Recap: Courtenay Hameister has been living in a state of anxiety and dread for years. She knows it. She’s accepted it as her way of being. And then she decides to step down from her job as a host of a popular NPR show, knowing that working on the show in a less-showy capacity will eliminate a fair amount of her stress. She’s right, but she quickly realizes in order to better handle her anxiety, she cannot only step down but also must step up and face her fears.
Courtenay Hameister begins a new mission, calling it her Okay Fine Whatever (OFW) Project, during which she must suck it up and say “okay, fine whatever” to all the things that scare her. For a year-and-a-half, she follows this mantra as she dives into a sensory-deprivation tank, goes on 28 first dates, visits a sex club, dates polyamorous men, books a session with a professional cuddler and gets high while writing with her coworkers.
For better perspective, it’s worth noting we’re not talking about a young, hot twenty-something embarking on all this but a mid-40’s woman who never had experience in any of these areas. This is exactly why these leaps of faith are much more than simply “experimentations” but they’re explorations of self-discovery and opportunities to flex her bravery muscles, which only sets her up for the next big thing in her life.
Analysis: Doused in dry humor and brave bluntness, Okay Fine Whatever may have been the exact perfect book to read in the middle of a pandemic. Though compartmentalized into little vignettes, it’s a book that forces you to step back and look at the bigger picture. It’s not about her crazy shenanigans, but about the baby steps she’s taking toward being up to the something bigger in her life. She’s doing the things she needs to do to take a massive leap at the end, and that’s more than I can say for most people.
It must be said that the concept feels a little redundant. Grey’s Anatomy writer/producer/creator Shonda Rhimes wrote the book Year of Yes a number of years ago with a similar idea: say yes to all the things that scare her. But the things Hameister embarks on versus Rhimes are completely different, as is her writing style and voice. So while similar in nature, they’re not necessarily that similar in tone.
Hamesiter is uproariously funny and weird and goes in unexpected directions. Her honesty is astounding; I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing half the things she wrote about, let alone doing them. Massive kudos to Hameister for letting it all hang out there.
Recap: There’s a voice in Portia de Rossi’s head. There’s a voice telling her she’s disgusting. And fat. And lazy. Ugly. Stupid. Worthless. It’s a voice that’s been there since she was a little girl, pushing her to work harder at everything, including her job, her weight, her sexuality. It’s a voice that’s only grown louder over the years until it becomes a constant and piercing ringing in her ears.
In Unbearable Lightness, actress Portia de Rossi writes honestly about her struggles with an eating disorder, being gay and fame and success. She writes about her young modeling career, her journey from Australia to America, the pull she felt to be “pretty” and “perfect” and “straight” in order to attain success in Hollywood.
She writes about the embarrassment and crying fits while doing fittings for her first big job on “Ally McBeal” and her divorce from her husband, knowing she was in love with women in her life. She opens up about the vomiting after eating Mexican food or ice cream, the incessant cycle of binge and purge, of running up and down the stairs for an hour to eliminate the calories she’d already eaten.
Reading this book, one comes to learn Portia de Rossi was an extremely unhappy woman for a very long time, a woman living in fear, in a state of inner isolation and violence, striving for something more while only allowing herself to feel less.
Analysis: This book came recommended to me by a good friend, and though I don’t know much about Portia de Rossi or her work, I read it anyway. And I’m glad. As someone who overcame an eating disorder years ago, I identified with so many of her disordered thoughts around food. I remembered those days. But the degree to which de Rossi obsessed was on another level that seems unimaginable.
Her ability to access those thoughts directly, to state them plainly without judgement or shame is astounding. Her bluntness and honesty and beautiful, yet dark language are impressive. Not every “celebrity memoir” is necessarily well-written. This one is. She has a poetic way of describing the deranged thoughts coursing through her mind.
The book details her slow and steady declines and culminates in the moment where she needs help. It was an interesting way to end the book, rather than giving us the full rollercoaster ride of worsening and getting better. She offers an epilogue, but it’s written from the voice of so many years later that it’s hard to piece together exactly what the journey was from start to finish. And maybe that was the whole point — to NOT offer glimmers of hope amid shiny stars and rainbows, but to be REAL. And real is not always nice.
Recap: Adam Braun was a fresh-out-of-college, hard-partying, money-making finance guy in New York City. But there was a moment — a single moment that sparked something in him and changed his life. While traveling to India, he came across a young boy and asked him if he could have anything in the world, what would he want? The boy’s answer: “A pencil.”
That was the moment when Adam Braun realized the significance of education. It became glaringly obvious to him how little education was offered in other parts of the world compared to where he grew up. That moment stuck with him for years until finally he took a leap of faith, leaving his high-paying Wall Street job to pursue his own charitable organization, Pencils of Promise. Braun started the organization with just $25. Pencils of Promise has since gone on to create hundreds of schools around the world: a cost both so astronomical and yet, priceless at the same time.
Analysis: At the beginning of Braun’s memoir, it’s clear he is a teenager struggling to figure out who he is and who he wants to be. He is just drifting along until he discovers his purpose. Even when he’s discovered his true calling, he continues to stumble and fall, unsure how to put his purpose into action. Like most anyone would be, he’s scared to take the leap.
The difference between Adam Braun and so many others is that he DOES. He eventually does take the leap by creating his organization and making that his primary focus.
Braun’s book is really a coming-of-age memoir mixed with business how-to and self-help. I say self-help because each chapter of his book is named for a specific mantra that he developed based on his experiences. These mantras apply to him and the business and professional moves he made, but they also apply to anything in life. A person could read this book from a self-growth and personal development perspective or from a business and professional perspective and come away with completely different takeaways and appreciations, and ALL of them would be beneficial and life-changing.
Recap: A reflection on loss and grief, The Magnanimous Heart dives into meditation as a means of not necessarily coping with it all, but embracing it all as part of the process of life. The self-help book explains that the “magnanimous heart” is a heart of freedom, liberation, acceptance and balance. By explaining the “constant squeeze” of suffering that we all feel, author Narayan Helen Liebenson offers suggestions and concepts for stepping into feelings of “enoughness.”
She makes the case for not trying to “fix” anything but to accept and approach each moment exactly as it is and to recognize that our thoughts are mere thoughts, not truths or facts.
She explains the difference between psychological questions and meditative questions and encourages asking yourself those meditative questions and learning to just sit in it, even though the answers may not come.
The real freedom, she explains, comes when we relax the grasping, the “constant squeeze” for perfection or more or whatever that unattainable thing may be for you. It comes when we recognize “enoughness,” allow it and accept it.
Analysis: As a practitioner of meditation for several years and a deeper dive over the last year, I had been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time. After my father died a few years back, the title resonated with me. I ultimately enjoyed the book and found it incredibly insightful but it’s more difficult to say I found it useful.
Liebenson writes in a very abstract, greater concept kind of way with too few anecdotes to make me feel connected to her. I had to read sentences sometimes three and four times just to understand the point. And then once she made it, she often repeated it.
I loved everything she wrote and appreciated her explanations of why meditation can be helpful. But with a few weeks hindsight, I already can’t think of a specific tangible tidbit she offered for me to use to either improve my life or my daily practice …other than keep practicing.
But alas, maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe if I had been practicing meditation more consciously, my mind would have been sharp enough to have remembered more of her book.
I couldn’t let the new year (and decade!) begin without my favorite blog edition…my top picks of 2019! Fair warning: this year life really took hold. Suffice to say, I didn’t read nearly as much as I usually do or would like to. But I read enough to select my 10 favorites! This is a list of the best books I personally read, not necessarily books that were released in 2019. For a list of those, here you go. At the bottom, I’ve also included the complete list of books I read this year.
10. Before We Were Yours – This historical fiction novel showcases the awful beginnings of child adoptions in the United States. Its time jumps and changing narrators add suspense to the story of little Rill, who does everything she can to keep her family in tact when Tennessee Children’s Home Society (a real place in an otherwise made-up story) does everything it can to disrupt that for money.
9. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – It’s the anti-self-help self-help book. The book that tells you it’s not a self-help book and it’s going to tell you all the opposite things from a regular self-help book. And that’s kind of true. Which is why it’s so effective. A lot of my takeaways from this massive bestseller is that author Mark Manson relies on a lot of Buddhist methodology to explain how best to live your life – with the understanding that life is suffering and once we accept that, things can start to be a little better. Prepare for some foul language and real talk truths.
8. Not That Kind of Girl – Writer/director/actress Lena Dunham shares her life in this messy memoir made up of short stories and essays, unveiling the depths of her anxieties, neuroses and mental health issues as well as just being honest about what it is to be a girl and woman in the modern world. Some stories are sad, some are hilarious riots, but all are well-told, vulnerable, and bluntly honest.
7. How to Read Literature Like a Professor – This how-to for making literally any book better is divided into themes and symbols to explain what matters in a story and what it means. Chapters focus on anything and everything from the significance of ill characters in books to Bible references to food and sex and seasons. Most of the examples were from books and literature I haven’t read BUT the writer explains everything so well that it’s not only changed how I understand and appreciate books, it also applies to TV, film and pretty much any creative medium. A true game-changer.
6. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Author Jon Kabat-Zinn book on the power of meditation is a simplistic, effective how-to for those who have been meditating for years and those looking to start a regular practice. He’s science-based, but instead of constantly throwing facts, studies and research at the reader, he shared personal anecdotes and understandable metaphors to make meditation manageable.
5. Mistress of the Ritz – Melanie Benjamin does it again, choosing real people in history whose stories have remain mostly untold and telling them, with her own fictionalized dialogue and writing. This one is set in 1940’s Paris during WWII. It tells the story of a real couple, Claude and Blanche Auzello, who lets their marriage waiver as they focus on saving Jews during the Holocaust.
4. The Storyteller’s Secret – This fictional tale about love and love lost starts after modern-day Jaya has another miscarriage and separates from her husband. On a search for connection and answers to life’s questions, she travels to her family’s native India. During the course of the book, her story and her grandmother’s intertwine in a beautiful, heartbreaking and heartwarming way.
3. The Light We Lost – I went back and forth on where to rank this one because I loved it so much. The romance of two young people in NYC during 9/11 continues over the next 13 years. It is gripping, tragic, romantic, sexy. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to finish a book and simultaneously not want it to end so badly.
2. The Girls in the Picture – I was halfway (or more?) through this book before I realized this wasn’t only historical fiction about the beginning of the film industry in America in the early 1900s. It was also historical fiction about a real actress and female screenwriter who were friends. This film story that’s really about friendship and feminism detail the lives and careers of Frances Marion and Mary Pickford in a way that’s fun and dramatic.
1. The Four Agreements – Simple, but not easy. This big-time bestselling nonfiction quick read give you the basics everyone can and should follow to live a better, happier life. There are four agreements you must make with yourself. They sound simple enough, but life makes it really hard to make them easy. This book details the how and why. Once you read it, it is truly life-changing.
BOOKS I’VE READ 2019
The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Peronsal Freedom – Miguel Ruiz
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories – B.J. Novak
The Storyteller’s Secret – Sejal Badani
Goodbye, Vitamin – Rachel Khong
The Girls in the Picture – Melanie Benjamin
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life – Jon Kabat-Zinn
The Light We Lost – Jill Santopolo
Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” – Lena Dunham
Stinky Tofu: A Comedic Novel – Ross Henry Nodell
Mistress of the Ritz – Melanie Benjamin
Then She Was Gone – Lisa Jewell
Unqualified – Anna Faris
Before We Were Yours – Lisa Wingate
The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life – Mark Manson
How To Read Literature Like A Professor – Thomas C. Foster
Recap: Actress Anna Faris is unqualified to write this book about relationships and relationship advice. There’s no denying that. She’ll tell you that right off the top. Hell, it’s in the title. But she doesn’t care what you think. So she’s doing it anyway. Why? Well, in all honestly it’s at least in some part because her very successful podcast of the same name has garnered such a massive following that she knows she now has the ability to write a book that will sell. But on a less meta and more compassion wavelength, Faris is the kind of woman who battles insecurity like the rest of us and yet overcomes it – at least on the surface level – with a strong sense of “I-don’t-give-a-s***.” It’s taken her until her 30s and 40s – and admittedly so – to care less about what other people think and more about what’s best for her and her family.
