Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Best Biographies

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about my favorite memoirs. Let's stick with the nonfiction theme and talk about the best biographies I've read in the last few years. I promise these aren't the dry, boring Famous Historical War Hero books your grandpa loved! (Maybe that was just my grandpa?) These biographies will hook you from page 1 and keep you up past bedtime.

🖊  Best Biographies To Read  🌎


In 1971, Go Ask Alice reinvented the young adult genre with a blistering portrayal of sex, psychosis, and teenage self-destruction. The supposed diary of a middle-class addict, Go Ask Alice terrified adults and cemented LSD's fearsome reputation, fueling support for the War on Drugs. Five million copies later, Go Ask Alice remains a divisive bestseller, outraging censors and earning new fans, all of them drawn by the book's mythic premise: A Real Diary, by Anonymous.

But Alice was only the beginning.

In 1979, another diary rattled the culture, setting the stage for a national meltdown. The posthumous memoir of an alleged teenage Satanist, Jay's Journal merged with a frightening new crisis—adolescent suicide—to create a literal witch hunt, shattering countless lives and poisoning whole communities.

In reality, Go Ask Alice and Jay's Journal came from the same dark place: Beatrice Sparks, a serial con artist who betrayed a grieving family, stole a dead boy's memory, and lied her way to the National Book Awards.

Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World's Most Notorious Diaries is a true story of contagious deception. It stretches from Hollywood to Quantico, and passes through a tiny patch of Utah nicknamed "the fraud capital of America." It's the story of a doomed romance and a vengeful celebrity. Of a lazy press and a public mob. Of two suicidal teenagers, and their exploitation by a literary vampire.

Unmask Alice . . . where truth is stranger than nonfiction.

Why I recommend it: It's the story of Mormon con artist Beatrice Sparks and how her collection of phony diaries sparked (hahaha) the Satanic Panic in the 1980s.

There's a lot going on in Unmask Alice. It's a mix of biography and history. It examines young adult literature and why it's so compelling. It's also a critique of the publishing industry and how it consistently puts profit ahead of people.

The author of Unmask Alice—Rick Emerson—was clearly inspired by Beatrice Sparks. Just like in Sparks' books, Unmask Alice has breakneck pacing and a plot that goes in a million directions at once. It leaves the reader breathless. You don't want to stop reading to question what's real. Like Sparks, the author inserts his opinions into everything. It's nonfiction, so you're inclined to believe what he's saying, but . . . the whole book is about an author who lied in nonfiction. How "nonfiction" is "nonfiction"? This book makes you question everything you've ever read.

I recommend Unmask Alice to anyone who's interested in 1980s culture or the publishing industry. It's provocative for sure.

Buy it on Amazon

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg And The Secret History Of The Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

In 1964, Daniel Ellsberg was one of the Pentagon insiders helping to plan a war in Vietnam. The mountainous Asian country had long been a clandestine front in America's Cold War with the Soviet Union. The U.S. Government would do anything to stop the spread of communism—with or without the consent of the American people.

But as the fighting in Vietnam escalated. Ellsberg turned against the war. He had access to a top-secret government report known as the Pentagon Papers and knew it could blow the lid off of years of government lies. But did he have the right to expose decades of presidential secrets? And could one man, alone, face the wrath of the government?

This is the story of the seven bloody years that transformed Daniel Ellsberg from a government insider into "the most dangerous man in America," and of the storm that would follow when the secrets of the Vietnam War were finally known.

Why I recommend it: Don't let the serious suit man on the cover fool you. This book is wild. The pace moves like a thriller novel, and the author doesn’t leave out any of the scandalous (or slightly gory) details. I love that the author includes quotes from soldiers and photos from Vietnam. It shows the reasoning behind Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to leak the documents. People were dying in Vietnam because Washington couldn’t get its act together. The author really helps the reader understand Ellsberg’s frustration.

Most Dangerous kept me awake way past bedtime. I kept thinking, One more chapter, one more chapter. Then it was 2:00 in the morning, and I’d finished the book. Even if you’re not in love with politics, it’s worth reading. It’s full of twists that will make your jaw drop. This is definitely not a dry textbook (even though the cover looks like one).

Buy it on Amazon


In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery on the eve of profound transformation. She conjures up early operating theaters—no place for the squeamish—and surgeons, working before anesthesia, who were lauded for their speed and brute strength. These medical pioneers knew that the aftermath of surgery was often more dangerous than their patients' afflictions, and they were baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high. At a time when surgery couldn't have been more hazardous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon named Joseph Lister, who would solve the deadly riddle and change the course of history.

