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Collage of book jackets for memoirs published in 2022

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.

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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.

Paul Holes, the cold case investigator who found the Golden State Killer, reveals the personal toll of his onerous career.

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.

Retired cold case investigator Paul Holes’ memoir looks at what catching murderers, kidnappers and rapists does to a husband and father.

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.

Ellyn Gaydos’ debut memoir, Pig Years, is a poetic meditation on fertility, loss and the pleasures and perils of life and work on a small farm.

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.

Ada Calhoun’s literary biography of the poet Frank O’Hara unexpectedly transformed into an absorbing and insightful personal memoir about her father.
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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.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is a tender, uproarious chronicle of Séamas O’Reilly’s upbringing in Northern Ireland. Despite the title, it feels bracingly alive.
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A talented new crop of memoirists explore the friction between their queer identities and their cultural and geographical surroundings.


Jacket of Asylum by Edafe Okporo

Edafe Okporo’s aptly titled memoir, Asylum: A Memoir and a Manifesto, recounts his experience growing up gay in Nigeria, a place known for having harsh laws against “known homosexuals.” Okporo writes with sensitivity about the scenery that shaped his childhood, his powerful familial relationships and the friendships that formed his identity. One night in 2016, however, all of these things were threatened by a mob that gathered outside his home. Okporo tried to escape out a window, but before he could, they broke down his door and beat him until he was unconscious. It was his 26th birthday.

This event marked the beginning of Okporo’s one-way journey to America as a refugee. Once he arrived in New York City, there was a potent juxtaposition between his experiences as a Black gay man from a place of repression and the freedom he encountered as an asylum-seeker. Still, the cruelty of America’s immigration system and the overwhelming whiteness of New York’s gay community presented stark new forms of injustice. With clarity and grace, Okporo casts light on the racism and oppression he discovered lurking within communities that are themselves oppressed.

Okporo was able to explore new relationships in New York, sexual and otherwise, and ultimately found both professional and personal purpose in America as a global gay rights activist. Along the way, Asylum chronicles a range of hardships, from the severe laws of the author’s home country to the bitter realities of immigrating to the U.S. Throughout these difficulties, Okporo weaves a thread of hope that he will find freedom while remaining true to himself. If you are seeking a read that couches complex issues in a heartfelt personal narrative, Okporo’s memoir will surely delight.

★ Boys and Oil

Jacket of Boys and Oil by Taylor Brorby

In Boys and Oil, environmental activist Taylor Brorby masterfully recounts his upbringing in coal-fractured North Dakota. Growing up, Brorby was teased by his peers because he played with girls and didn’t gravitate toward sports. Like many queer boys, his sexuality was in conflict with traditional models of what men were meant to do and how they were supposed to act.

Brorby’s memoir opens with superbly detailed insight into North Dakota’s geography, which becomes a powerful symbol throughout Boys and Oil. This jagged imagery grounds the narrative and the author’s journey, and Brorby’s attention to it throughout the book feels nearly ekphrastic, with sweeping, alluring descriptions of a land that is at once beautiful and damaged.

It’s within the context of this landscape that Brorby’s life unfolds, from a taunted child whose grandmother lovingly painted his fingernails, to a young man being physically assaulted outside of a small-town bar, to an out poet and environmentalist. In many parts of the country (and world), defying your culture’s expectations comes with a price. Whether as a boy in love with books or as an adult fighting to protect the broken land of his youth, Brorby writes about the personal price he has paid with striking honesty.

Queer politics calls perceived norms to task, subverting the status quo and making it possible for new structures to emerge. In his unique and breathtaking memoir, Brorby does just this, creating wonderful new categories for rural communities and American masculinity, and for gay kids’ places within both.

★ Ma and Me

Jacket of Ma and Me by Putsata Reang

Putsata Reang was born in Cambodia amid civic turmoil and unrest. Her family fled in 1975, when she was only 11 months old, and her journey would become legend. Aboard the ship her family escaped on, the infant Reang was believed to be dead. A Navy captain suggested that she be thrown overboard, but her mother resisted. Upon arriving at a U.S. naval base in the Philippines, her mother handed Reang to the doctors, and under their treatment, she survived—accruing a lifelong debt to her mother in the process.

Reang’s relationship with her mother is a strong feature in Ma and Me as the author examines her past with a surgeon’s precision and artist’s view. Reang takes a kaleidoscope of influences into consideration—including cultural expectations for girls and women, the institution of marriage and trauma caused by war and flight—as she inspects her upbringing as an immigrant in Oregon, learning to balance her Cambodian identity with the pressure to assimilate. Up close, she handles these influences on her mother with grace and compassion, even when her mother severs their relationship because she can’t handle Reang’s engagement to a woman. Reang does an excellent job of portraying the permeability of accepting loved ones for who they are and finding the limits of that acceptance.

In the world of Ma and Me, stories grow larger than life and queer identity creates conflict as it becomes a part of the long-woven tapestry of family lore. With great care, Reang addresses the legacy of trauma—both as a child of war who is displaced geographically and as a gay woman who is estranged from her family. The layers stacked together in this memoir, and Reang’s treatment of their complexity, are simply brilliant.

Edafe Okporo, Taylor Brorby and Putsata Reang beautifully capture the places that shaped their queer identities.

By most measures, Keri Blakinger lived a charmed life. As the daughter of a successful lawyer and a schoolteacher, her upper-middle-class suburban existence seemed, from the outside, perfect. Her childhood was filled with loving parental support, academic success and a fierce pursuit of competitive figure skating that took her all the way to nationals. But when that pursuit ended in disappointment, Blakinger’s life came undone.

In her exceptional debut, Corrections in Ink, investigative journalist Blakinger reflects on an important decade of her life that took her from figure skating to drug addiction, to selling drugs and sex, to an arrest on a drug charge while she was a college student at Cornell University. She got clean during the almost two years she was imprisoned, but afterward she still had to grapple with the inhumanity of being behind bars.

Blakinger details the cruelties, big and small, that she endured while she was incarcerated. She also acknowledges that, as a white woman, she was in a position of privilege and that Black and brown people are treated far worse, get tougher sentences and have worse outcomes than their white counterparts. It is a sad and powerless position for anyone to be in, as the prison system is designed to slowly strip away one’s humanity. To hold on to her humanity, Blakinger had to find joy in unexpected places.

Corrections in Ink is written with deep insight and urgency, and Blakinger’s gripping insider knowledge and experience is supported by research, strong analysis and a blistering indictment of the criminal justice system. It’s this rare combination of personal narrative and reporting that makes Corrections in Ink such a singular reading experience.

Blakinger’s raw and important memoir isn’t only a drug recovery and success story. It’s a searing condemnation of our cruel and unjust project of caging human beings, a firsthand account of what this entails and a challenge not to look away from America’s flawed and punitive carceral system.

Keri Blakinger’s combination of personal narrative and reporting makes her debut memoir about her life in prison an exceptional, singular read.

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