The poet Nina Riggs is a direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson. At the age of just thirty-seven, and with two young sons, she is diagnosed with breast cancer. She and her husband are initially hopeful about the outcome, but within a year, she is told that her cancer has metastasized and is terminal. In this profound and beautiful memoir, Riggs allows the reader to accompany her as she attempts to come to terms with her own mortality, and as she meditates on those aspects of humanity that make living truly worthwhile.
One of my 2018 resolutions was to make an effort to read outside my usual comfort zones, and one genre I’ve been exploring and really enjoying is memoir. I find myself attracted to more lyrical memoirs that draw on culture, fiction, poetry, and art in order to weave a rich and engaging story.
These are a few of my recent reads, and I have been recommending these books far and wide! They all have strong female protagonists who undertake brave and unusual journeys, both literal and spiritual. At times profoundly moving and at times profoundly funny, these memoirs all grapple with the question of how we can find and understand our sense of self when faced with personal or collective trauma.
Whether or not you are also new to the genre of memoir, each of these compelling accounts of extraordinary lives will stay with you for a long time after you turn the final page.
The youngest daughter born to a family of survivalists, Westover’s childhood was intensely isolated and frequently fearful. Distrustful of the government, her father did not register her birth, and there was no question of her attending public school. As a result, Westover had no formal education until the age of 17, when she began a self-motivated academic journey that culminated in her being awarded a PhD from the University of Cambridge. The story of an unlikely pathway to academic success, this memoir also presents a portrait of an extraordinary family, and of the difficulty of leaving one’s home so far behind.
Persepolis is a graphic novel in two parts. Part one, The Story of a Childhood, is about Satrapi’s childhood growing up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Part two, The Story of a Return, focuses on her teen years living and studying in Austria and about her eventual return to Iran, where she transitions into adulthood. While Satrapi succeeds in crafting a complex portrait of post-revolution Iran that is both critical and humanizing, Persepolis is not merely a historical account. It is a story of a young girl struggling to find a sense of identity and purpose, all the while witnessing the horrific realities of war and oppression.