Some of my favorite memoir reads from 2023
I started keeping a books journal in 1997 because I’m bad at remembering titles. Back then the list was comprised of titles and the name of the publication I was reviewing for—usually People, Publishers Weekly, and my local newspaper, the Edmonton Journal. When the reviewing began drying up and I was back to reading mostly for my own pleasure, I started jotting down a sentence or two about each book. I’m on my third journal now, and some of the reviews go on for pages. The first person who truly benefitted from my obsession with my personal book list was my mother, z”l, who started relying on it for suggestions for her book club in Cape Cod. About seven years ago I began relying on it when a friend asked me to give the annual book talk at her Rotary Club. People started requesting the list, and when I had a page on Medium, I used to publish it there and people seemed to enjoy it.
I debated whether to publish the list here: after all, my Substack is built around my memoir and its themes of family secrets, mental illness, forgiveness, resilience, and how suicide affects the loved ones left behind. But the memoirs I love the most touch on at least one if not all of those themes. This week I’m sharing some of the memoirs I most enjoyed in 2023. If you’re interested in reading the other half of my book list—the novels—let me know, and I’ll post that one next Monday.
A reminder: starting Thursday, I’m putting up a paywall for the memoir and the Monday post (which at some point may become a Sunday post).
Happy reading, and again, thanks for your support.
Acceptance by Emi Nietfeld. Impressive memoir by a 31-year-old who had an appallingly dysfunctional upbringing with a hoarder mom who dragged her to doctors to drug her rather than acknowledge that she, Mom, was the one with the problem. Emi’s dad was a right-wing religious fundamentalist zealot who came out as trans when Emi was in elementary school and then disappeared from her life. Emi wound up in foster care and a bad relationship, but she had some guardian angel mentors, and she is bright and determined and focused, and wound up getting into Harvard, where her next challenge was to hide what she saw as her embarrassing past. Hers is an incredible story, remarkably free of self-pity, and very engaging.
Being Henry: The Fonz…And Beyond, by Henry Winkler. I loved this memoir, which I listened to on Audible. I was expecting a superficial “My life as a famous person” memoir, but there was so much depth and humility and Winkler is a really engaging person. He was one of the most successful, highly paid, famous actors in the world when he rose to superstardom as The Fonz in the mid-1970s, but none of that went to his head. He’s a mensch, a kind, humble fellow who is completely in touch with the deeply insecure boy he was growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
His parents, Holocaust survivors from Germany, had their own angst to deal with, and the fact that Henry was a really lousy student merely compounded it. And yet he studied drama at Emerson College and earned a graduate degree at the Yale Drama School, where he intuited more insecurity-making lessons, among them that “theatre is the only legitimate outlet. TV is bad. Commercials are bad. If you have success in these, you are worthless.” Winkler was in his 30s when he discovered he had dyslexia and considerably older when he found a therapist to help him work through his misguided belief that he was worthless. By then he’d found fame and fortune as the Fonz, started a loving family, and was deep into writing books for kids based on his childhood experiences. This is a story of a famous person, but more than that, it’s a story about resilience that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt they’re not worthy even when somewhere inside, buried so deep that it’s almost inaudible, a voice is telling them that they are.
Also A Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me, by Ada Calhoun. I picked this up because it sounded intriguing, but I didn’t expect it to be so compelling. And boy was it ever. Calhoun, the daughter of New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, details her understandably conflicted relationship with her career-obsessed father (he was more interested in his writing than in his wife and child), their gilded, artsy life in Greenwich Village, and her dad’s failure to complete his biography of artist and poet Frank O’Hara. Ada takes it upon herself to complete the project, partly out of love but mostly to show up and get back at her dad, an experience that enables her to come to a genuine appreciation of her old man and to accept him as he is, not as she wishes he were.
Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult by Michelle Dowd. Yet another dysfunctional family memoir (my favorite kind), this one by a woman who grew up in a bizarre religious cult, The Field, started by her maternal grandfather. Grandpa believed in living off the land. Literally. Dowd and her family grew up eating pine cones and dandelions and prickly pear cactus, except for the period when she should have been in elementary and middle school and instead landed in a hospital, where she was diagnosed with a condition that left her with nearly no white blood cells. Her parents rarely visited. Her mother’s reaction to her illness: “Why are you embarrassing me?” On the other hand, her mom was a brilliant naturalist who taught Dowd loads about plant life. Each chapter cleverly begins with field notes about different plants Dowd encountered growing up in southern California. The big takeaway for me: her parents were insane and she was lucky to make it out alive and productive.
The Perfect Other: A Memoir of My Sister, by Kyleigh Leddy. Leddy won the 2019 New York Times Modern Love College Competition with a moving essay about her beloved older sister who vanished when Leddy was a senior in high school. Kait was beautiful, charismatic, confident, and outgoing, but she was also tempestuous, headstrong, and reckless. As a teen and young adult she was in and out of rehab and psychiatric facilities, ultimately getting a diagnosis of schizophrenia. In this memoir, Leddy examines her relationship with her sister (idealistic, worshipping, exasperating, profoundly sad) and her mom (protective, loving, confiding, very close) and how Kait’s personality and eventually her illness dictated the family dynamics. Those dynamics were further complicated by Leddy’s dad’s refusal to acknowledge that mental illness is an actual thing—he preferred to ascribe his older daughter’s behavior to bad choices. Not helpful, and Leddy barely touches on the dad, who isn’t much of a character here. I found that problematic, and it contributed to making this an uneven book, but as a look at the utter hopelessness of living with a beloved mentally ill relative, it’s peerless.
Hope and Despair: My Struggle to Free My Husband, Maher Arar, by Monia Mazigh. Powerful story of a horrible, horrible incident in recent Canadian history: in September 2002, Syrian-born Arar, who had lived more than half his 32 years in Canada and had Canadian citizenship, had the misfortune to fly from Tunis to Montreal via New York City, where US authorities, acting on faulty RCMP intel, decided he was a terrorist and sent him to Syria. For more than a year, he was imprisoned and tortured. Monya, his wife, was left to care for their 5-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son while navigating a complex and confusing political and diplomatic maze to free her husband, relying on support from family, friends, and some elected officials who understood the gravity of the situation and really stepped up.
Starter Dog: My Path to Joy, Belonging, and Loving This World, by Rona Maynard. Sweet memoir in essays about my pal Rona’s first dog, Casey, and how she really connected with him, and the many ways he changed her life for the better. Among the positives: he forced her to slow down and notice and appreciate so much that she otherwise would have missed. Maynard, the former editor of Chatelaine, daughter of writer Fredelle (Raisins and Almonds) and sister of Joyce (At Home in the World, among others), is a gifted wordsmith. She offers a lot of insight into her life, including how Casey softened the hard edges that she’d built up over a lifetime. As a first-time dog owner/lover who shared many experiences similar to those Maynard describes, I can safely say this is a book that will resonate with anyone who has owned and loved a pup.
The Choice: Embrace the Possibility, by Dr. Edith Eva Eger. Eger is a Holocaust survivor in the vein of Viktor Frankl, someone who took her horrendous experience and learned from it instead of letting it crush her—though initially what she did was try to ignore it, to pretend she was okay and that losing all her family to the Nazis hadn’t affected her. In this inspiring book, which includes case studies of people she’s worked with as a therapist, she acknowledges what a failure that attitude was, neither helpful nor healthy. She is all about responding, not reacting. Denial, she says, is a reaction. Her acronym, CHOICE, stands for choosing compassion, humor, optimism, intuition, curiosity, and self-expression. I especially like her Humpty-Dumpty analogy: all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again, because, Eger points out, nobody can put you back together except you.
