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Book Review: Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant

I love yearlong experiment books (AJ Jacobs, anyone?). There’s something that seriously fascinates me about committing to a project for a full calendar year, for taking on a project around which you wrap your entire life. That’s how I stumbled across Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant (Center Street, 2008). For so long, Oprah reigned as the queen of daytime talk. She was so universal that even my good friend- a guy!- watched her in high school and would come into work and school discussing what he had seen on the show. My mom subscribed to O! magazine- maybe she still does, I don’t actually know. And as readers, we all know about Oprah’s book club. So this book immediately sounded fascinating to me. I missed out on Ms. Okrant’s project when it was ongoing, but I wasn’t going to miss out on her write-up of it!

An artist, actress, writer, and Chicagoan, Robyn Okrant knew about how far-reaching Oprah Winfrey’s influence stretched. But what would following all of her advice do to a person’s life? Not just some of it; ALL of it- if Oprah said to do it or buy it, watch it or consider it, Robyn would comply. And that’s how her Living Oprah project came to life. For one full calendar year, Robyn would take all of Oprah’s suggestions to heart, buying the products and clothing that Oprah claimed everyone neeeeeeeeeeeded, regardless of how Robyn felt about them, participating in the activities Oprah pushed, including exercise, reading assignments and webinars, watching movies, and of course watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and reading O! magazine cover to cover- taking notes the whole time, of course.

Some things worked well. Some things didn’t. And some things got really, really awkward. But along the way, Robyn learned a lot- about herself, about the way society markets certain things to women by first ensuring that they feel unsatisfied with their lives, and about the power of one person’s influence.

This is a really fun, thoughtful book. Ms. Okrant’s project lives right at the intersection of one-year experiments, pop culture, psychology, self-help, celebrity worship, and feminism, and her lighthearted, occasionally self-deprecating tone keeps the narrative moving without ever getting too bogged down by what was occasionally a slog of activities. This wasn’t at all a simple project; so much of what Oprah directed her audience to do involves a lot of exhaustive self-reflection and inner examination that might not always be comfortable, nor is the constant focus on weight and improving or making changes to your body something that’s health for everyone (a topic that Ms. Okrant, a yoga instructor who suffers from scoliosis, returns to several times throughout the book). She’s not afraid to criticize Oprah- she doesn’t *love* doing it either, but her criticism is fair and even-handed, and she brings up a lot of good points that made me think about the little bits of Oprah I do remember seeing.

Much like AJ Jacobs’s long-suffering wife, Ms. Okrant’s husband is a decent sport- mostly-about the way Robyn’s Living Oprah project takes over their entire life, which added an interesting perspective to the narrative and makes you wonder about how this works in marriages where one of the partners really does get obsessive about following the advice of another celebrity guru. This project took over Ms. Okrant’s entire life and sucked up so much of her time (and even wormed its way into her diet, clothing choices, workout routines, and sex life!), and it’s always interesting to see how it affects the partners (and children, if applicable) of the people who take on such all-consuming routines.

I was never a huge Oprah-watcher, solely because I was either at school or asleep when she was on (I believe she used to be on at 9 am here in Central Time Zone, but in my defense, I also lived in the Eastern Time Zone for five of my adult years and my sleep schedule was REALLY messed up, so I was often awake most of the night and sleeping in the morning), but I did enjoy the shows I was able to watch. At least I did until she got into her Eckhart Tolle, self-help-your-way-to-a-more-perfect-you spiel. I have no particular issue with that sort of thing; it’s just not my thing. But Robyn Okrant’s account of living through a full year of diving deep into the Tao of Oprah completely and utterly fascinated me. She did the work that I wasn’t interested in doing- but reading her account of it all was a lot of fun, and I truly, truly enjoyed every last bit of this book.

Visit Robyn Okrant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

It’s no great secret that women have been left out of a lot, if not most scientific research in the past, from behavioral studies to medicine- because why bother? They’re totally basically the same as men, right? Except wrong, and that has had serious, often deadly, consequences for women all around the world. I’ve read a few books on this topic in the past few years; Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong- and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini (Beacon Press, 2017) was the latest on my list. It’s a short book; what’s it’s not short on is science and information that’ll make you think.

For most of recorded scientific history, women have been left out of research and studies. There was no need to study them, (male) scientists thought, and the reasons were many: there was no difference between men and women, scientifically. Women could get pregnant and medications might harm the developing fetus, so better to leave them out and just assume the medication worked on them in the exact same way it did men (uh…sorry ‘bout that, dead women). Science already knew how women were different than men: they were passive, subservient, incapable of understanding difficult scientific concepts like men, and less intelligent, with their tinier lady brains…if you’re not screaming by now, check your pulse.

