Let them entertain you
Our society may adore celebrities, but we can’t know what really goes on in their hearts and minds unless they choose to tell us. These standout new entries in the crowded celebrity-memoir field are fascinating chronicles of lives spent answering Hollywood’s siren call.
Ellie Kemper’s biographical essay collection My Squirrel Days traces her path from suburban St. Louis, Missouri, to the titular lead in the acclaimed TV show “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Kemper loved performing from an early age, whether she was writing dramatic pieces for a beloved second-grade teacher or creating elaborate, often grueling, holiday shows with her siblings. “These shows took years off my life,” she writes. Kemper jokes about her neuroses and obsessions, but she doesn’t apologize—after all, her relentless perfectionism served her well when she used that drive to create a one-woman show that caught the eye of “Saturday Night Live.” She didn’t get the gig, but she did get a call from the creator of “The Office,” and her career blossomed from there. Kemper is open about her missteps, too, whether embarking on an unfortunate attempt at method acting (“Squirrel”) or falling on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. My Squirrel Days takes readers up to the present, in which Kemper is a wife, new mom, show-lead and SoulCycle devotee. It’s a great read for comedy fans, thanks to a deft balance of life lessons and madcap goings-on, and it’s proof that hard work and optimism really can pay off.
AN EXAMINED LIFE
With roles like Gidget, Sybil, the Flying Nun and myriad others under her belt, Sally Field has been a household name since the 1960s, yet for the most part, she has lived a private life. But in her affecting and compelling memoir, In Pieces, Field shares with fans the truths, many of them painful, of her life. The book is framed by her relationship with her late mother, Margaret. “I wait for my mother to haunt me as she promised she would,” she writes. “This isn’t new, this longing I have for her.” In fact, she felt distant from her mother her whole life, the consequence of a painful secret Field held onto for decades. Field writes movingly about the loneliness she felt even while surrounded by family and colleagues. In Pieces also includes plenty of period details about how studios were run, auditions conducted and money paid (not to mention the perils of typecasting and endemic sexism). Readers will feel nervous—and then triumphant—right along with her. By book’s end, Field answers important questions for herself, gaining clarity from how the pieces fit together.
FEMINIST, FUNNY, FABULOUS
In her second essay collection, Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay, fans will be happy to see that Phoebe Robinson is, to borrow an Oprah catchphrase, living her best life. She’s been in a movie (Netflix’s Ibiza), launched another podcast (WNYC’s “Sooo Many White Guys”), turned her “2 Dope Queens” podcast with Jessica Williams into HBO specials and hung out with the likes of Julia Roberts and Bono. That last one’s especially notable, because Robinson’s been carrying a torch for him (as devotedly noted in her first book, You Can’t Touch My Hair) for some time. Once they met, he was charmed, and now they’re doing charity projects together. Speaking of social activism, Robinson offers incisive and insightful cultural criticism in essays like, “Feminism, I Was Rooting for You,” which explains her frustration with today’s feminism (which, she notes, is mainly about “protecting the institution of white feminism”) and makes an unassailable case for allyship and inclusion. Whether sharing tales of misadventure or dating tips, Robinson is a top-notch storyteller who takes readers on a funny, memorable ride.
DEEP IS THEIR LOVE
Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman have been an adored celebrity couple for many years. With humor and delightful vulgarity, the two let readers eavesdrop on their conversations in The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: An Oral History. Although the book is composed mostly of transcripts, essays by Offerman and Mullally add variety, and there are photos, too, including cute baby pictures and stylish shots of the duo in various costumes. They dish on how they met and reflect on 18 years together through the lens of family, religion, music, art and the vagaries of fame, offering an earnest, insightful window into their relationship, past and present (though readers who don’t like transcripts may prefer an audio version). As a way to turn off work and reconnect, Mullally and Offerman recommend doing jigsaws together, and the book ends with a collection of triumphant photos of completed puzzles. From the looks of it, their beloved dogs get a kick out of it, too.
FAR FROM IDLE
In Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography, writer/comedian/musician Eric Idle offers fans an excellent way to gear up for Monty Python’s 50th anniversary in 2019 via immersion in his own life story, along with his take on the members and memories of the comedy troupe. Idle starts at the beginning: “By coincidence, I was born on my birthday.” Specifically, in 1943 England. When he was a child, Idle’s widowed mother put him in an austere charitable boarding school for boys, where he lived until age 19. Despite the grimness of the place, Idle found comedy in dark moments. “Humor is a good defense against bullying,” after all, and “unhappiness is never forever.” That attitude—and his unflagging drive to create—has stayed with him (he’s 75 now) and informed his work in all its guises, and he’s certainly found lots to be happy about. He shares stories about fellow famous folk like George Harrison, Robin Williams, the Rolling Stones and the cast of Star Wars (all sometimes at the same parties). There are lots of concrete lessons for aspiring creators, too. It’s a fascinating, warmly told, often zany memoir of a life fully lived so far—with more fun sure to come.
This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.