June 29, 2022
The 35 best memoirs of 2022 (so far)
There were plenty of personal narratives to laugh, cry and sigh over in the first half of 2022. Add the best of the best to your TBR now; you can thank us later.
Why are some people drawn to darkness? It's understandable why some people seek it out as entertainment; to some, grisly murder is no more real than a sweet romance or an exciting adventure. But what about the people who choose to interact with darkness as part of their livelihoods? What makes someone say, “Serial killers—I want to hunt them down for a living”?
The best explanation readers might get is in Unmasked: My Life Solving America's Cold Cases by Paul Holes, a retired detective from Contra Costa County in California. The region is where Laci Peterson was murdered, where Jaycee Dugard was held in captivity and where the Golden State Killer terrorized communities for decades. Holes spent his entire career in the county, with a particular focus on cold cases, and he devoted 24 years to investigating and ultimately finding the Golden State Killer.
Holes' memoir, co-written with journalist Robin Gaby Fisher, unpacks one man's bruised brain. Unmasked is more about Holes' mental health journey than other “how I caught the killer” tales in the true crime genre (although, of course, there is some of that, too). Holes' blessing and curse was being gifted at a career that required him to think like a murderer, torturer, kidnapper or rapist. His book looks at what staring into that darkness does to a husband and father.
Unmasked is not for squeamish readers; investigations into many, many murders and rapes are described in detail. Additionally, Holes' honesty about how police use macabre jokes and gallows humor to cope with their difficult jobs may disturb some readers.
But for readers who would like to see a different side of the true crime genre—the lifelong impact that catching twisted individuals has on one man—Unmasked is a must-read.
Every childhood is unique, but Ada Calhoun's, as portrayed in her fearless new memoir, Also a Poet, stands out for its blend of adolescent freedom and paternal neglect. The daughter of art critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl, Calhoun grew up at the vortex of New York City's East Village bohemia, a world she wrote about in the history St. Marks Is Dead. Young Calhoun, eager and precocious, craved nothing more than the approbation of her father, a complicated, emotionally distant man famously given to saying the wrong thing—a trait from which his daughter was never spared. One piece of common ground that Calhoun and her father shared, however, was a love of the work of Frank O'Hara, the legendary New York School poet who died in a freak accident in 1966.
One day in 2018, Calhoun was searching for something in the basement storage of her parents' apartment building when she found dozens of loose cassette tapes from the 1970s, labeled with the names of famous artists like Willem de Kooning, Edward Gorey and Larry Rivers. Her father said they were interviews he had conducted with O'Hara's friends because he'd intended to write a biography of the poet. Circumstances—not least of all a roadblock erected by O'Hara's sister, Maureen—had killed the project. Schjeldahl told his daughter she could use the interviews for her own purposes, and Calhoun envisioned a new biography of the iconic poet based on these priceless recollections. But the book took on a new shape as she proceeded—in part, again, because of the obstruction of Maureen, who serves as her brother's literary executor.
As Calhoun began to delve into the interviews, short portions of which she shares in Also a Poet, she began piecing together a multifaceted portrait of O'Hara, greatly loved by friends who painted him as gregarious, whip-smart, generous, sexually fluid and happily promiscuous. (The latter two assessments are most likely at the core of his sister's posthumous protectiveness.) But the interviews also provided Calhoun with insight into the interviewer: her father.
Frustrated by the ways Schjeldahl had sabotaged his own project, Calhoun plunged back into their often difficult father-daughter relationship with fresh eyes. Lifelong resentments resurfaced as she viewed her father with redoubled awareness. When the aging Schjeldahl, who had smoked three packs a day for decades, was diagnosed with lung cancer, his solipsistic reaction to his illness rankled Calhoun, even as she dutifully stepped in to help.
The unexpected convergence of the challenging O'Hara book project and her father's sudden decline provide Calhoun with a singular perspective on the timeless issues of family relationships, most especially the vulnerabilities of following in a father's eminent footsteps and the elusive possibility of ever fully understanding our parents. Calhoun's honesty and willingness to push beyond her own resentments make Also a Poet a potent account of a daughter reaching out to a perhaps unreachable father before it's too late.
Ellyn Gaydos' meditative Pig Years mixes memoir and nature writing as it details her four years of seasonal farm work in New York and Vermont. In punishingly long days as a farmhand, she planted seeds, tended vegetable plots (weeding, watering, coping with pests, harvesting, sorting and selling) and raised chickens and pigs. The book opens right in the middle of things, describing the pigs on a small farm in New Lebanon, New York, and zooming in to consider Gumdrop, an accidentally pregnant pig, and her piglets, who “came out like torpedoes all attached through different stems to one briny umbilical cord. . . . Nature, being unsentimental, accommodates the reality that some sows eat their young, but Gumdrop is gentle in her new domesticity, tenderly positioning her body so as not to squish anyone. She is a good mother.”
