Catherine Hollis

Nancy Marie Brown’s Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth is a fascinating inquiry into the Icelandic belief in elves. Brown has a deep attachment to and knowledge of Iceland, its otherworldly landscape, its people and their beliefs. (She is the author of multiple Nordic cultural histories, and she has Icelandic horses and an Icelandic sheepdog on her farm in Vermont.) However, rather than defending elves’ existence, this compelling and highly readable book offers a thought-provoking examination of the nature of belief itself, drawing compelling connections among humans, storytelling and the environment.

Looking for the Hidden Folk begins and ends with a visit from Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a famous Icelandic elf-seer and advisor to construction projects. While not everyone can see the Icelandic elves like Jonsdottir can, many people have witnessed the damage the elves have supposedly caused (putting boulders in the paths of cars, flooding roads, damaging bulldozers) when the elves’ homes in the rocky lava fields are destroyed in order to create highways for Iceland’s booming tourist economy. Brown chronicles the many ways elves protect their environment, guarding the land from unwise or hasty modernization. (Although it is apparently possible to negotiate with them.)

How do we come to believe in the reality of unseen things? Quantum physics and dark matter are now principles of reality, previously unknown until they were discovered by scientists. Could it be, Brown wonders, that we can learn to see elves through a similar shift in perspective? By valuing elves as guardians of the land, might we learn to live more respectfully and sustainably in nature?

If all this sounds a little high-concept, do not fear; much of the book is grounded in captivating stories from Icelandic sagas, particularly those that detail the relationships among the people, flora, fauna and geology of Iceland. In the end, Brown may believe more in elf stories than in elves, but that is precisely the point. Storytelling is the real, otherworldly magic of Iceland, a place where elves, humans, volcanoes and rocks are intertwined.

Spun from Nancy Marie Brown’s deep knowledge of Iceland, Looking for the Hidden Folk is a fascinating inquiry into the Icelandic belief in elves.

Rachel Aviv’s first book explores questions of self-knowledge and mental health, subjects she’s previously examined in her award-winning journalism for The New Yorker. Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us is a stunning book, offering sensitive case histories of people whose experiences of mental illness exceed the limits of psychiatric terminology, diagnosis and treatment.

Aviv begins with her own experience as a 6-year-old who stopped eating or drinking, for reasons she can no longer remember. She was eventually diagnosed with anorexia, the youngest child in the U.S. to receive such a diagnosis, and hospitalized for “failure to eat.” At the hospital, she met anorexic girls twice her age and learned to mimic their strategies for losing weight. But which came first: the diagnosis or her symptoms? This misfit between psychiatric terminology and lived experience is the core issue driving Aviv’s subsequent chapters.

Western psychiatry has a long history of ignoring how issues of racial violence and systemic oppression drive mental illness. Aviv’s reporting on Naomi, a woman experiencing psychosis, grounds Naomi’s mental illness in the intergenerational trauma she has experienced as a Black woman, which has been largely ignored by the institutions that have offered her treatment. Western psychiatry, as developed within a white European framework, also fails to account for cultural difference, as in the case of Bapu, a devout Hindu. Bapu’s mystical visions of ecstatic union with Krishna could be reduced to symptoms of schizophrenia, but to categorize them as such would be to ignore how Bapu herself interprets these visions and how they are understood by other Hindu worshippers.

Other chapters show how painfully limited and limiting psychiatric language is when measured against a person’s own sense of themself, a pressing issue in the context of the overmedication of young people. When adolescents are prescribed multiple medications for anxiety and depression, they risk—as in Aviv’s final case history—limiting their self-definition to the diagnoses they have received.

Strangers to Ourselves is a compassionate and necessary exploration of the complex relationship between how we understand ourselves and how psychiatric diagnoses define us.

Strangers to Ourselves is a stunning book about people whose experiences of mental illness exceed the limits of Western psychiatry.

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.

