While it's easy to dismiss celebrity memoirs as offering cheap, voyeuristic thrills into the lives of famous people we like the look of, when they're done well, they can give insight into challenges we all grapple with as human beings. They can also be very funny. Sharon Marcus, professor of literature at Columbia University and author of The Drama of Celebrity, recommends the best new celebrity memoirs.
Before we get to the ones you’ve chosen as the best of the year, could you give us a sense of what qualities you were looking for when you were selecting these celebrity memoirs?
My criteria had to change as I read because I’m going to be upfront: if you’re looking for great writing, celebrity memoirs are not going to be your first stop. One of the first books I read, This Much is True by Miriam Margolyes, was charming and edifying, but not particularly well written. Margolyes is an improvisatory comic, and her funny voice came through, but during the pandemic, she decided she’d sit down, put some pen to paper and have some thoughts. The result is charming but diffuse.
Unless the celebrity in question is a celebrated writer—and these days, few writers are famous enough to count as celebrities—they’re unlikely to produce a really well-written memoir. So, caveat emptor: I ended up letting go of the criterion of great writing. I enjoyed all the books that I selected as my top five, and I think they were among the best written of this year’s crop (often thanks to the celebrity’s professional co-writer), but if you want a really well-written memoir, I recommend Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions.
What are we looking for in a celebrity memoir, then?
Most people read celebrity memoirs because they’re interested in the celebrity and want to learn more about them. That almost always ends in disappointment. Celebrities use memoirs to hone a very idealized and selective vision of their private lives. They say, ‘Oh, here’s something I’ve never told anyone.’ But they’re being very careful to share only what they feel comfortable telling everyone. The idea that celebrity memoirs offer a more authentic view of celebrities is a fantasy.
Some books cater to that fantasy. Television anchor Katie Couric, in the prologue to her memoir Going There, writes, “It’s magical, television; I know it made my dreams come true. But it is not the whole story, and it is not the whole me. This book is.” I laughed, it was so absurd. How could that possibly be true? And do I even want to know anyone’s “whole story”?
Everybody who’s studied autobiography as a genre knows that it’s not a truth-telling genre, it’s an image-shaping genre. People use autobiography to make sense of lives that were far more chaotic than the narrative suggests. Most autobiographers make themselves look better than they really are. One quality shared by great memoirists is that they’re willing to make themselves look bad. That’s something Augustine did in his Confessions and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his. The celebrity memoirs I picked don’t exactly do that, but they tend to be open about mistakes they made.
I recommend that people adjust their expectations and go to celebrity memoirs to experience the celebrity as a celebrity. Enjoy the highly curated peek behind the public image – as in those carefully edited ‘making of’ films that take us behind the scenes to watch people who know they are being filmed. We are still only seeing what the celebrity wants us to see; but if we like them, that’s exactly what we crave, not some blistering exposé.
Another reason to read a celebrity memoir is to put the recent past into historical perspective. Celebrity memoirists have usually been pivotal in some area: sports, entertainment, politics, performance, art. If you’re interested in the history of ballet, a ballerina’s memoir (like this year’s Swan Dive, by Georgina Pazcoguin) will give you more access to their thoughts and feelings about the dance world than a biography or historical account would.
“I found the self-help aspects of these books refreshing and interesting”
Some people like their history panoramic, but individual lives offer just as much insight into the past. Celebrities are interesting because they’re usually neither extraordinary individuals shaping world history nor ordinary humdrum people caught up in it. If I want to learn about what it was like to live through World War Two, I’m going to get a very different perspective if I read an autobiography by Margot Fonteyn than one by Winston Churchill.
Some celebrities write memoirs to influence how history will record them. Katie Couric, for example, writes to establish her place as one of the first women to anchor nightly news. She also seemed very concerned to shape how history will judge her marriage to a man who participated in Civil War reenactments (on the Confederate side) and her close involvement with men whom the Me Too movement revealed to be serial sexual assailants. She noted that she herself was the victim of a lot of harassment that she had never protested because, like almost everyone around her, she was afraid of repercussions that would destroy her career. Her account seemed designed to settle scores—not so much with people from her past, but with future readers who will be judging her ten or twenty years from now.
