A Year Into COVID And We’re Still Trying To Keep Our Brains Occupied: TPM’s Favorite Biographies And Memoirs

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March 5, 2021 10:00 a.m.

So, unbelievably (or maybe believably — take your pick) we’re hitting the one-year mark of quarantine life. TPM will get to celebrate this “momentous” occasion in about a week on March 11, the day the New York office started working remote.

If you’re like us, you’ve probably had a not-so-great year! And I’m not just talking about the number of demoralizing pandemic stories we covered — we had the presidential election, an insurrection/attempted coup, horrible storms and Ted Cruz being the absolute worst (shocker). Even with the vaccine light at the end of the long, arduous, complicated tunnel, it’s still hard to get excited about much of anything lately. We’ve become accustomed to disappointment following any splash of positive news.

At this point we’re soaking up every ounce of goodness we can absorb out of day-to-day activities, which, for me, include a lot of reading and a lot of TV bingeing. [Update: I gave up on 90210 and moved on to Desperate Housewives].

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I, like most of our Twitter feeds, was enthralled by the New York Times’ “Framing Britney Spears” documentary. I hadn’t thought too much about my favorite pop icon of the ’90s in quite a while — other than to briefly catch up on the #FreeBritney movement when it first gained steam. Other than loving her music and having a VHS copy of “Britney Spears: Live and More!” as a child, my main lasting memory is, unfortunately, those infamous tabloid shots of her shaving her head and beating a car with an umbrella. Needless to say, this documentary was a much-needed refresher and it reframed my own experience with Britney — how our society needlessly sexualized her and labeled her as crazy.

A week or two later I found myself scarfing down the HBOMax Tiger Woods documentary and those emotions were back. I am not a golf fan, but it was hard to escape the media storm that was Tiger Woods in the late 2000s. It’s nothing new that we as a society like to build up celebrities in our collective consciousness to insane levels of greatness, to mythologize them. It’s also not at all shocking that with these high bars, society also relishes tearing down people like Tiger and Britney when they make mistakes.

All this is to say one: I’m disillusioned with paparazzi and tabloid culture and two: it’s an interesting new quarantine hobby to look back on public figures we thought we knew and reframe them. Enter this month’s reading list.

Most of this month’s recommendations will be about important historical and political figures — we are a news organization filled with history buffs after all — but make sure to comment below with some of your favorite biographies and memoirs. I hear the Jessica Simpson memoir is fantastic and more illuminating than you’d expect. You can always purchase any of the books below by visiting our TPM Bookshop profile page. Be sure to check back again next month for some new staff reading recommendations, and if you’ve missed any, you can find all of our reading lists here. Happy reading! (#FreeBritney)

David Taintor, Senior Editor:

The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own. by David Carr

“David Carr’s remarkable career came to an untimely end on Thursday, February 12, 2015, when he collapsed in the New York Times newsroom. He was pronounced dead at a Manhattan hospital that evening. Carr’s rise to the upper echelons of journalism was all the more extraordinary in that it came after hard work overcoming drug and alcohol addiction earlier in life. I always had a soft spot for him as a fellow Minnesota native. In a 2012 interview with TPM, Carr summed up his feelings on life as a reporter with a signature flourish: “Well it’s the grandest caper there ever was.”

Josh Marshall, Founder & Editor-in-Chief:

Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey by Andrew Mango

“Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is one of the most significant and interesting figures of the 20th century, in some ways all the more so because a significant part of his legacy is in the process of being dismantled by Turkish strongman President Erdogan. He is one of those rare people in history who has some claim on the proposition that his role shifted the history of his country in a significantly different direction. Mango’s biography is lively, erudite, and compelling. A great read.”

Kate Riga, Reporter:

Personal History by Katharine Graham

“This book, which I read after ‘All The President’s Men’ when I was young, sparked my interest in journalism. I loved ATPM, but not so much the “all men” part. Graham’s book gave me a woman to root for in one of, if not the most, gripping journalism stories we have.”

Joe Ragazzo, Publisher:

The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst by David Nasaw

“I love reading about the history of news & journalism, and I especially like reading biographies. This is a phenomenally written account of one of the most consequential figures in the history not just of journalism but of media. Hearst was the first to do many, many things in the industry and much of it was genius. However, it must be said, it’s slightly easier to be a genius when you can borrow unlimited sums of money from your parents to create market share, and then never have to pay them back. This sprawling history touches on newspapers, Hollywood, and politics and I highly recommend it.”

Cristina Cabrera, Newswriter:

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

“Tara Westover grew up in rural Idaho with a father who fell in deep with a host of anti-government doomsday conspiracy theories and wouldn’t let her go to school for fear of a public education turning her against God. This striking memoir chronicles how Westover, who didn’t find out about the Holocaust until she got to college, eventually got a PhD in history at Cambridge despite being raised with virtually no education for the first 17 years of her life while surviving an abusive family that put her through hell for wanting to learn.”

Josh Kovensky, Investigative Reporter:

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

“‘Barbarian Days’ focuses on years the author spent in the south Pacific. A longtime surfer, he and a friend make their way, island-by-island, traveling the region and searching for waves along the way. It’s a beautifully written story of adventure, but more than anything else conveyed to me both the blessings and pitfalls of freedom. This book left such a big impression on me when I first read it that it convinced me to quit my office job and move overseas. I highly recommend it to anyone feeling stifled by the past year of quarantine.”

Jackie Wilhelm, Associate Publisher:

The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail

“One of my early quarantine reads, this memoir is beautifully written. Both inspiring and at times tragic Dunya Mikhail tells the heroic story of Abdullah, a beekeeper who takes it upon himself to rescue Yazidi women and families terrorized by ISIS in northern Iraq, and the women he saved.”

Nicole Lafond, Special Projects Editor:

A Woman First: First Woman: A Memoir by Selina Meyers

“Julia Louis-Dreyfus is one of my all-time favorite actresses, a love that started as a child watching Seinfeld with my dad growing up and one that has transcended through adulthood and into the political realm with her masterful portrayal of the endlessly selfish and appetizing Selina Meyers. While one of the most genuine American celebrities IRL (in my opinion), she expertly embodies the most baseline, greedy and overall self-absorbed characteristics of humanhood in her characters. I obviously had to give the fake memoir inspired by one of her most terrible characters a read.”

Tierney Sneed, Investigative Reporter:

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

“Not necessarily a memoir in the traditional sense, but a fascinating and ultimately tragic recounting of one women’s quest to solve the mystery of the Golden State Killer murders.”

Jackie Wilhelm, Associate Publisher

Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich

“A quick but brutal and heartbreaking read. Zinky Boys brings to life the lives and stories of the Russian people during the Afghan war through beautifully written monologues.”

Kate Riga, Reporter:

Hollywood Park: A Memoir Mikel Jollett

“This memoir of the frontman of the band Airborne Toxic Event has cults, curtain-lifting from an incredibly cool music reporting gig and very moving portraits of what addiction does to families. I gobbled it up.”

Jackie Wilhelm, Associate Publisher

Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy

“I’m one of those Americans still fascinated by European royalty and I picked this up a few years back ahead of the Mary Queen of Scots film being released. Mary Stuart is a historical figure marred by a bad and perhaps misunderstood reputation. John Guy may be sympathetic to the former queen but it is incredibly fascinating to dive deep into the short, violent, and tragic life of the Queen of Scots.”

TPM partners with Bookshop, a non-profit bookseller whose objective is to help independent bookstores survive. TPM and independent bookstores both earn a small percentage of revenue for each book sold. You can learn more about Bookshop here, and on this episode of the Josh Marshall podcast.

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