Best Books of the Month: Biographies & Memoirs

Jon Foro on February 19, 2019

In this month's collection: We catch up with a book we should have never lost track of in the first place; a wise and moving memoir about living life while facing an end coming all too soon; a strange-but-true tale of musical fakery; the punk rock coming-of-age story of a successful food critic; and the hunt for the deadliest man-eating tiger in history. See more of our nonfiction picks below, or check out all of the best books of February.

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Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston

It happens. Sometimes you make a mistake and miss a book that should have made our top 10 for the best books of the month, but you just run out of time. Deep Creek is such a book. Lovers of natural history mainly face a choice these days: The doom-infused literature of climate change and environmental degradation, or the quiet observations from a monkish life in the wilderness. (True story: Decades ago I imagined a book called The Inner Life of Trees. As it turns out, I should have written it.) Houston's book does both, finding wisdom within natural world reflected by the insanity without, much of it personal. Deep Creek is worth your time.

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Unwinding the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams

This memoir speaks to one of our greatest fears, that we would be diagnosed with a terminal disease, and to our greatest hope, which is that we could face life straight on, living each day with honesty, ambition, and feeling. She was born ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, and as a young child, she had cataracts that rendered her nearly blind—her grandmother felt she would be a burden to the family and tried to have an herbalist end her life. When the family fled for the U.S., she was able to get corrective eye surgery in California. Still, she was declared legally blind due to poor vision. She earned her way into Williams College, attended Harvard Law School, married, and settled in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Then at 37, she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. For five years, she dealt with the disease, took care of her family, prepared them and herself for the future, and sought understanding by writing about it. There is hope, anger, fear, reflection, immersion in the everyday, and joy reflected in this book. The Unwinding of the Miracle seeks to express the truth about what it is like to face death and life, and it succeeds masterfully.

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Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Another true story: A poor, young Appalachian woman heads to an Ivy League with ambitions of becoming a concert violinist. When she gets there, she learns that she’s not nearly good enough, and she’s killing herself to make tuition. Still, she answers a job listing on a message board for a seat in some kind of “ensemble,” and she’s hired without an audition. Her first gig is selling CDs by a man only identified as The Composer at a booth in a craft fair while two other musicians (one on violin, the other on penny whistle) play low under loudly broadcast New Age-y music, which sounds vaguely, or maybe a lot, like the Titanic soundtrack. Soon she’s onstage with The Composer himself, touring the country in a derelict RV with a select “ensemble,” miming the music emanating from a hidden CD player for adoring crowds—an act Hindman dubs “Milli Violini.” In our new age of malleable facts and fungible truth, Sounds Like Titanic hits some trenchant notes on the nature of truth and uncomfortable observations on gender. She anguishes over both the deception (and an overwhelming fear of being caught) and what feels like the betrayal of a lifetime of support from family and her small-town community. But it’s also entertaining. Hindman somehow avoids any meanness of spirit, even while having a lot of fun at the Yanni-like Composer’s expense. (We’re never given the his real name, but one will speculate.) “Fake it till you make it”—a phrase Hindman never writes, probably consciously—might not be so bad, after all.

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Jimmy Neurosis by James Oseland

Oseland served as editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine, received James Beard Foundation awards, and judged aspiring chefs in the celebrity mills of Iron Chef America and Top Chef Masters. (He also appeared on Celebrity Apprentice. I’ll leave that there.) But before all that he was Jimmy Neurosis, a 1970s child of an exploded family whose anger and anxiety to drove him out of high school and into Francisco's nascent punk rock community. There aren’t any famous names here, just his fellow outcasts and discontents, there for the music and for each other. Until they’re not, for one reason or another. This book is not about the path to fame—it's about the path to a life.

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No Beast So Fierce: The Terrifying True Story of the Champawat Tiger, the Deadliest Animal in History by Dane Huckelbridge

You might not have known that you could build a small library of books about being eaten by big cats. Or like me, you already have one. (I do not recommend a “little free library” of these books outside your home, however.) In the genre, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, The Tiger, and Man-Eaters of Kumaon stand out (and for a meatier roundup on this topic. There is always room for more, if you ask me. No Beast So Fierce is the story of hunter Jim Corbett and his pursuit of the Champawat Tiger, which claimed 436 victims in India’s Himalayan foothills in the early 20th century. The jacket copy describes Huckelbridge’s book as American Sniper meets Jaws; make what you will of that, but it’s good enough for me.

 More of the best biographies and memoirs of February:

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