Biographies & memoirs: Our editors’ recent favorites

Al Woodworth on August 03, 2020
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Biographies & memoirs: Our editors’ recent favorites

In this reviewer's mind, the best biographies and memoirs are the ones that surprise you—whether it's a small anecdote about a larger than life figure or big anecdote about someone relatively obscure. So, let's just say, the books that have published this year (so far) have made me gasp in more ways than one.

If you're looking for hope, inspiration, the thrill of sports or emergency medicine, the affirming love of family, or the humor of make-believe, look no further than these biographies and memoirs that have published recently: there are biographies of greats like U.S. congressman John Lewis and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, memoirs from inspirational athletes like Arshay Cooper, and everyday heroes like Duchess Goldblatt, Michelle Harper, and Brittany K. Barnett.

Here are some of our recent favorites. And if you can't get enough of this list, be sure to check out our Best Biographies and Memoirs of the Month.


His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham

Pulitzer Prize-winning Jon Meacham examines the voice, story and impact of civil rights activist and U.S. congressman John Lewis in his most recent book. With his trademark insight, Meacham argues that John Lewis belongs in the pantheon next to George Washington because Lewis lived up to the ideals of our nation and the promise that we were all created equal. Throughout his life, Lewis revolted against segregation (time after time, he put his body on the line), and he believed that in loving your neighbor like yourself, America could truly be a free country. Meacham’s biography is about a great man in American history and about hope. The hope that Lewis felt despite the grim reality he—and we—are sometimes faced with.


Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A true (as told to me) story by Bess Kalb

A feel good, laugh-out-loud memoir that recounts the genuine camaraderie, joy, and love between a grandmother and her granddaughter. And if you’re in need of hug, this book delivers. Through text messages, memories, conversations, Kalb recounts the pluck and vigor of her grandmother and their life-affirming, primal relationship. It will make your heart sing. “What have I always told you, Bessie? What have I always said? You’re my angel. I am you. I’m the bones in your body and the blood that fills you up and the meat around your legs.”



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We Will Rise: A True Story of Tragedy and Resurrection in the American Heartland by Steve Beaven

On December 13, 1977, the entire five-time champion basketball team from the University of Evansville perished in a plane crash. They were just four games into their season, which promised to catapult them to the national stage. We Will Rise is the page-turning story of the tragedy, the rebuilding, and the new team that came together to honor the legacy of the game their peers played so well. As the editor of the book shared, “Here is the greatest story of basketball you’ve never heard.” If you’re a sports fan, this book will make you root for a team like you’ve never rooted before.


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Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Glennon Doyle is the beloved activist, speaker, and bestselling author of Love Warrior and Carry On, Warrior. And Untamed is her most personal story yet. In this tender, soulful, funny and revealing book, Doyle shares the highs and lows of her life—of feeling tethered and bound by expectation, falling in love across a crowded room, divorcing her husband, and marrying her wife and realizing that the most important voice to listen to is your own. Untamed is about trusting yourself, being brave, and living joyfully. 


A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team by Arshay Cooper

Missing sports? The thrill of rooting for an underdog? Well, look no further than Arshay Cooper’s memoir of rowing in what was the first all-Black high school rowing team in the country. To say rowing was an improbable outcome for Cooper and his pals is an understatement of a lifetime. He grew up surrounded by gang members, drug dealers, drug addicts, and prostitutes. Violence was a given and poverty was not far behind. And yet, crew offered him an escape: “I am done with my old life. I choose rowing. I choose a future.” And so begins the pursuit of rowing in unison, which would expose Cooper and his teammates to college campuses, different states, internships, and jobs. In some ways this is a memoir of underdogs fighting their way to the top, but it’s also about how an entire population is left out of the opportunity loop, and how a seemingly small thing like sports can change lives.


Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous

This true story based in make-believe is a breath of fresh air and a lot of fun. Duchess Goldblatt is a fictional 81-year-old social-media personality and author of the bestselling Feasting on the Carcasses of My Enemies, who tweets things like "Hello, lemon-lime sourballs. It’s Transitory Saturday, when we remember that nothing is good forever, and nothing is bad forever.” Becoming Duchess Goldblatt is the memoir of her creator, discovering humor, camaraderie, and community through “Her Grace” (as her fans call her) as she deals with the sadness and loneliness that comes from a divorce, partial custody of her kid, job annoyances, and the absence of care. This memoir is a powerful testament to the joys of the imagination and how a simple change in viewpoint can make a more sprightly and supportive world.


The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper

The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper is a page-turning memoir of a Black emergency room doctor who, while tending to the sick and the injured, mends her own wounds inflicted from an abusive father and a broken marriage. This book couldn’t be more timely, and yet Harper’s story is timeless. Readers will learn the ins and outs of the ER at three am, will see the systematic racism and sexism that dominates the healthcare industry, and understand what it is like to grieve and rebuild from a traumatic event, whether a cracked rib, a horrible father, or the babies she never had with her husband. Dr. Harper is determined to heal, but also to take the time necessary to understand the pain, in a page-turning memoir of hurt, diagnosis, and recovery.


