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Lives Lived

Our pick of winter’s notable non-fiction prove the adage that life is lived forward but best understood backward / BY Nathalie Atkinson / February 10th, 2021

This season’s non-fiction picks have a theme: The lives of girls, women, men and even a New York hotel. From an authorized biography of Tom Stoppard to actor Gabriel Byrne’s elegiac memoir, our list includes creative non-fiction on John F. Kennedy’s early days in Hollywood as a newspaper correspondent, a young girl’s encounter with a friendly handyman who turned out to be a serial killer, and a reflection on fly fishing.

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1Walking with Ghosts Gabriel Byrne

Byrne, 70, orients the reader in the landscape of his Irish boyhood outside Dublin, including his youth as a Catholic seminarian. It does not skirt his sexual assault by a priest, early years a failed plumber, battle with alcoholism and rise to fame. The celebrated actor of stage and screen (In Treatment, Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects) is a born storyteller and his elegiac memoir unflinchingly honest as it is lyrical.

2I Am Invincible Norma Kamali with Sarah Brown

Fashion designer Norma Kamali, now 75, is known for her groundbreaking 1970s sleeping-bag coat. But she isn’t resting: the onetime Studio 54 regular just met her soul mate at age 65, and introduced a wellness line called Normalife last year. Her new book takes its assertive title from Kamali’s longtime personal mantra, and it started out as a small notebook containing her personal “50 Tips on Turning 50,” written for a friend’s milestone birthday. Here it’s a memoir-peppered guidebook of practices for “aging with power” in every decade of life – up to 100! – with a particular focus on cultivating a positive attitude and a healthy lifestyle built on the pillars of sleep, diet and exercise.

3Mike Nichols: A Life Mark Harris

Analysis of the director’s hit movie, The Graduate, has generated shelves of books, so it’s hardly a surprise that it takes journalist Harris, the former executive editor of Entertainment Weekly, more than 600 copiously footnoted pages to take the full measure of enigmatic entertainment legend Mike Nichols, who died in 2014 at the age of 83. The biography covers previously unknown parts of his life as well as the inner workings of the film and theatre actor, comedian, director and producer, including his long battle with depression, and also looks at relationships with famous friends like Stephen Sondheim and Jacqueline Kennedy and collaborators such as Elaine May and Meryl Streep. Harris is the noted author of Hollywood histories Five Came Back and Pictures at the Revolution, but he also knew his subject personally: Nichols directed the HBO version of Angels in America by Harris’s husband, playwright Tony Kushner.

4Love Is an Ex-Country Randa Jarrar

Jarrar, a queer, Muslim, Palestinian-American professor and writer, reflects on intersecting identities and the overlapping issues of sexuality, race and gender as a survivor of abusive relationships and a proudly fat woman. Using the framework of a cross-country road trip from California to her parents’ home in Connecticut, set amid the backdrop of the 2016 American election, her candid personal essays of the journey will inspire vulnerability and strength.

5Things in Glocca Morra Peter Collier

For his final book, Collier, who died in 2019, recounts John F. Kennedy’s time in California with pal Lem Billings, his prep school roommate and lifelong close friend. Firsthand oral biographies Collier obtained from Billings himself form the basis for this biographical novel that brings to life JFK’s 1940s Hollywood escapades among the actresses, Communists and mobsters during the future politician’s brief stint as a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. How much is fact in this fiction by the New York Times bestselling author of The Kennedys: An American Drama and epic biographies of the Roosevelts, Rockefellers and Fords is up to you to decide.


6Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes Claire Wilcox

Wilcox, a longtime curator of fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum, examines the artifacts of her life as though they were objects being considered for an exhibition. It’s a self-portrait put together in pieces, shaped through dozens of short vignettes where the personal sometimes blurs at the edges with the stories of garments in the museum archives. As one critic put it: “The clothes are Proust’s madeleines, cocooned in hatboxes and airing cupboards.”

7Tom Stoppard: A Life Hermione Lee

When Lee’s exhaustive biography was published in the UK last fall it made headlines. The playwright and screenwriter’s unconventionally modern domestic arrangements were revealed, because it included details of the decade-long open secret of his relationship with actress Sinéad Cusack (who was married to Jeremy Irons at the time — and still is). Lest you think it gossip, the Oxford professor and award-winning literary biographer of Woolf, Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald was approached by Stoppard himself to trace his life from childhood as a war-time, “bounced Czech” refugee. Needless to say, Lee makes a thorough study of both the personal and professional motivations worthy of her celebrated subject.

8The Soul of a Woman Isabel Allende

As she approaches 80, the bestselling Chilean novelist (The House of the Spirits, Daughters of Fortune) leans into her status as “emboldened” grandmother to offer the intimate life lessons she’s learned about love, sex, romance, aging and being a woman. While her previous memoirs have, variously, focused on the pleasures of food and sex, her homeland, or memorialized her late daughter, this one has an explicitly feminist slant. Allende was one of the first female novelists to successfully pierce the male-dominated stronghold of Latin American literature. In this call to arms, she shares her personal evolution from coming of age in the late 1960s to her days as a journalist in the 1970s, even opining on how life gets easier after menopause.

9The Unreasonable Virtue of Fly Fishing Mark Kurlansky

The bestselling author of Cod and the equally informative, granular books Paper and Salt turns his attention to the art of fly fishing. As usual he covers every possible facet of his highly specific subject, but this time it’s personal, because the historian has combined his signature deep-dive approach with his favourite pastime since childhood. From Oregon, the wilds of Alaska and Basque country to the far-flung lures of Japan, Norway and Russia, he’s circled the globe pursuing his passion. It’s a highly personal and gloriously digressive read that mingles memoir with lore of the craft and a deep appreciation for the experience of nature.

10The Babysitter: My Summer with a Serial Killer Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan

This hybrid work of memoir and narrative non-fiction is the season’s most anticipated true-crime read. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, Rodman and her sister befriended the kindly handyman of the Provincetown motel where her mother worked seasonally. His name was Tony Costa, also known as the Cape Cod Cannibal, and the serial killer’s gruesome crimes made headlines in the late 1960s. The book has an unusual structure: chapters alternate between Jordan’s latter-day research into the man and his crimes and Rodman’s reminiscences. Given the limitations of working from childhood impressions and memories, the pairing with fact is apt and chilling.

11The Barbizon: The Hotel that Set Women Free Pauline Bren

New York’s legendary hotel residence for young women is storied in many unexpected ways: J.D. Salinger used to hang around its coffee shop, for example, pretending to be a Canadian hockey player. The fulsome decade-by-decade biography spans its 1928 opening to 2007, when it was turned into condos for millionaires. It covers notable onetime residents, from the “unsinkable” Molly Brown to Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Candice Bergen, Phylicia Rashad and Mademoiselle guest-editor contest winners like Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath in the 1950s. But just as importantly, Bren fills in the hidden history through interviews with other residents — many now in their ‘80s and ‘90s — who weren’t as famous but no less sharp and ambitious when they left their hometowns for the big city. It’s a vibrant personal and social history.



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