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BIOGRAPHIES

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message 1: by Mark (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:17PM) (new)

Mark I know among some professional historians that there is disdain for biography, on the argument that it too often ignores the broader social trends in history and tends to support the "great man" theory.

But I find the best biographies to be set in a rich historical context, so that in reading about one person's life, you are also reading about an era of history, understanding the surrounding issues and seeing connections to contemporary events.

Just two quick examples of biographies I think are superb: "The Power Broker" about New York planner and master politican Robert Moses, by Robert Caro; and "John Adams" by David McCullough.

What are some of your favorites, and why?


message 2: by JZ (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:18PM) (new)

JZ Temple | 9 comments I've finished "John Adams" which I thought was good, although perhaps meandering a bit. I have "The Power Broker" on my shelf to read.

I've read the two Edmund Morris books about Teddy Roosevelt; the first was very good, the second seemed to lack focus, but was still a good read. It doesn't hurt that Teddy is a great subject for a biography.

"Peter The Great" by Robert Massie was excellent. Probably one of the best bios that told me so much about the era as well as the person.

I guess that's the difficulty I sometimes find in biographies. I'm more interested in events, as I like to say, the "how" and the "why". Biographies by their nature tend to go with the "who" and the "where" and so much of the book is about youthful influences and activities in the declining years, except for those like Cromwell who's declining years are cut short .


message 3: by Annie (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:19PM) (new)

Annie | 9 comments Mark, I definitely agree with you that good biographies, or good biographers, competently contextualize their subject's lives. So while biographies are certainly not exhaustive histories of a time or place, I think that any disdain for a biography (if it is well done, that is) is snobish and shortsighted. After all, one of the best ways to know history is to hear from the people who lived it. Sure, any contemporary historian/biographer has a bias, but as savvy readers, we can hopefully assess that bias and glean a lot of info not only about a person but about what life was like.

With all of that said, I have only recently started reading biographies. I thought that The Orientalist about Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey/Kurban Said was extremely well done. It is not the most academic work you will ever read, but it is an excellent piece of journalism that did much to enlighten me about Weimar Germany, life in the Caucausus just pre- and post- the Russian Revolution, and numerous other bits and pieces on the struggle for identity--cultural, religious and otherwise.


message 4: by Kevin (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:29PM) (new)

Kevin | 3 comments John Adams was good, but Truman, also by McCullough is a really outstanding biography.

Mark, I have to agree with you on Power Broker, which is incredibly readable for man that on the surface wouldn't seem terribly interesting.

Two of my other favorites are Alexander Hamilton by Chernow and Lafayette by Unger. Although I read them separately, it would be interesting to read them back to back as they were friends while serving Washington in the revolution and made significant impacts on their respective countries afterwards.


message 5: by Patrick (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:30PM) (new)

Patrick | 13 comments Great topic. I love biography, but the best authors include so much history to create the setting that their topic lived and worked in that it practically becomes a history book. Those are the best biographies.

To that end, I concur with Kevin above on Chernow's Alexander and also want to mention Chernow's TITAN on John D Rockefeller, which is my favorite long biography ever.

Caro is great but I think that he beats his point to death, and I get to the point where I say "we get it - Moses as a jerk and screwed people over - move on with the narrative." But I listened to the unabridged Power Broker on audiotape - maybe if I read it I would feel differently. Caro's Master of the Senate on LBJ is also really good, but suffers from the same excesses.

Other recommendations:

- Tim Pat Coogan on Michaelk Collins, a leader of the Irish independence movement
- Jospeh Frazier Wall and/or David Nasaw on Andrew Carnegie
- Townsend Hoopes's DRIVEN PATRIOT on James Forrestal (also good for a different look at Truman)
- the three volume series on Martin Luther King by Taylor Branch (of which Parting The Waters is the best)
- the Vince Lombardi bio by David Maraniss
- Carlos D'Este on George Patton
- James Robertson on Stonewall Jackson

Some of the short Penguin Lives biographies edited by James Atlas are also good for history, in particular Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse and Jonathan Spence on Mao Zedong (skip the ones about author or entertainers).


message 6: by Matt (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:31PM) (new)

Matt I read "Court of the Red Tsar" by Montefoire last year. A bio of Stalin. Truly a great bio, the author gets amazing access into files about Stalin's personal life and life as the leader of the USSR. He contrasts and compares the two facets of Stalin's life well. He discusses all of the people surrounding Stalin, their rise and eventual fall (all fell except for Khrushchev)and gets into their relationships with each other as well as with Stalin. The author does a nice job describing the events surrounding Stalin, including the famines of the 1930s, his relationship with Roosevelt, (and low opinion of Truman), and his movements behind the scenes during the "Big Three" negotiations. Unfortunately not much on his snubbing of Mao. His systematic purging of cities is mind-numbing, the author does a nice job showing Stalin's feelings that the purges were necessary to break the backs of his enemies and of the last remains of private wealth and ownership. This bio really made me want to explore Russian/USSR history in more detail.

