Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Day 5: Thick, Chewy Political Biographies

Welcome to Day 5 in our 24 Days of Books. Each Fall season seems to bring us an amazing array of biographies of fascinating people, and this year is no exception. Today we'll tell you about a few wonderful new political biographies that would make great gifts.

Jon Meacham won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion. This year he explores the complexities of one of our early presidents in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. The book brings vividly to life an extraordinary man and his remarkable times, presenting Jefferson the politician and president, a great and complex human being forever engaged in the wars of his era. Philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson's genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power. Meacham writes, "The closest thing to a constant in his life was his need for power and control. He tended to mask these drives so effectively...the most astute observers of his life and work had trouble detecting them." The book also delves into his contradictions, including his hypocrisy on the issue of slavery.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals (the basis for the new movie "Lincoln") writes, "This terrific book allows us to see the political genius of Thomas Jefferson better than we have ever seen it before. In these endlessly fascinating pages, Jefferson emerges with such vitality that it seems as if he might still be alive today." Stacy Schiff, author of  Cleopatra: A life, describes the book as "a thrilling and affecting portrait of our first philospher-politician," and says that the author "resolves the bundle of contradictions that was Thomas Jefferson by probing his love of progress and thirst for power. Here was a man endlessly, artfully intent on making the world something it had not been before."And Walter Isaacson, author of last year's bestselling biography of Steve Jobs, writes "In addition to being a brilliant biography, this book is a guide to the use of power. Jon Meacham shows how Jefferson's deft ability to compromise and improvise made him a transformational leader." This hardcover book, published by Random House, is $35.

Another biography of a fascinating life was just named one of this year's top five nonfiction titles by the New York Times. The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw, tells the story of the man who launched the twentieth century's most famous political dynasty. The only biographer granted unrestricted access to the Joseph P. Kennedy papers in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Nasaw tracks Kennedy's astonishing passage from East Boston outsider to supreme Washington insider. His career accomplishments included banker, World War I shipyard manager, Hollywood studio head, broker, Wall Street operator, New Deal presidential adviser, founding chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the first Irish American ambassador to London.

Nasaw says he is drawn to writing about big American moguls, such as William Randolph Heart and Andrew Carnegie, subjects of his previous biographies, in large part because we think we know who they are, and there’s been a lot written about them, but most of the people who’ve written about them have done so with the purpose either to condemn or celebrate. He says "what you really have to do is start all over again from the beginning... throwing out every preconception, every anecdote, every comment that X has made to Y... and just starting from the beginning."

Kennedy was so committed to being a good father that he involved himself heavily in his children’s lives – and not necessarily in a bad way; they welcomed that involvement.The boys headed off in different political directions from their father, but he loved them and pushed them forward -- despite, as Kennedy says, "[my boys] disagree with me on everything." Sadly, Kennedy outlived four of his nine children.

A significant portion of the book explores Kennedy's relationship with Franklin Roosevelt, whom he alternately revered and reviled. "The two could not have been more different...but they had one critical trait in common. Each was a consummate charmer and regularly deployed his charm as a tool or a weapon to get what he wanted." This hardcover book ($40) is published by Penguin Press.

Another biography on this year's list of the New York Times top five nonfiction titles is The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, the fourth book in Robert Caro's much-lauded series about Johnson. (The series now exceeds 3000 pages -- who knew there was so much to say about him?) This book follows Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his career and gives us for the first time the story of the assassination from the viewpoint of Johnson himself. With his consistent mix of prodigious reserach, depth of insight, and mix of political and psychological analysis, Caro reveals what it was like to suddenly become president in a time of great crisis -- an assumption of presidential power unprecedented in American history -- and tells how Johnson stepped, unprepared, into the presidency and within weeks forced through Congress bills on the budget and civil rights that it had determined to let die. This is Johnson's finest hour, before his aspirations and his accomplishments were overshadowed and eroded by the trap of the Vietnam War.

Caro has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, twice won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, as well as just about every other major literary honor for his in-depth biographies. This hardcover book -- all 700+ pages -- is published by Knopf and sells for $35.

From another bestselling historian, H.W. Brands, comes a biography of Civil War general and two-time president Ulysses Grant. The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace tells the story of how Grant saved the Union twice, on the battlefield and in the White House, holding the country together at two critical turning points in our history. One reviewer called the book an "authoritative, action-packed, and well-rounded biography of a very human Ulysses S. Grant." Published by Doubleday Books, the book is $35.

Spanning the years 1940 to1965, The Last Lion, a biography of Winston Churchill, picks up shortly after Churchill became Prime Minister, when his tiny island nation stood alone against the overwhelming might of Nazi Germany. The third volume in his Chuchill series, the book offers the detailed research, sharp analysis, and sparkling prose, presenting a revelatory portrait of this brilliant, flawed, and dynamic leader. (Little Brown and Company; $40)

Another wonderful biography that has recently been published in paperback is Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography: the extraordinary story of an obscure German princess who became one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history. (Random House; $20)

As always, you'll find many more great gift ideas in our Holiday Book guide, available at our store. See you soon!

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