It’s that time of year, when slim hardbacks by vaguely famous people overrun book store displays. Note: I am resigned that book stores are becoming rare, and the late-period phenomenon of hyper-marketed celebrity memoirs is undoubtedly partly to blame. I should have written, “slim hardbacks by vaguely famous people overrun my e-mail inbox.” But e-mail is also on its way out (I will inevitably follow) and celebrity memoirs will live on, literary cockroaches that they are.
As trifles go, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and Neil Patrick Harris’ Choose Your Own Autobiography are inoffensive and entertain at the level of their respective sitcoms. You wouldn’t give either to someone you want to impress, but they’ll make good stocking stuffers (celebrity memoirs are usually smaller than real books for this very reason.) Both contain the requisite ten “new” facts that can be repeated ad nauseam by the entertainment press; several chapters written by other people (invariably laudatory, which makes me wonder if the guest writers get a cut of the royalties); a significant amount of familiar material (the genre was built on playing it safe); and a few gently bitchy backstage anecdotes. Both occasionally read like extended awards-show speeches (they thank EVERYONE), which makes sense because both feature sections about hosting awards shows. To their credit, this is less tedious than it sounds, although not by much.
Poehler’s book is ideal for girls who want to blaze trails in male-dominated industries, and for unashamed but perhaps overwhelmed divorcees (nannies are not only OK, but should be considered hard-working professional members-of-the-family.) She attributes her success to supportive parents and hard work. She falls short where comediennes often do when writing about their work: comedy is better seen than described (the exception is Steve Martin, who dissected his own humor in Born Standing Up and somehow made it even funnier.)
Harris wins on style points, although his touchstone might be obscure to many: a series of Chose Your Own Adventure books pitched at elementary school reading-level and attention spans, 185 of which were published between 1979-1998. Harris gets the second-person narration just right (it’s not a huge stretch), and scores with a running joke that most “wrong” life choices end with a grisly death, usually with a swinging banyan vine just out of reach. Harris attributes his success to supportive parents and hard work. His book is ideal for gays who are afraid of coming out, and is safe for your grandmother who doesn’t get what the gay thing is all about.
If you’re an audiobook aficionado, both of these books are very good in the format. Poehler and Harris narrate, and have others read the portions they didn’t write themselves. They modify their scripts slightly and have some fun with the linear, non-visual nature of audiobooks; both allow their stars to enliven the material with their particular performance gifts, and elevate merely serviceable prose to something more uniquely diverting. Bottom line: the books themselves aren’t much more than stocking stuffers; however, if you’re a fan of either performer, the audio versions are worth downloading.