The Best Biographies of 2015
Few intellectual figures in the 18th and 19th century were as influential as the peripatetic Alexander von Humboldt—and few of his stature have so inexplicably faded to oblivion. Wulf captures the scientist’s revolutionary ideas about nature and the evolution of our world, his daring adventures in Latin America and Siberia, and his far-reaching friendships and inspiration (Jefferson, Darwin, Bolivar, Muir, to name just a few).
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606—James Shapiro
If 1606 had been merely the year in which William Shakespeare wrote King Lear, it would have been a great year by almost any author’s standards. In fact, he also managed to write Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. Making this accomplishment even more remarkable was the fact that the playwright had, by his standards at least, been in something of a slump for several years. And his world was in upheaval, too: Elizabeth I was recently dead and James of Scotland had ascended to the throne, plague was rampant, plotters were everywhere, religious zealots divided the population. It was Shakespeare’s genius to turn the fear and uncertainty that afflicted everyone’s daily life into some of the most stirring, albeit bleak, drama ever written. Shapiro, as well as anyone could, shows us how that happened.
In Search of Sir Thomas Browne—Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Patterning his biography of the 17th-century English physician and literary man on How to Live, Sarah Bakewell’s magisterial if unconventional biography of Montaigne, is laudable. Few biographers of late have reached back across the centuries to bring someone to life with Bakewell’s success. But Aldersey-Williams has the additional burden of introducing his subject to a broader audience: Browne is sadly nowhere near as well known as Montaigne. Partly this can be attributed to the fact that we don’t know much about Browne. But we know what he thought, and what obsessed him (ancient funerary practices, patterns in nature, an obsession with ridding the world of misinformation and a passion for coining words, including electricity and hallucination), and it is through his books and essays that his biographer brings this brilliant stylist and omnivorously curious man to life. No one, alive or dead, could ask for a more entertaining introduction to a wider audience.
Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life—Jonathan Bate
Probably nothing could rescue the late Ted Hughes from his fate as eternal tabloid fodder inspired by his tempestuous marriage to the poet Sylvia Plath, which ended with her suicide. But if anything could, it would be this scrupulous biography by Jonathan Bate, which acknowledges and explicates, with no obsequiousness, Hughes’s brilliance as one of the 20th century’s great poets. Hughes was no specialist: He wrote as well for children as he did for adults, which is surprising only because he possessed a dark cast of mind. But children recognize honesty, and Hughes never shied from hard truth: Here was a nature lover, for example, who never let love cloud his vision. If you want to see a perfect balance between “red in tooth and claw” and a celebration of the living world, read “Pike,” his closely observed, even celebratory, poem about that predatory fish. Hughes deserved a fine biographer, and in Bate he got one.
The Billion Dollar Spy—David E. Hoffman
Today, if the near-weekly reports are to be believed, the sole victim of stolen military and trade secrets would seem to be the Pentagon. In this gripping biography of the spy Adolf Tolkachev, Hoffman uncovers the extent to which Tolkachev and the CIA’s Moscow station were able to penetrate the Kremlin’s top-secret research developments to provide the U.S. with vital intelligence on advanced Soviet technology. It is more than just a thriller—it is an examination of how and why somebody turns on their own country.
Killing a King—Dan Ephron
The stories of Yitzhak Rabin and his assassin, Yigal Amir, run parallel in this riveting tale of the event that would alter the fate of millions of Israelis and Palestinians in one of the world’s most troubled spots. It is a heartbreaking tale of ideals, missed clues, and extremists on one of the world’s largest stages. Ephron’s exhaustive tome provides immediate clarity to Israel’s situation today.
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh’s life is one of those stories that begs for a gifted storyteller. Anand, a journalist, is more than up to the task. Singh was the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, the child of a deposed maharajah (who gave up the fabled Koh-i-Noor diamond), fashion icon-turned-radical feminist. The book is an illuminating study of the splashes of color that complicated the often-gray Victorian scene.
Destiny and Power—Jon Meacham
Working with access to both George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Meacham has crafted a sympathetic but fully informed life of Bush 41, and in the process drawn a portrait of a period in politics that seems light-years from our own. Bush the elder may have been a man born on third base, but he was also imbued with the idea of service to something besides his own interests, whether as a congressman, a diplomat, director of the CIA, as Reagan’s vice president, or as a president in his own right. He believed in the greater good and in common purpose, and even his ruthlessness (Willie Horton) seems almost quaint today. Meacham is no hagiographer, but he is an admiring biographer. The thing is, he’s scrupulous enough in his research and his writing to make a very solid case that in Bush 41, there really is someone to admire.