Angela Saini shines a light on the myriad ways that science has ignored women (and not just human women! Why bother studying the females in ANY species, amirite?!!??? *screams again*), and the new research- oftentimes spearheaded by the women who are beginning to engage in research in larger numbers than ever before. This new research isn’t without its detractors, often men who still cling to the juvenile idea that women are just weak, limp creatures incapable of engaging in more than cleaning and child raising and cooing over big strong men, but it’s shoving science in a direction that it should have gone ages ago.

I enjoyed this, but it’s pretty deeply scientific and not the most casual of reads- to be honest, it often read like listening to my biologist husband speak (which isn’t a bad thing!). It was a little bit of a slow read for me, both because I was busy getting stuff done around the house and because I kind of wanted to digest all the information thrown at me. While I knew from other reading that women have long been left out of medical trials and health-based research, I hadn’t really known that scientists hadn’t bothered studying the behavior of female chimpanzees, bonobos, even female birds were left out of the research for a puzzlingly long time, simply because scientists assumed, “Oh, they’re just out there mothering. They’re built for mothering, they just want one single mate to be strong providers with strong genes for their babies, and they’re no more complicated than that.” Shockingly, it turns out that lumping all female creatures into one ladyparts-means-THIS pile is incorrect (and you’re going to be so grossed out by how many dudes are offended by the fact that they got this wrong, and who straight-up seem to scoff at Ms. Saini for questioning them on this). There’s a lot on animal research in the second half of the book, which didn’t interest me quite as much as the medical research bits, but I’m glad I read it, so that I better understand the depths to which half the population has been ignored in all facets of science.

Interesting book, though infuriating to read in terms of subject and how arrogant male scientists have been throughout history.

Visit Angela Saini’s website here.

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Book Review: Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun

I’m right on the line between Gen X (mid 60s to early 80s) and Millennials (early 80s to early 00s), in what’s sometimes called The Oregon Trail generation. A lot from both generational descriptors applies to me, but I don’t fit in well with either group, so it’s kind of frustrating. But enough fits that I tend to pay attention when either generation is mentioned, especially the massive problems both face. That’s why I paid attention when my friend Sharon mentioned Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun (Grove Press, 2020). Onto my TBR it went, while I ruminated over the fact that I’m old enough to be having a midlife crisis. Hmph.

Gen X has had it hard, with a mountain of debt, sandwiched in between child care and elder care, grappling with the idea that because we as women can finally do everything (or, uh, most things *stares in President*), we should- until it turned out that we just had to do everything and do it all with no help or support. (Check out that email list for your kid’s class fundraisers or field trips- how many dads are in there? Yeah…) They come from a background of what my friend Alexis refers to as benign neglect- latchkey kids who were left on their own to figure things out, from how to make themselves a snack to how to deal with the emotional fallout from things like watching the Challenger explode, or their parents’ divorce. Some of this, explains Calhoun, may be the reason helicopter parenting has become so popular.

While Boomers broke down the barriers, they left Gen X women with all the options but with little support. Being able to have a career is amazing, and no one is complaining about having that choice, but childcare, housework, elder care, all the emotional labor, it’s all still left to the women to do, with fewer resources than men, who aren’t societally tasked with this kind of work. Women are still penalized for being parents in terms of salary and career projectory in a way that men are not. All of this has left Gen X women disillusioned, exhausted, and feeling like no matter how much they’ve done, they haven’t done enough.

This is a bit of a downer of a read, but if you’re a Gen X’er, you’ll feel seen. I was able to identify with some of it- the career stuff obviously doesn’t apply to me as a lifelong housewife, but the benign neglect that perhaps led to that being my only real option? Possibly. The focus on the middle to upper middle class led to the book feeling just a bit limited in scope. I would have appreciated hearing some of the struggles of women without college degrees, who are working several low-paid jobs and struggling to keep the lights on alongside the professionals who are worrying that the million dollars they have socked away for retirement won’t be enough (which is an absolutely valid worry, because this country doesn’t care well for its seniors and all signs point to this not getting better anytime soon). I also felt that she was a little dismissive of Millennials, who will likely have it even worse as they continue to age. Their attitude of, “Yeah, we’re screwed and we know it, thanks, guys!” is probably better, but that doesn’t change the realities of their situation. It’s cool, though, if it means Jeff Bezos is megasuperrich and can afford to pay to send himself to space. Totally cool. *eyeroll*

I did enjoy this. Ms. Calhoun has a sympathetic voice and immediately dives into the heart of the matter: feminism has been great to women, but society hasn’t made the necessary adjustments in order to fully admit them without some serious stress (and, once again, all signs point to nothing changing about this, other than certain people moaning about the low birth rate but then refusing to do anything to support families). Without support for the extra responsibilities that women carry along with their careers- children, taking care of elderly parents, that nasty second shift, the incidentals like the school bake sale and remembering to pick up coffee creamer and shoelaces- we’re doomed to feel like we can’t keep up, and that everything we’re doing is not and will never be enough. Lot of harsh reality in this book.