Joining recent memoirs by Elissa Washuta and Terese Mailhot, Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s Red Paint illuminates the stories and experiences of Indigenous women from the Pacific Northwest for a 21st-century audience. Red Paint offers a poetic narrative of trauma and healing through ancestral rites and punk rock, both of which prove to be potent medicine during LaPointe’s excavation of family legacy and matrilineal power.

Named for her great grandmother, Violet taqʷšəblu Hilbert, LaPointe bears not only her relative’s Skagit name but also the strengths and wounds of her maternal line. Haunted by childhood sexual abuse and periods of teenage homelessness, LaPointe initially found solace and community in the punk scene. But as she came to recognize her trauma as a sickness of the spirit, LaPointe leaned into the Lushootseed language and the curative practices of five generations of her Coast Salish ancestors.

A large part of LaPointe’s healing involved recovering and reimagining the life stories of the women she’s descended from, including Comptia Koholowish, a Chinook woman who witnessed the death by smallpox of her entire community in the early 1900s. Aunt Susie, a medicine worker and storyteller in the early 20th century, is another powerful woman whose words and example come to life in Red Paint.

The wearing of red paint is a ceremonial act for the Coast Salish people, identifying the bearer as a healer. LaPointe’s quest to wear the red paint of her ancestors in the context of her own life as a poet and performer integrates the twin strands, past and present, of this stunning memoir. For LaPointe, restoring the self to health is entwined with restoring Native women’s voices that have been erased throughout history. She uses her own luminescent voice to tell their stories, wielding language, words, ritual and community as tools of contemporary and ancestral healing.

With Red Paint, Sasha LaPointe offers a poetic narrative of trauma and healing through ancestral rites and punk rock.

Mountaineering is healing. This is a secret climbers know—that despite the risks of injury, frostbite or even death, climbing high mountains is a peculiar balm for the soul. There’s something about being forced into the present moment, step by step, that helps ease the mind of its burdens.

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, the first Peruvian woman to summit Mt. Everest, understands this truth. Her memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain: A Memoir of Courage, is a brilliant assessment of the power of high altitudes to heal trauma. Beautifully structured in back-and-forth chapters, the memoir travels between Vasquez-Lavado’s childhood in the civil strife of 1970s Peru to her ultimately successful attempt to complete the Seven Summits, the Earth’s highest mountains.

Unlike mountaineering memoirs that celebrate the ego of the individual, usually male, climber, Vasquez-Lavado’s story is intimately collaborative and feminist. This is most true when she brings a group of young women from Nepal and America who have survived sex trafficking and other sexual violence to Everest’s base camp. Their travels as a group, and their individual stories, are the emotional heart of this memoir. When Vasquez-Lavado continues without them to Everest’s summit—Chomolungma, or the Great Mother—her triumph at the mountain’s peak is merely a bonus. The real journey is these women’s path toward healing. 

Vasquez-Lavado’s own journey from horrific childhood sexual abuse through immigration to the U.S. and professional success in San Francisco’s first (and second) dot-com booms mirrors her trip up the mountain. In both worlds, the body holds trauma and has the power to release it, but the process is arduous and filled with potential setbacks. But as Vasquez-Lavado learns, the reward for persistence is the unimaginable beauty of dawn lighting up the roof of the world, and the exhilaration of releasing shame.

Read more: Silvia Vasquez-Lavado narrates the audiobook for ‘In the Shadow of the Mountain.’

Unlike mountaineering memoirs that celebrate the ego of the individual climber, Silvia Vasquez-Lavado’s story is intimately collaborative.

Reading Jami Attenberg is like hanging out with a friend who encourages you—through their own example—to be your messy, vibrant, glorious self. Attenberg’s voice is equal parts wise auntie and wise-ass, sincere and profane, whether on social media or in any of her seven increasingly well-received novels (most recently, All This Could Be Yours in 2019). With I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home, Attenberg turns to memoir to explore the hustle and chutzpah with which she has built a successful career as a working writer.

