Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Memoir & Autobiography (page 1 of 5)

Year Of Yes – Shonda Rhimes

I’m not ashamed to admit that, prior to reading Year Of Yes, all of my Shonda Rhimes knowledge was Grey’s Anatomy-related. In fact, prior to Year Of Yes, Rhimes herself really preferred it that way. All her life, she had been a self-confessed introvert; she once hired a publicist for the express purpose of keeping her from actually having to do any publicity for her ground-breaking television.

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Really, Rhimes said “no” to everything as a way of hiding from things that terrified her (can’t we all relate, just a little bit?). As a show-runner for multiple Big Time Mega Hit Must-Watch shows, and a single mother to three kids, no one ever doubted her when she said she was “too busy”. But the truth was, actually, she was too afraid.

Then, while cooking Thanksgiving dinner in 2013, her sister said something to her, something Rhimes calls the “six startling words”: you never say yes to anything.

Well, you can’t lay down a gauntlet like that in front of a powerhouse like Rhimes. She embraced the challenge and decided to go against all her better instincts, to spend the year saying YES. She’s now written this book, Year Of Yes, about her experience. It’s not a memoir, exactly – even though it’s told through the frame of Rhimes’ experiment. It’s not self-help, either – even though Rhimes offers a lot of advice and wisdom gleaned from what she’s done. I’d say Year Of Yes is a non-fiction book about the transformative power of being open to new things and overcoming ingrained anxiety, as exemplified by one extraordinary woman.

I knew from the prologue alone that Rhimes and I would be great friends (she and Gabrielle Union and I should really get together sometime). She likes wine (in a let’s-drink-about-it way, not a snobby way), and her searing self-deprecation (whilst never losing sight of, nor apologising for, her many accomplishments) is totally endearing. What’s more, it’s abundantly clear throughout Year Of Yes that she poured a lot of herself into her most-beloved Grey’s Anatomy character, Christina Yang. Trust me, if you’ve ever identified as a Yang, Year Of Yes is a book you’ll want to read.

That’s not why I picked it up, though – just a happy coincidence. Mostly I was curious about Year Of Yes as a fascinating counterpoint to all of the calls for busy women to say “no” more often. Rhimes is busier than most of us (combined). Surely, I thought, saying “yes” – to everything – would simply lead to her feeling over-committed and exhausted.

She addresses the over-commitment question directly in chapter seven (“Yes to All Play and No Work”), when she realises that saying “yes” also means saying yes to silly things, fun thinsg, and sometimes saying yes to those things means saying a grateful “no” to others. This is not the year of indiscriminate yes; it’s the year of yes to things that make us feel alive. There are some things (and some people, ahem!) that it is absolutely right to say-yes-to-saying-no-to.

When Rhimes starts saying yes, she finds that her fear won’t actually kill her. Most of the time, facing the fear she feels really pays off. She does interviews, speeches, cameo appearances, all kinds of awesome stuff that brings her a lot of joy – all of which she would have said “no” to, had her sister not made a crack at her at a family get-together. Year Of Yes turns out to be Rhimes’ own self-guided form of exposure therapy. The more she says yes, and follows through, the easier (and better) it gets.

I got nervous when she started to talk about health and her weight – but I needn’t have worried. Though some of her self-talk and concerns might be a bit triggering for readers particularly sensitive to those issues, I thought Rhime’s message was ultimately a positive and empowering one. She is not here to advocate for losing weight in order to feel beautiful. Rather, she discovered that once she felt beautiful and said “yes” to doing things that made her feel good, losing weight was a side effect of that. Say “yes” to loving your body and commit to doing the best you can for it, and the rest will fall where it may. Sometimes that means saying “yes” to a hike, sometimes it means saying “yes” to extra cheese.

I hesitate to share this, for fear of sounding like a gross cliche, but… what the heck. Year Of Yes actually encouraged me (I will not say the word inspired: I will not, I will not, I will not) to start saying yes a bit more myself. Not to anything particularly life changing, but to invitations and offers that I might otherwise have turned down. Post-lockdown anxiety had me very apprehensive about going back out into the world and interacting IRL again, but it turned out the more often I said “yes”, the easier (and better) it got.

