I apparently started this draft on 11/21 — time to catch up!
(4 stars) Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results by Josh Gondelman
I can’t figure out where I heard about this book — I thought it was on CBR but I can’t find any reviews. Anyway, I’d never heard of Josh Gondelman before picking up this book, but he turns out he’s damn funny. He used to write for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and also created the SeinfeldToday Twitter account back in 2012.
Gondelman is a self-described nice guy, but not in a neck-beard whiny way. Instead he genuinely seems like a guy who is nice. And it was nice, for this reader anyway, to read some funny stories about a guy trying his best and mostly succeeding (or at least failing in an entertaining way). He’s the designated driver, he’s the respectful boyfriend, he loves his grandmother. He’s also a little too obsessed with sneakers (kind of boring) and his pug (adorable).
“For once in my boring, in-control life, I was going to take a risk, have some fun, live a little, and all the other things your friends say when they’re trying to convince you to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip or pay the cover charge at a full-contact strip club with no official address. But I had a good reason. I was going to take illicit, intensely psychoactive drugs, but I was doing it for love.”
Samantha Irby (one of my favorite not-nice writers) said “Josh Gondelman is a human cardigan and this book is like a warm, consensual hug.” She’s got it exactly right.
(4 stars) Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
This was a really interesting and well-written collection of essays. Tolentino discusses the effects of the internet and social media on our own bodies and sense of self-worth. She talks about feminism and racism and psychology and a host of other fascinating topics. She also brings her own experience — her relationship with her boyfriend (and why she does not plan to get married), her career and even a stint on a reality TV show — into the essays.
“A woman is unruly if anyone has incorrectly decided that she’s too much of something, and if she, in turn, has chosen to believe that she’s just fine.”
The whole book is great, but two essays in particular stood out. In one, Tolentino examines female heroines in literature. The book referenced tons of my favorites from childhood — I particularly loved her write up of Claudia Kincaid (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler) and how she’s a heroine with no aspirations of marriage (yes, she’s also a child but when you compare her to a lot of the other characters Tolentino mentions, it’s kind of amazing how much that comes up). The final essay in the book, I Three Dread, which examines the wedding industry and how we got here, rang particularly true for this 30-something engaged woman who has attended quite a few weddings in the last several years (although not the dozens that Tolentino and her boyfriend have been to).
I also really liked this metaphor about how our addiction to social media is like experiments they’ve done on rats — if a rat pushes a lever and always gets a treat, or never gets a treat, they’ll eventually stop pushing it. But if the treat is sporadic, they won’t stop. Tolentino compares this to refreshing Facebook:
“I give myself arbitrary boundaries – no Instagram stories, no app notifications – and rely on apps that shut down my Twitter and Instagram accounts after 45 minutes of daily use. And still, on occasion, I’ll disable my social media blockers. And I’ll sit there, like a rat pressing the lever, like a woman repeatedly hitting myself on the forehead with a hammer, masturbating through the nightmare until I finally catch the gasoline whiff of a good meme.”
(2 stars) Baby, Don’t Hurt Me: Stories and Scars from Saturday Night Live by Chris Kattan
I will read a memoir written by pretty much any Saturday Night Live Alum. I love hearing about the behind-the-scenes stuff, especially house skits get made and everyone’s opinion on the guest stars. I grew up watching Saturday Night Live in the 90s so I definitely know who Chris Kattan is and I’m very familiar with his most famous characters, Mango and mr. Peepers and Doug Butabi (The Night at the Roxbury guy). I was interested to hear more about his story, since he’s not a very well-known celebrity beyond that. Unfortunately, he’s also not a great writer. There are some good stories here but the book itself was pretty meh.
One thing I did not know about Kattan prior to reading this book was that his father was also a famous performer. Known as Kip King, Kattan’s father was a famous comedian and voice actor and even was an original member of the Groundlings comedy troupe — a group that Kattan later joined. Kattan’s childhood as a result of this (and his father’s rather unusual romantic life) was definitely the kind of strangeness that leads to a career in comedy.
