The Best of 2013: Part One (Biography and Memoir, Plus a Pithy Introduction)

Alas, the boiling excitement of the 2013 Holidaze (yawn) has died down, and I have yet to do my Year’s Best post.

My goal for 2013 was 150 books; I ended up reading 168. Something odd happened around the ninety book mark, and that is that I found myself reading more non-fiction than fiction. Somebody wiser than I am once wrote that there are only three basic plots in fiction, and maybe I grew tired of them. Hard to tell.

Here are my basic ground rules regarding how books will be classified. First, obviously these ratings apply only to books I have read. Second, the two categories—fiction and non-fiction—differ. In fiction, a book can appear in more than one category. For example, an LGBT book can appear there and in the general fiction list as well (this happens). Similarly, YA books are all lumped together—YA romance, YA paranormal, etc, all count as YA; they, too, can appear in more than one list.

However, in non-fiction, a book is confined to one category: e.g., a biography—while technically a non-fiction book—will not appear on the non-fiction list. It will languish with the biographies, and it will damned well like it.

I’m doing two different types of lists. Fiction, non-fiction, and certain sub-genres of fiction (mystery, horror, YA) will have Top Ten lists. Due to their sub-genres’ limited numbers, I’ll do five each for Biography, Memoir, and certain others. I count “Memoir” as a self-told slice-of-life. It’s not a complete autobiography, but a story or period of life that makes up a life. Psychological books will also be Top Five lists for the same reason. The rest of non-fiction will count down the ten best books, in toto;  fiction will do ten per category, just because there were more choices.

Finally, this is a really hard list to make. I set up a Goodreads shelf called “Best Books of the Year,” which I intended to have twelve titles on it. It ended up with many more. They are all quality tested, five-star-rated great books. Click on that shelf if you want some really good books not on this list. Here we go with the first two categories, and happy reading…



1)      Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind , by Gavin Edwards: This is hands-down the best reading biography of the year. It covers River Phoenix’s early life, through his teen years as the family bread-winner, and his storied—then tragic—career; beautifully written.

2)      Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir , by Linda Ronstadt. This is one of those books that grew on me after I read it. It’s like B&B: you sip it, and you get that warm cognac glow, but then—gradually—you find a sort of honey aftertaste. This book covers most of her career, skimping a bit on her superstar years. After you read it, you realize it’s her non-superstar years that make her so interesting.

3)      Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker by Chuck Haddix. Biographies of musicians are hard to write. Either the author doesn’t know crap about music, or the author spends tedious pages writing about modes, chord structures, etc. Chuck Haddix has written a beautiful, concise biography of Charlie Parker without skimping on either. The biographical parts are appropriately horrifying, and Haddix’s musical knowledge educates, without overwhelming (he’d previously written a book about the Kansas City music scene from whence Bird came). Well done.

4)      Playing with Purpose: Mariano Rivera: The Closer Who Got Saved, by Jesse Florea. Mariano Rivera was one of the classiest men ever to play the game. This biography offers plenty of detail into his baseball life, but more importantly into the man behind that golden arm, how he came from a small village to dominate New York, and how his religious faith made him a more vibrant, active part of the community.

5)      Robert Plant: A Life , by Paul Rees. Robert Plant is best known as the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, THE hard rock band of the 1970’s. Rees’s biography certainly covers those years, but what I found most interesting here is Plant’s unending quest for “what’s next.” He loves music, and he always wants to try—and master—new genres. It was those parts I found most interesting.



1)       (tie) Just Keep Breathing by Joan Scott Curtis. Imagine you come home from work one day, and your husband tells you he has full-blown AIDS. This is what happened to Joan Scott Curtis. She had to care for her dying husband—including innumerable hospital visits—maintain some semblance of normalcy for her children, cook, clean, do laundry, and try to pay bills with no insurance. The way she immerses you in her story is heartrending and, ultimately, triumphant.


1)      (tie) Sixteen, Sixty-One, by Natalie Lucas. In a small English village, a bored teenaged girl falls under the thrall of a much older man. When she was sixteen and he was sixty-one, he took her virginity. He taught her that they were superior to the idiots who lived in the world, and fed her a steady diet of Nietzsche, Leonard Coen songs, and absolute bullshit. When she left him to go to university, they maintained their relationship, until Natalie grew apart, and started to realize how wrong her life with him had been. When she broke it off, though, things got truly nasty. This book was engrossing from start to finish.


3) The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese , by Michael Paterniti. If I had to pick the hardest book ever  to describe, this would be it. Grad school Michael writes a story about the world’s greatest cheese for a deli newsletter. He gets real writing jobs, but can’t get the cheese story out of his head. He goes in search of the small Spanish village where the cheese is made, and finds himself immersed in its culture. He gets married, has kids, and drags them back and forth from NYC to the village, and there’s this great Spanish storyteller, and these caves where…aw, hell: just read the book. It is a journey like no other. Plus, there’s cheese.

4) If Only I Could Sleep: A Survivor’s Memoir by Stephanie Henry. A lot of women, sadly, end up with the wrong man. Worse still, it seems to be a serial thing—these women are drawn from scumbag to scumbag.  Stephanie Henry ended up with several. From being molested by a sick uncle, through a series of terrible boyfriends, drugs, forced-stripping, and abuse, her life was hell. Her journey through is horrifying. Her ultimate escape is satisfies.

5) Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens. Christopher Hitchens was one of the most controversial writers of our time. He was smart, and he was opinionated. Many hated him for his arrogance; many more hated him for being an unapologetic atheist. In 2010, Hitchens found himself in physical agony. Tests revealed that he had advanced cancer. This short book—108 pages—contains a number of essays he wrote, trying to document his experiences. As they progress—as the illness and its treatments take their toll—the pieces become shorter and less energetic. By the end, he was reduced to jotting random thoughts he might develop when he felt better. He never did. I’m not a huge fan of Chris Hitchens—nor do I hate him. But it’s sad to see such a vibrant mind go gentle into that good night.


NEXT TIME: Non-Fiction





About tom

B.A. in Literature, Minor in Film Theory and Criticism, thus meaning all I’m trained is to write blog posts here. Neptune is my favorite planet–it vents methane into the solar system like my brother does. I think Chicken McNuggets look like Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana. There are times when I’m medicated, which is why I wrote about McNuggets. Buy some today and tell me I’m wrong! Anyway, Beyond that: mammal, Floridian, biped.Good Night, and Good Luck. Besos, tom
This entry was posted in Best Books of the Year, Books and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Best of 2013: Part One (Biography and Memoir, Plus a Pithy Introduction)

  1. stevebetz says:

    I saw this week that Robert Plant turned 70! 70!?!?!? WTF. I’ve enjoyed the albums he’s made with Alison Krauss.

    Sixteen-Sixty One sounds incredibly creepy and awful.


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