Catherine Hollis

Goldie Taylor’s absolutely stunning memoir is dedicated to “the women who made me.” Taylor’s mother, her Auntie Gerald, Auntie Killer and Grandma Alice come to shimmering life in this tough and tender book. The Love You Save depicts Black life in East St. Louis in the 1970s and ’80s, evoking Taylor’s family’s voices and experiences with cinematic detail and novelistic prose.

Taylor has a robust public role as a news correspondent at MSNBC and CNN, a journalist, an editor and a human rights advocate. These professional successes, however, are shadowed by a legacy of childhood sexual abuse. This memoir tells the whole story of Taylor’s experiences with rape and sexual violence, which were terrible for her as an individual and terrifyingly common in her community.

Taylor’s traumatic personal history ran parallel to Taylor’s adolescent accomplishments as a gifted student and public orator. Her intellectual development via public libraries and a few good teachers buoys the narrative, as a young Taylor reads James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. The reader will cheer as her teachers recognize Taylor’s exceptional intelligence and grit, even as Taylor reminds us that Black excellence is often forged in the crucible of systemic racism and sexual violence.

This memoir is an important read for several reasons. It shows how complex trauma shapes a person’s life and psychology, especially someone who is a high-achieving public figure. It also shows how important public schools and libraries are as places to cultivate children’s creativity and intelligence, particularly for low-income and BIPOC children. And finally, in its portrayal of a Black family’s dynamic women, it offers a vibrant portrayal of survival and love.

Goldie Taylor’s absolutely stunning memoir depicts Black life in St. Louis, Missouri, in the 1970s and ’80s with cinematic detail and novelistic prose.

Journalists estimate that between 1 and 3 million Uyghur people are currently being held in detention camps by the Chinese government as an act of cultural genocide. That we in the U.S. know about this is largely due to the courageous reporting of Uyghur American journalists such as Gulchehra Hoja. In her stunning memoir, A Stone Is Most Precious Where It Belongs: A Memoir of Uyghur Exile, Hope, and Survival, Hoja recounts her childhood and education in East Turkestan, as well as her love for her family, language and culture, precious things that she has had to leave behind as an activist in exile in the U.S.

Located in the northwestern corner of mainland China, East Turkestan is the homeland of the primarily Muslim Uyghur, whose culture is rich with ancestral traditions in music and dance. Coming of age in an educated and musical family, Hoja trained as a dancer before turning to acting. She produced and hosted the first Uyghur language children’s TV show, gradually becoming aware of the increasing censorship and control the Chinese government exerted over both Uyghur people and the media. A trip to Europe in 2001, and a first glimpse of an uncensored internet, led Hoja to immigrate to the United States, where her journalistic skills quickly landed her a position at Radio Free Asia. 

Hoja’s exile in the U.S. and persistence in reporting on the suppression of the Uyghur people by the Chinese government has resulted in grave consequences for her family back home. A Stone Is Most Precious Where It Belongs dramatizes the violation of Uyghur human rights by grounding the political in the personal. Family and friendship are as much a part of Hoja’s story as the larger national and political context, reminding readers that every missing Uyghur is a person with a story of their own.

Uyghur American journalist Gulchehra Hoja’s stunning memoir recounts her love for her family and homeland, both of which she had to leave behind.

Ice climbing and mountain guiding require endurance, organization, ambition and a high tolerance for physical discomfort. Founding an international conservation organization requires similar talents, with an emphasis on logistics and fundraising. Professional climber and conservation activist Majka Burhardt has been successful in both endeavors, developing a skill set that should have helped when she became a mother to twins. As she recounts in her emotionally raw memoir, however, Burhardt found that motherhood is far more psychologically and physically demanding than the hardest climb.

In More: Life on the Edge of Adventure and Motherhood, Burhardt wrestles with the impossible task of balancing the call of adventure and the necessity of work with the whirlwind of pregnancy and childcare. Written in the present tense as a series of letters to her beloved twins, More sets out to tell the visceral truth of early parenthood, from pumping milk at a belay station on an ice climb to ugly sobbing in the car. Like urgent dispatches from risky terrain, these entries are brutally (painfully!) honest about how motherhood changes everything—especially Burhardt’s feeling about her husband and mother. Burhardt’s frank assessment of resentment and ambivalence in these otherwise loving relationships rings so very, very true. 

Mountaineering literature is filled with tales of men having adventures, sometimes fatal ones, and the women and children who are left behind. Only recently have female climbers begun to write about the risks and rewards of climbing as a woman or a mother—about a passion for mountains as strong as the primal bond with a child. Burhardt wants it all, mountains and motherhood, but the pressure to hold it all together is intense and unrelenting. Her boldly candid memoir charts a path into a new territory in adventure writing, with motherhood as the ultimate journey.

Professional rock and ice climber Majka Burhardt’s memoir captures all the ways motherhood is more psychologically and physically demanding than the hardest climb.

Are lesbian bars endangered places? Down from a high of 206 bars recorded in 1987, there are currently only 20+ of these beloved, sticky, red-painted bars left in the U.S. Moby Dyke, the chronicle of Krista Burton’s obsessive quest to visit each of these remaining bars, offers readers a hilarious and affectionate investigation into the past and future of queer gathering spots.