Kattan definitely suffered physically for his art. The stunts that he performed on Saturday Night Live left him with some pretty severe long-term damage, as well as an addiction to painkillers (which he mentions but doesn’t dive into). His love for the genre and he thought he puts into his characters and sketches shines through on every page, but it’s also very obvious that he holds a lot of bitterness in his heart for Saturday Night Live and some of the treatment he received there.
(3 stars) So, Anyway… by John Cleese
Kind of surprising to me that John Cleese hasn’t written any other memoirs. This one, published in 2014, really only covers about the first half of his life. Which, no offense to the brilliant Cleese, is the less interesting part. Monty Python doesn’t show up until the very end of this book, and only a few mentions are made to Fawlty Towers. Instead, almost the entire thing focuses on his childhood and early career as a teacher.
Cleese was born in 1939, and spent his formative years in prep school in England during World War II. His father served in the war and was very obviously affected by it long-term. Meanwhile his mother ruled their household with her emotional and psychical abuse. Cleese mentions at one point that he was surprised by a friend wanting his mother when he felt badly — to Cleese, a mother was not a person who would make you feel better. Cleese doesn’t go into this too much, but it’s obvious that while he remained close with his mother even after he became an adult, he never really trusted her.
Instead, Cleese focuses on the details of school in his early life. In almost too much detail, he recounts year after year of schooling, and his time as a teacher in his 20s and 30s. While he does mention some comedy and acting gigs (like a group called the Footlights), the majority of the book is about school and his friends and little stories about that time. While I INCREDIBLY impressed that Cleese could recall so much in such fine detail (he is 80, after all), I definitely zoned out a few times as he seemed to tell the same kind of story over and over.
(3 stars) Burn the Place: A Memoir by Iliana Regan
It’s hard to review this book. Because aspects of it, like Regan’s incredible ability to describe how food tastes and how it makes her feel, blew me away. But the flow of the book and connection between the stories she tells bounced around so much that I was often confused about where she had just been or where she was going. Basically, the paragraphs of this book were amazing but the chapters didn’t quite connect — with me, or with each other.
Regan grew up one of four girls on a small farm in Indiana. She knew from childhood that she wasn’t like other girls, sometimes feeling like she was a boy and sometimes just feeling like she wanted to be a boy with other girls. She had an intense connection with food and ingredients and as she grew up, cooking became a lifeline for her when other things in her world weren’t quite so dependable or safe. Regan describes her relationship with her family here as well as her experiences as a chef. She was often the only woman in a room full of men, whose respect she gained and retained through her skill and strength until she was running her own kitchen. She also discusses her love life a lot, as well as the many mistakes involving drugs and alcohol that she made along the way to finding the person she is now.
The concept of gathering ingredients to create a meal comes up a lot here, and while it’s the sort of hipster thing that’s often mocked, I could tell by Regan’s writing just how much that process means to her.
(2 stars) Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder by John Waters
This might have been a really good book, but I was definitely not the audience for it unfortunately. I have a vague sense of who John Waters is, mostly because he’s a rather distinctive-looking man and I have at least heard of Hairspray before. I’m not familiar with his other cult classic movies, but I knew that going in. I frequently read memoirs by celebrities that I don’t know very well, and most of the time I can still really enjoy their stories about working in Hollywood. Unfortunately, that was not the case here. Waters discusses his work in great detail, with a lot of references that I simply didn’t get. If you are a fan of his movies, you should totally read this. His storytelling is great and he sounds like he’s having a lot of fun. But so much of it went over my head and this just prevented me from connecting with the writing overall.
“First of all, accept that something is wrong with you. It’s a good start. Something has always been wrong with me, too. We’re in a club of sorts, the lunatic fringe who are proud to band together. There’s a joyous road to ruin out there, and if you let me be your garbage guru, I’ll teach you how to succeed in insanity and take control of your low self-esteem. Personality disorders are a terrible thing to waste.”
I did like the parts where he gave career advice. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, but also has a great undercurrent of “go be your best freaky self”. And that’s something anyone can get behind.