1. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
What made this book excellent for me was not that Louis Zamperini survived through what seemed like a conveyer belt of continuous suffering, but his unexpected Miracle in the last chapter. Sadly, the movie adaptation only dealt with the suffering and ended with a strange, artificial climax of Zamperini lifting a railroad tie above his head. The Great Miracle–the the reason the book filled me with wonder and hope as I closed the last page and held it to my beating heart–was omitted. That is why the movie was a disappointment and the book was absolutely brilliant. If you saw the hopeless movie don’t let that stop you from reading the book . . . which is full of Hope.
2. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
I decided to read this book when I learned that my mom was going to serve a mission in South Africa, almost a decade ago, and I still remember what a great impression Mandela’s story left on me. Apartheid in South Africa was a world of which I was completely ignorant, and I was grateful to learn more about him, his country, and his hopeful persistence. I wrote this quote down to remember: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
3. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
When the Wright Brothers came to North Carolina with their wood, muslin and dreams, the people of Kitty Hawk first thought the brothers were just a couple of “poor nuts.” When they weren’t working on their flying machine they stood on the beach, their arms outstretched, mimicking the wing movements of birds. In the end the Ohio boys won the respect of the Outer Banks natives who said that Wilbur and Orville were “two of the workingest boys; they had their whole heart and soul in what they were doing.” For these two brothers, flying was not an impossibility, but merely a puzzle to be solved. Although neither married, they were devoted family men, and they never worked or flew on Sundays, making even large crowds wait until Monday. They were never haughty or belittling to other inventors of the time that had failed before them. This is not the first biography I’ve read on these two men, and it won’t be the last.
By the late 1880’s, it was clear to Native Americans, who were being squeezed into reservations, that success in defending themselves against the waves of white men was all but hopeless. But in 1890, one last united effort to reclaim their lands and dignity was kindled by a mystical dance called the “ghost dance.” The purpose of this dance was to plead to their ancestors for help and to summon them fight against the white men. The story of the Ghost Dance movement is described by Black Elk, a healer and a survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre, and dictated by him through an interpreter to John G. Neihardt. This book was recommended to me as a teenager by a Native American friend (Thanks, Dan) to help me understand the Native American way of shaman and visions, and the great faith they had in their ancestors.
5. Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel
I thought that I knew something about Galileo before I read this book, but I found out after reading this that I knew as much about Galileo as the Catholics at that time knew about the universe. (Very little.) This is a book of correspondence between Galileo and his devoted and loving daughter, Maria Celeste. Few, if any of Galileo’s letters to her survive (she was a nun, so many of her personal belongings were destroyed), but he carefully saved many of hers. Through these letters we learn how she patiently supports her father as he tries in vain to convince the world that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the universe. She continues to minister to him, through letters, as he enters and undergoes the trial of his life. Notwithstanding his perilous position as potential heretic, Galileo always had great respect for the religious beliefs of his church and wanted to show others that Catholics were not being ignorant or stupid, but steadfast. Although Galileo was at odds with the church, but he was never at odds with his Maker. As Sobel wrote, Galileo felt that “To imagine an infinite universe was merely to grant almighty God His proper due.”
6. Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
From this book I learned about the power that one determined physician can have when he uses his talents to serve the poorest people on the earth. It is also a book that makes you extremely uncomfortable, because your conscience jabs you and whispers things like “what more can you do for those that are suffering?” As Tracy Kidder, Dr. Paul Farmer’s biographer said “ . . . I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.”
7. Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
When you get tired of reading biographies about people, read this biography (zoography?) about a horse. This read was excellent. Hillenbrand is not only a thorough biographer but also a great storyteller. And, incidentally, the Seabiscuit movie, unlike Unbroken, is wonderful.
8. Endurance by Alfred Lansing
The odds were against Shackleton and his crew from the beginning. The odds usually are when you are planning an expedition to Antarctica, and this triumphant story was all but hidden from the world’s headlines since most of the attention was on the Great War in Europe. Only later did Shackleton’s amazing adventure story get the attention it deserved. I’ve read this book twice and loved it both times. My favorite part is when they cross the open ocean to South Georgia in a small lifeboat, relying on a sextant and the stars. Soooo exciting.
9. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman
This honest biography of Joseph Smith depicts his successes, his failures, and the parts of his history most church historians like to skip, like his role in early polygamy. I enjoyed this open and candid perspective written by a firm believer in the faith, who demonstrates that we do not need to be ashamed of the history of the Prophet, and that only by understanding history as it really was that we can gain insights into Joseph’s character, purpose and his vision for the eternal destinies of his people.
The Moonlight Bookreader’s Guild (the book club I am a part of) read this when it first came out and we loved every word. There is something about the courage of a young girl that sparks a fire in the hearts of older women. We either hope we could be as gracefully brave or we pray our daughters can. The earth can never have enough Malalas.
Other biographies I want to read:
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes
It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario