Pro bookworms share their favourite biographies and memoirs of 2019

These are the tell-alls to cozy-up to (or gift!) for the holidays.

These are the tell-alls to cozy-up to (or gift!) for the holidays

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Looking for a great next read? Or to gift one? May we suggest looking beyond the fiction aisles for a great memoir or biography to delve into over the holidays. As we take emotional stock of the last year and start to think about new goals and moods for 2020, these real-life stories might just offer the motivation and wisdom to help each of us move forward in a meaningful way. 

Whether you're looking to learn more about a remarkable life lived or feel inspired by someone's extraordinary journey, memoirs and biographies can offer ample entertainment alongside great storytelling and flashes of inspiration. 

Here are nine of the best books of the year in this category, according to Canadian booksellers, librarians and lit-world professionals. 

Tiny Lights for Travellers by Naomi K. Lewis

Rosemary Griebel, Service Design Lead for Readers at Calgary Public Library

"How do we define the contemporary memoir or travel narrative now that there are no new places to discover and Google maps allows us to view the world from our iPhone? Lewis perfectly captures the 21st century mash-up of the inner and outer journey, with its heady mix of anxiety, history, culture, romance, and the complexity of personal identity. Traveling solo, Lewis retraces her grandfather's flight from Holland to escape the Nazis, and in doing so reflects upon family truths, the fallibility of memory, and life's disappointments, including her divorce. Lewis' prose is sure-footed, and as in all good personal journeys it is the honesty of the narrative that makes this book so compelling."

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Nathalie Atkinson, freelance film critic and culture journalist in Toronto:

"Annie Chapman, Polly Nicholls, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly, and Elizabeth Stride: all women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper. You probably didn't know their names, but Hallie Rubenhold's The Five wants you to know and remember them. The paradox is that they are enduringly famous, while also being anonymous with their individual identities forgotten —obscured as much by lurid Ripperology as by their victimhood, and dismissed (incorrectly) as 'just prostitutes.' Using scant information in public records and their few precious possessions catalogued in evidence as clues, Rubenhold's group biography excavates their complicated lives and restores their humanity. It's a riveting and heartbreaking work about hardscrabble precarity and Victorian-era social history. But it also offers a timely counter-narrative and thought-provoking critique about the way we continue to talk about violence against women."

Falling For Myself by Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Maya Baumann, programming manager for The Word On The Street Toronto:

"Falling For Myself is the story of a life shaped by adoption and internalized ableism that presents urgent arguments for the inclusion of the intersectional worlds of disabled and senior citizens into society's greater framework, wrapped in the wit, charm, and teacher's patience of the indomitable Dorothy Ellen Palmer. Everyone should read this book and get inspired to help make space for vulnerable communities so that each of us is treated with dignity and respect." 

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro

Sarah Weaver, collection development librarian at Halifax Public Libraries

"What happens when you uncover a secret that makes you question your entire history? Dani Shapiro's Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, tells the story of a stunning family secret she discovers after taking a genealogical DNA test. Shapiro, an author who has spent years writing on themes of identity and family history, has written an incredibly moving memoir that's almost impossible to put down. I first heard about this book while listening to Shapiro's addictive podcast, Family Secrets. Shapiro has a fantastic voice that was made for radio and a calm, eloquent way of describing the most jaw-dropping stories. It was for this reason that I opted for the audiobook of Inheritance. Just like her podcast, this book had my full attention from the very first sentence." 


A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose by Samra Zafar 

Amy Dennis, head of marketing for Toronto International Festival of Authors:

"A Good Wife by Samra Zafar stands out to me as one of the most awe-inspiring memoirs of 2019. In it, Zafar shares her very personal story of escaping years of abuse after moving to Canada as a teenage bride in an arranged marriage. Although the memoir is harrowing at times, Zafar shows strength in her steadfast determination to pursue her dreams. Today, she's a successful international speaker and social entrepreneur who champions for human rights. I had the chance to hear her speak this year, and she was just as remarkable in person. It's the motivational true story we all need, where — as Samra puts it — 'the heroine saves her own life.'" 

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

Caroline Crowe, librarian at Vancouver Public Library

"She Said is more than a memoir of the ground-breaking investigation by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey that brought down Hollywood super-mogul Harvey Weinstein for sex crimes; it is a cultural revelation. Kantor and Twohey take the story beyond Weinstein to focus on the underlying structures of power that enable sexual misconduct and indict the 'gatekeepers' responsible for preserving the culture of institutionally-protected predation. She Said's stories have played a central role in pushing women all over the world to speak up about similar experiences with sexual harassment, amplifying one of the most powerful feminist movements in years: #MeToo."

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

Moti Lieberman, bookseller at Librairie Argo Bookshop, Montreal: 

"It can be hard to come up with new ways to tell stories of ourselves, but Machado approaches a difficult and personal topic — being in an abusive relationship — by adopting the lenses of different literary tropes, and using them to illuminate her life and particularly her connection with a volatile woman. The story itself can be very rough, but the ingenuity of the structure and the humour and playfulness of the author work together to craft a powerful memoir unlike anything I'd read before."

Paper Houses by Dominique Fortier

Marie-Ève Plamondon, librarian at Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Montréal: 

"In this novelized account of Emily Dickinson's life, author Dominique Fortier tells us about a fascinating and singular woman who fully inhabited the world of her imagination and creative expression. Fortier explores the poet's rich published and private writing as well as her domestic archives to reveal how she spent her increasingly solitary days. The close relationship between novelist and subject is manifest in the tender, delicate prose, which clearly shows their common love of words."

Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes

Alice Moore, senior collections specialist, youth materials at Toronto Public Library:

"Nikki Grimes' verse memoir is a beautiful telling of harrowing events, as she tried to make her way through a host of titular hazards on her way to adulthood. These included divorced parents, a mother with poor mental health and a father who was distant, an abusive stepfather, a banished sister, being shuttled between various relatives, and trying to find her footing in the world from a very shaky foundation. Grimes has gone on to be recognized as a major poet for young people, an award-winning author, and a strong voice for racialized youth and children. All that, and the book cover is simply gorgeous!"

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.