Encyclopedic in its approach, Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking, $30) provides the most comprehensive and penetrating portrait yet of the legendary black activist. Marable, a historian who died on the eve of this book’s publication, drew on diaries, letters, FBI and CIA documents, and interviews with people who had been silent for decades. He peels away the layers of myth that have arisen around Malcolm as a result of Malcolm’s own memoir and the efforts of both supporters and opponents after his assassination in 1965 at the age of 39. The result is a biography that meticulously charts the complex and contradiction-filled evolution of Malcolm’s political and religious beliefs and also sets Malcolm’s life within the larger context of 20th-century racial developments.
In George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin Press, $39.95), John Lewis Gaddis looks into the life of the man credited with the creation of America’s foreign policy during the Cold War. George Kennan is best known for the “Long Telegram” and “X Article” which set forth the strategy of containment that America adopted with considerable success. This period in American international relations has been dissected at length, but Gaddis’s is the first book to discuss Kennan’s personal life. Drawing on private journals and countless interviews, Gaddis profiles the man behind the policies with the detail and compassion that are essential to any biography.
She was born into minor Prussian nobility in 1729 and named Sophia Augusta Fredericka, but she would die 67 years later as Catherine The Great (Random House, $35), an empress of tremendous intellect and passions. Robert Massie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Peter the Great, has written a masterfully researched and compelling account of Catherine’s draconian childhood and disastrous arranged marriage, at age fourteen, to the mentally and physically impaired heir to the throne of a culturally backward Russia. The marriage was never consummated, but Catherine had three children by three different lovers. During her reign she became a politically powerful and culturally influential force, leading armies, negotiating treaties, and corresponding with Voltaire and Diderot in an attempt to bring the aesthetic ferment of the French Enlightenment to an unsophisticated population. She also recruited European doctors to bring modern medical practices to St. Petersburg and Moscow, where she founded those cities’ first medical schools and hospitals. Massie is so skilled at writing biography, and his subject is such a brilliant, multi-dimensional, and magnetic woman, that the combination makes for one of the best books of the season.