By January 19, 2012 1 Comments Read More →

Analyzing the ABBC: Biographies

The compilation of all the best-books-of-2011 lists and awards continues, and the latest version of the resulting ABBC (All the Best Books Compilation) can be reached via my other blogging home at Williamsburg Regional Library’s Blogging for a Good Book.

While the compilation is a work in progress, trends are beginning to emerge, and I can safely identify some of the books that are likely to be at or near the top of their categories when the compilation is complete. I’ll be writing about these from a book group perspective over upcoming weeks. Today, let’s take a look at the leading vote-getters in biography and memoir.

Joan Didion’s Blue Nights tops the list with 16 votes to date. Her earlier memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, was very popular with book groups, and covered similarly difficult family disaster. In the first book, Didion reflected publicly about coping with her husband’s sudden death, and Blue Nights commemorates the death of her daughter Quintana Roo in similar fashion. Frank, and often brutally raw, these books are both excellent choices for groups and since they are relatively brief (mercifully), could even be combined in a single night’s discussion. Consider, however, staying clear if your group reacts badly to depressing subject matter or has members who have very recently lost family members.

Given some of the high profile writers and subjects on this list, the unknown Gabrielle Hamilton’s 14 votes to date for Blood, Bones & Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef is a true testament of the book’s quality. Hamilton has a unique background that incorporates training as both a chef and a writer. Add to that a difficult and eccentric family, a grittier-than-usual path to the top of the restaurant world, and some rather unusual approaches to relationships, and you have a food memoir that stands out in an increasingly competitive field. Some readers might find this a little too melodramatic, but most will just eat it up.

Also with 14 votes to date, Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs has a great pedigree: an A-list biographer takes on a newly deceased American icon with a complex, many-sided personality. This detailed portrayal of a difficult man is the perfect reading companion to all of the laudatory obituaries that accompanied Jobs’ recent death. It makes a good microcosm for the excesses of the business world and couldn’t be much more timely. One caution for book groups, while a marvelous choice, this is 630 rather dense pages long. Allow a little extra reading time or encourage your readers not to delay getting started.

Next up, with 11 votes so far, is Tina Fey’s Bossypants. While she’s a fantastic comic performer, Fey’s deepest credentials are in the writing end of the business, and her skills are on display here. Deftly mixing social commentary with memoir, she effortlessly shreds sexism in the entertainment business and self-important politicians. Women will relate more than men to much of this material, but Fey’s trip from nerd girl to comedy megastar to often awkward mother and wife is a tour-de-force.

Andre Dubus III also has 11 votes for his Townie: A Memoir. It’s largely about the culture clash between Dubus and his father. After his parents’ divorce, the younger Dubus grew up in a depressed 70s mill town and was soon dragged into its violent street culture. His father was an eminent writer who spent most of his time in the more genteel world of the university and saw his son only rarely on weekends. It’s a story of a child neglected by his parents for different reasons, enraged by his resulting condition, and ultimately redeemed by art. For book groups it might be interesting to pair with some of the father’s short stories or Dubus pêre’s other big hit The House of Sand and Fog.

After this top five, other high vote-getters in the biography and memoir category are Joshua Foer’s recounting of developing his memory to an extreme degree in Moonwalking with Einstein and several big biographies of big subjects: Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention; Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman; Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: a Life; Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: the Life, and Charles J. Shields And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: a Life. I’ll write more later about these books and others that climb the compilation list as time allows.



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).

1 Comment on "Analyzing the ABBC: Biographies"

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  1. I could eat some of the biographies I’ve read.

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