Media Outlet and Critics Select Best Bios of 2014

The end of the year always sparks a flurry of best-of lists for books of all genres, and as in past years, TBC is offering an overview of some of the biographies that earned recognition in the United States and beyond. (Names in bold represent BIO members.)

Making the task somewhat easier each year is the Publishers Marketplace (PM) survey of some of the top best-of selections. Culling its information from more than 50 newspapers, trade journals, individual critics, contest winners, and online sources, PM provides a list of the top ten fiction and nonfiction books. For 2014, just one biography made the nonfiction list: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs. As we reported last month, the book was also Amazon’s pick for the best biography or memoir of the year, and it turned up on a total of ten best-of lists.

One of those lists was from Kirkus Reviews, which selected 16 books for its Best Biographies of 2014. Some of these included:

  • The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish
  • Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch
  • Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey
  • The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 by Nigel Hamilton
  • The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America by Edward White
  • Hope: Entertainer of the Century by Robert Zoglin
The Peace biography also made the New York Times’s list of notable nonfiction for the year. Some of the other biographies on that list included:
  • Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha
  • Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee
  • Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson
  • Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm
  • American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon
  • Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer by Bettina Stangneth, translated by Ruth Martin
  • Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill
Among a selection of major U.S dailies, these were some of the biographies garnering year-end honors:
  • Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr was a top-ten book for both USA Today and the Washington Post; biographies making the latter paper’s 50 notable nonfiction books for the year included The Good Spy by Kai Bird, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan, and Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space.
  • Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin had one biography on his Top Ten list of all books for 2014—The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein.
  • The Christian Science Monitor chose several biographies for its top ten nonfiction titles of the year, including The Good Spy and Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford.
  • Booklist had a number of biographies on its Best Books list. Among those not already mentioned were:
    •  Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work by Susan L. Mizruchi
    • Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd
    • The Crusades of Cesar Chavez by Miriam Pawel
    • The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson
    • Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces by Miles J. Unger
    •  A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III by Janice Hadlow
    • Victoria: A Life by A. N. Wilson
At National Public Radio, a seemingly endless list of top books (actually only about 250), included such biographies as the Ames, Hobbs, and Swafford titles already mentioned, as well as:
  • Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth
  • Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang
  • The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
  • Bolaño, A Biography In Conversations by Monica Maristain
  • Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright
In the virtual world, Brain Picking’s choices for best biographies, memoirs, and history books included:
  • Updike by Adam Begley
  • E. E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever
  • Susan Sontag: A Biography by David Schreiber, translated by David Dollenmayer

Internationally, various UK publications offered their selections of some of the best biographies. The Financial Times had a long list of best books in many different categories. Biographical works that made the cut included:

  • Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell
  • Stalin, Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin
  • Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought and Work by Susan L Mizruchi
Robert McCrum of the Guardian called Michael Zantovsky’s Havel the year’s best biography. Others that won his favor included:
  • Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West by Matthew Dennison
  • The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson
  • Victoria: A Life by A.N. Wilson
Fellow Guardian critic Paul Laity had his own list of top memoirs and biographies. He also included the Jenkins and Queen Victoria biographies, along with those about Tennessee Williams, Updike, and Larkin. Others on his list were:
  • Joan of Arc by Helen Castor
  • Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes
  • Constant Lambert by Stephen Lloyd
  • A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
The Independent also listed best biographies in at least two separate articles. In a piece on best bios and memoirs, the only biography that made the list was Holmes’s book on Eleanor Marx. Another round-up of best biographies included ones already highlighted here (Napoleon, Victoria, Behind the Mask, Williams, Larkin). In a separate list for paperbacks, Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life was the only biography to make the paper’s best-of list.


The Economist’s list of top books had a category for biographies and memoirs. Along with the Cummings and Napoleon books already cited here, it included Faisal I of Iraq by Ali A. Allawi.


The Times Literary Supplement asked its contributors to recount their favorite books of the year. Only several of these lists were available online to non-subscribers, with no biographies making the cut.

Back in North America, the Vancouver Sun and Toronto’s The Globe and Mail had several biographies on their best-of lists. Out of 100 notable books, The Globe and Mail included Boy on Ice, and in a highlight of top books it did not review, it included Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story by Robyn Doolittle and Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia, by Emmanuel Carrère. The Sun’s list of top books in “arts and life” had these biographies:
  • De Niro: A Life by Shawn Levy
  • Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz
  • Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest