By Brittany Volk
Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Our fake friendships start with the imaginary kind as lonely children. Then we start obsessively planning a wedding to our mop-headed celebrity crush. Then, as women, we befriend every famous lady who seems like us.
It has never been easier to know everything about a star, to catch up with Reese and Mindy on Twitter and Instagram, talk TV binges, see baby pictures. And these carefully-crafted online personas now have a major money-making outlet.
Cue the memoirs. Over the last few years, just about every woman with a brand has gotten a book deal, a trend that started with Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? in 2012 and Tina Fey’s Bossypants in 2013. It has led us here, to this holiday’s crush of reading material from everyone from Tina Turner to Chrissy Metz.
Millennials are the age group most likely to have read a book in any format, Pew research shows, 80 percent compared to 67 percent of baby boomers. Millions of online followers have made New York Times bestsellers out of Gabrielle Union, Sally Field and Busy Phillips. Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming is the best-selling book of the year. Adult nonfiction sales grew in 2017, and Obama will ensure 2018 continues the trend.
I was determined to read 30 books for my GoodReads app challenge this year and knew memoirs would be a easy way to reach my goal. Plus, I’d get to indulge two passions: girl talk and pop culture.
Little did I know my own life would be remarkably changing by year’s end.
Since fifth grade, I loved journalism. I kept “spy journals,” recording the goings-on of my unsuspecting family. I thought I’d be a reporter, but when I was introduced to page design, I had a glass slipper moment. This what I was meant to do. But the last few years have left me uninspired, unchallenged and stuck.
On top of that, my relationship was going nowhere. I was the one putting in the effort, torturing myself for an imagined future.
I knew the advice: Find a new job; let him go. But how? I didn’t want an echo chamber. I wanted to hear from other women with whom I felt kinship, yet detached. I could apply their stories to my life while being entertained.
I turned to Anna. And Sally. And Busy.
Women empower other women by sharing experiences. One of many things the #MeToo movement has shown is the power of collective bravery. Union and Field used their memoirs to publicly expose their own abuse and rape. Whether it’s sexual harassment, or just the common joy of trashy TV, we’re not alone.
Call them my lady gang, girl squad or whatever is trending. They’ve been my support system, inspiring me to take new career and relationship paths. So let’s see what my friends are up to. Maybe they’ll even teach us a thing or two about life.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life Samantha Irby (Vintage, 288 pages)
It was the cover that got me. An angry kitten on a bright yellow background? I’ll read that. Samantha Irby is a sassy blogger, but for those of you who don’t know this foul-mouthed wordsmith, look no further than her first essay. In an application for The Bachelorette, she admits to spying on her teen crush while eating a loaf of bread in her car outside his parents’ house. “I am deeply troubled,” she writes.
Life lesson: You can be both confident and insecure. Irby writes with so much self-awareness and humor that her self-deprecation shows bravery. Her stories are unapologetically uncomfortable. I’ll call myself fat, but in no way as an insult. Know who you are and what you want. And if you don’t want to go camping because the outdoors is a sticky hellscape, don’t go camping.
Unqualified Anna Faris (Dutton, 320 pages)
Really, the goofy Scary Movie actress is giving me advice? Anna (Ah-na, for your information) Faris hosts a podcast of the same name, and she’s much more introspective and poignant than her characters on screen. Faris says she has “penchant for digging into other people’s personal lives.” Same, girl. However, Unqualified published soon after she and husband Chris Pratt announced their separation. The book — part memoir, part advice — reads like a love letter to her perfect marriage, and it’s up to us to look beyond the 42-year-old’s cheerful charade.
Life lesson: Take advice with a side of skepticism. When we share relationship problems with friends, the storyteller picks what to tell, even if that means glossing over things or adding dollops of lies. I love to give relationship advice, but I do that as a single woman who has made many missteps in love, like Faris. I’ve fabricated parts in my journal to make my sort-of relationship sound better than it was. Faris chose to write this book as her relationship was imploding. Maybe she thought it would end differently. I did, too.
This is Me: Loving The Person You Are Today Chrissy Metz (Dey Street, 320 pages)
Chrissy Metz, star of NBC’s tearjerker This Is Us, is a natural motivational speaker. She’s compassionate and charming, complete with her own brutal life stories. After each personal chapter comes a few paragraphs helping readers be mindful/believe in themselves/learn to fly. Once you get over the cutesy self-help jargon, Metz wins with heart and biting humor.
Life lesson: Forgiveness isn’t black or white. Metz is open about her abusive stepfather, and how her mother let it happen. Her judgmental ex-husband also sounds like a jerk. She admits to those experiences no longer having power over her, but it’s hard to comprehend why this strong 38-year-old continues to let these people in her life. But it’s her forgiveness, not ours.
We’re Going to Need More Wine Gabrielle Union (Dey Street, 272 pages)
The Being Mary Jane star loves a good glass of wine — ahem, the title. Her book, more essay collection than narrative memoir, touches on her every passion: Hollywood, racism, death, divorce, rape and infertility. It’s deeply personal; at times it’s like reading Gabrielle Union’s diary stashed under her bed. And we’re in luck: There’s talk about bringing this story to the small screen.
Life lesson: Get on your platform and share. A natural extrovert, Union has been a vocal #MeToo advocate. She calls herself the “perfect victim” because her rape was recorded on a surveillance tape, and her rapist was convicted. This book was her microphone; and it’s one she hopes to pass to the other victims who aren’t so “perfect.”
You’re On An Airplane: A Self-Mythologizing Memoir Parker Posey (Blue Rider Press, 320 pages)
Parker Posey, a standout in all those Christopher Guest movies, gives us a look inside her odd-bird brain, complete with peculiar artwork scattered among each chapter. Her memoir is full of big names, some questionable (Woody Allen and Louis CK get much admiration), but nothing is gossipy. She loves being famous, but not too much to lose her absurdity.
Life lesson: Be a duck among geese. Her eccentricity sends us on a frustrating narrative, but You’re On An Airplane isn’t a Hollywood origin story or a sympathetic self-help book. Creatives stand out. She’s a genius, a wizard, an entertainer, completely aware of her image. Not everyone is “going to get it.” And that’s fine.
I’m Fine … And Other Lies Whitney Cummings (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 288 pages)
Speaking of fine, how many times a day do we say, “I’m fine”? Comedian Whitney Cummings approaches her brazen memoir as a way to inform readers about mental illness. The comedian’s battle with darkness is a tale as old as time. Humor comes from pain, and Cummings has her share of it; suffering from an eating disorder, love addiction and codependency. I’m Fine documents her journey to fine.
Life lesson: Lose the mental health stigma. As we become more aware of the levels of mental illnesses, we now have the vocabulary. But before jumping to a diagnosis and treatment, do the research. Cummings helped me recognize that I was using my relationship as a crutch, an excuse to not open up.
The Greatest Love Story Ever Told Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman (Dutton, 288 pages)
It’s hard not to think #CoupleGoals after reading Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman’s memoir, best listened to, not read. (But definitely flip through the book for their outlandish photo shoots.) The book reads like a transcript from a weekend conversation between lovahs. The TV stars are sickeningly sweet, and exquisitely raunchy.
Life lesson: Find your weirdo, and you will be happy. Mullally, 60, and Offerman, 48, met later in life, but each knew it was the real deal almost immediately. Despite this fairytale, the two live a banal life, reading and doing puzzles.
Whiskey In a Teacup: What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love and Baking Biscuits Reese Witherspoon (Touchstone, 304 pages)
Reese Witherspoon is not only an accomplished actress, but a successful entrepreneur and businesswoman. Some would say this coffee table lifestyle memoir is just a fancy cash-grab, a culmination of her brand as a relatable Southern gal with a taste for adorable feminism. And I’m here for it.
Life lesson: Find more occasions to celebrate. In the book, the 42-year-old says, “Life isn’t about perfection. There is no rule book. Life has many different chapters, and every chapter is worth celebrating.” While my year had plenty to wallow over, I love a good party, to get dolled up and eat large amounts of tiny foods. Whiskey In A Teacup, a phrase penned by Witherspoon’s grandmother Dorothea referring to sweet and fiery women, is sprinkled with Southern tips, such as leaving hot rollers in your hair as you drive to the party; and “if it’s not moving, monogram it.”
