I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
What to Get Out of Memoirs
According to Goodreads, about one-third of the books I read in a year are biographies or memoirs. Celebrities lead interestingly human lives, and a memoir is a great format to tell stories about the business or their own personal struggles that they can share with the world.
A famous name can get a reader to pick up the book, but a good writer can keep a reader from putting it down. Comedians are natural storytellers, but even serious actors have been known to produce a great memoir or two. Below is a list of 10 books by famous people that I recommend if you are a fan of celebrity memoirs or are looking for something interesting and inspiring to read.
1. Everything In Its Place by Marc Summers (1999)
This is one of the few books on this list that is not very funny. It’s actually a self-help book for those who have or think they might have obsessive-compulsive disorder, written by a TV personality who kept his disease hidden from himself, and the world, for years.
Best known as the host of Nickelodeon’s game show, Double Dare, in the ’80s and ’90s, Summers uses his life as a backdrop to show how he handled his compulsions and diagnosis and eventually conquered his condition. It even includes a piece written by his doctor, Eric Hollander, who adds a professional perspective to Marc’s own experiences.
Summers’ writing is straightforward, simple, and upbeat, never lingering on the bad for very long. OCD overtook his life for many years, so it’s only fitting that OCD is the focus of his book. It’s not preachy or loaded with medical jargon. It is just a man describing what it’s like to be him, both good and bad, and comfort to those who feel the same.
Summers tells a story about his one and only pre-treatment reprieve of his OCD symptoms after a major earthquake struck his home one night. For the first time, his focus shifted not from the mess that was left by the quake but to the safety and well-being of his family. It shows just how these compulsions can take over your thoughts and that it takes something as extreme as a natural disaster to distract from the rituals that are forced upon those with OCD.
2. My Boring-Ass Life: The Uncomfortably Candid Diary of Kevin Smith by Kevin Smith (2007)
Filmmaker Kevin Smith records the day-to-day details of his life from March 2005 to November 2006. Nothing is left out, and I mean nothing.
My Boring-Ass Life starts with entries chronicling everything from what fast food restaurant he ate at each night to how well he did in his ongoing online gambling games. Halfway through, the focus shifts as Smith chronicles filming his latest movie, Clerks 2, before heading off to Canada to star in the movie Catch and Release.
Smith then dedicates a large chunk of the book to the history of his best friend, Jason Mewes’ drug addiction and how he pulled himself from the brink of death to clean himself up and start fresh. The book ends with Smith meeting one of the heroes, actor Bruce Willis, on the Live Free or Die Hard set and his desire to work with him on a future project. Any fan of Smith’s knows how this interaction plays out after the events of the book, and it’s amusing to have the diary end on such an upbeat note, knowing the professional misery to follow.
I read the 70-page, nine-part story buried in the middle of the book Me and My Shadow in one sitting. This section tells the story of Jason Mewes’ drug addiction from Smith’s point of view and all that Smith did to save his friend’s life time and again before he ultimately discovered that only Mewes could save himself, standing by eagerly as he does.
However, I also have to reference this paragraph about how an anal fissure got him out of jury duty:
“Unable to even lean on the jury box without wincing, I ultimately laid down on the floor, hoping that taking the weight off my feet by being prone might lessen the pain. At this point, the judge puts a stop to the cross-examination and says, ‘Did we lose someone? Juror number three?’ I weakly respond ‘I’m down here, your honor.’ Nice guy that he was, the judge said ‘I understand you’re having some problems, but I really think it’s important you see the witness’ face as she testifies.’ I replied ‘I’m in such rectal agony right now, I couldn’t care less about seeing the witnesses face, your honor.’ When he asked what the court could do for me, I asked for a ten-minute break, which he quickly granted.”
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3. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron (2008)
This book of essays written by the famous writer/director offers a glimpse into her concerns about aging and reflections on her life. Ephron jumps from one topic to another, sharing glimpses into her life and the charming first-world problems that irk her and entertain us.
