These writers made unconventional choices, risked judgment -- and discovered what they really wanted out of life.
By Leigh Ann Henion
288 pages; Penguin Press
When 32-year-old Leigh Ann Henion gives birth to her first child, she finds herself "afraid to tell the whole truth." As much as she loves her son, she writes, "I cannot help but mourn the loss of something I can't quite place. I have an inner emptiness --literal and figurative -- that I've never felt before." To fill it, she shucks convention and leaves her son with her husband for week-long breaks in order to fly around the world, searching for natural phenomena that will renew her sense of joy and amazement: a butterfly migration in Mexico, an active volcano in Hawaii, a bioluminescent sea in Puerto Rico, the Northern Lights in Iceland. Part travel memoir, part parenting manifesto and part inquiry into those "fleeting, extraordinary glimpses of something that left us groping for rational explanations in the quicksand of all-encompassing wonder."
-- Leigh Newman
By Helen Macdonald
288 pages; Grove Press
Grief management by way of falcon training, writer, poet and scholar Helen Macdonald returns to her childhood obsession with birds of prey to cope with the unexpected death of her father. Macdonald's exquisite inquiry into bereavement eventually brings her to realize, "I'd wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home." An intelligent, unexpected marvel."
-- Sarah Meyer
By Kate Mulgrew
320 pages; Little, Brown and Company
Pretend for a minute that you don't know the author of this dazzling memoir (which will require you to forget ever having seen her in Orange Is the New Black or Star Trek: Voyager). Instead, take author Kate Mulgrew for who she is: a woman with terrific wit, talent and courage. Her mother was an outspoken maverick with seven kids who once danced with Jack Kennedy, and painted at her easel in the basement—even as her children slapped Band-Aids over injuries requiring stitches, tried to bribe the teachers with concoctions of ketchup and mayonnaise or one got a job working as a cocktail waitress, as Mulgrew did, in order to earn enough money to run away to London at age 16. Her recollection of the antics in the packed family house called Derby Grange ("even very small children know paradise when they see it, and this was paradise") makes for lively, hilarious reading, but this is a writer unafraid of complexity, who tackles both her father's on-again, off-again relationship with the lovesick family housekeeper and the long, painful death of her favorite sister from a brain tumor. The real power of the book comes from Mulgrew's unexpected pregnancy (while working on a soap opera) and her decision to give up her baby to Catholic Charities. How Mulgrew staggers on afterwards, achieving phenomenal professional success, even as she mourns the loss of her daughter will stay with you.
-- Leigh Newman
By Lynsey Addario
368 pages; Penguin Press
After 9/11, Lynsey Addario strapped on 20 pounds of Nikon and spent the next decade shooting hot spots around the world. Now the MacArthur Award winner has written It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War, an adrenaline-filled account of her life and work.
Addario is among a group of peripatetic journalists who share an appetite for risk. Each day she seems to bounce from fear to sober determination, from "This is insane. What am I doing?" to "I am watching these people fighting to their death for their freedom."
As she navigates the male-dominated theaters of war and journalism, we learn about the men with whom she embeds -- and beds down. Her internal conflicts are as vivid as the battles she covers: In the space of a day (or a page), Addario might move from salsa dancing in Baghdad to capturing the raw grief born of the discovery of mass graves. At times, her gender shields her; at others, it leaves her open to risks different from any her male colleagues face. She is advised not to look Afghan men in the eye, and more than once a chador saves her. When Addario and several other journalists are nabbed by Libyan thugs, she is felt up repeatedly while the men in her group are beaten with the butts of AK-47s. Throughout, Addario ponders why she is drawn to this work. "We want...to keep reporting until that unknowable last second before injury, capture, death. We are greedy by nature," she concludes.
Addario lays bare the reality that conflict journalism is a messy business full of mixed motives and unpredictable outcomes. In the end, what keeps her going are the deeply human stories her camera tells.
-- Holly Morris
By Nikki Moustaki
256 pages; Henry Holt and Co.
To mark each of her childhood birthdays, Nikki Moustaki's grandfather, Poppy, gives her a pristine white dove to release into the sky. As an adult, Moustaki raises the birds, accumulating a flock of lovebirds, finches and parrots, which she cares for until Poppy's death and her advancing alcoholism take their toll. Poppy's final wish -- that Moustaki travel to the Parisian bird market where "the street smelled like flowers and the musty perfume of birds, whose voices swelled inside the alleyway and bounced off the breeze" -- forces her to come to terms with her recovery in the least likely of places, an abandoned bird sanctuary.
-- Sarah Meyer
By Sasha Martin
336 pages; National Geographic
In this mouth-watering memoir, the author of the blog Global Table Adventure reflects on her painful childhood, spent partly in foster homes, and the redemptive power of home cooking.
Leaving Before the Rains Come
By Alexandra Fuller
272 pages; Penguin Press
The Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight memoirist returns with a devastating and deft account of how her youth in Zambia and Zimbabwe led to the joys and disasters that followed her into adulthood.
-- Sarah Meyer