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Find more Top 10 Biographies
Among the 10 best biographies reviewed in Booklist since the June 2008 issue stand a remarkable number of first lives, making for a fresh and exciting list illuminating the realms of religion, art, politics, race, environmentalism, and sports.
The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. By Thomas P. Slaughter. 2008. Hill & Wang, $27 (9780809095148).
John Woolman (1720–72), the most famous and famously eccentric American Quaker and abolitionist, arises in all his quiet intensity from Slaughter’s scrupulous, enlightening, and engrossing masterpiece.
Cheever. By Blake Bailey. 2009. Knopf, $35 (9781400043941).
A foremost American fiction writer, John Cheever is not widely read now, but a Cheever renaissance may result from this magnificently understanding and understandable portrait of a tortured artist.
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. By Annette Gordon-Reed. 2008. Norton, $35 (9780393064773).
In the long-awaited sequel to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), Gordon-Reed delivers a powerful composite portrait of Jefferson and the biracial family who helped make Monticello a fountainhead of American culture.
Le Corbusier. By Nicholas Fox Weber. 2008. Knopf, $45 (9780375410437).
Universally recognized for his radical theories and daring buildings, the megalomaniacal and brilliant architect, urban designer, utopist, and painter who called himself Le Corbusier remained an enigma until the arrival of Weber’s comprehensive and mesmerizing biography.
Mary Austin and the American West. By Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson. 2009. Univ. of California, $29.95 (9780520246355).
Mary Austin is integral to the history of the water wars of the West, yet few are aware of her complicated life and prophetic environmental and social concerns, all movingly chronicled in this groundbreaking life.
My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century. By Adina Hoffman. 2009. Yale, $27.50 (9780300141504).
Hoffman presents the first biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, a vibrant portrait that encompasses an unprecedented look at modern Palestinian culture.
A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. By Donald Worster. 2008. Oxford, $34.95 (9780195166828).
Visionary wilderness advocate John Muir led a dramatic life, which is sensitively covered by Worster, who also parses Muir’s still urgent “ethic of environmental restraint.”
Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington. By Robert J. Norrell. 2009. Harvard/Belknap, $35 (9780674032118).
Norrell offers a nuanced perspective on the long-controversial Booker T. Washington in this compelling portrait of a complex man working for change during a particularly rough time in U.S. race relations.
The Woman behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience. By Kirstin Downey. 2009. Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, $35 (9780385513654).
Many New Deal social reforms attributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt originated with his labor secretary, Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member and the intriguing subject of Downey’s riveting and timely portrait.
Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee. By Allen Barra. 2009. Norton, $29.95 (9780393062335).
Barra zestfully portrays Lorenzo Pietro Berra—the most beloved Yankee, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and a good guy—in an encyclopedic yet fluid and warmly anecdotal biography.
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