Take this as a simple testament to the power of Year Of Yes: it convinced even the hardest-baked cynic on the other side of the world to give it a go. Hell yes, Shonda!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Year Of Yes:

  • “I had such high hopes for this book! And I tried. I tried soooo hard to make it through. But it is was so incredibly boring and self-centered and seemingly without an ability to connect to others hardships and experiences of life. If you DO find yourself as a very wealthy, very successful TV writer and producer with an amazing life who just can’t seem to say yes to fancy events with other wealthy, successful people, then PLEASE buy this book. It will no doubt help you on your journey.” – Jessica Michele
  • “The book came with what very much appears to be snot on the cover, complete with multiple pieces of nose or beard hair in it. Delivered during the peak of COVID. Not feeling great about this.” – Amsat
  • “I’m in a book club and this was our book… not sure if I’m going to stay with the book club.” – Jeff & Erin

Know My Name – Chanel Miller

In 2016, the name Brock Turner made headlines around the world. He was sentenced to just six months in jail after he was convicted – literally caught in the act – of sexually assaulting a young woman on the Stanford campus in California. His victim, identified then only as Emily Doe, wrote an impact statement which was shared online; it went viral, and reached millions around the world within days. Three years later, Chanel Miller stepped forward and identified herself as Emily Doe, the until-then anonymous victim of the man whose name has become inextricable from conversations about sexual assault, sentencing, and #MeToo. In Know My Name, Miller reclaims her name, her story, and the years lost to her silent battle.

Know My Name - Chanel Miller - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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In January 2015, Miller was a 22-year-old graduate living in Palo Alto. One night, on a whim she decided to attend a Stanford campus party with her sister and friends. Within hours, Brock Turner sexually assaulted her, and she became “unconscious intoxicated woman” – Emily Doe. In Know My Name, Miller doesn’t ease you into this harrowing story with any meandering anecdotes about her upbringing. She’s setting this scene for her assault by page 2.

I was deeply disturbed to realise, in these early chapters, just how little Miller was told about what had happened to her once she regained consciousness, even after she made it abundantly clear to doctors and police that she had no memory of leaving the party. One of the most confronting scenes from Know My Name (and that’s saying something) comes when Miller learns the details of her assault from a news article, sitting at her desk at work. At the same time as the rest of the world, she read about her assailant’s dreams of swimming at the Olympics and his record-breaking pace, alongside the allegations that he had violently penetrated her with his fingers and left her mostly-undressed on the ground behind a garbage bin when two cyclists intervened.

He was the one who lost everything. I was just the nobody it had happened to.

Know My Name (Page 48)

This pattern plays out time and time again in Know My Name, each instance as sickening as the last: the perpetrator’s accomplishments and ambitions are highlighted, his crime(s) diminished, Miller’s pain and suffering barely mentioned.

The judge had given Brock something that would never be extended to me: empathy. My pain was never more valuable than his potential.

Know My Name (Page 241)

Of course, the assault is only the beginning. Over the course of Know My Name, Miller recounts in gut-wrenching detail the ways in which she was repeatedly violated over the following years: the investigation, the hearing, the trial, the sentencing, the aftermath. Institutions seem to fail her at every turn. The courtroom turns into a circus with rival ringleaders, each seeking to make their own performing monkey seem most sympathetic to a jury. The administrators of Stanford offer Miller little more than a pamphlet and a condescending pat on the shoulder, their fears of litigation and bad publicity far outweighing any fear they have for the safety of students and visitors to their campus.

Miller does remind us at intervals (though she shouldn’t have to) that Know My Name exists for so many people. One in five women have a version of this story that they could tell. What happened to Miller is not an isolated incident, it was not an extraordinary once-off. It happens every day, in every part of the world. It’s an excellent companion read to She Said (the journalists’ account of breaking the Harvey Weinstein story), in that regard.

It struck me, about halfway through Know My Name, that this was the first full account I’d ever read of the victim’s journey through the judicial system. In TV dramas, they cut right from the confession to the guilty verdict, and everyone goes home feeling justice has been done in 38 minutes. Miller’s account exposes the indefinite timeframes, the potential minefields, the unexpected demands – women just don’t know that this is what they’re agreeing to when they’re encouraged to report. Collectively, we “know” that it’s difficult, demoralising, retraumatising, but that knowledge is abstract. By sharing the full story in Know My Name, Miller makes it tangible.

She also emphasises the ripple effect of trauma. The man who attacked her didn’t only victimise her, he victimised her sister, her parents, her grandmother, her friends. Her sister lives with enormous survivor’s guilt. Her parents had to see close-up images of Miller’s brutalised vulva displayed in the courtroom. Her friends had to fend off reporters and the defendant’s investigators looking to dig up dirt. One assault, so many victims.

