I consider myself lucky to cover the biography and memoir beat for the Amazon Book Review. I’m forever fascinated by other people’s lives—the stories they tell themselves, the decisions they make, and how they confront the challenges that inevitably come their way.
This year, so far, has brought an incredible crop of memoirs and biographies that educate, inspire, entertain, and most definitely made me think about life a little differently. Take Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road, #2 among the Best Books of the Year So Far, which investigates a family ravaged by schizophrenia, or the memoir of Phuc Tran, who found solace in literature as a Vietnamese immigrant. There’s Rebel Chef, which throws you into the culinary world of a chef who doesn’t take no for answer, as well as the story of Grammy Award-winning Alicia Keys, who gives readers an intimate account of her rise to fame.
These are just some of our favorites from the year so far, but check out the full list of Amazon's Best Biographies and Memoirs of the Year So Far for more.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker
Hidden Valley Road is a heartbreaking, expertly told story of an all-American family, the Galvins, six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia while still teenagers. Relying on exhaustive research, Kolker weaves together cultural, medical, and family history to show the ravages of mental illness on the six Galvin boys, on their parents, and, perhaps most movingly, on their other six siblings. This was one of the books that lit our team up the most—we couldn’t stop talking about Kolker’s storytelling that reads like fiction and the empathy he conjured for this American family overcome by schizophrenia.
Sigh, Gone is one of the funniest and most profound memoirs of the year so far. Without rose-colored glasses and with a flair for humor, Tran recounts his childhood as a Vietnamese kid growing up in a small Pennsylvania town: the racism, dislocation, and violence that surrounded him, how he fought to fit in, and how he fell in love with literature. Sigh, Gone is an important story of immigration, America, and the disconnect between generations and cultures. And, if you’re like me, you will be in awe of Tran’s words, humor, insight, and dedication to sharing his experience in all of its glory and hurt. Plus, even though you might cry, you will definitely laugh out loud.
This Is Chance! is the riveting story of the 1964 Anchorage earthquake (the second largest ever) and how Genie Chance, a part-time radio anchor, broadcast the news on air for three days straight. In so doing she became the de facto voice of the disaster—ferrying messages of safety, directing first responders, and providing a calm and steady voice to ward off the further chaos of a broken city. With Mooallem's portrait of Chance comes an unputdownable story of natural disaster, resilience, determination, and community.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Acclaimed poet Cathy Park Hong writes with candor and wit about being a Korean American in her memoir, Minor Feelings. Armed with citations from famous writers, historians, and film directors, she examines racial consciousness in America today through her own experience and the one reflected in our culture. Dealing with feelings of depression, shame, and suspicion, Cathy Park Hong identifies these as minor feelings, which happens when American optimism collides and contradicts with your own reality, i.e., the internalization of racist beliefs. Urgent, confessional, intimate, and illuminating, Cathy Park Hong’s story is well worth the read.
Rebel Chef: In Search of What Matters by Dominique Crenn
The first female chef to receive three Michelin stars in the US, Dominque Crenn—who never attended culinary school—recounts her journey from a small town outside of Versailles to owning three highly acclaimed restaurants and speaking out about restaurant culture, sexism, discrimination, and climate change. A fascinating woman who doesn’t take no for an answer.
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Like the people she meets and profiles in her book, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is an undocumented immigrant, and this book pays tribute and investigates their lives—the hardship, the hard work, the vulgar dismissals, the hope that they carry. Her writing is frank and wry, allowing the people whose stories she tells to shine with their own personalities and quirks. This is a portrait of America—unfiltered, undocumented, moving and challenging. I was utterly absorbed by her writing and the stories she shared.
More Myself: A Journey by Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys is a 15-time Grammy Award-winning artist, songwriter, musician, and producer. She’s an entrepreneur, a successful actress, and a powerful force in the world of activism. In her new memoir, More Myself, Keys dives into her life—the challenging relationship with her father, dropping out of Columbia University to pursue music, the loss of privacy surrounding her romantic relationships, striving to be perfect, and so much more. More Myself is thoughtful, informative, revelatory, and questioning, and celebrates what it truly means to live a creative life.
An incredible crop of memoirs and biographies that educate, inspire, entertain, and might just make you think about the world differently.