4.5 star, adult, nonfiction

Review: Making a Scene by Constance Wu

A powerful and poignant new book by Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu about family, romance, sex, shame, trauma, and how she found her voice on the stage. 

Growing up in the friendly suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, Constance Wu was often scolded for having big feelings or strong reactions. “Good girls don’t make scenes,” people warned her. And while she spent most of her childhood suppressing her bold, emotional nature, she found an early outlet in local community theater—it was the one place where big feelings were okay—were good, even. Acting became her refuge, her touchstone, and eventually her vocation. At eighteen she moved to New York, where she’d spend the next ten years of her life auditioning, waiting tables, and struggling to make rent before her two big breaks: the TV sitcom Fresh Off the Boat and the hit film Crazy Rich Asians.

Through raw and relatable essays, Constance shares private memories of childhood, young love and heartbreak, sexual assault and harassment, and how she “made it” in Hollywood. Her stories offer a behind-the-scenes look at being Asian American in the entertainment industry and the continuing evolution of her identity and influence in the public eye. Making a Scene is an intimate portrait of pressures and pleasures of existing in today’s world.

Overall Recommendation

A poignant collection of essays about different moments and time periods in Constance’s life, I thoroughly enjoyed the personal stories and lessons she drew from all these experiences she’s documented. Looking at both her childhood and the people/places that have shaped her into the woman she is, this isn’t just a book about being Asian in Hollywood but a well rounded story of the heart of Constance Wu and that makes it ever more so worth reading.

CW: sexual harassment, rape, suicide

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5 star, adult

Review: I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

A heartbreaking and hilarious memoir by Jennette McCurdy about her struggles as a former child actor—including eating disorders, addiction, and a complicated relationship with her overbearing mother—and how she retook control of her life. 

Jennette McCurdy was six years old when she had her first acting audition. Her mother’s dream was for her only daughter to become a star, and Jennette would do anything to make her mother happy. So she went along with what Mom called “calorie restriction,” eating little and weighing herself five times a day. She endured extensive at-home makeovers while Mom chided, “Your eyelashes are invisible, okay? You think Dakota Fanning doesn’t tint hers?” She was even showered by Mom until age sixteen while sharing her diaries, email, and all her income.

In I’m Glad My Mom Died, Jennette recounts all this in unflinching detail—just as she chronicles what happens when the dream finally comes true. Cast in a new Nickelodeon series called iCarly, she is thrust into fame. Though Mom is ecstatic, emailing fan club moderators and getting on a first-name basis with the paparazzi (“Hi Gale!”), Jennette is riddled with anxiety, shame, and self-loathing, which manifest into eating disorders, addiction, and a series of unhealthy relationships. These issues only get worse when, soon after taking the lead in the iCarlyspinoff Sam & Cat alongside Ariana Grande, her mother dies of cancer. Finally, after discovering therapy and quitting acting, Jennette embarks on recovery and decides for the first time in her life what she really wants.

Told with refreshing candor and dark humor, I’m Glad My Mom Died is an inspiring story of resilience, independence, and the joy of shampooing your own hair.

Overall Recommendation

Jennette McCurdy’s memoir is heartbreaking and consequently empowering to read. From trauma instilled from childhood, her story to where she is now is beyond her celebrity status but the very real journey towards finding herself amidst the experiences she survived. I wished this wasn’t all true half the time but it’s worthwhile to read at the end of the day. She deserves all the success in the world, and it’s really no wonder this book is a #1 seller.

TW: eating disorders, emotional abuse by a parent, alcoholism

Where does one begin to review a memoir, especially to such a calibre as Jennette’s? I’m Glad My Mom Died was eloquently written, taking us with Jennette from her childhood to her young adulthood, and showed the trajectory of recovery for someone who went through so much to get to where she is now. While the title may scream shocking for “wow” factor or something, I won’t deny its attention-grabbing ability but in reality, it seems like a fitting title for everything that transpired within its pages.

I don’t know about you but I grew up watching iCarly. It was one of the few childhood shows I was allowed to watch that wasn’t deemed “educational” by my parents. In part, I wanted to watch it for Miranda Cosgrove but I really liked what I saw of Jennette. Little did we (and even her costars) knew, things are rarely as they seem on the surface level.

