Biography & Memoir

Ever been asked for an award-winning biography or autobiography?  Here are some suggestions – award-winners and finalists – that will knock your readers’ socks off!

The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, by Hisham Matar (2016)

Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

After an absence of thirty years, acclaimed Libyan novelist Hisham Matar returns home to his native country to look into the disappearance of his father.  Leaving Libya when he was twelve, Matar’s family lived in political exile.  Matar’s father, a former diplomat turned political dissident, was kidnapped off the streets of Cairo by the Libyan government and his whereabouts remain to this day uncertain.  Most likely held in Libya’s most notorious prison, it is improbable that Matar’s father is still alive.  Nevertheless, the author makes the journey to post-Qaddafi Libya to seek answers.  A moving family memoir and a portrait of a country in the midst of change.

Mordecai: The Life and Times by Charles Foran (2010)

Winner of the 2011 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction.

A thoroughly engaging, detailed and intimate portrait of one of Canada’s most celebrated and influential writers.  Devoted husband and father of five, Mordecai Richler won numerous awards for his adult and children’s fiction.  His was a persona that was larger than life and his influence spread beyond the borders of Canada. Growing up in turbulent times, Richler participated actively and was a bohemian, a rebel, a passionate and romantic lover, an outspoken Canadian, a family man.  Foran’s is the first biography to pull from family letters and archives, making this the most complete and richest picture of Richler’s life to date.

 

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (2014)

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Now a distinguished writer and war reporter, William Finnegan began life as a surfer.  This autobiography documents his beginnings in California and Hawaii, where surfing quickly became an obsession, and follows him around the world to the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, and Africa, where he chased the big waves.  Finnegan expounds on the inner workings of the surfing culture, which is less a sport and more a way of life to the truly dedicated.  Finnegan remains enamoured of surfing and continues to chase waves wherever he can find them.  His autobiography tells the story of an adventurous, and sometimes crazy, life.  A highly skillful and entertaining read.

 

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, by Megan Marshall (2013)

Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

A richly researched book that tells the fascinating story of a 19th century author, journalist, critic and pioneering advocate of women’s rights who died in a shipwreck.  Because of her untimely end, and the tragedy and scandal that surrounded it, Margaret Fuller’s unique life is often glossed over.  This biography seeks to redress that injustice and tells her story in glorious detail.  A passionate thinker ahead of her time, Fuller was the first ever female war correspondent, covering the 1849 Siege of Rome.  While in Italy, she took a secret lover and bore a son.  As a news correspondent, she became passionately concerned about the urban poor and the plight of prostitutes and she was an outspoken advocate for personal and political freedom.  Just before her 40th birthday, she, her lover and her son were drowned in a shipwreck.  Marshall’s biography brings Fuller back to life.

 

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss (2012)

Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

The remarkable tale of real-life swashbuckler Alex Dumas, the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of the Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo.  The little known truth about Alexandre Dumas’ father is that he was born in Haiti, the son of a black slave.  He was sold into bondage briefly but ended up in Paris, where he was trained in sword-fighting with the French aristocracy.  He enlisted in the army and commanded troops during the French Revolution, leading campaigns across Europe and the Middle East.  A fascinating true story about an ex-slave rising to the top in a time when such things were rare.

 

Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

by Rosemary Sullivan (2015)

Winner of the 2016 RBC Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction.  Winner, BC National Non-Fiction Prize, 2016. Winner of the American Plutarch Award for Biography (First Canadian Winner).

Winner, 2015 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Meticulously researched, this is the tale of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Josef Stalin’s daughter.  Despite being protected from the physical hardships suffered by the rest of Russia during Stalin’s regime, Svetlana nevertheless knew suffering.  She lost her mother, two brothers, aunts, uncles, and a lover who was exiled by her father to Siberia.  After Stalin’s death, she learned ever more about his brutality and she could no longer stay quiet. She defected to the US in 1967, leaving her two children behind.  Her life in the US was not happy and she died poor, in 2011. Sullivan used the KGB, CIA and Soviet archives to do her research, and had the cooperation of Svetlana’s daughter. As a result, this masterful biography delves into Svetlana’s life with incredible intimacy.

 

Stephen Harper by John Ibbitson (2015)

Winner of the 2016 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

Stephen Harper is an important figure in our country’s history and has, for better or worse, helped to shape the nation Canada is today.  Stephen Harper as a person, however, has remained enigmatic despite his public life.  Bringing together years of research and in-depth interview material, Ibbitson demonstrates why he is one of this country’s most respected journalists with this intimate and detailed portrait of Harper the politician and man.