What Looks Like Bravery: An Epic Journey through Loss to Love by Laurel Braitman. This memoir resonated with me in ways that few have. It’s about the unacknowledged grief that Braitman experienced when her dad died after a 13-year battle with osteosarcoma. He was a supersmart and accomplished heart surgeon who put a lot of pressure on his kids to succeed, and Laurel always felt she let him down. It didn’t help that her last conversation with him before he died was a fight. Her healing journey includes bad hookups, a divorce, massive fear of commitment, being emotionally trapped at 17 (the age she was when her dad died), being unforgiving of herself, being an overachiever, volunteering at grief programs for kids, seeing a psychic and therapist, going on a vision quest, and confronting her mom to learn about her dad’s last day. I loved her observation that in a parallel life to this one filled with loss is one where we are whole, living the way we did before our loss.
The Longest Race: Inside the Secret World of Abuse, Doping, and Deception on Nike’s Elite Running Team by Kara Goucher with Mary Pilon. Page-turner memoir about how Kara’s life was changed in many ways for the worse when she and her husband, both elite runners, began training with famed coach Alberto Salazar’s exclusive Oregon Project at Nike headquarters. Salazar, a superstar, was an abusive, controlling, narcissistic drunk in private and a suave, polished pro in public. Even Goucher had trouble reconciling reality with the image she’d idealized for so long, even when Salazar sexually assaulted her while massaging her. He also came on to her, tried to break up her marriage, sabotaged her husband’s career, and hired a kinesiologist to provide sports therapy and then ordered the “therapist” to spill the beans about what Goucher and her fellow teammates were confiding. He also encouraged doping. Goucher slowly wakes up to the horror of it all and risks a lot by speaking up. Pretty depressing, but important, riveting story of resilience.
Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, by Deborah Copaken. I was reading this at the same time as I was reading Madonna: A Rebel Life, by Mary Gabriel, and Shutterbabe was so much more engrossing that I didn’t bother finishing Madonna, an exhaustively researched doorstop of a book that will appeal to Madonna scholars, of which I am not one. Shutterbabe begins after Copaken graduates from Harvard in 1988, sets up a home base in Paris, and begins taking the kinds of freelance photojournalism jobs that no parent wants their kid to take: hanging out with the mujahadin in Afghanistan, tracking poachers in Africa, getting caught up in civil unrest in Haiti and Romania. To get work in the mostly male-dominated world of war photographers, you have to strike the right balance between canny, savvy, ruthless, and willing to put your life on the line, and Copaken is all that and more. Between her adventures, her misadventures (both in the field and in her love life) and her gift for storytelling, this is a terrific read, filled with the kinds of behind-the-scenes details that you won’t get from the mainstream news outlets for whom Copaken worked.
Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self, by Lori Gottlieb. Page-turner by the author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, this memoir is about the year Gottlieb turned 11 and became anorexic. She is a terrific storyteller and based this memoir on her diary, so there is no question at all as to how she developed such a distorted, perverted relationship to food and such a distorted self-image. She depicts her parents as shallow, materialistic, and obsessed with appearances, but she’s a lot harder on her mother, who comes across as a vain, empty-headed social climber whose constant commentary on others’ appearances did profound damage to her daughter. Mom buys dessert but won’t eat it and limits Lori’s intake while encouraging her husband and son to consume as much as they want, because men have better, faster metabolisms. Lori sees her mom sneaking cookies alone in the kitchen after dark, yet another demented lesson. It’s no surprise Lori winds up in a hospital. What’s amazing is that she seems to overcome her illness.
Brave-ish: One Breakup, Six Continents, and Feeling Fearless After Fifty: A Memoir by Lisa Ellen Niver. Niver goes in depth about her insecurities, her messy and bad first marriage, and how she went from being a travel-loving medical student to building a brand as a travel writer/blogger/presenter, starting with dropping out of medical school because she realized it was a bad fit. She became a teacher and wound up running kids’ programs at Club Med until she found out that cruise ships paid more. This is a great mashup of travelogue and a story of resilience in the face of a lot of self-doubt and a profoundly dysfunctional marriage.