“True Originals: Biographies That Defy Expectations” (NPR Books)

It’s probably not true that truth is stranger than fiction, but in the hands of a great biographer, it can be just as compelling. Novelists can create unique and unforgettable characters — there’s never been anyone quite like Jane Eyre or Ignatius J. Reilly — but there’s no shortage of fascinating literary protagonists who just happened to exist in real life.

This year brought us some brilliant biographies of world-famous leaders like Lyndon B. Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, but this list focuses on books that chronicle the lives of some true originals from many different walks of life. From a spy turned chef to the highest-ranking black military leader in European history, the subjects of these biographies spent most of their lives well off the beaten path and gained fame for their stubborn refusal to conform to other people’s expectations. You could say the same thing about the biographers. These books are written with extraordinary style and originality, by masters of the craft who can spin a tale as adroitly and memorably as any novelist out there.

I’m Your Man
The Life Of Leonard Cohen
by Sylvie Simmons
Hardcover, 570 pages

“Like a bird on the wire,” sings Leonard Cohen in one of his most famous songs, “like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free.” It’s a bit of an understatement. The legendary writer and musician has done everything his own way — Cohen began his career as an obscure, somewhat transgressive poet, and eventually became Canada’s greatest, most original singer-songwriter. In I’m Your Man, music journalist Sylvie Simmons does a wonderful job explaining how the scion of “one of the most prominent Jewish families in Montreal” became the world’s unofficial poet laureate of “survival … sex, God and depression.” It’s a startlingly effective biography — Simmons seems to understand her subject almost instinctively, and she shares his somber outlook tempered with a wry, but playful sense of humor. Cohen’s life wasn’t always easy, Simmons writes, but his darkest moments made him who he is now. Or as Cohen himself once sang: “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

 by Michael Schaub for NPR Books

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