A final reason people write and read celebrity memoirs these days is that many of them are self-help books in disguise – which might be especially useful for people who would not consciously choose to read a self-help book. Jamie Foxx’s Act Like You Got Some Sense was the most overt about being a self-help book. It’s about the lessons he learned about parenting from his own experience as a parent, from the people who parented him, and from his daughters.
I found the self-help aspects of these books refreshing and interesting. Most of the books I chose are by people who, though now successful and sometimes even very wealthy, grew up in challenging circumstances, and still face lots of challenges. They’re very upfront about that. They say how lucky and privileged they are, and they also share how even with all the resources they now enjoy, they still struggle with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and relationship issues. By doing that, they make it easier for other people to feel okay about struggling. They also show that not only does money not solve everything, it can be its own curse. That is the theme of one of the most advertised celebrity biographies of the year, Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe’s Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, which shows that money not only didn’t solve that family’s problems, it created and exacerbated many of them.
How would you say this year’s celebrity memoirs compare to the past?
After the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, and the Black Lives Matter protests, many industries went through a process of self-examination around structural racism, sometimes superficial, sometimes fairly consequential. Many publishers committed to trying to publish more books by people in underrepresented groups. As a result, there were a lot of books this year by African American celebrities. I would guess the number is higher than five years ago.
In the United States, celebrity often fuels a myth of upward mobility and equal opportunity for all. The memoirs I read this year by Black people are careful not to do that. Basketball star Carmelo Anthony’s memoir, Where Tomorrows Aren’t Promised, focuses on growing up in Red Hook and Baltimore with racism and police brutality. I think he wrote the book in part for young Black boys who admire him as a basketball star to see their stories reflected in him. He refuses to promote the notion that in the United States, anyone can become a star. Instead, he uses his platform as a celebrity to point out how unequal things are. He talks about the trauma of living in communities riven by violence and how there’s no space for people in those communities to express or even experience their pain. He shares his struggles with depression and how difficult it was for him to seek therapy.
Let’s turn to the books you’ve chosen. There were two you thought were standouts and then three others that are good. Let’s start with your top choice, Will, by the American actor Will Smith. What did you like about it?
I thought Will Smith’s memoir was really, really good. He had an excellent co-writer, Mark Manson. Some people might say, ‘Oh, Will Smith’s memoir is only good because Mark Manson wrote it’—people often tend to belittle celebrities for not being 100% responsible for their own success. That’s not the right way to think about it. Will Smith recognizes talent, picked an amazing co-writer, and deserves credit for that, too.
What I liked most about Will was Smith’s self-awareness and self-analysis. He’s very upfront about how his emotional limitations motivated him to become a celebrity. He foregrounds his growth and change as a person, even recounting some of his therapy sessions. He shares insights about what made him a celebrity and kept him a celebrity.
The book stresses how he was shaped by growing up in a household where his father was violent towards his mother. Early on, he writes about having a childhood defined by fear and shame about his fear, specifically his failure to protect his mother against his father, which is a very typical response; children in that situation tend to feel like they should be stopping the violence, and if they aren’t, it’s their fault.
He talks about how he responded to the family situation by becoming an entertainer and trying to be funny. All of this ended up inflecting his early days as a performer: he would perform in order to get love because he equated making people laugh with being loved. He writes, “To me, love was a performance, so if you weren’t clapping, I was failing.” He points out that this also makes for unhealthy relationships because he craved constant applause. It was a bottomless pit: there was no end to the amount of love that he needed.
The early chapters are deeply shocking, with him talking about ‘Daddio,’ as he calls him.
Maybe less so to me. I grew up in a household with domestic violence so intense and frequent that police were often called to my house. I appreciated reading about someone else who grew up in a similar situation. It’s more common than we acknowledge and it’s always better to talk about realities than to hide them. I appreciated him talking about how much it shaped him in adulthood, how it made him hypervigilant. He describes a moment early in his career where he was in a meeting with an executive challenging something about Smith’s show. He and three of his friends, who were from the same community, started getting really tense, worried that the guy was about to physically attack them. He realizes soon after that he had completely misread the situation, that he has to train himself to understand that not the whole world is his father.
So what, in his view, made and kept him a celebrity?