Chapter 12 provides a particularly striking rebuttal to the “but what about innocent until proven guilty?” argument. Miller lays out all the ways in which we currently interrogate the past behaviour of the victim (what they drank, what they wore, who they’ve slept with); if the victim can’t be “innocent until proven guilty”, why should their attacker be? The benefit of the doubt doesn’t seem to extend to the person who is bleeding. Miller has been caught in this trap herself, but incredibly she has retained the capacity to articulate the flaws of the “system” in stunningly eloquent ways. “When a victim does go for help, she is seen as attacking the assailant,” Miller says in Know My Name. “Inherently the victim is outnumbered,” (page 287-8).

It’s hard not to turn this review into a series of extracts; Miller’s voice is that powerful. Just one more…

For years, the crime of sexual assault depended on our silence. The fear of knowing what happened if we spoke… The barricades that held us down will not work anymore. And when silence and shame are gone, there will be nothing to stop us.

Know My Name (Page 327)

Goosebumps, right? This is an incredible read, on every level: as a tool for dismantling the patriarchy, as a masterfully-crafted narrative, as an account of crime and justice, and as a radical testament to the costs of survival.

Educated – Tara Westover

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated – a memoir about shame, understanding, and the transformative power of education – would be an interesting read. In Westover’s voice, it’s downright enthralling.

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Educated, first published in 2018, is Westover’s account of her remarkable life: growing up in a family of survivalist Mormons, leaving them to step foot in a classroom for the first time as a university student, and going on to complete a PhD at Cambridge University. The story is told in three parts, to match that chronology.

Part One begins with Westover’s birth – date unknown, sometime around the end of September, 1986 – on an isolated rural property that served as both family home and junkyard. Westover didn’t have a birth certificate for the first nine years of life. When the time came for her to get one, none of her family members could agree on their recollection of the day she was born. “I remember the day [my delayed birth certificate] came in the mail,” she says, on page 26. “It felt oddly dispossessing, being handed this first legal proof of my personhood: until that moment, it had never occurred to me that proof was required.”

Her parents were deeply suspicious of any government or organisation, be it hospitals, schools, or the tax man. Westover and her siblings grew up fearing the kind of federal intervention we’ve seen play out on the evening news, where operatives would come to take them away – and for them, the threat was a lot more tangible, and local. A 1992 siege upon the home of a like-minded Idaho family nearby resulted in three deaths; you might know it as Ruby Ridge.

Westover’s attempts to attend school or participate in any other aspect of “normal” childhood were (sometimes violently) opposed by her father. That included seeking medical attention. Educated has any number of stories of junkyard injuries that the family “treated” (homeopathically) themselves at home, and more than one serious car accident – each more stomach-turning than the last.

Despite that stumble start in life, Westover managed to “home school” herself enough to pass the required exams and gain entry to Brigham Young University. In Part Two of Educated, she details the pressures and obstacles that come from starting college at 17, having taught yourself to read with only the Bible and the Book of Mormon as reference texts.

Once Westover begins her formal education, she is reluctant – in the extreme – to tell the truth of her upbringing, her circumstances, and her needs. It’s easy, with privilege and hindsight, to shout at the page: “Just tell them! It’ll help! It’ll make things better for you!”. It takes a long time for Westover to concede that she does, in fact, need more than her upbringing gave her to survive in the world.

I’ll never forget one particularly harrowing episode where Westover finally found the courage to ask a question in class: the meaning of the word Holocaust. Her classmates were horrified, but of course, none of them knew why she asked.

I’d never learned how to talk to people who weren’t like us – people who went to school and visited the doctor. Who weren’t preparing, every day, for the End of the World.

Educated (Page 101)

The final section of Educated covers Westover’s opportunity to study at Cambridge, the financial assistance and mentorship she received to help her stay there – and, of course, what choosing the path of education meant for her relationship with her family, her hometown, her religion, and herself. The book learning’s not all beer and skittles, after all.

Westover writes her true history without judgement, a remarkable feat given her circumstances. She says at the end of her memoir that she’s in touch with only a few of her family members, and lives a life entirely separate from the mountain that was her first home, but she doesn’t seem to wish them ill or bear any bitterness for the life they gave her.

In the interests of a right of reply, I’ll tell you here that Westover’s parents (via their attorneys) have said that there is “only a little germ of truth” in Educated, and her brother Shawn in particular has vehemently denied the instances of abuse Westover described. Westover hasn’t given a public response to that – the book kind of speaks for itself, really, having been professionally fact-checked by the kinds of very smart and thorough people who do that kind of thing.

