Two outstanding but very different books at the turn of a new decade

The holidays are over and I’m feeling a bit numb. The Christmas tree is still up, a light snow is falling, the dogs are trying to convince me that a second dinner is in order, and my youngest child, a senior in college, is sitting here on the couch applying to grad school (although right now I could swear she is dozing).

It is a new year. My sister just sent an article via group text that we should not abbreviate 2020 to ’20. Leaves too much room for hackers to mess with you. I won’t go into the details now, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Just write it out: 2020. It might just save you a world of trouble.

But enough with good advice, let’s talk about books. What have you been reading? One of the last books I read in 2019, and one of the best books (if not the best) of the year, was The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is stunning. It’s a book about slavery and the Underground Railroad and Northern idealism, about family, love, cruelty, bondage and freedom. And though the story is real enough, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it is filled with dream and magic—not dream and magic in its own neat subset within the story, but dream and magic woven into the novel’s reality, like scenery or breath or weather or thought.

The line between life and death, between the living and the dead, isn’t entirely impermeable here, and young Hiram Walker (born into slavery; his mother is a slave, his father a white master) finds himself living a life that echoes and reflects one of the songs the slaves sing while they walk to and from the tobacco fields, “When you get to heaven, say you remember me/Remember me and my fallen soul/Remember my poor and fallen soul.”
It’s hard to put a finger on what makes this book so extraordinary. The characters are very well drawn and developed, the writing is excellent and at times poetic, the subject matter devastating and compelling. I loved it and highly, highly recommend it. I want to say that it is hard to imagine a world where mothers are torn from their toddlers, and sons are torn from their fathers, and husbands are torn from their wives…sold up or downriver, depending on the whims of the master. This book brings it home, painfully, powerfully. God, forgive us.
A very different book, but also excellent for very different reasons, is one that was given to me for Christmas by my daughter: The Actor’s Life, a Survival Guide, by Jenna Fischer. Does the author’s name ring a bell? It might…for those of you out there who are fans of The Office. Jenna Fischer is Pam. Pam the receptionist. Pam, as in Pam and Jim.

The reason my daughter gave me this book is (1) I asked for it and (2) she and I have, as of late, had to take a number of road trips to Boston due to issues relating to a detached retina (a story in itself), during which we have done a lot of listening to the podcast “Office Ladies.” And “Office Ladies” (if you haven’t heard of it) is the episode-by-episode exegesis (I guess you could say) of the TV show The Office. OMG, it is fantastic! Fantastic!!

“Office Ladies” stars Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey (who plays the tightly wound, cat-loving accountant Angela in the show), who are BFFs in real life and who, weekly, comb through an Office episode and talk about what was going on backstage and on set and all kinds of things you would not have known had you not tuned in to this delightful production. The repartee between the two of them is so funny, lively, affectionate and witty, and so, so informative.

I mean, if you aren’t an Office fan, it would probably be useless and beside the point, but for fans, you just can’t miss this! There are so many fun insider details and “fast facts” that illuminate this brilliant series and the inspired writers, directors, actors and camera people who created it. But, wait, where was I? Oh, yes. The book. The Actor’s Life. So, Jenna Fischer, at age 22, drove from her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, to West Hollywood with her cat, Andy, to pursue a career in acting. If you think she hit the big time right away, you couldn’t be more wrong. This is a practical, how-to “survival guide” to anyone pursuing an acting career, but it is also a charming, funny, down-to-earth read for people not pursuing any such thing—and such a fun book to read if you, like me, are a fan of Pam and The Office.

Here’s a tidbit: “…as early as I can remember, I had big dreams of being an actor. In grade school I got my start when I played Toto in The Wizard of Oz. In case you’re not familiar with the story, Toto is the dog that belongs to the lead character, Dorothy. It was a role that nobody else wanted. I guess the other kids couldn’t find the value in playing the dog. But I didn’t care; I liked dogs! Sure, I didn’t have lines, but I had lots of stage time. See, Toto was onstage every time Dorothy was onstage, and Dorothy was the lead, so I was always right next to the lead! I did funny little dances with the Munchkins and barked at the Wicked Witch. Who needs lines when you can ham it up as the spunky sidekick? Then in high school I played the Fiddler in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. This was another role that no one else really wanted. But hey, my character opened and closed the play up on that roof. And without the Fiddler, it would just be called The Roof!”

Excellent foreword by Steve Carell. “Does the woman who played Pam on The Office have any honest and thoughtful advice?” he writes. “Yes. Yes, she does.” So if you want to know how to get the right headshot, find a good manager, a hardworking agent, and what to wear for auditions, this book could really help you. And if you don’t need or want to know any of these things and you love Pam (or Jenna Fischer), check this book out. And seriously, if you haven’t listened to that podcast, try it! Never seen The Office? You’ve got hours of entertainment ahead of you. And the year is young!

Happy 2020!