Best Books of 2013: Biography!

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As long-time Stevereads readers may recall, I like biography just a bit more than I like any other kind of writing. Something about the way it combines the sweep of history and the narrative of fiction tends to work on me even when the specific volume in question is less than stellar. And 2013 provided me with some truly stellar volumes! In fact, so strong was the field this time around that my enjoyment of these ten best examples was undimmed by three factors that should have doomed it: 1) some of these biographies are of individuals I loathe and despise, 2) some of these biographies are in sub-categories (like acting or, gawd help us, sports) that have typically held no interest for me, and most of all, 3) some of these biographies are part of two-volume sets and so, you’d think, would have struck me as incomplete. But the energy and sheer literary quality of these ten titles swept away such petty objections – leaving me with plenty of books to enjoy, and to recommend strongly:

coolidge cover

10. Coolidge by Amity Shlaes (Harper) – A perfect case in point: Shlaes’ lovingly painstaking biography of this walking slab of gluten-free tofu should have been as boring as every previous biography of America’s third-least-loved president, but such is Shlaes’ sheer gusto that it’s sufficient to transform even this wretched Massachusetts carpetbagger (referred to rather pointedly by a journalist in his own time as “tedium in a top hat”) into a figure of fascination, if not sympathy. This was a weak year for presidential biographies (the only other really prominent example being hagiography of the most revolting stripe), but Shlaes’ book would have stood out even in a strong year.

queen anne cover

9. Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion by Anne Somerset (Knopf) – 2013 was also something of a weak year for royal biographies (Jane Ridley’s The Heir Apparent being one of the only other possible contenders for a Stevereads list and failing only because it couldn’t beat out its own predecessors), and at first glance Queen Anne – reflexively despised as weak and easily bullied – would seem an unlikely candidate for the distinction. But Anne Somerset is an old pro at this, and her book is a masterpiece.  You can read my full review here.

the kid cover

8. The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee Jr. (Little, Brown) – This big book represents another hurdle, since the last baseball book I loved was Leigh Montville’s 2006 Babe Ruth biography The Big Bam. Montville also once wrote a biography of the Splendid Splinter himself, Ted Williams, and in this lovingly-crafted doorstop about Williams from Ben Bradlee, jr., that earlier work is surpassed so handily it seems effortless. Bradlee’s book magnificently captures the famously multi-faceted (a euphemism for “mostly horrible but we really wish it were otherwise”) personality of the man many fans rank as the best ever to play the game. The writing here shifts from powerfully acerbic to openly sentimental with such brawn and confidence (as befits a writer who polished his chops in Boston) with such confidence that the thing could have been about Bill Buckner and I’d have kept reading.

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7. Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power by Phillip Dwyer (Yale University Press) – What the mighty Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut immortally refers to as “The Pestiferous Little Corsican” leads off a little trio of superb Napoleonic-era biographies that came out in 2013. This first one is Dwyer’s concluding volume to the big biography of the little tyrant he began in 2008 with Napoleon: The Path to Power, and the sequel is an even better piece of popular scholarship, detailing Bonaparte’s time in power. You can read my full review here.

nelson sword of albion

6. Nelson: The Sword of Albion by John Sugden (Henry Holt) – Like Dwyer, Sugden in 2013 came out with his concluding volume in a two-volume biography, this one of Horatio Nelson, whose face-stepping rise to power Sugden chronicled in 2004′s Nelson: A Dream of Glory, and this book, too, is not only a masterpiece on its own merits but also forms, with its preceding volume, the definitive work on its pudgy, egomaniacal subject. The ‘Dwyer Napoleon’ and the ‘Sugden Nelson’ will stand for a century as scholarly shorthand for the indispensable works on their respective subjects. You can read my full review here.

