17

Shonda Rhimes the person

You know how sometimes, you hear about books and you don’t read them, don’t read them, don’t read them, keep hearing about them, don’t read them until finally you do and wonder what took you so long?

That’s what happened with Shonda Rhimes’ The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person.

Shonda Rhimes needs no introduction. She is, of course, the genius woman we have to thank for Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Private Practice and How to Get Away With Murder. She is the powerhouse behind TGIT, an entire night of network television dedicated to her universe. Lainey Gossip and Duana Taha are big fans of hers and talk about her and The Year of Yes often on their podcast, Show Your Work.

(Have you listened? It’s dedicated to work within the celebrity ecosystem and is brilliant and endlessly fascinating)

I bought a copy of this book almost a year ago. I finally read it.

What took me so long??

year-of-yes

The Year of Yes is kind of like one of those “I did this thing for a year and this is what happened” books. Except it’s Shonda Rhimes and she simply started saying “yes” to things that she always said no to. Her sister mentioned, offhand one night, that Shonda never said yes to anything and it got her thinking and she decided that for a year, she would say yes: to speaking engagements, going on Kimmel, spending time with her kids, having difficult conversations, to compliments, to saying no.

A few things struck me about this lovely little memoir.

  1. Shonda’s writing style is so conversational. She pulls you in like you are having a conversation with her, like you are her friend and this is all casual over dinner or drinks. It’s an incredibly effective way of making you care about what she has to say right off the bat.
  2. It’s so honest. Shonda holds nothing back. She lets you in fully. The one time she keeps details somewhat private are when she is talking about someone she was in a relationship with, who she didn’t end up marrying. She deftly manages to convey her side of things without bring anyone else into it. She is honest about how much help she has at home, her struggles with her weight, her mental well-being in certain situations – she writes it all.
  3. Shonda Rhimes is responsible for so much of our cultural lexicon! Reading this book, it really struck me what a massive impact Shonda Rhimes has had on our cultural memories, the things we say and the television events we all remember.
  4. Her relationship with Cristina Yang is intense (in a good way). Shonda talks about how she’s extremely introverted and Cristina Yang was the vehicle she used to say a lot of the things she wanted to say before she was able to be the one actually saying them. It was really interesting to read about this relationship with a character she created and what it was like saying good bye when she left the show.
  5. That even though she is pretty well single-handedly responsible for diversifying TV, she hates the concept of diversity. She just doesn’t see what the big deal is about making her shows look like what the world actually looks like.

I’m so glad that I finally read this book. It was light, funny, and so enlightening. She talks so much about self care and what that looks like for her (something we all think about a little more these days) and I so appreciated getting to know Shonda Rhimes the person. I read this book in one sitting, I couldn’t stop. It’s rare to get to read a memoir that is so captivating and offers its reader so much at the same time.

It was a delight from start to finish.

7

A different Canada

In Canada, we like to think that we are totally accepting and open with everyone. All colours, creeds and religions are welcome in Canada.

Right?

Not quite.

I recently read B. Denham Jolly’s memoir, In The Black: My Life and came to see a side of Canada that I’d rather was comfortably in the past.

jolly

Jolly was born in Jamaica in 1935 – in 1955, he came to Canada for the first time for school. He writes about a Canada where people smile at him but throw his resume in the garbage, where he wasn’t allowed to socialize in certain places, where even when he had paid back a student loan in full, he wasn’t eligible for another one, where schools hadn’t officially desegregated until 1954 and bad feelings lingered.

Once he finished school, he had to return to Jamaica – when he had first come to Canada, he had to sign a form saying that after he finished school, he would go home, that he wouldn’t try and stay in Canada. Jolly enjoyed his time in Canada, had built a life for himself in Toronto and wanted to stay. The reason why there were so few black people in Canada is because there were unofficial policies in place limiting the number of black people allowed to immigrate. Despite his education and his standing within the community, Jolly was shown the door.

Eventually he made it back to Canada and he was ready to start his life. He was a teacher in a small community where he met his wife – together they had three children. Jolly also set up a nursing home business, eventually owning a number of properties. And he was incredibly active within the black community, working with other activists to ensure that black Canadians were heard, that their contributions were valued and most of all, that they were given the same opportunities as white Canadians.

In The Black was an eye opening read for me. It challenged me to think of Canada in a different way. We like to think that we are better than other countries, notably our neighbours to the south, when it comes to race relations. Jolly’s experiences (and he opens the book with a run in with police that happened when he was in his 70s) illustrate that we haven’t come as far as we like to think we have.

Although Jolly sees that we have come a long way, he posits that there is still more work to be done. That even as an old man, who has lived in Canada for more than 50 years, who is very much Canadian, he is still seen as a Jamaican immigrant. As he writes about the work that has already been done, he urges young Canadians to keep working towards a better future, to recognize that the work isn’t finished.

I think this book will challenge a lot of Canadians. But it’s an important book, a reminder of where we were, where we are and where we could be. In The Black includes the history of one man, of a community demanding more, of a country trying to be better.

We can still be better.

8

Books I read so you don’t have to

This time last week, I thought that I was nailing this Non-Fiction November business.

I read and loved Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, then Forty Autumns, and I finally got to Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, which, in hindsight, feels like an important and timely read.

But I also stumbled a little and today I want to talk about those.

First up: The Tao of Martha: My Year of LIVING Or, Why I’m Never Getting All That Glitter Off the Dog by Jen Lancaster.

The first time I read one of Lancaster’s memoirs (Bitter is the New Black), I remember laughing hysterically in the bathtub. It was one of the first times that I realized that non-fiction could be funny. I became a devoted fan.

Some of her fiction efforts, however, have fallen flat and I’ve recently sworn them off altogether.

tao-martha

Still, her non-fiction titles haven’t been an issue so I was excited to find a copy of The Tao of Martha when I was in Portland recently. The Tao of Martha is about Lancaster’s efforts to live more like Martha Stewart for a year as a way of boosting her own happiness after a difficult year. Her beloved dog, Maisy has been fighting cancer for a couple of years and that, along with a number of other personal issues, just seemed to be wearing Lancaster down. She decides to follow Martha’s edicts on how to have a beautiful home, cook, clean and entertain.

And it was kind of funny. I definitely cried reading about Maisy.

But somewhere in the middle I just got really irritated. It just felt so indulgent, especially those chapters about gardening and how the roses weren’t just right. I understand that Lancaster has worked really hard to have the life that she has. And I admire Martha’s hustle, I do. I just couldn’t get over how privileged it felt. It wasn’t what I wanted to be reading.

It could be me and the fact that I’ve recently read some really great non-fiction that challenged me a little more. Or maybe that I’ve just outgrown Jen Lancaster at this point, something that would be kind of sad.

ja-england

And now, I’m about 60 pages away from finishing Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins. It’s subject matter should be fairly self-explanatory: it looks at England during Jane Austen’s lifetime. At what people wore, ate, where they lived, what they did for fun, how they travelled, what the laws were, how they worshipped etc.

And I appreciate that it actually manages to look at what life was like for the everyman – once upon a time I read a book that promised to look at every day life in the Tudor era but was really just about how the wealthy lived. I let it go because at that time, of course it would have been difficult for the everyman to keep a record of his daily life as most didn’t read or write.

But Jane Austen’s England is…stuffy. It started out strong but quite quickly became bogged down into excessively long quotations. Honestly, if you took out all the passages that were paragraph length quotes, I think the book would be half as long. It’s also maybe not the best time to be reading about at time when women were barely legal people, subject to the rules and laws of men.

I would stop reading it, but I’ve come so far, spent so much time on it already. To stop now would feel like a waste of all that time.

6

Darling Days: A Memoir

When I started reading Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright, my reading mojo was bruised from two, basically back-to-back DNFs.

I read 10 pages of Darling Days and knew that that wasn’t going to happen here.

Darling Days is iO Tillett Wright’s memoir of growing up poor with an incredibly challenging mother as well as a queer gender identity.

This memoir is unlike any I’ve ever read before. It reminds me of The Glass Castle but I don’t want to compare the two because they are so unique. Darling Days is so unflinchingly honest, Tillett Wright’s life is laid bare but it’s written with so much love.

darling

Tillett Wright’s mother is a Viking warrior queen, a dancer, an artist, a beautiful soul in a cruel, hard world. She loves her daughter fiercely, cocoons them together away from the darkness of the rest of the world the best she can. But before iO is born, her mother suffered the violent loss of a lover. She never quite gets over it, and the medications that she takes to help her cope, to help her to feel closer to that lost love, end up causing their own kind of damage.

iO spends her childhood in awe of her mother, a happy sidekick in the kinds of adventures you can only have when you are very poor – like walking all your stuff to a new apartment after you’ve been fighting eviction.