 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2007)

Finalist, 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

An intensely personal and honest work, this book catalogues a year in Didion’s life when her world fell apart.  Her daughter became ill with a mysterious malady, and was eventually put into an induced coma and put on life support.  Days later, her husband of 40 years died of a heart attack.  Her daughter recovered, only to collapse again two months later at LA airport.  After 6 hours of surgery to release a massive hematoma, she pulled through.  This book comprises Didion’s attempt to make sense of these events and explores questions of life, death, illness, and family.  Powerfully written.

 

Just Kids: From Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel: A Life of Art and Friendship by Patti Smith (2010)

National Book Award Winner.

In her first book of prose, Patti Smith chronicles her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the late sixties and seventies.  Honest and moving, this is a beautifully written autobiography from a great artist of our time.

 

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2015)

Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

At heart a tale of loss and bereavement, H is for Hawk tells the story of the author’s decision to train the deadly predator, the Goshawk, in the wake of her father’s death. Already an experienced falconer, Macdonald had never trained a Goshawk before.  Relying on T.H. White’s The Goshawk to guide her in this endeavour, Macdonald chronicles her work with the Goshawk “Mabel” and her journey through the grieving process. An unusual combination of nature writing and memoir from a master writer.

 

American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood by Marie Arana (2005)

National Book Award Finalist.

With a brilliant Peruvian engineer for a father and a gifted American musician for a mother, Marie Arana’s childhood was bound to be interesting. Her father’s family taught her about being a “lady” while her mother’s taught her more practical skills like shooting a gun and snapping a chicken’s neck. Upon immigrating to America, Arana soon realized that she was caught between two worlds. This is her story, filled with the colourful characters of her childhood and her journey towards the reconciliation of two disparate cultures within herself.

 

The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer (2014)

Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Based on seven years of in-depth research in the Vatican and Fascist archives, Kertzer’s book tells the story of the Vatican’s role in the rise of Fascism in Europe.  Coming into power in the same year, 1922, Pope Pius XI and Benito Mussolini shared a hatred of Communism and a distrust of democracy.  While it is generally believed that the Vatican did all it could to fight against Fascism, Ketzer shows that “Il Duce” and the Pope worked together to support each other’s goals.  Il Duce restored many of the privileges that the Church had lost and the Pope in turn ensured that Mussolini stayed in power. Only later did the Pope regret his actions, as Mussolini got closer to Hitler, and he tried to withdraw his support.  But as always, there is a bigger cast of players in such politically charged scenarios and the Pope was not the only one to exert his influence as others in the Vatican strove to retain the solid working relationship with Fascist Italy that had benefitted them for so long.  An intriguing and dramatic tale which draws its sources from the newly opened archives covering Pius XI’s papacy.

 

Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s My Way by Blair Stonechild (2011)

Winner of the 2013 Saskatoon Book Awards: Aboriginal Peoples’ Writing Award winner

Written in the context of the politics and world events of the time, Stonechild’s book examines the life of musician and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie. Born on an impoverished Cree reservation in Saskatchewan, Sainte-Marie nevertheless went on to take part in the international folk music/protest revolution of the 1960s with the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot. Stonechild’s biography does not follow a strictly chronological timeline, but instead jumps around into different periods of Sainte-Marie’s life, as he puts together a full picture of her ambitions and achievements, and captures the essence of this international musical icon.

 

Red Star Tattoo: My Life as a Girl Revolutionary by Sonja Larsen (2016)

Finalist, 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Larsen tells the story of her youth, spent on the move between communes around North America. Her mother, kicked out of her home as a pregnant teenager by her evangelistic father, joins in the communist movement, attracted by its idealism and radical ideas, and she drags her daughter Sonja along with her.  Larsen moves to Brooklyn at the age of 16 and joins the Communist Party of America, known publicly as the National Labor Federation, where she works hard to impress the party leaders.  She attracts the attention of the “Old Man,” the party’s charismatic leader, who takes her under his wing and makes her one of his “special” girls.  Can one survive a childhood such as this?  Rootless, without reliable adult guidance or protection, full of abuse and loss?  Larsen’s story is a remarkable one.

~ Fiona Hunt, Casual Librarian, West Vancouver Memorial Library

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