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Blog 12.17.2019

Five Must-Read Biographies

Finding a good biography is only difficult because there are so many to choose from. Books are written about well-known figures as well as about lesser-known people who have had a remarkable life experience. Here are a few that make it onto many “must-read biography” lists.

No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Home Front in World War II, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin, a celebrated American historian, won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1995 for this comprehensive work that intertwines the story of a country reluctantly at war with the personal lives of the two main characters on the American stage at the time: Franklin and Eleanor, the President and First Lady of the United States. The 600-page tome begins in 1940 with FDR’s reluctance to enter the war and ends with his death in 1945, just before the war’s end.

Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius, by Marc J. Seifer

Publisher’s Weekly says “Seifer’s vivid, revelatory, exhaustively researched biography rescues pioneer inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) from cult status and restores him to his rightful place as a principal architect of the modern age.” Tesla is credited with a multitude of inventions and called “the patron saint of modern electricity.” Often described as “ahead of his time,” Tesla is now getting the credit he has long deserved for his absolute genius.

Eisenhower: Soldier and President (The Renowned One Volume Life), by Stephen E. Ambrose

Stephen Ambrose (1936-2002) was a prolific writer of biographies and historical events. He wrote more than one book about Eisenhower, who was the thirty-fourth President of the United States. This book captures Eisenhower’s war years, his presidency, and certain of his most significant relationships. His wife, Mamie was the person closest to him, but then there was Kay Summersby, with whom he is alleged to have had a long-term affair. Other important historical characters discussed in the book, and who were close to Eisenhower, include his vice-president Richard Nixon, as well as Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Nikita Khrushchev, Joe McCarthy, and others.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester

The making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was a long-term project that occurred in the late 1800s. Professor James Murray led a committee that collected definitions and reviewed them for inclusion in the dictionary. Murray was shocked to learn that one man had submitted more than 10,000 entries. Murray was even more shocked when he went to visit the man, Dr. W.C. Minor, a former surgeon who was an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. Minor had fatally shot a man but was deemed not guilty by reason of insanity. In total, he was incarcerated for 38 years. One might imagine a book about the making of a dictionary to be extraordinarily boring, but this book is actually riveting, and well worth reading.

A Hope More Powerful than the Sea, by Melissa Fleming

This book reads like a novel and begins with 19-year-old Doaa Al Zamel floating in the Mediterranean Sea where she has just watched her fiancé drown. Doaa fled Syria in 2011 and went to Egypt where she met her fiancé. They, and approximately 500 other men, women, and children, were headed to Italy to ask for refuge when the boat they were on was deliberately rammed by a ship and sunk. Hundreds drowned, and Doaa, who could not swim, spent four terrifying days floating among survivors and corpses while waiting and hoping for rescue. This is a heartbreaking but fascinating story, well told.

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