My 2022 list (nonfiction books I read but were not necessarily published in 2022) is made up of an even dozen titles. All of them are about women, and all but one were written by women. This is not unusual for my reading preferences. What is unusual is the number of memoirs included. What is not unusual about the memoirs that made my list? Most of the authors focus on aspects of their writing lives.
So here they are, roughly in the order that I adore/admire them.
The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an America Family by Kerri K. Greenidge. An eye-opening account of the Grimke sisters, white women from South Carolina, who became outspoken advocates for abolition. Greenidge uses her expert historical skills to show the limits of the women’s understanding of and support for racial equality as they acknowledge their Black nephews, a side of the family that flourished after the Civil War. It’s a marvelous family biography wrapped around essential racial and gender history.
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland. A luminous mixture of memoir and biography. I didn’t know much about McCullers going into this book and found Shapland’s approach to writing about the famous author innovative and intriguing.
Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me by Ada Calhoun. Another unusual memoir, this one intertwined with the biographies of poet O’Hara and of Calhoun’s father, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl. A great story of a complicated father-daughter relationship.
Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontes by Devoney Looser. Jane and Maria Porter were bestselling novelists in England with a literary fame that spread around the world. Looser revives their reputations via a narrative as enthralling as anything Jane Austen wrote.
The Ruin of all Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill. Gaskill brings to life the realities of eking out a living in the early Massachusetts Bay Colony and the power of Puritan beliefs in witchcraft to upend the precarious lives of the settlers. The story of Hugh and Mary Parsons is bone-chilling.
I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys by Miranda Seymour. About as moody and atmospheric as Gaskill’s book, this literary biography delves into Rhys’s Caribbean background and its influence on her writing.
To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Phyllis Joyner by Carol Emberton. Historian Emberton uses the life of Joyner, born in North Carolina shortly before the Civil War, to explore how formerly enslaved people experienced the (sometimes limited) freedom of emancipation. This is a great example of how the life of an ordinary, “unknown” person can illuminate key periods in American history.
Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood by Hilary Hallett. If you want to know anything about the evolution of the modern early twentieth-century woman, this is the book to read. Glyn started writing scandalous novels to make up for her husband gambling away most of the family fortune. And she ended up in Hollywood!
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous. This memoir of a real-life author and Twitter personality is a surprisingly touching and sometimes funny work about dealing with grief and depression. I don’t know who Duchess Goldblatt is, but that really, really doesn’t matter.
Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals by Laurie Zaleski. I picked this up on whim at the library, expecting that it would mostly be about rescuing animals. There’s some of that, but it’s woven around Zaleski’s tale of her rocky childhood and it all blends together in a very pleasing way.
Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maude Newton. In this multi-generational story, Newton tracks down the truth behind the tales told by and about various family members over the years. It’s an eye-opening account of the power of genealogy.
Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay by Shanna Greene Benjamin. A fabulous exploration of the public and private lives of McKay, a writer and literary scholar who helped create the academic field of African American literature.
What do you think? Have you read any of these? What are you looking forward to in 2023?
You must be logged in to post a comment.