She was whip-smart and knew how to make rich people's problems relatable to everyone. It's also interesting to hear about how her close but sometimes troubled family life shaped her into the person that she became.
Her essay, “I Hate My Purse,” is one of the most relatable chapters for anyone who carries a bag around with them all day. Here is an excerpt below:
“This is for women whose purses are a morass of loose Tic Tacs, solitary Advils, lipsticks without tops, ChapSticks of unknown vintage, little bits of tobacco even though there has been no smoking going on for at least ten years, tampons that have come loose from their wrappings, English coins from a trip to London last October, boarding passes from long-forgotten airplane trips, hotel keys from God-knows-what hotel, leaky ballpoint pens, Kleenexes that either have or have not been used but there’s not way to be sure one way or another…”
4. Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art by Gene Wilder (2010)
Actor Gene Wilder tells his life story, chronicling his childhood, career, and marriages. Wilder was a very different person from the larger-than-life characters that he played, and the quiet, sensitive person that he actually was is reflected in his writing.
He makes other people the star of his stories, yet he lingers on his own thoughts and feelings that he had during each experience, from perfecting his craft onstage and onscreen to facing cancer diagnosed in both loved ones and himself. This book may include the last lucid thoughts of Wilder before he succumbed to the Alzheimer’s
Disease that eventually took his life in 2016.
His stories about filming Young Frankenstein are particularly entertaining thanks to the colorful recollections of his interactions with director Mel Brooks:
“In all the time we spent together, we had only one argument. I can’t even remember what it was about; I just remember that he yelled at me. Ten minutes after he left, he called me on the phone from his house: “WHO WAS THAT MADMAN YOU HAD IN YOUR HOUSE? I COULD HEAR THE YELLING ALL THE WAY OVER HERE. YOU SHOULD NEVER LET CRAZY PEOPLE INTO YOUR HOUSE-DON’T YOU KNOW THAT? THEY COULD BE DANGEROUS.’”
5. Bossypants by Tina Fey (2011)
Comedy actor/writer Tina Fey tells her life story in a series of essays on topics ranging from describing her stern father to working on her show, 30 Rock. Fey also offers tips about posing for photo shoots, answering hate mail, and how to be a female boss in a male-dominated workplace, experiences that most of us will never encounter but still want to hear about.
The pacing of each story is unsurprisingly well-timed. Hysterical side thoughts come from out of nowhere and nearly knock you over into a fit of hysterics. I’ve read this book both as an audiobook and hard copy, and both times, her strong voice came through and became the voice in your head regaling these funny anecdotes.
Fey tells the story about a terrible experience while on her honeymoon cruise when a part of the ship caught fire, and the passengers were forced to temporarily abandon ship before having to dock in Bermuda and fly back home. Her narration makes this nightmare of a trip into a hysterical cautionary tale riddled with tips and jokes at one point, saying:
“If you ever have to get on a lifeboat, the person in charge of your safety will likely be a nineteen-year-old dancer from Tampa who just had a fight with his boyfriend about the new Rhianna video.”
6. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling (2011)
Actress Mindy Kaling tells her life story in a series of essays on a variety of funny topics. She gently pokes fun at how people perceive her through her weight, race, and gender and even mocks her view of herself through these prisms. She helps to give feminism a good name by showing how it’s possible to talk about women’s issues without sounding whiny or sensitive. She also still remembers what life is like on the other side of fame and shows us how her lifestyle has changed, but her confusion about it has not.
Kaling’s sentences are long, sharp, and detailed, much like the way she speaks. Like many of the books on this list, hers also contains photographs of herself which she utilizes as a punch line for many jokes throughout the book. She’s like a character in a movie who is thrown into a glamorous life and is still trying to figure out how to maneuver through it, and it's fun to go along for the ride.
The best thing about this book is Kaling’s one-liners that come out of nowhere and leave just as fast, including:
“Sometimes you just have to put on lip gloss and pretend to be psyched.”
