“You have to let a few things slip by you rather than being pitched at the highest key. Force yourself to relax at times. It is not necessary to do everything as though your life and honor depended on it.”Julia Child, My Life in France
Hi friends! I thought I’d take a moment and share a positive personal note in my own life: rediscovering my love of reading for fun!
In this post, I note my struggles with dealing with stress from teaching online over the pandemic, finding a relaxing hobby in listening to free audiobooks, and lastly, listing out some of the nonfiction audiobooks I’ve found interesting so far this year with reasons why.
I used to be such an avid reader in middle and high school. Yet, after finishing college – especially grad school – I found myself in a slump of not wanting to read anything challenging or mentally taxing. Consequently, I dug myself into spiral of reading the same fluffy story premises basically retold over and over in different settings.
Fast Forward to the Pandemic
With working as a literature and drama history teacher for an international school in Beijing these past two years, my reading had been mainly focused on what could work for school. Lesson planning often felt like a constant, desperate scramble to find readings and worksheets that could work for my classes of varying English skills.
I was limited further when Covid struck since my students were all in China, and I couldn’t get out of the US. Imagine needing to share resources virtually only to be blocked by their country’s great firewall. It was frustrating to say the least!
I ended up becoming pretty creative in my lessons and somehow made it work! My more advanced classes were able to successfully read a wide variety of material (think classic novels, BBC adaptions of Shakespeare, and even tracing the origins of rap and slam poetry in the US), and my fundamental classes became adept at drilling through practical grammar exercises and short stories. All in all, I’m pretty proud of the work everyone put in!
Looking back though, the mental strain of finding educational material, planning, grading, and maintaining an upbeat virtual classroom at night despite connection issues was super taxing. At the time, it felt like I was drowning under enormous pressure, even more so when my efforts to fly back fizzled last November (as detailed through past posts).
Coping with Stress Through Reading
With my increasing insomnia from teaching full time at night, it felt like I had a lot of time on my hands to stew in a funk when I finally made it to bed. After classes, I began picking up random paperbacks that we had lying around the house in the hopes that they (and sleeping pills) would eventually lull me to sleep. I also read through a couple of free kindle books and started adding more to my Amazon wishlist and buying them when they would fall below two bucks.
I’m not sure when or how I first heard about reading challenges, but I remember being really intrigued by their premise to make you read out of your normal genres. I joined a few reading groups on facebook and Instagram, and it seemed like a lot of people were talking about “reading goals” and trying to meet prompts on their “Goodreads.” This was right up my ally as I’m the type of person who loves making lists and having visual goals to meet. I then checked the website out. I really liked the idea of being able to track and quantify books I had read and those want to read. Seeing what others are reading was a fun plus! Moreover, I liked the idea that this website let you make lists and give out reviews and recommendations to others looking for certain genres. So, I made my own Goodreads account and joined a few book clubs here and there that provided reading challenges for fun!
Did someone say FREE?!
Now, with over half of 2021 gone by, I’m well on my way towards finishing a few reading challenges early. This is due in part to listening to audiobooks! My husband likes Audible, but I get my audiobooks for free through the Overdrive Libby App. I love it so much! I actually didn’t know about this app until last December. All it took was signing up for a virtual library card with our local library (or you can use the one you have if you already have one), and I am able to rent eBooks and audiobooks through the app with my library card number. Everyone should have this!
I tend to read an eBook/Kindle book, a paperback, and an audiobook at any one time, but I find that audiobooks are lovely for when I have chores to do or don’t want to sit and read my kindle at night. Sometimes I even listen to an audiobook while playing a phone game with the game’s music turned off (usually Pokémon Go or Project Makeover). Here is a short list of nonfiction Audiobooks I’ve really enjoyed so far this year while using Libby. I might share a fiction list of audiobooks at some point, too.
Hooray for Audiobooks!
While I do listen to some fiction books, I find I tend to gravitate towards listening to autobiographies and memoirs- specifically where people read their own books. In my mind, it somehow makes their stories feel even more intimate and real. Listening to someone recount their lived experiences provides another layer in the depth of my understanding when I can can hear the emotion behind someone’s voice. On that note, here are my top 15 picks of the nonfiction audiobooks I’ve listened to so far this year:
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
“For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite each other in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divides us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.”Michelle Obama, Becoming
Length: 19 hours
I loved all the refreshing nuggets of wisdom and positive encouragement Michelle Obama dropped throughout her audiobook. I didn’t know much about the Obama’s backstory or personal life before listening to Becoming, but I am so glad I did. It really humanized the Obama family as a whole and showed me how much they care about others. There were many times I was touched and inspired by Michelle Obama’s story and experiences. One of these days I’ll brave that 29-hour audiobook of her husband’s.
