ABBC 2012: Biographies and Memoirs
Posted by: Neil Hollands
The end of compilation is within sight now on the best books of 2012. You can download the ABBC spreadsheet with all the results from over 120 different sources at my other blogging home, Williamsburg Regional Library’s Blogging for a Good Book. The final edition will add about 40 more sources and will be available at the end of the month.
Today, I’d like to look at the most honored biographies and memoirs of 2012. The ABBC includes 224 different books in this category that have been mentioned by some authoritative source, but here are the titles that have risen to the top of the list.
Cheryl Strayed has a comfortable lead at the top with 35 mentions to date for her memoir, Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. At 22, Strayed had lost her mother to cancer and her husband to divorce after she had dallied in adultery and heroin. To try to put herself back together, perhaps somewhat as an act of penance, she undertook an 1100-mile solo hike from California to Washington State, even though she had no backpacking experience. The reader picks up the pieces of Strayed’s past in an honest confession, not in chronological sequence, but as she comes to grips with each bit of her past. These confessional moments are strewn like monuments along the narrative of her long hike. It’s the kind of story that could be dismissed as the depressive whining of someone who had made bad decisions, but most readers come to admire Strayed’s honesty and tenacity. Over on the nonfiction list, the collection of her Dear Sugar advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, has also garnered a fair amount of attention.
Robert A. Caro is in second with 24 mentions for the fourth volume in his monumental biography of one of the 20th century’s most complex figures, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The Passage of Power deals with both a low time for Johnson–his move from real power in the Senate to marginalization as Vice President in a Kennedy Administration that didn’t really want him–and a high time–his ascendance to the Presidency. Readers see Johnson at his worst in his battle with Robert Kennedy and his best as he pushes through his Great Society reforms. This might not be the easiest book group choice, preceded by three big volumes building to this point in Johnson’s life, but Caro doesn’t just document minutiae. He knows how to tell stories and get to the heart of a man who was both remarkably prickly and yet masterfully effective.
David Foster Wallace was a favorite of critics, so it’s no surprise that the first full biography, D. T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: a Life of David Foster Wallace, is in a tie for third on this list, with 15 mentions to date. Max’s thorough research unveils a man anointed as the writer of a generation by many, but constantly stalked by the demons of depression and addiction. He could be arrogant and competitive, and often treated women badly, but his undeniable intelligence shone through writing that has been massively influential on other writers. While Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest is perhaps too long and complex for most book groups, those that have attempted some of his other work, such as his excellent essays, might want to give this biography a shot.
Tied for third is literary lion Salman Rushdie, this time with a memoir of his years under an assume name after receiving a fatwa, a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini for having written The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton, derived from the names of his favorite writers Conrad and Chekhov, was the name Rushdie used during his thirteen years in hiding. The memoir also explores his marriages, relationships, and friendships with the likes of Padma Lakshmi, Martin Amis, Marianne Wiggins, and Angela Carter, but also with less famous people like the police who were assigned to guard him. Rushdie writes in the third person, echoing the way he said he felt at the time: like an outsider in his own life.
Other biographies and memoirs that have been mentioned more than ten times as best-of-the-year include Christopher Hitchens’ final ruminations Mortality (14 mentions); Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club (12); Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone: a Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy when You Could Be Normal (11); and Tom Reiss’s The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, Caitlin Moran’s funny How to Be a Woman, and Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power (10).
I”ll wrap up my coverage of 2012′s best with a look at literary fiction next week.