In these polarized times, even liberal book buyers, the kind whose nostalgia has fueled a cottage industry of books from former aides to President Barack Obama, have been split into two groups: those who care about Alyssa Mastromonaco’s irritable bowel syndrome and those who do not.
If you do not wish to learn that Obama’s deputy chief of staff for operations got crippling diarrhea on several continents, and must eat a bland breakfast of muesli and carry Gas-X and ginger chews in her purse, then Mastromonaco’s buoyant memoir/extended advice column, “So Here’s the Thing…,” may not be for you.
But for young women with dreams of working in the White House, there’s nothing bland about Mastromonaco’s story. Her audiobook narration sounds like a quirky, successful girlfriend offering unsolicited, occasionally useful, always funny life and career advice.
In addition to the I.B.S., she also suffers from “deliciously painful period zits” each month and tends to forget tampons (who among us?), describing herself as a “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-(stained)-pants kind of girl.” Senior White House staff — they’re just like us!
Mastromonaco gets that her oversharing isn’t for everyone. Scanning Amazon reviews of her first White House memoir, she reads responses like “Gross!” and “#TMI.” But if there is one lesson to take away from “So Here’s the Thing,” it’s that we should all lean in to #TMI.
Co-written (but not co-narrated) with Lauren Oyler in a breezy, engaging voice, the prose seems to be trying (maybe too hard) to emulate Nora Ephron, though it’s unclear whether it’s Mastromonaco or her co-author with the gift of gab.
“So Here’s the Thing,” named after a habitual phrase Mastromonaco uses in meetings, weaves in requisite dollops of Obama hagiography. She devotes an entire chapter to “Why You Should Always Listen to Michelle Obama.”
Mastromonaco comes off as spunky and down-to-earth, describing how she went from babysitter and grocery-store bagger to political director for then-Senator Obama. And yet reading about her upbringing in Rhinebeck, N.Y., I started to think of some of Mastromonaco’s dilemmas as Problems I Wish I Had: Her dad gifted her multiple cars well into adulthood, including a “hideously ugly teal Corolla” that she drove to work for Senator John Kerry. She stresses that her perfect husband, David Krone, was so much wealthier than she was (there are Mr. Big comparisons). Would her 14-pound cat and hodgepodge of knickknacks have a place in his elegantly decorated 3,000-square-foot home? “I mean, Crate & Barrel is nice but it’s not that nice.” It’s not?
If anyone should come off as privileged, it’s Amber Tamblyn, an actor whose entire life, starting with a role on “General Hospital” when she was 11, has revolved around a tableau of Hollywood glitz. And yet in “Era of Ignition,” Tamblyn recognizes on every page that being white, wealthy and cisgender makes her an inherently unreliable narrator.
The admission of her own blind spots makes this manifesto of female empowerment all the more powerful. Tamblyn, who brings her forceful, theatrical voice to reading her own audiobook, doesn’t hold back on deeply personal, often gripping anecdotes. But where Mastromonaco employs levity and aplomb to charm readers, Tamblyn writes with a gnawing, visceral directness to thrust them into action.
Tamblyn opens with an instant gut punch, describing how, at 29, she told her husband that she was pregnant and planning to terminate. “I cannot remember any other time in my life when I had inflicted this type of pain on another person.”
When she was 21, an ex-boyfriend dragged her out of a club by her neck and vagina shouting, “This is mine.” Tamblyn relayed the story on Instagram in 2016 when Trump was heard on tape bragging about groping women. The news media condemned Tamblyn’s “sexual assault,” and she “realized I had never called it that before, not even in my own head.”
What followed was an awakening. She realized that so many trials of her career had to do with her gender. At one point her agent urged her to lose weight (she was 5-foot-7 and 120 pounds), pointing to Nicole Kidman’s body as the platonic ideal. It all seemed like Hollywood as usual until the 2016 election, when she says the current “era of ignition” kicked off.
Tamblyn, a die-hard Hillary supporter, describes a scene at the Javits Center on election night. Pregnant with her daughter, she sipped liquid Zantac as other celebrity supporters including Katy Perry and Amy Schumer downed chardonnay. As election night goes from bad to worse, Tamblyn has the “dark realization” that she would bring her daughter into a “world of deeply ingrained misogyny.”
Then came the Women’s March and #MeToo stories. Tamblyn channeled her rage into helping found the Time’s Up movement, her newborn baby inspiring her every step: “After having Marlow, I was thrust from my own self-centered wallowing into a sort of permanent projectile optimism.”
Tamblyn scoffs at the idea of a sisterhood: “Who hates women more than Donald Trump does? Other women.” She is particularly hard on white feminists, including herself, whom she calls on to “accept that we are guilty of doing or saying something racist almost daily.”
To that end, Tamblyn turns chapters over to Meredith Talusan, a nonbinary transgender author, and to the poet Airea D. Matthews, whose languid voice explains the “persistent alienation” felt by black women.
That alienation is something that Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and longtime senior adviser to President Obama, grapples with in “Finding My Voice.” Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran, where her father worked as a doctor. Back in Chicago, the fight for civil rights flared, but Jarrett lived in a lovely house in cosmopolitan comfort. “While black people in America were marching for the right to enjoy public pools and parks, our neighborhood had lush green spaces where I could run and play and a big blue swimming pool.” Later she learns that her father moved the family the 7,000 miles from Chicago’s South Side because of Jim Crow; he couldn’t practice pathology in most American hospitals.
Jarrett is such an Obama-era fixture that it’s easy to forget she’d been a trailblazer well before that fateful résumé of a promising young Harvard Law grad named Michelle Robinson landed on her desk in 1991. That interview, of course, led to Jarrett’s introduction to Michelle’s then-fiancé, Barack Obama, and a legendary political alliance (and friendship) was born.
Not surprisingly, Jarrett devotes much of her story to this relationship, providing behind-the-scenes color (sometimes too much) on Obama’s rise and a greatest-hits reel of his administration. She doesn’t mince words, however, about the “general macho atmosphere” that permeated the West Wing in the early months of their tenure.
It’s obvious in Jarrett’s narration that she isn’t as comfortable with #TMI as Mastromonaco, nor as practiced a performer as Tamblyn, but that makes the intimate moments she does share, in a familiar yet professional voice, all the more evocative. Like the times Obama, sensing correctly that Jarrett was going through a menopausal hot flash, would crank up the A.C. in the car and silently hand her a handkerchief. “He just knew.”
Jarrett had charted an ideal path for herself — “law school, work, marriage, baby, bliss.” Then her marriage to “Bobby” (Dr. William Robert Jarrett, who died in 1993) imploded. She was a single mom and a miserable, mediocre associate at a law firm. The separation and subsequent soul-searching (“my plans were crumbling around me”) prompted her to leave the firm and climb into Chicago politics. The rest was history.
Like Mastromonaco’s story of hustling her way to the White House from bagging groceries, and Tamblyn’s tale of enduring body shaming and industry abuse before discovering the activist within her, Jarrett’s early struggles relay a similar life lesson. Her early, mistaken view was that “it was somehow a sign of strength if I had the self-control to never waver from my intended course.” For all three authors, it was precisely the wavering that led them to where they are.