Reading biographies and nonfiction accounts of fascinating people can be one of the most enlightening reading experiences you’re likely to have. Of course, finding a “good” biography can require some research beforehand.
Are you looking for a personal reflection on a lifetime, as written by the person who lived it? Or are you seeking a complete overview of a life and career in a single volume? Is the biography authorized or unauthorized-meaning is the actual person who is the subject of the biography involved in the book?
That distinction is important when dealing with controversial people. Do you want a squeaky-clean-sometimes blatantly honest-reflective account from the person’s mouth, or do you want a potentially biased but well-researched-and entertaining-account of events from a broader view?
Many biographies blur the lines between the two. Here are a few upcoming/recently released biographies (mostly) that might be worth checking out. I plan to dig my feet into the genre this summer.
David Sedaris, “Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002”
I enjoy quick-hit journal compilations/letters in my nonfiction. That’s why I’m so excited about this book. When he was at the Tivoli Theatre in 2016, David Sedaris read a few excerpts from what would become “Theft by Finding” during the show. It was the funniest part of the entire evening. As he explained, for decades he has kept a loose but faithful diary in which he records thoughts and observations on the odd and funny events he witnesses. This collection is culled from the years 1977 to 2002, when he wasn’t a household name by any stretch. At 528 pages, Sedaris’ book will be the heaviest bathroom reader of the year. It’s scheduled to be available this Tuesday, and I’ll be in line with everybody else.
Reinhard Kleist, “Nick Cave: Mercy on Me”
I was first introduced to the idea of graphic biographies from Maria Popova’s website BrainPickins.org. Essentially, these books are historically accurate portrayals of human lives with gorgeous, paneled illustrations. In particular, she highlights graphic biographies about Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Robert Moses, the master builder of New York City’s 20th-century growth spurt. In pop culture, a life that has always fascinated me is that of musician/poet/author Nick Cave. The graphic biography, by Berlin-based cartoonist Reinhard Kleist, chronicles Cave’s time spent in Berlin. You can see a few panels here. And from all accounts, Cave himself is 100 percent behind the project.
Ruth Franklin, “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life”
No short story has stuck with me like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I remember reading it in a high school English class and thinking that it was the best piece of fiction I’d ever read. Then I read “The Haunting of Hill House” and I’ve been a fan since. I picked up a Jackson compilation called “Let Me Tell You” a few years ago, and I’ve just recently received a copy of Ruth Franklin’s award-winning Jackson biography. The New York Times has a great preview of the book here.
Édouard Louis, “The End of Eddy”
Critics are calling “The End of Eddy” by Édouard Louis a sort of French counterpart to the best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance. Part autobiography/part novel, the book has been translated into 20 languages thus far. The story follows Eddy Bellegueule, an effeminate man who desperately tries to hide his sexuality while growing up in a poor village in northern France. Autobiographical yet fictionalized, Louis’ story touches on class, racism, homophobia and the struggles of those living in a small, impoverished town with little to no upward mobility. I have ordered it and am looking forward to reading this. “Hillbilly Elegy,” though flawed, was a great read.
David Garrow, “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama”
I came into my own as an adult during Barack Obama’s presidency. The much-talked-about (and criticized/lauded) biography by David Garrow chronicles Obama’s formative years and his rise to the state legislature and, eventually, the United States Senate. According to a synopsis of the book, the title comes from a 2004 speech, a moment where members of the Democratic Party hailed him as the “rising star.” Some critics think the book is overly critical of Obama, while others think Garrow was “too soft” on him. I’m going to read it for myself and decide.
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