The book's loose narrative proceeds chronologically through the seasons, and through Gaydos' relationships with other farmworkers and with Graham, her partner. Gaydos' close eye on the natural world allows us to vividly see the cycle of a farm's blossoming and dying seasons. She doesn't look away from any part of it, either from newborn pig life, for instance, or from the pigs' later deaths—the procedures of slaughter and the preparation of the pork that she will eat and sell. “I keep seeing death's face in different ways,” she writes. “It is funny to choose a profession, like farming, in which death is taken into the fold and yet nothing is clarified. It does not steady me for loss even if I have held a pig's head in my hand or seen a chicken collapsed in the dirt. It is like a blunting of the real.”
The bulk of Pig Years takes place on the farm in New Lebanon, which is part of a former Shaker settlement that's now a Sufi commune in decline. Throughout the book, Gaydos turns to 19th-century Shaker farm journals for comparison, and we can see the similarities between the current-day farm's gains and losses and those of the long-ago Shakers. There's a coming-of-age aspect to Pig Years, too, as Gaydos, a young woman in an unsettled phase of life (and an inherently impermanent field of work), studies the women and moms around her. She reflects on her own path, imagining possible futures as a parent and life partner.
Gaydos' cleareyed, sometimes intense perspective reminds us that farm work is not always pretty: It often involves constant near-poverty, injuries, even desperation. Still, Pig Years is a poetic meditation on fertility, loss and the farmworkers who eke out a marginal living as long as they can. It's a narrative that evokes the pleasures and perils of life and work on a small farm.
Séamas O’Reilly’s debut book, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?, is a tender, comic chronicle of the author’s upbringing as one of 11 children raised by their widower father in Derry, Northern Ireland. O’Reilly, a regular contributor to the Observer who has a knack for crafting uproarious anecdotes, is attuned to the extraordinary—and somewhat absurd—nature of his childhood. He takes a jovial approach in the narrative, and the result is a rousing tale of family fellowship.
The book opens in 1991, right after the death of O’Reilly’s mother, Sheila (Mammy), from breast cancer. O’Reilly, who was 5, struggled to make sense of the loss and the events that followed, including Mammy’s well-attended wake. When a family friend told him that Sheila was a flower picked by God to be in his garden, O’Reilly observes, “It was nice to think that Mammy was so well-liked by God, since she was a massive fan. She went to all his gigs—Mass, prayer groups, marriage guidance meetings . . .”
After Mammy’s death, O’Reilly’s father, Joe, an engineer, was left to care for his 11 children. A devoted dad, Joe possessed seemingly bottomless reserves of patience and good nature, which allowed him to bring up a happy brood against all odds. (O’Reilly points out a particularly challenging juncture when six of his sisters were teenagers at the same time.) The O’Reilly children shared bedrooms and books, divvied up household duties (not always equitably) and traveled with Joe in a minibus dubbed the “O’Reillymobile.”
The author describes his parents as “comically, parodically, Catholic,” and religion is a constant undercurrent in the book. As O’Reilly came of age, the violent sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles was waning, but he still found himself reckoning with its long-term effects. One lasting repercussion: the sense of gallows humor that’s pervasive among the Northern Irish.
Indeed, finding comedy in tragedy seems to be an operative instinct for the author. Stylistically, O’Reilly is an unabashed maximalist, packing his sentences with adverbs and consistently minting fresh figures of speech. Throughout the book, as he sifts through memories of his boisterous upbringing, he never fails to find cause for joy or a good joke. As a result, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?—title aside—feels bracingly alive.
As a mother of three, I can attest that parenting often feels like it comes at you fast: the meals and snacks, bedtimes and books, laundry and more laundry; the hat-straightening, screen time-monitoring, play date-booking and chore-reminding whirlwind of it all. That’s why it’s fantastic when someone thoughtful manages to hit pause on the relentless motion and reflect on what it all means. In Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, Keith Gessen does just that.
Covering everything from the surprises of a home birth to the days of desperately reading parenting manuals through a sleep-deprived haze, Gessen’s essays are at once intensely specific (he lives in New York, is the son of Russian immigrants and works as a literary writer and editor) and deeply relatable (even to me, a woman who lives in a suburb in the Midwest). For instance, he writes that fatherhood opened up heretofore unexamined aspects of his personality. Why, he wondered, did he want to speak to Raffi in Russian, even though all of their relatives are able to speak English? It is a mystery, more of a gut instinct than a bilingual regimen, that prompts his wife (the novelist Emily Gould) to nickname him “Bear Dad.” Throughout Raising Raffi, Gessen’s profound ambivalence over his Russian heritage feels pressing, heartfelt, sad and real. He also writes about the COVID-19 pandemic with a clarity that parents who have been raising young children during the last few years will appreciate and remember.
Gessen’s book raises the big questions: Who am I as a parent? What exactly am I passing down to my kids? And can I even really control what I pass down to them? Gessen’s essay about sports, for example, gently probes the pros and cons of getting Raffi to play hockey, eventually folding back and looking at itself as Gessen realizes that his own attachment to hockey wasn’t the best thing for him. Other essays, like his one on picture books, demonstrate the deep, abiding connection one can feel with a child through repeatedly reading poetry and stories.
This book is thoughtful, companionable, funny and memorable. Readers will return to it again and again—and will hope, like I do, that Gessen publishes a follow-up about Raffi’s next five years.
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