Book chat: ‘Year of Yes’ by Shonda Rhimes

Year of YesI enjoyed the hell out of this book.

I’ll say it again, complete with cursing (and I don’t take that lightly): I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

As a woman. As a writer. As a mother. As a working mother. As a person that struggles with eating. As a human being with thoughts and hopes and feelings.

At the risk of sounding completely cliche, Shonda Rhimes? My spirit animal.

I’ll preface this review (will it be a review? More like nonsensical gushing, I fear . . .) by stating that, prior to picking up Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, I knew little about Shonda herself. If you are similarly unfamiliar, she is the powerhouse behind Thursday nights on ABC: creator, head writer and executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” as well as “Private Practice.” She is also executive producer of “How to Get Away with Murder” and “The Catch,” produced by ShondaLand.

Shonda is, in her own words, an FOD: First Only Different. She is an African-American woman who has achieved tremendous success as a blockbuster writer and producer — doing what she loves and is clearly exceptional at: making TV “look like the rest of the world.”

I tend to go into motivational-type memoirs with a skeptical eye, but had a hunch I would like this one: and I did. I loved it. Shonda is personable, engaging, inspiring — as a person and a writer, of course, but also as a mother. With three daughters looking up to her as well as a powerful job, the pressure of doing everything well would crack anyone. Can we do it all?

To hear Shonda tell it: well, no. In one of my favorite chapters in Year of Yes, Shonda admits that excelling in one area of her life (work) often makes her feel like she’s failing in another (home), and vice versa. Over and over again. She gives a powerful analogy about once obsessing over Whitney Houston, wanting perfect hair like Whitney’s — trying anything and everything to achieve that signature look, but still failing.

Years later, a stylist confides not even Whitney had Whitney hair: it was a wig.

A wig.

Shonda talks about how, in acting like we have it all together and not discussing our struggles, we’re doing a disservice to other women. That’s a wig. It’s OK to admit we need help. Shonda’s comes in the form of one Jenny McCarthy: not the actress, but her wonderful nanny by the same name. She freely admits that, without Jenny, she could never keep all the plates spinning.

Yes of Yes arrived at the perfect time for me. Almost a year into motherhood, I’ve struggled with my quick return to work and how to similarly stay afloat with so many responsibilities pulling at me from all sides. After one poorly-timed (but not malicious) question about whether I “feel bad” dropping off my son at daycare each day, I needed Shonda. I needed Shonda to tell me I can do this. That I’m already doing it.

Not perfectly — because no one does, regardless of what they’ll tell you. But I’m trying, and that’s enough.

As a writer, I related deeply to Shonda’s stories of life “in the pantry”: when she was perfectly content to sit amongst the canned goods, staging elaborate battles between the vegetables and sealing herself off from the world. The youngest of six children, Shonda grew up in a loving family outside Chicago and has a close relationship with her siblings: especially sister Delores.

It’s a comment by Delores that sparks Shonda journey: “You never say ‘yes’ to anything.” It was muttered on a Thanksgiving morning, setting off a series of changes that resulted in saying “yes” to the things that would normally scare her. Public speaking was on the list, of course, but so was considering her diet. Morbidly obese at the start of the “Year of Yes,” Shonda realizes she had been putting food on top of feelings: saying “yes” to “fatness,” trying to ease her unhappiness by eating.

She doesn’t play up the weight loss as instrumental to her evolution, but shedding more than 100 pounds will certainly do that to a person. But far more than the physical weight, she says, was the weight of all the difficult conversations she hadn’t wanted to have: with a boyfriend about why she didn’t want to get married (ever, to anyone); to toxic friends she didn’t realize only wanted to see her unhappy. It’s only when begins asking hard questions — of others, but also herself — that she truly transforms.

By the end of Year of Yes, I felt altered with her. I thought of the ways I’d been mistreating myself, both through overindulgence and misplaced guilt about motherhood. About why I write and why I need to write, and why it’s OK to say I want to work and be a working mother.

Maybe I don’t need Shonda to validate my feelings, validate my choices, but I sure feel better having her as a part of my tribe. She mentions her “ride-or-dies” quite frequently — the people she can count on for anything. And she admits that one is technically fictitious, but very real to her: Cristina Yang of “Grey’s Anatomy,” a character written by Shonda and portrayed by Sandra Oh.

