Category Archives: books

Review: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

It might be unorthodox to begin a book with the words “writing is hard,” but then again Amy Poehler is not your average writer, and Yes Please is far from your average book. The star of Parks and Recreation makes no secret of the fact she wrote her memoir in a sleep-deprived state, penning snippets on subways and planes. She freely admits that Yes Please is a “spontaneous overflow in the middle of chaos,” which ordinarily might lower readers’ expectations, but Poehler isn’t fooling anyone. The former Saturday Night Live cast member infuses her writing with an unabashed candour that is not only refreshing to read, but wholly absorbing. Poehler lifts the veil on the I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it mysticism surrounding working mothers, and writes truthfully of fitting 12-hour shoots around mothering two children under 7.

This brazen frankness is not limited to her personal life; Poehler narrates her passage to fame — or rather, her decade-long struggle funded by amateur comedy gigs – with a fondness that makes you wish you’d seen Poehler and her anarchic troupe — Upright Citizens Brigade — in action. Here, Poehler debunks another myth: that of the accidental celebrity. “I like hard work and I don’t like pretending things are perfect,” writes Poehler. And the sum of this hard work, grit and tenacity that is so redolent in Poehler’s account of her pre-SNL years is exactly why Poehler graces our screens as the bonkers-yet-brilliant Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation. Scenes from her childhood are woven into hilarious behind-the-scenes glimpses of the SNL writers’ room and poignant vignettes of her friendship with Tina Fey.

This is not a rose-hued fable of celebrity life. This is the reality of life as a sitcom star in the male-dominated world of comedy. This is not an argument for having it all, but instead a formula for how to try to have it all; and the tale of someone who knows first-hand that you can’t.

Are we all bad feminists?

The release of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist got me thinking. Aside from my concerns that yet another great book title has been taken, I think it’s really interesting to see the ‘bad feminist’ epithet being turned on its head. The label has gone from being a pejorative term bandied around by holier-than-thou feminist purists to something positive, something to be embraced. This speaks volumes about where we’re at in 2014 in terms of feminism — are we beginning to cut women some slack?

The recent Women Against Feminism Tumblr movement raised an important issue: that people don’t understand what feminism is. The movement suggested that individuals believe that feminism is a bunch of rigid rules that must be strictly adhered too, and that aren’t open to interpretation. With such a false misconception of feminism, is it any wonder they don’t want to be a part of it? I was horrified at yet another anti-feminist social media campaign, but I couldn’t help but think that — hidden deep inside this well of misunderstanding — there was a clear message about feminism: pressure. What do I mean by this? That we women have put so much pressure on themselves to be ‘good feminists’ that we’ve lost sight of what feminism really means. Have we tried so hard to be good feminists that we’ve become bad?

Zosia Mamet’s essay for Glamour magazine really resonates here:

As women we have internalized the idea that every morning we wake up, we have to go for the f–king gold. You can’t just jog; you have to run a triathlon. Having a cup of coffee, reading the paper, and heading to work isn’t enough—that’s settling, that’s giving in, that’s letting them win. You have to wake up, have a cup of coffee, conquer France, bake a perfect cake, take a boxing class, and figure out how you are going to get that corner office or become district supervisor, while also looking damn sexy—but not too sexy, because cleavage is degrading—all before lunchtime. Who in her right mind would want to do that? And who would even be able to?

When I read this, I am reminded of myself a few years ago. I had become so caught up in the idea of being a good feminist, I had forgotten to have fun. At parties I would roll my eyes when boys would chat me up, and I placed so much pressure on myself to succeed that became a recluse. Looking back, I find this totally crazy. Perhaps it’s a strange thing to say, but I’ve become more relaxed about feminism. I take it just as seriously as before, but I now know that being a ‘good feminist’ 100% of the time is just not sustainable. I also acknowledge that I had mistakenly interpreted feminism as being a rigid life model; one to be adhered to at all times.

I think it’s wonderful that women can now publicly admit to being bad feminists. This is certainly a progressive step, and symptomatic of fourth wave feminism, which places choice and the freedom to choose at its heart. Assuaging the pressure on women is now another wonderful addition to the feminist agenda.

The rise and rise of the personal essay

Everywhere I turn, books of personal essays abound. Whether it’s Mindy Kaling’s latest literary offering, or Lena Dunham’s forthcoming book of essays Not That Kind of Girl, this is by no means a bad thing. Despite being the trending literary form of the moment, personal essays have been around for some time. Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and Nora Ephron’s Wallflower at the Orgy (1970) are both seminal works which captured the essence of the Zeitgeist. And it is precisely this ability to perfectly encapsulate the Zeitgeist that makes the personal essay such a unique genre. The two aforementioned titles are worthy models to inform any young essay writers; indeed Man Repeller Leandra Medine cites Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem as her earliest inspiration to become a writer.

There is of course another appeal to the genre, and it is related to our dwindling 21st-century attention spans. In an age where thoughts have to be expressed in 140 characters or less, and content is increasingly delivered in list form to aid our wandering minds, are we hungry for tighter, more concise literature? Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon asserted in 1977 that  “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”; a portentous statement that has certainly proved itself right. Attention spans are a victim of our information-rich digital age, but I can’t help but feel that in challenging traditional genres — both in literature and journalism — we will adapt to the changes brought about by digital advances.

The rise of personal essays is symptomatic of our digital age, but also reflects the no-holds-barred nature of sharing, a consequence of social media — in which users share thoughts, embarrassing moments, relationship details, and snapshots of their lives in a public arena. Surely literature too is a public arena? Why not carry forward the same no-filter level of sharing, lay all your cards on the table, and turn those Facebook likes and Twitter favourites into literary prizes?

Whatever the case may be, the rise of the personal essay is a very good thing. By sharing, and indeed oversharing, with the world, we express the thoughts and fears of our generation and define the Zeitgeist. Put simply, it is a voice, and we are no longer afraid to speak.

 

This week’s Totem of Chic

Amazon’s literary bucket list: 100 books to read in a lifetime

Amazon.co.uk announced yesterday a curated list of the essential books to read in a lifetime. The comprehensive list, hand-selected by the Amazon.co.uk Books and Kindle editorial team, covers a wide spectrum of fiction and nonfiction.

The list comprises everything you’d expect of a literary bucket list – Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, To Kill A Mockingbird, Great Expectations, yet with a smattering of quirky, less-obvious additions. These include the likes of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, Dissolution by CJ Sansom, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for His Hat by Oliver Sacks.

A happy addition to the list is the plethora of cult fiction novels, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.

Here are some fun facts about the bucket list:

  • Oldest book on the listGulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
  • Most recently published book on the list: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)
  • Number of books on the list written by UK authors: 65
  • The most controversial books on the list: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
  • A few books that were unanimously chosen: Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh and Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
  • The book each editor most wished had made the list (but didn’t): Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

To see a complete list of the 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime, visit www.amazon.co.uk/100books. Cast your own votes for the 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime: Reader Picks at Goodreads.