Rangers by Allyn Allen.

Cowboys of the Wild West by Russell Freedman (nonfiction) OR The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones by Helen Hemphill (fiction). Cowboy life and times.

Galveston’s Summer of the Storm by Julie Lake. (fiction) The Galveston hurricane of 1900, still the deadliest single-day event in U.S. history.

Moonshiner’s Gold by John Erickson. Fourteen year old Riley and his younger brother discover moonshiners have set up a still in a deserted canyon on their family property. How can they protect their single mother, outwit the outlaws, and get them to leave without violence? Great action-packed adventure with engaging characters and a lot of history sneaking in through the back door. John Erickson is known for his Hank the Cowdog series, but this stand-alone adventure is just a good as the Hank books and should be just the right reading level for most sixth graders.

I know that’s more than the five books than the mom who started all of this Texas history listing asked me for. And I have lots more great Texas living books on my shelf: Texas Tomboy by Lois Lenski, Winnie’s War by Jenny Moss, We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo by Margaret Cousins, Holes by Louis Sachar, The Underneath by Kathie Appelt . . . OK, I’ll stop.

Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!

Rajpur: Last of the Bengal Tigers by Robert McClung

New in the library, but published in 1982, Rajpur tells the story of a Bengal tiger, born in the forests of southern Nepal and later orphaned when hunters kill both his father and his mother. Rajpur’s sister, Rani, dies of weakness caused by an infection, and Rajpur must hunt and survive alone.

The hallmarks of a “living book” are its narrative power and its full use of language to engage and delight the reader. Mr. McClung, in all of his books, uses both story and descriptive language to make his readers care about animals, the Bengal tiger, in this particular book, and to pull them into the story of one special tiger, Rajpur.

Take these examples of fine descriptive language:

“Kumari growled softly to herself, then turned to the cubs and licked them. The smell of smoke made her uneasy. After a few moments, she left the den and peered across the sea of grass. In the distance, red tongues of flame flickered under billowing clouds of smoke, and the breeze carried the strong smell of the burning vegetation.”

“One mild evening in late February the cubs followed their father as he padded along the edge of a grassy meadow. Many of the trees and bushed around them were still bare of leaves. Others were beginning to unfurl tender new leaves or flower buds. Spring was on its way. Raja Khan was rumbling softly as he sauntered along.”

“Rajpur chased a half-grown wild pig one evening and finally succeeded in seizing it. Squealing with pain, the pig wriggled around and slashed at Rajpur with its sprouting tusks. The sharp weapons tore a bloody furrow in the young tiger’s side. Surprised that the pig was fighting back, Rajpur released his hold and let it go. The pig promptly scrambled to its feet and ran away through the underbrush.”

The story itself also sustains interest as Rajpur grows from a cub into adulthood and as he learns to live alone, after losing his mother, father, and sister. Can Rajpur find a territory of his own? Can he avoid the dangers of cobra, leopards, rogue tigers, and most of all, the deadly human hunters? Can he find a mate?

Mr. McClung was a naturalist and an artist as well as a writer. He worked for the Bronx Zoo for many years, and then as an editor for National Geographic magazine. He wrote more than fifty books for children with titles such as Luna, the Story of a Moth, and Redbird, the Story of a Cardinal, and Spike: The Story of a Whitetail Deer. I would love to have all of these animal stories in my library.

Rocks in his Head by Carol Otis Hurst

I’ve seen this picture book biography recommended on several lists of “living books”, particularly living science books, and I agree that it’s a beautiful and inspiring story. The author’s father, who is never actually named in the text, was a collector of rocks. But more than a collector, he was a student and archivist who carefully curated and labeled his collection of rocks from all over the country.

Since Ms. Hurst’s father and his family were living through the Great Depression, her father’s day job was minding his gas station. When the gas station went broke, he took other jobs to support his family. Because he had never been to college or formally studied geology, most people thought Carol Hurst’s father’s passion for rocks was simply an amusing hobby. However, he eventually met someone who appreciated the informal study he had done and the depth of knowledge he had acquired.

Rocks in his Head is the kind of story our children need. They need to see that if they pursue an interest with persistence and passion, they can become experts. And they can do that whether or not this interest or passion becomes their job. I have an adult daughter who is teaching herself Polish because she is interested in all things Polish at the moment. I have a son who is becoming a talented and expert musician, in his spare time. I am an amateur, part-time librarian. So far, none of my children has “rocks in his head”, but if that were to be someone’s passion, I would encourage them to study and collect and learn with all the resources available to them. Because our economy is generally much better than that of the time during the Great Depression when Ms. Hurst’s father was living, we have much greater opportunities to both make a living for our families and pursue our own interests. Encourage your children and yourself to take advantage of every opportunity.

Texas Yankee by Nina Brown Baker

Texas Tuesday: Texas Yankee; The Story of Gail Borden by Nina Brown Baker.

Benito Juarez, Peter the Great, Simon Bolivar, F.W. Woolworth, America Vespucci, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Nellie Bly are a few of the other celebrities and historical figures that Nina Brown Baker wrote about in her prolific career as a children’s biographer. Texas Yankee, about the inventor of condensed milk and sweetened condensed milk, is a biography in Ms. Brown’s short, slightly fictionalized, and highly readable style. The story begins with twelve year old Gail Borden and his family moving from New York to Kentucky and ends 129 pages later with Gail Borden’s death at his ranch near Columbus, Texas in 1874 at the age of 72. Borden’s life in-between these two events took him from New York to Kentucky to Ohio to Mississippi to Texas and back again up north to Connecticut and New York to try to sell his inventions and ideas to an Eastern seaboard audience.

Then, came the disruption of the Civil War, and Gail Borden found himself on the opposite side of the slavery and Union issues from most of his fellow Texans and therefore in exile so to speak from his beloved Texas. But after the war and the bitterness from the war had died down, Gail Borden was able to return to Texas a successful man who gave travelers and immigrants and settlers of the West a way to transport good, healthy milk over long distances without having it go bad and without having to purchase milk for their children from questionable sources along the way.

I once met a restaurant owner who read a book about Gail Borden when she was in fifth grade and was so inspired by her reading that she looked to him as an example for her business dealings and also made a lifelong study of the history of Texas. Nina Brown Baker’s book about Gail Borden may have been the book she read as a fifth grader, for all I know. At any rate, I can see how this book and Gail Borden’s life would be inspirational. Mr. Borden’s commitment to Christ is a thread throughout the biography, not over-emphasized but definitely acknowledged. The only problem in recommending this biography to your fifth grader is that it was published in 1955 and is now out of print. I do find one other biography of Borden, Milk, Meat Biscuits, and the Terraqueous Machine by Mary Dodson, but it’s from 1987 and also out of print. And there’s a Childhood of Famous Americans series volume, Gail Borden: Resourceful Boy by Adrian Paradis, also out of print.

It seems as if the subject of Gail Borden, supporter of the Texas revolution and persistent inventor, might be ripe for a new biography by some up-and-coming adult or children’s biographer.