What Westover has lost in family, she has won in fans, hundreds of thousands of times over. Educated was an instant best-seller, and received wall-to-wall positive reviews (a frightening number of which appear as blurbs in my edition, pages and pages of them!). The book spent over two years on the New York Times Bestseller List, and has been translated into over 45 languages. As of last year, it had sold over 6 million copies worldwide.

I found Educated to be a breathtaking read, in more ways than one. The dangers and horrors of Westover’s childhood had my heart in my throat – but the moments of love and compassion shared within this bizarre family did, too. I was captivated by the way Westover was able to relate her story, with frankness and fairness that any memoir writer should envy. Naturally, I must offer any prospective readers content warnings for family trauma (and one particularly alarming incident of cruelty towards a dog, near the end), but trust me: if you can stomach it, Educated is an incredible and transformative read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Educated:

  • “By purchasing this book, helped her pay for her psych bills.” – Gloria H. Pedrick
  • “Survivalist, near- death experiences, severe mental illness, religious conflict, this book has it all. And you think YOUR family is nuts!” – Nancy
  • “I need this book downloaded on to my iPad, please” – Yvonne barmon swanstrom

In Order To Live – Yeonmi Park

Park Yeon-mi (Korean: 박연미, English: Yeonmi Park) was born in North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, in 1993. In Order To Live is her memoir, an astonishing true story of physical and mental endurance, detailing how she escaped the world’s most impenetrable and fearful dictatorship. It was written with the assistance of Maryanne Vollers, and published in 2015.

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In Order To Live is told in three parts, tracing Park’s journey to freedom. It begins in Hyesan, where Park was born and raised, and it was normal to go weeks or months at a time without electricity. The Park family had just a tiny fireplace to cook and keep themselves “warm” throughout the icy North Korean winters. Park’s childhood was punctuated by “tiny tastes of freedom”, like the time she watched a black-market bootleg copy of Titanic (Western media being banned by the regime), and the first time she earned her own money (bribing an orchard security guard to steal fruit to sell at a local grey-market).

Park’s parents had little choice but to build careers in black-market trading during North Korea’s economic collapse of the 1990s. They smuggled Chinese cigarettes, clothes, metals, and anything else that could fetch a price. Their income fluctuated; at times, they were wealthy by North Korean standards, but at others they struggled to feed themselves. By the time Park and her mother got the chance to escape, they were – literally – starving (her father having been caught and imprisoned in a labour camp for years).

The second part of In Order To Live begins at this point, in 2007 when Park was 13 years old. She and her mother were smuggled across the border into China by people they later discovered were human traffickers (rather than benevolent Samaritans). According to Park, there is still a thriving economy for “wives” (read: slaves) in China, and she and her mother were traded like chattel. They searched in vain for Park’s sister, who had gone ahead of them to China and left no word as to her eventual whereabouts. For the Parks, “escape” from North Korea was a sickening case of out of the frying pan and into the fire – but at least, in China, they had enough to eat.

The third part of In Order To Live focuses on Park’s final bid for true freedom, a journey planned and aided by missionaries. Park, her mother, and other North Korean refugees in China made their way across the Gobi Desert on foot, coming to Mongolia where they could apply for asylum in South Korea. Park arrived in South Korea traumatised, and with only a second-grade education. While the South Korean government provided refugees with basic living assistance, she still faced an uphill battle to live a full and healthy life.

Against the odds, Park has gone on to become an advocate for human rights and support for victims of human trafficking; In Order To Live, and sharing her story, has become a platform to draw attention to the horrors that take place away from the media spotlight. Above and beyond what Park sacrificed to make it to freedom, she faces execution as a “defector” (one with a very public face, no less) if she ever returns to her homeland. Her former friends, neighbours, and distant relatives have all faced consequences to her speaking out.

As far as the memoir itself goes, the prose is sparse, simple – it’s not a literary memoir, but I think that actually works in its favour. It feels more authentic, allowing Park’s story to stand for itself. Plus, it gives the reader the opportunity to connect a lot of the broader dots for themselves. Park’s personal history is inextricably political; so much of her fate has been determined by the prevailing winds of economically powerful countries thousands of miles away. It’s a powerful reminder of the voiceless cost of large-scale war games.

Naturally, Park has been subject to a lot of gotcha journalism, exposing supposed “inconsistencies” in her story of escape – but show me a memoir writer who hasn’t, really. As best I can tell, all of the “exposed” holes and gaps are attributable to (or, at the very least, exacerbated by) language barriers, and Park’s obligation to obscure parts of her story in an effort to prevent retaliation by the regime.

