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 First Family
Abigail and John Adams
By Joseph J. Ellis
 
Best-selling author of American Sphinx and Founding Brothers, Ellis admires the most prolific political couple in American history. John and Abigail Adams raised four children (losing two others) and produced 1,200 letters. Combining historical biography, political history, and quotidian romance, First Family is both learned and chatty. Ellis arranges the letters into a chronological double portrait as he mines them to explore the nature of this marriage and the structure of its success, which lay in these soul mates’ intimacy in every realm: the intellectual, emotional, and physical. In his last years, Adams tried to organize his papers. Ellis writes, “These letters, spread all around him, were his ticket into the American pantheon of the original postmythical hero. And he was the only one who would be admitted with his wife alongside him.” (Knopf, 320 pages, $27.95)
 
JFK Day by Day
A Chronicle of the 1,036 Days of John F. Kennedy’s Presidency
By Terry Golway and Les Krantz
 
Honoring the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s election, JFK Day by Day compresses his thousand-plus days into an overview no larger than four issues of this magazine. As a scrapbook it succeeds in projecting the helter-skelter of events from the enduring—“President Kennedy today ordered a ban on virtually all trade with Cuba”—to the fleeting—“dedicates a dam in South Dakota before spending the night at Yosemite.” This eclectic volume, which employs a half-dozen typefaces, manages to survey the most photogenic White House without including the most iconic photographs. Though inevitably repetitive and weakened by an inadequate index, it is a paean to the march of history in its counterpoint of the momentous and the minuscule. (Running Press, 288 pages, $27.50)
 
The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1
Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith
 
Mark Twain must have found writing autobiography as easy as giving up cigars, because he did it about as often, accumulating “some thirty or forty . . . false starts.” Five years before his death he found “the right way” embodied in this edition, which aims to be definitive and faithful to his ultimate intentions—including the caveat that it appear no less than 100 years after his death. It is also long: more than 700 pages, two-thirds of them scholarly discourse, appendixes, and notes. Certainly this impressively academic work will serve scholars; yet the rest of us can read 260 pages (in tiny type) of pure Twain at his typically discursive, rambling, and droll. “When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying, now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the latter. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.” Recalling his mother’s persuasive chiding when he complained about a noisy slave, “She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work.” The bard of Hannibal still has much to say. (University of California Press, 743 pages, $34.95)
 
Native American Son
The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe
By Kate Buford
 
Often called the greatest athlete of his generation (or even century), Jim Thorpe was an American phenom. He revolutionized professional football, starred in the majors, won the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics, mugged his way through bad Hollywood movies, died broke in a trailer, and remained vivid in Americans’ memories for another half century. Half Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma, he sparked controversy like rodeos raise dust. The Olympics’ governors discovered he wasn’t an amateur and stripped his medals (which were restored posthumously), and after his death a pair of  Pennsylvania towns renamed themselves Jim Thorpe in hopes that his grave would draw tourists. (Now his son is suing to repatriate his remains.) More important, a professional biographer has proved what sound research and skillful writing can do: reveal a singular man, animate the times of his life, and illuminate the complexities of our world today, which he helped to shape. (Knopf, 448 pages, $35)
 
The Fiery Trial
Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
By Eric Foner
 
Lincoln’s enigmatic relationship with American slavery receives an incisive treatment in this new book by one of our most accomplished and versatile historians. Having defined the agenda of Reconstruction studies at the end of the 1980s, Foner here turns to the tense political climate that prevailed in the years leading up to the nation’s cataclysmic Civil War. He traces the tangled evolution of Lincoln’s antislavery views from the future president’s early days in nonslaveholding Illinois to the conclusion of his presidency, when he planned to extend the vote to blacks after the war. While Lincoln often navigated an antislavery middle ground, Foner demonstrates that his opinions largely followed the political terrain mapped out by abolitionist radicals such as Senator Charles Sumner. By situating Lincoln firmly within this historical context, Foner has contributed a masterful work to the growing number of political biographies that illuminate an era by examining the opinions of an individual.(W. W. Norton, 448 pages, $29.95)
 
 
The Killing of Crazy Horse
By Thomas Powers