Monday, July 30, 2012

Fascinating biographies

I find people’s lives fascinating.  I love to read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs.  

What is the difference between the three you may be wondering?

It can be confusing but in very simple terms, a biography is an account of someone’s life (deceased or living, a portion of or their entire life) written by another person (biographer).   An autobiography on the other hand is an accounting of that person’s life up to that point, either written by the subject or sometimes with a collaborator.  A memoir (written by the author) involves a portion of the author’s life as it relates to specific events such as the people they know, experiences they’d had or the places they’ve been.  

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is an example of a biography (an authorized biography in this case).  Jobs, who died on October 5, 2011, cooperated with the book (which was published less than three weeks after his death) & is based on more than forty interviews with Jobs conducted over two years, as well as interviews with more than a hundred family members, friends, adversaries, competitors, and colleagues.  Jobs supported the book because he knew people would be writing about him and his legacy at Apple, and he wanted to make sure his version of events was on record.  Another concern was his hope that his children would know him better.  Jobs was a volatile leader whose passion for excellence could turn quickly into abusiveness towards anything he saw as less than excellent.  He speaks honestly about the people he worked with and competed against. Those interviewed provide a candid view of the passions, perfectionism, obsessions, and craving for control that shaped his approach to business and the innovative products that resulted.  Some of the most interesting passages in the book are those in which Isaacson directly engages Jobs with personal questions unrelated to his career.  I especially enjoyed those sections and others pertaining to his family life particularly insightful
Another biography that readers might enjoy is Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  Hillenbrand tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a World War II prisoner of war survivor, whose wild youth seemed to predict a future life of crime.  His talents as a runner, however, changed all that, leading him to the 1936 Olympics and to the University of Southern California, where he was a track team star.  Hoping to return to the 1940 Olympics, his dream ended when he became a B-24 crewman in the U.S. Army Air Force.  When his plane went down in the Pacific in 1943, he spent 47 days in a life raft, then was picked up by a Japanese ship and survived starvation and torture for two years in labor camps.  Upon his return to the States, he was a physical and mental wreck and his life spiraled out of control, drinking heavily to forget and obsessed with vengeance.  With encouragement from his wife, however, he was saved by the influence of Billy Graham and was able to turn his life around, devoting himself to inspirational speeches and founding boys’ camps.  In telling Zamperini’s story, Hillenbrand tells the story of thousands whose suffering has mostly been forgotten.  It is a story of tremendous heroism and courage amidst tremendous suffering.   It is a story that leaves you questioning man’s inhumanity to man.

Please join us for the Monday, November 19, Book Chat to continue the discussion on Unbroken.

I love history through the eyes of those who lived it. Studying history is made so much more interesting by reading about a person’s life and I especially enjoy reading about women’s lives in history.  A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson and Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage are two examples.  Although both titles definitely give some history and insights of each First Lady’s life including their marriage, for the most part both books center around the political lives of their husbands. However, it’s enlightening to see the part that they played in history.  Yes, Rachel was still technically married to her first husband when she married Jackson and Abigail did indeed ask John “to remember the ladies.”  

If you prefer contemporary biographies, some that I can recommend are Cronkite, Mike Wallace, a Life and Elizabeth, the Queen: Life of a ModernMonarch.

In future blogs, I will recommend some autobiographies and memoirs.   In the meantime, I challenge you to take a break from fiction and discover why truth can be stranger (and yes, more interesting) than fiction.


  1. I too enjoy reading biographies and memoirs; often they are more intriguing and entertaining than fiction! I haven't read Unbroken but after reading this blog feel I would certainly enjoy it.
    I truly love reading memoirs. You know if someone's life has compelled them to chronicle a portion of it and publish it, there is something there worth telling! One that stands out in my mind is Glass Castle, fascinating, heartbreaking and hilarious all in one. And going way back is one of my favorites - Angela's Ashes which will always stand out in my mind as an extraordinary telling of an ordinary life.

  2. A person after my own heart! I too loved The Glass Castle and the oldie, Angela's Ashes, was one of my all time favorites although I did not care as much for McCourt's followups--Tis & Teacher Man. As for Jeannette Walls, if you haven't already read Half Broke Horses, revert back to fiction momentarily (although "true-life novel" is in the title) and give it a try.