Didion, McCaskill, and More: Required Reading for August 2015

Each month, Signature combs through the upcoming releases in biography and memoir across publishers to provide a look of the most exciting new titles coming that month. August's crop of biographies and memoirs has a distinctly political flavor but also includes entries from truly fascinating cultural icons as well. Below is a mix of picks we've already read and loved and those we're so excited to get our hands on. 

The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty
This biography of Joan Didion by critically acclaimed biographer and novelist Tracy Daugherty will doubtless be a big buzz book this season. Didion,whose work is beloved by many, has long sat as a paradox of celebrity and recluse, making the opportunity to learn more about her irresistible. Daugherty's biography-writing chops were established by his well-received 2009 biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man, so it's sure to be a great read. Be patient, though, as this one doesn't hit stores until the end of August.

2Street Poison by Justin Gifford
What do you get when you cross the colorful life of a pimp-turned-literary icon, a committed academic, and a decade's worth of research and firsthand interviews? The answer is one intensely compelling, thorough biography. Robert Beck, known more commonly as Iceberg Slim, started out as a pimp in the '40s and '50s, reinventing himself into a literary figure by way of a confessional memoir and two novels, inspiring the generation of African-American artists that followed him. Gifford's biography is a must-read for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of contemporary black culture.

 The Man in the Monster by Martha Elliott 
3The "monster" in question is a man named Michael Ross, and he raped and murdered eight women -- including two adolescent girls -- between 1981 and 1984. He first caught the attention of journalist Martha Elliott when, after his death sentence had been overturned by the Connecticut Supreme Court, he requested to be put to death rather than put the families of his victims through further traumatic trials. Intrigued, Elliott sought an interview, which soon grew into a recurring conversation and even a friendship. In The Man in the Monster, Elliott tells the story of Ross and his victims, and through their close correspondence she is able to take readers deep into the mind of this criminal, seeking out the answer to the unanswerable: why?

4Walking with Abel by Anna Badkhen
Anna Badkhen has made her name on delving deep into globally overlooked communities and those most deeply touched by war. In Walking with Abel, the reporter who has written about wars on four continents, immerses herself in the African community by way of a family of Fulani cowboys—nomadic herders in Mali’s Sahel grasslands. Embraced as one of their own -- given the name Anna Ba -- she embarks with them on their annual migration across the Savannah, narrating for us the fine line they walk between their ancient history and the modern challenges they face today.

5Ballots, Bullets, and Bargains by Michael H. Armacost
As we head into another protracted presidential election season, a lot of ink will be spilled discussing just how the American political machine works. Perhaps none of them will be so broad reaching as Armacost's study, which explores how the process of electing a president -- not just the President himself, but the run up to his election -- can have deep impact on foreign policy. In all of the hoopla of forthcoming debates and pundit analysis, don't miss this thought-provoking read that places American politics in a uniquely global context.

6 Plenty Ladylike by Claire McCaskill with Terry Ganey
McCaskill, the senator from Missouri who beat Todd Akin in 2012, has penned her first memoir with Plenty Ladylike. In it, she addresses her struggles getting into and succeeding in politics, overcoming sexist slams from colleagues and constituents (“You’re too young; your hair is too long; you’re a girl …. Go find yourself a husband.”), and the personal experiences that have shaped her life, including her children, her divorce, and her remarriage. Balancing the personal and political, McCaskill's memoir promises to be an eye-opening read with perspective on the continual evolution of American politics.

7A Woman in Arabia by Gertrude Bell
This collection of letters and memoir pieces by Gertrude Bell is a must-read for the adventurous. Bell, dissatisfied with the restrictions of her role within Victorian society, studied at Oxford and lost no time traveling the world. Jane-of-all-trades, she was a mountaineer, archaeologist, Arabist, writer, poet, linguist, and even a spy, who played a crucial role in drawing the modern borders of the Middle East. Now Penguin Classics has assembled a book from the panoply of her writing to help readers get to know this incredible explorer.

8Near and Distant Neighbors: A New History of Soviet Intelligence by Jonathan Haslam
As international frenemies go, we've long had a fascination with Russia. Communism, the Cold War, and especially the KGB have teamed up in the popular imagination to create a lingering specter that remains ill defined. Now Haslam's book takes an in-depth look at the vast Russian intelligence machine like never before, digging deeper than the KGB and incorporating military intelligence as well. In bringing to light the "obscure inhabitants of an undercover intelligence world," he offers a new and concrete perspective that not only makes for fascinating reading but also provides crucial context for understanding modern Russia.  

9Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel
Podcasts in general, and "Serial" in particular, shed a whole new light on the way we view purely auditory storytelling. Once an artifact of a bygone era, the audio broadcast has experienced a resurgence in popularity and accessibility in the digital age. Now cartoonist Jess Abel, with the help of This American Life‘s Ira Glass, takes us behind the scenes of seven of today’s most popular narrative radio shows and podcasts, using her own unconventional medium to tell this unconventional story.