Late summer/early fall always seems to be my nonfiction season and last fall I was inhaling them. I think what interests me about nonfiction is the opportunity to see life through other people’s perspectives and understand lived experiences I haven’t had.
Wannabe: Reckonings with the Pop Culture that Shaped My by Aisha Harris
The more I think about this book the more I like it. I know Harris best as the co-host* of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast. In this essay collection with a dash of memoir, Harris offers a succinct snapshot of millennial popular culture through her lens as a staunchly child-free millennial black girl from the suburbs. I was kind of afraid this book would dip into “not like the other Black girls”** but Harris deftly avoids this and makes a point to deconstruct this idea in the opening essay, Isn’t She Lovely, where she discusses how early 90s media portrayal of women with ‘black names’ messed with her identity.
If you are someone who pays attention to modern-day pop culture criticism you likely won’t find anything revelatory in here but I enjoyed hearing Harris’ perspective. Essays I enjoyed included ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ about themes of generational trauma in media like Turning Red and Russian Doll and Santa Claus is a Black Man about how her satirical essay about turning Santa into a penguin made Megyn Kelly get up on TV and say Jesus was white. I especially related to her mention of growing up in a house where only black dolls were allowed–cause my parents were just like that, lol. I even had the book Amazing Grace about a black girl who wants to be Peter Pan in her school play.
Harris, a former theatre kid with a musical theater degree from Northwestern University, is a great narrator and I can’t recommend this enough on audio.
*I will forever side-eye NPR for only bringing in a Black host after the Summer of 2020, but I have appreciated how they’ve made an effort to bring in new diverse voices. It’s made the show much better IMO.
**I wrote this note before I realized that Harris’ sister wrote The Other Black Girl. Which I think is a terrible book about suburban Black girls.
Pageboy: A Memoir by Elliot Page
In this memoir, Page examines his journey from a happy Canadian kid with an enormous imagination to an overnight Hollywood star at the age of 20 . It’s a melancholy story filled with Page’s regrets, the harm done to him and the harm he may have done to others.
There are some positive and fun stories in here too. I was happy to hear that Page enjoyed his work on Juno and mentioned that he still watched it. I remember when that movie came out –it was the second film I’d ever seen that was directed and written by a woman (the other was Something New). I was also tickled when he mentioned how he spent most of X-Men Days of Future Past standing at Hugh Jackman’s head because lol, true. His character was robbed by that series.
It’s well well-written memoir, Page is a reader and lifelong learner. His voice and unique perspective comes through in the writing. The book is told out of order, which I found confusing but I saw in an interview Page did it intentionally to mimic how memories come to him.
Page’s journey feels very much still in progress. The book kind of ends with him alone in a cabin in the woods figuring out what is next. I could definitely see another book coming.
To Tell The Bigger Lie by Sarah Viren
I went into this book knowing absolutely nothing. I was browsing through Libby and the cover caught my eye. I immediately wanted to know what ‘a memoir in two stories’ meant. Also, the snake suggested there would be some betrayal and I’m obsessed with stories of people telling extravagant lies.
Viren’s memoir begins with her experience in a high school magnet program where her highly revered philosophy teacher converts to Catholicism and begins to show signs of being a Holocaust denier. The second part of her memoir takes place 20 years later, when her wife is accused of sexual harassment just as Viren is offered a faculty job at a university.
Now, Viren is an academic from a family of academics and a graduate of Iowa’s Writers Workshop. It’s clear she’s very interested in how her highly educated, PHD- holding, liberal-leaning teacher could suddenly become a holocaust denier…. but I found that part meh.
But the story of the false sexual harassment claims against her wife? Oh, I was seated for that part. I completely missed the story when it happened , so I was transfixed as Viren and her wife try to figure out who was making the false accusations and why. It was like reading a thriller.
I love some good creative nonfiction but there is a little bit of weird navel-gazey stuff that didn’t work for me. At one point Viren created elaborate scenes of made-up conversations between herself, the people in her memoirs and ancient Greek philosophers. She also has a whole bit about a talking tortoise. Maybe the MFA types like that but it was cringey and felt like filler to me.
Natalie Naudus was great on the audiobook, I always like it when a professional narrator or actor reads an audiobook.