With subjects ranging from midwifery to nuclear-weapons, Girl Scouts to medical marijuana, the following five books demonstrate the incredible stories our lives can write when we become willing to embrace the unknown and ask difficult questions. Cheryl Strayed’s powerful memoir reveals the raw transformations that can arise out of the depths of grief, while Stacy A. Cordery’s biography of Girl Scouts founder Juliet Gordon Low shows that it’s never too late to find your purpose. Heather Donahue lets go of a dream to reclaim her identity, Patsy Harman goes with her gut to deliver women, and Kristen Iversen takes on a fight that is as personal as it is political. Each of these women share a unique story — some amusing, some heartbreaking, and all of them inspiring.
By: Patricia Harman
Publisher: Beacon Press
Just out in paperback, this intimate and generous memoir details Patricia Harman's years as a hippie in the 1970s, living off the land and organizing against the Vietnam War. In tracing her evolution as a young woman falling in love, becoming a mother, working to create community, and striving to have a positive impact on the wider world, she shows how she found her way to midwifery. The book focuses primarily on her challenging and beautiful years experimenting with subsistence living — the details of which are fascinating and inspiring, but never glorified: It was difficult, relentless and often lonely work, but she stuck with it for years and appreciated the simple rewards and pleasures it offered. Ultimately the book leaps ahead to the present day and unflinchingly reveals Harman's current challenges as the mother of grown men, a certified nurse midwife who no longer delivers babies, and the wife and business partner to a doctor dealing with the stress of drug-addicted patients and malpractice worries. Harman has a way of drawing her reader in with her reminiscences, and “Arms Wide Open” will be enjoyed by anyone interested in personal accounts of the 1970s hippie/commune experience, sustainable living, or midwifery and natural childbirth. This book is a prequel to Harman's previous memoir, “The Blue Cotton Gown,” which focuses much more on her experiences as a midwife. Read them both for a full picture of this interesting woman's life.
If you’re a Girl Scout leader, a former Scout, the parent of a Scout, or all of the above, then you know that the Girl Scouts recently celebrated their 100th anniversary. With a membership of 3.2 million girls and boasting more than 50 million alumnae, the Girl Scouts is the largest organization in the world focused on girl leadership. Their fascinating founder, Juliette Gordon Low — affectionately dubbed “Crazy Daisy” by family and friends for her “brilliant eccentricity” — is the subject of Stacy A. Cordery’s recent biography. Low was born into a privileged family at the start of the Civil War. Her father was a third-generation Georgian, descended from leading politicians and businessmen, and her mother’s ancestors had founded Chicago. Being the product of a marriage that straddled the political divide of Civil War America is interesting in and of itself, but Low’s life was remarkable as much for its moment in history as for the choices that she made. After a difficult marriage and divorce, yearning for a sense of purpose, she found her calling when she met Robert Baden-Powell, war hero, adventurer and founder of the Boy Scouts. In 1912, at age 51, Low imported the Boy Scouts' sister organization, the Girl Guides, to Savannah. Resolved to instill the same useful skills and moral values in young girls, Low gave charismatic recruiting talks and developed shrewd publicity campaigns to attract donations and endorsements. The organization’s name was changed to the Girl Scouts early on, and troops multiplied across the U.S. as the movement reached out to schools, YWCAs, churches and charitable organizations. Fueled by her unquenchable determination and energetic, charismatic leadership, Low bestowed a legacy that has touched the lives of American girls ever since.
As lyrical and elegant as it is honest and raw, Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” will move anyone who has ever looked at a map and known that their healing and survival depended on a journey. In the wake of her mother's untimely death from cancer, 22-year-old Strayed watched helplessly as her family scattered and her own marriage unraveled. Four years later, her life in shambles, she made the impulsive decision to hike the vast, beautiful, and unforgiving Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington state. Though she had no experience as a long-distance hiker, Strayed embarked on the 1,100-mile, three-month hike alone, an experience that tested both her physical and mental endurance, and ultimately restored her sense of self. "Of all the things that convinced me that I should not be afraid while on this journey, of all the things I'd made myself believe so I could hike the PCT, the death of my mother was the thing that made me believe the most deeply in my safety: nothing bad could happen to me, I thought. The worst thing already had." Strayed, who was recently revealed as the anonymous and much-loved author of the Dear Sugar advice column on The Rumpus, has written a vibrant, moving, and inspiring account of a life unraveling, and of the journey that put it back together.
"I'm sure somewhere on the cover of this book will be the words 'The Blair Witch Project,' and believe me, I will have tried to prevent that." So writes Heather Donahue at the beginning of her memoir. Known for her leading role in the iconic film, Donahue was 24 when she watched her star rise — and fall — thanks to a publicity campaign that implied the Blair Witch Project was allegedly “found footage” depicting real events. Despite the fact that she had spent her young adult life training as an actress and although she was on the cover of Newsweek, featured in People, appeared on "The Tonight Show," "The Daily Show," the MTV awards, and CNN, Donahue, whose real name was used in the film, suddenly found her very identity in doubt. "It's a strange thing to be told you're not really an actress when that's what you spent your young adult life training for. It's even stranger to be told that your name isn't really yours anymore, that it's somebody else's intellectual property now. The most basic things that a person roots a self to — name and occupation — were gone. I wasn't an actress. I wasn't Heather Donahue. I was The Girl from 'The Blair Witch Project' and I was supposed to be dead." Donahue attempted to continue acting, but the roles were few, far between, and just plain bad. Less than a decade after "Blair Witch," Donahue realized that her acting career was over and that she wanted her story back. Determined to start a new life, she purged most of her belongings, and ultimately found herself right back in the woods — only this time, she was growing high-grade marijuana. "Growgirl" chronicles Donahue’s year living and working in Nuggettown, Calif., among a community of medical marijuana growers. This unlikely memoir is funny and wise, and provides a glimpse into a rarely seen world that's currently the source of much intrigue and discussion. Donahue’s experience gave her insight into and respect for the controversial $14 billion-a-year marijuana business, and her authentic, engaging memoir works to discover how to artfully move forward when life doesn’t turn out quite how you expected it to.
Kristen Iversen grew up in Arvada, Colo., near the Rocky Flats nuclear weaponry facility, which secretly produced more than 70,000 plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs and, unbeknownst to residents, widely contaminated the surrounding environment. With her forthcoming book, “Full Body Burden,” Iversen thoughtfully mines the details of a childhood spent in a deceivingly beautiful landscape that was secretly poisoned by toxic and radioactive elements, masterfully weaving investigative journalism with personal memoir. From her father’s hidden liquor bottles to the closely guarded truth about what they made at Rocky Flats, Iversen demonstrates the destructive power of secrets, and shows how important it is to ask questions and fight for the truth. “Full Body Burden” offers a detailed and shocking account of the government’s sustained attempt to conceal the effects of the toxic and radioactive waste released by Rocky Flats, and of local residents’ vain attempts to seek justice in court. Though the book is based on extensive interviews, FBI and EPA documents, and class-action testimony, “Full Body Burden” feels personal — and that’s the point. As Iversen demonstrates through her poignant and engaging writing, there is no way to separate what goes on at nuclear power plants and weapons sites from the lives of those who live near them.