Writing isn’t magic, but it can do magical things. The preface to I Came All This Way to Meet You reminds us of this in an inspiring manifesto about the power of committing to the work of writing. Creating a life of travel and work, rather than a life more domestic and rooted, requires creativity and grit, especially as we age, and especially for women. For Attenberg, in lieu of traditional stability, writing became the portable home she always returned to.

Attenberg’s travels around the country to promote her books form the backbone of this book, which is written as a series of short, interlinked essays that touch on themes of work, solitude, friendship, heartbreak, risk and itinerancy. A stunning scene in a chapel constructed out of bones in Portugal exemplifies the beauty and peril of the writer’s life. Communing with the dead offers the writer stories and companionship; connecting with the living can be far more difficult.

Attenberg’s memoir ends in New Orleans, that magical city of eccentricity and art, where she has only recently created a home for herself and her dog, Sid. The “ultimate privilege,” Attenberg finds, is to have a house she can open up to visiting friends, returning the favor from her own periods of wandering. Attenberg extends this hospitality to her readers, too, as she invites us into this funny, perceptive portrait of a life well-lived.

I Came All This Way to Meet You’ makes for a relaxing audiobook. Read our review.

Jami Attenberg’s voice is equal parts wise auntie and wise-ass as she explores the hustle and chutzpah with which she built her successful writing career.
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Two recent memoirs by Irish writers explore the haunting presence of the past in Irish lives and communities. Although James Joyce’s literary avatar Stephen Dedalus declared history “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” the Irish are known for their infatuation with the past.

In My Father’s Wake, journalist Kevin Toolis travels home to a remote island off the coast of Ireland to lay his father (and his personal demons) to rest. The subtitle of Toolis’ memoir—“How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die”—is a bit of a red herring, as this is not exactly a guide to coping with death. Instead, Toolis has written an exceptionally personal and moving story of his own encounters with death, from his brush with tuberculosis as a child to his beloved older brother Bernard’s untimely passing from leukemia. Despite donating bone marrow, Toolis is unable to save his brother, and Bernard’s death in a hospital is hygienically swift.

Traumatized by the experience, Toolis subsequently becomes a “death hunter” journalist, interviewing bereaved family members in global war zones. Toolis explores the ways in which the “Western Death Machine” has alienated us from our ancestral rituals of death and dying, rituals that persist in rural West Ireland. When Toolis’ own father, Sonny, dies in the tiny island village of Dookinella, the old rituals of keening and waking the dead prove the balm that he has been searching for. Sonny dies at home, seen over by a bean chabrach, or death midwife, and keened over by bean chaointe, or wailing woman. The entire village gathers at Sonny’s wake, watching over his passage from life to death. “A wake is the best guide to life you’ll ever have,” Toolis writes, encouraging his readers to learn how to live by accepting the inevitability of death.

Like Toolis, who finds solace in the rituals of the past, Booker Prize-winning author John Banville is similarly preoccupied with the weight of the past on the present in his new memoir, Time Pieces. But while Toolis returns to the ancient rituals of rural Ireland, Banville explores the great Irish city of Dublin, using it as a site for excavating and contemplating history and its movement. “When does the past become the past?” septuagenarian Banville asks while wandering the city, reflecting on his life.

Personal and national history intermingle in Banville’s genial ramblings around Dublin as he considers his youth and coming-of-age in Dublin’s Baggotonia neighborhood or discovers granite fragments of Nelson’s Pillar (blown up by the IRA in 1966) in the Pearse Street Public Library. Accentuated by Paul Joyce’s moody black-and-white photographs, Time Pieces has the feel of a valediction and farewell by a writer looking back on his passage through a particularly Irish time and place.


This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Two recent memoirs by Irish writers explore the haunting presence of the past in Irish lives and communities. Although James Joyce’s literary avatar Stephen Dedalus declared history “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” the Irish are known for their infatuation with the past.

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Introducing two fiery biographies of women who fanned the flames of social progress at the beginning of the 20th century.