That’s what Unqualified is really all about – a mix of stories and anecdotes from her life and the lessons they have taught her. She details the ways her relationships have changed her as a person and the ways fame has tried to do the same. Seventy-percent memoir and 30-percent self-help, Unqualified is a very honest glance into the world of a famous – but not super, uber iconic status famous – person who truly strives to be a better person everyday for her family, her fans and herself.
Analysis: Is Unqualified the best written memoir I’ve ever read? Absolutely not. Faris is not a writer. She is an actress and podcaster. She writes like she talks. As a broadcast journalist, I do the same, but in the beginning of her book I had a hard time taking her seriously because of the lackadaisical manner in which she writes. Here’s the thing: stick it out. It’s worth it.
If you’ve ever listened to Faris’s podcast, some of the anecdotes and things about her will be a little redundant. (We know this, Anna. We’ve heard it before.) But when it comes to her relationships with her exes and even friendships, she gets more honest and real than I ever expect out of a memoir, particularly a celebrity memoir. Was Chris Pratt okay with this? Was her first ex-husband? I’m sure she had clearance, but I was so flabbergasted with her realness, I couldn’t help but wonder.
That honesty is what works here. Faris does not pretend to be a perfect person. (Unqualified, remember?) But she writes what she knows, what she’s learned and hopes that for someone out there who may or may not even realize they need it, her book offers help. For me, it did; by showing me that we are always evolving and there is always room for acceptance and kindness.
Recap: The location is a hospital in the South. The time is the 1930s. The twins delivered did not fare well. The parents are destroyed.
And now here we are, in present day, following the life of Avery Stafford. The 30-something lawyer is used to living in the limelight of her father and his long political reign. But now he is sick, and she is forced to prepare to take his spot in politics as he also deals with an ongoing scandal involving nursing homes. In visiting her grandmother at one, Avery meets another elderly woman who is completely taken with her. A misplaced bracelet and a curious family photo forces Avery to return to the woman as she itches to learn more about her and whether this woman is somehow connected to her own family.
Now we are back to the 1930s, and Rill Foss is left in charge of her brother and sisters after their parents rushed to the hospital. Living on the river in Tennessee, they are now orphans as their parents never return. They are scooped up and taken in by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, and they face every form of abuse: verbal, physical, sexual. Living in a constant state of fear, Rill feels compelled to take care of her siblings, but there’s only so much a 12-year-old girl can do.
The stories of Rill and Avery intertwine more and more throughout Before We Were Yours in a beautiful and mysterious way, but it’s the fact that this historical fiction novel is based on true events from the real horrors of adoption in the 1930s that make this book so haunting.
Analysis: One of the characters we come to know in the book is the woman who run’s the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, Georgia Tann. But Georgia Tann was a real woman, known for having made adoption in the United States an industry and for charging families an exorbitant amount of money for adopting children. These children were bought and sold, practically as a form of slavery and treated traumatically in the process.
Author Lisa Wingate tells this story through the lens of a little girl during the time and through the eyes of a present-day woman who, like many of us, had no idea any of this was happening in the 1930s.
Despite the horrors, Wingate does an excellent job of keeping the reader invested in the characters, curious about what happens next and still manages to offer hope through the love we see shine through her characters. Before We Were Yours takes a bit of time to get into, but once you start to put together the pieces of the puzzle and realize that Rill and Avery and the old woman she meets are all connected, the journey to get there is worth every word.
MVP: Rill. She has been through so much and has been forced to grow up very fast at a very young age. She has no choice. But she does it with vigor and comes out on the other side.