The Best Biographies & Memoirs of the Year

A few of our selections for the Best Biographies and Memoirs of 2016, along with some thoughts about why we liked them. See all 20 picks, or browse all of our Best Books of the Year across 15 categories.


Lab-Girl225Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

I was doubtful that I would like this book. While I appreciate a beautiful flower as much as the next city-girl, the thought of reading a whole book about a geobiologist-- a scientist who spends her life studying plants, trees, soils as well as flowers--made me want to run to the nearest dysfunctional family memoir about crazy parents and their wounded children. But Hope Jahren won me over very quickly. Somehow she knows me: “the average person [who] cannot imagine himself staring at dirt for longer than the twenty seconds needed to pick up whatever object he just dropped.” And she doesn’t judge. Instead, she just tells her story, which, it turns out has a lot to do with plants and science, of course--her father was a scientist, she basically grew up in a lab, and taking long walks through nature was the way she communed with her reticent Scandinavian American parents--but also has a lot to do with other things. Like life, for instance, and friendship and passion and love, for ideas, for work and for all living beings, including--shocker!--people. Surely many readers will feel as I did that the story of her relationship with Bill, her physically and emotionally damaged lab partner, is at the heart of this wonderful story; it’s unusual, it’s inspiring and it doesn’t fit neatly into the little window box we think we’re supposed to favor. And if Jahren can surprise you about all that messy human stuff, just think how she can change your feelings about dirt. -- (Erstwhile Amazon Editorial Director) Sara Nelson


Pumpkin-FlowersPumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story by Matti Friedman

In looking for the best books of (every) month, we read as much as we can. But let's face it: every month there is a mountain of new titles, and sometimes we overlook something deserving. That's what happened with Matti Friedman's Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story, published in May. I might have been dissuaded by the title, which belies the weight of it--it's no The Things They Carried, Unbroken, or even Homage to Catalonia. But upon opening the book, we learn that "Pumpkin" refers to an isolated hilltop outpost in southern Lebanon, one link in Israel's line of defense against Hamas to the north, and as it turns out, directly below. "Flowers" is code for "casualties," many of which befell a unit called the Fighting Pioneer Youth during a nighttime raid on the garrison, seemingly conducted more for recruitment material than strategic gain. The attack resonated throughout Israel, undermining the standards of clear-cut victory and the assumption that strength equals safety, setting a template for the two (and counting) decades that followed. Friedman was one of those kids on the Pumpkin that day, and his account of the events, the soldiers stationed there, and its far-reaching aftermath is all the more harrowing for its clear-eyed examination of postmodern warfare and all of its absurdities--Catch-22, but without the jokes. -- Jon Foro



When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air is a powerful look at a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis through the eyes of a neurosurgeon. When Paul Kalanithi is given his diagnosis he is forced to see this disease, and the process of being sick, as a patient rather than a doctor--the result of his experience is not just a look at what living is and how it works from a scientific perspective, but the ins and outs of what makes life matter. This heart-wrenching book will capture you from page one and still have you thinking long after the final sentence. –- Penny Mann


Father-Pornographer225My Father the Pornographer by Chris Offutt

There’s something wildly readable about My Father, the Pornographer. Chris Offutt grew up in rural Kentucky in the 1970s with three siblings, his mother, and his father. The father, Andrew Offutt, was a domestic despot who ruled the house by fear and edict - when he wasn’t intimidating his family, he spent most of his time writing science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as lots of pornography, which at the time was a reasonable way for a writer to make ends meet. The jumping off point of the book, and the catalyst for many of the younger Offutt’s memories, takes place upon Andrew Offutt’s death, when Chris begins to catalog his father’s life’s work. “My father was a brilliant man, a true iconoclast, fiercely self-reliant, a dark genius, cruel, selfish, and eternally optimistic,” Chris Offutt writes. We see the father through Chris’ eyes, and we see Chris and the rest of the family through his father’s eyes. This is a fascinating memoir: honest, dark, amusing, and overlaid with a son’s deep, if strained, love for his father. -- Chris Schluep


Im-Supposed225I'm Supposed to Protect You From All of This by Nadja Spiegelman

Nadja Spiegelman--daughter of Maus creator Art Spiegelman and New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly--is no different from many daughters out there who have fraught relationships with their mothers. But not many mothers would agree to do what the Mouly matriarchs did—be interviewed for a book about their lives, a project Nadja hoped would answer some painful questions, and begin to bridge the emotional divides between them. The result is the poignant I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, not just a memoir about mothers and daughters (and grandmothers), but a story about stories and the malleability of memory. Spiegelman discovers that both her mother’s and grandmother’s accounts of the same events were often vastly (and heartbreakingly) different, yet neither was being more or less genuine. We interpret memories through the lens of our emotional state and experiences, and over the years we overwrite certain details—adding color here, omitting something there—creating telling palimpsests that help explain who we are and why we do what we do. Spiegelman is a skilled writer, especially considering the thorny material. Moreover, you get a sense that she accomplished what she set out to do. In a larger context, it also serves as a valuable reminder to try and understand the motivation behind other people’s actions, not to mention our own. As this memoir attests, therein lies forgiveness, and the fortitude to forge ahead. -- Erin Kodicek




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