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Books for Your Ears: Nonfiction Favorites

A few Fridays ago I introduced a miniseries featuring some of my favorite audiobooks. This week, I’ll be focusing on nonfiction. I’ve selected three of my favorites:

Books for Your Ears - Nonfiction

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (narrated by Julia Gibson)

The Glass Castle opens with Walls, the author, in a taxi in New York City. She looks out the window and recognizes her mother digging in a dumpster. So, we know from the beginning that Walls’s parents are homeless and that she is not; what follows is the story of Walls’s childhood, growing up with a brilliant alcoholic for a father, a flighty artist for a mother, and three siblings. The family moved around constantly, from one tiny, ramshackle town to another, always staying one step ahead of trouble. The kids are left largely on their own, amusing and often even feeding themselves and looking out for one another as best they can.

The Glass Castle is one of those memoirs you almost can’t believe is real. Walls takes you on such a wild ride that it’s tough to imagine how she ended up growing into a well-adjusted adult. The hardships, the bizarre situations, the nearly unbelievable experiences which shaped her life are laid out in her memoir.

I listened to The Glass Castle in my car, and I always found myself wishing the drive to and from work would take longer. Julia Gibson does a nice job reading Walls’s story, and the pairing of the two left me hanging on every word. If you’ve not yet read The Glass Castle, or if you’d like to revisit it, I recommend taking a look at the audio version.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (narrated by Cassandra Campbell)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks mixes science, history, memoir, and biography to tell the story of Henrietta Lacks and the remarkable HeLa cells she gave to the world. These strands are woven together, alternating in chapters that jump back and forth in time.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks mixes science, history, memoir, and biography to tell the story of Henrietta Lacks and the remarkable HeLa cells she gave to the world. These strands are woven together, alternating in chapters that jump back and forth in time.

The science portion of the book delves into issues of cell cultivation and the various ways in which humans, both at the cellular level and as whole people, have been used in scientific research, with HeLa cells playing a starring role. Skloot also chronicles her research on the book, which consisted largely of spending time with Henrietta Lacks’s family. Finally, there is the brief story of the woman whose cells became HeLa: Henrietta Lacks.

Written in the first person wherever the author is a part of the story, the book has a conversational feel that makes for easy and enjoyable listening. The narrator is Cassandra Campbell, and her reading style suits the book well. The 11+ hours of text felt like much less. I’m often wary of nonfiction that isn’t memoir, but I found The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to be accessible and fascinating. I’d recommend it to nonfiction fans as well as those who generally prefer fiction.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (narrated by the author)

I’ve read several of David Sedaris’s books, but When You Are Engulfed in Flames was the first one I’ve listened to. It’s a book of humorous essays based on Sedaris’s life. Many of the essays are laugh-out-loud funny, though an equal number feature humor that’s a bit more grim. He covers, among other things, traveling with his partner, his pet spiders, the woman who watched Sedaris and his sisters once when their parents were out of town (my favorite story!), and, in a series of essays, Sedaris’s experiences quitting smoking. The honesty with which he views the situations he relates is astounding.

I’ve read several of David Sedaris’s books, but When You Are Engulfed in Flames was the first one I’ve listened to. It’s a book of humorous essays based on Sedaris’s life. Many of the essays are laugh-out-loud funny, though an equal number feature humor that’s a bit more grim. He covers, among other things, traveling with his partner, his pet spiders, the woman who watched Sedaris and his sisters once when their parents were out of town (my favorite story!), and, in a series of essays, Sedaris’s experiences quitting smoking. The honesty with which he views the situations he relates is astounding.

I love Sedaris’s writing style. He has a way with words which, paired with his keen powers of spot-on observation, makes for a great read. However, listening to him read his own work is a different experience entirely. He reminds me of my American History teacher in high school. If you’re not paying attention, you might miss the joke in his even-keeled expression. But if you are listening, oh how funny it is, how perfectly placed the pauses, how fitting the subtle vocal inflections.

Because of its essay structure, When You Are Engulfed in Flames is ideal when you want something in shorter segments. It’s entertaining without being fluff; it’s substantial without being too heavy. Whether you’re already a fan of Sedaris’s work or you’ve not yet read anything by him, I’d recommend When You Are Engulfed in Flames on audio.

Your Turn!

What are some of your favorite nonfiction audiobooks? Do you tend to listen to fiction more than nonfiction, or vice versa? Does that mirror your overall reading preferences, or is it different?

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  • Paul

    Nice post, Erin! I started listening to audiobooks that were nonfiction only (I have since listened to fiction as well) with the thought that I could perhaps get through some self-improvement books. After I realized that crap didn’t sit well with me, I’ve expanded my horizons. “…Henrietta Lacks” is on my list. I’ll have to check it out!

    • Erin

      Thanks, Paul! I loved The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on audio. I hope you enjoy it!

  • Lisa

    My aunt, uncle, cousins and I had a discussion about David Sedaris and audiobooks this past weekend. We all agreed that he is best when you listen to him on tape. In “Me Talk Pretty One Day” the first essay is about his adventures with a speech therapist-I listened to it first-then read it. It was so much better listening to it!

    • Erin

      I’ve never compared the same story in print vs. on audio. That would be interesting. I’m pretty sure I won’t bother reading anything by Sedaris again…I’ll go for the audio every time!

