Best Books of the Year: Biographies & Memoirs

Jon Foro on November 23, 2017
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A few of our selections for the best biographies and memoirs of 2017, along with some thoughts about why we liked them. See all 20 picks, or browse all of our Best Books of the Year across 15 categories.


BOTY-You-Dont200.jpgYou Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie's memoir is an extraordinary look at the complicated relationship between a remarkable mother and an equally remarkable son, set, mostly, in the Spokane Indian Reservation where Alexie spent his childhood. His whip-smart, sometimes cruel mother saved the family when she stopped drinking, but was inexplicably tough on her kids—something Alexie traces back to mental illness, sexual assault, and the Indian experience of violence and oppression. Family memoirs often seem like an opportunity for score settling, but Alexie is so aware of his own fallible memory and his own imperfections that this one won’t make you bristle. His style is idiosyncratic—passages of verse lead to passages of prose—but it’s readable, unpretentious, funny and deeply compassionate.—Sarah Harrison Smith


BOTY-Jonestown200(1).jpgThe Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn

It’s interesting that the dust jacket for Jeff Guinn’s biography features a photograph of the infamous preacher without his signature, nearly ubiquitous sunglasses. Despite the scale of the Jonestown tragedy—where more than 900 people died, willingly or not, on November 18, 1978—the man behind the shades and his motivations have remained mysterious, in part because the event is simply hard to look at and difficult to comprehend. Longtime journalist Jeff Guinn, however, doesn’t mind an occasional walk on the wild side. In the same way that his 2013 biography of Charles Manson dug deep to uncover the pivotal moments of the psychopath’s past (it features a boyish, smiling proto-cult-mastermind on its own jacket), Guinn unmasks Jones through interviews with the people who themselves knew him, from townspeople to his parishioners to his the reverend’s own family. The result is a dense read and full of detail, but none superfluous. Images of a 12-year-old walking Indiana backroads—black suit-clad and a bible in hand—and conducting imaginary funeral services alone, in the woods, are weird and indelible. As we witness Jones’s ascent—driven by a blend of well-honed charisma and inclusive, Marxist ideals—then his fall into megalomania and madness, it all makes a little more sense, at least as much as monstrosity at such scale can. The jungles of Guyana may have reclaimed the site of one of the 20th century’s most notorious crime scenes, but The Road to Jonestown answers many of the questions that have persisted for almost 40 years, foremost: How did this happen? But another one remains: After Manson and Jones, where does Guinn go from here? --Jon Foro


BOTY-Priestdaddy200.jpgPriestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Do not be put off by the slightly creepy title of this memoir: this is no sordid tell-all outing a deviant priest. Priestdaddy slides into the “you can never go back” end of the memoir spectrum. When debilitating illness, and the poverty that results, drives poet Patricia Lockwood and her husband to accept her father’s offer of shelter, she reluctantly returns to her childhood home. Except in Patricia Lockwood’s case, her father is Father Greg Lockwood, a married priest (short explanation: papal dispensation) who likes to lounge about in his boxers, “shredding” his guitar, and raging “HOMEY DON’T PLAY THAT” to signify displeasure. Home for Patricia and her husband will be in a bedroom near that of her parents in the rectory which comes with her father’s parish (a sign outside reads ‘God answers kneemail’). Part of the fun in this hilarious memoir is watching Lockwood gamely try to play the part of the straight-man to her parents’ shenanigans. The other part is seeing that most of their lunacy has rubbed off on her. Though she attempts a semblance of normalcy for her husband’s comfort, it’s clear that she’s all in with her crazy family. The laughs range from silly to raunchy in a spectrum that might make David Sedaris envious, but the line that stands out the most comes near the end: “A family never recognizes its own idylls while it’s living them.” Priestdaddy is Patricia Lockwood recognizing her idyll. --Vannessa Cronin


BOTY-DaVinci200.jpgLeonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

With biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs under his belt, and a reputation as one of our premiere nonfiction writers, Walter Isaacson is the right person to take on a monumental figure like Leonardo da Vinci. To write this biography Isaacson immersed himself in da Vinci’s 7,200 pages of notebooks, which these days are spread across the map. Da Vinci’s interests were even more divergent, and Isaacson’s empathetic and deeply researched portrait illustrates how he willed himself to genius through endless curiosity and a creativity that sometimes crossed over into fantasy. Much like Isaacson’s previous subjects of Ben Franklin and Steve Jobs, da Vinci was a polymath—he was passionate about art, science, nature, and technology, and he never stopped questioning, practicing, or experimenting. This is what made him the great innovator and historical figure that we recognize today—and Isaacson points out that this is a particular form of genius that can teach us how to live our own lives. -- Chris Schluep


BOTY-Shadow200.jpgLighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

A vast number of thoughtful books about mental illness and eating disorders already exist, so it seems almost impossible that a new story could add anything more to the genus. But Katie Green does exactly that with her astonishing graphic memoir that reveals through every delicate squiggle the long-lingering anguish people in recovery live through while friends and family assume that everything is now A-OK. A normal child growing up among a normal family, Katie develops bulimia as a teen, eventually requiring hospitalization, and she is pulled from school while she learns to eat again. An alternative treatment therapist helps pull Katie through her rough spots, but as Katie discovers once she’s older, his therapy was not completely benign. Artist and storyteller Green exposes buried-deep emotions through the slope of a shoulder or the slightly-too-big distance between her characters in a way that can’t be mimicked through words. The impact of Katie’s loneliness and constant, low-level despair drives deep into the soul but paradoxically will open your own heart and eyes. You’ll finish this determined to look more closely at your friends and loved ones—and especially your children—to make sure you’re not missing what’s masked by a benign surface. —Adrian Liang


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