The best books by women unapologetic about their hot mess

Who am I?

When writing my memoir about serving in the Peace Corps, I knew with every keystroke I was opening myself up for public censure. The things that I needed to get down on paper were not pretty things; they did not show me in a favorable light. I also knew it was the only way to tell my tale. Honesty is compelling even (perhaps especially) when the truth is ugly. Female voices in contemporary literature are raw, messy, and unapologetic. The appeal of candid “femoir” is undeniable, as evidenced by runaway bestsellers in recent years (I’m looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love and Wild). Discover more hidden gems below.

I wrote...

The Color of the Elephant

By Christine Herbert,

Book cover of The Color of the Elephant

What is my book about?

An outstanding new voice in memoir, Christine Herbert takes the reader on a “time-machine tour” of her Peace Corps volunteer service as a health worker and educator from 2004-2006 in Zambia. Rather than a retrospective, this narrative unfolds in the present tense, propelling the reader alongside the memoirist through a fascinating exploration of a life lived “off the grid.” 

At turns harrowing, playful, dewy-eyed, and wise, the author’s heart and candor illuminates every chapter, whether she is the heroine of the tale or her own worst enemy. Even at her most petulant, the laugh-out-loud humor scuppers any “white savior” mentality and lays bare the undeniable humanity—and humility—of the storyteller. Through it all, an undeniable love for Zambia—its people, land, and culture—shines through. A must-read for the armchair adventurer!

The books I picked & why

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Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

By Alexandra Fuller,

Book cover of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

Why this book?

Fuller’s astounding account of growing up in Africa is singular, engrossing, and unforgettable. She never once shies away from ugly truths or attempts to justify the behavior of the family and community whose ideals and destructive vices she is powerless—as a child—to gainsay. With raw and unvarnished language, the author leads us through her young life punctuated by loss, compounded by the trauma of growing up in a war zone, and inexorably unmoored by her mother’s descent into mental illness.

Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went from Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things

By Courtenay Hameister,

Book cover of Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went from Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things

Why this book?

An uproarious tell-all about blooming late, taking chances, and being vulnerable. In an effort to cope with the loss of a defining career and face down a lifetime of insecurities about her body, the author decides to tackle anything (self-exploratory-wise) that would normally send her screaming for the hills. Reluctantly but determinately, she takes the plunge into internet dating, professional cuddling, sensory deprivation, polyamory, Brazilian waxing, and more—all the while getting throat-punched by anxiety. Self-deprecating and ribald, Hameister’s anecdotes illustrate that sometimes pulling up one’s big girl panties can actually mean taking them off.

The Glass Castle

By Jeannette Walls,

Book cover of The Glass Castle

Why this book?

A truly captivating memoir about poverty, family, hope, addiction, and dysfunctionality. Walls deftly illustrates the power of a child’s mind to magnify the exceptional qualities of condemnable parents. Only as she matures and the scales slowly fall from her eyes do the abject neglect, abuse, and magical thinking of her upbringing come into focus. With direct, unapologetic prose, she continues to honor her childhood naivete while at the same time revealing her parents’ undeniable (read: pathological) faults and failings.

The Body Papers: A Memoir

By Grace Talusan,

Book cover of The Body Papers: A Memoir

Why this book?

There’s nothing flowery in Talusan’s writing (indeed, the prose is so lean, you’d think it ran a decathlon, ate half a grapefruit, and downed a shot of wheatgrass before landing on the page); the bald truths of her narrative cut unerringly, time and again, to the very heart of her trauma. This is a brave account of surviving childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by a revered family elder, and the Sisyphean task of unpacking the ensuing emotional baggage. This narrative serves as a public, shout-from-the-rooftops refusal to carry the shame for a crime someone else has committed.

Paradise Road: A Memoir

By Marilyn Kriete,

Book cover of Paradise Road: A Memoir

Why this book?

This debut memoir is an absolute triumph. From teenage runaway, to bohemian hippie, to cross-continental cyclist, to lost soul, the author candidly invites us to journey with her through ebullient highs and devastating lows. In a surprising twist—while navigating the nadir of her odyssey—the author finds solace for her wandering soul in a harbor she least expects. This is, in essence, a story of finding salvation in arms everlasting.

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