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Historical bio roundup

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Updated: December 19, 2012 12:26PM



THE PATRIARCH

THE REMARKABLE LIFE
AND TURBULENT TIMES
OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY

By David Nasaw

Penguin Press, $40

Biographer David Nasaw disproves so many lurid tales about the Kennedy clan in this comprehensive and compelling bio of old Joe. No, he wasn’t a bootlegger nor did he steal the state of Illinois so his son could become president. Actress Gloria Swanson wasn’t the love of his life, simply one in a cast of hundreds of beautiful women he bedded while remaining a practicing Roman Catholic. He was a brilliant businessman who failed utterly as a diplomat when FDR named him ambassador to Great Britain. He was a spectacular father who adored his nine children, four of whom pre-deceased him.

Having written admired biographies of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst, Nasaw understands how titans of business operate. In this outstanding biography, he captures the reality of one of America’s most complicated and controversial figures.

THOMAS JEFFERSON

THE ART OF POWER

By Jon Meacham

Random House, $35

The glamorous, impossibly talented redhead from Monticello certainly has had his ups and downs in the world of presidential biography. Once seen as the most brilliant and idealistic of the Founding Fathers, he has become the poster boy of American hypocrisy thanks to his debts and relationship with his slave Sally Hemings.

Meacham, best-selling biographer of Andrew Jackson, does an excellent job getting inside Jefferson’s head and his world. From childhood on, Jefferson was an aristocrat who lived as he chose. He controlled land and the lives of others from the age of 14 when his adored father died. Meacham presents Jefferson’s life in a textured narrative that weaves together a well-traveled career.

Wisely, Meacham uses selections from Jefferson’s own writings to illuminate the third American president’s insatiable curiosity and remarkable mind.

THE MAN WHO SAVED
THE UNION

ULYSSES GRANT IN WAR AND PEACE

By H.W. Brands

Doubleday, $35

Quiet. Modest. Mad for the wife and kids. A failure for many years. Before 1861, Ulysses Grant did not seem a man marked for greatness. For many readers, the most interesting chapters in H.W. Brands’ sympathetic new bio will be the ones not about the Civil War. It was during the brutal Mexican-American war that Grant discovered battle brought out in him an extraordinary clarity of mind. Stark life-or-death moments calmed rather than rattled him.

Brands also presents a more sympathetic portrayal of Grant’s two terms as president and dispels the rumor that Grant was a drunk. Rather, according to Brands, Grant could not hold his liquor. During the Civil War, his adjutant kept him dry.

As he did in his outstanding bio of FDR, Traitor to His Class, Brands displays a gift for psychological insight. This is an excellent addition to the bookshelf of any Civil War fan.

THE LAST LION

WINSTON SPENCER CHURCHILL,
DEFENDER OF THE REALM,
1940-1965

By William Manchester and Paul Reid

Little, Brown, $40

For the true history buff, too much is never enough. Though rather overwhelming for the newbie Anglophile at close to 1,200 small-font pages, The Last Lion does a credible and readable job in completing the late William Manchester’s massive trilogy on Winston Churchill.

Beginning in June 1940, as Churchill takes over at No. 10 Downing Street, The Last Lion brings alive the drama and danger of the war years, the terror of the bombs, the battles, the decisions, the giant personalities, the food shortages. Reid also fills in the rest of Churchill’s life, touching on the miseries that befell Churchill’s son and daughters.

Rather than the measured analysis of a historian, this book offers a detailed description of the always colorful, never dull and often ill-tempered Churchill in roaring action. A must-read finale for those who loved Manchester’s first two books.



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