wellington cover

5. Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814 by Rory Muir (Yale University Press) – Unlike Dwyer and Sugden’s books, Muir’s fat masterpiece is the beginning of a set, not the conclusion – this is Wellington the soldier, not Wellington the statesman. And one of the many brilliances of Muir’s book is to remind readers that both those Wellingtons were also always Wellington the politician; the over-arching effect of this great book is to make this figure – in many ways the most complex of his era – even more complex, and that’s a mighty thing for a book to achieve. You can read my full review here.

music in the castle of heaven cover

4. Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by Charles Eliot Gardiner (Knopf) – Gardiner’s long-awaited work on J.S. Bach turned out to be even better than I’d been hoping, a truly heartfelt monument to one man’s lifetime involvement with one of the greatest musicians of all time. Given Gardiner’s own musical talents, it’s not surprising – it’s in fact a source of great joy – that this book is so suffused with musicology, but I was amazed at how smoothly even the most technical deconstructions are worked into the flow of the narrative. You can read my full review here. 

jonathan swift cover

3. Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch (Yale University Press) – Damrosch’s book is a perfect example of a phenomenon I encounter quite often in my reading: the sidereal drift of estimation. I read a great many of my books in at least two stages: bound galley advance copies and finished hardcover copies, usually separated by several months. And in that time, while I’m reading other stuff, very often my initial estimation of those already-read books will be shifting and settling down in the cargo holds of my book-memory. I form an initial impression immediately (you’re shocked, I know), but some books fight with those impressions, nagging me either to like them more or to dislike them more. There is no accounting for the sidereal drift of estimation (a book is a book! it doesn’t change), and there’s no predicting it (two of the works on my Best Fiction list this year, for example, started out on my Worst Fiction list!), but I certainly felt it in the case of this fantastic biography of Dean Swift, which first struck me as programmatic and then revealed itself to me as far more subtle and intelligent, in fact a great work on this great writer (the only writer-biography on our list this year). You can read my full review here.

Barbara-Stanwyck-cover

2. Barbara Stanwyck, Steel-True: 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson (Simon & Schuster) – Another perfect case-in-point of the unlikely nature of some of my top Biography picks this year! If you’d told me last year (when I’d only heard the vaguest rumblings about this book) that I’d be getting a 900-page biography of actress Barbara Stanwyck that doesn’t even reach the period of her greatest artistic achievements, I’d have said there was no way I would even read it, let alone love it, but Victoria Wilson has overruled all that and written a book that will stand as a masterpiece even if its concluding volume never gets written. The sheer breadth of her research is staggering  - there seems to be no tiny source or detail about Stanwyck’s rise to fame that she’s overlooked – but by far my favorite part of this great book is Stanwyck herself: whenever Wilson quotes her, this incredibly smart, opinionated, and altogether wonderful voice enters the narrative and gives it a jolt. You most certainly don’t need to have any prior interest in Stanwyck or the great and savage Golden Age of the American studio system to love this book – Wilson and Stanwyck herself will keep you reading anyway.

all the glittering prizes

1. All the Glittering Prizes by John Taliaferro (Simon & Schuster) – How nonplussed gentle, chirping John Hay himself would have been if he’d held in his hands this sumptuous and utterly wonderful treatment of his life! Here is his long life in politics, starting out as one of Abraham Lincoln’s many surrogate sons and coming to know four other US presidents quite well and not only see a new international era being born but personally assist with the delivery. Here we have the social life so amusingly prosecuted. Here we have the long and epoch-defining diplomatic work, and the friendships with all the good and great names of his day (especially with the cerebral and acid-tongued Henry Adams). And ultimately here we have the best biography of 2013!  You can read my full review here.

2 Comments to Best Books of 2013: Biography!

  1. December 14, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Thanks for reminding me of the Hay book. I want to read that more than just about anything written recently.

  2. Chuck Darwin's Gravatar Chuck Darwin
    December 15, 2013 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    Just for your readers’ information – the Hay biography is on sale at the Brookline Booksmith for $10. Picked up a copy this afternoon!

    Thanks so much for all the work you do Steve – it’s a blast to read these lists and relive the past year in books in such detail.

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