Bleg: Good biographies for a book club?

clintonsheehyA neighbor of mine has asked me if I have any advice on good biographies for her book club.  I’m thinking something published by a trade press, American or European history, and well-written and interesting enough to keep intelligent non-specialists engaged.  Since this is a women’s book club, biographies of women would be especially useful, but all suggestions are welcome.

In a quick e-mail to my neighbor, I recommended Laurel Thather Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale(1990), and Blanche Wiesen Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt, vol. I. (1992).  (I probably should have warned her that the Cook bio is 600+ pages!)  My guess is that this book club will want to be able to read and hear the voice of the subject, so while I admire Camilla Townsend’s accomplishments as a historian in Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma(2004), and her Malintzin’s Choices:  An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (2006), my guess is that an audience of non-experts will feel that the subject of their book is rather elusive.

22 thoughts on “Bleg: Good biographies for a book club?

  1. This is more autobiography than biography, but how about Majane Satrapi’s _Persepolis_? It’s a two-part graphic novel that tells her story of growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Compulsively readable, and there’s lots to talk about in terms of not only the text but also Satrapi’s artwork.


  2. I really liked Alice Echols’ biography of Janis Joplin, Scars of Sweet Paradise, but I’m probably a sucker for it based on the subject matter.

    Evgeniia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind is also good reading.


  3. I haven’t read it yet (just bought it) but what about Annette Gordon-Reed’s Hemmings of Monticello? And I loved the first volume of Cook’s Roosevelt book. Was it 600 pages? Didn’t feel like it…


  4. How about Natalie Zemon Davis’s Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds or Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal?


  5. I had a great time reading _Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire_ by Amanda Foreman. I read it for guilty pleasure and enjoyed every moment of it.


  6. Although published by an academic press, I recommend “Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign” by Adams and Keene. Alice Paul’s story and what she achieved is so incredible that it leaves me wondering why she is not in our history books… Because of her efforts 20 million American women were enfranchised. If that’s not a revolution I don’t know what is! I also like “Sisters –the Lives of American Suffragists” by Jean Baker which has a good overview of Alice Paul.

    I haven’t read it yet, but what might also be of interest is the just published “The Muse of the Revolution” by Nancy Rubin Stuart. It is about Mercy Otis Warren who wrote our Bill of Rights.


  7. Perhaps:

    Joan Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life
    Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol
    Katherine Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity
    Jean Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography


  8. Some goodies from US disability history:

    Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner’s _Unspeakable_ (UNC Press, probably 2006?) is the story of Junius Wilson, a deaf African-American man who was arrested and soon imprisoned as “criminally insane” (without ever being tried); he was castrated and stayed in the state hospital in North Carolina for more than 70 years, with no one to converse with (the kind of sign language he learned in a segregated deaf school in the 1920s wasn’t standard ASL). With changes in policy and practice, his predicament came to light in the 1990s, with extensive news coverage and protracted lawsuits. The book is readable and fascinating, and would be bound to raise discussion topics among intelligent, reflective readers.

    Kim Nielsen’s _The Radical Lives of Helen Keller_ (NYU Press 2004) is another good choice, because it’s a familiar historical figure whose real life is so much more interesting and complicated than her mythology. That alone should make it a good book group discussion.

    Ernest Greenberg and Elisabeth Gitter both published biographies of Laura Bridgman (a deafblind woman whose education was a matter of public fascination in the mid-19c) about five years ago. I’ve only read the Greenberg, but Bridgman’s is another story that gathers up so many broader trends into one life’s course. If the reading group includes a lot of educators, this would be an especially good choice.


  9. “Peter the Great” by Robert K. Massie is splendid.

    William Manchester’s first two biographies of Churchill are fantastic as well. I have a soft spot for Manchester, as he died while I wrote my dissertation chapter on him. (sob) The third and final volume is coming out and, if i remember correctly, is being completed by a journalist who knew Manchester in his later days. Any info about that release date would be appreciated (of course).



  10. This is great! I’m not an historian and don’t get a chance to read much for fun, but love biographies, and will have to check some of these out.
    I read one a couple years ago, “Ada Blackjack: A true story of survival in the Arctic” by Jennifer Niven. Blackjack was an Inuk woman who was the sole survivor in a mission that was meant to prove the “Friendly Arctic” theory. Reviews are available at the author’s website


  11. I’ll echo historymaven re: Joan Hedrick’s book.

    Since this is the Lincoln bicentennial, I’d also recommend David Herbert Donald’s _Lincoln_.


  12. I’ll add a memoir – Unbowed by Wangari Maathai. She was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and is just amazing. Moreover, her story allows folks who only see the negative image of Africa to see African women (in particular) taking a proactive role in protecting the environment (and the delicate state structure) in an African society. She also gives some prescient context for the ethnic violence that flared up in Kenya last year and shows that African women do not let men walk all over them. Usually memoirs about women in Africa are from a colonial white perspective (Alexandra Fuller and Isak Dinesen come to mind) which is why Maathai’s book is so unique and enjoyable.


  13. I love the biography of Ida B. Wells by Paula J. Giddings – “Ida: A Sword Among Lions”, published by Amistad. It’s 800 pages so perhaps a bit long, but intriguing and rich.


  14. Since someone else pointed out that we’re all celebrating Lincon, why not a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln? I’ve not read any (I’m more of an 18th century kid), but there was one recently reviewed in the WasPost; Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, by Catherine Clinton.

    I second Peresopolis – it was a challenging read, and very enlightening.


  15. I agree on Peresopolis! I’d also suggest Al Young, Masquerade and Martha Hodes, The Sea Captains Wife (the latter has its own website). For a popular but absorbing bio of Edna St. Vincent Millay, see Nancy Mitford, Savage Beauty.


  16. Hi! I am the neighbor who is in this bookclub and I want to thank everyone for their input! I got some great titles to suggest over the next few months. We had a meeting last night and in celebrating Lincoln we are going with “The Madness of Mary Lincoln Todd” by Jason Emerson. This is our first non-fiction and we want to alternate fiction and non-fiction so I wrote down some of these titles for the future. Thanks again Ann and everyone! (PS its my first time blogging on here but I visit often)


  17. Hi,

    I would probably have some valuable insight into some useful biographies as my favorite hobby is to read about all the great people of times past. Among my favorites are:

    – “Duty of a Statesmen” by William Lee Miller. This is a biography of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency with respect to his moral and principled character.

    – “Confessions” by Jean-Jacque Rousseau is indeed my favorite autobiography of all-time! His constant introspections and questioning about life provides for a very good teacher of human psychology.

    – “Metternich” by Alan Palmer. This biography of perhaps the world’s most able diplomat delves deep into this exciting but controversial man.

    – “Napoleon’s Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand” by David Lawday is an extremely entertaining biography of the most ostentatious, intelligent, controversial, and shrewd statesman that has probably ever known to exist.

    I hope this reply helped provide this forum with some useful biographies that indeed helped me open my eyes to the lives of history’s great men.


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