Visit Ada Calhoun’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Smart, Strong Women- Jerramy Fine

Years ago, just after I moved to Tennessee (where I no longer live), one of the first things I did after getting at least somewhat settled into our apartment was to get my new state driver’s license (an absolute necessity, since the out-of-state license I had was due to expire in something like two weeks!). Brand-new license in hand, you know my next stop was…the public library, to get a brand-new library card (the librarian asked, “Do you have a driver’s license?” “I just came from the DMV!” I announced, and he laughed. I’m THAT seriously about my library love!), and one of the books I checked out on my maiden trip to that particular library was Jerramy Fine’s Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess, a memoir of growing up in love with all things royal. It was an enjoyable read for me, and that was how I recognized Ms. Fine’s name on the cover of In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Strong, Smart Women (Running Press Adult, 2016). My daughter is deeply enamored by all things princess (she’s something she’s referring to as the Rose Fairy Princess for Halloween this year, and she spent our entire vacation in Branson wearing a plastic tiara, soon replaced by a fancier one from Claire’s as a vacation souvenir). I’m more along the lines of sweatshirts and cozy pants, so I’m always on the lookout for things to help me better understand my daughter and thus be a better parent, so I grabbed this book a few months ago.

Ms. Fine bases this book on the premise that every woman grows up wanting to be a princess, at least for some part of their lives (and some for all of their lives!), and that this isn’t weak or excessively fanciful, but can instead be a jumping point for teaching girls leadership, empathy, kindness, justice, mercy, and all the other qualities that benevolent rulers must emphasize. On that, we’re in complete agreement, and I’ve definitely found myself using her suggestion of asking my daughter if a particular misbehavior is how Anna and Elsa (her current favorites) would act (which usually gets a grumpy face in response, but it’s the kind of grumpy face my daughter gives when she’s admitting I’m right. SO few things work in reaching my kiddo when she’s entrenched in a misbehavior that this is a pretty big win! Speaking of misbehavior, as I type this, my daughter is supposed to be asleep and is instead singing Let It Go in her bedroom next door…).

There’s also a really great section with write-ups on real life princesses, highlighting their education, accomplishments, and aspects of their personalities or backgrounds that made them stand out. I’ve never followed royalty, so this was full of new and interesting information for me.

I didn’t feel the book was well-organized, however, and I agree with the reviews that overall, it would’ve been stronger as an article. There were many times where I felt it wandered or went off track, and while she clarified herself later on in the book, Ms. Fine’s early arguments against what ‘the feminists’ say about princess culture caused me to raise an eyebrow. While Ms. Fine does eventually reveal that she is a feminist, feminism isn’t a monolith and there’s room for disagreement within the movement. In my readings of feminist literature, the issue I understand to be most common with princess culture is not that girls are wanting to be something so closely tied to traditionally feminine ideals (feminism is about the choice to be yourself, whether that’s someone who wears heels and frills, a construction helmet, or anything in between- or even a combination!), but more the relentless marketing towards girls, especially young girls, and the forcing of the message so early on that life won’t be complete without this product in that color. (And no, there’s nothing wrong with pink, but not everything needs to be pink or gender-based. Toy kitchens should just be toy kitchens and not a tool of gender stereotyping when they only come in pink…just like not every toy needs to talk or have eyes. Totally different issue here, but inanimate object toys with eyes freak me out. WHY DOES A TOASTER NEED EYES, YOU GUYS???)

There were times when her arguments weren’t as in-depth or as incisive as they could be, and I often wondered why she had included certain parts, as they seemed to have little to do with the rest of the section. The overall tone of the book trends more towards conversational-to-blog-post and not quite so much serious, scholarly research. And perhaps it’s not meant to be that, but I was expecting something a little harder-hitting than what lay in between the covers.

I did learn, however, that Ms. Fine once ran a Princess Prep summer camp in London, where she taught girls things like royal etiquette, philanthropy, fashion, and equestrian skills. While I can’t find a link to a website, Marie Claire had a short write-up about it, as did Jezebel. I’m sad that this doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore, because with her love for all things royal, I’m sure Ms. Fine made this a spectacular experience for those little girls who were lucky enough to attend.

So while I didn’t love the book entirely, I did find parts of it helpful. My daughter is a bit of a tough nut to crack, behavior-wise, so I appreciate anything that gives me a nudge in a direction that can help me better connect with her. It’s funny; just before I discovered the existence of this book, I had, entirely out of the blue, remembered Ms. Fine’s memoir and wondered what she was up to these days. Mystery solved, and I’m glad to see she’s still writing and living out her dream in London. 🙂

Visit Jerramy Fine’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.