First, he attributes his skill at becoming a celebrity to coping mechanisms he developed in his family: his need for approval and his hypervigilance made him unusually attuned to what audiences wanted. He was literally a crowd-pleaser.
Second, he discovered, when he first heard rap music, that he had a talent for crafting words and an affinity with a form that was taking off when he was a young man. Most big stars coincide with a new medium or technology that fits their skills. The 19th-century French global celebrity Sarah Bernhardt was not only a great actor; her career also coincided with the moment when photography, steamships, and train travel made it easy for the world to learn about her.
I began to listen to rap music in the 1980s and reading Will helped me to organize that piecemeal listening into a historical narrative. I’d forgotten how stigmatized rap was in those early days. Smith reminded me how radio stations would have taglines like ‘all music, no rap.’ When the Grammy Awards first instituted an award for rap music, they didn’t televise that particular segment of the ceremony. People who performed rap were threatened with jail, especially in the South, and had to go to court to be able to exercise their First Amendment rights. The Four Seasons wouldn’t let touring rap artists stay at their hotels. At one point, he describes someone who broadcast 2 Live Crew from offshore to get around an FCC ban on profanity.
“In the United States, celebrity often fuels a myth of upward mobility and equal opportunity for all”
Will Smith realized there was a spot for a rapper who was goofier and more clean-cut than many of the biggest stars. Because people weren’t afraid that he was going to start cursing, he got more radio spots. Even as a teenager, he combined musical talent with business acumen. Celebrities are not just singers, actors, athletes: they are also entrepreneurs whose product is themselves. Every big star is as good at being a celebrity as they are at dancing or playing a sport or rapping or acting.
Smith was even more strategic about maintaining and increasing his celebrity. Who becomes a star is fairly arbitrary. But once celebrity is attained, what separates the megastars from the flashes in the pan is their ability to analyze and leverage how celebrity works. Smith is very upfront about being extremely ambitious and wanting to be the biggest star possible. That’s why, in the 1990s, he shifted from TV to movies, at a time when movie stardom mattered far more than TV stardom. Before shifting to film acting, he analyzed the highest grossing movies of all time. All of them had special effects, creatures, and love stories. He decided to do Men in Black because it had all three elements. Similarly, he describes being at an event where he sees Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, all at the height of their movie star fame. He went up to them and said, ‘I want to do what you do. What’s your secret?’ Schwarzenegger responded, “You are not a movie star if your movies are only successful in America. … Think of yourself as a politician running for Biggest Movie Star in the World.”
Smith saw Tom Cruise doing global publicity and thought, ‘I want to be bigger than him. What can I do that Tom Cruise can’t?’ He realizes that he has something Tom Cruise lacks: he can sing. Tom Cruise couldn’t promote his movie in Spain and say, ‘I’m going to do a live concert outside the theater for people who couldn’t get in because the movie sold out.’ Will Smith did that. He notes that those crowded live performances then got covered in the news, which further extended his stardom. As he puts it, “In my mind, I was never promoting a movie – I was using their $150,000,000 to promote me.”
After he established himself as a star of comedies and action films, he shifted to more dramatic roles. And then, in middle age, he realized that none of what he had achieved as a celebrity was equivalent to personal growth. In fact, it was often detrimental to it. He had substituted making money for his family for being there for them.
The end of the memoir focuses on how he finally learned not to define himself only in terms of work and success. Some may say, ‘Oh, boohoo, you’re a multi-millionaire, how tough for you to have to have to learn not to define yourself by work.’ I disagree. I think that the United States is overly obsessed with work and that is most visible when we look at those who actually could afford to take it easy. I find it dispiriting to see privileged, wealthy people not know how to find meaning or self-worth outside of work. Good for Will Smith for sharing how challenging it was for him to learn how to stop working, even for a day.
Finally, some readers feel that Will overshared about Smith’s sex life, but I say it’s not really a celebrity memoir until someone overshares about their sex life.
Let’s move on to the other celebrity memoir in your top two.
The other book I thought was truly extraordinary was Tarana Burke’s Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement. Burke is the activist and community organizer who coined the phrase ‘Me Too’ while working with Black women and girls to heal from sexual assault. Her book tells the story of how she came to the key insight of that work: you can’t empathize with others unless you empathize with yourself. She writes: “if unkindness is indeed a serial killer, then my revelation is that I was my own murderer.” She describes how she was only able to help others effectively after she opened up to them about also having been a victim. That way, the women she talked with knew they were not alone, and they could see that she had survived, which gave them hope.
