I’ve always thought that, to a scholar of the first rank, a one-volume biography of any great person must be the hardest thing to pull off. (How on earth do you decide what to leave out?) And the more enigmatic and contradictory the character, the harder must be the task. In that sense, Franklin Roosevelt has, in my reading, always managed to elude his biographers—until now, with the publication of Alonzo Hamby’s Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century. Professor Hamby’s great strength is his objectivity (compare the asperity in his biography of Harry Truman to the love in David McCullough’s). Hence his acerbic treatment of the economic failure of the New Deal—and of the persistent reluctance of left-leaning academics to acknowledge the fact. I don’t know that any one-volume biography of FDR could ever be called definitive, but Hamby’s is the closest we’re likely to come.

Samuel Cornelius Phillips (1923-2003), more than any one other person, invented rock ’n’ roll. His Memphis studio produced what many students of the genre consider the first rock ’n’ roll record—Ike Turner’s Rocket 88—in 1951. And he waited and searched for the messiah—a white man who could sing black music with the same desperate soul—finally finding him in 1954, in the person of a dirt-poor 19-year-old truck driver. Peter Guralnick, the epic two-volume biographer of Elvis Presley, knew and loved Sam Phillips for the last quarter century of Sam’s life. This year he produced the first genuinely great biography of that charismatic, enigmatic visionary. It’s the life story of a genius, but also a rich treasury of music history—and a meditation on race in postwar America. Read this luminous biography for the sheer joy of it, and for your American soul.

One night during the college basketball season of 1990-91, as Duke racked up another victory in the quest for its first NCAA championship, I called my daughter Karen in her senior dorm at Duke, and left a message giving her my blessing to marry Christian Laettner. I didn’t know if they even knew each other, much less that there was anything between them, but just in case, I wanted them to know I’d be fine with it. (In the event, they didn’t, and there wasn’t.) Suffice to say there are a lot of Cameron Crazies in my extended family (including the Harvard guy Karen did marry), and that we loved John Feinstein’s vivid, encyclopedic The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry. If you love college hoops—or just love someone who goes a little mad every March—this is the ultimate stocking stuffer.

Peggy Noonan wrote recently that we have begun to produce generations of people of whom it might be said that they have seen the movie, but haven’t read the book. Well, so be it. Sit your children (and/or older grandchildren) down this holiday season, and watch the Gene Cernan documentary, Last Man on the Moon. On one level, it’s about the men who went, and the price they paid. But on another, it is a superbly economical exposition of the space program itself. Of necessity, it leaves open the key questions: having gone to the moon, why did we never go back? And will we really still not have gone when all 12 Americans who walked on it are dead? Last Man on the Moon is a great and important film.   

© 2016 Nick Murray. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. All these books (and film) were previously reviewed in greater detail in Nick’s newsletter, a sample issue of which may be downloaded at www.nickmurraynewsletters.com. His new book is Around the Year with Nick Murray: Daily Readings for Financial Advisors.

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