The Best Biography & Memoir Books of 2011.

Are you still looking for the perfect gift for that special personal historian on your list? Look no further. I’ve selected a dozen critically acclaimed  biographies and memoirs as possibilities. It’s a varied list that’s sure to offer up just the right book for that certain someone.

I’ve put these books on my Santa Claus wish list. Maybe he’ll be good to me. I still believe in Santa you know! ;-)

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

“Such was the power of Kael’s voluminous writing about movies that she transformed the sensibility and standards of mainstream pop culture criticism in America — mostly for the better, despite her bullying personality (in print and in life), her sloppy professional ethics and her at times careerist escapades in self-dramatizing contrarianism…If you want to understand what it was like to be in the audience during America’s thrilling, now vanished age of movies, you must begin with Kael.” (Frank Rich, The New York Times)

The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit

“In The Measure of a Man, Vancouver fashion writer, broadcaster and erstwhile tailor’s apprentice JJ Lee chronicles the evolution of the men’s suit, with fascinating tidbits on some of its innovators, such as Beau Brummell, Oscar Wilde and King Edward VIII…Lee, who recently made the non-fiction short list for a Governor-General’s award, also tells a very personal and yet universal story about a son’s quest to understand his father’s life, and their relationship.” (Carla Lucchetta, The Globe & Mail)

Then Again

“Diane Keaton’s book about her life is not a straight-up, chronological memoir. It’s a collage that mixes Ms. Keaton’s words with those of her mother, Dorothy Deanne Keaton Hall, who died in 2008. Since Ms. Hall left behind 85 scrapbooklike journals, a huge and chaotic legacy, there is every reason to expect that Ms. Keaton’s braiding of her own story with her mother’s in “Then Again” will be a rambling effort at best. Instead it is a far-reaching, heartbreaking, absolutely lucid book about mothers, daughters, childhood, aging, mortality, joyfulness, love, work and the search for self-knowledge. Show business too.” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)

My Korean Deli: Risking it All for a Convenience Store

“It’s hard not to fall in love with My Korean Deli. First, it’s the (very) rare memoir that places careful, loving attention squarely on other people rather than the author. Second, it tells a rollicking, made-for-the-movies story in a wonderfully funny deadpan style. By the end, you’ll feel like you know the author and his family quite well—even though you may not be eager to move in with them. . . .”
(Corby Kummer, The New York Times)

Steve Jobs

“Mr. Isaacson treats “Steve Jobs” as the biography of record, which means that it is a strange book to read so soon after its subject’s death. Some of it is an essential Silicon Valley chronicle, compiling stories well known to tech aficionados but interesting to a broad audience. Some of it is already quaint. Mr. Jobs’s first job was at Atari, and it involved the game Pong. (“If you’re under 30, ask your parents,” Mr. Isaacson writes.) Some, like an account of the release of the iPad 2, is so recent that it is hard to appreciate yet, even if Mr. Isaacson says the device comes to life “like the face of a tickled baby.” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)

Twin: A Memoir

“…an unsparing but deeply compassionate inquiry into his family’s life. It’s a book that combines the sympathetic insight of Oliver Sacks’s writings with Joan Didion’s autobiographical candor and Mary Karr’s sense of familial dynamics — a book that leaves the reader with a haunting sense of how relationships between brothers and sisters, and parents and children, can irrevocably bend the arc of an individual’s life, how childhood dynamics can shape one’s apprehension of the world.” (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times)

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

Readers need not be familiar with Vonnegut’s oeuvre to enjoy this fascinating biography of an immensely talented and darkly complicated man. If the goal of a biography is to leave readers feeling as though they know the subject better than the subject knew themselves, then And So It Goes succeeds very well indeed because Charles R. Shields is, as he described himself in the letter that won over Vonnegut, “a damn fine researcher and writer.” (Karen Dionne, New York Journal of Books).

Mordecai: The Life & Times

Charles Foran’s comprehensive, richly written life is the first to have the support of Richler’s family, especially his widow, Florence…Foran’s combination of daunting research with novelistic writing has “reconstructed” rather than “interpreted” Richler’s life, though occasional moments underscore Richler’s rare displays of deeply felt emotions and his resistance to curbing his two obsessions: smoking and drinking.”  (Ira Nadel, The Globe and Mail)

This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone

“Intense readability…. haunting power…. as well as lush, vivid atmosphere that is alluring in its own right…. [A] story so nuanced that it would be a disservice to reveal what was in store. If you want to know what happened, read it for yourself.” (Janet Maslin, New York Times )

One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir

“Harried reader, I’ll save you precious time: skip this review and head directly to the bookstore for Binyavanga Wainaina’s stand-up-and-cheer coming-of-age memoir…This is a book for anyone who still finds the nourishment of a well-­written tale preferable to the empty-­calorie jolt of a celebrity confessional or Swedish mystery.” (Alexandra Fuller, The New York Times)

Bird Cloud

“Bird Cloud” is part personal memoir, part construction adventure, part diary about noble animals, but all of it comes together like the ingredients of a glorious meal. The reader is lucky to be invited to her table.” (Tim Gautreaux, San Francisco Chronicle)

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

“We work memory over, perhaps hoping, subconsciously, that things will turn out differently — or more realistically, that we will discover a key that unlocks a memory’s mysterious urgency. That drive to make sense, to find a deeper meaning in the shallows of daily life, to turn splintered chaos into a coherent story, makes a memoir worth reading. And “Cocktail Hour” hits the mark.” (Dominique Browning, The New York Times)

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