Aimed generally at a high school audience, Greenwood Biographies cover a wide variety of famous figures, including Mother Theresa, Prince William, Stephen Hawking, Yo-Yo Ma, Osama bin Laden, and Paris Hilton. Needless to say, some subjects are more deserving of biographical recognition than others. Of the more than 100 published biographies, four are of visual artists: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Maya Lin.
One of the series’ newest additions, Donald Langmead’s Maya Lin: A Biography begins in 19th-century China, tracing the history of Lin’s ancestors through a convoluted and rushed political history of China. Although it is interesting to discover Lin’s roots—the ones her parents hid from her while she was growing up in Ohio—Langmead overdoes it. Lin isn’t even born until the book’s fifth chapter. Even subsequent chapters, presumably focused on the artist, seem to be much less about Lin’s life than discussions of Ohio history, Yale University, the Vietnam War, and other peripheral subjects. For a book supposedly dedicated to the life of an artist, there are astoundingly few images of Lin’s work. Even descriptions of her work are generally absent—with the exception of an almost excruciatingly detailed explanation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. According to this biography, Lin’s work appears to have reached its apex with this memorial designed while she was still in college.
In the press release for Maya Lin: A Biography, two subjects are listed under the publication information: “Primary Subject: Race and Ethnicity” and “Secondary Subject: Asian American Studies.” So the premise of the book is not to tell the story of Lin’s personal trials and tribulations and the work that resulted, but rather to use her as an example of the “Asian American experience,” or something along those lines. While this is all well and good and might make sense in the context of a teenage audience, I feel that calling the book a biography is rather misleading. “Explorations of Race and Ethnicity: Maya Lin” would have been a much more fitting title. But, even with a different title, the book still would fall short of expectations. It’s just not very well written—for a teenage audience or otherwise.
Maya Lin: A Biography
by Donald Langmead
Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011
190 pages, $35