Category Archives: Memoir

‘Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)’ by Mindy Kaling

What do you read when there is no time to read? My husband and I are wrapping up a move from our apartment into a house, and there has been very little time to read, let alone a place to do it. These are the times I reserve for celebrity memoirs: fast-paced, readable and easy to pick back up after the cable guy/movers/new neighbors are out of the way. This time I opted for The Office writer/actress Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns), a funny treatise on romance, dieting, the creative process, and pretty much everything in between.

In order to pay homage to Kaling’s penchant for “pliests” (“a piece with a list-y quality”), I will conduct this review in the same fashion.

Why I enjoyed Mindy Kaling’s book:

KALING IS HONEST
It’s easy to tell when a writer, especially a memoirist, is being honest his/her thoughts and experiences. Though Kaling takes pains to stress that Kelly Kapoor, the boy-crazy narcissistic customer service rep she plays on The Office, is not a close iteration of her actual self, it takes an understanding of one’s own faults to play a character like Kelly so convincingly. Kaling’s understanding of her own hypersensitivity to actual and perceived social slights—as evidenced in chapters like “I Forget Nothing: A Sensitive Kid Looks Back”—allows her to play Kelly Kapoor with hilarious accuracy.

IT IS LAUGH-OUT-LOUD FUNNY
After reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants last year, I had doubts about whether Kaling’s book would be as funny. I mean, come on, this is Tina Fey, creator of 30 Rock and former co-host of Weekend Update we’re talking about here. Alas, I was wrong. I attempted to read passages of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me out loud to my husband a few times, and more often than not, I couldn’t even get through them without dissolving into laughter. The “JLMP” section in particular will ring hilariously true to any female reader who once frustrated Cheesecake Factory servers by ordering one slice of cheesecake and a few diet Cokes with her girlfriends in junior high.

THE GOSSIP
Let’s face it, the reason we read celebrity memoirs is to get the gossip. And thankfully, Mindy Kaling delivers by offering readers a peak into the behind-the-scenes world of The Office. Readers get a feel for the set (not very glamorous), what the actors are really like (as cool as they seem), and a few amusing references to Mindy Kaling’s love/hate relationship with Rainn Wilson, better known as Assistant (to the) Regional Manager Dwight Schrute. There isn’t anything too juicy here, but Kaling treats readers to what feels like a true behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to work with such a unique group.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading Mindy Kaling’s memoir and recommend it to anyone needing a break from more serious reading.

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‘Tolstoy and the Purple Chair’ by Nina Sankovitch

“Great good comes from reading great books.” This was the theme of Nina Sankovitch’s website—ReadAllDay.org—during a yearlong project in which she read and reviewed one book per day. After reading about this unique and enviable project in a New York Times article, I became hooked on Sankovitch’s website and had been eager to read her memoir of the experience, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.

Recognizing a need to slow down and reflect following three hectic years after the death of her beloved sister, Anne-Marie, Sankovitch made a commitment to seek guidance in books. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair covers not only the logistics of her project, but mixes in mini-reviews of the books the read along with anecdotes of her family history. Sankovitch articulates well the insight and healing power a good book can provide and inspires her readers to reach for a book to accompany life’s ups and downs.

Like Sankovitch, I have never failed to find comfort and direction from a good book. With that said, one of the greatest features of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is its abundance of great book recommendations. I appreciated Sankovitch’s conversational style of reviewing; each book I ended up checking out for myself (and there were quite a few!) felt accessible and personal in my own reading of it. In fact, since I caught on to the great things happening over at ReadAllDay.org my library holds queue has never been short of capacity.

Overall, I was very happy to read this fellow book lover’s memoir of reading as a means to cope with grief. I will continue to look forward to the author’s ongoing book reviews and future projects.

