Yes, Please by Amy Poehler

yes pleaseYes, Please provides a comical behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood’s comedy scene and a peek into Amy Poehler’s life. The scenes about her career are strong and engrossing. If you’re a fan of Parks & Recreation, you have to love Poehler’s assessment of her co-stars (while simultaneously feeling sad because the show has drawn to a close).

However, there is room for improvement. The overlong prologue rambles on about how hard it is to write a book. Halfway through, my attention wandered and I repeatedly checked how close I was to the next chapter. There are funny moments within the opening, but it felt like it would never end. Condensing and cleaning up would improve the pace.

The rest of the book was equally scattered. An anecdote about starring in a Wizard of Oz production filled a full chapter, not because there was a lot to tell, but because it was filled with tangents. The rambling is Poehler’s comedic style, but would be enhanced with more editing to streamline the writing and emphasize the most interesting parts of Poehler’s story.

Poehler also has a few words of wisdom that are inspiring and others that are just plain ridiculous. Worth the read, but be ready to wade through some slower bits to reach the true heart of the book.

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Soul Surfer by Bethany Hamilton

My friend and I were fascinated by Bethany Hamilton’s story when we were in high school. She even had a poster of Bethany on her wall. So naturally, when we heard about the movie coming out and realized she had written a book we had to see and read them immediately.

For those who don’t know it, Bethany Hamilton was a thirteen year old surfer from Hawaii who was attacked by a shark and lost her arm. Most people would have given up surfing at this point because having only one arm to paddle with is a major disadvantage in competition. But with a supportive family, community, and even world and her strong faith, she came back strong and is now a top ranking pro-surfer. Since the movie, the book has been updated to include her time on the movie set which is a fun addition if you watched the movie.

The book was written when she was only fourteen, a year after the attack. Her youth shows as the book does not really go in depth into the emotions and struggles she experienced. Much of the hard stuff–like how she adjusted to things like preparing food with one hand and competing with one arm–was glossed over. (The movie shows this poignantly.) Despite this obvious lack, the story is still inspirational. Her strength and resiliency (whether you care about faith and religion or not) is impressive and you cannot help but be touched by her story.

One thing I was slightly disappointed to note was that the cover (a shot taken from the movie) does not show her surfing with one arm. I am not surprised with this decision, but at the same time, it is as though they feel the need to hide it for fear that showing someone with only one arm will scare off consumers. What makes Bethany inspirational is that she doesn’t hide her injury (she doesn’t wear a prosthetic and she has never let one arm hold her back) and it seems like the publishers should have highlighted rather than hidden this on the cover.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

As a fan of 30 Rock (and Mean Girls!), I was excited when I heard that Tina Fey had written a book. And just from a look at the back cover, it seemed like it would be funny. (“Totally worth it.” ~Trees) Not to mention the very positive review from Entertainment Weekly.

I started reading the book and though at first I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I expected, there were still good moments and funny and even a little illuminating. Despite the slow start (particularly the chapter about her father Don Fey), the book got funnier as it got into more familiar territory (specifically, her time on Saturday Night Live and how that transitioned into 30 Rock).

There is more in here than just a bunch of self-deprecating humor. Mixed in between her humorous anecdotes (her makeup tops, for example) are an interesting look into the male dominated world that is comedy writing. (I have a friend trying to break into this world and she is finding much of what Fey described.) We also get some good tips about how best to manage people (using examples of how she runs the show). Fey shows a sarcastic, determined, funny persona that has helped her become the successful, if quirky woman that she is. She is clearly hardworking and has earned her way.

At the same time, this isn’t a tell-all. We don’t delve deeply into any particular experience (for example she talks about being slashed in the face as a child but discusses how other people bring up her scar more than the actual incident, we get only a cursory look at her time on SNL, etc). There are times when I would have liked to hear more, such as a look into her work on Mean Girls or some more about the people she has worked with (we get a decent amount about Amy Poehler and Alec Baldwin, but few others). Even with that, it was enjoyable and insightful. (This would probably be hysterical as an audiobook read by Fey.) It was nice getting to know a little more about Fey, who seems to be a slightly higher functioning version of Liz Lemon and I would definitely not be opposed to reading more form her in a few years.

No Limits: The Will to Succeed by Michael Phelps

Each chapter focusing on one of the eight races Michael Phelps competed in to win the record eight golds in the 2008 Olympics. Using these races as a frame, Phelps talks about his fight to elevate the sport of swimming in the US while giving insight into some of his struggles. We learn about his struggles with ADHD, how he got into swimming (thanks to his talented older sisters), how his coach took on the role of father figure, his drunk driving mistakes, and his “competition” with other top swimmers (I put the word competition in quotation marks because it was more of a friendly rivalry–like Ash on Pokemon! Yes, I did just reference that but if you have ever seen that kid show, you know what I mean–and because he competed more with himself than other swimmers).