On top of living with and loving a very complicated mother, iO has her own gender identity to come to terms with. When she is told she can’t play soccer with some kids in the park because she is a girl, she decides that she would rather be a boy and asks her parents to call her Ricky. To her parents’ credit, they both went along with it and allowed iO to live her identity for years. When she’s a teenager, she decides that actually she would like to be a girl again, and the transition is made seamlessly once more.

iO’s story is complex. When life with her mother becomes too much, she tries living in Germany with her father and then a boarding school in rural England. But iO is also a product of her upbringing and always feels kind of other. As a teenager, she feels incredible rage and starts experimenting: with her sexuality, with alcohol and drugs.

The one thing that I really felt the entire time I was reading this incredible memoir was love. The book opens with iO’s letter to her mother, someone who continues to be a tangled presence in her life, basically saying that this is their story but that it’s written without judgement and that she has always loved her and always will and that she wouldn’t be the person she is today without her mother.

I mean, if that doesn’t make you want to cry your eyes out right there, I don’t know what will.

The reason that the love stands out for me will be clear if you end up reading this intense, honest, captivating memoir. Few people live this kind of life, survive this childhood, and come out on the other side with love and compassion for their parents. Even contentment is difficult to achieve and iO has come out with joy, enthusiasm and a delight in what this world has to offer.

iO Tillett Wright is clearly a pretty incredible person and I felt privileged to get to read her story. If you get the chance, I hope you do too.

5

Celebrity Lifestyle: Jennifer, Gwyneth and Me

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve mentioned often that I am a pupil at the Lainey Gossip School of Celebrity Studies. I love her take on fame and the celebrity eco-system and she’s taught me to take People.com with a helping handful of salt.

I also adored Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. I think I talk about it less on the blog but in my real life I’m always telling people about that book and how simple she made it sound to change your own happiness quotient.

Enter Rachel Bertsche’s memoir, Jennifer, Gwyneth and Me: The Pursuit of Happiness One Celebrity at a Time. It’s basically the perfect amalgamation of the two!

jennifergwyneth_1217-1

After being laid off and deciding to start working from home, Rachel Bertsche starts to feel kind of sloppy. She’s not exercising like she used to, she spends her days in sweat pants because that’s the whole point of working from home and her meals are mainly of the frozen variety. She’s also a celebrity connoisseur and wonders if emulating her favourite celebrities will make her feel more fabulous and together. She decides to find out by emulating Jennifer Aniston’s fitness habits, Gwyneth’s (there’s only one) kitchen prowess, Sarah Jessica Parker’s fashion sense, Jennifer Garner’s approach to marriage and Beyonce’s…well having it all.

While Bertsche’s celebrity worship was a little too eager for me sometimes (Lainey has trained me well, I’m snarky) I really enjoyed this book. I love people’s personal transformations and I really enjoyed the celebrity aspect of it; I thought it was a really clever idea. She would spend some time researching the celebrity’s approach to their facet of life and then implement a few key rules: Don’t eat shit; invest in one statement piece; don’t talk smack about your husband in public.

And it worked! She did start to feel more content, more together, healthier. She read that Jennifer Aniston does bicep curls when she watches TV so she started doing that (I did it last night – excellent idea). She started dressing up for herself, even if she wasn’t going to leave the apartment. She became more conscious of the food she was buying and learned that she loved hosting a dinner party.

But it all also took a lot of TIME. It’s part of Jennifer Aniston’s job to look good. For the rest of us – it’s a struggle to get it all in. By the time Bertsche got to Beyonce and trying to incorporate it all, it was tough to get in the workouts, the cooking time, meditation and looking fabulous. But she was still trying and when she got in some as opposed to none, it still meant she felt a lot better about herself.

Bertsche’s chronicle of her struggle to conceive was an unexpected part of the memoir. As they are trying to get pregnant and ultimately go through IVF, Bertsche uses her celebrity methods to try and cope. Both processes kind of line up perfectly actually – when they are waiting to hear if they were successful, she is trying to emulate Julia Roberts’ calm and meditating which enables her to relax at least some of the time.

I’m probably not going to mirror my life on any celebrities ever. But I appreciated the insightful journey while Bertsche did. And I’m going to keep it up with those TV bicep curls because if it’s good enough for Jennifer Aniston…