‘Bossypants’ by Tina Fey

As a big fan of 30 Rock and the Fey/Poehler years of SNL’s Weekend Update, I knew I had to read Tina Fey’s new memoir/collection of essays, Bossypants. In it, Fey covers the gamut of everything from her childhood as a theater kid in Pennsylvania, to her years spent as one of few women touring with The Second City, ending finally with her current gig as creator/writer/star of NBC’s hilarious 30 Rock. Quintessentially Tina Fey, this memoir is a treat for fans of the comedian and her work.

Bossypants is by no means a traditional memoir. And for me, that is what made it such fun to read. I enjoyed learning about the author’s formative years and her rise from Second City bit player to prime time comedy bigwig, but it was content like the “Secrets of Mommy’s Beauty”, “Dear Internet” and “The Mother’s Prayer for its Daughter” that had me laughing out loud.

While Bossypants is undoubtedly a funny book, Fey doesn’t shy away from commenting on the male-dominated politics of the profession she excels in. She understands that, unfair as it is, her success is the exception to the rule, and aspires to create an environment around her own show that undermines that unfortunate truth. While she admittedly doesn’t have all the answers, she articulates well a frustration that any woman trying to succeed in the politics of the “boys’ club” can relate with.

I am happy to report that Tina Fey’s Bossypants was the treat I thought it would be. Highly recommended to 30 Rock fans in need of a fix before Thursday!

X-Brand

My Booky Wook by Russell Brand

I’ll start this review off by saying that I really wanted to like My Booky Wook. While I normally wouldn’t be drawn to memoir written by a thirty-something with relatively limited celebrity status, I’m a big fan of Russell Brand. His fast-paced stand-up and hilarious role as Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek reveal a quick-witted, cheeky personality that is surprisingly–and humorously–self-aware. With this in mind I thought My Booky Wook would be a light-hearted and amusing dose of the same. And to an extent it was. Except, as the memoir drags on, it becomes less and less amusing.

The writing style of the book is a carbon copy of Brand’s manner of speaking: witty and conversational. This is one of the positive aspects of this book because, for me, it never really got old. Brand’s ability to offer funny, quirky commentary on the life experiences that comprise the memoir is fun to read and the reason I like his stand-up.

Unfortunately, however, it’s the anecdotes themselves that left a bad impression for me. At 35 years old and with a somewhat limited resume, there is no real reason for Brand to write a memoir just yet. Yes, he successfully transitioned from a junkie sex addict into a sober (and now married!) actor/comedian. However, some of the stories he tells lead the reader to believe his journey to maturity isn’t over yet. Brand’s inability to keep his ego in check becomes more and more off-putting as the book ambles along, despite his knowledge of this personal flaw.

While My Booky Wook has its share of flaws, I will say that it does nothing to make me like its author any less. And even though I will not be reading the not unforeseen My Booky Wook 2, I will continue to count myself a fan of Brand’s stand-up and movie career.

Books Behind Bars

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg

From the start the idea behind Avi Steinberg’s memoir of his time as librarian at Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston’s South Bay is suspect.  Admittedly, Steinberg is an aspiring writer short on inspiration; the memoir’s opening chapter refers to the author’s stunted first novel in order to emphasize the rut his life was then mired in.  Though it is only a snippet of information offered at the beginning of the book, this bit kept coming back to me as the memoir unfolded: did Steinberg take this unusual job solely as a means to fortify his literary aspirations?  While I lean toward a response of “yes” to this question, Steinberg ultimately achieves more than just a saleable book.  Despite its shortcomings Running the Books exposes a human side to the convict denizens of South Bay, revealed to the author in the simple setting of a library.

Though the stories of numerous inmates are touched upon in Running the Books, the lives of two in particular are most intriguing.  First there is Jessica, a thirty-something with a rough background who is surprised to discover that her long-abandoned and now teenaged son Chris is now incarcerated in the same prison as she.  After much painful deliberation, Jessica decides to contact her son via a letter and a portrait done by a fellow inmate.  Steinberg movingly completes her story, revealing a tough truth about convicts once they are released: not everyone emerges from the prison library improved like Malcolm X.