Traveling from San Francisco to New York City, from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Mobile, Alabama, Burton visits both historic neighborhood bars and newer nightclubs, talking to owners and patrons about why they love these bars and who is welcome there. Virtually every bar Burton visited is lesbian-owned but welcomes everyone, including the full range of queer identities: trans men and women, nonbinary folks and the emerging generation of gender-diverse young queers. Burton also asks why so many gay bars for cisgender men continue to thrive as exclusive spaces, while lesbian bars thrive on inclusion.

An accomplished and very funny journalist, Burton is able to track serious issues around queer belonging in a fresh and lively voice. The personal narrative underlying her pursuit of lesbian bars—including her marriage to Davin, a trans man, and coming out to her conservative Mormon family—is as topical and good-humored as the interviews and reportage contained here. 

Burton’s road trip was also shaped by COVID-19, and her experiences reveal how the isolation of the pandemic stoked a real hunger for the joy of being with others in crowded, sweaty rooms, singing karaoke, partaking in dildo races and people-watching (after showing a vaccination card, of course). Even the details about the economics of Burton’s quest (such as how to fund a road trip on a book advance while still working a day job) offer a fascinating glimpse into the reality of a writer’s life. 

Burton’s portrait of the evolution of lesbian bars into communal spaces offers a timely and engaging snapshot of queer life in America.

Krista Burton’s obsessive quest to visit each lesbian bar in the U.S. offers a hilarious and affectionate investigation into the past and future of queer gathering spots.

Kate Zambreno’s work blends memoir, art criticism and literary history/gossip to brilliant effect, and in recent years, her books have become even deeper and richer as they have been suffused with the experience of early motherhood. The Light Room, like her 2021 book of literary criticism, To Write as if Already Dead, records the impossibility of finding time and space to write as a new mother. But instead of suffering from these restrictions, the book blossoms because of them, written in furious spurts that both describe and embody the stolen moments between feeding, waking and sleeping.

The Light Room offers readers who are new to Zambreno a perfect entry point into the patterns of thinking and writing that her work is known for. As it follows a daily record of Zambreno’s life with small children during the COVID-19 lockdown—the groceries, the laundry, the mess, the exhaustion and the outings to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York—the book also considers the developmental experience of pandemic babies who see unmasked faces only at home and who haven’t yet met their extended families. Zambreno tracks experiments in early education during a pandemic as well, from an outdoor “forest school” to using Montessori methods at home. 

The unending domestic care work, however, is balanced by Zambreno’s reading, writing and thinking. Nursing at 4 a.m. while reading Yuko Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light about single motherhood in 1970s Japan conjures a sense of “cozy dread.” A child’s collection of found objects evokes visual artist Joseph Cornell’s box art. Translucent building blocks suggest a literary form for the book itself: a mother writing in tiny increments, stealing bits of time to build, entry by entry, a chronicle of “seasons and exhaustions.”

The restrictions, fear and grief of parenting during a pandemic are ultimately measured against moments of joy and glimmers of beauty, what Zambreno calls “translucencies.” Thinking through Natalia Ginzburg’s 1944 essay “Winter in the Abruzzi,” Zambreno approaches a vital truth that lies at the heart of this memoir: What if these days of domestic constraint turn out, in the long run, to be the happiest time in a family’s life together?

Kate Zambreno’s memoir The Light Room measures the fear and grief of parenting during a pandemic against moments of joy and glimmers of beauty.

George Orwell, born Eric Blair, is celebrated for novels like Animal Farm and 1984, as well as for his political commitments, including fighting fascism on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. Like many men, he relied on the invisible labor of women to provide him with food, shelter, typing and comfort while he focused on writing. While much is known about Orwell’s personal life, no one person has vanished more definitively from his biographies than his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy.

Anna Funder sets out to correct this absence in her compelling hybrid biography Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life. Mixing historical detail with the immediacy of personal memoir, Wifedom brings readers into the personal life of O’Shaughnessy both with and without Orwell, while also detailing Funder’s own domestic discontent. By focusing on O’Shaughnessy’s diminished status in Orwell’s biographies, Funder reveals how the invisible and unpaid labor of domestic work erases women from history. Patriarchy’s narrative about literary genius tends to leave out the typist.

Did Eileen’s 1934 poem “End of the Century, 1984” play a role in Orwell’s own 1984? As Orwell’s typist, did Eileen shape Animal Farm? Funder convinces the reader that the answers are yes, maybe. Funder’s most impressive achievement is her revision of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a text documenting his time at the Spanish front that fails to mention O’Shaughnessy by name. In fact, as Funder demonstrates via archival evidence and imaginative reconstruction, O’Shaughnessy committed multiple acts of heroism in Spain, including extracting Orwell from potential imprisonment. But Orwell never acknowledged her or gave her due credit, as if admitting he needed help would have detracted from his own heroic narrative.

The memoir portions of Wifedom aren’t quite as captivating, but it’s clear why Funder wanted to embed her biographical scholarship within her own experiences. Making visible the extent of Eileen’s influence on Orwell’s life and work matters because the condition of “wifedom,” understood as daily unpaid care work, continues to be distributed unfairly, falling mainly on women’s shoulders. Yet this undervalued work is as necessary as what Funder does so well in Wifedom: retelling history to be more considerate and accurate.

Mixing history and memoir, Anna Funder brings readers into the personal life of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, both with and without her husband, George Orwell.

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.

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