As a child, I lived in an inauspicious neighborhood in a small, inauspicious Midwestern town. Everything about my life was inauspicious, really.
Which made my school library, such as it was, seem like a palace. I still remember the day I found a battered blue-covered biography of Amelia Earhart in those shelves. I’d never been anywhere near an airplane but soon I was soaring. All the photos were in black and white, of course, but Amelia Earhart had a technicolor smile. Nothing inauspicious going on there.
I still thrill to the idea of reading a biography or memoir, although I’m a bit prickly about my choices. I’m not sure I’ve read a biography that I truly loved since Judith Thurman’s Isak Dineson: The Life of a Storyteller. Which, I suppose, is why each of the following five books in that genre that I read last year were chosen for me by others. Each of them features a uniquely American voice, although the journeys could not be more disparate.
My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton
by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Audiobook, 672 pages (23 hours) narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Yes, this is technically a novel but it reads like a biography. It is painstakingly stitched to its history although it isn’t until the author’s note at the end that I discovered just how much license was taken in reconstructing the notable life of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton.
Still, it was a memorable and largely plausible account of what it must have been like to be the wife of Alexander Hamilton and to live in the period of the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Best perk of reading this book: I was well-prepared for viewing the Disney streaming of Hamilton – I would have missed a lot otherwise as I have not read the Chernow biography. Nitpick: the writing occasionally veered a bit too close to sounding like what I would call a “bodice-ripper”. And I was left with many questions about Mr. Hamilton. Did he have an affair with Eliza’s sister? What, exactly, was the nature of his relationship with John Laurens? Could the duel with Aaron Burr have been avoided? Perhaps I need to read that Ron Chernow biography after all… 3 1/2 stars
Grant and Twain: The Story of an American Friendship
by Mark Perry
Kindle, 336 pages
Wait, what? Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain were friends? Everyone but me seems to have known that Mark Twain was the man who published Grant’s memoirs, which were the runaway best-seller of the time.
It was a rare commercial success for both men, who were notoriously bad businessmen, each leaving a string of failures in their wake. Each was raised on what was then the frontier – Grant in Ohio and Twain in Missouri – and each was the son of “proud, successful and often indifferent fathers”.
Twain had long admired Grant’s Civil War achievements and came to his rescue when Grant fell into illness and precarious financial straits after the spectacular 1884 failure of the investment brokerage the former president had backed. Grant was dying of throat cancer and feared his widow would be forced to live in penury when Twain proposed the arrangement. Julia Grant ended up a very wealthy woman and Twain’s publishing house eventually went bankrupt.
This was a two-for-one in the biography department and while not a fascinating read, still a worthy one. 3 1/2 stars
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey
by Candice Millard
Kindle, 442 pages
This was a re-read, but darned if I didn’t enjoy it at least as much the second time. I’ve read all of Candice Millard’s books and each one is superb.
While this book takes place in the wilds of the Amazon, Teddy Roosevelt is on of the most uniquely American characters in history. It was after his third-party run for the White House that he embarked on the journey to conquer previously unexplored territory of Brazil’s Rio da Dúvida. This time around I was particularly struck by how careless and detached Roosevelt was regarding the planning and details of the expedition, almost as if he didn’t care if he survived it. And he almost didn’t. It was a harrowing journey and an excellent read. 4 stars.
The Yellow House: A Memoir
by Sarah Broom
Audiobook, 304 pages (14 hours), narrated by Bahni Turpin
I am an inveterate “tagger” of books and one of the tags I track is “house as a character in a book”. Broom’s memoir of growing up in New Orleans East centers on her childhood home as the center of her family and her being. It was interesting, but sometimes repetitive, and veers off on the occasional tangent, including political mismanagement of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and her foray into working for a global nonprofit in the East African country of Burundi.
It often read like a magazine article that had been stretched ever so thinly to be called a book. Indeed, Broom had previously worked as a writer for O Magazine, where it seems this might have been better suited. Still, an entertaining and sometimes introspective read, although I remain just a bit puzzled at its having been awarded the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction. 3 stars.
by Matthew Bocchi
Audiobook, 207 pages, (7 hours 25 minutes) read by Timothy Andrés Pabon
“Nooooooo. I don’t want to!” I wailed, when my stepdaughter Angie pressed me to read the memoir she had just finished. If Angie has read it, you can bet it will be dramatic, probably dark and definitely heart-wrenching. I hate being dragged down that rabbit-hole, but once again she prevailed and I downloaded the book.
Matthew Bocchi was nine years old when his father died in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. His close-knit family dealt as well as they could with the tragedy but there was more coming Matthew’s way. As a vulnerable teen, still struggling with his father’s death – he became obsessed with viewing videos of “jumpers” from the Twin Towers – he was sexually preyed upon by a trusted uncle.
Matthew coped as well as he could, ultimately with the help of uppers, downers and especially, oxycontin. His account is stark and does not look away. From any of it. This was a hard book to read, but his voice is authentic and does not waver.
Two detoxes, a few car crashes, an arrest and a job loss later, Bocchi found his way to New Hampshire’s Granite House, where he also found sobriety. This was a compelling read. (But don’t make me read another one of these, Angie!!!) 4 stars.
Next week: a few more bios and memoirs…