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A treasured recipe, a discouraging word, birdsong — in three new memoirs, women figure things out by attending to the world around them:

"Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss and Family Recipes," by Chantha Nguon, with Kim Green. (Algonquin, 292 pages, $29.)

Food is at the heart of this poignant memoir of war and displacement — food prepared, food shared, food longed for. It is a symbol, a memory and a hope. Chantha Nguon recounts her journey from a coddled childhood in Cambodia to life on the run, enduring the terror and confusion of war. Half-Vietnamese, she fled the genocide of Pol Pot, arriving in Saigon just as it fell.

A newly Communist Saigon was "tasteless and colorless, devoid of the flavors I craved," she wrote. "Working for everyone felt like working for no one. It was like tossing your mother's fragrant white rice into a pot of dishwatery porridge."

Destitute, she survived for weeks at a time on rice with salt. The memories of her mother's cooking — crispy fried shrimp, sour chicken and lime soup, green curry with tofu — kept her going.

Nguon makes it to Thailand, where she cooks in a brothel and learns nursing, weaving and English. But her struggles are tempered by mouthwatering recipes written with acerbic wit. One dish was served "with a side of loathing." Another recipe begins, "Buy the least rotten fish you can find in the communal store."

"Slow Noodles" is a heart-shattering read, illuminating the atrocities and cruelty of war but also the strength of those who live through it. Nguon survived through ingenuity, hope and determination. But after 10 years in a refugee camp she ended up back in Cambodia. The doors to emigration had closed, she writes; "we had hoped they would close behind us."

"Private Equity: A Memoir," by Carrie Sun (Penguin Press, 352 pages, $29.)

Carrie Sun had dreams of becoming a writer but felt pressured by her immigrant parents to be a financial success. She whizzed through MIT and landed a lucrative, unsatisfying job in finance.

"I did not feel like I was adding value to the world," she writes. So at age 29 she took a job as personal assistant to the billionaire manager of a hedge fund. (He is called Boone in the book, and the fund is called Carbon, but both are pseudonyms.) She trusted their purported high standards and devoted herself to the job.

And the job required that devotion. It entailed doing everything for the charismatic Boone — from planning vacations to writing speeches to being on call 24/7. When she didn't acknowledge an unimportant message he sent late one night, he chastised her. "Can you reply to all my emails when you see them?" he asked. "I want to know that you read everything I send."

It quickly becomes clear to the reader that Boone is manipulating Sun — putting her down, judging her appearance, setting impossible goals. It's gaslighting at its most effective, and it begins to ruin her physical and emotional health. It takes Sun a little longer to figure this out.

Her book is about career burnout and the hollowness of pursuing money, but it is also a satisfying story about a brilliant woman moving from self-doubt to self-confidence.

"Birding to Change the World," by Trish O'Kane. (Ecco, 368 pages, $29.99)

Trish O'Kane spent years as an investigative journalist, reporting from Central American war zones. But it was Hurricane Katrina, which washed away her neighborhood and drowned more than 1,000 people, that gave her PTSD. "I felt like someone had vacuumed out my brain and heart," she writes. "The only thing that lifted my spirits was to sit outside."

She found her way to Madison, Wis., where she entered a Ph.D. program in environmental studies and settled in a working-class neighborhood on the edge of a park — 215 acres of wetlands, marshes and thickets. Sandhill cranes, foxes and bluebirds thrived there. But Warner Park also had ballfields, tennis courts and boat landings, and every July an earth-shaking fireworks display sent terrified birds, turtles and rabbits fleeing. In a tenuous balance between urban and wild, urban was winning.

When O'Kane discovered that the city had plans to pave through a meadow, cut down trees and further "improve" the park, she found her mission. Over the next five years she and a group of volunteers worked to restore and preserve the park's wild areas.

While saving the ecosystem is at its heart, this book also addresses racism, social justice and organizing, as well as the soul-sucking grind of fighting city hall. It never ends, she writes. There was always a new battle.

When she left New Orleans, O'Kane had pledged "to learn how to live on this earth without destroying it." But in this inspiring memoir, she goes further, teaching us how to make the earth better.

Laurie Hertzel is a writer in St. Paul.