The book gave a little more and a little less than I wanted from it. Part of why I love sports memoirs is for their insights into the sports themselves, the little tricks it takes to be the best, the injuries and sacrifices, the pursuit of greatness. We got some of that in the book, with the early morning practices and some talk of form, but I didn’t feel as close to the sport as I had hoped. I also didn’t feel like I got to know who Phelps was as a person. It was more like he was a spokesperson for perkiness and “life is good.”

It might have been more interesting to hear about his rise to greatness than the actual Olympics when he was already basically unbeatable.

It was fun to read, but left something to be desired.

Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi

I haven’t read a memoir in a while, but something about this book caught my attention. Maybe it’s just that I’ve always liked Portia de Rossi (and by always I mean she was great in Better Off Ted and also enjoyable in Arrested Development–I didn’t watch Ally Mcbeal so I can’t comment on that one). I’ve always wondered how anyone could be anorexic (don’t they get hungry!?!?) so having a chance to read de Rossi’s account of her eating disorder (which involved both anorexia and binging and purging) was a welcome opportunity.

De Rossi begins her story around age twelve when she starts working as a model. It’s fascinating how internal her struggle was. In many ways, it was as much if not more so her own pushing that led to her extreme body image issues. Her mother didn’t help and seemed to be more negligent than actually pushy in the matter. Shortly after passing out on a movie set, she went from 82 pounds to 168 in a short span of time.

For the first time I had an idea of how someone could become anorexic and live that way (the answer is yes, they do get hungry). Portia de Rossi holds nothing back. I found myself unable to stop reading. (Only the very end got a little slow, when she was summing up what she had learned and how she resolved things, but even that was interesting because she talked about meeting Ellen and their relationship together.)

This book is a really intense but extremely fascinating look at the pressures of Hollywood, body image, and homophobia. It’s definitely a book worth reading if you’re interested in any of these topics.

Sickened by Julie Gregory

For those who don’t know what it is, Munchausen’s by Proxy is when an individual — usually a mother — deliberately makes another person (most often his or her own preschool child) sick or convinces others that the person is sick. The parent or caregiver misleads others into thinking that the child has medical problems by lying and reporting fictitious episodes. He or she may exaggerate, fabricate, or induce symptoms. As a result, doctors usually order tests, try different types of medications, and may even hospitalize the child or perform surgery to determine the cause. (http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/sick/munchausen.html)

Anyway, the reason for that little medical summary is because sickened is about Julie Gregory, who spends much of her childhood in doctors’ offices and hospitals, convinced by her mother that she is sick and slow. But don’t worry, her mother will get to the bottom of this, she will find Julie the best medical care possible until they find what is wrong with her, even if it means invasive surgery, open-heart surgery if necessary. And somehow, after all of it, Julie manages to pick herself up again.

Sickened is terrifying because you can almost see, almost be sucked into that crazy. And how can no one see the truth? How can they? There are some slow moments in the book, specifically near the end, where you want more (more action, more story) but the book is compelling and leaves you wanting more.

Gregory is a good enough writer that I’d love to see if she can write other things. (Other than memoirs I mean. I believe she did write another memoir called My Father’s Keeper that I might check out at some point.)

Get the book: Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood

Feel No Fear by Bela Karolyi

Everybody who knows anything about gymnastics (and even many who don’t) know who Bela Karolyi is. He is the man who makes champions. Under his coaching came Nadia Comanedi, Teodora Ungureanu, Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, Kim Zmeskal, Betty Okino and Dominque Moceanu, among others. He has coached nine Olympic champions, fifteen world champions, sixteen European medalists and six U.S. national champions. He revolutionized the sport (whether one would argue for the better or worse is another question). But how did he become the controversial, but highly successful man in gymnastics?

Feel No Fear tells Bela’s life story, from his desire to study sport education at the behest of his parents (in Rumania to be a coach or phys ed teacher you needed to get a degree in that area) to his first gymnastic sessions in a tiny coal mining town to his large scale success on the international level. 

Karolyi always believed that a disciplined and rigorous work ethic is the key to success. He also believed in innovation and creativity rather than copying previous success (if you copy you will always be a step behind). Karolyi’s work with young gymnasts earned him prestige in Rumania, but in a Communist world of politics, he was eventually ousted by other coaches who were jealous of his success. 

Forced to defect for his country, Bela (and his wife Marta who he met in college and who is also well known for her involvement in elite gymnastics–she is currently the women’s national team coordinator) searched for a way to rebuild his gymnastics career. With help from friends and more than a little luck, Karolyi managed to do for the American gymnasts (the believed to be too lazy and undisciplined to ever challenge on an international level) what he had for the Rumanian team. 

