I’ve been on a memoir kick this year. Actually, that may be a bit of an understatement. By my count, I’m currently working on my 30th memoir of the year (Patrick Stewart’s Making It So), and I may still have time to fit in memoirs 31 and 32 before the year ends if I keep up my current pace.
The list is heavy on celebrity memoirs – they’re easiest to come by and can we really ever escape our fascination with fame (and good old celebrity gossip)? But I’ve also read more serious memoirs (see my last post from November 28th). The vast majority of memoirs I finished this year I’ve listened to as audiobooks — there’s something fun about listening to a memoir read by the person who wrote it.
I don’t know exactly what it is about memoirs that draws me in. I guess I’m fascinated by people and their stories. I like hearing about how personal narratives unfold and evolve over a lifetime and how people have dealt with the complexities of life — of dysfunctional families, of poverty, of weird religious upbringings, of fame, of addiction, and more.
So to close out 2023 and in no particular order, my top 6 memoirs of the year (I tried and failed to make it my top 5):
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Safiya Sinclair, How to Say Babylon – If you read my post from the end of November, you already knew this memoir would make the list. Fascinating look into the Rastafari religion, and a powerful story of a young woman escaping her father’s authoritarian rule over her family.
Dave Grohl, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music – Okay, this one surprised me. I’m not much of a Nirvana or Foo Fighters fan so I had no expectations going into Grohl’s memoir but I was captivated. Grohl recounts his childhood, his first forays into music, making it big with Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, and balancing fame with being a father. As the title suggests, he is truly a great storyteller. Bonus points to his memoir for giving me an excuse to show my 6-year-old nephew the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video.
Burkhard Bilger, Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets – Nazis and family secrets. That was the initial draw for me in Burkhard Bilger’s memoir about his grandfather’s involvement with the Nazi Party during World War II. I stayed for his deep dive into his grandfather’s story and for his exploration of local archives in small German towns – I am a historian after all! The memoir is a really moving account of a family grappling with questions of humanity and complicity and unwinding a complex family narrative – this man was their grandfather and father, a beloved school teacher, war hero, traitor, and committed member of the Nazi Party. How should Bilger’s family reconcile all of this with their own family history?
Viola Davis, Finding Me – I didn’t know much going into this about Viola Davis beyond her professional work, but listening to her read her memoir was a powerful experience. Davis grew up in extreme poverty in Rhode Island, and her memoir traces her childhood in exquisitely painful detail. It was so inspiring to listen to her tell her story and hear just how much she had to overcome in order to build such a successful and fulfilling career.
Hua Hsu, Stay True – Won a Pulitzer Prize this year and for good reason. A devastating memoir about a close friend’s murder while Hsu was a college student in California. At the same time, it’s also a recollection of growing up, going to college, and navigating young adulthood. A poignant look at friendship and the ripples a random act of violence causes through a family, a friend group, and a community.
Jenette McCurdy, I’m Glad My Mom Died – A devastating title for an equally devastating memoir — this one tracking Jennette McCurdy’s childhood fame as part of the Nickelodeon show iCarly and the abuse she suffered by her mother, who was driven by a need to see Jenette succeed in show business no matter the cost. I was too old to watch iCarly and didn’t know much about McCurdy so I really had no idea what to expect from the memoir. It was equal parts funny and painful to read and has stuck with me since I finished it last spring. Even if, like me, you have no idea who McCurdy is, it’s an interesting look into our complicated relationships with our families and ourselves.
What memoirs should I read in 2024?