So Shonda, if I may be so bold, I’d like to add you to my ride-or-die list: a friend I feel I can always look to for support, guidance and motivation. Your Year of Yes found me at the moment I most needed to hear it, and listening to this book on audio — read, of course, by the author — was an amazing experience. Thank you.

5 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library


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Book chat: ‘Why Not Me?’ by Mindy Kaling

Why Not MeActress and writer Mindy Kaling is my vision of a talented Everywoman.

Confident but approachable, warm and vivacious, Mindy is someone I aspire to be more like. I love her sass, her wit, her style . . . and also love that she “doesn’t look like most women on TV,” a statement Mindy herself ponders in Why Not Me?, her second memoir.

I went into this book hoping the Mindy I know and love — wise, funny, a little quirky — would shine through, and she absolutely does. Her memoir is a collection of short stories about many topics, including her days on “The Office”; the hard work and long hours behind “The Mindy Project,” her (awesome) TV show recently picked up by Hulu; and many anecdotes about friendship, college, growing up, looking for love, self-confidence and more.

Though the only uniting thread seems to be Mindy’s insistence that we should be ourselves regardless of what anyone thinks and work hard for what we want, that was enough. That totally worked for me. This 240-page book left me feeling motivated and renewed, like I’d just had a cleansing cryfest with an old friend.

Plus? It’s funny, but in a warmhearted way. Mindy is hilarious. I especially appreciated that, while she is grateful women see her as a realistic role model, she’s not afraid to admit that, at times, she does wish she were thinner, bolder, more confident or [insert societal standard or adjective here]. That vulnerability is appealing — and also comforting. It’s more than okay to love and accept ourselves while still striving to improve.

If you’re a fan of Kaling, Why Not Me? is a book you’ll likely savor. Having not read her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (I know: way behind), I can’t compare the two — but this short, easily digestible and enjoyable series of stories definitely feels like you’ve invited Mindy over to give you advice on being a bad boss lady while she still owns up to some of her foibles. I totally dug it.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library


Book thoughts: Memoirs from Lena Dunham & Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham

I spend a great deal of time in the car these days. With the addition of driving to Oliver’s day care each weekday, I’m commuting at least 40 minutes daily — so I can plow my way through an audiobook or two a week.

Which is awesome, actually . . . given I’ve had so little energy to read physical stories since Ollie came home. I’m often determined to settle down with Jennifer Weiner or Meg Cabot before bed, thinking that tonight is the night I’m going to finally read for goodness’ sake, but something comes up.

Or, more accurately, the eyelids come down.

Through plenty of trial and error, I’ve come to realize that my favorite audiobooks are memoirs — particularly when read by the author. I’ve checked out all sorts of non-fiction I wouldn’t normally read in print, but adored them as audios.

But I didn’t need any convincing to read Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. They arrived on hold for me at the library at the same time, and I didn’t have the heart to leave either lady there. Good thing I didn’t, either; I’d finished both in three weeks, a new record, and desperately missed them both when their stories were done.

So. Lena.

Dunham, a 29-year-old New Yorker, is a polarizing figure. Known for being the creator, writer, director, producer and star of HBO’s “Girls,” Lena has no problem putting it all out there — literally and figuratively. Some declare her the voice of our generation; others label her a self-important drama queen. I happen to be in the former category, and I’ve watched “Girls” for years. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s thoughtful and entertaining. Lena’s Hannah is messed up and whacky and self-absorbed, but she’s refreshingly realistic in her obsession with writing and love. I relate to her. Not all of her, but enough.

In reality, Lena is not Hannah . . . but, in some ways, she is. Not that Kind of Girl is Lena’s life-story-in-vignettes with tales of her awkward adolescence, search for acceptance, demanding of respect and growth. There are some squicky moments, yes, and it’s not for me to debate the level of their squickiness. But I think Lena is mostly guilty of oversharing. (Can you overshare in a memoir? Probably.)

Look: Lena can be brash. She’s controversial. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay. From a feminist standpoint, I appreciate hearing her voice above the din and look up to her for all that she’s accomplished before 30.

Her memoir is quick, pithy, easy on the ears and often very funny. There are some deeper, disturbing moments, but it’s not a depressing story. If I’m honest, I’d normally be super jealous of an under-30 talented takes-no-prisoners writer lady who is actually younger than me, but really? I’m just kind of proud of her. In a big sister kind of way.

