From the Kardashian clan to the cast of Jersey Shore, more people are writing memoirs than ever — at least, people with millions of followers tracking their every move on Twitter. Ignoring the question of authorship (hint: check the fine print to learn the ghostwriter’s name), the vast majority of such memoirs are the equivalent of the latest designer handbag: they're something for celebrities to acquire. Few, if any, will win a Pulitzer anytime soon, but there are a few glossy gems amid the debris. Here are five celebrity memoirs that are actually worth a read.
Despite the unfortunate amount of space devoted to Keith Richards’ wild times on acid, and other less-than-shocking dirt, Life is an engaging snapshot of the heyday of rock and roll. Richards has interesting things to say about growing up in postwar London (he describes “a residue of the Victorians”), and about the early appeal of the musical genre. Most compelling, though, is the general sense of transience of life on the road, framed by constant battles with the authorities who deeply feared the Rolling Stones, and the rise of a generation about which those authorities understood so little.
Vogue creative director Grace Coddington solidified her reputation long before the 2009 release of The September Issue, the tell-all documentary that, according to Coddington, “is the only reason anyone has ever heard of me.” False modesty aside, Coddington’s memoir is a breezy, candid, and sometimes gossipy record of over 50 years in the fashion industry. Coddington's refusal to take herself too seriously (“Is fashion art?” she asks at one point. “That’s pushing it a bit”) is endearing, and her frank and unassuming voice makes the tragedies that befell her easy to empathize with.
In many ways, Just Kids is an ode to the New York City of the late 60s and early 70s—hardly the city's golden age, but Patti Smith imbues the time and place with the charm of nostalgia. The reader can’t help but see the early love story between Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe through the lens of his death from AIDS 20 years later, even as the book describes the rose-colored moment of artistic ferment before the pair achieved their later fame. There are robust descriptions of a scattered, avant-garde lifestyle, and the far-from-typical characters who populated it. Ultimately, Smith’s tale yields to the well-worn and enjoyable trappings of a classic bildungsroman.
Fans of tennis will appreciate Andre Agassi’s comprehensive memoir for the blow-by-blow vignettes of matches, alone. For the rest of us, there are pages devoted to the player’s complex relationship with his father, an immigrant from Iran who was committed to forging the American dream for his son, but who, through his relentless severity, gave his son a deeply ambiguous attitude toward the sport that has defined his life. It’s heartening to see Agassi develop a passion that is truly his, alone, as he founds a charter school in his hometown of Las Vegas.
As everyone knows, there’s nothing that ruins a good joke like trying to explain it, but Born Standing Up, in which Steve Martin attempts to pick apart his long career in stand-up comedy, is perhaps at its best when it's at its least funny. It's fascinating to learn the comedian’s approach to his craft, and passages about Martin’s difficult family situation are carried by the intelligent, distanced tone he uses throughout the book.