I love how the writing is in present tense, like we’re seeing and feeling all of it with her in the moment without the hindsight knowledge. Each scene or moment that Jennette takes us to in her life are contained within the chapter it’s in and never crosses over midway to another chapter. There were many chapters but each was short and digestible in that way. I mean, most chapters took a while to even fully comprehend and process just what happened to her, so the short chapters (all 90 or so of them) helped me get through the hardest chapters to read.

My heart broke multiple times at the experiences and ways she bent over backwards to fulfill what was broken in adults (!!) around her when she was still just a child in every sense of the word. To say she is a strong person is not worded strongly enough. Seeing her document parts of her recovery hopefully gives hope to others who faced/currently faces similar demons or circumstances.

Most importantly, and I will end with this, the overall theme in this memoir to me is about finding yourself. It may seem callous to say her mother dying was the best thing for her, but in all honesty, it was the only way for her to truly become the woman she wants to be. And I’m so darn happy for her because she’s deserving of figuring out what is best for her based off of what she wants alone. That is worth celebrating.

4 star, adult

Review: I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara

A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by Michelle’s lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer. 

I don’t often (or ever, really) foray into true crime because it’s hard to know these are real families’ tragedies and pains that I’m reading about. These are very real people whose lives were upended and very real hurt that may still haunt those that remain to this day.

But I will say that there is a certain appeal to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark that made it such a bestseller when it first came out. I remember seeing it on the shelves at the time as I was still a bookseller then. It drew people in and I couldn’t fathom why. The killer hadn’t even been caught and isn’t that what should matter most? Where is the justice? It’s like a whodunnit story without the ending.

Then I picked up this gem years later and I can totally understand why it drew people as it did. It’s the work of a marvellous writer who not only knew the subject matter of these crimes inside and out, but she cared about the victims and their families too. It wasn’t about the fame or to glorify the inhumane acts done to another human being. It wasn’t even to focus on the killer only.

Because the killer isn’t what maters. It’s the stories of those who were impacted by the actions of such evil.

And that is what makes this a good book. It takes a certain writer to be able to balance the human side of the story without overly emphasizing the horrendous acts alone.

I loved the way we get to read (or hear in my case with the audiobook) the facts around certain crimes (and I do say certain because there were many), and the hunt led by various law enforcement over the decades for a killer that continued to elude them. It painted a picture, but it was also respectful towards the victims and their loved ones. Names were replaced for surviving individuals and there was no particular attention paid towards the gore of the crimes.

The book didn’t go chronologically based on when crimes committed. This made it kind of confusing for me at first but I think I understand why Michelle McNamara (and the people who put this book together afterwards) may have gone this route. Cops didn’t know who was victim 0 or if certain crimes were truly connected at the time across jurisdictional boundaries. It’s not supposed to make sense like a story because this isn’t fiction. Once I tried seeing it this way, I have so much respect for Michelle and the police who spent so many countless hours working through the myriad of information in understanding even a little about this killer.

All of this is to say that I appreciate the breadth of work done here. This was an amazing legacy to leave behind for Michelle McNamara never got to see her work come out before she passed away suddenly. We see her heart in this and for the people impacted. It’s not only a story about the Golden State Killer (a name she coined) and his victims, but more about Michelle herself. And I think this is what made the story all the more compelling.

Whether people debate how much of her work truly influenced the eventual arrest of the Golden State Killer, I think we can see she never wanted (and now never will see) the spotlight but only asked for justice to rain down. And either way, her work helped motivate those wearied from such a cold case and incited fresh inspiration for those who wanted to help in any way they could. That cannot be negated.

So take a look at this book that is unlike many others out there. It doesn’t promise answers or even a resolution. It’s truly just a grab in the dark, hope against hope chronicle of Michelle’s journey to finding the Golden State Killer.

Overall Recommendation:

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a testament and legacy of an incredible writer, Michelle McNamara, in her ruthless search for the truth behind so many numerous crimes in California in the 1970s and 80s. The writing is respectful towards the families impacted and doesn’t focus only on the killer. In fact, this book is more unveiling of Michelle’s own character and story as she dives into the work numerous law enforcement officers have tried to piece together throughout the decades. This is a wonderful insight into a cold case that didn’t have resolution nor answer until after its release and the unfortunate passing of the writer. But what a legacy she leaves behind, perhaps inspiring multitudes of others after her.