When Ali Met Nora
Updated: Nov 15, 2019
I spend most of my solo driving time listening to audiobooks. My main jam is nonfiction, usually memoirs. Ever since I listened to the late Maya Angelou read her classic book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was hooked, enamored by not only the deeply personal tales she shared but also by the idea that Maya's distinct voice is forever saved in this one amazing recording.
Physically, Maya is no longer with us. But instead of just reading her words or watching her speak in a video, we have this intimately recorded story that can be listened to by anyone at any time. In the close confines of a car or through headphones, it's as if she's sitting right there next to you, mouth near your ear, enthralling you with the horrific and joyful experiences she experienced as a child. Every crack of her voice as she describes her rape at the age of 8. Or the increase in pitch as she discusses the joy of getting access to a book. All these vocal inflections are captured for eternity in this one recording. Audiobooks--particularly memoirs and biographies read by a female subject--are an amazing and underrated literary device that I have become very passionate about.
In the last few weeks I've listened to two wonderful--yet very different--women tell their stories. First was comedienne and actress Ali Wong. Her latest book, Dear Girls is a collection of essays that she addresses to her daughters. She starts off with a funny prologue in which she makes it very clear that her darling little girls should only listen to these hilariously profane and unflinchingly honest essays when they are 21 or older.
Discussing everything from how she met and fell in love with their father, to a list of confessions from her "wild child" years, to eating a snake's heart while in Vietnam during college, to the challenges females and especially Asian-American females face in the stand-up world, to her experiences as a child of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants, she speaks candidly and crassly about it all. If you've seen her comedy routine, you know you're going to hear "fuck" frequently and she'll mention "pussy" at least once. Ali is authentically herself.
I don't have a problem with cursing or discussion of bodily fluids (there's quite a few mentions of them in this book!), so, of course, I loved it. As an actress, she's a natural narrator and has a wonderful way of getting very loud--screeching almost--when she delivers a sarcastic line. Her commentary on the rarity of females in stand-up--attributing it to how it's unsafe for females to travel so frequently and often alone--was a revelation. She's also brutally honest and explicit about life as a woman. Shaving pubic hair, having her period, giving birth, and having sex are all discussed with humor and in explicit detail.
I'm thrilled that such a refreshing voice and a woman who has certainly lived a LIFE in her 30-something years gets to add her voice to the ever-expanding canon of female celebrity memoirs. If her girls are anywhere near as cool and funny as Ali herself is (and with a mom like her, how can they not be?), they will love listening to this recording in the years to come.
After Dear Girls, I switched gears and listened to late rom-com queen Nora Ephron share her commentary on getting older in her classic memoir, I Feel Bad About My Neck. I searched for the audiobook after finding an actual copy of the novel at my local Goodwill. And for anyone who follows my Bookstagram knows, I was thrilled to realize that Nora had actually signed my $2 investment!
Nora's work as a director is evident in this recording, as she uses various vocal inflections, pauses, and tones to expertly communicate the importance, humor, or seriousness of her comments. And, like Ali and Maya, she has a distinct voice to begin with, so it's wonderful that even though she's gone, fans still get to hear her tell her tales. She doesn't speak much about her affluent childhood (born in Beverly Hills to screenwriter parents), although she does casually mention how her father gave her dying mother too many sleeping pills and most likely caused her death (and then told Nora to flush the remaining pills down the toilet!).
Her long love affair with Manhattan shines through, as does her enjoyment of cooking and her overall fascinating life. After earning a political science degree from Wellesley College, she worked as an intern in the JFK White House and then worked for years as a journalist in New York City. Using her divorce from Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) as the inspiration, Nora wrote the screenplay for the movie Heartburn and thus began a long and successful career in Hollywood as a screenwriter and director (I mean, this woman wrote THE line, "I'll have what she's having.").
I loved both of these audiobooks. While these two women--their upbringings, likes/dislikes, personalities, paths to Hollywood, etc.--are very different, there was an interesting commonality in their stories. Both love food and consider it not only sustenance, but an adventure, especially in tasting different foods and cooking. Both are funny, but present their comedic bits in wildly different ways--yet they still both made me laugh and I could relate to pieces of each of their stories.
Most importantly, though, they both get the opportunity to control their own narrative and be as honest, authentic, and candid as they want to. In a world that still doesn't fully respect or, at times, permit the truths, narratives, and experiences of women to be told, these women expertly use the memoir (or, in this case the audio memoir) format to do just that. And, the best part? They relate their experiences, their thoughts, their lives, their stories, in their own words and in their own way for all of use to enjoy.
I highly recommend listening to both of these books and shared a list below of other memoirs to check out if you're looking for women, famous or not, telling their stories on their own terms. While all are not read by the actual author, these recordings still resonate as wonderful examples of women sharing their lives with readers in an intimate and revealing format. It's a fascinating experience.
Becoming - Michelle Obama
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
Educated - by Tara Westover (read by Julia Whelan)
We're Going to Need More Wine - Gabrielle Union
Year of Yes - Shonda Rhimes
Small Fry - Lisa Brennan-Jobs (read by Eileen Stevens)
This Will Only Hurt a Little - Busy Philipps
Here If You Need Me - Kate Braestrup
All You Can Ever Know - Nicole Chung (read by Janet Song)
On My TBLT (to-be-listened-to) List:
Know My Name - Chanel Miller
Just Kids - Patti Smith
This Much Country - Kristin Knight Pace
The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live - Heather B. Armstrong
Fight Like a Mother - Shannon Watts
Lead from the Outside - Stacey Abrams
The View from Flyover Country - Sarah Kendzior
I'm Not Really a Waitress - Sarah Mollo-Christensen
Face It - Debbie Harry
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