As noted, this list is in two parts because of 2016’s overachieving dark side. There is no particular order of importance (or organization, for that matter) to this list. Certainly it is not comprehensive. (And maybe not all these folks are beloved to you, but they were beloved to someone.)
Leonard Cohen – Canadian. Any loss of a Canadian dims the light a bit, but this one was a poet/songster extraordinaire, as of course you know. There are many collections of poetry/songs and a handful of bios. Maybe try Stranger Music.
Jim Harrison – This guy. Gritty, human. Called by the French “The Mozart of the Prairie”. We did an overview this year, pretty much covering all of his work, but if you just want a taste, go for his poetry (The Shape of the Journey) or the novel Dalva.
Debbie Reynolds – That she had to watch Carrie go first makes it that much harder. Besides being a triple-threat superstar of the silver screen, she spent over 50 years supporting mental health work. She was even a Girl Scout leader when Carrie was a kid. Her memoir is Unsinkable, and just in November she released another collection of thoughts and anecdotes called Make’Em Laugh: Short-Term Memories of Longtime Friends.
Prince – He had reportedly just started a memoir, but alas. Still, we can’t leave him off this list. After his death, a handful of bios just magically appeared — caveat emptor — let’s stick with the ones not chopped together and shot right off the presses like White Castle sliders. This is Prince we’re talking about. How about Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain by Alan Light (who also wrote a book about Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen – so that’s pretty decent cred) or – for a broader look – Ronin Ro’s Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks. Jason Draper’s Prince: Life and Times has an updated edition that includes 2016. (Plus our own tribute.)
Michelle McNamara – If you’re a fan of True Crime, you already know her cutting edge website True Crime Diary. Her focus was never on the crimes you already knew everything about; she wanted to dive into the cold cases and do some real puzzle-solving. At the time of her passing, she was working on a book that her husband Patton Oswalt says he is going to finish. That is something to look forward to. Here are a few thoughts from her sometime collaborator Billy Jensen.
Afeni Shakur Davis – Tupac’s mom and a Black Panther, she has a lot to talk about (personal and political) in this memoir/conversation written by her friend Jasmine Guy – Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary.
Alvin Toffler – We are living in the future Alvin (with his wife Heidi) predicted in 1970, 1980 & 1990 in their series of books Future Shock, The Third Wave and Powershift. Not a science fiction author, a futurist.
W.P. Kinsella – Another Canadian [sigh], but this one wrote novels and short stories almost exclusively about baseball. You’ll know him from Shoeless Joe which became Field of Dreams.
Steve Dillon – Badass comic book artist, mostly known for Preacher, Hellblazer and Punisher. This is no Rob Liefeld bullshit; these lines cut and the images stay where they land: right between yer peepers.
E.R. Braithwaite – You know him from To Sir, With Love (the movie had Mr. Sidney Poitier, of course) about being an educated, black school teacher, but he wrote other books from that perspective in the education, health and welfare fields – including a scathing report on his trip to South Africa in the 70s called Honorary White. He was a Royal Air Force WWII vet and was over 100 when he died(!)
John Glenn – Kids today don’t appreciate how cool astronauts are. Imagine if we were prepping for travel to other dimensions: mind-blowing. Back when we were prepping for space, it had never been done before. We couldn’t even make convincing-looking movie sci-fi until the late 60s. Glenn is your legit American hero-type, in real life. He even went back into space when he was 77 years old. Geez. You can look at his John Glenn: A Memoir, but I have to admit I’m more drawn to We Seven: By the Astronauts Themselves, which covers all the first 7 American astronauts.
George Michael – His own telling of his story is called Bare, but it’s from the early 90s, so on one hand, worth the read, on the other, out of date. A more recent bio is Rob Jovanovic’s George Michael. Jovanovic has written about everyone from Beck to Kate Bush. But you know…. that voice, those irresistibly catchy hooks and palpable emotion — pop on the tunes, you can’t dance to a book.
Vera Rubin – Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters is a collection of Rubin’s essays on all things astronomical. She proved two things: 1) dark matter is real, and 2) keeping women out of science would be a terrible idea.
Dario Fo – Italian, Nobel prize-winning, renaissance man, mostly known for plays, but – good lord – he really did everything. Look for Francis, the Holy Jester
Gloria Naylor – The Women of Brewster Place, the novel she’s most known for, won her a National Book Award and became a miniseries.
Antonin Scalia – There are a few bios out there, but seeing as he was a Supreme Court Justice, maybe random facts like that he was a Boy Scout or that he grew up in Queens are less interesting. Check out this collection of his greatest hits – Scalia’s Court: A Legacy of Landmark Opinions and Dissents edited by Kevin A. Ring.
Alan Rickman – I suppose you could just read some Potter or Hitchhiker’s and imagine his voice in Snape or Marvin. There’s an unauthorized bio from Maureen Paton called something like “Alan Rickman, the Unauthorized Biography” I think. But long before he fell from the Nakatomi Plaza Tower and long before he fucked up his marriage with a Joni Mitchell cd, he was sharpening his chops on the classics of theater at RADA and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Ah, man. As a former actor, this one hits me hard. Just listen to what he does with this.
Fidel Castro – The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro is a collection of his own letters, written while he was a revolutionary, before he was a dictator. However you view how things turned out, or whoever he eventually became, this is the OG anti-imperialist Castro, who ran with Che.
You can probably pick more than a few people off this list and connect them to moments of joy, enlightenment, encouragement or challenge. Though physically gone, please note they are spiritually present – with you, right now – thru whatever essence of themselves poured into you from their work. In that way, they are not lost to us.