Burke writes about having been sexually assaulted by an older boy in her neighborhood when she was 12. She didn’t tell anyone and very quickly internalized it as something bad that happened to her because she was bad. The main focus of the book is her relationships to other women: women who let her down by protecting men who sexually assaulted girls and women, and the women she let down, as a teenager, by being cruel and even violent towards them, and as an adult, by not yet being able to hear their stories. A pivotal moment in her account describes a girl in a program for young leaders telling Burke that she was assaulted. Burke completely shuts down and can’t help her. This puts her on the path to realizing that if she can’t embrace what happened to her and face it instead of compartmentalizing it, she’ll never be able to help the people who matter to her. She writes, “I didn’t see my story as my gift, only as my shame.” She’s not glad that it happened, but she sees that having been assaulted enables her to connect to the many other women who’ve been assaulted, to help them heal and thrive.
Does the history of Me Too come into it?
The book opens with the Me Too hashtag going viral, but it ends well before the Me Too movement takes off, around the time Burke moves to Philadelphia with her daughter. The arc of the story is not so much about what led to the Me Too movement but about what led Burke to the insights that undergird it. The key moment is when Burke finally experiences the pain of her assault. As is common with trauma, she didn’t fully experience it at the time, she just shut it away. Finally, as an adult, she takes a week to let herself collapse and dissolve: it’s like a nervous breakdown, but also like a religious conversion. She emerges from this harrowing experience with a new sense of purpose and a vision of what she has to do.
Another arc of the book has to do with relationships between women, which Burke treats as even more central to feminist politics than women’s relationships to men. The very end of the story narrates her reconciliation with her mother. (A lot of the best celebrity memoirs of 2021 focus on parent-child relationships. That’s another thing you get from reading them: detailed accounts of family dynamics, which interest me as an avid reader of novels.) Tarana Burke’s mother was in many ways very supportive, but she was also controlling, and a strict disciplinarian who rarely made room for her daughter to talk about feelings or pain or anything imperfect. Life was about surviving and making sure you didn’t get in trouble.
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In the final pages of Unbound, Burke describes going with her mother to an event in her childhood neighborhood. While there, she sees the man who assaulted her. He doesn’t recognize her. She sits in the car with her mother—whom she has, at this point, finally told about what happened to her—and says, ‘I can’t believe he didn’t recognize me, this man who in many ways defined my life. Am I so meaningless that he can’t even see me?’ And her mother says: “’he didn’t recognize you because you turned out to be a smart, beautiful, accomplished woman despite him trying to take that from you.’” At this moment, Burke finally feels truly seen by her mother. One of Burke’s points throughout the book is that the violence men inflict on women drives a wedge between women, including between mothers and daughters. As the book ends, we see how all the work that Tarana Burke has done with others and on herself has finally allowed her and her mother to have a much better relationship.
Let’s turn to the remaining three celebrity memoirs you’re recommending. As you already mentioned it at the beginning, why don’t we start with the memoir by the actress Miriam Margolyes?
Miriam Margolyes is the oldest person in this group, born in 1941. As someone who studies Victorian literature I knew about her performance of Dickens’s Women, but I haven’t seen her in much. She has a very distinct persona, out of control, ribald, even a bit obscene. She’s not known for being a careful person who’s concerned about what people think; in fact, she likes to shock, and the book’s unbuttoned quality plays to that image.
Margolyes grew up Jewish in England, and talks quite a bit about that. She has identified as a lesbian since she was in high school and was fairly out at a young age, which was unusual for her generation; it’s rare to read about women who were openly gay before the 1970s. She describes forming a group called ‘gay Yids’ in the 60s and wearing a ‘gay Yids’ button to the BBC when she did voice work there in 1965. From a gossipy point of view, I learned about a lot of women in the theater who didn’t necessarily identify as lesbians but had a lot of affairs with women.
