Call it Peak Gift Book: For whatever reason (perhaps pandemic delays), 2023 has witnessed a major nonfiction groundswell of memoirs, biographies and cultural histories that are both substantial and a lot of fun.
The pop revolutions of the 20th century work their way through biographies of Madonna and Lou Reed, memoirs by Sly Stone and Werner Herzog, histories of High Times magazine and Toni Morrison’s brilliant circle. More recent books trace the rise of streaming TV, cool beauty products, American Apparel and whatever it is Julia Fox represents.
Throw in some big-idea books about time, conspiracy politics and the climate crisis. With virtually a book for every interest, you can’t go wrong.
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Madonna: A Rebel Life
Dishy tell-all or serious cultural biography? Author Mary Gabriel won’t make you choose. Her weighty volume captures Madonna’s astonishing rise from working-class roots through New York’s blazing 1980s nightclub scene and on to a level of superstardom that allows the author to bear down on why, exactly, the performer matters so much. It’s not authorized — it’s authoritative. It’s also north of 800 pages, but it’s a big life.
$38 from Little, Brown
Down the Drain
You heard it first from the actor, fashionista and former Kanye companion: At last year’s Vanity Fair Oscar party, Julia Fox told a red-carpet reporter her forthcoming memoir was going to be “a masterpiece.” Well, it’s here, and it’s … incredibly engrossing. Fox has been through a whole lot of darkness — abuse, prison, addiction — and come through it with a voice (and an accent) uniquely her own. Think of it as the millennial “Basketball Diaries,” and buy it for someone who won’t try this at home.
$29 from Simon & Schuster
Strip Tees: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles
Remember American Apparel? The aura of retro cool girls, sleazy ads and, as it turned out, sexual exploitation? Author Kate Flannery brings it all back in an account of her own journey through the company that proclaimed sex positivity even as it trafficked in crass capitalism and worse. It’s a fun, dark, sad, seedy story — an only-in-L.A. experience with cultural implications far beyond one cheapo fast-fashion brand.
$28 from Henry Holt
Glossier marked a different kind of capitalist venture, a reclamation of the beauty business in the mold of the girlboss. Emily Weiss, the Glossier chief executive officer, learned the lingo of tech and put beauty on par with fashion as a font of luxury, niche products and unattainable cool. But Marisa Meltzer, who has written books about everything from riot grrrls to Weight Watchers, tells a large story too — about the limitations of white feminism and the double standard toward women in business.
$29 from Atria
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Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin): A Memoir
This year’s big offering from Questlove’s book imprint is an antidote of sorts to many boomer accounts of the ’60s or ’70s, including those from rock stars more favorably treated by, say, Jann Wenner. With an assist from veteran music journalist Ben Greenman, Sly Stone, the former frontman of Sly and the Family Stone, narrates the funk revolution from the inside, unsparing about the costs of fame and the perils of the high life.
$30 from Macmillan
Agents of Chaos: Thomas King Forçade, High Times, and the Paranoid End of the 1970s
Speaking of the high life, if you or a loved one are looking for a more journalistic approach to the era — in method and tone as well as in subject matter — Sean Howe’s story of the mysterious hell-bound founder of High Times magazine, as well as the scandals, tragedies and FBI informants that followed in his dank wake, is both wild fun and essential cultural history. When it comes to the marijuana business, we’ve come a long, hazy way.
$30 from Hachette
Lou Reed: The King of New York
The snazzy Warhol-esque sleeve cover clues you in to what’s in store: a definitive biography of the prototypical art rocker, who died 10 years ago, that nails the milieu he shaped and was shaped by. Laurie Anderson, his Velvet Underground bandmates and Warhol himself all circle around, but this is not just a nostalgia trip through New York at its best and worst. Author Will Hermes counts up our debt to Reed for so much of what we take for granted, from fluid sexuality to rock-star excess.
$35 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile and Greed Upended TV
Hollywood industry obsessives probably will get the most out of author Peter Biskind’s latest immersion into the dream factory. You wouldn’t say that about his classic, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” which chronicled the film-studio revolution with scads of scandalous detail. This one, on HBO’s rise and the streaming era that followed, turns on executive maneuverings. It does, however, lay the groundwork for our year of strikes — when, after decades of Peak TV, it really did feel as though something broke.
