If You Find This Letter: My Journey to Find Purpose Through Hundreds of Letters to Strangers by Hannah Brencher
The title is pretty self-explanatory, but the book is a gem. It’s an easy read and a fantastic look at how community is built from the ground up by taking risks in love.
The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart
This is for anyone who plays the piano, used to play the piano, or wants to play the piano. It’s by a man who discovers a tiny piano shop in his neighborhood in Paris, and befriends the elderly owner. There is a fair amount of piano history entwined in these pages, and some untranslated French, but I still classify this as a memoir. And a good one.
Shake Hands with the Devil by Roméo Dallaire
The subtitle of this memoir is “The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda” so don’t pick this up expecting to be entertained. If you want to be enlightened, on the other hand, go right ahead. I first read this after learning one of my students had survived the Rwandan genocide. Dallaire was the commander of the United Nations peacekeeping forces and Shake Hands with the Devil is his eyewitness account of the horrific events in Rwanda. It is a very important book, one that I really do think everyone should read.
If you love The Princess Bride (which you should), you’ll want to read this. It’s a quick read and the words I keep coming back to to describe it are “winsome” and “delightful.” As You Wish is a treasure.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
This is the tale of one man’s life during and immediately following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It is riveting. But then, who is surprised that Dave Eggers wrote a riveting book? No one, that’s who. Anyhow, Zeitoun is a portrait of what happened to all of us after Katrina through the story of one guy, and it is very well-done.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Hillenbrand’s biography of Louis Zamperini (since made into a movie) is an amazing book about an amazing story. It’s well-sourced (nearly 25% of the printed book is bibliography!) and incredibly well-written. I wanted more about Zamperini’s later life, but other than that, this biography is nearly perfect.
The Narnian by Alan Jacobs
I am biased because one of my favorite college professors wrote this book. But even so, it really is a fabulous biography of C.S. Lewis. It’s clever and offers an interesting take on the traditional biography, as it traces Lewis’s life in relation to his imagination. If you’re at all interested in how a writer’s life comes through in their work, this is the book to read.
The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
This biography reads like a thriller because of all the incredible things that Houdini did. If you like magic, spy stories, history, or thrillers, pick this up. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Even After All This Time by Afschineh Latifi
As a child, Latifi witnessed her father’s execution following his designation as an enemy of the state of Iran. She and her sister are shuttled out of Iran to the West. This book is her story, and her family’s story. I really came to love them all in these pages and hope Latifi writes another book that starts where this one left off. I’d love to know how they all are.
Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton
G’s story is a powerful one of overcoming the depths of addiction and of fighting through the every day brutality and beauty: she says life is “brutiful.” This is a book I come back to over and over. It’s important, true, and lovely.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
This is quite long and the font is quite small, but it is totally worth however much time it takes you to read it. I liked Teddy Roosevelt before reading this biography; upon finishing it I was enamored with him. The next volume in the Roosevelt biographies is on my to-read list (where it will most likely remain for some time as a result of its length and my smallish brain capacity at the moment). It is so interesting.
John Paul the Great by Peggy Noonan
John Paul really was truly great and this book is a very fitting tribute to him. Even if you aren’t particularly religious, reading John Paul the Great will help you to understand why the world loved him so very much.
Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts
Genius at Play is very long. It’s also far and away the best biography I have read in years. Even if you’re not a math geek, Conway and his life are fascinating subjects! I was alternately snort-laughing and crying in airports reading this, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
This book was foremost in my understanding that every single person’s story is important, no matter how ordinary. Her tagline for the book is, “I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story.” It’s formatted like an encyclopedia, with vignettes from her life. And as far as I know, she’ll write you a thank-you note for reading it if you email her to let her know. She did years ago when I emailed and I thought it was super cool. I really like her and wish we could be friends.
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
This is Rushdie’s account of his life before, during, and after the fatwa that sent him into exile and hiding. Rushdie is quite self-aware, which makes reading this a great insight into a world-changing author’s life: the good and the bad.
Between Two Worlds by Zainab Salbi
In my original review of this book on Goodreads, I said it was “distressing and wonderful.” I couldn’t agree with myself more. Salbi’s father was Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot and her memoir discusses what it was like to grow up as part of his regime. This is another good one to read if you’re interested in Middle East/United States relations.
Teresa of Avila: The Book of My Life translated by Mirabai Starr
This is another case where a translation makes all the difference. I had read Teresa of Avila’s work in college and didn’t like it all that much. I saw this new translation and thought I might as well give it a go since it had been a few years. Starr’s translation is so beautiful and lyrical; it makes Teresa of Avila come to life in a new way.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
This book is nearly 1200 pages. But Dr. Jacobs (mentioned above) told one of the classes I took with him that it is the best work of literature written in the English language. He had always steered me right before so I read it. It is tremendous. Part travelogue, part history, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a beast of a memoir but it’s a glorious beast.
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White
The author of this book was imprisoned for a year and a half for kiting checks in Carville Prison, which at the time also operated as a leper colony. In his time in Carville, White learns all about what really matters and the triumph of humanity against all odds. This is beautifully written and a great portrait of people.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
The autobiography of the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner. Though at times Yousafzai definitely shows her age, she possesses strength and wisdom beyond her years. Adults all over the world would do well to listen to her words.