Next we meet Chudney, a career criminal with a newfound desire to become a celebrity chef.  Chudney uses the library to work toward his goal as he memorizes recipes, applies for a degree program and learns about the television industry.  Like Jessica, Chudney cannot escape the reality of life as an ex-con in the real world, once again teaching both author and reader that despite all of the prison Education Department’s better efforts hard work and commitment does not always reap rewards.

The stories of the inmates themselves is by far Running the Books‘s best attribute.  One of the weaker points of the memoir, however, is the lack of an arc in the author’s personal development.  Sure, the author grows from a meandering quarter-life screw-up to full fledged worker, complete with health insurance.  However, the author does not appear to experience any real personal growth.  However, he is not without opportunity.  Steinberg introduces the primary conflict in his life–his startling departure from the stringent Orthodox Judaism of his early life–to the reader and unfortunately does not ever resolve it.  Throughout the memoir the author refers to his former religious fervor, typically for comic affect.  However, when the opportunity to resolve his sudden departure from religion arises through his interactions with inmate Josh Schrieber, Steinberg does not take advantage and the reader is never privy to the reason.

While this and other issues plague the book (a lack of serious editing, for example), the memoir does have redeeming qualities that make its reading worthwhile.  I’m not sure if I will recommend this book to others, however, I will keep my eye out for Avi Steinberg and see what adventures he gets himself into next.

As Good as a Tasting Menu

MEDIUM RAW by Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain’s recent “bloody valentine to the world of food and people who cook” is a treat of a read regardless of your [lack of] knowledge on the subject matter.  MEDIUM RAW is essentially a collection of essays ranging in topic from Bourdain’s personal evolution, commentary on the contemporary food scene to just plain mouth-watering food writing.  While the US Weekly reader in me loved the behind-the-scenes factoids and gossip of the celebrity chef-focused chapters, the best essays were those that focused on Bourdain’s passion for traveling and the procuring of knowledge about different cultures via food and drink.  It was high entertainment to experience the way of life in present day Vietnam, the over-privileged snobbery of St. Barth in the Caribbean and New York’s restaurant scene through the writing of the adroit enthusiast Anthony Bourdain.

Probably the best element of MEDIUM RAW is Bourdain’s unmistakable style.  The writing is at some times terse and others loquacious, peppered with profanity without coming off as vulgar, and always clever.  Any cook, foodie or person on the street with a remote interest in the rest of the world will really enjoy this book.

Memoir of a Mad Man

FROM THOSE WONDERFUL FOLKS WHO GAVE YOU PEARL HARBOR: FRONT-LINE DISPATCHES FROM THE ADVERTISING WAR by Jerry Della Femina

As a Mad Men fan, Jerry Della Femina’s 1970 memoir of his life as an ad man feels like a look behind the scenes of the show.  Told in Della Femina’s casual, but sagely knowing personal tone, FORM THOSE WONDERFUL FOLKS gives the reader the true story behind the advertising boom in the 1960s.  Admittedly there were “three martini lunches,” hanky-panky on company time, and wheeling and dealing in smoke filled rooms, but Della Femina reminds us that at the same time, a uniquely creative profession was in its prime.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were the stories of the ads themselves.  Della Femina describes the creative process from experience as two men in a room shooting the breeze until a briliant campaign emerges.  In today’s human resources office environment, this “lack of productivity” surely would never fly.  But out of this comes some of the greatest advertising ideas of all time: Volkswagen, TWA, Certs, Feminique, the list goes on.

One of the great mysteries that Della Femina attempts to unearth in his book is why exactly advertising is alluring as it is.  Perhaps it is the combination of the creative nature and the large amount of money spent.  Possibly it is the rags-to-riches stories that many of the highest powered players can boast.  While Della Femina does not necessarily nail the reason down, he re-affirms that the advertising world of the 1960s was a unique and cherished time that will surely never be repeated.

Matthew Weiner has done a fantastic job utilizing this text as an inspiration for the stories we see unfolding in Mad Men.  However, hearing the story firsthand is a unique experience that all fans of the show should savor.