Best Books of the Year So Far: Biographies and Memoirs

Amazon Book Review: PumpkinflowersIn 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.

See more of the our picks in Biographies & Memoirs, and browse all of the Best Books of the Year So Far.

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Sixty Meters to Anywhere by Brendan Leonard
Another one we (er, I) missed the first time around. Leonard's autobiographical tale recounts his years of chronic overindulgence and bad decisions, the uncertainty and loneliness of recovery, and a literal climb out of depression onto the peaks of Colorado and the West. Slim, unassuming, and completely affecting. "Is it more foolish to risk your life or risk wasting your life?" 

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The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan
Every book Tim Egan has written has been great. Here, the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winner (The Worst Hard Time) tells the story of Thomas Francis Meagher and his journey from Ireland's Great Famine of the 1840s to New York and the Civil War to his role as territorial governor of Montana.

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Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Bloom
A book for everyone who once wanted to live the expat life of literature, poverty, salons, and bullfighting, but now understands how that's a little bit embarrassing, or maybe I just got old. So pour out a bottle of Pernod for all of your fallen dreams and read Lesley Blume's vivid and masterful story behind Hemingway's best book. (That's right: the best one.)

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Sunny's Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World by Tim Sultan
Generally, love stories featuring the romance between a man and bar fall toward the sad end of the dial. Not so with Sunny's Nights, Sultan's tribute to a unique watering hole, its larger-than-life barkeep, and the assorted nuts that called it home away from home. Sadly, Sunny's Nights inspiration, bartender Sonny Balzano, died in March, shortly after the book's publication.

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