Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Seven Excellent Biographies

When I read non-fiction, I often enjoy biographies. It's fascinating to read about the lives of creative, intelligent, or world-changing people, like Mozart, the Bronte sisters, or Albert Einstein. These books can be as informative as they are engaging, so here's a list of my favorites.

1. Mozart's Women by Jane Glover

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the greatest composers and musicians who ever lived. What few people know is how deeply connected he was to the women in his life--his incredibly talented sister, Nannerl, his wife, Constanze Weber, and his muse, Aloysia Weber. Mozart's Women is the story of Mozart's relationships with the women in his life and how they influenced his music, especially the sympathetic portrayals of female characters in his operas. Glover's portrait of Mozart himself reveals the composer's keen insight into human nature and his sophisticated understanding of relations between the sexes. This book captures a fascinating side of Mozart's life that is rarely explored in other books, and Glover's discussions of the composer's operas reveal a profound insight into his works. Her writing is engaging and enjoyable, so the whole book flows beautifully. If you only ever read one book about a classical musician, this one should be it.

2. The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller

Lucasta Miller's The Bronte Myth is a biography and something of an anti-biography at the same time. That is, it's a biography aimed at dispelling all the myths and legends that have grown up around the three sisters of the Haworth parsonage, and encouraging a more intellectual re-examination of their works. Indeed, Miller argues that instead of studying their lives, Bronte scholars should focus on analyzing their brilliant literary creations. For example, instead of indulging in romantic myths about Emily Bronte as an untutored genius, she finds connections between Emily's work and the German romantic poetry of Heinrich Heine. Emily, who learned to speak and read German fluently, was less influenced by English writers than by the passionate, intense German Romantics.

This book's skeptical approach felt refreshing, and Miller still effectively depicts the Bronte sister's lives. While other authors wallow in romantic fables about the sisters, she reveals them to be fiercely intellectual, thoughtful writers whose myths should not be allowed to overshadow their powerful literary legacy.

3. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan

Even if you're a secular humanist or an atheist, you should read this book. Crossan brilliantly captures the world that Jesus lived in, and how his actions would have been interpreted and understood by his contemporaries. He depicts Jesus as a radical social revolutionary, who advocated for absolute equality between social classes and genders thousands of years before Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, or Susan B. Anthony (all of whom were inspired by the messages of the bible). Crossan's description of historical crucifixion and his interpretation of the true meaning behind the resurrection are as heart-wrenching as they are convincing. To often, Jesus's message has been lost or misinterpreted by hateful people who call themselves Christians. The real Jesus had humanity, compassion, and a deep love for the poor and oppressed. His true story and message are inspiring even if you don't believe in the supernatural aspects of it.

4. Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

Albert Einstein is possibly the most famous scientist who ever lived, and his theories revolutionized physics as we know it. His life was tumultuous, fascinating, and an example of the power of imagination and intellect. Einstein rebelled against the oppressive authoritarianism that swept Germany, even from his earliest days as a student. By rejecting the scientific status quo, Einstein freed himself to find the truth. His personal life, especially his relationship with his first wife, have the same intensity as his intellectual work--indeed, the two seem intimately entwined, as Einstein fell in love with Mileva Maric because she shared his enthusiasm for physics. Isaacson's book captures Einstein's rebellious yet humanitarian character, and reflects on how the great man's flaws were also some of his strengths.

5. Night, by Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel's autobiography is a powerful testimony to the cruelty and savagery of the Nazi Holocaust, as well as the forces of denial that keep people from seeing disaster and evil before it's too late. Wiesal's account begins with an account of his spiritual teacher, Moshe the Beadle, who escaped from a Nazi massacre to warn the Jews of his village about the Holocaust. Moshe's warning, like many other warnings and red flags, falls on deaf ears--the villagers can't or won't face the truth, and they continually reassure themselves that everything will be alright. The beadle's desperation and terror foreshadows the villagers' impending doom, and reflects the book's theme: evil succeeds when good people are blind to it. After his first night in Auschwitz, Wiesel knows that he will never forget the horrors he saw there. If we are to prevent such atrocities from happening again, we much never forget them either. This harrowing story reminds the reader that only constant vigilance prevents evil.

6. Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee

Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf captures the complicated depths of this great modernist writer. Woolf lost both her parents at a young age, and these tragedies (as well as possible sexual abuse) left her vulnerable to periods of depression and mental breakdowns. Yet, her writing remained prolific during her calm periods, and she helped to revolutionize modern literature with classics such as Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. Lee's book sheds light on how Woolf's life influenced her writing and her political consciousness. It's also a fascinating depiction of family life at the turn of the century, and how rapidly the world was changing for the people who lived through it. 

7. Maus, by Art Speigelman

Maus defies traditional genres--it's part biography/memoir, but it's also an experimental graphic novel. Art Speigelman relates his father Vladek's experiences in the Holocaust with a depiction of his difficult, often strained relationship with his loving but damaged father. This books shows that the Holocaust had victims long after the death camps were closed. Speigelman's parents survived the camps yet never really escaped them. His mother remained so haunted by her experiences that she committed suicide years after being freed, and his father became hopelessly stuck in obsessive patterns, afraid to let go for even a second. Speigelman himself suffered from depression, and had to be hospitalized as a young man. 

The story of Anja's experience in Auschwitz is conspicuously absent from the narrative. She committed suicide before her son could learn her story, and her husband Vladek was so enraged by her death that he burned her notebooks. Yet the loss of her story also reminds the reader of how many other stories were lost. The dead have no voices, so the victims of the gas chambers can never write their own stories. Without the notebooks, Art doesn't know for sure why his mother killed herself, or what secrets she had. 

On a personal note, my understanding of Anja has changed since I became a mother. While obviously I never knew her and I can't say for sure what cause her such enormous pain, I think it's the death of her first son, Richieu. I can't imagine the horror of losing a child, but the circumstances under which Richieu died seem particularly agonizing. He died far from home, away from his parents. He was probably frightened. I think Anja might've tortured herself, wishing she could've been there to comfort him, maybe even to go with him. The guilt and loss from his death overwhelmed her, until she decided to join him. 


  1. I absolutely love reading biographies. You've listed biographies for some huge historical figures there and I totally agree that it can be fascinating to find out more about these rare characters but I think more than than I really get a kick out of reading autobiographies from lesser known people. It's often more relatable and I find it truly amazing the lives that some people lead. The most recent and great example of this for me would be 'Back From The Abyss' from Kieran Doherty. A man with huge talent in journalism and theater who's life was deeply troubled by alcohol addiction until his death in 2010. His life story is incredible. The book takes you through his tough childhood, his unbelievable military years and time in prison for alcohol fueled crimes. This book has really stuck with me and I highly recommend it.

  2. Thank you for the recommendation! I'll check it out.

  3. Hi Alexis - my name is Jessica and I work with the publisher of this memoir, Cap & Bells Press. I would love to send you a review copy of the book for you to read and hopefully review if you would like. If so, please send me an email to info [at] capandbellspress [dot] com and I will get one out to you. Thanks!