bestmemoirs2022sofar

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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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A talented new crop of memoirists explore the friction between their queer identities and their cultural and geographical surroundings.

Asylum

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.

All three of these gorgeous and talented authors have played pivotal roles in movies that are meaningful to fans worldwide. Their Tinseltown lives are glamorous, to be sure, but their heartfelt life stories reveal a darker side to fame, where inspirational journeys and cautionary tales collide.

★ Out of the Corner

Jacket for Out of the Corner by Jennifer Grey

Jennifer Grey knows that her life has been charmed from the beginning. As a child, her famous parents took her to holiday parties with the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Patti LuPone and Leonard Bernstein. But although she breathed in rarefied air, Grey felt lonely and lacking. The rising star of her father, Joel Grey, meant the family moved numerous times, and so many instances of starting over, with her parents largely absent, took a heavy toll.

In Out of the Corner: A Memoir, Grey writes, “I’d been so consumed by feeling abandoned that I hadn’t seen the ways I had abandoned myself.” In the decades before she reached that perspective, the actress searched—for affection, connection, approval—even as she achieved great fame.

Grey became America’s sweetheart in 1987, thanks to her indelible work as Baby Houseman in Dirty Dancing, but as she reveals with raw and moving candor, her sunny smile at the premiere belied her physical and emotional suffering. Just before the film’s debut, she and then-boyfriend Matthew Broderick were in a head-on car crash in which two people died. Even before that, her relationship with Broderick had turned toxic, and she’d had other unhealthy relationships earlier in her life. “My first drug of choice was romantic fantasy,” she writes. Other drugs followed, amplifying behavioral patterns from which she’s worked to recover—efforts she recounts with empathy for her former self and encouragement for those with similar struggles.

Grey also addresses what she calls “Schnozageddon”—when a revision rhinoplasty famously and irrevocably altered her face and professional identity—with bravery and clarity. And when she writes about dance, her prose sings with gratitude for the lifelong pursuit that’s taken her marvelous places, from Dirty Dancing to “Dancing With the Stars.” Time and again, Grey reveals herself to be tenacious and dedicated to the show going on—a fitting metaphor for a singular life, which she shares with wit, warmth and wisdom.

★ We Were Dreamers

Jacket for We Were Dreamers by Simu Liu

Simu Liu’s fans are enchanted by his previous work as a stock photo model. They loved him in the Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience.” And they rejoiced when he landed the lead in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. He shares these stories and more in his engaging, uplifting memoir, We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story.

Liu has had an incredible journey so far, but as with any origin story, it hasn’t been without painful obstacles. We Were Dreamers begins with his 1989 birth in Harbin, China, where he lived with his loving grandparents for four years. Then his parents, engineers who had moved abroad after he was born, brought Liu to Canada to join them. After so many years of pursuing a better life, they were not interested in Liu’s dreams for his own life, and they emotionally and physically abused him when he couldn’t achieve their definition of perfection.

As a young adult, getting laid off from an accounting job for which he was spectacularly ill suited brought shame but also opportunity, as Liu finally felt free to try out performing gigs, from acting to stunts to playing Spider-Man at kids’ parties. He recounts his step-by-step approach, providing a helpful blueprint for other aspiring artists who lack a supportive family or industry connections. For him, this plan worked marvelously: He obtained life-changing work as an actor in the U.S. and became an advocate for Asian representation in media in the process.

As an adult, Liu forged a truce with his parents, and he writes that “families today could learn from us and steer themselves from the same mistakes.” A compelling case for pursuing an authentic life, We Were Dreamers provides fascinating insight into a newly minted Marvel superhero who wants readers to take to the skies along with him.

Read our review of the audiobook edition, narrated by Simu Liu.

★ Mean Baby

Jacket for Mean Baby by Selma Blair

Since birth, Selma Blair has struggled to unstick the labels others applied to her. As an infant, she had a sneer on her tiny face that caused neighbors and family to call her a “mean baby.” As she grew older, her mother said she wasn’t enough—pretty enough, thin enough, good enough, talented enough . . . the list goes on. And yet, as Blair writes in her painfully lovely Mean Baby: A Memoir of Growing Up, “I lived for her approval.”

Although that approval was ever elusive, Blair loved her mother. However, she had learned from her mother that if she showed she was in pain, it would only be met with laughter. So even as Blair began to experience strange sensations in her limbs, facial pain and other ailments that lasted for decades, she told herself she was fine. Fans already know where this is going: In 2018, Blair was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As she writes with a poignant mixture of grief and relief, “There is great power in words. In an answer. In a diagnosis. To make sense of a plot you could hardly keep up with any longer.”

