Nora by Brenda Maddox (Mariner, $28). James Joyce created, in Molly Bloom, one of literature's most provocative female characters. Nora Barnacle of Galway, Ireland, was Joyce's wife and muse as well as the inspiration for Molly and the female thoughts that suffuse his writing. Every reader of Maddox's book will forever view Joyce's life and work in a new light.
A Country of Vast Designs by Robert Merry (Simon & Schuster, $18). Dwarfed by other political personalities in his time, James K. Polk stands tall in Merry's illuminating biography. The 11th U.S. president proves to be a commanding figure, acquiring the western third of continental America…and a conquistador mentality with it.
A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts (Harper Perennial, $15). The most traveled man of the 19th century — an adventurer who endured pain, politics, and poverty in circumnavigating the world — James Holman outlived his fame. More than obscurity, he died in darkness, having spent most of his years completely blind. Roberts's fascinating book tells a life story almost too good to be true.
The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kirstin Downey (Anchor, $17). The remarkable Frances Perkins was the first female Cabinet member, FDR's secretary of labor, the architect of much of his social legislation, and the other great woman behind the great man. She finally gets her due in a book as lively as she was.
Delmore Schwartz by James Atlas (out of print). This 1977 biography renewed interest in Schwartz, once hailed as the successor to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Atlas blends a moving personal story with astute literary analysis and evokes that intellectual era Saul Bellow re-created in Humboldt's Gift, whose title character he based on Schwartz.
Rosalind Franklin by Brenda Maddox (Harper Perennial, $16). Again, Maddox spotlights an essential but overlooked figure: the brilliant Anglo-Jewish scientist whose research contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Franklin died of cancer at 37, before seeing her former colleagues win the Nobel Prize and her contributions eclipsed. This compelling biography is an essential corrective.