Memoirs seem to be the perfect genre for spending time listening to audiobooks. Even more than transporting fiction or informative non-fiction, there’s something about listening to highly personal confessions in the privacy of your car or on a long walk that makes you feel like you have an intimate relationship with the author.
Celebrity memoirs can be a wild ride through a performer’s ups and downs, but just as compelling are books from people who have had extraordinary lives like “The Glass Castle’s” Jeanette Walls — or are just extraordinarily entertaining at recounting their everyday lives, like David Sedaris.
Many of the best memoirs hinge on the breakthrough moment — the turning point when a nobody starts to become a somebody for the first time. It’s always emotional — so we’ll forgive you if you tear up on the freeway when Sedaris sells his first story, Patti Smith walks onstage for the first time or any number of memoirists finally find distance from their dysfunctional families.
Danish poet Tove Ditlefsen grew up in the early 1900s in a Copenhagen indistinguishable from the socially progressive, enlightened city of today. Recalling “Angela’s Ashes,” but with a distinctive feminist perspective, her early memories of living in poverty while dreaming of a literary life — and the precarious success she finally achieved — are hypnotically captivating in this newly-released audiobook, unfurling against the backdrop of the Nazi movement and the gradual modernization of 20th century Europe.
Patti Smith’s unmistakable throaty drawl adds dimension to the pioneering punk poet and singer’s exquisitely-observed and heartbreaking story of how she fled New Jersey in her early 20s, lived on almost nothing in New York, and moved in with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe while starting to perform at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City.
The first of two volumes of diaries from humorist David Sedaris is the better one, as it captures his early life as it begin to dawn on him that writing could be the way out of a life of odd jobs and discontent. Although they have been edited for this book, the journal entries are rawer and more honest than his polished essays, but with his same mordant humor and gentle crankiness. The second volume, “A Carnival of Snackery,” is skippable as the more wealthy and insulated Sedaris becomes, the less engaging and relatable his grumpiness is to hear.
The musician Michelle Zauner, known as Japanese Breakfast, proves she’s as adept at writing a sensitive memoir about family ties as she is at creating dreamy electro-pop. Zauner writes of growing up as a Korean American in Eugene, Ore., moving to the East Coast and beginning a band, and returning to Oregon to take care of her mother when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Memories of special meals she shared with her mother and grandmother and her efforts to come to terms with her family are woven throughout the book, which Zauner narrates herself.
Mary Karr wrote about her tumultuous upbringing in a low-income Texas family in groundbreaking memoir “The Liar’s Club” (which is only available in abridged form on audiobook). In her later book “Lit,” the poet details how she confronted alcoholism while raising her young son and facing the aspects of her childhood trauma that led her to seek solace and oblivion from drinking. Karr’s soft Texas burr recounts the adventures of her colorful, wildly dysfunctional friends at AA and her gradual embrace of a very individual variety of faith with such grace and economy, it may make you a fan of her writing for life.
It’s not a coincidence that some of the best memoirs are by writers who happen to also be skilled poets. Saeed Jones covers the first 25 years of his life coming of age as a young, Black, gay man. His intense relationship with his mother, snapshots of growing up outside of Houston in the 2000s and the beginnings of understanding his sexuality are lyrically recounted in this short but affecting memoir from the writer, poet and social media favorite.
Probably one of the top five memoirs of all time, Jeanette Walls’ story of her calamitous upbringing across the Southwest and in a West Virginia shack is as riveting as it is horrifying. With headstrong, artistic and unstable parents who were utterly unsuited to raising children, Walls and her brother and sister are forced to grow up way too fast, scrounging food for the family and fighting to get an education under the most extreme conditions. If you’re as captivated by her story as most listeners are, check out “Half Broke Horses,” a prequel that tells the story of her mother’s frontier childhood in the early 20th century Southwest.
Sarah M. Broom’s grandmother bought a shotgun house in New Orleans East in 1964, and the yellow cottage would shelter three generations of her large family. The writer and journalist’s first book skillfully excavates the terrain of her family history alongside the developing neighborhood’s story, explaining what it’s like “growing up in New Orleans on a street which felt cut off from the rest of the city and thus, the world,” she writes, as the house itself slowly enters a state of entropy before succumbing to Hurricane Katrina.