The Best Biographies & Memoirs of February

Jon Foro on February 09, 2018

Here are a few of our favorite biographies and memoirs for February. See more of our picks, and all of the Best Books of the Month.


I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell

I'll be honest: When I first started this book, I almost put it straight back down. The opening scene of the author's teenage encounter with a stranger on an isolated hiking trail made me want to look away from the page itself, unwilling to read farther…but O'Farrell's writing coaxed me on. And I'm so glad I continued. Because this is a book not about the life-or-death moments balanced on a knife's edge (sometimes literally) but about the keen awareness of being alive that goes hand-in-hand with terror. The smell of cinnamon, the sound of agitated elephants on a beach, the soft belly fur of newborn kittens, and O'Farrell's own restlessness that urges her to keep moving, keep exploring, keep pushing forward, embrace and enhance the bitter seeds of fear from which these events are born. As she relates her stories in a nonlinear fashion, glimpses of O'Farrell's biography snap into place like puzzle pieces. The end of the book brings no full picture, however, for hers is an existence still creating its own destiny. Readers who were moved by The Last Lecture or When Breath Comes Air will find similar moments of affirmation here by a writer who has chosen to embrace the calamities that come with a life lived with curiosity and passion. —Adrian Liang

Bio-Monk.jpgThe Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

The Monk of Mokha is an unblinking, open account of a San Francisco-based Yemeni American’s success story. The sincerity and subject matter will make some cynics uneasy, and cynics would do well to avoid this book, or be less cynical. Following in the path of What is the What and Zeitoun, Eggers delivers us the real-life tale of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Muslim in his early twenties who appears to be on his way to a relatively undistinguished life. But when he discovers the historic Yemeni connection to coffee production, he embarks on a quest that will change his path and provide direction. The adventure itself is riveting, but when you add in the history of coffee, the story becomes even more elevated. Mokhtar is an inspirational character, and Dave Eggers has written an entertaining, inspirational, and informative book. -- Chris Schluep

Bio-Educated.jpgEducated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Tara Westover wasn’t your garden variety college student. When the Holocaust was mentioned in a history class, she didn’t know what it was (no, really). That’s because she didn’t see the inside of a classroom until the age of seventeen. Public education was one of the many things her religious fanatic father was dubious of, believing it a means for the government to brainwash its gullible citizens, and her mother wasn’t diligent on the homeschooling front. If it wasn’t for a brother who managed to extricate himself from their isolated—and often dangerous--world, Westover might still be in rural Idaho, trying to survive her survivalist upbringing. It’s a miraculous story she tells in her memoir Educated. For those of us who took our educations for granted, who occasionally fell asleep in large lecture halls (and inconveniently small ones), it’s hard to grasp the level of grit—not to mention intellect—required to pull off what Westover did. But eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge University may have been the easy part, at least compared to what she had to sacrifice to attain it. The courage it took to make that sacrifice was the truest indicator of how far she’d come, and how much she’d learned. Educated is an inspiring reminder that knowledge is, indeed, power. --Erin Kodicek

Bio-Line.jpgThe Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú

These days, mention of “the Border” stirs both imagination and emotion, what you see and feel depending on how you perceive the world. But how many of us understand this real-world interzone where actual borders shift and bleed, and hard scenes of death, drug smuggling, and human suffering unfold daily? The son of a park ranger, Francisco Cantú grew up in the southwest. When he joined the Border Patrol, he became witness to the stark realities of the desert, where the obligations of his job weighed heavy against his sense of humanity. Dark material for sure, but Cantú is a good no-nonsense writer, and his direct, stoic prose makes The Line Becomes a River a weighty and timely document on one of our most divisive arguments. --Jon Foro

Bio-Limits.jpgLimits of the Known by David Roberts

As a mountaineer, author, and co-author of over 20 books—many about climbing and exploration, including Alone on the Ice and Alex Honnold’s Alone on the Wall, though not all of them are about being alone on something—David Roberts has spent his life trying to understand the motivations behind with adventure-seeking, including his own. Following a diagnosis of throat cancer, that search took on both greater meaning and urgency. Limits of the Known examines some of history’s groundbreaking achievements on glaciers, the high seas, and even underground, seeking the reasons for risk-taking, both in the past and in the modern world. --Jon Foro

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