Voice to Books: Celebrity Authors
Celebrities often take an omnipotent position in modern society, acting as paragons, villains, and jesters of our time. Their opinions are met with adoration or disdain, satire, and protest. They influence style, commerce, and politics, and we, the readers, guide their rises and their falls. They walk the fine lines of artists, athletes, influencers, and journalists who must balance both media and fan judgment and constant watchful eyes. It is easy to see these people as something more than the rest of us, forget that they are human. This month’s Voice to Books showcases these celebrities that embody disproportionally underrepresented communities, celebrities that have struggled with poverty, racism, misogyny, trauma, and illness. Through their words, and those of their co-writers, they share their stories and reveal their vulnerabilities, reminding us that there is value in dreaming despite where, or what, you come from.
You Got Anything Stronger?: Stories, by Gabrielle Union, with Kevin Carr O’Leary
Reviewed by Yennie Cheung
Actress Gabrielle Union’s second essay collection reads like a sequel. Starting her first essay with a casual “So. Where were we?” she acknowledges the changes that have occurred since completing her debut collection, We’re Going to Need More Wine—changes already known to fans, such as the birth of her and husband Dwyane Wade’s child by surrogate and her stepdaughter’s coming out as trans. Because Union knows her audience, she provides plenty of typical celebrity memoir fodder, easily befriending readers with stories that vacillate between Hollywood glam, such as dance battles with Bruno Mars, and the hilariously absurd, like her mortifying first encounter with Janet Jackson.
Union’s biggest strength, however, is her ability to use her life experiences to advocate for causes and ideas that, while well-known to fans of Roxane Gay or bell hooks, may be less familiar to casual readers. Her writing is devastatingly frank as she describes experiencing PTSD after being raped and suicidal ideation triggered by perimenopause. In possibly her best marriage of pop culture and advocacy, Union analyzes one of her most iconic film roles, Isis in Bring It On. Despite her hard work of dismantling the script’s racist depictions of Black teens, she incisively notes the double standards that still exist in the film and laments her own failing in perpetuating them.
Here and in other essays, Union is too hard on herself, but her disappointments reveal an everywoman anxiety that makes her points about misogyny, racism, and sexuality relatable to all women. Even at her most vehement, she stays accessible by encouraging growth through both education and empathy. If anything, You Got Anything Stronger? sets the stage for a third book (completing a trilogy) balancing lighthearted fan service with social change through introspection, vulnerability, and, most importantly, kindness.
Over The Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love, by Jonathan Van Ness
Reviewed by Courtney Hunter-Stangler
Over the Top chronicles Jonathan Van Ness’s journey from childhood to Fab Five member on Netflix’s Emmy Award-winning reality television show Queer Eye. Known for empathy and radical vulnerability, Van Ness holds nothing back, graciously revealing every inch of their not-so-graceful journey in this memoir that dives deep into the struggles that forced them to learn the art of self-love after a turbulent childhood of living openly gay in rural Illinois.
Van Ness’s personality bleeds onto the page effortlessly, and we see a new side of them during their discussion of receiving an HIV diagnosis at twenty-five after having finally felt they were turning their life around. Van Ness had been working at a renowned hair salon in Los Angeles at the time, having overcome a cocaine habit that spiraled into methamphetamine addiction. He uses vivid and intimate details to describe the doctor at the clinic attempting to use that incredibly painful and private moment to teach interns how to deliver a diagnosis. The doctor’s inability to empathize with Van Ness, who clearly does not want his private life shared, has undoubtedly gone on to impact the trajectory of JVN’s career, one built on a pillar of deep empathy and acknowledgment that nobody is too broken to be treated with dignity.
At times, the book is surprisingly dark for someone that’s known for their intoxicating levity, but this only highlights the immense resilience behind a television personality that is well-known and loved. Through the honesty of his pain, Vann Ness successfully reframes the notion of what someone should be as a positive figure in media. Over the Top is an inspirational story that explores shame and self-worth in a way we can all relate to and learn from.
Troublemaker, by John Cho
Reviewed by Yennie Cheung
Troublemaker marks actor John Cho’s debut as a middle grade novelist, and it’s clear the storytelling sensibilities from his film career have guided him. Set in 1992 on the day of the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles, the book follows twelve-year-old Jordan who is at odds with his father and sneaks out of his home with a gun, hoping it will keep his dad safe in their family store in Koreatown during the uprising.
The novel moves with the pace of a script, the stakes steadily rising as Jordan and his friend, Mike, move through various locations in Koreatown. It alternates between action-packed moments and character-building scenes that allow Jordan to reflect on weighty subjects, such as his Korean American identity, responsible gun ownership, and what it means to be a “good” or “bad” person. Despite the heavy topics—all relevant today given anti-Asian hate crimes, mass shootings, and the George Floyd protests—Cho and co-writer Sarah Suk work deftly and never proselytize.
And yet it’s no accident that throughout his journey, Jordan meets only strangers of color who go out of their way to help. It’s no accident that in each of these characters, Jordan finds commonalities, namely their love of family and shared hometown. And it’s no surprise that Jordan, much like Cho’s acting career, defies stereotypes about docile Asian Americans; Jordan is fully realized as an angry, confused tween struggling with bad grades, family issues, and bad decisions. While some moments feel a bit too safe and resolve as tidily as a family sitcom, Troublemaker is emotionally satisfying because it intentionally finds the humanity, not the caricatures, behind every person. It serves as a reminder that even in the thick of a historic race riot, we can all find ways to unite.
My Life, My Fight: Rising Up from New Zealand to the OKC Thunder, by Steven Adams, with Madeleine Chapman
Reviewed by Kyle Zaffino
My Life, My Fight tells basketball pro Steven Adams’s personal story—from growing up poor in New Zealand to achieving widespread respect as an NBA fixture. Basketball is barely mentioned as he describes his tumultuous childhood as the youngest member of a huge family whose father falls ill. Here, the book establishes a conversational tone through direct address. There’s barely any dialogue, and instead of writing the full scene for readers to watch from a distance, his straightforward speech places readers squarely in his shoes. It’s especially heartbreaking when he describes how his septuagenarian father would “wait out” his cancer and adds, “He’d had asthma and his gammy legs for as long as I could remember, and now he’d have cancer.”
This same conversational tactic transitions into the next phase of his life—moving alone to Wellington, NZ to avoid drowning in depression at home and marveling at favors from coaches and teachers, and his team manager, who let him live in her house. Even as Adams eases into his NBA career, he never loses sight of the kid who didn’t change shoes between basketball practice and driving fenceposts on the farm. This includes painstakingly detailed diary entries about his pre-draft workouts, an amusing wish to hug Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and an excellent blow-by-blow of the OKC Thunder’s 2016 playoffs game against the Golden State Warriors entitled “Say a Prayer for My Testicles,” alluding to Warriors forward Draymond Green infamously fouling him.
Adams says, “As long as I end each day knowing I’m better in some way than I was when I started it, I’m happy,” and it’s apparent through his hard work that he has earned those rewards. The title and structure of My Life, My Fight may have been chosen specifically to speak for him, but his ethos speaks for itself.