$33 from William Morrow
People either love or hate the hyper-ambitious, egomaniacal, sometimes richest man on Earth. Both types will find fodder, intrigue and surprisingly brisk reading in Walter Isaacson’s new biography, which lays out the case for Musk as both groundbreaking genius and “demon mode” chaos agent. His rich material veers from childhood trauma to wild personal hijinks (car crashes, rocket explosions, multiple semi-families) and madcap business negotiations. Think of “Succession,” with Elon playing every role.
$35 from Simon & Schuster
Every Man for Himself and God Against All: A Memoir
At 80, the German filmmaker is virtually a parody of the old-school auteur. (Can’t you hear his documentary voice-over in your head right now?) He’s written books before, but Werner Herzog’s first full-on memoir is a must-have for cineastes or anyone who appreciates well-told, highly digressive tales with perhaps a grain or two of untruth. Flitting from odd jobs to famously disastrous productions to notes on aesthetics, the only thing it’s short on are dull moments.
$30 from Penguin Press
Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World
What begins as a joke — the leftist author of “No Logo” is often confused with Naomi Wolf, the (mostly) leftist author of “The Beauty Myth” — widens out to explore the culture of paranoia exemplified by Wolf’s turn to anti-vax conspiracies. In concentric circles, Klein builds up to the theory that social media and COVID-19 have fueled an escape from reality that threatens our health and freedom. Ultimately this is (or should be) the big-idea book of the year.
$30 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Creep: Accusations and Confessions
Ideal for fans of memoir, criticism or just fierce writing, Myriam Gurba’s essay collection takes on sacred cows like Joan Didion, personal legacies of abuse, Mexican literature and the inescapable marine layer. If you know the writer only from her screed against the novel “American Dirt,” it’s time to dig a lot deeper. Pairs well with Gurba’s debut memoir, “Mean.”
$27 from Avid Reader
How to Say Babylon: A Memoir
Forget what you think you know about the Rastafari faith. Safiya Sinclair was raised by strict adherents in Jamaica, only to chafe at its patriarchal dictates and find escape through poetry — first Sylvia Plath’s and then her own. But this is no general screed; Sinclair’s stormy father, brilliant but perpetually stoned mother and fiercely loyal siblings leap off the page, as does the island in all its vegetal, stifling richness.
$29 from 37 Ink
The Sisterhood: How a Network of Black Women Writers Changed American Culture
The firepower of historian Courtney Thorsson’s deep-dive lies in the names: Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Margo Jefferson. But the story itself puts the lie to the notion that revolutions arise from individual geniuses. The Sisterhood was a group of these and other Black feminists who met once a month in the late ’70s. The conclave was short-lived, but it grew new strains of literature and academic thought that are still exploding conceived ideas decades later.
$29 from Columbia University Press
King: A Life
What more is there to know about Martin Luther King Jr.? Much has been unearthed in the 40 years since the last major biography. In the interim, King’s legacy has been sanded down, misinterpreted as a paragon of moderation by opponents of actual change. Author Jonathan Eig uses fresh first-hand documents to paint the picture of a more radical and complicated man — and an essential book for any history buff who takes their history seriously.
$35 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock
Author Jenny Odell’s follow-up to her more practically minded bestseller, “How to Do Nothing,” may disappoint readers looking for more quick fixes. But that is exactly the point. In a work both magisterial and elliptical, Odell takes on the concept of “time” from every conceivable angle, and ultimately lands on the greatest tragedy: We experience time weirdly — we act shortsightedly — because we’re mortal. This is both an irresistible big-idea book and a guide to rethinking a burning world.
$29 from Random House
The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth
Elizabeth Rush, a longtime journalist, sails right into the heart of the tragic gap between human experience and climate crisis — literally, tagging along with a boat to visit Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, whose melting might well cause environmental collapse. In the research team aboard she finds hope for a form of collaboration that might save us, just as she contemplates the question of whether she should bring a child into a world in great peril.
$30 from Milkweed Editions
A Living Remedy
Grief memoirs, at their best, help reassure others that they are not alone. Author Nicole Chung’s memoir of, as she calls it, “grieving under capitalism” succeeds in doing so not with emotional generalities but by weaving her specific story — losing both adoptive parents in quick succession — into a social fabric tearing at the seams. Addressing a broken healthcare system, COVID-19 isolation and misconceptions about adoption, she targets her grief at systems and beliefs badly in need of course correction.
$30 from Ecco