We all have things that we’re afraid of, from the mundane (spiders) to the profound (boasts about the size of one’s nuclear buttons). Tessa Fontaine’s greatest fear was losing her mother — and after suffering a series of debilitating strokes, this was imminently becoming a reality. Despite her precarious health, Fontaine’s mom decided to defer a dream no longer and tour Italy with her husband — a courageous, if not medically advised, adventure. It was also just the cue her daughter needed to cross off a bucket list item of her own: Join the circus. Like any other job, a certain skill set is required, one that Fontaine (not so convincingly) espoused. But she was a quick study, and over the course of a season with the World of Wonders, the last touring sideshow in America, she learned to eat fire, charm snakes, become a human flashlight, and fit in with her sideshow family (perhaps the biggest feat of all). Turns out, there isn’t much smoke and mirrors involved; to perform these death defying acts, you must “un-train your instincts, unlearn self-preservation.” You have to, essentially, make peace with pain. That also happens to be one of the keys to living a full life and the overarching message of this unique and moving memoir: If you don’t face your fears and open yourself up to heartache, you’re closing yourself off from the best life has to offer. The Electric Woman is a fascinating behind-the-scenes peek at carnival life, and an ode to unconditional love. —Erin Kodicek
David Itzkoff’s monument of a biography is an intimate and thorough examination of Robin Williams as both man and performer. From his years as a reclusive kid playing up in his attic bedroom, to his early days of standup, to the runaway success of Mork and Mindy, to movies, addiction, recovery, and fame, his need for affirmation was the thread that drew him forward. He sought that affirmation by working tirelessly, and Itzkoff chronicles the actor’s successes and failures, as well as his close friendships in and out of show business, to create a deep psychological portrait. Robin Williams possessed an earnestness and a craving for honesty that made him shine brighter even as it threatened to destroy him. This is a bittersweet read, with highs and lows, but the Robin Williams who emerges is as compelling as his greatest performances. —Chris Schluep
"Someday, you'll have kids of your own...." As a young man with authority issues who grew up to become a father of two teenage boys with authority issues, Neal Thompson knows that's no empty admonishment. Kickflip Boys is an ambivalent story about the ambivalence of parenting: Thompson tracks his sons' progress through skateboarding culture from enthusiastic novices (a path he fully supported) to the darker reaches of illicit substances, graffiti, and the occasional run-in with the law (which he did not support). It's classic nature vs. nurture as he confronts his own complicity in their behavior, even if his intentions were always to raise happy and independent children. Many dads will relate.
(Full disclosure: Thompson is a former Amazon Books editor and is still employed by Amazon.com.)
More selections for the best biographies and memoirs of May:
- The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life by Richard Russo
- Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn
- Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard
- Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier by Mark Adams
- Figures in a Landscape: People and Places by Paul Theroux
- From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia by Michael McFaul
- The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West by John Branch
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