Best Books of the Month: Biographies & Memoirs

Jon Foro on January 15, 2018

Here are a few of our favorite biographies and memoirs for January. See more of our picks, and all of the Best Books of the Month.

BOTM-Real_Magic.jpgHere Is Real Magic: A Magician's Search for Wonder in the Modern World by Nate Staniforth

For a memoir about a life spent performing magic, Here Is Real Magic is wonderfully grounded in real life. Nate Staniforth, magician and former host of the Discovery Channel's TV show, Breaking Magic, takes us along his journey from wide-eyed kid trying to convey his sense of wonder to the adults around him, to young magician trying to get a break in LA, to the demands and drudgery of constant touring, to finally feeling that he’s lost the sense of awe that originally set him on his course. And that’s just the first part of the book. In the second part, Staniforth travels to India to try to redeem that lost sense of wonder. What results is a thoughtful, often moving memoir about a man who truly understands (and loves and respects) his craft, even more so for the struggles he has had with it. It seems like every few years a memoir about magic comes along—this one does the trick. —Chris Schluep


BOTM-Stowaway.jpgThe Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro

At some point, almost everyone wants to shake the dust of their crummy little town off their feet and see the world. But not everyone has the conviction that possessed Billy Gawronski. A skinny teenager living on New York's Lower East Side in the 1920s, Gawronski slipped into the Hudson River and then aboard a research vessel bound for Antarctica, all to avoid conscription into the family upholstery business. (Full disclosure: My father is an upholsterer.) Fast-paced and entertaining, Shapiro's The Stowaway charts Gawronski's adventures and ascent into celebrity, a sort of Shackleton as imagined by Horatio Alger.


BOTM-Wizard-Prophet.jpgThe Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World by Charles C. Mann

As we know, the world can be divided into two camps: glass-half-empty people and glass-half-full people. William Vogt fell into the former group. Faced with the future of an Earthly population of 10 billion souls, Vogt urged planning and conservation. What a downer! On the other side was Norman Borlaug, whose faith in our ability to invent and innovate provided him a much more sanguine outlook. Mann defines these factions as Prophets (think fire-and-brimstone doomsayers) and Wizards (imagine Gandalf saving the day, deus ex machina-style, at Helm's Deep). Whose philosophy will win out? Which should? The Wizard and the Prophet is a thoughtful and timely exploration of these two men and a critical issue from an award-winning writer.


BOTM-Furnishing.jpgFurnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life by David Giffels

It's a classic, all-American tableau: A man in his aging father's workshop, the elder passing along his wisdom of life though the metaphor of woodworking as they labor together to build... a casket. If that memento wasn't mori enough, the unexpected deaths of Giffels's mother and best friend threw the project into sharp relief. Sounds dark, yes? But as one Amazon commenter says, "Don't let the coffin part throw you off!" Furnishing Eternity chooses to face the hard questions with a spirit of humor and hope, like that Flaming Lips song.  


BOTM-Girl-Swing.jpgThe Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century by Simon Baatz

Not to be confused with The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. Bestselling author Simon Baatz tells the story of chorus-girl Evelyn Nesbit: a turn-of-the-century tale of the worst, lately familiar, kind of entitlement, simmering resentment, and revenge taken (almost) literally on stage for all of America to witness.



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