But though he thought he’d left behind the politics, Karolyi discovers that while somewhat different, American gymnastics was filled with politics all the same. Jealousy and maneuvering was not exclusive to Communist Rumania. Through all his struggles, his yelling matches, his fights with convention, it is clear that though his methods may be questionable to some, he truly cares about his gymnasts–his little guys, as he calls them. 

There is something touching about reading his account (an admittedly one-sided view of his methods) and finally getting to see the man behind the reputation. Even if you dislike his policies you can’t help but admire his strength and tenaciousness. 

Unfortunately, this book is from 1994, so there are questions left unanswered and events unaddressed. Hopefully a newer version will be published to include the last 15 years during which time many big things happened (including Kerri Strug’s 1996 Olympic performance on an injured foot).

I would also recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about the politics and power behind gymnastics. In shows like Make It Or Break It and in movies such as Stick It, these behind the scenes maneuverings are alluded to, but reading Karolyi’s book, you begin to really understand how deeply they run.

Check out the book: Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Most twelve year olds you know spend their time collecting WII games, trying to prove themselves on the basketball court or baseball field, and are just discovering that maybe girl cooties aren’t so bad. In war torn Sierra Leon, life is not nearly so simple. That families are destroyed and people are murdered are the least of the dangers there. Young boys are forced to choose sides and take up weapons in order to survive. Civilians run from them, soldiers see them as reinforcements, and their actions will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

In A Long Way Gone Ishmael Beah courageously tells us about his flight from the rebels, the loss of his family, his forced conscription into the government army, and his fight for rehabilitation afterwards. Despite everything, Beah doesn’t hold anything back about his experiences. The honesty and pain behind his words makes his autobiography compelling and unforgettable.

Beah learned firsthand of how hatred and revenge can ruin a nation and scar a person’s life. But he also shows the resilience of children, who can survive even the darkest parts of humanity. But most amazingly, Beah comes out of his experience with hope for the future instead of a hate-filled heart. There is a chance, if people learn from his story, that the world can be made better and the evils of humanity can be made better.

While I would have liked more physical description in order to help me fully see the world he comes from, I can hardly fault him. Just delving into these memories must have been painful and his ability to confront his pain and push on in spite of it (or perhaps because of it) is inspiring. This is a book no one will soon forget.

Read the book: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Chalked Up by Jennifer Sey

Every four years the world turns its focus on the Olympics and gymnastics is put at center stage. No one thinks that being a gymnast is easy. How many people can even conceive of flipping and tumbling and throwing their bodies in the air the way these young girls do? But knowing that being a gymnast is hard isn’t the same as understanding what these girls give up in order to be the best.

There are whispers of abuse and danger. Books like Little Girls In Pretty Boxes reveal some of this world but until 1986 US Champion Jennifer Sey’s Chalked Up it was only a distant, impersonal reality. With Sey’s autobiography we get a chance to really delve into the world of gymnastics and understand what it means to be the best.

Chalked Up shows the abusive coaches, the stage parents, the injuries, but what’s more, it shows the gymnasts. This isn’t simply a tale of finger pointing and accusation. While the coaches can certainly be faulted (for pushing unhealthy weight loss and pushing athletes to compete when not fully healed from injuries) and parents can be blamed (for pushing their kids further and not protecting them from verbal abuse), the girls push themselves just as hard. Kerri Strug is the perfect example. In the 1996 Olympics she competed on vault despite and injured foot, ensuring Team USA’s gold medal. Where most Americans view Kerri Strug’s as an amazing feat for her team, in that competitive world, few gymnasts would not have done the same.

Sey accepts much of the responsibility for her stressful childhood. She emphasizes her own competitive nature, repeating more than once that had it not manifested itself in gymnastics, it would have found its way to something else. “One cannot endure the intensity of the practices, the physical demands, the injuries and the stress of high level competitions unless there is an innate and fiery drive inside.” (California Literary Review, June 2, 2008)

Being a competitive gymnast means dedicating your life, your childhood to the sport, at a very young age. (Bela Karolyi discovered and began to mold Nadia Commenici at age 6.) And rarely with any pay off. Training is expensive and unless you earn medals in the Olympics, you won’t likely earn any money to make up for the deficit. What starts as parents trying to give their children the best, what their children want, suddenly becomes a sacrifice for the whole family. And once you’ve sacrificed so much, how can you risk ending it all? Reading Sey’s portrayal of her family is perhaps as, if not more, fascinating than what she has to say about the coaches.

For anyone who is interested in gymnastics, in what it takes to achieve excellence, this is a book worth reading. It’s honest and shocking, exposing a side of the sport that is often ignored.

What I find most fascinating is that despite everything she’s gone through, Sey says that it was all worth it.

Interested in reading? Buy the book: Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics