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NPR staffers share their favorite memoirs from the 2023 Books We Love list

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

People's lives can be fascinating, funny, weird and enlightening. And if you want to understand someone's experience, read a biography or a memoir. NPR's Books We Love has about 70 suggestions from the past year on its list. Today a few of our colleagues are here to help you start 2024 off on the right page.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDCHORD AND KORESMA'S "DOORBELL LUV")

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hi. I'm Glen Weldon, and I'm a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. And I'm recommending "Sure, I'll Join Your Cult: A Memoir Of Mental Illness" by Maria Bamford. Now, Maria Bamford is a stand-up comedian. She's the best in the business as far as I'm concerned. She talks openly and hilariously about living with mental illness and all the therapies and 12-step groups and meds that she's tried over the years, some of which have helped and some of which have really, really not. She's out here confronting the stigma surrounding mental illness and exposing the hypocrisy of that stigma and its pointlessness.

And everything that makes her so good at stand-up is just radiating from every page of this book as she walks us through the various cults she's joined over the years. Now, her definition of cult is broader than yours. Some of her examples are, for example, show business is a cult and her family is a cult. Ultimately, this is a book about the need to belong, the need to improve oneself and needing to make a space for yourself that's safe. And I'll say this - anytime a book is written by a performer and they read the audiobook, you just owe it to yourself to get the audiobook. It's great, as it is here.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "THE LIGHT")

ASHLEY BROWN, BYLINE: I'm Ashley Brown. I'm a senior editor on All Things Considered. And I'm recommending the book "Thicker Than Water." It's the first memoir from actor Kerry Washington. She's known for her role in the TV drama "Scandal." Celebrity memoirs can be inherently tantalizing, especially when they're written by a famously private famous person like Kerry Washington. But I'm not sure many celebrity memoirs contain revelations as shocking as what Washington learned and then subsequently shared about her own family history in the book. A very mild spoiler warning here - in an uncanny example of life imitating art, Washington writes about some of her lived experiences that actually mirror the plotlines in some of her on-screen roles. And she's already spoken publicly about the big revelation in the book. But even if you haven't avoided full spoilers for it, I think her candor about forgiveness and building resilience after multiple traumas is still worth the read. And she also offers insight and wisdom about the craft of acting throughout the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIN GIWON PIANO'S "CITY OF STARS")

MEGHAN SULLIVAN, BYLINE: My name is Meghan Sullivan, and I'm a senior editor on the Culture Team and the chief books editor at NPR. The book I'm recommending is "Sunshine" by Jarrett Krosoczka. I was really excited to read "Sunshine" because I had read "Hey, Kiddo." That's Krosoczka's graphic memoir about growing up with his grandparents. "Sunshine" is also a graphic memoir, but it centers on a time he spent as a teenager working as a counselor at a camp for seriously ill kids and their families. He was one of just a few students chosen to volunteer at the camp, and it was kind of a motley crew. They didn't know what to expect or how they could make a difference. And the experience ended up making a huge impact on him.

What I love about this book is that he's able to use words and images to really bring you to the camp with him. He forms lifelong connections to some of these kids and their families. It's really a coming-of-age story where you learn to see happiness and hope in the moment, and you see how much your actions really can matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN MOONS AGO'S "WHEN WE WERE")

EMILY BOGLE, BYLINE: I'm Emily Bogle, and I'm a senior visual editor at NPR. I'm recommending "Congratulations, The Best Is Over!" R. Eric Thomas' latest essay collection focuses on the absurdity of midlife. He returns to his hometown of Baltimore after his husband takes a new job, despite Thomas having a self-described, quote, "toxic relationship" with the city. Thomas chronicles how he and his husband work hard to establish friendships, while he also feels out of place in his own hometown. Thomas' incisive and hilarious essays are about the pains of starting over and navigating life as an adult. In one of my favorite essays, he weaves together his love of Oprah's favorite things with his own experiences with depression while seeking therapy. I love this book because it's a heartfelt collection that will have you tearing up and howling with laughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELTENELEVEN'S "FAST FORWARD")

MELISSA GRAY, BYLINE: What was behind Prince Harry's decision to step back from royal duties? How bad did his relationship with his father and brother get? What was the deal with the frostbite in that very sensitive area? I'm Melissa Gray, senior producer at WEEKEND EDITION, and while I know the answers to these questions after reading Harry's memoir, "Spare," I am here to say don't pick it up to satisfy that kind of curiosity. Instead, read it for a well-written coming-of-age story about a boy born in a fishbowl who has to overcome the world's most famous dysfunctional family in order to become his own man. Harry's words about his teenage grief over his mother's death and his personal growth during and after his military service is, on its own, a compelling story within a story. Kudos to Prince Harry's ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer, for making what could have been another floppy book about the British royal family into one satisfyingly good read.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN PHIPPS' "YOUR ROYAL HIGHNESS")

SCHMITZ: That was WEEKEND EDITION's own Melissa Gray, who suggests "Spare," Emily Bogle with "Congratulations, The Best Is Over!" Meghan Sullivan with "Sunshine," Ashley Brown recommending "Thicker Than Water" and Glen Weldon with "Sure, I'll Join Your Cult." For even more ideas, you can find the full list of Books We Love at npr.org/bestbooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN PHIPPS' "YOUR ROYAL HIGHNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Melissa Gray is a senior producer for All Things Considered.
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Meghan Collins Sullivan is a senior editor on the Arts & Culture Desk, overseeing non-fiction books coverage at NPR. She has worked at NPR over the last 13 years in various capacities, including as the supervising editor for NPR.org – managing a team of online producers and reporters and editing multi-platform news coverage. She was also lead editor for the 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog, written by five scientists on topics related to the intersection of science and culture.
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