Fitzharris dramatically recounts Lister's discoveries in gripping detail, culminating in his audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection—and could be countered by antiseptics. Focusing on the tumultuous period from 1850 to 1875, she introduces us to Lister and his contemporaries—some of them brilliant, some outright criminal—and takes us through the grimy medical schools and dreary hospitals where they learned their art, the deadhouses where they studied anatomy, and the graveyards they occasionally ransacked for cadavers.

Eerie and illuminating, The Butchering Art celebrates the triumph of a visionary surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world.

Why I recommend it: It'll make you grateful that you don't live in the 1800s. That century was nasty. (The top hats were cool, though.) I like that the author and Joseph Lister both acknowledge that scientific discoveries don't happen in a vacuum. Lister couldn't have made his medical advancements without building on the work of other scientists. Biographies sometimes glorify one person and ignore everybody who helped or influenced that person. This biography spreads the credit around, so the reader really understands how much effort went into the discovery of disinfectants. Changing the world isn't easy.

Buy it on Amazon


Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.

Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison.

The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.

Why I recommend it: It's absolutely fascinating. I couldn't put it down.

I love the juxtaposition of the two men. They're similar in a surprising number of ways. The author shows how a person's skills can be used for good or evil. Both men were ambitious, powerful, creative, and money hungry, but one of them murdered people, and the other didn't. The book reads like a historical thriller that you have to remind yourself is true.

If you're interested in American history, then I highly recommend this book. I learned a lot from it.

Buy it on Amazon


Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her enslaved ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Why I recommend it: Everybody should read this book. It brings up topics that society really needs to discuss.

Who was Henrietta Lacks? That's what the book is about. Henrietta's cells were taken after her death and used without her permission. Her children and grandchildren are living in poverty and have not gotten any money from the use of her body. Henrietta's grave doesn't even have a headstone. This all feels very wrong.

For me, the most interesting part of the book is the ethical questions it brings up. Who should profit from biological specimens? If you give a doctor permission to cut out your tumor, do you forfeit your rights to that tumor? What if someone uses it to make a ton of money?

I couldn't stop reading this book. I loved learning about Henrietta and the people whose biological samples have made life better for all of us.

Buy it on Amazon


Homicides and suicides, fires and floods, hoarders and addicts. When properties are damaged or neglected, it falls to Sandra Pankhurst, founder of Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty. Ltd. to sift through the ashes or sweep up the mess of a person’s life or death. Her clients include law enforcement, real estate agents, executors of deceased estates, and charitable organizations representing victimized, mentally ill, elderly, and physically disabled people. In houses and buildings that have fallen into disrepair, Sandra airs out residents’ smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes.

The remnants and mementoes of these people’s lives resonate with Sandra. Before she began professionally cleaning up their traumas, she experienced her own. First, as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home. Then as a husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, and trophy wife. In each role she played, all Sandra wanted to do was belong.

The Trauma Cleaner is the extraordinary true story of an extraordinary person dedicated to making order out of chaos with compassion, revealing the common ground Sandra Pankhurst—and everyone—shares with those struck by tragedy.

Why I recommend it: This biography is completely captivating. It's about Sandra Pankhurst, a transgender former sex worker who starts a successful "trauma cleaning" business that cleans houses after disasters. Sandra is a complicated person. She's not likeable, and she doesn't always make good decisions, but her compassion for other people is admirable. I loved learning about her life. (Beware of the rape scene, though. There's a very long and very graphic rape scene that caught me off guard.) This book proves that heroes don't always look like the dudes in action movies.

Buy it on Amazon


You only think you know this story. In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer—the most notorious serial killer since Jack the Ripper—seared himself into the American consciousness. To the public, Dahmer was a monster who committed unthinkable atrocities. To Derf Backderf, “Jeff” was a much more complex figure: a high school friend with whom he had shared classrooms, hallways, and car rides.

In My Friend Dahmer, a haunting and original graphic novel, writer-artist Backderf creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man struggling against the morbid urges emanating from the deep recesses of his psyche—a shy kid, a teenage alcoholic, and a goofball who never quite fit in with his classmates. With profound insight, what emerges is a Jeffrey Dahmer that few ever really knew, and one readers will never forget.