My Squirrel Days Ellie Kemper (Scribner, 256 pages)
This “carefree, happy-go-lucky sweetie” had a boring but lucky life, which does not a compelling memoir make. However, Ellie Kemper is a talented writer and her comedic detail stood out on this list. The title refers to one of her best essays, the time in sixth grade she befriended backyard squirrels after too many Dances With Wolves viewings. Comedians constantly lean on self-deprecation, but this 38-year-old takes genuine pride in her quirks.
Life lesson: Talent isn’t everything; hard work pays off. I read this book while waiting for a job offer. Would I
be turned down, yet again? Kemper’s isn’t an underdog story, but a journey made of more smart choices than dumb ones. Her bump-free ride to Hollywood shouldn’t diminish the climb. Her tenacious work ethic started young — she directed her sister and friend in a holiday play called Christmas Magic full of major plot twists. Her professional career started as a satiric writer for McSweeney’s and The Onion, but her failed Saturday Night Live audition later turned into a better opportunity — a starring role on a hit show on Netflix.
Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay Phoebe Robinson (Plume, 336 pages)
Phoebe Robinson, co-host of podcast 2 Dope Queens and author of two books of essays, is the queen of relatable content. In Everything’s Trash, Pheebs demands we don’t shame our “trash tendencies,” such as watching reality shows or Googling David Bowie’s measurements. By laughing at her mistakes, we’re really absolving our own. Be warned, Everything’s Trash is full of her dope dialect and phrases such as “sosh meeds” for social media. It’s hard not to pick up.
Life lesson: Finances are overwhelming, but you can’t ignore them. Robinson, 34, speaks with candor about her $65,000 in student loan and credit card debt. My goal next year is to stop living paycheck-to-paycheck. We’re taught not to talk about money, but knowing other people are also economically struggling will help us get our shizz together and go from ratchet to riches.
This Will Only Hurt A Little Busy Philipps (Touchstone, 321 pages)
With her acting career not where she wanted to be, Busy Philipps (Freaks and Geeks, White Chicks and ER) took to social media to conjure a career. Naturally, a memoir came next, just as the E! network launched her late-night talk show Busy Tonight.
Life lesson: Failure is constant. But so is laughter. She recounts many times Hollywood brushing her off — including a lucky rejection from Harvey Weinstein. I’ve interviewed for jobs that weren’t for me, and been turned down for jobs I really wanted. When she started to feel alone in her marriage, she turned to social media, procuring millions of adoring followers and finding a support system. “Marc and I weren’t talking. I needed to talk to someone,” writes Philipps. She owns up to her weaknesses and missteps and keeps going.
My Love Story Tina Turner (Atria, 272 pages)
We know how the story began. Tina Turner triumphed, emerging from a most brutal situation, chronicled in her first memoir, I, Tina, and the movie What’s Love Got To Do With It. But in My Love Story, Turner, with help from two professional writers, shows us her life of peace and contentment with love Edwin Bach in Switzerland. Her adoration toward her fans is something I wish more stars would adopt. And amid a serious health scare recently, Turner reminds us, yet again, of her inspiring strength.
Life lesson: The bad doesn’t define you. This is her complete memoir, starting from her humble Nutbush, Tenn., beginnings, to her rise with Ike, and her record-shattering second act. This is her story, without Ike dominating it. The 79-year-old kept Ike out of her life after the divorce in 1978, and thankfully keeps him out of most of these pages.
In Pieces Sally Field (Grand Central Publishing, 416 pages)
Is it possible to like Sally Field more? With a career spanning generations, Field’s literary memoir chronicles her 71 years with tender wisdom. It’s a timid tribute to a happy maternal upbringing that also taught her to repress her needs to those of men. An early depiction of child abuse permeates the story, as Field recognizes her personality fragment as her Hollywood career soared. This was before #MeToo; before women would openly recognize the problem wasn’t necessarily their fault.
Life lesson: It doesn’t matter if you’re liked. Her famous Oscar speech is often misquoted, but it often leads us to think of Field as just another celebrity starving for attention. As we all crave likes, the real and online kind, In Pieces shows us a woman searching for inner acceptance.
Contact Brittany Volk at [email protected] Follow @bevolk.