Extraordinary “ordinary” women
From Women’s History Month, we are celebrating women from around the world for their strength, determination, and perseverance. In this article, we’re honoring the extraordinary “ordinary” women who have shared their lives on the page. These are women who we don’t often read about in the news or see in movies or in concerts (when we used to go to them).
In this roundup, we’re sharing remarkable stories of female strength from doctors and lawyers, radio broadcasters and cancer survivors, daughters and warriors.
We named Educated the Best Book of 2018 and it continues to dominate bestseller lists—for good reason. As Senior Editor Erin Kodicek wrote: “Raised off the grid in the hills of Idaho, Westover didn't go to school, didn't go to the doctor, and didn't have a birth certificate for much of her childhood. When she broke free of her roots and went to college, she learned for the first time about events such as the Holocaust and the Civil Rights movement. Westover's grit and voice shines on every page, and her determination to learn as much as she can after being isolated for so long is both inspiring and humbling.”
Between Two Kingdoms is an utterly absorbing, intimate, and honest memoir of a young woman battling cancer, surviving, and then wondering what to do with her life on the other side—void of doctors and pills, feeling sick and depending on others. As she writes: “It was the outside world, the kingdom of the well that had grown alien and frightening.” I loved this book, and while it will certainly resonate with those experiencing the relentless grip of cancer, it’s also about the relentless grip of relationships and the ability to love.
At times, Brittany K. Barnett’s memoir reads like page-turning crime fiction; at others, a galvanizing and redemptive portrait of a lawyer trying to defend Black lives that were never protected in the first place. Barnett is a hero and not just for the lives she’s fought for in court, but for sharing her story and shining a light on the structural racism that exists in this country. Urgent, necessary, hopeful—and a knockout read, which is why the Amazon Books Editors named it the best book of 2020.
Like the people she meets and profiles in her book, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is an undocumented immigrant, and this book pays tribute and investigates their lives—the hardship, the hard work, the vulgar dismissals, the hope that they carry. Her writing is frank and wry, and all the more so as she shares her own story of being the first undocumented immigrant to attend Harvard University.
We named Hope Jahren’s moving memoir, Lab Girl, the best book of 2017 and while the memoir of a woman who studies dirt and plants doesn’t exactly sound gripping, I can assure you it is. With startling clarity, Jahren articulates how she discovered science and what it’s like working in a male dominated profession. As Jahren writes: “I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.”
Senior Editor, Chris Schluep, wrote: “This gem of a book is the result of three years of interviews and research performed by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, the best-selling author of Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. Lemmon writes about women—Americans, Afghanis, Kurds—and their relationship to war in the Middle East, and her latest is about a group of Kurdish women who formed a militia in northern Syria. Known as the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (or YPJ), these women were deeply committed to opposing ISIS, and just as committed to women’s rights. This book is equal parts inspiration and breathless combat, the story of their hard-earned triumph over ISIS, of how they stood up for their own rights, and of where they find themselves today. It is riveting and unforgettable.”
Fiercely observant, Joy Harjo is a poet but in her memoir, Crazy Brave, she mines her own childhood and life journey to share the experiences that shape her view. As a member of the Muscogee (Creek) nation, Harjo articulates how she cultivated creativity and spirituality in the face of racism and dispossession. The result is a harrowing and beautifully intimate tale.
Samantha Irby wears pajamas during the daytime—and, no, not just in the strange and surreal moment we are living in, but all the time. She also lives with a healthy dose of panic and largely indoors—again, not because of this moment, but on most days. With the same verve, observational hilarity, and honesty she brought to her previous books, Wow, No Thank You continues Irby's inquiry into her life that now involves homemade salads in mason jars, her friends that just so happen to be celebrities, and the chaotic comedy of life.
This Is Chance! is the riveting story of the 1964 Anchorage earthquake (the second largest in the U.S. ) and how Genie Chance, a part-time radio anchor, broadcast the news on air for three days straight. In so doing she became the de facto voice of the disaster—ferrying messages of safety, directing first responders, and providing a calm and steady voice to ward off the further chaos of a broken city. With Mooallem's portrait of Chance comes an unputdownable story of natural disaster and how one woman’s resilience and determination saved her community.
The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper is a mesmerizing memoir of a Black emergency room doctor who, while tending to the sick and the injured, mends her own wounds inflicted by an abusive father and a broken marriage. Readers will learn the ins and outs of the ER at three a.m., will see the systematic racism and sexism that dominates the healthcare industry, and understand what it is like to grieve and rebuild from a traumatic event, whether a cracked rib, a horrible father, or the babies she never had with her husband. Dr. Harper is determined to heal, but also to take the time necessary to understand the pain and recover.