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Five Biographies As Exciting As Novels

Updated on February 11, 2013

I suppose even avid readers have thought it at one time or another: Biographies? Not for me, thanks. They are staid, boring; I like action, suspense, excitement. I might have thought that once myself but books like these divested me of the notion. Each of these books has a tremendous, brilliant, larger-than-life, enigmatic, utterly compelling main character. They were not all saints; after all, people of force are people of faults. But they persevered in spite of their faults. They attempted and accomplished great deeds. Reading these books will not only give you great insight into the people themselves and the era in which they lived, but at the same time will provide great entertainment and inspiration.

1. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles

This biography recently took both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I have found, though, that awards alone are not proof of a book's excellence. Awards are bestowed for many reasons, not all of them readability. This one passes the only test that matters: despite its delving into many details and side-stories about the era, despite its host of minor characters, despite the fact that it is a massive doorstopper of a book, it engages and keeps a reader's attention. Vanderbilt really did live an amazing, epic life. He started off in steamships, creating steamship lines from Staten Island to New York, then all over New England, then via Central America all the way to San Francisco. Afterwards he gave up steamships to concentrate on the new state-of-the-art mode of transportation, railroads. He was shrewd, intelligent, domineering, and resourceful, and became one of the richest men of the time. He was also foul-mouthed and uneducated and mercilessly trounced anyone who got in his way or he considered his enemy. The writer is exceedingly skillful in revealing the complexities of the man. Apart from telling the story of Vanderbilt himself, the book also chronicles the rise of New York from a filthy little village in the 1700s to the economic giant that it is today. So dive into the story and allow yourself to become enthralled.

2. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan

This book also won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and for good reason. It's an amazing read. John Vann came to Vietnam in 1962 utterly convinced in the cause for which he fought. But gradually as the war went on and America's presence escalated, he began to see that not all was as pristine, clear-cut and idealistic as he at first supposed. The South Vietnamese army was appallingly corrupt, and the U.S. military leapt into a quagmire and had no idea at first how to proceed. This book goes into great detail about the origins of the war, the U.S. support of French colonialism, the political lies that led to the escalation, the reasons behind the many blunders of the generals in command. It also traces John Vann's life from his childhood, young manhood, and career in the military first in Korea and then in Vietnam. Vann, convinced that the war was being waged ineptly, became outspoken in his criticism and incurred the wrath of the brass. This book is exciting, riveting, and masterfully written. It's a study in history, an expose, and an adventure all in one. Well worth reading.

3. Jack London: A Life by Alex Kershaw

Though Jack London became renowned for writing great adventures set in the Klondike, on the high seas, in the South Pacific, and in other exotic locations, his own life was at least as thrilling and adventurous as the lives of the characters in any of his stories. He was raised in poverty, was forced at an early age to do backbreaking work in factories to support his family, rebelled and ran off to become an oyster pirate in San Francisco Bay, wandered the road as a tramp. But at the same time he was an intellectual; he loved books and learning. Along with many others he answered the call of the Klondike gold rush, and returned not with gold but with notes and experiences with which to fashion tales that would make him the most popular and well-paid writer in the world. But he had to fight for it. He labored on his words and on his continuing education day after day, struggling to cope, in danger of himself and the family he supported falling into abject poverty. His is a by-the-bootstraps story that should inspire every writer that with guts and gumption and certitude in their calling they can overcome hardship and succeed.

4. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

This is another immense book that deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It chronicles the life of one of the most enigmatic of U.S. presidents, a sickly child from an aristocratic family, a brilliant student who eschewed a sedate upper-class lifestyle to enter politics. After the death of his first wife and his mother he moved to the Dakota Badlands and became a cattle rancher, and in the process transformed into the burly, brawny fit man that history remembers. The book tells of his return to politics, his time with the "Rough Riders", his governorship of New York, his vice-presidency under McKinley and assumption of the presidency when McKinley is assassinated. It's an amazing story of an amazing man.

5. James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

James Tiptree, Jr. burst into the field of science fiction literature with dark, well-received stories that quickly became award nominees, and then began winning awards. For a long time no one knew exactly who Tiptree was, though many corresponded with "him". It turned out, in fact, that she was a woman, a middle-aged woman at that, with a background as fascinating as her stories. As a child she toured the world with her parents, even exploring deep into Africa when it was still considered "dark". Later she worked in Army intelligence, where she met her second husband, and they were later asked to join the CIA. Soon after retiring from the agency she began to write science fiction stories, using a pseudonym to protect her identity. Her stories were sharp, pessimistic, cutting edge tales that often dealt with gender issues. Many consider them among the best that the field of science fiction has yet produced. In them her inner turmoil is exposed. The end of the story of her own life is tragic indeed, but at the same time it is fascinating and utterly absorbing.


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