I may as well just stop posing the disclaimer “I don’t normally read celebrity bios, but ….” I’ve read a lot of really great ones over the past few years — all by comedians, and all really funny and insightful. From Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to David Mitchell and Rob Brydon, there are actor/writers out there who are really raising the bar for what we think of as “celebrity bios.” These people are either great writers or have the sense to hire great ghostwriters (but given that so many comedians write their own material I’d assume the former in most cases). Now we can add to that list Rainn Wilson, famous for playing Dwight Schrute in the American version of The Office.
Wilson’s engaging memoir covers his childhood in a very unconventional family, his awkward bassoon-playing teenage years, his early struggles as an actor, and his return to the Ba’hai faith of his childhood — all before we get into behind-the-scenes tales from the set of The Office. I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir.
I wish I could explain what Carry On is. It’s a young-adult fantasy novel and also a spoof on the young-adult fantasy novel. It’s a spin-off of Rowell’s novel Fangirl that doesn’t include any of the original characters and takes place in a totally different world. It’s a piece of fan fiction that is related to the Harry Potter series the same way the Fifty Shades of Gray books are related to the Twilight series, except that Carry On is really well-written.
In Fangirl, Cath is a fan-fiction writer. She’s writing a fanfic based on a series of books that bear a strong resemblance to the Harry Potter books, except that there are vampires too. And Cath’s wildly popular fanfic bears a strong resemblance to Harry-Draco slashfic, in that she’s taken the two (presumably straight) male leads of the original series, and written a romance between them. Carry On is that story, sort of — Rainbow Rowell has written the last book of a non-existent fantasy series that owes a heavy debt to a real fantasy series, and this shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it does.
Simon Snow is an orphan with mysterious powers who attends a special school for kids with magical abilities, located somewhere in England. Sound familiar? It is and it isn’t Harry Potter — it’s Rowell celebrating all the things she loves about the series and also putting her own spin on the things she’d like to see done differently. At the heart of the story is Simon’s love/hate relationship with his roommate Baz, as well as, of course, an epic conflict that could destroy not only the magickal but also the Normal world. It’s smart, it’s funny, and I found it a real page-turner.
If you read this blog you probably already know I’m a pretty big Elizabeth Gilbert fan. What I’m not usually a fan of are inspirational books about creativity — I mean, they have their place, and some people find them great, but when I read books like The Artist’s Way, they mostly seem to be addressing problems I don’t have. Like, yes, I believe in my own creativity and I definitely give myself permission to pursue it, so I don’t really need 300 pages telling me that it’s OK to do that. I’m there, baby.
Yet strangely, I did really enjoy Big Magic, even though it addresses many of these same things. Maybe it’s just because I like Gilbert’s writing and always find her entertaining. I find she’s refreshingly honest about her own writing, about how weird it was to write (after years of toiling away in writerly obscurity with magazine pieces and books that weren’t bestsellers) a memoir that almost accidentally because a huge hit — and then to go on being creative after that. Now, admittedly, that’s another problem I haven’t had — how to follow up on my giant successful bestseller — although I’d like to believe I could carry it off with grace and charm if required. (Give me a chance to prove myself, Universe!!!)
Sometimes Gilbert gets a little “woo-woo” for me — like in her insistence on discussing creativity as if it’s a spiritual force with its own personality and goals, kind of a like a secular artist’s version of the Holy Spirit. But her down-to-earth good sense, her willingness to puncture lots of self-important artists’ stereotypes about “genius,” and her self-deprecating wit, make it a fun read anyway. Even though I have zero problem giving myself permission to be creative, it’s still encouraging to have someone cheering you along from the sidelines when you tackle a big project or try a new direction. As I’m thinking of trying both those things soon, this was an encouraging read.
Research often takes me to some interesting places. In the book I’m working on now, one of my characters is a Newfoundland girl who marries a soldier from Louisiana while he’s based in St. John’s during WW2, and goes (for awhile) to live in Louisiana with him. I was looking for some books set in central and northern Louisiana (which, I’ve learned, is culturally quite different from the better-known New Orleans/Cajun/bayou world of southern Lousiana). Someone suggested to me the young adult novels of Kimberly Willis Holt, which are not only set in the right time period but also, at least the two I’ve read so far, in the right era too. They are also lovely, heartwarming stories about young girls in non-traditional family settings, coming of age and learning to live with the families they have rather than the idealized ones they’d like. I picked up Dear Hank Williams because its young protagonist, much like my main character, is fascinated by the ill-fated young country singer who because famous through his performances on the Louisiana Hayride radio show.
The novel My Louisiana Sky deals with a situation I’ve never seen explored in fiction before — its main character is a young girl of above-average intelligence, but both of her parents are mentally challenged/delayed, and as she gets older she is moving from simply taking them as they are, to being embarrassed by them, to trying to learn to accept them and what they can offer. Holt is a fine writer as well as a great chronicler of this particular slice of life in a place and time.
This is a book my husband Jason read first, mostly because after ten years of futile resistance he finally got on to social media. That is, he joined LinkedIn — or, as you may know it, Facebook’s boring cousin who spends way too much time at work. That said, I can’t be too hard on Jason’s LinkedIn life, because it was through that site that he discovered Dan Lyons’ book Disrupted, which we both read and enjoyed.
Disrupted is a caustic and funny memoir about journalist Lyons’ experience going to work at a tech start-up company, getting immersed in the youth-focused culture of start-ups at the age of 52 (as he notes, twice as old as his average co-worker). Behind the shiny facade of the postmodern workplace with its free candy, open work areas, and exercise balls in place of chairs, Lyon finds a culture that not only openly discriminates against older workers, but treats even its bright young things with surprising contempt, seeing them as disposable cogs in the machine rather than valued members of the team.
Disrupted pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. Lyons makes no effort to disguise the identity of either the company he worked at — HubSpot — or the real names of most of his co-workers (some are given made-up names in the book, but the real identities of many of these people are revealed in the epilogue, so any disguise that is going on here is paper-thin). It’s also quite clear that this is his personal take on the experience and that other HubSpotters will tell a different story (and have done, in the media and on social media, since the book came out). But the book, which is always witty even when it’s cranky, and is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, is more than just the grumblings of a discontented ex-employee (though it’s clearly that too). Lyons sees real problems with the culture of start-ups (and with economics behind them — how is so much money being made investing in so many companies that never actually show a profit? Is this sustainable? Lyons warns it’s not), and Disrupted is his effort to call out and address those issues, against the backdrop of his own curmudgeonly tale.