I have to start this review with a confessional sidenote.
As I went to choose my next read after Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman, I ended up with a pool of five potential books, eventually settling on the second in the series of memoirs by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I’d read the first last year and wanted to get to this next one before I let too much time pass. But as I started to read, something was nagging at me, so I went down my list of CBR reads so far this year and made an upsetting discovery: the ratio of male to female authors wasn’t just bad, it was bad. 14:3.
I can honestly say this wasn’t out of some conscious effort to ignore women writers, but that may be the problem: I didn’t make a conscious effort to include women, either. I was just going to my shelves to find what sounded good at the time and then went with my gut. I’d been patting myself on the back for diversity of background and nationality in my choices this year, but that’s totally undone by the shame of shutting out women.
I tried to brush it off as coincidence, that I would have eventually evened things out anyway, but this led me to a second upsetting discovery: my bookshelves are heavily weighted towards male writers. I haven’t done an actual count, but I’d be surprised if the ratio weren’t similar to my CBR reads.
I’m a gay man, so having more gay male authors could reasonably account for some imbalance. I’ve long counted Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison and Iris Murdoch and Virginia Woolf and Kiran Desai (please please please publish another novel) among my favorites. Three of my top five from last year were by women. I’m just not that guy.
Annnnnnd there it is. I’m just not that guy. Some of my (best friends) favorite authors are women. I don’t see gender (in books). Even as I try to apologize, I’m still defensive, still making excuses.
Here’s the real apology: It’s my fault. I’m sorry I’ve been careless. I’m sorry I didn’t pay attention to my personal biases. I’m sorry I got defensive. I will do better.
So now I have three goals for the year: (1) immediately restore the ratio to 1:1 by reading 11 books by women in a row; (2) end the CBR year with at least as many books written by women as by men; and (3) buy (mostly) books by women to improve the ratio on my bookshelves. I’ve added a huge new wishlist to my Goodreads account with mostly authors I’ve never read, many I’d never heard of, and I’m ready to go out and learn a whole mess of new.
I started the process by choosing to listen to Amy Poehler’s Yes Please last week while driving back and forth between the Denver airport and my hometown in the Deep Midwest. I haven’t reviewed an audiobook yet, and I have to say it’s been really hard. I take notes when I’m reading a book so I’ll remember quotes and plot points and my own reactions, which I couldn’t do while driving, and there were a lot of quotable moments in this book, of which I remember exactly none, and that makes me sad enough that I’ll probably go buy the physical book.
This listen was one of my favorites, though, and made the long, monotonous drive easy and breezy. I’ve watched Parks and Recreation, start to finish, at least three full times, and I feel like Amy and Leslie are two of my best friends. I loved that she spent a good long time talking about the show, and she even had Mike Schur join her for additional commentary during that section. I loved that she talked about her friendship with Tina Fey but didn’t dwell on it too long. I love that she asked Seth Meyers to the chapter that he contributed to the book. I love that she had Kathleen Turner, Carol Burnett, and Patrick Stewart introduce chapters and read some lines here and there and that Amy’s parents both read their own contributions. All of these voices helped to break things up and keep it from being too much of a good thing with eight solid hours of just Poehler.
The one section that stuck with me the most was also very timely. Amy talks about one of her few regrets, a sketch she performed on SNL where the punchline was that young Dakota Fanning was making a Very Serious Movie about a disabled girl. A prop action figure of the disabled girl was handed to Amy at the last second that made the girl look really disfigured, and Amy later found out that the movie they were making fun of was not only real but was also based on a true story.
She received a letter from Chris Cooper’s wife (yes, that Chris Cooper), telling her how upset they were at her joke at the expense of disabled children, a cause near and dear to the Coopers, who helped write and produce the TV movie the sketch had lampooned. Amy went into full defensive mode, and the fallout is what she truly regrets.
I recognized so much of myself in this story. I often joke that no one hates me more than I hate myself, but it’s more truth than joke. I only recently learned that much of this is probably a result of my lifelong struggle with depression and am really trying to turn that around. The other side of that coin, however, is that I get really defensive when criticized in any way, big or small, even when I know I’ve screwed up. I go through all of those rationalizations and deflections and whataboutisms and eventually become so embarrassed that I internalize even more and avoid the person I’ve wronged until it’s just too late to say anything at all. It’s one of my ugliest traits, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully change it.
So when I listened to Poehler tell her own story, I could only step back and give myself a break. It’s a weird “I’m not alone” moment, but it really made me think about my own reactions, how I need to work on this, how it’s also never too late to do the right thing, even if it’s painful and embarrassing. And after giving myself a break, I could also think about ways to change how I react to criticism, and I could rethink my “apology” to women authors.
I already had so many reasons to be thankful for Amy Poehler. This book made that list even longer.