One hundred years ago, the United States was a nation divided by the same social and political issues that persist in slightly different forms today. Vast economic inequality divided the working class from the upper classes; many industries relied on recent immigrants to join an underpaid labor force; and birth control activists went to jail for distributing information about contraception. Socialism appealed to many progressives, and women were on the front lines of social change. Two recent biographies of two extraordinary activist women bring this revolutionary era to vivid life, shining a light on the conflicts of our own time. 

Rebel Cinderella

Award-winning author Adam Hochschild turns his brilliant narrative eye to the real-life “Cinderella of the Ghetto” in Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes. A Jewish refugee from the pogroms in Russia, Rose Pastor began working in cigar factories as a child in Ohio. A move to the Lower East Side in New York City led Rose to a fledging journalism career with a Yiddish-language press. Then her life took a dramatic turn when, in 1905, she met and married James Graham Phelps Stokes, a member of one of New York’s wealthiest families. Despite their differences, Rose and James built a successful marriage, at least for a time, based on shared socialist ideals and labor activism. The media were fascinated by their improbable union, and Rose became one of the most talked-about women in America.

Read our interview with Adam Hochschild about 'Bury the Chains.'

Dorothy Day

On one of Rose’s lecture tours, she spoke to the Socialist Club at the University of Illinois at Urbana, where she inspired the restless imagination of an undergraduate named Dorothy Day. John Loughery and Blythe Randolph’s co-authored biography, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, captures the captivating contradictions of the woman who would go on to become the leader of the Catholic Worker peace and justice movement. 

Day’s louche, hard-drinking bohemian life in 1910s and ’20s Greenwich Village—a hotbed of radical politics, art, free love and all-night parties—may seem incongruous for a woman now being considered for canonization, but Loughery and Randolph build a compelling case for the emergence of Day’s Catholic faith from the dirt and poverty of New York’s downtown streets. During the Great Depression, Day and French Catholic philosopher Peter Maurin founded the newspaper The Catholic Worker, as well as the first of what would become Catholic Worker houses for people who are homeless. Indeed, Dorothy’s subsequent work as an anti-nuclear peace activist and proponent of civil disobedience has earned her comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. 

The intersections between the lives of Rose Pastor Stokes and Dorothy Day are many and fascinating. Readers interested in the history of progressive thought and activism in the United States, particularly women’s roles in that history, would do well to read both of these well-written, deeply researched and narratively propulsive biographies. 

Introducing two fiery biographies of women who fanned the flames of social progress at the beginning of the 20th century. One hundred years ago, the United States was a nation divided by the same social and political issues that persist in slightly different forms today. Vast economic inequality divided the working class from the upper […]

In The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at All Souls College at the University of Oxford, engages with some of the most complex hot-button cultural issues to emerge around sex and consent in the 21st century. With intelligence and clarity, Srinivasan unpacks the moral and philosophical underpinnings of such topics as false rape accusations, pornography and teacher-student relationships, making her book an invaluable companion for readers interested in nuanced analysis rather than hasty clickbait. 

The book emerged from Srinivasan’s 2018 essay “The Right to Sex,” which considered the case of Elliot Rodger, the killer whose deadly rampage at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014 was supposedly motivated by his status as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate. Rodger’s assumption that he was somehow “owed” sex from women has proven to be a toxic influence on some social media platforms. In considering this case, Srinivasan moves her argument in unexpected directions to ask ever larger and harder philosophical questions: While there is no “right” to demand sex from other people, how should we think about desirability as a concept? Why are some bodies seen as desirable and others aren’t? How is desirability a political concept, shaped by popular culture?

In other essays, Srinivasan provides a helpful survey of the history of feminist responses to pornography, which range widely from the anti-porn feminism of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon in the 1970s and ’80s to the more pro-sex pleasure activists of the 1990s. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Srinivasan opens up these issues beyond their original contexts to engage with them in a contemporary setting. To this end, Srinivasan’s classroom of undergraduates at Oxford becomes a kind of testing ground for how young people think about pornography and the influence it has had on them as the first fully digital generation.