Of more pressing concern are the troubling views Park has expressed since publication of In Order To Live (criticism of universities for guiding students in the use of gender-neutral pronouns, for instance). I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, and hope that her statements are taken out of context and cannot be neatly separated from her childhood indoctrination. Still, it’s enough to make me grit my teeth.

The final message of In Order To Live, the one that really hit home for me, came from the Acknowledgements: “caring is how we begin to change the world”. Caring about the thousands (tens of thousands? we’ll never know for sure) who have died in their bids for freedom from the North Korean dictatorship is the first step in ensuring that no one else has to suffer in order to live. All told, this memoir is a moving, compelling must-read – the perfect pick for fans of Educated!

We’re Going To Need More Wine – Gabrielle Union

When my mother-in-law gifted me her copy of We’re Going To Need More Wine, I didn’t know much about Gabrielle Union beyond her iconic role in Bring It On – but I could tell by the title of her memoir alone that we would get along. For those of you who are similarly unfamiliar, Union is an “actress, activist, and one half of a power couple” and in this book she offers us “stories that are funny, complicated, and true”.

We're Going To Need More Wine - Gabrielle Union - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Or, to put it the way Union did, We’re Going To Need More Wine features “the good, the bad, and the WTF” (with chapters including Sex Miseducation, On Mean Women and Good Dogs, and Warning: Famous Vaginas Get Itchy Too). It follows a loose chronology of Union’s life, but subjects range from colorism to heartbreak to parties at Prince’s house.

Union grew up in Pleasanton, California, where her black family were “the chocolate chip in the cookie”. From a very early age, as she describes in the early chapters of We’re Going To Need More Wine, she felt compelled to avoid what she called the Black Pitfalls: the things that would make her “seem blacker” in the eyes of her friends (like eating fried chicken with her fingers). This window into Union’s early life shows us the ugly truth of casual racism and microaggressions, but also the universal experiences of childhood and adolescence that will make you laugh and wince with nostalgia (regardless of race). Union in particular expresses gratitude for the Judy Blume books, for giving her and her friends at least a partial education back in the days before girls could simply Google what was happening to their bodies.

A major turning point in Union’s life came in her late teens, when she was the victim of a horrifically violent sexual assault in her workplace. (Obviously, a content warning for that – Union’s description of the event is detailed, but not drawn-out or gratuitous.) Even though the tone of We’re Going To Need More Wine stays casual and humourous, it’s clear the significant impact that this trauma had on Union’s psychology moving forward.

From there, she describes the ups and downs of young to middle adulthood: a firey failed marriage, an acting career, bad hairstyling, and all the rest of it. The real highlights are her frank (and funny!) philosophies on sex. Union is unabashedly and unashamedly liberated in that area; for her, sexual variety is one of the key pleasures of life, and she throws a big middle finger up at the patriarchal values that would shame women out of exploring that facet of themselves.

“You can’t take your pussy with you,” she says at one point. “Explore the full range of everything and feel zero shame. Don’t let society’s narrow scope about what they think you should do with your vagina determine what you do with your vagina.” (Yes, I immediately took a picture of that page and sent it to everyone I thought would appreciate it.)

From that alone, I’m sure you can tell that We’re Going To Need More Wine feels like a boozy conversation with a friend, one that runs the full gamut and has you cracking open another bottle just to keep it going. That doesn’t mean that it’s fluffy or insubstantial, though. As well as exploring race and violence and sexuality, Union uses anecdotes from her life to discuss illness, death, fear, and vulnerability, too. It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, and a highly effective one.

I think the main message that I took away from We’re Going To Need More Wine is that “fake it ’til you make it” can only get you so far. You can “fake” your smile or your marriage or your opinion of yourself, but you might not like where you end up because of it. What will you “make” of who you’ve pretended to be? That’s a recurring theme throughout We’re Going To Need More Wine and Union’s life; every time she ignored her intuition and went against “her truth”, everything turned to shit. Of course, authenticity and intuition don’t guarantee a perfectly happy life (nothing does), but it’ll feel a hell of a lot better than the alternative – that’s what I think Union was trying to get across.

My favourite Amazon reviews of We’re Going To Need More Wine:

  • “I bought this book as Gift for My woman. she enjoyed it thoroughly. I am pleased if she is pleased.” – Damion Bacchus
  • “i bought this book with the intent of seeing new perspectives, but what i got was basically a wikipedia page with imdb references.” – Joshua M.
  • “Sorry Gabby, you’re my girl but your book sucks lemons, no sugar.” – Adrienne Jones
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