When I think of books for holiday gift-giving, there’s nothing more fun and challenging than matching a new biography with its ideal recipient. Delving into a cradle-to-grave account of someone’s life almost requires a particular interest in the subject and their world. Below is an inside look at four of the most interesting biographies of 2019 and their likely audiences — I have read these books, and I have the dog-eared, Post-it-noted galleys to prove it! Here’s a quick take on the life stories of a courageous female spy, a brilliant inventor, a glamorous intellectual and an architect who led a charmed but cursed life:
For the history lover, spy nut and thrill-seeker
If there’s one bulletproof gift suggestion on this prospective list, it’s Sonia Purnell’s “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II” (Viking).
This book tells the true story of woman-warrior Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who took enormous risks to aid the French Resistance during World War II. Hall, by virtue of her moneyed upbringing, learned skills at an early age that would come in handy in war: to “ride a horse, sail a boat, shoot, scale mountains, ski or cycle.” Hall longed to serve her country but was shut out of the American diplomatic corps; by the 1930s, the best she could achieve was a clerical posting at the State Department. After she (literally) shot herself in the foot in a hunting accident in Turkey, losing her leg below the knee, it seemed Hall would never achieve a position of any consequence.
As World War II broke out and the Nazis invaded France, Hall started driving ambulances. She then talked her way into the Special Operations Executive, also known as Winston Churchill’s “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” a band of Brits devoted to waging guerrilla warfare against the Nazis. The British, impressed with Hall’s knowledge of French terrain, ease with the French language and sheer courage, smuggled Hall back into France, where she ran enormous spy networks, supervised airdrops of weapons and explosives and risked her life on a daily basis — she even managed to hit the top spot on the French edition of the Nazis’ “Most Wanted” list.
After D-Day, Hall coordinated sabotage operations as the Allies fought their way through France. Along the way, she lost a heartbreaking number of friends to the Axis and the odious police of Vichy France — of the 39 women the Special Operations Executive sent into France, one in three never came home, and those captured endured horrifying torture and eventual death.
There’s enough danger, suspense and tragedy in Hall’s life for a dozen spy novels, which raises the question of why her story isn’t better known. One reason is that Hall chose to remain anonymous, accepting her many awards for valor exclusively in secret (Hall does have a building named after her at the CIA, where she worked after the war). I recommended this book to a friend of mine who almost never reads nonfiction, and she stayed up half the night finishing it.
For the entrepreneur, IT enthusiast or engineer
“Edison” by Edmund Morris (Penguin Random House) was the last book completed by the acclaimed biographer before he died in May of this year. The author of biographies of presidents Theodore Roosevelt — a trilogy — and Ronald Reagan, Morris once again found a subject worthy of his immense gifts for synthesis, narrative and insight.
For better or worse, inventor Thomas Edison laid the foundations of our technological age with breakthroughs in the recording of sound, lighting, moviemaking, electrical generation and communications. He was a genius, but until I read this book, I didn’t realize how important his focus and productivity (1,093 patents!) were to his success. Edison, who was mostly deaf, considered his hearing disability an asset, because it meant fewer distractions: “I live in a great, moving world of my own,” he wrote. He slept very little, and his family life was an afterthought. He was careless with his creditors and friendships — many relationships floundered because of his inattention and neglect.
Two reservations: Morris tells the story of Edison’s life backward, starting with his last decade and ending with his childhood. At first I was taken with this approach, but I started to lose track of the multiple narratives. And the detail! (I now know more than I ever wanted to know about ore extraction, one of Edison’s many preoccupations). Still, at the end of the biography, I felt I knew this singular man, warts and all.
For the avid reader of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books
Benjamin Moser’s “Sontag” (Ecco) tells the complete story of Susan Sontag, one of the 20th century’s most admired public intellectuals. Moser ably chronicles Sontag’s childhood, her youthful brilliance and glamour, her shaping of the public conversation — with essays and books like “Notes on ‘Camp’” and “Regarding the Pain of Others” — and her heroic efforts on behalf of the people of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. It is also an exhaustive account of her many affairs, both with women and men, her inability to sustain friendships, her careless treatment of others and her agonizing death from cancer. “She was really two Susans,” wrote novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie, “and while Good Susan was brilliant and funny and rather grand, Bad Susan could be a bullying monster.”
When I was done reading, I felt sad for Sontag — primarily for her difficulties in forging close relationships, but I also felt a little queasy at the attention lavished on her shortcomings. Moser draws heavily from Sontag’s many notebooks and journals, and if the mercilessly self-critical excerpts are any indication, she wrote down her private thoughts mostly when she was depressed. This is a book for people with an inexhaustible interest in Sontag; if you have one of those on your list, your gift-giving problems are over.
For the Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiast
Frank Lloyd Wright occupies a unique place in American history: He was a star architect whose work fundamentally changed the way Americans regarded their homes, as his “prairie style” swept away the embellishments of the Victorian era. He was a genius and an egotist with a tumultuous personal life, and Paul Hendrickson’s “Plagued By Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright” (Knopf) travels down every road in its investigation of Wright’s eerie knack for running into tragedy.
Hendrickson follows the tracks of Wright’s family, clients and enemies. He excavates the stories of Wright’s numerous lovers, notably Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney, a client who fell in love with Wright and was brutally murdered, along with her two children and four other workmen, at Taliesin, Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Hendrickson traces the tormented life of Cheney’s killer and documents the tragedies that plagued Wright clients — unexplained deaths, suicides and, most notably, fires.
Hendrickson’s style is Faulknerian in its sweep, lyricism and detail (the lurid re-creation of the murders in the prologue almost caused me to abandon the effort). As a native Southerner with Faulkner in her heart, I love that sort of thing; you might get exasperated with it. But if you have a friend or family member who loves to make pilgrimages to Wright’s homes and buildings, or are that sort of person yourself, this could be the book for you.