Why I recommend it: It does an amazing job of showing Dahmer's troubled teenage years without making him a likeable character. I love how the author contrasts his normal teenage life with Dahmer's extremely abnormal teenage life. There were many times when someone could have stepped in and questioned Dahmer's bizarre behavior, but people are so caught up in their own problems and successes that we don't really pay attention to each other. Hindsight is 20/20, right?

If you're interested in true crime, I highly recommend this graphic novel. It's sad and unsettling, but since the events all occur before Dahmer became a killer, it's not gory.

Buy it on Amazon

The Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones And Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

In the 1950s, a young Indianapolis minister named Jim Jones preached a curious blend of the gospel and Marxism. His congregation was racially integrated, and he was a much-lauded leader in the contemporary civil rights movement. Eventually, Jones moved his church, Peoples Temple, to northern California. He became involved in electoral politics, and soon was a prominent Bay Area leader.

In this riveting narrative, Jeff Guinn examines Jones’s life, from his extramarital affairs, drug use, and fraudulent faith healing to the fraught decision to move almost a thousand of his followers to a settlement in the jungles of Guyana in South America. Guinn provides stunning new details of the events leading to the fatal day in November, 1978 when more than nine hundred people died—including almost three hundred infants and children—after being ordered to swallow a cyanide-laced drink.

Why I recommend it: I’ve read a lot of Jonestown books in my life. I’m probably up to double digits by now. (Don’t ask why. I don’t have a satisfactory answer.) I can confidently say that this is the best Jonestown book I’ve ever read. It’s well-researched and exhaustingly thorough. If you want to know every tiny detail of Jim Jones’s life, read this chunky beast.

I love that the author doesn’t give his opinion on everything. Unlike a lot of nonfiction writers, he keeps himself out of the story. He presents the facts, interviews people who knew Jones, and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. I appreciate that.

Jim Jones is endlessly fascinating to me because he could have changed the world in positive ways. Before he moved to the jungle and murdered 900 people, he was doing nice stuff! He was a successful reverend who knew how to get jobs for people living in poverty. He worked to desegregate communities and fight injustice. He didn’t just preach about helping people. He actually did the work! Unfortunately, he was also a delusional psychopath with ego problems and a painkiller addiction. That rarely ends well.

This is my current favorite Jonestown book. Read this instead of sensationalized nonsense.


In September 1921, four young men and Ada Blackjack, a diminutive 25-year-old Eskimo woman, ventured deep into the Arctic in a secret attempt to colonize desolate Wrangel Island for Great Britain. Two years later, Ada Blackjack emerged as the sole survivor of this ambitious polar expedition. This young, unskilled woman—who had headed to the Arctic in search of money and a husband—conquered the seemingly unconquerable north and survived all alone after her male companions had perished.

Following her triumphant return to civilization, the international press proclaimed her the female Robinson Crusoe. But whatever stories the press turned out came from the imaginations of reporters: Ada Blackjack refused to speak to anyone about her horrific two years in the Arctic. Only on one occasion—after charges were published falsely accusing her of causing the death of one of her companions—did she speak up for herself.


Why I recommend it: I was obsessed with stories of Arctic explorers when I was a kid, but nobody told me there was a female explorer! Where was this book when I was 12?

I have massive respect for Ada. She needed money, so she agreed to be a cook/seamstress/housekeeper for an Arctic expedition. She didn’t know how to hunt or build shelters, but she figured it out real quick when she got trapped on a freezing island for two years. I wish more people knew about her. I'm glad her story is being told.


Buy it on Amazon

The Stranger In The Woods: The Extraordinary Story Of The Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries.

Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life—why did he leave? What did he learn? As well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.

Why I recommend it: It spoke to my hermit soul. I could relate to Chris’s struggle to fit in with society and his desire to get away from it. The interviews with Chris are really funny. I love his bluntness. I appreciate that the author didn’t present Chris as a hero. He’s a thief, and he deserves to be punished for burglarizing cabins.

My favorite part of the book is the information about historical hermits. Who knew that antisocial loners were so interesting? The book also explores the psychological reasons why people become hermits.

This is one of the most relatable books I’ve read. If you’re a hermit, you should pick yourself up a copy.

What's your favorite biography?


  1. The Devil in the White City is one of my favorite books, ever!

  2. I remember reading several books by Sparks back in the 80's. Of course back then I actually believed they were genuine dairies and didn't realize I was being duped.

  3. I have only read The Devil in the White City, and it was so so good

  4. I remember reading Go Ask Alice back in the 80s. I was so disappointed to learn it was fiction.

  5. The all sound good especially Unmask Alice and The Butchering Art.