When I talk to young women today about sexual identity, I’m surprised to learn how many of them feel they can’t call themselves lesbians if they’ve ever slept with a man or might ever want to sleep with a man. I’m going to start recommending that they read Miriam Margolyes, because she is not worrying about this one bit. She identifies 100% as a lesbian, because women are who she really cares about, and she has also had sex with a lot of men. By her account, it sounds like her main hobby while a student at Cambridge was giving blow jobs. She has had an unconventional sex life in multiple ways; she and her partner of decades have never lived together. She has interesting things to say about the varied reasons she had sex with men and women: she liked the attention; it made her feel powerful; she was bored. She tells a story of how, late in life, she came across a man masturbating in a park. He sees her and keeps masturbating because he’s an exhibitionist. Instead of screaming or running away or chastising him, she says, ‘Let me help you with that.’ And she does.
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If you want to read about a person who truly isn’t like most other people, you will enjoy this book. That said, the book is somewhat disorganized. It’s mostly chronological, but then there’ll be a chapter about her thoughts on Zionism. Reading This Much Is True is like hanging out with an aunt who’s had a little too much to drink and is letting it all hang out. I thought it was fantastic. At one point, she says, apropos of nothing, “I’ve always felt that smoked salmon was an essential ingredient of any social occasion. But it must, like a woman, be moist.”
This too, is a self-help book in disguise, by which I mean: a guide to living. Margolyes has interesting things to say about failure and success, about facing and overcoming challenges. She was never a megastar, but always earned a living doing voice work and acting, despite not being conventionally beautiful, which for women usually severely limits their ability to make a living as performers.
Let’s talk about This Will All Be Over Soon by US comedian Cecily Strong.
This is a very different book than the others. It is mostly written in the present tense. Many of the short chapters are addressed to Strong’s young cousin, Owen, who dies of brain cancer just as COVID starts spreading in New York City. Other chapters are addressed to a generalized ‘you’. Much of the book takes the form of diary entries taking us through the first year of the pandemic, with Strong living in New York and navigating a relationship with a man she meets right before New York City goes into lockdown. Many of the diary entries include extended flashbacks recounting Strong’s childhood, education, and work as a Saturday Night Live cast member.
This Will All Be Over Soon is a short book by a highly emotional person who often provides a blow-by-blow account of her feelings. Strong describes having a lot of anxiety and depression which make it difficult for her to get perspective on her emotions. This memoir reminded me of Abbie Jacobson’s 2018 memoir I Might Regret This. Jacobson is 38, Strong is 36. I think that many in this generation feel that the best way they can help other people is by being as forthright as possible about their own experiences and giving other people the space to do the same. That ethos isn’t for everyone. Some people really hated this book. I read some Amazon reviews that complained, ‘She’s so preoccupied with her feelings. I wanted to read this book to find out about how she became a star!’
“Celebrities are not just singers, actors, athletes: they are also entrepreneurs whose product is themselves”
This is not that kind of celebrity memoir (and Strong isn’t that big a star). Another Amazon reviewer wrote, I think quite accurately, ‘this book is so disorganized and free associative, it would never have been published if the author weren’t famous.’ That’s true, but I think it’s too bad that books like this have a hard time getting published when they’re written by regular folks. It would be great to read more accounts by ordinary people who kept journals during the first year of COVID. We often protectively forget what it felt like to live through a scary event. I know I have already started to forget what life was like in New York City during the first weeks of the pandemic. I appreciated Strong’s book as a historical account that helped me access my memories of that time.
There may be a personal element to my appreciation of Strong’s book. My wife of 20 years died of cancer in February 2019. Almost a year after that, when I was beginning to tiptoe back into some semblance of normalcy, the pandemic began. I appreciated reading a book about someone who endured a major loss that was not COVID-related and had to process that while living with the uncertainty of COVID. This book was actually recommended to me by a friend who lost her husband to cancer during the pandemic. Like her, I found it helpful as a reflection on what it’s like to contend with multiple forms of loss and grief.
It’s not an easy read. Strong is a comedian, but she doesn’t try to laugh her way through things. There are very few jokes, which seemed appropriate. I thought it was instructive to see that even a comedian won’t always use humor to cope. If we compare this book to Will Smith’s, where he reflects on how in his youth he often tried to address everything by being funny, we see how brave and mature Strong is in her willingness to treat loss and pain as genuinely sad.