2. The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff
Length: 16 hours
This was an excellent audiobook with a 45+ person cast. I found the compilation of firsthand accounts, recordings, and declassified information to be outstanding. There were so many different perspectives given from the events leading up to the collapse of the towers, UA Flight 93, the attack on the Pentagon, the President’s response, and the aftermath. Be forewarned though, this audiobook is definitely not an easy listen, but it’s incredibly important and eye-opening to understanding 9/11. The multiple cast members gave due gravity and respect to such a hard day in US history. I personally feel that listening to this audiobook helped me to process some of my own memories from that awful day.
3. How to Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Length: 11 hours
I have been wanting to read this ever since I heard Ibram X. Kendi started an antiracism center at my alma mater, American U, and I’m glad I did! It’s not an easy listen, for his memoir is meant to be uncomfortable and asks readers to question our own ingrained stigmas and racial bias. Kendi’s story is one of awakening, of trying to find purpose and answers, and, ultimately, learning to recognize and come to terms with his own racist beliefs.
Antiracism is a mindset that can be challenging to recognize and maintain, but reading or listening to books like Kendi’s is a great first step towards learning how to spread positive change, inclusivity, and understanding.
4. My Life in France by Julia Child, narrated by Kimberly Farr
Length: 11 hours
Julia Child is one of America’s most beloved treasures. I had fun listening to Julia’s own descriptions of discovering new tastes and cuisines and her dogged determination to succeed at cooking French fare at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu (which she didn’t pursue until much later in life).
However, what really surprised me about this audiobook was finding out that Julia had previously worked as an intelligence officer and had lived for a time in China! That period of her life is utterly fascinating! Her husband’s work with the foreign service, the stories of the Childs having to deal with massive upturns in the post-WWII European theater, and their own experience with scary McCarthy interrogations are incredibly gripping and insightful. In addition, her lamentations about having a staunch Republican father who disagreed with practically all of her life choices are pretty amusing. An interesting read, for sure!
5. Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran
“A lumpy mass of American stereotypes was metastasizing inside me. It made me cringe when I heard Mr. Miyagi say “Wax on, wax off, Daniel San.” It made me pretend to laugh when I saw Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. It made me sign up for tae kwon do that year because that was what Asians did. It would be decades before I diagnosed the lump of alienation, dual consciousness, and self-hatred, but it was already growing quickly, bilious and caustic. I only saw myself as the piece that did not fit in the puzzle.”Phuc Tran, Sigh, Gone
Length: 11 hours
This memoir follows Tran from babyhood to college, and it details how he and his family, Vietnamese refugees, attempted to assimilate in small-town Carlisle, Pennsylvania during the mid-70s to 80s. Tran deals with racism from the town and abuse from inside his own volatile household by finding solace in punk rock literature and style. Punk rock becomes his outlet for many years, a way to not just make friends and stand out from his peers, but also a means of Tran to find his own way to connect to and eventually excel in his studies in the US.
6. The Answer is… by Alex Trebek, read partly by Ken Jennings
Length: 5 hours
The golden years of Alex Trebek hosting Jeopardy! are gone, but we’ll always have the re-runs, the SNL skits, and this memoir to tide us through the chaos that is the search for his successor. Of course, no one could ever replace Trebek. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it best, Trebek “became the kindly face of the part of America that venerates knowledge” that helped Jeopardy! “to promote the joys and benefits of education.”
This audiobook is read on and off by both Trebek and top Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings as Trebek’s health was failing. The narrative is amusing, philosophical, and bittersweet at times. I felt humbled listening to this man who was such a beloved part of my household evenings growing up. I truly feel that this short audiobook, whether or not you’re a fan, makes you want to appreciate life and try our best to do good like he did.
7. Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier
Length: 8 hours
Sidney Poitier is an American acting legend who overcame monumental odds to secure success in both his professional and personal life. He worked to change Hollywood during a time it was rare for black men to get decent roles onstage, let alone play a lead with a white love interest! He was also the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor!
I enjoyed listening to Poitier’s tidbits of life advice and insights in audiobook format. From his childhood farm on Cat Island in the Bahamas to working as a janitor in exchange for acting lessons, through to his later activism and ambassadorship, Poitier led quite a long and colorful life!
8. Greenlights by Mathew McConaughey
Length: 7 hours
Listening to Mathew McConaughey’s audiobook was a very entertaining ride! He’s such a smooth narrator with a flair for the hilarious and spectacular. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and wants us all to have a good time as he shares rambling recollections about the course of his life and what he has learned along the way.