Blair writes about what fans may not know, too, such as her alcohol addiction that began at age 7 and surged and receded over the years. Blair also shares many thrilling Hollywood encounters, vividly conveying the profound feeling of disorientation that was her constant companion even as she starred in movies like Cruel Intentions, Legally Blonde and Hellboy; modeled for high-end fashion magazines; and developed friendships with the likes of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Karl Lagerfeld and Carrie Fisher.

Blair drew from her journals, her favorite books and her love of writing to craft this memoir, which is an elegiac contemplation of her life through the lens of a chronic illness that only recently made her past clear. For those seeking a similar sense of enlightenment, reading Mean Baby is a worthy and affecting undertaking.

Memoirs by Jennifer Grey, Simu Liu and Selma Blair reveal that even out-of-this-world stars have down-to-earth problems.
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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.

Read more: Keith Gessen brings a sense of reassurance to the audiobook for Raising Raffi.

In his companionable, funny, memorable memoir, Keith Gessen hits pause on the relentless motion of parenthood and reflects on what it all means.

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.

David Sedaris’ latest essay collection, Happy-Go-Lucky, finds the author in late midlife, mining his life, the lives of his family—including his longtime boyfriend, Hugh, his siblings and his 98-year-old dad—and their surroundings for comedic stories. In the book’s opening essay, “Active Shooter,” Sedaris and his sister Lisa visit a firing range in North Carolina, which offers him a chance to plunge into the oddities of gun culture as they learn to shoot pistols. It’s a perfect David Sedaris essay: one that lures you in with funny family anecdotes and self-deprecation, gives a sideways look at some aspect of society, then ends with an unexpected emotional punch. This essay, like several others here, also offers deft, sharp commentary on masculinity. One of the collection’s delights is a commencement address delivered at Oberlin College that skates along on the surface with funny throwaway lines and ridiculousness while offering slyly sensible life advice underneath.

The collection progresses somewhat chronologically, beginning with essays that look back to Sedaris’ childhood and to his young adult years when he was writing plays with his sister Amy in New York City. Later essays recount Sedaris’ experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, walking New York’s empty streets and wondering if his livelihood—reading works-in-progress to audiences all over the country—is gone for good. But in 2021, he returned to the road in a changed America, making pointed observations about different states’ vastly different approaches to the pandemic along the way.

These essays offer plenty of laughs, but the tone is often dark as Sedaris contemplates his dad’s failings, and his own. “I’m the worst son in the world,” Sedaris jokes to a nursing home aide about not visiting his dad more often. At first these confessions feel callous, but as the essays reveal more about his dad’s abusive, competitive behavior, such remarks take on a different feel. In “Unbuttoned,” I teared up at Sedaris’ evocation of both the pain of such abuse and the unexpected moment of connection between the two men at the end of the elder Sedaris’ life.

Happy-Go-Lucky is an entertaining collection, both cringey and poignant as it celebrates love, family and even aging in an inimitably Sedaris way.

Happy-Go-Lucky is both entertaining and poignant as it celebrates love, family and even aging in an inimitably David Sedaris way.

When do pleasures become guilty, transforming from sources of pure fun into fodder for defensiveness? And why is it so difficult for so many adults, especially women, to enjoy their interests regardless of what other people think?

Australian science writer Tabitha Carvan found herself asking these questions when, much to her surprise, she suddenly became a devoted fan of English actor Benedict Cumberbatch at age 36. As an overwhelmed and exhausted mother of two young children, she was “stuck in an interminable holding pattern, circling the airport and dumping fuel. . . . I was praying for something to hit me, just to break up the monotony.”

Author Tabitha Carvan extols the importance of completely pointless fun.

Turns out, watching Cumberbatch in the BBC series “Sherlock” was just the thing. But the intensity of her interest confounded Carvan, not least of all because of its similarity to her teenage obsessions with U2 and INXS. She thought she’d left those sorts of fanatic feelings behind, she explains in her clever and charming debut, This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch: The Joy of Loving Something—Anything—Like Your Life Depends On It. And she had no idea why they were surging back in response to this man, at this time.

She dove into Cumberbatch’s repertoire in search of answers, following a “viewing schedule [that] was being determined by Benedict Cumberbatch’s IMDb page like it was the actual TV guide.” Along the way, Carvan found that she felt the need to hide her infatuation, even as it was reviving her sense of self. So she investigated her new dedication to fandom: She read books on identity and fantasy, pondered friends’ comparatively dull obsessions (“that bird was very boring and Benedict Cumberbatch is very interesting”), and interviewed numerous fellow Cumberbatch fans.

