The best biographies & memoirs of 2019 so far

Jon Foro on July 09, 2019
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Some years (and yes, it's been years), putting together a list of 20 books for our best of the year so far lists presents a challenge—we want every book that makes the cut to be an unassailable no-brainer, and the front half of the calendar (which contains some sleepy months, publishing-wise) doesn't always cooperate. This year posed the opposite problem: 20 seemed a cruel and arbitrary constraint for such a mother lode of entertaining, deeply affecting, and/or illuminating memoirs.

Here's a closer look at six of our favorites, with links to the rest below. See all of the best books of the year so far across more than a dozen categories, including literature & fiction, nonfiction, mysteries & thrillers, kids books, and more.


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Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

True story: A poor, young Appalachian woman heads to an Ivy League with ambitions of becoming a concert violinist. When she gets there, she learns that she’s not nearly good enough, and she’s killing herself to make tuition. Still, she answers a job listing on a message board for a seat in some kind of “ensemble,” and she’s hired without an audition. Her first gig is selling CDs by a man only identified as The Composer at a booth in a craft fair while two other musicians (one on violin, the other on penny whistle) play low under loudly broadcast New Age-y music, which sounds vaguely, or maybe a lot, like the Titanic soundtrack. Soon she’s onstage with The Composer himself, touring the country in a derelict RV with a select “ensemble,” miming the music emanating from a hidden CD player for adoring crowds—an act Hindman dubs “Milli Violini.” In our new age of malleable facts and fungible truth, Sounds Like Titanic hits some trenchant notes on the nature of truth and uncomfortable observations on gender. She anguishes over both the deception (and an overwhelming fear of being caught) and what feels like the betrayal of a lifetime of support from family and her small-town community. But it’s also entertaining. Hindman somehow avoids any meanness of spirit, even while having a lot of fun at the Yanni-like Composer’s expense. (We’re never given the his real name, but one will speculate.) “Fake it till you make it”—a phrase Hindman never writes, probably consciously—might not be so bad, after all. —Jon Foro


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Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir by Jayson Greene

There’s a moment early in Once More We Saw Stars when Jayson Greene’s 2-year-old daughter, Greta, is in the hospital, hovering between life and death but slipping towards the latter, and “we glance around us, realizing this is the last we’ll ever see of the world as we’ve known it. Whatever comes next will raze everything to the ground.” That sentence illustrates how difficult it is to read this memoir without a lump in one’s throat. In the hierarchy of death, the death of a child is the worst, the one that makes people recoil. Those who experience such a trauma frequently talk about moving through a fog of grief, unable to recall the particulars of the days and weeks after the death, memories and heartstrings cauterized by the searing pain of loss. How amazing, then, that Greene can recall those particulars: the pain, the grief, the fears that their little family will never again experience joy, and the worry that his marriage cannot survive such loss. And that even in the midst of trauma he knows he and his wife have the tools and the traits to get out the other side, to refashion their broken life into one where they can laugh again. How they keep their eyes on that prize is what makes this memoir a heartbreaking but reassuring look at courage, resilience, our slim hold on life, and the bonds of family that make life precious. —Vannessa Cronin


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The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams

Julie Yip-Williams’ memoir speaks to one of our greatest fears, that we would be diagnosed with a terminal disease, and to our greatest hope, which is that we could face life straight on, fully, without squinting, and live each day with honesty, ambition, and true feeling. She was born ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. As a young child, she had cataracts that rendered her nearly blind—her grandmother felt she would be a burden to the family and tried to have an herbalist end her life. When the family fled for the U.S., she was able to get corrective eye surgery in California. Still, she was declared legally blind due to poor vision. She earned her way into Williams College, attended Harvard Law School, married, and settled in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Then at 37, she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. For five years, she dealt with the disease, took care of her family, prepared them and herself for the future, and sought understanding by writing about it. There is hope, anger, fear, reflection, immersion in the everyday, and joy reflected in this book. The Unwinding of the Miracle seeks to express the truth about what it is like to face death--and to face life--and it succeeds masterfully. —Chris Schluep


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Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl

When Gourmet magazine closed its doors, no one was more surprised than its editor-in-chief, Ruth Reichl. Reichl’s previous release, My Kitchen Year, is a cookbook of the recipes that saw her through this sudden and heartbreaking change. Save Me the Plums is a memoir of how Reichl came to be at the magazine she’d pored over as a child, how she transformed it from a stuffy relic of the old guard into a publication that embraced a new culinary era, and how Gourmet magazine met its end. Reichl is a marvelous writer, and readers experience her exhilarating journey from New York Times restaurant critic, to the farm-to-table movement of Los Angeles, and finally to the job she never expected to get: editor-in-chief of Gourmet. Reichl’s passion for the role food plays in our lives is evident on every page, including a smattering of recipes that complement the narrative. Save Me the Plums is a book not only about a changing food culture, but also about a woman taking on new challenges, pushing boundaries, and hanging onto the sense of wonder that started her on this road to begin with. A memoir to savor. —Seira Wilson


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Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

I didn’t quite know how to take it when a publishing friend excitedly thrust a copy of celebrated psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone into my hands and exclaimed: “Erin, this is a book for you!” (Did I mention a couple colleagues were present and did not receive the same recommendation? The same colleagues who were just then nodding?). But I’m so glad he did. Giving the reader a behind-the-scenes peek from both sides of the couch, it’s a witty, relatable, moving homage to therapy—and just being human. While therapists are required to see a counselor themselves as part of their training, Gottlieb enlists an experienced ear when an unexpected breakup lays her flat. Working through her issues with the enigmatic “Wendell” helps Gottlieb process her pain, but it also hones her professional skills; after all, a good therapist possesses the ability to empathize with their patients (four of whom she chronicles in funny, frustrating, heartbreaking and profoundly inspiring detail). Like Gottlieb, you will see yourselves in them--in all their self-sabotaging, misunderstood, unlucky, and evolutionary glory. So, for those of you thinking: self-help books are just not my jam… They aren’t mine either (trust me, my woo-woo detector is very sensitive). But Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is so much more expansive than that. Everybody, this is a book for you. —Erin Kodicek


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Formation: A Woman's Memoir of Stepping Out of Line by Ryan Leigh Dostie

Until I read Formation: A Woman’s Memoir of Stepping Out of Line, I hadn’t realized that I’d grown habituated to the simplistic, single-hump emotional rollercoaster of most memoirs. Ryan Leigh Dostie’s story of her life so far—raised in a matriarchal cult in Connecticut, joining the army to pursue her love of languages, her sexual assault by a fellow solider, deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the crippling aftershocks of PTSD—flings the reader around so many unsettling corkscrews as well as breathtaking highs and lows that you may stagger when you flip the final page. The core of Dostie’s story is not her tour in Iraq; nor is it the military itself, which she admits she often loved. The assault, followed by the army’s determination that her accusation is “unsubstantiated” despite evidence to the contrary, claws away at Dostie’s confidence and self-worth, propelling her along dangerous paths. But Formation is a war memoir, too. Her stories about battle and occupation will sound familiar to regular readers of the genre, as will the psychological impacts that gut the soldiers on the ground. When a male soldier tells her, “I don’t think I can ever love again,” she’s terrified of this insight even as numbness swells inside her as well. True life rarely hews to a predicable narrative structure, and Dostie refuses to perpetuate that myth, penning a memoir that inspires, terrifies, enrages, and prompts triumphant fist-pumping all at once. —Adrian Liang


More of the best biographies and memoirs of the year so far:


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