Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to be female and not miss Oprah.
There's nothing wrong with Oprah per se (though let us never forget who unleashed Dr. Phil and "The Secret" on an unsuspecting populace). We all know that Oprah is really and truly just trying to help, and she often succeeds spectacularly. Many wonderful people were demonstrably helped by Oprah and are willing to provide proof in the form of soft-focus testimonials, earnestly delivered straight to camera, between sips of herbal tea.
But some of us never personally received the Holy Oprah Spirit, often because we couldn't quite swallow the pills in which her wisdom was delivered. Too sugary, too berry-flavored, too "you go, girl" to be of use to those of us with congenitally darker worldviews.
Personally, I often wonder if my childhood drives through the miasma of factory fumes near Niagara Falls marked me for life, because the smell of air freshener makes me instantly suspicious. I always wonder what the room smelled like five minutes before I walked into it.
So what's a girl to do when she craves the wisdom of her estrogened elders, yet has an allergic reaction to enforced positivity?
A girl can turn to the likes of Carrie Fisher. And Merrill Markoe.
Both Fisher and Markoe have new books out this season, and both stand out beautifully from what has now become the madding memoir crowd.
Starting with Fisher: if you find yourself having mixed feelings about the news that Carrie Fisher has more to say, you are not alone. Most of us know everything we could ever want to know about Fisher's celebrity childhood, "Star Wars" stardom, drug addiction, mental illness and other assorted shenanigans. From the barely fictionalized "Postcards From the Edge" to her recent one-woman show "Wishful Drinking," Fisher has amusingly documented seemingly every second of her jaw-dropping life.
But wait -- there's more! And not just B-sides, either. In "Shockaholic," we learn that Fisher's wells of stories and insights are far from dry, and that the new tales she tells are fresh enough to leave you wondering why she didn't lead with this stuff before. Then we realize that Fisher's life really has been THAT unique, and THAT bizarre, and that the hits really are just gonna keep on comin'.
"Shockaholic's" anecdote-delivery structure is not the most elegant, unfortunately -- Fisher has been receiving shock treatments for years and has had some memory loss, and she tells us that she's telling us everything she wants to remember, before she forgets it.
New highlights include: a blow-by-blow of her first date with Sen. Chris Dodd, at which she ended up at a cozy table for six, quipping it out with Ted Kennedy. Fisher's subsequent observations about politicians, power and sex are about as juicy, literate and concise as you'll find anywhere. And the chapter on her friendship with Michael Jackson is relentlessly entertaining on its face, while also containing some unexpectedly poignant and definitive observations about the nature of celebrity.
Most pleasurably, Fisher's recounting of her late-life reconciliation with her famous dad (Eddie Fisher) offers some no-nonsense, sincere, useful wisdom about death and grief and healing that's totally bracing without being at all "heavy." Best of all, in "Shockaholic," Fisher manages to be consistently funny without lapsing into that tone of hysterical hilarity she occasionally adopts when she's in warp-speed "Entertainment Mode."
Fisher could easily have become a clown, but instead she's turning into a sage, reporting from the front lines of almost every possible challenge a woman can face (the chapter on image and weight loss alone is worth the purchase -- this is a woman who has BEEN THERE).
"Shockaholic" offers all the guilty pleasure of an old-fashioned gossip column, and all the real, rare insight that Fisher's unique position has offered her. Luckily, she has the talent and -- for now -- the presence of mind to share it.
Merrill Markoe's latest, "Calm Cool and Contentious," is even more satisfying, mostly because she's more relatable -- unlike Fisher, she is not, for instance, certifiably mentally ill. She has, however, lived with craziness all her life, and escaped to tell the tales.
Markoe is unfortunately best known as David Letterman's ex-girlfriend, though she's a multiple Emmy winner for her work on the early years of his first "Late Night" show. We discover in this book (in an incredibly page-turning, funny, smart, biting, transparently fictionalized essay called "Bobby") that Markoe actually left her job with Letterman in order to "work on the relationship" -- which will make any fan of her wonderful writing want to scream in anguish, reach back through time and shake her very hard.
Many of the wonderful tales Markoe tells in this book fall into the category of "smart women, foolish choices," but like Fisher, Markoe has visibly learned from her mistakes. And Markoe's gifts for clarity and compassion elevate the incredible sharpness of her writing beyond the category of snark; "Cool, Calm and Contentious" delivers great punch lines and emotional gut-punches, often in the same sentence.
This is writing confident enough to avoid self-conscious artistry, and these chapters read like short stories in the New Yorker as often as they do sitcom scripts. Over and over, Markoe shows us (without telling us) that intimacy requires vulnerability, and vulnerability requires strength.
In one essay she documents and explores the tradition of crazy moms launching their offspring into careers in comedy, then in the next she describes -- again, with enormous humor and truth -- how growing up with her own narcissistic mom shaped the course of her life. And Markoe's piece on a sexual assault she experienced in college is exactly right: emotionally descriptive without ever inspiring pity.
Markoe never feels sorry for herself, but she doesn't look away from her pain either. Her writing has real kindness and generosity to it, without ever veering into Oprah territory. If you don't have anything to learn from her, this book is still entertaining, but if you do, it's more valuable than anything you'll see explicitly labeled as "self-help."
Fisher and Markoe are both the type of intense, gifted, brilliant, somewhat frightening survivors you'd want to have lunch with if you were trying to figure out how someone as smart as you are kept getting herself into such sticky predicaments.
They're both tough but not hard, warm but not exactly nurturing. When they're done with you, you'll feel better, because the nuggets of wisdom have been smuggled into your brain on waves of laughter-induced endorphins.
Legend has it that the rule on the set of Seinfeld was "No Hugging, No Learning." Were that axiomatic, these two books would be studded with minefields -- hugging and learning can indeed be found on these pages. Luckily for some of us, there's not too much hugging, only unobtrusive learning, and mostly just lots of genuine laughing.
Emily Simon is a freelance writer living in California.
By Carrie Fisher
Simon & Schuster
176 pages, $22
Cool, Calm & Contentious
By Merrill Markoe
Villard288 pages, $24