And then we have Amy Poehler, who’s Yes Please was the perfect companion to my morning drives. Like pretty much everyone in America, I was introduced to Amy through “Saturday Night Live” and was a mega-huge fan of the often-underappreciated “Parks & Recreation,” which I watched religiously with my dad. Leslie Knope is it.

Poehler’s memoir is part motivational speech, part biography, part behind-the-scenes glimpse at the shows and people who helped boost her to monumental success over the years — and I really enjoyed all of it. Like Lena, Amy comes across as a down-to-earth but badass lady who has me totally rethinking what it means to be deemed “bossy.”

Bossy women get stuff done.

Amy is like your cool aunt who admits to recreational drug use while still cautioning you against it, and comes across as deeply knowledgeable about life because she’s probably “been there.” Growing up in Massachusetts, Amy later moves to Chicago to begin working in improv and eventually marries and divorces Will Arnett, has two sons, achieves great success on “SNL” and “Parks & Rec” and then, when it’s over, must find what’s next again.

She sounds like an amazing friend, colleague, daughter and mom, and you get a sense of all those roles while listening to Yes Please. I loved her stories of and take on working toward success — and it doesn’t have anything to do with it happening overnight. Overall, her memoir was equal parts funny and empowering: a perfect recipe.

Both Lena and Amy narrate their own books, as you’d hope and expect. Each does a wonderful job. These women are storytellers, and these are their stories. Who else could possibly tell them?

By the time I’d finished both audios, I felt like I’d just sent a new friend off on a long vacation with no way to get in touch. Amy and Lena have both further endeared themselves to me, and I’d definitely recommend their stories to anyone who wants to think about life, snort into their commuter-friendly coffee mug and feel good about the road ahead.

Four stars, both of ’em!

Not That Kind of Girl / Pub: 2014 / 265 pages
Yes Please / Pub: 2014 / 329 pages


Book chat: ‘The Dirty Life’ by Kristin Kimball

The Dirty LifeKristin Kimball’s transition from tenacious New Yorker to muddied farm wife is lovingly documented in The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love — and it almost made me want to get dirty myself.

I’m a suburban girl with no experience around animals or agriculture. Though surrounded by farms — the last vestiges of Maryland’s tobacco past — growing up, my knowledge of farming practices and experience with homegrown food is incredibly limited. I don’t like to be sweaty or hot, basically; the idea of slaving away all day in the sun pulling tubers from the ground isn’t appealing.

And yet, on some level . . . it is?

It’s hard to describe the immense satisfaction we get from a hard day’s work — far away from a computer. Kristin and her then-fiance, Mark, take over a rundown farm in Essex, New York, with the idea of creating a CSA (community-supported agriculture) and living off the land.

While Mark has extensive farming experience, Kristin does not. She’s just a woman tired of fighting the good fight in New York’s cutthroat journalism world . . . and when she meets muddy, sincere, unassuming Mark, the pair fall into easy conversation. And love.

I felt for Kristin from the beginning, relating to her lack of experience but her drive to learn. She starts out visiting Mark for a story and, with time, finds she enjoys her hours spent on the farm with the crew — especially when it comes to the fresh, organic and healthy meals they’re served. It’s farm-to-table on a literal level, and the authenticity of it all stands in stark contrast to Manhattan’s manufactured happiness.


Farm


The Dirty Life chronicles Kristin and Mark’s early courtship and the origins of Essex Farm, which starts as nothing but bare fields and slowly becomes a booming, productive enterprise that brings the community together. I’ve long been interested in the concept of CSAs, and Kristin makes the idea of joining one immensely appealing.

One of the most interesting parts of the story is the idea that, when times are tough, people return to the land. Published in 2010, The Dirty Life arrives in the thick of the recession — and I thought a bit about how and why farming is still considered the noble American profession. While farmers themselves have seen their numbers dwindle significantly over the decades, we all still need to eat. This food must come from somewhere. So why not Essex Farm?

Increasing attention is paid to what we’re eating, where it’s coming from and why. Shoppers seeking “organic” foods have more options at the grocery store than ever before, and farmers’ markets — especially in and around my hometown — seem to be booming. It’s appealing to shake hands with the man or woman who grew your tomatoes, you know? It’s refreshing to hand cash over to farmers living, working and supporting your own community.

So it’s easy to see why Kristin and Mark — with their passion, drive and hard work — would eventually succeed. Her story is quick, interesting and entertaining. The steep learning curve Kristin faces while working with Mark on their great farming adventure is realistic and human. I loved that she did not romanticize all the long hours, exhausting work and painful sacrifices, but she’s not complaining, either. She acknowledges both the slog and tremendous reward of working side-by-side with your family in a place you love. How they have really built something together.

Kristin feels like that cool, bold friend who leaps first and figures it out later . . . and, by the close of the story, I found myself proud by proxy of all she and Mark have accomplished. The Dirty Life is a very enjoyable read — especially for those interested in agriculture.

I might be just a girl from the suburbs, but I do love a good cow story.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library


Book chat: ‘Etched in Sand’ by Regina Calcaterra

Etched in SandRegina Calcaterra could have turned out very differently.

The third of five children, Regina and her siblings were forced to scrabble a life together when Cookie — their mentally ill, alcoholic mother — went on weeks- or months-long binges, leaving her four daughters and son to fend for themselves.

Little to no food. Shelter — until a landlord gets wise to the fact that his tenant isn’t paying . . . and has abandoned her kids at his rundown apartment, where they live like warriors forced to steal to survive. The clothes on their backs and, if they’re lucky, a television set to entertain the little ones.

No more. No less. For years.

Though she thinks there are people who want to help them, Regina fears what has already come to pass before: being shoved into foster care, where she will be unable to look after siblings — especially Rosie, the baby of the group. Tired of playing “mom” before their time, Regina’s teenage sisters have begun hefting more of the responsibility to Regina . . . who has no resources, no support.

Even in this quagmire in New York, Regina believes that staying together in an abusive hell with Cookie — who arrives only occasionally to dole out beatings and drop off pathetic groceries — is better than losing one another. Better than the unknown. Until one confession changes everything . . . and changes life forever.

Regina Calcaterra’s Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island is the sort of book you desperately wish were fiction. These horrible things can’t really have happened, can they? No “mother” could be so heartless. No “parent” could be so cruel. No system in place to help children could be so neglectful, and no children could really be forced to steal or starve to death in a lonely, worn-out hell.

This book is jarring. Gut-wrenching. Horrifying. Despite the obvious pain and difficulty, though, we know from the beginning that Regina not only survives her mother’s abuse . . . but thrives. That glimmer of hope — that small, tiny ray of sunshine in the distance — is what kept me motivated to turn the pages. Regina is a woman you come to know and love: someone you want to cheer on and support. Someone who needs that support.

Why read a memoir detailing such neglect? The power of Regina’s story — which is her siblings’ story, too. Even in her darkest moments, she never loses sight of the most important people in her life: her family. Though the system fails Cookie’s children in many ways, they never give up fighting for one another. And knowing that Regina goes on to become wildly strong and successful, brave and resilient, well . . . it makes it all worthwhile.

Though occasionally tough to read, Etched in Sand was impossible to put down. I finished the book in two sittings, desperate to make sure that Camile, Cherie, Norman, Rosie and Regina would somehow land on their feet.

With or without Cookie.

Somehow, through it all, Regina’s first-person account does not come off as bitter — or even angry. Someone who has every right to be a fire-breathing dragon when recounting the horrible things she was forced to do, see and decide as a teen manages to tell her tale without malice. Regina’s writing strikes a delicate balance between factual detachment and impassioned storytelling, and I found that impressive. Crazy, even.

For much of the story, I felt focused on the idea of revenge . . . this hope that their mother would finally be forced to pay for what she did to them — either with jail time or mental anguish. Preferably both. In the process, I wanted her to repent and apologize. To be less of an unspeakably horrible monster, basically.

But real life doesn’t always work that way. By the close of Calcaterra’s powerful memoir, I was thinking more about forgiveness . . . and how important it is for the soul. Despite Cookie’s attempts to break them down and wreck them, her children found a way to move forward.

The best revenge, they say, is living well.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘Seven Letters from Paris’ by Samantha Verant

Seven Letters from ParisTwenty years after they shared one fateful weekend in Paris, Samantha and Jean-Luc are separated by an ocean and wealth of varying experiences. Samantha herself is in a rut — 40 and jobless, staring down an impending divorce, living back with her parents as she nervously tackles her debt.

When Sam stumbles upon a series of letters Jean-Luc sent after she returned to college in America, the passion and connection they shared decades ago comes flooding back to her. She realizes she hasn’t felt that way before or since — but never actually responded to her French Romeo. At all.

Though she believes her apology comes a little too late, she’s able to find Jean-Luc online and sends him the answer she feels he was owed in the ’80s by way of a blog. Their emails lead to phone calls, and calls expand to talk of visiting in person. Is she crazy to leave California for France to see if the connection they once shared has stood the test of time?

Maybe. But she has nothing to lose, and all the world to gain.

Samantha Verant’s memoir Seven Letters from Paris is the romantic, entertaining story of how she reconnected with the love of her life when the odds certainly seemed stacked against them. Their story is an improbable one: a young American woman and French rocket scientist randomly meet at a cafe when Sam and a friend visit Paris in the late ’80s. After they share a weekend exploring the city, Jean-Luc falls completely in love . . . and Samantha disappears. He sends seven letters to her address at an American university but never hears from her again.

Until, one day, he does.

I’ll just come out and say that I’m a huge fan of serendipity. I love stories that connect lovers who, by all logic, should not have found one another; I adore tales of fate stepping in to guide the lives of unlikely people. Sam and Jean-Luc live an ocean and a continent apart — and the idea that they could randomly meet on a sidewalk, lose touch and find each other again after 20 years, several marriages, children and so on was nothing short of amazing.

Where the story could have become schmaltzy and boring, Samantha’s self-deprecating humor and humble roots were endearing and kept me rooting for her from start to finish. As she sheds her dog-walking skin back in California and takes a chance on visiting Jean-Luc, I was breathless with anticipation of their meeting once again. Ah, true love.

Are Jean-Luc’s overtures a bit over-the-top? Sure. But as Sam points out often, the standard for romance in France is, um, a bit different than what we might expect of courtship here in the U.S. She is wooed quite thoroughly by her older scientist — and who could blame her? I mean, really.

A quick and engaging read, Seven Letters from Paris  was just the sort of story I needed to help break me out of my reading slump. I loved Sam and Jean-Luc — and especially loved them together. I’ve heard rumors that we may get a follow-up on their new life together in France (not a spoiler!) . . . I’ll just be over here with my coffee and macaron, waiting.


4 out of 5

Pub: October 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Advance copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book review: ‘Everybody’s Got Something’ by Robin Roberts

Everybody's Got SomethingTelevision newscaster Robin Roberts has had her share of struggles. Treated for breast cancer in 2007, the “Good Morning America” co-anchor expected to make a full recovery and put her fight behind her . . . until five years later, when she learned she would need a life-saving bone marrow transplant for myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare blood disorder — a side effect from her initial cancer treatment.

Who could blame someone for balking, for shrinking, for retreating inward . . . for asking a distraught “Why me?” To hear Robin tell it, though she faced uncertainty and doubt and did occasionally rail against her situation, she tried to focus on healing.

And Robin is a fighter.

More inspirational than informational, Roberts’ Everybody’s Got Something is her recollection of where she was before, during and after her 2012 transplant — and reads as a “thank you” to the friends, family, coworkers and viewers who bolstered her during a tremendously difficult time.

As she prepares for her transplant and its required isolation, Robin must also come to grips with another pain: the grief of losing her beloved mother, Lucimarian. The love shared between her close-knit family — including Sally-Ann, her bone marrow donor — is the backbone of Robin’s story, and many chapters feature snippets of childhood and the many lessons her mother and father shared with their children.

Though Everybody’s Got Something lacked some of the candor I’d expect given Robin’s difficult situation, I respect her so much as a person and appreciate that she wanted to focus on the positives: the bond her illness further cemented with her family and girlfriend, Amber; the overwhelming, soul-restoring support she received from colleagues, friends and viewers; the strong faith that got her through the darkest of her days.

Robin’s struggles seem to have been buffed clean, smoothed of their most jagged edges — but this is her story. If it’s varnished, I understand . . . and appreciate that, more than anything, Everybody’s Got Something — a popular saying with her mother — is exactly what it purports to be: a reminder that we all face challenges, but need not be defined by them. Readers facing health crises may find it especially comforting.

If you like Robin? Well, you’ll like her book. She’s sincere and humble — and just a darn likeable person. I finished the memoir grateful for her returning strength and hopeful that the future will be a bright one.


3 out of 5

Pub: April 22, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Audio copy borrowed from local library