The Year of Yes

The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

This memoir by a TV goddess is empowering and just as funny as I expected it to be. I really enjoy Shonda Rhimes’s TV writing: Scandal, Gray’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder are addictive and brilliantly plotted. I recognized some of the sentence-level pacing and style from her shows; it works just as well in this format. The gimmick of the book is that in the year 2014? Rimes made a resolution to say yes to things that scared her. The end result was that she moved from hiding in the writers’ room to taking the spotlight herself, and feeling more comfortable there. She made several intimidating TV appearances and a few public speeches, including her Dartmouth commencement speech. Her stories about working motherhood and the mommy wars. losing weight without self-hate, learning to accept compliments, taking time to play were perfectly expressed, and just what I needed to hear.

How Should a Person Be?

How Should a Person Be? A Novel From Life by Shelia Heti


When this book came out, there was a lot of talk about it, so I put it on my list. People were saying how it’s a book about female friendship and the struggle to produce art, topics which certainly appeal to me. A lot of people didn’t like it and called it navel-gazing, and others responded to that criticism with accusations of sexism: “You’d like it if it were a man doing the navel-gazing.” Because I know where I generally stand on those debates, I was fully prepared to like and enjoy this book, and was disappointed when I didn’t so much. It wasn’t because female friendship is boring or because a woman writing about her own life is objectionable to me (obviously), but just because I guess I didn’t like the particular things Heti had to say about her life, or the way she said them. Heti (or her character) divorces her husband for reasons I didn’t understand (I didn’t understand why she married him either), and has a relationship with a creepy guy who likes to make sex as degrading for his partners as possible. It takes her way too long to dump him. She moves from Toronto to New York because statistically it seems more likely she’ll make her way into the canon if she’s there. The story (not that there’s much plot) is framed by an “ugly painting” contest that Heti’s friends participate in. Heti’s friend Margeaux is a central figure, and the effect both have on each others’ art is a key question.

I’d compare Heti to Lena Dunham in that they’re both privileged white women making art and focusing on relationships between women. Both also explore relationships with men that are at least borderline exploitative or abusive. Dunham is a decade younger, a lot funnier, and has some important things to say about date rape, women’s bodies and representation, while Heti is more esoteric and existential, and less concerned with social justice. I’m between the two in age, but I think I prefer Dunham.

Best Books of 2015

I picked out my favorites of the books I’ve read and reviewed this year. Here they are below, separated by genre:

Best Fiction

Sevenwaters series by Juliet Marrilier

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobbs

Best Memoir

Poser by Claire Dederer

Yes Please by Amy Pohler

Best Nonfiction

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Best YA

Winter by Marissa Meyer

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness


Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence


Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer

Poser-2This is one of my favorite memoirs I’ve ever read. Dederer describes the pressures of hipster parenting incredibly well. The story spans several years as she has two babies, moves from Seattle to Boulder and back, and becomes increasingly interested in yoga as exercise and philosophy. She also deals with some issues from her family of origin: her parents separated without divorcing in the 70’s, and her mother went to live with another man. I really related to her struggles with perfectionism. Here’s a great long quote that kind of encapsulates the central problem Dederer begins the book with:

We were a generation of hollow-eyed women, chasing virtue. We, the mothers of North Seattle, were consumed with trying to do everything right. Breast-feeding was simply the first item in a long, abstruse to-do-list: cook organic food, buy expensive wooden toys, create an enriching home environment, attend parenting lectures, sleep with your child in your bed, ensure that your house was toxin-free, use cloth diapers, carry your child in a sling, make your own baby food, dress your child in organic fibers, join a baby group so your child could develop peer attachments. And don’t quit your job. But be sure to agonize about it. And enjoy an active sex life. But only with your spouse! Also, don’t forget to recycle.

Goodness ruled me. I was thirty-one. All the moms I knew, at least the ones who were my age and lived in my zip code, lived by this set of rules. It was a variant form of that oldie, perfectionism, but without the hang-ups about appearances. We didn’t want to look good. We wanted to be good. We wanted a kind of moral cleanliness to touch our lives.

When I read those lines I was hooked. By the end I felt like I had learned and grown alongside Dederer, and that’s a feeling you love to get from a memoir.

The yoga stuff, though it was so central to the story and to Dederer’s evolution, was probably the least interesting part of the book to me personally. Especially Dederer’s hand-wringing about whether Western yoga is cultural appropriation. Mostly the classes she attends and the poses she describes seem to serve as a metaphor for releasing the tension in her life. As a metaphor it worked pretty effectively. I guess I’m proof that you don’t have to be interested in yoga to enjoy this book.

Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass

Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir by Annita Perez Sawyer


A teenage mental patient endures dozens of shock treatments that cause her to lose all her memories. Years later, as a psychologist herself, she uncovers her medical records, which leads her to rediscover the traumatic memories that triggered her collapse as a young adult.

