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For Tarana Burke, the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017 was a unique emotional journey. As the founder of the movement, she reacted to the use of the hashtag on social media—initially without her awareness or involvement—with alarm, dismay and fear. But she soon moved beyond her protective instinct to a place of gratitude and openness, as she recognized how people were benefiting from the phrase's transformative power. 

Burke narrates these moments in her memoir, Unbound (7 hours), then goes back in time to her childhood experience of sexual assault and her journey to liberation and activism. Her steady, grounded voice commands the listener's attention and moves us through time, through emotions, through visceral experiences and psychological breakthroughs. The pain, confusion, vulnerability and, ultimately, power in her story are rendered all the more potent and compelling by her confident voice, distinguishing Burke as a woman who has found her strength and her path to help others heal. This is a listening experience not to be missed.

Read our starred review of the print edition of 'Unbound.'

In the audio edition of Unbound, the pain, confusion, vulnerability and power in Tarana Burke’s story are rendered all the more potent by her confident voice.

Jordan Salama, a 2019 Princeton University graduate and journalist, comes by his travel instincts honestly. His great-great-great-grandfather led a thousand camels along the Silk Road to trade goods in Iraq, Syria and Iran; his great-grandfather, a Syrian Jewish immigrant to Argentina, rode on horseback through the Andes as an itinerant salesman; and his father became a physician in Buenos Aires before migrating to New York City. Their stories, passed down through generations of a family that spoke "a spellbinding mix of English, Spanish, and Arabic," have inspired Salama's own explorations, including the one he describes in Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena.

The Magdalena River, which is over 900 miles long and Colombia's principal waterway, links the country's diverse interior to the Caribbean Sea. It has long been a vital transportation mainstay, used and abused by the Colombian government, global industry, paramilitaries, guerillas, migrants, fishers and environmentalists alike. In 2016 the government signed a wobbly peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and other guerilla armies, but the river's future viability remains as unclear as its sediment-stacked waters. Salama is intent on learning everything he can, while he still can, about this endangered, legendary river that threads its way through Colombia's history and people.

The Magdalena is central to many tales, both in fiction, as in the novels of Colombia's revered author Gabriel García Márquez, and in the true stories Salama hears as he follows the river's course from beginning to end. The people he meets and travels with share their experiences—from a jeweler selling silver filigree flowers, to a teacher delivering books to rural children via his two donkeys (Alfa and Beto), to the ill-fated anthropologist and activist Luis Manuel Salamanca, to Alvarito, the village kite master. They are, Salama writes, "ordinary people working tirelessly to preserve the natural/cultural treasures of a country much maligned by war," and their fates are interwoven with the Magdalena.

Then there are the runaway hippopotamuses. Imported from Africa for the private zoo of notorious drug king Pablo Escobar, the hippos fled after Escobar's murder in 1993 and now make the Magdalena and its tributaries their home. They have multiplied and spread over the past three decades, and they will pursue and attack any intruders. As Salama ventures deeper into Colombia, he can't wait to find them.

By the time Salama ends his riveting journey, scrambling across the treacherous rocks where the Magdalena River meets the Caribbean Sea, he has already enticed readers to follow him on his next one.

Jordan Salama is intent on learning everything he can about the legendary Magdalena River, which threads its way through Colombia’s history and people.

Gayle Jessup White's multilayered autobiography, Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant's Search for Her Family's Lasting Legacy, is divided into three parts. The first, most directly autobiographical part of Reclamation offers a fascinating look at Black life in a prosperous neighborhood in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and '70s—a neighborhood that has since been washed away in a wave of gentrification. White describes growing up in this neighborhood as the baby of her family. Her reserved father and acquisitive mother did not get along, but they protected and pampered White so that she did not experience "what racism felt like" until she was 13.

Part two is the heart of the book, documenting White's scrupulous search to prove her family's claim that they are Black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. White, who is now in her mid-60s, first heard that claim as a young teenager, from her much older sister. Her sister had heard it from Aunt Peachie, an elderly relative who died before White was born. Although she was fascinated almost to the point of obsession, White didn't begin her genealogical search until much later.

The long process White went through to establish her lineage will be especially interesting to amateur genealogists. But it is also of great interest in general because of the subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles she faced as a Black person claiming to be a descendant of the author of the Declaration of Independence. In one chapter, White describes developing a relationship with a white Jefferson descendant, a poet and writer, only to end up feeling like her personal narrative had been appropriated and diminished by her would-be collaborator.

During her research, White developed a relationship with historians at Monticello, Jefferson's home, which is the focus of the third part of the book. For a number of powerful reasons, White, who trained as a journalist and has worked as a TV reporter throughout the South, decided Monticello was where she wanted to work at the end of her career. Getting hired there required superhuman persistence, and after becoming Monticello's first Community Engagement Officer, she was one of only a few Black employees and frequently faced criticism from her white co-workers. Overcoming the institution's doubts about her, her work eventually transformed Monticello into a place committed to updating the ways it portrays the lives of people who were enslaved there.

As a Black person working to prove her family’s claim that they are descendants of Thomas Jefferson, Gayle Jessup White faced plenty of obstacles.

