It has been an amazing season for new biographies and memoirs, packed with illuminating and entertaining deep dives into fascinating figures of the past and present. These are our picks for the best of the season, all available now.
Know My Name, by Chanel Miller
Within four days of its release, the victim impact statement of a woman only known as Emily Doe had been seen by over eleven million people before being read on the floor of Congress, ultimately inspiring changes to California law. The reaction to her statement, which described her sexual assault by Stanford student Brock Turner, was global. The fact that Turner received only six months in a county jail for his crime shocked and outraged many, but also sparked a movement, as Emily Doe’s statement inspiring others to come forward. Having revealed her real name this summer, Chanel Miller tells her horrific and heartrending story, but also offers a sense of the hope that her decision to speak the truth will do something to help change the systems that so often fail victims. It’s a powerful message for our times.
Me, by Elton John
It’s hard to believe Sir Elton has never produced an autobiography until now. With a career that spans more than a half century, the one-time Reginald Dwight has plenty of stories to tell—some relating to the excesses and pitfalls that have plagued so many rockers, many others having to do with his run-ins with some of the most significant figures of our time, including Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth. The suburban kid from Pinner grew up to be one of the most shocking and outrageous figures in glam rock, and soared to the heights of respectability as an icon, and also a father. This is the story of a living legend, told in his own words.
Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years, by Julie Andrews with Emma Walton Hamilton
Her first memoir, Home, chronicled Julie Andrews’ difficult childhood and emergence as a singer and stage performer, while this follow-up discusses her Hollywood career from its earliest days and offers insights into her biggest successes in her own words. Co-writing with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, Andrews not only dives into the stories behind roles in films like Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Victor/Victoria, but deals with her own transition into worldwide superstardom, and the effect it had on her marriages and children. For an accounting of Andrews’ earlier years, you’ll want to read Home Work alongside her previous book Home: A Memoir of my Early Years.
Edison, by Edmund Morris
He was once a defining figure in America’s own self-mythology, but there was certainly much more to prolific inventor Thomas Edison than the lightbulb. With seven years of of research and access to millions of documents, many of them unavailable until now, Edmund Morris confronts Edison in full: the whirlwind of inventor and capitalist whose technology touched every aspect of American life, as well as the autocratic leader and neglectful husband. Morris’ approach is to look for the human beneath the myth; he even spends some time exploring Edison’s notorious, but overstated, competition with Nikola Tesla. Most, if you’ll pardon the pun, enlightening.
The Beautiful Ones, by Prince
Another equally significant, but very different musical visionary has a new memoir out this month, this one a bit more poignant. The autobiography begun prior to Prince’s death in 2016 is the first-person account of a Minnesota kid who created some of the most visionary pop and funk ever recorded, cultivating a mystique very different from what his upbringing would have suggested. Prince’s own recollections of his childhood and early growth as an artist make up the first part of the book, while writing and candid photographs fill in the major events from the rest of his storied career. Finally, the Artist’s own handwritten treatment for “Purple Rain” is included in its entirety. Though sadly truncated, this is an essential portrait of The Artist: Prince sought to retell his own story as a mythic and funky adventure, and succeeded. (We’ve curated a soundtrack to accompany your reading here.)
Permanent Record, by Edward Snowden
One of the most controversial and, ultimately, consequential figures of our time, Edward Snowden’s life and career speaks to all the ways in which we’re not fully prepared for the surveillance age. In 2013, CIA contractor Snowden leaked word of an NSA surveillance program that he’d helped to build—a program to collect data on every cell phone call, text, and email in a way that would impact almost everyone on the planet. It was one of the most consequential acts of whistleblowing in American history. He’s seen as a hero by some, and a traitor by others, and now, six years later, the exile—complex, revered, vilified—tells his side of the story.
Acid for the Children, by Flea with Patti Smith
Red Hot Chili Peppers co-founder and bassist Michael Balzary is a rock icon, but he’s also an actor and a philanthropist with an impressive set of credentials for an Australian kid who weathered a turbulent, sometimes violent upbringing that saw him bouncing from Melbourne, to New York, to Los Angeles before he’d even exited his teens. He idolized classic-era jazz musicians before a high school encounter with Anthony Kiedis set him on a path to rock superstardom. His witty and unpredictable memoir brings to life the LA of the ’70s and ’80s, offering a revealing portrait of a raucous life.
Finding Chika: A Little Girl, an Earthquake, and the Making of a Family, by Mitch Albom
Returning to nonfiction for the first time this decade, the always inspiring Mitch Albom tells the story of the daughter, Chika, adopted by the author and his wife Janine, and the improbable and sometimes tragic circumstances that brought them all together. Born during the 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti and orphaned shortly thereafter when her mother died due to complications of childbirth, Chika was brought to the Port Au Prince orphanage run by Albom, where they found each other. Though in many ways a story forged out of heartbreak, Albom’s book is ultimately a celebration of the ways in which families come together in good times and bad, and the enduring bonds that survive everything life can throw at us.
Whose story inspires you?