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‘Holding on Upside Down’ wins Plutarch Award for best biography

John Plotz’s “Time and the Tapestry” offers a novel introduction to Victorian designer William Morris.

Illustrations by Phyllis Saroff

John Plotz’s “Time and the Tapestry” offers a novel introduction to Victorian designer William Morris.

Winning biography

This year’s winner of the Plutarch Award for best biography is Linda Leavell’s “Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Biographers International Organization, a nonprofit association of biographers, conferred the award in Boston during its fifth annual conference on May 17.

Leavell spent about three decades immersed in the poet’s life and work. At one time, Moore was a pop-culture icon who showed up in Sports Illustrated, Vogue, and, in 1968, on “The Tonight Show” with Dionne Warwick and Sidney Poitier.

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The finalists are Brian Jay Jones for “Jim Henson: The Biography” (Ballantine), Jill Lepore for “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin” (Knopf), and Ray Monk for “Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center” (Doubleday).

Holly Van Leuven, a 2013 college graduate who is writing a biography of Ray Bolger, the entertainer best known for his role as the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” is the winner of the group’s inaugural Hazel Rowley Prize for Best Proposal for a First Biography.

Van Leuven, the first person to gain access to Bolger’s papers, became fascinated by him years ago when she saw him perform on “The Judy Garland Show.”

“He seemed to have internalized dance — every sentence, every little gesture had its own cadence. I thought it belied a certain sort of personality, and I wanted to know more,” Van Leuven wrote in an e-mail. “I went looking for a book about him, but there was none.”

As a freshman at Emerson College, she struck up a correspondence with one of Bolger’s dance partners and has kept up her research since then.

Spinning a magical tale

For Mary Poppins, it was a spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down. For English professor John Plotz, the “sugar” is a time-travel adventure story, the “medicine” a history lesson about a Victorian designer and thinker. In Plotz’s “Time and the Tapestry: A William Morris Adventure” (Bunker Hill), a brother and sister take flight into 19th-century England on their pet blackbird puffed up to the size of a motorcycle. During their quest to find the missing pieces of a Morris tapestry, they land in Morris’s wacky London home.

With this young-adult novel, Plotz, a scholar of Victorian literature who teaches at Brandeis University, hopes to bring Morris — best known for his wallpaper and textile designs — into the lives of a new generation, one that may not realize how influential his ideas remain today. Morris believed that art is for everyone and that houses should contain only what their inhabitants “know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Palmer’s final thriller

St. Martin’s last week published “Resistant,” a medical thriller by Michael Palmer, who died in October. Palmer, a doctor who worked at Falmouth Hospital for many years, began writing fiction when he was in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. “Resistant,” about a group that unleashes deadly germs to advance its political agenda, is his 20th book. His first 19 sold an estimated 5 million copies.

Coming out

 “I Am Pilgrim”by Terry Hayes (Atria)

 “Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life”by Tom Robbins (Ecco)

 “The Directive” by Matthew Quirk (Little, Brown)

Pick of the week

Jean-Paul Adriaansen of Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H., recommends “Prayer” by Philip Kerr (Putnam): “FBI agent Gil Martins has seen too many victims, hatred, and terror. In this page-turner, he is losing his faith in God when he’s appointed to investigate the bizarre deaths of some well-known atheists.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.
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