One of the fascinating things about memoirs is the idea of reading a true story, of connecting not with a character, but a real person whose experience you can share. Sawyer takes us into the depths of the disturbed thinking caused by her illness and trauma. The beginning of the book is kind of hard to read because it’s so upsetting to see someone treated this way by doctors and by her own mind. Later in the book, it’s great to see Sawyer triumph over her illness and win professional and personal success. She makes a narrator who’s easy to root for and care about.

In this kind of writing, the writer always has to make tough choices about which events to emphasize and which to leave out entirely, and those choices can never exactly meet up with the interests of all readers. I was interested in Sawyer’s family life and her relationships with her patients, but the focus of the book was on her own journey of understanding her past.

Despite the intense subject matter, this story feels less raw than other memoirs I’ve read, almost sanitized at times. I think that difference is partly generational. Sawyer is a little older than the Baby Boomers, so she doesn’t share that generation’s extravagant personality. For example, Boomer Jeanette Walls also writes about her family’s dysfunction, but the alcoholics in her family were a lot more flamboyant than the secretive ones in Sawyer’s. Also, Sawyer’s particular issues have to do with repression and dissociation, which naturally don’t lead to wild tales of acting out a la Cheryl Strayed (a Gen-Xer).

This story is about the courage it took for Sawyer to analyze herself, to look at her former self the way she looks at her patients, with empathy and kindness. One message of the book is for those who work in mental health, to be wary of misdiagnosis and projection. But beyond that, Sawyer writes with compassion about a lesson many of us need to learn at some point: how to forgive ourselves for what happened to us as kids. The ending of the book, as Sawyer begins to remember the truth about her childhood, is absorbing and disquieting.

Yes Please

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

2D274905957270-YesPlease.blocks_desktop_mediumAmy Poehler is responsible for my favorite sitcom of all time, Parks and Recreation, which sadly came to an end last month. Most of the book consists of stories about Poehler’s time doing improv in Chicago, backstage at SNL, and clean gossip about costars. It’s wry and fun to read, and occasionally thought-provoking. Her essay on apologies, and how she waited too long to give one for an offensive SNL sketch, was easy to relate to. I also liked the one about how she kept her cool when nominated for awards by planning elaborate pranks with co-nominees. She articulates her really smart and well-adjusted way of dealing with the ups and downs of showbiz (but really any career as well): “You have to care about your work but not the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look.” I closed the book feeling a little wiser.

Poehler’s feminist cred is well-established, from her character Leslie Knope to her organization Smart Girls at the Party, and I was glad to see her fly that flag in her book. My favorite essay in the book might be “Every Mom Needs a Wife,” which is Poehler’s response to the mommy wars, and to the microaggression “I don’t know how you do it.” Her point is basically twofold: 1) To each her own, and 2) we all need help and support. Amen.

One of the delightful things about this book is that it is so excellent in both print and audio format that I’m not sure which to recommend. The book has nice thick, smooth pages with lots of vintage pictures of young Amy, collages from her improv days, pics of present-day Poehler in clownish dress-ups, as well as report cards, margin notes, full-page color quotes and other text features. The audio has Amy’s excellent comic delivery, audio clips from Parks and Recreation, as well as guest appearances from Seth Meyers, Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur, and her parents. Both text and audio are excellent examples of their genres, so choose your preferred content delivery method.

I hate to compare a bunch of smart, funny ladies when I think they’re all awesome, but of Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, and Amy Poehler, Poehler has written the best memoir, and that’s really saying something. I can’t wait to see what she does next, on screen and off.

Little Failure

Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart


I saw Shteyngart read part of his memoir at the Southern Festival of Books so I thought I’d like it. It’s the story of his family and their emigration to the US from Soviet Russia, even going back a couple generations to tell about his relatives who were killed in WWII, either in death camps or defending St Petersburg. Shteyngart and his parents came to New York in the 70’s when Carter made his “grain for Jews” deal. The narrative explores his experience of profound culture shock, a circumcision at age 10, his constantly fighting parents, and a couple exploitative early mentors. There’s a lot about his awkward adolescence at Stuyvesant and Oberlin, his early romantic history, and the beginning of his writing career. The prose is humorous and self-deprecating; it’s fun to read. He makes a point of saying he’s never experienced writer’s block, which makes me hate him a little.

When Shteyngart was talking about the book here in Nashville, he said he had realized in his 3 novels that he’s been writing about himself, so he wanted to exorcise all of that by writing this memoir and getting it out of his system. I’ve only read one of his novels, but I can see why he’d say that. There is something appealing about Shteyngart’s signature pathetic, wimpy protagonist, but I can see why he’d feel he needs to move on from him.