Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Yes Please (Amy Poehler)

At random intervals, I read a comedy humor memoir thing (Hyperbole and a Half; Let's Pretend This Never Happened; Bossypants) and I feel compelled to make the disclaimer that "this isn't the type of thing I normally read I'm not sure exactly how to review it." I don't think it will ever not be a true statement, and I find myself wanting to say the same thing for this review. Yes Please is Amy Poehler's book. I have been looking forward to it all year. It's another case of high expectations and "meh" results. Blerg.

As I have said before, I have a hard time evaluating humor books. How often should I be laughing? Is the book a failure if I don't laugh "enough?" I didn't laugh out loud very often during this book--I'm not even sure I laughed aloud at all. If that were the only criterion by which I judged, this book would have been a failure. But clearly it wasn't, because I read all the way through relatively quickly.

What I will say I enjoyed about this book is what I enjoy about most memoirs: the gooey insides. There is something attractive to me about books filled with real people's inner lives, and I want to stress here that the "something" has nothing to do with celebrities or tragedy. I don't need convincing that celebrities are "real people just like us," because they are obviously not, so that's not the attraction. I don't want to exploit people's very sad and very real problems (AKA sad porn), either.

I just like reading about people's interior lives. I don't need sordid details or emotional appeals, just odds-and-ends details about what others are doing with their time. In that regard, Yes Please is very good. Poehler does a great job of spreading her net far and wide, gathering lots of stories from her whole life; she doesn't focus too heavily on her comedy roots, on her SNL-and-after stardom, or her list of celebrity friends. I felt like I was reading a diary that was meant for public consumption, and that's the best feeling.

So what didn't I like? For one thing, the book was messy. It's divided into three very loose thematic sections ("Say Whatever You Want," "Do Whatever You Like," and "Be Whoever You Are"), none of which felt very cohesive. That is, the arrangement felt randomized and arbitrary. Chapters within each section were all over the place--more than once did I feel lost while reading. It happened first in the opening chapter: she talks about her earliest encounter with improv, as Dorothy in an elementary school production of The Wizard of Oz.

Initially, it promises to be a cute, funny anecdote. But instead of delivering the story's payoff as soon as she starts it, she winds through her entire pre-Chicago performance history on stage, her college improv group, and even her appreciation for Carol Burnett--10 pages of other stuff!--before finishing the short tale she sets out to tell. I'm not saying that the apocrypha should have been cut; after all, I just praised the book for being full of it! What I would have loved, however, was if we had been told the story about Dorothy and then about her other theatre and improv experiences in Boston in chronological order.

I'm not saying that Yes Please needed to start with her birth and end with Parks and Recreation. I understand how frustrating the constraints of a life-story told that way can be, especially because this isn't a biographical chronicle of Poehler's existence and it isn't supposed to be. I'm okay with a jumbled, disordered timeline, so long as it's on a chapter-to-chapter basis. Within a chapter, I need a little more focus and internal chronology.

There are also moments where the book doesn't seem to know what it wants to be: is it a funny book? Sometimes. How about if it tries to be a serious, touching introspection on body image or fame? These sections are surprisingly rewarding and don't feel wildly out of place. But what if it's a self-help book, too? On more than one occasion does Poehler reference popular self-help texts, and it's clear that they've influenced her. The chapters where she gets caught up on doling out advice are the least enjoyable, and even if it's not a chapter intended to give advice, don't be surprised if she sneaks some in somehow.

Perhaps the biggest offense--and I know I'm not alone here--is the introduction, where she spends several pages dedicated to how hard writing a book is. Poehler tries to dress it up as funny, but it's not. I wish it hadn't been there, because it lingered in the back of my mind for the entirety of my reading experience and turned me into a cruel, bitter reader, which I always actively try not to be.

So what's the verdict? Yes Please has some good in it--one of the best chapters, "My Boys," is an exemplary essay on being a parent; I was genuinely interested in knowing more about Amy Poehler's beginnings and daily existence, which the book delivers. But it gets bogged down by its own desire to give advice and its inability to tell any given story from start to finish without whipping the reader around hard and fast. If you're a fan of the author, you'll like it. If you aren't...it's not worth your time.

My rating: 3/5
Yes Please on Goodreads
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