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Book Reviews Actress Amy Poehler shines bright in her new memoir, Yes Please

Poehler is honest and revealing.

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Title
Yes Please
Author
Amy Poehler
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Harper Avenue
Pages
329 pages
Price
$32.99
Year
2014

There was a great joke on last year's Halloween episode of Parks and Recreation, the hug-warm NBC show starring and produced by Amy Poehler: when Annabel Porter, Pawnee's version of a Gwyneth Paltrow-glossy lifestyle guru, appears on a local talk show, the host says "Can I just say, as a journalist, I feel like we're best friends."

Poehler, like the few other women who propel critically adored comedies – Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, and Mindy Kaling – is everyone's "best friend." She could just as easily be considered alongside other impov savants (she co-founded the Upright Citizens Brigade), other Saturday Night Live alumnae (where she co-hosted Weekend Update) or other too-busy verticalists (she is an executive producer of the Comedy Central stoner series Broad City, co-founded the website Smart Girls at the Party, and writes, directs, acts and kills it in any capacity at award shows), but it's the aspirational and expectant bestie-status projected onto her, Fey, Dunham and Kaling that casts the longest shadow. Women want so much and so justifiably to see versions of their lives on TV that when someone appears, hilarious and real and in high-def, the collective feelings and demands and criticism – we eat our own – are just way too much.

Still, Poehler has it easier than Dunham and Kaling, whose shows Girls and The Mindy Project, respectively, are understood to more closely approximate their real lives and their characters themselves; Dunham and Kaling's tweets, bodies, politics and business decisions are monitored and evaluated online at the rate of a reload; Fey's 30 Rock constantly sent up both sexism and third-wave feminism, and Tina and her TV-proxy Liz Lemon got theirs. Poehler's Parks character plays to her huge talent and apparent empathy as a performer, but no real person is like Leslie Knope, and so the white-blonde bestie hasn't been subject to the worst of it all.

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Maybe this differential is related, or maybe it isn't, to Yes Please. Poehler's first is also the latest book in a niche market of piece-y origin stories – more monologue than traditional autobiography – and anecdotal advice on work and life, written in the echt social-media style, where author and audience are, obvi, best friends. The typical problem of this kind of book, by someone famous for performing or writing in other capacities, is that they read like a secondary – or, more likely, tertiary – creative to-do, without a centre of purpose other than brand extension. (And, when continued BFF-success can mean providing candy-handfuls of girly intimacy without alienating readers with anything tense or ungrateful or weird, there's less – no? – motivation to really try things in a memoir that fans will buy anyway.)

Yes Please, though, is honest and revealing in a particular and important way, not with the sweaty tabloid deets (she mentions both her ex-husband and her current boyfriend only briefly), or provocations meant to pop and fizz, but with a fulsome sense of Poehler's life – a life – between a blue-collar childhood in Boston and forty-whatever, between a bootstraps kind of work ethic in a rollerskates kind of career. (She writes "I like hard work and I don't like pretending things are perfect.") It's also very funny, but we knew that going in.

While Poehler doesn't always seem to know exactly what she wants to say, and includes too much apologia to that end, she demonstrates an anxious, psyched-up interest in connecting, even and especially on the topics that most people in her position would and have left out: the purposes and problems of building something with your friends; partying; the actual effort and steel involved in making a big career; how parenting explodes your heart. A chapter about undoing the knots of a mistake she made includes the e-mails, the emotional negotiations and narratives, and the detail and colour of (yeah) your best friend's best stories.

While the uniting philosophy of the book is about making the coolest use of life's possibilities and pressures, and about doing and industry – yes, please! – it's also about the essential "no, definitely not" that's part of creative work. In a chapter called I'm So Proud of You ( "I don't think a man who is fifteen years younger than me should tell me he is proud of me unless he is my sober coach or my time-travel dad"), Poehler describes what happened when she was taping a speech for an event, and her kicker got cut off; after pointing out the missed cue, a producer says "Relax, it was great." He later asks her to do it over; when she says no, the producer asks – because of course he does – if she's sure: "he had heard my no but was still asking." It ends, though, not with an easy, slap-five triumph but with Poehler agreeing to give the producer a hug. She writes "Do you think he would have hugged a male performer? Me neither. Either way, it never ends." That it never ends is not a message usually sent by women working in male-dominated spaces and offering up their advice; they're too used to absorbing the uncomfortable remainders of these experiences, so used to it we don't even notice. Poehler's quicksilver quality, her all-in engagement with chaos and dumb-assery and joy, excludes nothing.

Elsewhere, she writes "I am interested in people who swim in the deep end. I want to have conversations about real things with people who have experienced real things." Yes: this, please.

Kate Carraway is a Toronto writer. Follow her on Twitter @KateCarraway.

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