With articulate precision, Srinivasan’s timely book offers readers a lucid and compelling guide to thinking philosophically about sex and power.

Amia Srinivasan’s book about sex and consent is invaluable for readers interested in intelligent, clear and nuanced analysis rather than hasty clickbait.

This engrossing new history of American women’s fight to gain autonomy over their sexuality and reproductive choices has a somewhat misleading title: The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age. While Anthony Comstock, the “anti-vice” crusader and U.S. postal inspector, was without a doubt a man who hated women, his story is ultimately less significant than those of the brave women who stood up to him at the dawn of the 20th century.

Comstock’s drive to root out and destroy materials that he considered pornographic led to the passing of the Comstock Act in 1873, which made it illegal to mail “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials through the U.S. Postal Service. In his role as postal inspector, and inspired by a mania for “purity,” he defined pamphlets and books about contraception and family planning as “obscene” and subsequently hounded, prosecuted and even drove to suicide people who disseminated such information.

Bestselling author Amy Sohn vividly brings to life the activists who opposed Comstock's efforts in The Man Who Hated Women. Suffragist Victoria C. Woodhull, free love advocate Angela Heywood, spiritualist Ida C. Craddock, abortionist Madame Restell, anarchist Emma Goldman and birth control defender Margaret Sanger are just a few who doggedly fought against the Comstock laws in order to bring information about sex and birth control to American women at the turn of the century.

Sohn has unearthed a wealth of vivid historic detail about these women’s resistance to Comstock’s censorship. Dr. Sara Chase, for example, not only sued Comstock for damaging her medical practice but named the vaginal syringe she sold to women for contraceptive douching the “Comstock syringe.” Craddock, who believed that sex was a deeply spiritual act, fought for the rights of Egyptian belly dancers to perform the “hoochie-coochie.”

Sohn places these mostly forgotten “sex radicals” at the center of the history of the women’s rights movement. That this battle continues in our own time makes The Man Who Hated Women all the more important and enlightening.

Amy Sohn vividly brings to life the activists who fought for American women’s right to information about sex and birth control at the dawn of the 20th century.

In West African Igbo mythology, an ogbanje spirit is a troublesome entity temporarily housed in a human body. Akwaeke Emezi’s stunning debut novel, Freshwater (2018), uses this element of “Igbo ontology” to tell a story of what it’s like to grow up ogbanje, death-haunted and multiple. Subsequently, Emezi has written about identifying as trans and as ogbanje themself—as something other than human.

Emezi’s brilliant Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir develops their ideas about identity and art through a sequence of letters to friends, lovers, students, writers and deities. This book tells of growing up in Aba, Nigeria, witnessing casual violence and injury, and of a childhood shaped by the works of literature brought home by Emezi’s parents. Emezi recounts writing Freshwater, having a breakdown during the ensuing book tour and pursuing surgeries that would free them from a gendered human body. These surgeries, which Emezi accepts as “mutilations,” are how the “spirit customiz[es] the vessel” and have as much to do with being ogbanje as being trans.

Perhaps Emezi’s greatest achievement with this memoir is their insistence on centering Igbo ontology within their story rather than reaching for tired Western metaphors about psychiatric conditions like trauma, PTSD or disassociation. Emezi’s work reminds us that these diagnoses are limiting boxes, shaped by colonialist, racist and sexist assumptions. Dear Senthuran explodes these human limitations by insisting on the imagination’s power to create worlds.

Each letter in Dear Senthuran is hypnotic and poetic, but the letters to Nonso, which read like letters to a student or a “baby writer,” are particularly powerful. These letters discuss “worldbending” with reference to Octavia Butler’s fiction. Writers make worlds exist from nothing—a godlike power available to anyone willing to “face their work.”

In Dear Senthuran, Emezi generously shares both their wounds and their wisdom, offering aspiring writers and artists fresh inspiration for creating new forms of making, loving and being.

In Dear Senthuran, Akwaeke Emezi explodes human limitations by insisting on the imagination’s power to create worlds.

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