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Best of 2010 Megalist: Top Ten Biographies and Memoirs

Last week I listed the top ten other narrative nonfiction titles in my 2010 Megalist. Today, let’s take a look at the biographies and memoirs that have received the most mentions in best-of-the-year lists and awards.

1. Just Kids, by Patti Smith (34 votes to date)

We know them as a rock goddess and a controversial photographer, but before they became famous, they were Just Kids on the streets of 1960s New York. First lovers, then friends after Mapplethorpe came to understand his homosexuality, the two polished passions into art and had encounters with people like Alan Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and William Burroughs along the way. Reviewers have called this National Book Award winner a tough but tender evocation of the bohemian life.

2. Life, by Keith Richards (22 votes to date)

A step behind Patti Smith is another rock icon, whose biography, co-written by James Fox, follows Richards’ trajectory from childhood to the present day. Employing a gritty, conversational, straight-shooting style that matches well with his freewheeling, tumultuous life, Richards dishes up tales of–what else?–sex, drugs, and (especially) rock ‘n’ roll in mesmerizing form.

3 (tie). Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, by Gail Caldwell (17 votes to date)

Caldwell recounts her friendship with the writer Caroline Knapp (Drinking: A Love Story) who died young of lung cancer in 2002. The two bonded over writing, the survival of early traumas, alcohol problems, dogs, water sports, the single life, and more. This quick but powerful book about friendship between women is sure to become a book group favorite.

3 (tie). Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand (17 votes)

Hillenbrand returns from her best-selling Seabiscuit with another triumph, the story of Louie Zamperini, a track star in the 1930s turned bombardier. After his plane went down on a search mission, Zamperini spent over six weeks adrift on a tiny raft at sea, only to captured by the Japanese and sent to a sadistic POW camp. It’s a harrowing story of horror and redemption that canonizes a true hero.

5 (tie). Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff (14 votes to date)

Schiff recasts Cleopatra as a shrewd leader who used her wealth and power with great intelligence–not just seduction–to succeed in the brutal political arena of the Mediterranean world. In a style that fully captures an astonishing period of history, particularly Cleopatra’s capital of Alexandria, in full, sweeping panorama, Schiff makes a strong case for re-evaluation of a historical figure who has been tarnished by jealous rivals and sexist historians.

5 (tie). Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow (14 votes)

Veteran biographer Chernow works well-tilled ground and finds new insight into the character of our first President. Chernow paints Washington as a man who fought successfully to control volatile emotions, an athletic man who protected his private life tenaciously. Drawing heavily from many of Washington’s letters that have only recently been published, Chernow visits all the familiar stories about Washington, but unearths surprising new facts in this big biography.

7 (tie). The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 (13 votes to date)

Long kept unpublished according to Twain’s own wishes, his autobiography rambles magnificently through his life, clearly enjoying each side excursion with gusto. There’s plenty of Twain’s irreverent humor and a hearty dose of opinion in this first of three volumes. Those who want a carefully organized, streamlined “life” need not apply, but those who want the jumbled torrent of a truly original journey will love it.

7 (tie). Hitch-22, by Christopher Hitchens (13 votes)

It seems appropriate that Hitchens is tied with Twain. Both are brilliant but difficult, rebellious and confrontational, self-promoting and self-contradicting, with a gift for telling stories. Hitchens talks frankly about his upbringing, his bisexuality, his political journey, and his search for his family history. Taking no prisoners, Hitchens won’t always come off as likable–some readers will despise him–but no one can claim to be disinterested.

9. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, by Jane Leavy (11 votes to date)

Utilizing more than 500 interviews and a fair amount of her own contradictory experience with the Yankee great, Leavy creates a vivid portrait of a man with great natural gifts and nagging problems. She casts Mantle as representative of his 50s-giving-way-to-60s era, a fair-haired golden boy living a wild private life, trying to hide alcoholism and the debility of constant injury.

10. Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris (10 votes)

If it weren’t for its release late in the year, I suspect this finish to Morris’s defining three-volume biography of Roosevelt would have garnered even more mentions. This volume explores his life after the White House, a rough time for Roosevelt that included a failed attempt to regain the presidency, an expedition to the Amazon, the loss of his eldest son, and increasing physical debility. The man described here is less heroic than that of the first two volumes, but equally interesting. Book groups will enjoy this, but perhaps ought to start at the beginning with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

Next week, I’ll turn back to fiction, looking at the top vote-getters in the various genres on the Megalist. In the meanwhile, don’t settle for ten books. Download the whole Excel spreadsheet and dig even deeper into the best books of the year.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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