A while back, I read "Angel in the Whirlwind" by Bobrick. Sort of a text on the American Revolution focusing on George Washington, although not entirely devoted to Washington.

I want to read "Truman" sometime... Any recommendations on the recent bio on Neil Armstrong "First Man"?


message 7: by Nazy (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:40PM) (new)

Nazy | 2 comments well the bio of NAPELEON was really interesting for me.i was interested to know about a man like NAPELEON.AND julius caesar.
and now the most interesting is DA VINCI/


message 8: by Mark (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:08PM) (new)

Mark Thanks to all for your good suggestions. I haven't checked back on this thread I started for quite a while. I have Titan sitting her at home waiting to be read. Many others to check out, obviously.


message 9: by Carolyn (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:10PM) (new)

Carolyn Fitzpatrick (carolyn_fitzpatrick) One of my favorite biographies is Captain Sir Richard Frances Burton: The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra, and Brought the Arabian Nights to the West. It was written by Edward Rice in 1990. He had such an adventurous life, it can't help but be exciting!


message 10: by Mark (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:13PM) (new)

Mark I did in fact read a biography of Burton some time ago, but don't know if this was the one. He was one of those truly fascinating Victorian polymaths, wasn't he? I forget how many languages he accumulated by the end of his life, but it was an amazing number.


message 11: by Carolyn (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:13PM) (new)

Carolyn Fitzpatrick (carolyn_fitzpatrick) I was mostly intrigued by his Victorian upbringing, particularly about how he and his brother would knock their governesses down and stomp on them with their tiny brass boots, and this was brushed off as ordinary high spirits!


message 12: by Larry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)

Larry (blue_key) | 6 comments Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations is an excellent biography. And although not a true biography in the classic sense The Brave Bostonians is also excellent. It follows three colonialists (they weren't really Americans yet) in London and how their activities affected, and were affected by, the tides that led to the outbreak of the American Revolution. Both of these are outstanding reads and good historical studies. I don't think many serious historians would allow their disdain to affect their appreciation of these books.

Also, Gordon Wood, an outstanding historian at Brown, wrote The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, another terrific bio.


message 13: by rinabeana (new)

rinabeana | 4 comments My favorite biography is Madame Curie, about Marie Curie, by her daughter Eve. I'm a chemist, but even if I wasn't, I think that Marie Curie would be one of my hero(in)es. In addition to her great contributions to science, she made great contributions to humanity. Her daughter Irene is also a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, but Eve is not a scientist and as a result the biography is not overly technical. There are certainly descriptions of Marie's work, but the story of her life is also fascinating. I can't recommend this bio highly enough!

One of my other interests is the space program, the Apollo program specifically. I've read a large number of autobiographies of those involved in the space program, as well as a couple biographies and other works of non-fiction.

I have a number of bios on my list of books to read, and I always love getting recs!


message 14: by rinabeana (new)

rinabeana | 4 comments I was reminded of this in another community, but I really loved Nancy Milford's biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Savage Beauty. It helps that ESVM is my favorite poet, but I think her story, as well as her poetry, is fascinating. I like Milford's bio better than Jean Gould's (The Poet and Her Book) and David Mark Epstein's (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed).


message 15: by Conrad (last edited Jan 07, 2008 05:40PM) (new)

Conrad | 5 comments I love Robert Caro's bio of Lyndon Johnson. I've never read The Power Broker and am less than halfway through The Days of LBJ, but it's one of those series that I look forward to taking my time finishing over the course of my life. Caro hasn't finished writing the fourth and possibly final volume yet and (as Patrick indicates) he's notoriously thorough, so hopefully he and I both have plenty of time. Personally, I like Caro's approach, especially compared to McCullough, who I think ignored a lot of criticisms of Truman, preferring to write a work of hagiography. I liked Truman but you have to acknowledge its limitations, and its writer's - he has no problem with Truman's reactionary side that allowed the anticommunist demagogues to come to power.

