I am a sucker for real stories about real people. As a kid, I devoured biographies of strong-minded women -- the first woman doctor, the suffragettes, Susan B. Anthony, the Bloomer Girls. I wanted to be like them but fretted that everything notable would already be achieved by the time I grew up. These days, I find inspiration in true stories of ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances. Here are three recent memoirs of women setting out for new horizons with courage, intelligence and wit.


By Lisa Napoli (Crown, $25)

By the time she turned 40, Lisa Napoli had spent 20 years bumping around the world of broadcast journalism, from the East Coast to Los Angeles. She was burned out and so miserable that she signed up for night classes on how to beat depression. (Tip: Every night, write down three good things that happened that day.)

Eventually, almost on a whim, she flew to Bhutan to help that tiny kingdom set up its first radio station, Kuzoo FM.

Isolated for hundreds of years, Bhutan began to emerge into the modern world in 1999 when its king lifted the ban on television, radio and the Internet.

The change has been swift and fascinating, and Napoli was witness to much of it, finding young people -- computer-savvy practically overnight -- downloading American music from iTunes and updating their Facebook pages like mad.

When her guide showed her around her tiny apartment, he said gravely, "My wife watches 'Desperate Housewives' and I've seen the kitchens. I hope this will be suitable."

Still, the country has retained its culture and charm -- giant winged phalluses painted on houses to ward off envy, incredibly spicy food, fluttering prayer flags and elaborate traditional clothing that, Napoli notes, is "nearly impossible to put on properly without the aid of a fleet of assistants."

Napoli returns again and again, and slowly figures out what she wants from life. This is a lively and engaging memoir about growing pains -- of a country, as well as a person.


By Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House, $26)

The writing in Gabrielle Hamilton's lush "Blood, Bones & Butter" transcends the usual foodie memoir, opening with a gorgeous chapter about an elaborate party her parents threw when she was a child, "with jug wine and spit-roasted lambs and glow-in-the-dark Frisbees."

Mostly, Hamilton's journey follows a logical progression -- from dishwasher, to black-clad waitress, to cook, to chef, to restaurateur. She does not always connect the dots of her life, though, and events occasionally are head-snappingly jarring -- such as when she suddenly decides she wants to be a writer and heads to an MFA program in Michigan (it had been all food, all the time, up until then), or when she leaves her longtime lesbian lover (the love of her life, she says) to marry a man.

Still, Hamilton is an eloquent guide to the world of food. She suffers fools not at all -- she's hard on others and harder still on her own capable self. Her descriptions are sensual, and her use of verbs delightful; you will long for "hunks of pork swimming in smoky, deep, earthy juices; warm, salted potatoes; fatty, bony duck wings coated in toasted sesame seeds; curly bitter endive tamed with pear and walnuts."

(You will also see, just as vividly, the dead rat she finds behind her restaurant, so bloated with maggots that the carcass moves as though it is alive.)

Her desires, throughout the book, are fierce and intense. "My hunger grew so specific I could name every corner and fold of it," she writes. "Salty, warm, brothy, starchy, fatty, sweet, clean and crunchy, crisp and watery." And that is what this book is about -- satisfying hunger, in all its incarnations.



By Kim Barker (Doubleday, $25.95)

Kim Barker's memoir about her five years covering Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Chicago Tribune is brave, funny and outrageous. She volunteered for the assignment after 9/11, figuring she was expendable. "I have no kids and no husband," she told her editor, and he nodded, but my guess is that he was really thinking about the things that Barker did have: smarts, courage, ambition and a strong sense of the absurd to keep her from cracking up in a war zone.

Barker learns on the fly, figuring out how to find trustworthy "minders" (drivers and translators); meeting with warlords, Karzai and members of the Taliban; covering suicide bombings, air attacks, the Mumbai massacre and Bhutto's funeral; telling excruciating stories about the effect that war has on day-to-day life and ordinary people.

She also addresses the complication of being a woman in a combat zone. Though she dresses modestly, she is groped frequently, pushed and shoved, propositioned by high government officials who can't quite understand why she won't accept their gifts and advances. She responds with spirit: "The crowd swayed back and forth, and I tried to keep my balance. A man grabbed my butt, a message to my fist, and before my brain knew it, I managed to punch him in the face. Not professional, not at all, but still somewhat gratifying."

When the Tribune files for bankruptcy and calls her home to the metro desk, she is devastated. "I loved this job, I was this job. If I didn't have this, what would I be?" But you're relieved. By then she had turned into "this almost drowning caricature of a war hack, working, swearing and drinking my way through life," and clearly, sense of the absurd or not, it was time to get home.

Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's senior editor for books.