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Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown by Anne Glenconner

For fans of The Crown, Lady in Waiting is a powerful, personal memoir of royalty. As Queen Elizabeth’s Maid of Honor at her coronation and Princess Margaret’s Lady in Waiting, Lady Glenconner traveled the world with the royals—from vacations in Mustique with Mick Jagger and David Bowie, to dining with US presidents, and bearing first-hand witness to the eight-year affair between her best friend, Princess Margaret, and Roddy Llewellyn. Full of juicy gossip, Lady Glenconner also shares with candor, wit, and warmth her own family drama, tragedy, and resilience. 


A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom by Brittany K. Barnett

As a child of a mother who did jail time, Brittany K. Barnett understands the grave implications of a parent lost to “the striped Looney Toons suit.” In this deeply personal memoir, Barnett shares how as a young Black girl she was surrounded by drugs growing up in the south—her mother, a nurse, at times was addicted to crack, and her boyfriend dealt drugs—how her family fueled her, why she pursued law, and became dedicated to defending those unfairly incarcerated for minor drug crimes. As she learned, inequality lurked everywhere: “The discrepancy in sentencing blew my mind. I began to wonder whether America’s harsh drug sentences were tied to the drugs in a man’s hand or the melanin in his skin.” While A Knock at Midnight is a brilliant memoir of Barnett’s own journey, it also chronicles the stories of three of her clients. Their lives—including their crimes, their families, and their jail time—are rendered with such care and compassion that it is impossible to put this book down. It is also impossible not to root for Barnett and her clients as she fights to get them the justice they deserve, and never had. A Knock at Midnight is a profoundly moving memoir that reveals the incredibly racist world of the feds, the courts, and the laws that throw away people’s lives—for life. 


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The House of Kennedy by James Patterson and Cynthia Fagen

The Kennedy name is synonymous with American royalty. The family commitment to public service is legendary and enduring. Nevertheless, their charisma has also been marked by tragedy and disgrace: assassinations, murder, plane crashes, fatal accidents, drugs, and sex scandals. The House of Kennedy is a revealing look at America’s most storied family, as told by one of America’s most beloved storytellers, James Patterson. 


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Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier by Victoria James

At the age of 21, Victoria James became the youngest sommelier in the world; and not just anywhere, at a Michelin-starred restaurant. In what Seira Wilson calls an “eye-opening, inspiring, and incredibly entertaining memoir,” Victoria James hosts us through her journey – from an abusive and traumatic childhood, to the beginnings of her obsession and excitement around wine. She takes readers behind the scenes to elite restaurants serving seven-figure bottles of wine to touring vineyards in France, to the less glamorous side of the industry fraught with abuse and power struggles. Wine Girl is a satisfying taste of the wine world that James so fervently loves, which is why we named it one of our top ten books of March.


Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran

Named our debut spotlight of the month, Sigh, Gone is a stunning memoir about refugees, racism, displacement, the lifeline of literature, fitting in—and fighting to do so. When Phuc Tran was just a boy, he and 11 family members survived the Viet Cong, fled Vietnam, and landed in their new home: the small town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which “seemed like a slice of American pie a la mode.” With a measured, comedic voice saturated with introspection, Tran bravely lays his life (the poverty, racism, vicious taunting, and domestic violence) on the page without judgment and without rose-colored glasses. Literally fortified by literature (which he fell in love with), he uses the classics to explain his own childhood and adolescence as an immigrant. This is a moving memoir that may make you heave with hurt, but it is also full of belly laughs that will give you hope.


Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller

Part biography, part memoir, part scientific adventure, Why Fish Don’t Exist examines the will to persevere in a world that will forever be interrupted by events impossible to predict. David Starr Jordan was a taxonomist who discovered nearly a fifth of the fish known to humans in his day. He was meticulous in his cataloging—but all of his work came smashing down during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Rather than succumbing to the profound loss of his life’s work, he got right back to it and began to rebuild his collection. NPR reporter Lulu Miller brings her own spark of personality to this story about the magnificent capacity to wonder at the natural world.


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The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

The great historian Erik Larson is resurrecting Winston Churchill and London during the Blitz in his new book, The Splendid and the Vile. Like the best narrative nonfiction, this is a front row seat to Winston Churchill—the man, the husband, the father, the leader and all of his eccentricities—and those closest to him during his first year as Prime Minister, when the Germans were closing in on London. Drawing on memoirs, diaries, letters, and recently declassified material, The Splendid and the Vile is a portrait of a leader, family, and country under siege. 


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