9. Too Much and Not Enough by Mary Trump
Length: 7 hours
Oh boy! If you ever wanted insight into the Trump line, Donald’s niece, Mary L. Trump, is your gal. Readers are made privy to so many toxic, irrational behaviors of the Trump family, all analyzed in an easy-to understand way considering Mary L. Trump is actually a clinical psychologist. Even though her audiobook is not so much focused on Donald as it is on her father’s (Fred Jr.) sad story, it all somehow makes perfect sense in explaining the actions and thought process of #45.
10. Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton and Robert K. Oermann
Length: 5 hours
I have to confess, I didn’t know very much about Dolly before visiting Dollywood in college. There, I learned about Dolly’s Imagination Library, a nonprofit that aims to spread literacy and mail free books to children. What a wonderful program! Dolly was also one of the early celebrities to donate to Covid vaccine research. She is a gem!
I liked how this audiobook was formatted in an interview style with Dolly singing or playing snippets of songs and her explaining the meaning and sometimes drama behind them. This audiobook really helped me to appreciate her struggles and pride in growing up in Appalachia and having to work hard at making it big with her music.
11. Dear Girls by Ali Wong
Length: 6 hours
In between the absolute raunchiness of Ali’s humor, there are so, so many heartfelt truth bombs in these letters to her daughters. My favorite chapter has to be her lecture to her kids about needing to study abroad. I couldn’t stop laughing at her descriptions of trying to assimilate in Vietnam. They mirrored a lot of my awkward and wonderful experiences trying to get by in China as an Asian American woman.
Yes, this book is filthy and vulgar, but it’s also endearing, empowering, and down-to-Earth. Ali Wong has an amazing ability to simultaneously poke fun at the people and things around her, all the while covertly getting to the heart of issues people feel but would rather not vocalize about themselves and others. The afterward written and read by her husband was a really sweet and insightful piece on their family dynamic and his views on Ali’s fame.
On another note, her film Always Be My Maybe with Randall Park is equally fantastic and everyone should watch it on Netflix!
12. Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
Length: 3 hours
The late Carrie Fisher, also known as Princess Leia (or Space Mom as my high school friends called her) had quite the maladjusted upbringing and adulthood. Wishful Drinking is based on Carrie’s one-woman stage show in which she relates her story and that of her famous parents with deadpan humor and self-deprecating jokes. I appreciated the wry glimpses inside her struggles with mental illness and addiction in this short audiobook.
13. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes
Length: 7 hours
Fans of The Princess Bride movie will love the cast’s sharing of what went on behind the scenes from the surprising casting call and hijinks on set, to the big movie debut, their subsequent cult fame, and inside perspectives on their lasting friendship through the years.
Carey Elwes is one of my all-time favorite voice actors, too, so I found this audiobook to be a treat. He’s just so darn polite and likeable!
14. Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang
“From the ground up, I was going to detox my identity of any and everything that someone else put there without my blessing.”Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat
Length: 8 hours
I flip-flopped over whether to add this one. At first, Eddie Huang’s memoir didn’t seem like my cup of tea. I actually started listening to it after a friend recommended it. I love the show Fresh Off the Boat, but Eddie Huang’s personal style felt like it was trying too hard to be gritty and different from the rest of us children of immigrants. Yet, as I continued to plod on with the audiobook, I found that’s precisely where the brilliance of his story lies.
Huang doesn’t sugarcoat his childhood problems or any shortcomings he had growing up. He bluntly addresses the racial stigmas and pressures Asian Americans deal with on the daily in the US, and, rather than try to live up to the high standards expected of him, Huang surprisingly takes a downward spiral in the opposite direction and ends up selling drugs and getting into all sorts of mischief. In doing so, he realizes his need to rise up, do better, and shape his own identity. His book is an introspective cultural critique, a look at income inequality, a coming-of-age tale, and a multicultural foodie guide all somehow blended together.
15. Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
Length: 5 hours
My most recent audiobook listen, Dad is Fat, was a fun one! Comedian Jim Gaffigan really is the walking embodiment of a dad joke. He’s sweet, family-friendly, and mostly means well. His observations on what he and his wife Jeannie have learned about parenthood and how different life was before babies versus during his wife’s first pregnancy to raising their five children are all simultaneously quirky and heartwarming. His note on the attention his baby daughter got in China also felt pretty spot on from my own observations there, ha. I’ll definitely be checking out his other audiobooks.
One Last Comment
Audiobooks are a great alternative for those on the go or who find themselves with little time. Like I mentioned earlier, I tend to enjoy listening to memoirs on tape. It makes me feel like I’m listening and learning from the source of the tale. BUT! There are so many more genres to explore! Whether you’re a fast or slow reader, it really doesn’t matter! I encourage everyone to push themselves to read more. Even if you finish just one book out of the entire year, that’s still one more book that you can say you’ve read, and heck yes audiobooks count!
Have a great audiobook or paperback suggestion? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you!
Got a goodreads.com account? Feel free to add me here!
Until next time,