When it became clear in March 2020 that the coronavirus was more than an annoying temporary disruption, some writers took to keeping COVID diaries. We're fortunate that one as gifted and insightful as Los Angeles-based novelist and critic Charles Finch chose to preserve his recollections in the eloquent, fierce What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic and fresh from a 13-city book tour, Finch began chatting on Slack with four friends. One of them was an emergency room physician from New York City, the virus's first epicenter, who quickly impressed on Finch the gravity of the crisis. But even faced with this dire news, Finch obsessed over the availability of pasta, toilet paper and hand sanitizer and became a "candle guy." As the months ground on, he grew more troubled by his increasing consumption of marijuana. Through it all he watched, with growing anger and dismay, as the human toll mounted, each round number of deaths rolling into the next, exposing our collective naiveté about how truly terrible our losses would be.

Finch is a keen political observer whose takedowns of the Trump administration's almost willfully incompetent leadership are both savage and, at times, savagely funny. He also reflects on how the pandemic both exacerbated and exposed economic inequality in the United States, excoriating billionaires Jeff Bezos and Michael Bloomberg and confessing to "the joy I would take in shaking a little sand in the gears of capitalism." Following the murder of George Floyd, he devotes considerable attention to the massive protests, wondering whether they are the harbinger of an overdue reckoning with racism in the United States.

Occasionally Finch departs from his contemporary narrative to share some moving bits of personal history, including an evocative scene of a snowy Central Park when he lived in New York in his 20s. He reminisces about the uncle who introduced him to blues and folk music (Finch's affection for country singer Kacey Musgraves is a recurring theme) and about his grandmother, the artist Anne Truitt. A transplant from the East Coast, he also paints memorable pictures of his adopted hometown of LA, "the only sad city I've ever lived in," as he remarks on how its "cool sunniness, its low-slung tatterdemalion endlessness, give the city a tranquil, dreamlike quality."

With the election of Joe Biden and the arrival of vaccines, Finch emerged from an ordeal that hadn't quite ended with the mien of a battle-weary combat veteran. Years from now, historians will comb through primary sources looking for evidence of how we thought and felt during these plague days. They would do well to turn first to What Just Happened.

Years from now, historians will search for evidence of how we felt during the COVID-19 plague days. They would do well to turn first to What Just Happened.

It's hard to believe that author Dawn Turner isn't the narrator of her memoir, Three Girls From Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood (12 hours); the woman reading the audiobook sounds so honest as she recalls growing up in the historic Bronzeville section of Chicago that surely she must be Turner. But award-winning voice actor Janina Edwards' confident storytelling commands attention and enhances the tale. Her wise, knowing tone allows the listener to fall under the spell of the story, envisioning each episode and trusting that the details will weave together meaningfully.

The listener is transported into the past to experience the closeness of Turner's family, the excitement of growing up together and the emotional toll of their disparate fates. With a range of tones and speech patterns, Edwards acts out the truths of Turner's life, from the memorable words of both child and adult personalities to the clear, precise diction of a person raised with strict insistence upon proper speech. This remarkable audio production intrigues and entertains.

Listeners will fall under the spell of Dawn Turner’s memoir through Janina Edwards’ confident storytelling and wise, knowing tone.

In 2011, the Chinese government imprisoned the prolific artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei for 81 days on charges of "economic crimes"—though the real reason was his outspoken political activism. Though harrowing, the experience spurred Ai Weiwei to see the parallels between his father's tumultuous life and his own. Now, in his moving and passionate memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, Ai Weiwei looks back on growing up during China's Cultural Revolution and recounts the extraordinary life of his father, the exiled poet Ai Qing.

The first half of the memoir is dedicated to Ai Qing, who, along with his family, was forced into exile in 1957, the year Ai Weiwei was born. Because of his status as a writer and poet, and his strained relationship with the Communist regime, Ai Qing was viewed as a threat and forced to do back-breaking work in a labor camp, such as cleaning camp latrines and pruning forests, all while facing constant public humiliation and sometimes physical abuse. As conditions became more dangerous for political prisoners under Chairman Mao Zedong's rule, Ai Qing's family was relocated several times, with precipitously worsening conditions. At one point, they were sent to "Little Siberia" in northeast China, where they were forced to live in a lice- and rat-infested dugout.

Through it all, Ai Qing remained stoic and never allowed anything to break his spirit. He did his work well, never complained and waited patiently for the punishment to end. Although Ai Weiwei was still a child at the time, he, too, knew better than to complain. He hated the blind obedience to Mao but understood that it was necessary. After Mao's death in 1976, Ai Weiwei's family moved to Beijing, and in 1979, Ai Qing was considered fully rehabilitated by the government and no longer a "rightist." He continued writing and publishing poetry, and one of his poems was read during the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The second half of the memoir turns to Ai Weiwei's life—his artistic study in the United States, his move back to Beijing, his career as an artist and his many encounters with political censorship. He writes of his arrest and imprisonment with clarity and detail, and readers can feel the anxiety of political turmoil and the power of disobedience as he defies Chinese authorities, over and over again.

Sprinkled throughout the book are lovely black-and-white sketches and drawings by Ai Weiwei, as well as many of his father's emotive poems. These pieces of art remind readers that, although this memoir is a political and personal history, Ai Weiwei is first and foremost committed to artistic expression.

This heart-rending yet exhilarating book, translated by professor of Chinese Allan H. Barr, gives a rare look into how war and revolution affect innocent bystanders who are just trying to live. It's simultaneously an informative political history of the last 100 years in China, an intimate portrait of familial bonds through the generations and a testament to the power of art.

Ai Weiwei’s heartrending yet exhilarating memoir gives a rare look into how war and revolution affect innocent bystanders who are just trying to live.

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