Some of the year's best biographies

Nov 28 2010 - 2:41am

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One of my extracurricular activities for the past five years has been reading biographies. I'm on a national committee that awards a prize to the best biography of the year.

Some people might find this tedious, but it's catnip for a person who both loves to read and to puzzle out what makes people tick.

You, dear reader, are about to benefit from these forays into famous lives. Here are some of the best biographies I've read thus far this year:

* "Cleopatra: A Life" by Stacy Schiff; Little, Brown. Yes, that Cleopatra -- of Hollywood and Halloween costume fame.

Admittedly, it can be hard to relate to the Ptolemy dynasty, which Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.) was part of. These Greeks who ruled Egypt didn't think twice about marrying their brothers or sisters then murdering them when said siblings got in the way of ambition (on the other hand, a visiting Roman was murdered by an angry crowd for killing a cat).

That having been said, Schiff, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer, portrays Cleopatra as the ambitious and talented ruler she was, and puts her affairs with Caesar and Mark Antony in their proper political context.

The Romans, the early writers of Cleopatra's history, portrayed her as a lascivious power-grabbing hussy. But Schiff works hard and successfully to get beyond the anti-Cleopatra propaganda. For anyone interested in politics, power and the ancient world.

* "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham" by Selina Hastings; Random House. Maugham, the author of the novels "Of Human Bondage" and "The Razor's Edge," was enormously popular in his day (1874-1965). Few contemporaries knew he was a closeted gay or occasional bisexual. He was trapped into marrying a woman he didn't love after he got her pregnant, but his lifelong passion was for a dissolute charmer named Gerald Haxton.

Despite all this personal drama, Maugham never stopped writing and reporting. He traveled the far reaches of the British Empire to research his stories, indelible and unflinching examinations of human nature. For the writer on your list -- Maugham was one of those people who couldn't not write. Hastings tells his story with grace and sympathy.

* l by Ron Chernow; Penguin Press. I interviewed Chernow earlier this fall, but I can't stop talking about this book. A masterful researcher and writer, Chernow benefitted from an ever-expanding treasure trove of George Washington-iana at the Washington Papers project at the University of Virginia. He vividly portrays all the Washingtons: the young man, vain, ambitious and prone to overreaching; the general, struggling to keep his troops clothed and fed; the president, shouldering the weight of the new republic. This book would be a terrific gift to any lover of American history.

Now that I've presented this edifying list, I know that the one life story many of you are hoping for is "Life" by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards with James Fox (Little, Brown). I wonder if his legend will endure as long as Cleopatra's. Only time -- a lot of time -- will tell.

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