What did we read in 2013? Looking back at the biographies and memoirs, we can see some patterns, some new interests and old obsessions. Jesus and JFK remain as popular as ever, while entertainers (Johnny Cash, Richard Pryor), writers (JD Salinger, Norman Mailer), and criminals (Charles Manson) continue to fascinate us. Scientology was a new popular subject, while women who made or shaped history were widely represented. And, of course, writers still want to work out their relationships with their mothers on the page. Here’s a list of some of the best memoirs and biographies of the year -- some you've probably been meaning to read since they came out, some you may not have heard of until now.
Jim Henson by Brian Jay Jones
Forget Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, and Tonys -- you haven’t really made it as a celebrity until you've performed with the Muppets. Decades after the world first met Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, and Ernie and Bert, these googly-eyed puppets continue to hold sway over the public imagination and remain a vital part of the childhood experience. In this biography, Jones writes about the life of the man behind the frogs, pigs, birds, and furry monsters. Henson, who spent ten years crusading to get The Muppet Show on TV, was a man of contradictions and grand ambitions, only some of which he realized in his short life.
My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
By her own account, Sotomayor was not born destined for greatness. An average student and headstrong child, she achieved success only through sheer will and uncompromising determination. In this refreshingly candid, plain-spoken memoir, the Supreme Court justice writes frankly and lovingly about her humble beginnings in the Bronx, her struggle to fit in at Princeton and Yale, and her experiences in the District Attorney’s office and Federal District Court. Clear-eyed about her weaknesses as well as strengths, and wryly amused by the way she has been habitually underestimated, Sotomayor brings a human, insightful face to the Supreme Court.
The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
Their husbands were on missions for the reputation of the country, but the pressure on the wives they left at home was possibly even greater. In this group biography, Koppel writes about the women who were thrust into the spotlight as the wives of the men with the "right stuff." Seemingly overnight, this disparate group of women became national celebrities, held up as the embodiment of the American values the astronauts were taking to the moon and beyond. Some took to the attention naturally, while others chafed under the glare of the spotlight, but none of the wives was prepared for the experience.
The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan
Imagine leaving work each day and passing a billboard reminding you that "what you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here." Imagine not knowing what exactly it is you’re doing "here," until a bomb is dropped, a war ends, and you realize you've just helped change history. Such was the experience of the women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the Manhattan Project’s secret cities, where young women from across the south worked in enormous factories enriching uranium for the atomic bomb. In this biography, Kiernan tracks down many of the surviving workers and tells the stories of their remarkable, secretive mission, and what daily life was like building a bomb.
Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
Some mysteries start with a death. This one starts with a sale. When the reclusive heiress Huguette Clark died at the age of 104, she left behind homes in California, New York, and Connecticut, as well as a $300 million dollar inheritance. She’d grown up in the largest house in New York City, with wealth to rival a Rockefeller, yet by the time of her death no one had heard of her, and she lived her last twenty years in a hospital room. In this biography, Dedman, in collaboration with Clark’s cousin, traces the Clark family from its beginnings in a Pennsylvania log cabin to the founding of Las Vegas to its ultimate conclusion in a simple hospital bed.