8 Memoirs By Women With Unconventional Jobs

From circus performer to mortician, Vikki Warner, author of “Tenemental: Adventures of a Reluctant Landlady,” on women who eschew the traditional 9 to 5

I’ m a landlady; I own a three-family apartment building in a smallish New England city. For years, I took pains not to look at this endeavor as a job, but as an adventure in collective living. My ideology focused on shirking authority, not claiming it. I’ve been more concerned with being liked than with running a tight ship. I’m still thusly inclined, but after 14 years I have grasped that using my authority (in measured ways) is healthy. I’ve only recently begun taking it easier on myself, allowing the work to be a little less crushing. And, admitting that this thing I do is in fact a job.

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Not coincidentally, memoirs by tough, ambitious women are the beating heart of my to-read pile. Their immediacy is startling. The idea of a woman setting out to create a thing, do a job, achieve a goal is simple, yet it feels novel every damn time because the obstacles are vaster for us.

The authors in this list are not known to take it easy. These women push themselves to endure the pain and stress of difficult work in order to find some self-realization, or to help others, and usually both. Some learned on the job; some had long years of training or education. Some had to lie or misrepresent themselves to get a foot in the door. These women openly admit that in life and at work, flawlessness is elusive; mistakes are made; and hope is always there somewhere, scampering around at the edges.

Sideshow Performer

The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts by Tessa Fontaine

Scurrying between her mother’s continued health crises after a nearly fatal stroke, Tessa Fontaine is tired and shut down. She has always been afraid of losing her mother, always been afraid of life’s small daily risks and pitfalls; she knows that she must conquer these fears in order to seize her own spirit. On a whim, picturing her vivacious mother pre-illness (and having lied about her skills in this rather specialized field), she joins a traveling circus sideshow. The work is grueling and uncomfortable, but also personally transcendent (the title refers to Fontaine’s eventual act, in which she runs enough electrical current through her body to illuminate a light bulb with her tongue). Fontaine’s singular debut shifts between her sideshow evolution, to stinging interactions with her mother, to historical sideshow lore that advances the narrative.

Supreme Court Justice

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

Much of the love has gone to RBG of late, but I have a persistent soft spot for the amazing story of Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina ever to serve on the Supreme Court. Sotomayor’s memoir focuses on her early life, from her modest youth as the child of two Puerto Rican immigrants in the Bronx, to her attainment of what seemed to her a distant dream — being appointed a federal judge in New York. Young Sonia is tough and perceptive, a kid who’s already looking after herself in the face of parental strife and juvenile diabetes. Her tenaciousness continues to save her through law school and right into her law career, and we all know where that has led her. It’s a richly detailed, endearing portrait of a self-made woman.

Cab Driver

Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab by Melissa Plaut

I’m not much for ride-sharing services, but one jewel in their crown is that they’ve got plenty of women drivers — about 30% of Lyft drivers, for example, are women. In the world of the NYC yellow cab, though, that figure is only around 4%. That’s the world Melissa Plaut inhabits. In her funny and clear-eyed memoir, she laments her lack of a calling; while her friends and family settled into mostly satisfying careers, she tried a million things, but never found her thing. Enter cab driving: Plaut takes the licensing exam, nails it, and takes her pleather seat behind the wheel. The intricacies of this hidden world, and Plaut’s unusual place within it, are compelling — even mundane tasks like finding a restroom take on new meaning when one is dealing with a work culture entirely set up for someone else.

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Indulging an all-encompassing fascination with death, twenty-something Caitlin Doughty seeks out a job at a crematory. Although she starts the job somewhat unaware of its duties, she quickly learns the intimacies of death and dead bodies, and how to operate a retort — the chamber where the cremation magic happens. Meanwhile, she continues to hone her free-thinking and unflappable approach to death. Doughty writes with amusing lightness about the whole affair, critiquing our modern approach to death — we just hide it away, and run in the other direction, for as long as we can. She has made it her life’s work to demystify our deaths when they’re still many years away. It’s an act of generosity and care that feels right coming from a woman.

Jail Psychiatrist

Sometimes Amazing Things Happen: Heartbreak and Hope on the Bellevue Hospital Psychiatric Prison Ward by Dr. Elizabeth Ford

Ford writes with gravity about her experience as a psychiatrist treating the incarcerated population at New York’s Bellevue Hospital — men charged with crimes who are shuffled and re-shuffled through the system as they await trial. Her work brings constant apprehension as her patients show aggression and anger, but also reveal deep scars from brutal childhoods, the prison system, and lifetimes of disenfranchisement. She doubts herself; she doubts her patients. But in the end, she is also able to write with hope about moments of kindness, and small victories that may bring larger ones for these men — even the tenuous possibility that some may extricate themselves from the prison and mental health system for good.

Long-Distance Swimmer

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer by Lynne Cox

Open-water swimming may not sound like a job at all, but the risks involved with Lynne Cox’s vocation — sharks, hypothermia, churning storms, hell, even extreme bathing-suit chafe — roundly beat any missed deadline or deflating phone call I’ve had to endure at mine. So let’s just go ahead and call it a job, shall we? Cox describes heeding the call, while still a child, to leave the safety of the pool and swim in open water. By age sixteen, she held the world record for swimming the English Channel. And her feats get still more towering from there. A story of extreme endurance by a woman who defines the word “unstoppable,” this memoir is about following the mystery of crazy goals — and achieving every last one.

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Urban Farmer

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter

Back-to-the-land memoirs can be formulaic affairs, but when the land being gone back to is a wasted fragment at the end of a dead-end street next to a freeway in Oakland, the story defies simplification. Carpenter’s book is about starting a rag-tag squatter’s urban farm — complete with chickens, turkeys, ducks, and a myriad of vegetables — and growing it into a dependable food source. Her use of the word “ghetto” to describe her poor, largely nonwhite neighborhood — of which she admits to being terrified at first — is discomfiting and unimaginative. But her transformation of a scrap of city land left for dead is a story worth following.


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

As a child, Hope Jahren followed her scientist father, a longtime college professor, around his lab; she writes that for him, science was not just a job, but an identity. Her passionate writing makes clear that her own identity is similarly centered on science. Jahren describes an emotionally hollow family and childhood, where science was a comfort, a “safe place” that she always believed would lead her to a career despite her inconvenient gender. In beautiful, lilting language, she compares her own evolution in the lab to the growth and characteristics of plants. There is plenty of detailed yet dynamic writing about lab procedures and concepts in botany; it is juxtaposed with the story of her debilitating depression and hospitalization. We don’t often get to see scientists’ emotional innards; here, Jahren lays it all gloriously out, and the results are riveting.

About the Author

Vikki Warner is an acquisitions editor with Blackstone Audio and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in BUST, The Boston Globe, and Zagat, among others. She is the author of Tenemental: Adventures of a Reluctant Landlady.

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