Carvan’s candid revelations about the ways in which passion, bias, identity and motherhood intersect are hard-won and insightful, not to mention humorous. As she shares them in This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch, she makes an excellent case for taking time to figure out what you like and embracing the delight it brings—no shame allowed. Plus, a witty, well-researched appendix offers copious information for the Cumber-curious; “Top ten Benedict Cumberbatch characters, hairwise, according to me” is particularly enlightening.

In her funny, thought-provoking memoir, Tabitha Carvan makes an excellent case for figuring out what you like and embracing the delight it brings—no shame allowed.

For LGBTQ+ people coming of age in the 1970s and ’80s, there were often no words for the experience of discovering one’s sexuality or gender, and usually no family support—much less legal protections—to nurture an adolescent’s emerging identities. A person muddled through and, with any luck, found community in adulthood, while the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic often compounded the traumas they incurred.

In her exquisite memoir, This Body I Wore, poet Diana Goetsch harnesses the power of language to describe truths that went unspoken for too long. Goetsch’s skill as a poet informs the beauty of her prose as she recounts the decades she spent evolving alongside the trans community, until her own late-in-life transition in her 50s. As the language used by and about trans people changed over time, so too did Goetsch’s understanding of her own identity.

This Body I Wore spans Goetsch’s abusive childhood on Long Island, her entrallment with the beauty of women as she grew up, confusing sexual encounters she had in college, and her professional work as a teacher, both for privileged students at Stuyvesant High School in New York City and for incarcerated youth. Goetsch’s talent for teaching rests in her deep compassion for her students and her sense that finding the right words, for the students as well as for herself, is the key to unlocking one’s identity.

I was utterly riveted by the narrative Goetsch crafts and was reminded of many now-lost friends and acquaintances from my own college years in New York in the 1980s. Goetsch’s memoir, like Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show, offers a significant contribution to the documentation of LGBTQ+ history and culture in New York during that era. But perhaps more importantly, the hard-won wisdom contained in This Body I Wore offers a new generation of trans and nonbinary youth a guiding hand from a previous generation.

In her exquisite memoir, poet Diana Goetsch harnesses the power of language to describe the evolution of her identity and her late-in-life transition.
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When Zain Ejiofor Asher was 5, her father—a larger-than-life personality who was training to be a doctor—was touring his Nigerian homeland with his 11-year-old son, Chiwetel. Not long before they were expected home in London, Asher’s pregnant mother, Obiajulu, received a life-changing phone call: The pair had been in a car accident, and only one had survived. Obiajulu had to fly to Nigeria to find out it was her husband who had died.

As Asher writes, “There is tragedy in my story, but my story is not a tragedy. It is a story of grit, grace, and perhaps above all, an extraordinary story of extraordinary triumph that I want to share with the world.” Where the Children Take Us: How One Family Achieved the Unimaginable is an ode to her parents—who both achieved success despite facing civil war and famine—and especially to her mother. Asher is a master storyteller as she interweaves both of her parents’ life stories with her own upbringing. Thoughtful emotion and striking immediacy fill every scene, making for a mesmerizing read from start to finish.

Asher’s parents owned a small pharmacy in London, which Obiajulu continued to run after she became a widow. Meanwhile, her life’s work became ensuring her children’s success, following her firm belief that formal education was key to survival. She began a family book club, requiring each child to read and discuss a book every week. She plastered their walls with inspirational photos of “uplifters”—successful Black people, especially Nigerians. When 9-year-old Asher experienced racism from her peers, her mother sent Asher to live with relatives in Nigeria for two years, a common practice among Nigerians known as “shipping back.” There, she had to walk a mile to a river to fetch water for her family. Electricity was rare, and discipline was omnipresent. As Asher reminisces, “Nigeria, for all its faults, was the perfect place to toughen me up. It was an elite training ground for resilience; the West Point academy of perseverance. Survive in Nigeria for ten years and you can survive anything. Thrive in Nigeria and you can change the world.”

Thanks to Obiajulu’s determination, Asher and her three siblings are doing just that. Asher is an Oxford-educated news anchor for CNN International. Her sister is a physician; her oldest brother, an entrepreneur. And Chiwetel Ejiofor is an actor who received an Oscar nomination for his role in 12 Years a Slave.

It’s important to note that Obiajulu, for all her single-minded focus on achieving excellence—and her sometimes shocking strategies—doesn’t come off as overbearing. She empowered her children to believe in the seemingly impossible and to focus on personal achievement, not competition. Where the Children Take Us is an enlightening and entertaining read that will likely challenge readers to reexamine their views on child rearing and education.

Where the Children Take Us is an ode to Zain E. Asher’s determined, driven mother, full of thoughtful emotion and striking immediacy in every scene.

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