“What I’ve noticed is that almost no one who was a big star in high school is also big star later in life. For us overlooked kids, it’s so wonderfully fair.”
“Nothing gives you confidence like being a member of a small, weirdly specific, hard-to-find demographic.”
7. Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where The Hell Are My Keys? by Billy Crystal (2013)
In this book, comedian Billy Crystal’s essays chronicle what it’s like to get older as he looks back on his life, career, and relationships, including those with admired sports figures such as Mickey Mantle and Muhammad Ali. His humor ranges from cranky old man to Mike Wazowski-sized enthusiasm.
Crystal's previous books have touched on his life, but this one really gives you the stories you want to hear, flip-flopping between eras from childhood to his big-name movies to making preparations for his eventual demise. Despite some heavy topics, the humor never wavers.
Crystal still has a lot of jokes left in him and a lot of experiences ahead of him. This is a comfort to anyone who is aging or who thinks they haven’t accomplished enough in their life so far.
The book really grabbed me with this first sentence in his chapter, “Why Worry”:
“One thing is constant for me. Every night I go to sleep at eleven. I wake up refreshed, ready to go, full of energy, look at the clock, and it’s one-ten A.M.”
8. I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend by Martin Short (2014)
Comedian Martin Short tells his life’s story from birth to present, highlighting both professional and personal ups and downs, including the death of his older brother and parents in the first two decades of his life, his stint on Saturday Night Live, his film career, and the illness and death of his wife. His tragedies are heartbreaking, but you can really tell that Short takes life as it is and adopts a positive, upbeat attitude, never letting tragedy break him or spiral him into self-destructive behavior.
Short plunges ahead, building a respectable career and a loving family. The text is hilarious, but the audiobook read by Short himself will have you on the floor as he assumes the voices of each of his famous characters as they are referenced throughout the book.
I love his story about meeting Frank Sinatra and inadvertently irritating him with his nervous, star-struck demeanor. I won’t spoil it here, but anyone who has embarrassed themselves in the presence of an intimidating elder will be able to relate to this tale.
Here is a clip of him telling the story to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show:
9. Yes Please by Amy Poehler (2015)
With Yes Please, comedian Amy Poehler tries her hand at a self-help book by telling her life story that includes tales from childhood on, working in life lessons to share with her readers with more than a few jokes thrown into the mix. She skips over more personal, heartbreaking stories such as the end of her marriage, choosing instead to offer more general advice to women, comedians, and people in general.
Poehler pokes fun at the fact that she has no professional advice, unique perspectives, or the triumph of overcoming a major hardship to offer and reiterates several times that writing the book was extremely difficult, culminating in a pieced-together series of stories, essays, and advice that flow really well and never gets too heavy or preachy. You come for the comedy but stay for the insight.
Poehler’s meltdown over the death of her obstetrician just before she is about to give birth and then watching Saturday Night Live in her hospital bed after she has delivered her first baby is one of the best birth stories I’ve ever read.
10. Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson (2016)
Child actress Mara Wilson updates her fans on what she has been up to since her last movie role. We find that Wilson is actually a talented writer who uses her skills to bounce from topic to topic to talk about what she remembers about her acting career, her mother’s death, finding her clique in school, and discovering her knack for writing.
By the end, you see that Wilson is still trying to figure things out but is also comfortable with where she is in life. Still, it’s hard not to see her as the child actress role that first introduced us to her, but it’s a relief to see her happy, healthy, and with a witty sense of humor, an accomplishment that many child actors never attain.
It was so gratifying to hear about how the book Matilda was such a beloved story in Wilson's house growing up and how her mother used to take the book to schools to read to kids in her free time. So, when she gets the part in the film adaptation, it explains how she was able to play the part so perfectly.
What are your favorite memoirs? Leave your answers in the comments below!
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 21, 2017:
Very interesting, Laura. You make me want to read them all, but the first would be Mara Wilson's. Thanks for compiling this interesting list.