Grant, by Ron Chernow
Our collective view of Ulysses S. Grant is frequently framed around a well-meaning presidency that was marred by scandals that occurred on his watch but outside his view. He’s frequently seen either as a failed businessman who chanced into the top job in the Union army, or as a brutal general. Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow, one of our most important popular historians, paints a fuller picture of Grant’s life, with ups and downs that make for great drama. His efforts to destroy the KKK and advocate for equal justice are among the many elements that make his story important even today.
Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson
Writing biographies of geniuses Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin was just been a warm-up for Walter Isaacson, who takes on another of history’s towering figures: none other than polymath Leonardo, whose talents combined art and science in a way that’s never been replicated. Isaacson’s biography looks not just at Leonardo’s life, but also attempts to unravel the unique combination of talent and drive that drove him.
Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, by Scott Kelly
Astronaut Kelly holds the American record for most consecutive days in space, which by itself would be worth reading about. A year on the International Space Station means constant risk, physical degradation, and isolation in a hostile environment few of us can imagine. On an earlier mission to space, the wife of his twin brother Mark, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, was shot, proving to the astronaut just how distant and helpless one can feel many miles above the earth. Kelly’s uniquely colorful personality and rough-and-tumble Jersey upbringing make him a uniquely relatable storyteller.
Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life, by Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush
As young children, the Bush sisters saw their vice-president grandfather become president, and then joined their mother and father in the White House 12 years later. It was hardly a typical upbringing, and the two have plenty of stories to tell about life in the public eye, but this memoir is also a story of two sisters who stuck together throughout their fascinating and turbulent early years.
Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York, by Ron Chast
A native of Brooklyn, Chast found her eventual life in the suburbs to be a bizarre, surreal experience. Taking her kids on trips into the city, she realized they had the same experience in reverse. There’s “The City,” and there’s everywhere else, and the two worlds are wildly different to those who’ve only experienced one or the other. Seeing New York through her children’s eyes inspired this funny, touching graphic novel memoir.
Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, by Amy Tan
Bestselling novelist Tan’s unconventional memoir finds her on a journey through her own past via spontaneous storytelling: using fluid writing to search through her own memories to reveal the inspirations and traumas that have shaped her works. In the process, Tan reveals difficult truths about her childhood, and makes connections and uncovers memories that she herself was shocked by.
Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer, by Amanda Lucidon
Over four years, photographer Lucidon covered Michelle Obama from inside the White House. Frequently candid, but with an insider’s access, the book presents 150 photos of the admired First Lady both at home and during travels across the country and the world. Lucidon provides commentary that places the images in context in time, and in the life of the First Lady.
An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice, by Khizr Khan
Khan’s family burst into the national spotlight last year when, mourning a son lost serving in Iraq, he took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. His memoir tells the story of that loss, but also of an immigrant born to farmers in Pakistan who encountered the American Declaration of Independence in school and was inspired to work toward a degree from Harvard Law. It’s an inspiring story, and a love-letter to America from an immigrant family.