Related: The Best Fiction of 2014
Gandhi Before IndiaRamachandra Guha (Knopf)
Guha unearths the life of Gandhi before he was given the title of “Mahatma.” The leader’s childhood in India, his education in London, and his work as a civil rights activist in South Africa are all detailed with a scrupulous intelligence.
Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in ChiefJames M. McPherson (Penguin Press)
Few historians—few authors period—deliver prose as clear and sharp as McPherson’s. His latest examination of the characters in America’s Iliad hold up to rigorous scrutiny the conventional wisdom that the South lost the Civil War in no small part thanks to Davis’s incompetence.
Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928Stephen Kotkin (Penguin Press)
A thoroughly researched, well written examination on whether or not Stalin was actually a party madman with little breeding and less intelligence.
Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private DynastyDaniel Schulman (Grand Central Publishing)
For those looking for something more substantial than the usual partisan talking points about the Koch brothers and their effect on modern politics, Schulman’s book is “mandatory reading.”
Beethoven: Anguish and TriumphJan Swafford (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
A long (1,077 pages) but approachable study of the challenges Beethoven had to overcome, his inspirations, and his musical process. Few authors write more transparently about music than Swafford, who has also penned memorable lives of Brahms and Ives.
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert AmesKai Bird (Crown)
Had not Robert Ames, one of the most fascinating intelligence officers ever, died in the American Embassy bombing in Beirut in 1983, the next few decades of American-Arab relations might well have gone in a very different direction. The episodes in this narrative often read prosaically—where is the baroque spycraft, where are the gadgets?—but long after you put it down, the story continues to haunt you.
Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in RussiaEmmanuel Carrère (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A wide-ranging account of the writer and political dissident’s life, from his impoverished youth in Ukraine to his success as a writer and return to Russia.
UpdikeAdam Begley (Harper)
This widely acclaimed biography charts the American writer’s progress, as well as his turbulent personal life.
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the FleshJohn Lahr (Norton)
An “emphatic, probing biography,” it argues that the author of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire “was first saved and then betrayed by his art.”
The Secret History of Wonder WomanJill Lepore (Knopf)
The fictional Wonder Woman’s Amazonian origins and secret identity are well known, but what about how she was created? A fascinating look at her creator, William Moulton Marston, and the “sex, politics, love, loss, feminism,” family, and lies behind her story.