Let’s go on to the last celebrity memoir you’ve recommended, Jamie Foxx Act Like You Got Some Sense: And Other Things My Daughters Taught Me. This is not just a memoir, but also a book about parenting.
I’ve always had a fondness for Jamie Foxx, and Act Like You Got Some Sense is a fun, well-written book. He picked a very good co-writer, Nick Chiles, who helps Foxx’s voice come through. This book is something of a tie-in to the Netflix show Foxx made with his daughter (who produced it) about a father-daughter relationship. As always, celebrity memoirs are part of the brand the celebrity is selling and are designed to make money. Rather than tsk-tsk and say, “that’s so terrible,” I’d ask whether the book is worth our money and time. I think this one is.
Act Like You Got Some Sense is a guide to parenting, told through stories that impart lessons Foxx learned about parenting, often by failing as a parent. I would especially recommend this book to mothers, who in my experience hold themselves to (or are held to) much higher standards than fathers. They know it’s impossible to be perfect, yet they still always feel like they’re failing. The main message of this book is that you’re inevitably going to fail, but it’s okay: the most important thing you can do as a parent is show up and be present. If you do that, your children will ultimately forgive your screw-ups. Foxx takes a jokey approach: “When you take the kid to school on Monday, you actually have to get up and take them again on Tuesday. Damn, they got to go every day?” But his joke captures the relentlessness and boredom of parenting and the unheroic nature of being a good parent; he helps us see that parents might not always give themselves credit for simply showing up, over and over again – but they should.
One reason Foxx can see the value of simply being there for his daughters is that his biological mother did not raise him but left him with her parents, and his father pretty much abandoned him. He eventually reconciles with his mother, but he doesn’t reconcile with his father, and decides not to attend his funeral. He says he had to think about what that meant to his children, whom he tries to teach the importance of forgiveness. On this score, he writes, “The lesson I have for my daughters is that sometimes you just have to let go of things, of people, of emotions that are weighing you down.”
What I also found interesting about the book is that he deliberately chose never to marry and to be a very involved parent. He has a daughter apiece with two women that he dated but never married. With the mothers’ cooperation, the girls were raised as sisters. I liked reading about a non-normative approach to family life and parenting. I’ve read many accounts of how people handled parenting after getting married and divorced, but few that describe someone who, not as a single parent, deliberately separated parenting from marriage and cohabitation. It’s useful to read about the nuts and bolts of being a good and thoughtful parent outside the framework of the nuclear family.
Is this the funniest of the celebrity memoirs you’ve recommended?
I would say so. The Will Smith book has carefully timed little jokes interspersed throughout and the Miriam Margolyes book is amusingly eccentric. Foxx’s book is structured as a series of short comedy sketches that are fables about how to be a good parent. Each chapter has a particular topic, such as ‘how do you handle children’s exposure to social media?’ The chapter then provides an extended anecdote, usually told in stand-up comic mode, that offers both a precept and a piece of practical advice.
Something else I appreciated about Foxx is that he explicitly says, “I am a feminist.” He makes this point not as an activist, but as a father of daughters. He notes that women are usually evaluated in terms of their physical appearance and talks about encouraging his daughters to be rewarded for things other than looking good. He says that as a realist, he aims to give his daughters tools for dealing with the challenges they will face as women, because even though women are equal to men, they’re not treated equally: “Women deal with a lot more shit than men.” It’s probably sad that I find it so refreshing to hear him say that, but it’s something I rarely hear men acknowledge unprompted. Foxx considers it part of his job as a father of daughters to help them navigate the world Tarana Burke described, one that routinely inflicts horrific damage on women.
Foxx’s book also has plenty to offer those interested in learning more about him as a person and understanding his path to celebrity. He writes a lot about his childhood, about his career, and about balancing work and family. Like Margolyes, he frames some of what he learned as lessons ordinary people could adapt to their situations. For example, he describes taking a required dance class in college. He’s terrible at executing steps, and doesn’t see how he is going to pass the class, which he needs for his major. But he can play the piano, so he offers to accompany the other students for course credit. He turns that experience into advice: ‘Whatever you want to do in life, figure out what your version of playing the piano is, and use what you’re already good at to succeed in something that you might find more challenging.’ A useful life hack, even for those of us who are never going to be Academy Award winners.
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