There are a lot of great biographies of scientists out there, and while I fully sympathize with the skeptics who accuse biographers of Great Manism, it is at least a little subversive to return personal drama and all the ephemera of human existence to the story of scientific endeavor, hmm? I particularly liked Alan Turing: The Enigma. One of the challenges science biographers face is exposition of difficult theories, and Hodges is a real expert. Another great work of sci-bio is Shapin's A Social History of Truth, which is about the whole crazily productive crowd of 17th century English scientist-gentlemen, and is fortunately much less boring than it sounds.


message 16: by rinabeana (new)

rinabeana | 4 comments Thanks for the LBJ rec. As a temporary Texan, I would like to read it. I've been to the ranch outside Johnson City, and the LBJ Library at UT, but I don't feel I know that much about him. I've added to my list, and hopefully I have a chance to read it before too long.

Surprisingly (though I'm a chemist), I haven't read that many scientific biographies, aside from Madame Curie and various of those involved with the space program. I actually very much want to read Nikola Tesla's autobiography.


message 17: by Sera (new)

Sera I love biographies - two of my favorites are The First American and TR: The Last Romantic by HW Brands. The first is about Ben Franklin, and the second is about Teddy Roosevelt.

I recently read Barack Obama's biography, which I found to be very insightful.


message 18: by Patrick (new)

Patrick | 13 comments Conrad,

I was intrigued by your comment about McCullough's Truman. i read that book over a decade ago, and I really liked it, but I have always wanted the rest of the story. I have a lot of respect for many of the decisions Truman made, but I did feel like there was pretty more info on his business failures, his ties to the Kansas City political machine, and his response to pressures of McCarthyism that was left out. Can you recommend any other books that counterbalance McCullough's overly happy view of Truman? (I'd look through your Goodreads list but you have over 1100 books, man.)

Also, do you feel that McCullough's biography of John Adams is also a hagiograhic treatment of President #2? I found it interesting when the Adams book came out that McCullogh's current formula seems to be to write about Presidents who were pretty much reviled during the periods they were in office and sort of restore them to sort of prominence and glory in the mind of today's readers.


message 19: by Lauren (new)

Lauren (inklings) | 1 comments I liked Churchills biography by Lord Moran. Biographies are limited in their scopes, but history is made up of individual people acting and causing events, then reacting to the events.
I'm also reading "An Ordinary Man" by Paul Rusesabagina.


Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 29 comments I very much enjoyed Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Not a complete bio of Lincoln, but focusing on his years as president.


message 21: by Manuel (new)

Manuel | 14 comments Wow,
I've read many of the books mentioned above:
John Adams by David McCullough
Peter the Great by Robert Massie

So far the most unforgetable biography (autobiography in this case)was:
The Autobiography of Katharine Graham.

A woman who was content to stay in the shawdows of her family's life, until a personal tradgedy put her behind the seat of one of America's most influencial newspaper. Unforgetable reading as she dealt with President Johnson and then Nixon's Watergate.

Surprisingly candid in detailing some of the most painfull and personal chapters of her life.


message 22: by Kim (new)

Kim | 2 comments Hi everyone. I'm new to the group.

I am currently listening to (on CD) Tried by War Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson. I didn't really know anything about Lincoln and I'm finding it really interesting. Has anyone else read it?


Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 29 comments I have not read that one, Kim, but McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is excellent (it's a general history of the Civil War era).


message 24: by Kim (new)

Kim | 2 comments Susanna wrote: "I have not read that one, Kim, but McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is excellent (it's a general history of the Civil War era)."

Thanks, Susanna. I'll have to check that one out.


message 25: by Sera (new)

Sera Susanna, I'm about halfway through Team of Rivals and loving it. Peter the Great is one of the best biographies ever. I constantly recommend it to friends, even though it is quite a tomb.

Matt, the Stalin bio sounds great. I've added it to my TBR list.

I also recently read a bio of Olympia M., the first female pope, which provided a fascinating look into the whole papal system.

Lastly, I agree with many of you that the most interesting bios are those that tackle both the personal story of the subject and the historical context of his or her times.


message 26: by Sandylew (new)

Sandylew | 1 comments A great biography is E.B. White by Scott Elledge.


message 27: by ☼Book her, (new)

☼Book her,   Danno☼  (pam_t) I'm reading "A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean" by Tori Murden Mcclure.

I got this book on a whim and I am totally surprised by how much I like it. I guess it would fall into the Biography category. It's about a woman who rowed across the Atlantic... alone... a few years ago. One heck of an adventure.

Right now I've left her floating upside down in Hurricane Danielle. Not good.


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