Behind the Scenes of Choosing the Best Memoirs

GARNER “Hitch-22,” by Christopher Hitchens, is so witty and so spirited. That book always gives me a high. Among other things, it’s a terrific memoir about friendship. Then there’s “Slow Days, Fast Company,” by Eve Babitz, who seemed to live on a cloud of hedonistic joy when it came to food, sex, drugs, beaches, people, books — everything, really.

SZALAI I don’t know if I could call Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father” joyful, but it’s hard not to read even the most painful and lonely parts in the light of what we all know happened to him after he wrote it.

SEHGAL I direct you to “Conundrum,” by Jan Morris. There’s tough stuff here, too — it’s a book about Morris’s transition and covers years of painful gender dysphoria — but no writer, no human on this earth, has such a talent for happiness. Everything is a lark, an adventure for her. She describes the early years of family life as “constant ecstasy.” It’s full of passionate odes to friendship, marriage, womanhood, the nourishment of work.

Memoirs are so often powerful for how they evoke a time and place, the way they vividly recall scenes. Could each of you name an especially indelible scene from among these books that has always stayed with you?

SEHGAL There are scenes of mourning from “Wave” that are tattooed on my brain: In one, Sonali Deraniyagala visits the hotel in Sri Lanka where her children, husband and parents perished in the Asian tsunami and discovers her husband’s research paper that survived, with only a small rip, and later, her son’s little shirt, the sleeve still rolled up on one side. I cannot recall such moments, even now, without weeping.

GARNER All those lunchtime martinis Arthur Schlesinger Jr. consumes in his memoir, “A Life in the 20th Century,” are pretty inspiring. In more earnestness, I’ve never been able to shake the scene in Harry Crews’s “A Childhood” when he falls into that vat of scalding water as a child, and the awful repercussions. Eighner’s lessons in how to Dumpster-dive are pretty unforgettable, too. They’re moving and oddly profound about humans and their waste.

SZALAI Hilary Mantel encountering something in the garden — a ghost? the Devil? a gust of wind? — is described with such intimacy in “Giving Up the Ghost” that I felt a rising sickness while reading it, which I took as a good sign.

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