Among the books we reviewed this year, biographies and memoirs are heavily represented in our choices for the top nonfiction of 2010 -- even a book about cancer is billed as a biography.
“Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press in the U.S., Allen Lane in the U.K.). He really did have trouble with his teeth, but everything else most of us know about George Washington will need readjustment now that Ron Chernow has produced his splendidly detailed biography.
Decades pass before the dashing young military prodigy of the French and Indian War turns into the resolute general, and then, finally, the wise, unflappable leader of the nation. Along the way, we meet his unhinged mother, his generous wife, friends, retainers, villains -- and some of the smartest men who ever breathed free air.
“Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau/Granta). Mi-ran and Jun-sang dated for three years before they held hands, a further six before Jun-sang worked up the courage to brush his lips lightly against Mi-ran’s cheek. The society they lived in was beyond puritanical.
Their star-crossed romance, as Barbara Demick describes it in her superbly reported account of life in North Korea, deserves a special place in the annals of backwardness.
“At the time I left North Korea,” Mi-ran later recalled, “I was 26 years old and a schoolteacher, but I didn’t know how babies were conceived.”
Her ignorance about sex, droll as it is, points to a situation far darker: the complete lack of information about the world into which the North Korean dictators Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, plunged their subjects.
“The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner/Fourth Estate). Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, chronicles the history of an illness that has fascinated, bedeviled and humbled doctors, philosophers and patients alike. He looks the monster in the eye and aims to know it, moving beyond history into the realm of biography.
It’s “an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behavior,” Mukherjee writes. Ultimately, he wants to know whether this disease can be vanquished.
Richards Tells All
“Life” by Keith Richards (Little, Brown/Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Richards has been called “the world’s most elegantly wasted human being.” Now he becomes rock’s most indiscreet raconteur. The Rolling Stones guitarist dishes on Mick Jagger, who he sometimes calls “Her Majesty,” and spends a lot of time unpicking the myths behind the band. But the best bits aren’t the sensational fights with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg or the orgy of drugs -- they’re the parts where Richards lavishes attention on the open five-string tuning that transformed his playing.
“Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown/Virgin). Schiff handles the politics of the ancient world with the immediacy she might bring to a book about the Clinton or Bush administration.
For two millennia, she says, the Egyptian queen has suffered from an image problem -- largely because what we know about her comes not from Egyptian historians but from Roman ones, who had an agenda. Schiff’s enthralling book has its own agenda: to save this “capable, clear-eyed sovereign” from the slanders of history.
The Mystery of HeLa
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot (Crown/Macmillan). Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in a “colored” hospital ward in Baltimore in 1951, but cells from her tumor are still alive. Sent to a lab without Lacks’s consent, labeled “HeLa” by technicians, they changed medical history: They were the first human cells found to be “immortal,” able to reproduce indefinitely outside the human body.
HeLa cells have been used to test the Salk polio vaccine; they’ve helped make antidepressants and blood-pressure pills; they led to injection techniques used for in vitro fertilization.
Skloot, a science writer, wanted to know more about the woman, anonymous for years, who was responsible for those ubiquitous cells. She never trips over her complex story lines, managing to weave a science thriller, the grim history of medical research without consent on poor blacks and a testament to the power of family into a satisfying, bittersweet whole.
Smith on Mapplethorpe
“Just Kids” by Patti Smith (Ecco/Bloomsbury). Robert Mapplethorpe shot the unforgettable image, at once cocky and fragile, of Patti Smith on the cover of her first album, the 1975 “Horses.” He was always taking pictures of her; it’s well known they were close. Smith remembers how close in this beautiful memoir.
“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House). Wilkerson has crafted an extraordinary mosaic, combining oral history, research and empathy to portray the exodus of some six million blacks from the South in the years 1915-1970.
Wilkerson’s richest offering is the extended personal histories provided by three migrants. She also deftly brings herself, the daughter of migrants, into the narrative. She recalls her mother stopping to get the Pontiac washed on a trip back south to make a good impression.
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(Laurie Muchnick is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)