  • http://sophisticateddorkiness.com Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

    David Sedaris is great on audio, he’s just so much fun to listen to. I might actually prefer listening to him read his work than just reading it. I haven’t read or listened to The Glass Castle, but have wanted to. I’ll look to see if the library has it.

    • Erin

      After listening to one of Sedaris’s books, I totally agree with you — his books are funny in print, but they’re so much better when he reads them! The Glass Castle was on my list for a long time before I realized I should try the audio. I find I get to audiobooks faster than I do to books, probably because there are fewer of them on my TBR (TB…L?) list!

  • http://loveyalit.com Em (Love YA Lit)

    I haven’t listened to many non-fiction audiobooks. I did listen to “Animal Vegetable Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver and family – I liked that the family members each read their own contributions. And of course David Sedaris is always wonderful. For non-fiction, I mostly stick to podcasts though, like Radiolab and This American Life. I should check out the Henrietta Lacks book – had heard about it a while ago – sounds good!

    • Erin

      Oh, I loved Animal Vegetable Miracle when I read it! I’d like to revisit it…maybe I’ll look into the audio. That’s cool that each family member read their parts!

  • http://www.derapsreads.blogspot.com Mrs. DeRaps

    I haven’t read the Henriette Lacks book, but will because it’s a book club selection for January. I love nonfiction. Books like Into the Wild, Fast Food Nation, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Kabul Beauty School, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Under the Banner of Heaven–all great books. Thanks for sharing!

    • Erin

      Oh, enjoy The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks when you get to it! I thought it was very well done, both as a book and as an audiobook. I listened to Kabul Beauty School last year and really liked it. And Mountains Beyond Mountains is on my list of books to listen to!

  • http://lakesidemusing.blogspot.com JoAnn

    I love these nonfiction selections! The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is in the running for my favorite audio of the year, and audio is the ONLY way to experience a David Sedaris book.

    • Erin

      The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was certainly good enough to deserve being a favorite! My recent experience–as well as all these great pro-Sedaris-on-audio comments–have confirmed that Sedaris reads his books better than I do!

  • Jamie

    Mr. Porter! I never thought of comparing the two, but I agree. :)

    • Erin

      Glad you agree :-) Oh, Mr. Porter…

  • http://www.fizzythoughts.com softdrink

    I’ve been thinking I should try to get back into audiobooks (all that time in my car and I could be listening to a book!). I do much better with non-fiction on audio…but I’ve already read all three of the books you mentioned here! I’m waiting for inspiration to strike…

    • Erin

      Hmm…I also enjoyed Zeitoun, and one of Atul Gawande’s books (can’t remember which!). I’ll try to think of others!

  • http://bibliophilebythesea.blogspot.com/ Bibliophile By the Sea

    I just came across your blog today and think it looks great. I see a similarity and some of what we enjoy reading. (I loved all 3 of these). I’ll be visiting again.

    • Erin

      Great! I like finding other bloggers with similar taste! Thanks for stopping by.

  • http://lifewithbooks.com Jenners

    I’ve read 2 out of 3 (Wall and Sedaris) but everyone says you have to HEAR Sedaris to really appreciate him so I think I need to do that at one point.

    And I’ve heard such good things about Henrietta Lacks … maybe that will be my next audio.

    • Erin

      Yes! Listen to Sedaris. It’s so different…so much better! Henrietta Lacks was wonderful too. Enjoy!

  • http://www.lovelaughterinsanity.com Trish

    Yes yes yes to #1 and #3. Haven’t read #2 but have heard great things. The Devil and the White City and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher are two non-fiction books I recommend a lot. More history based but incrediby fascinating.

    • Erin

      Ooh I’ve been meaning to read The Devil in the White City. Maybe I’ll go for the audio!

  • http://reviews.rebeccareid.com Rebecca Reid

    “I’m often wary of nonfiction that isn’t memoir” how interesting! I tend to HATE memoirs and much prefer “real” nonfiction. lol

    I haven’t listened to much audioboks lately as I no longer have an hour commute twice a day (I’m a stay at home mom now) but I’ve liked most of what I’ve listened. Much better success with nonfiction than fiction on audio. I love the book THE GLASS CASTLE so love the suggestion to listen to the audio of it. And have heard great things of Immortal Life.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE Stiff by Mary Roach (narrated by Shelly Frasier). It’s a memoir nonfiction book. Mary Roach went on a quest to determine what happens to bodies after death. Each chapter is a different use for a dead body. It’s totally gross but absolutely hilarious and endlessly fascinating. It really did make me rethink my afterlife plan (i.e., not just bury my body but use it to further science).

    The narration of David McCullough’s biography of John Adams was also well done. It worked well for me since I listened to so much in one stretch (an hour at a time) but it is a VERY long book. So may not be for everyone on audio.

    • Erin

      I’m a huge fiction reader, so I think I like memoirs because they often read more like stories. Plus, so much nonfiction is dry (or used to be); I hate weeding through all the boring stuff to get at the gems!

      I get most of my listening done at home, while I’m cooking/cleaning/doing laundry/etc. But, I have no kids, so I can do that!

      Oh, I am totally going to see if my library has Mary Roach on audio. I have wanted to get to her books for a while, and I bet they’d be great to listen to! The Adams biography might be a lot for me, but if I ever do veer into long nonfiction, I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks for the recommendations!