Book review: Squirrel Days by Ellie Kemper

(cover image courtesy Simon and Schuster)

 

I just had the loveliest time sitting down and talking with Kimmy Schmidt.

Having devoured every available episode of her, naturally, autobiographical, post-being trapped inside a bunker by a pedophilic cult leader sitcom – yep, that’s the premise and it works like a charm, an hilarious mix of quirky humour and humanity – it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

And so, in the space of two days (in which to be fair reading had to compete with such annoying banalities of life as eating, sleeping and doing laundry) via Squirrel Days, I talked and talked with Kimmy (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Kelly Erin Hannon (The Office) and Becca (Bridesmaids), or more accurately if you want to be ridiculously pedantic, Ellie Kemper, who gave deliciously-offbeat life to them all – and what a treat it was.

Celebrity books by famous comedians – everyone has to do it at some point which Kemper bravely acknowledges; “There comes a time in every sitcom actress’s life when she is faced with the prospect of writing a book. When my number was up, I told myself that I would not blink.” – are seemingly everywhere these days, and some are considerably better than others which, on the law of averages, makes sense.

“As children, my three siblings and I were not allowed to see PG-13 movies, and the MPAA-sanctioned age of thirteen offered little hope. ‘It’s not as though they are advising you to see the movie as soon as you turn thirteen,’ my mother told me,’ biting into a Hydrox. ‘It doesn’t suddenly become a good idea.’ With such broken reasoning as this, I was forced to turn inward and listen to my own heart. More often than not, my heart old me to watch the forbidden film when my parents weren’t around.” (P. 27)

But when you’ve liked an actor or actress for some time, as I have Ellie Kemper who is smart, funny and gloriously self-deprecating, you want the book to feel like you are sitting down with that person and sharing some off the cuff confessional truths, laced with witty observations, and mirth-filled asides.

No doubt, so does the publisher.

Thankfully when it comes to My Squirrel Days – she liked and tried to befriend squirrels as a child, although sadly said squirrels such as Natalie did not return the favour, choosing mocking over warmth and caring – the book is exactly, and more so, what you hope it will be.

From that first hilarious opening paragraph when Kemper dishes on the terrifying challenges of writing a book and her inner bravery and willingness to take on the challenge and best it – it honestly does feel like you’re sitting down with Kemper for a really, funny, self-deprecating, over-the-top chat where she freely admits many things may be partially or wholly made-up, since like most of us, she can’t necessarily recall everything in crystal-clear detail from her past.

Now, of course, you don’t know if you’re getting Kemper herself or an extension of her public persona, but I’d like to think, based on both my good judgement of people and the glowing endorsements of personal authenticity on the back cover (see below) that My Squirrel Days is presenting us with the unvarnished Ellie – the one who put on Christmas plays with her siblings and neighbour each Christmas, who has an issue with non-existent lentils in a brunch dish, and who may have taken out an old lady in a church in her attempt to touch the garments of one Pope John Paul II.

 

(back cover image courtesy Simon and Schuster)

 

Certainly, if nothing else, Kemper who happily admits to being asked to play ditzy yet loveable women with a pleasing regularity – that is she gets the parts regularly, not that they don’t need Metamucil – is pleasingly adept at channeling the winsomeness and sweetness of her characters who may be sweetness and lightness in one sense but who possess an internal strength and intelligence that stamps them as people who will do quite well in life, thank you very much.

The book is, in many ways, your standard comedian-writes-a-book book.

There are snippets of childhood audacity, takes of time with various stars on set and all kinds of witty observances of life, both pre- and post- the birth of her son James which reveal someone who’s passionate about her craft – her time in the improv theatres and schools of Chicago and New York are a treat – all of it delivered in that kind of self-aware way that these bios of a sort seem to come pre-supplied with.

And yet, having read a considerable number of them, I cam attest to the fact that my sit down with Kimmy, I mean Ellie, has a ring of authenticity that makes it feels less ghostwritten and more like you are hearing from the person themselves (trust me, there is a difference and it’s quite apparent).

“Unfortunately, I share neither my sister’s forbearance nor my brother’s childlike wonder. In addition to getting angry when I am hungry, I also do not find it easy to adapt to changes in plans. And I had been counting on those lentils. I’m not sure I was wrong in doing that – the dish was named Quinoa and Lentils. Suddenly, the universe was spinning. For someone like me, changes like this are upsetting. I become unmoored. Like a bird sitting in a tree and the tree is suddenly cut down, or a bird flying through the air and the air is suddenly filled with kites, I feel out of control, I panic, and I accidentally fly into straight into a closed window.” P. 120)

The pleasure of My Squirrel Days is that Kemper manages to make it feel both like a stand-up comic set and a semi-intimate, possibly-happened-but-who-knows peek into the world of a sitcom star who’s come a long way since those commercials where she had to play a concerned daughter listening to sage, commercially-oriented advice from her wise mother.

There’s much bragging in the book but it’s all laced with a healthy sense of what Aussies like to call “taking the piss”, a sense that while much of what is related in the book actually took place in terms of breaks given, success achieved and famous people who became coworkers and then close friends, that Kemper holds it all at a healthy but hell let’s still enjoy it distance.

Frankly, if many of the things that have happened to Kemper happened to you – a meeting with Tina Fey and husband Robert Carlock for Kimmy at little to no notice which goes surprisingly, but amusingly, well – you would be well within your rights to shout them from the rooftops.

Which Kemper does but again, in a way that feels like a fun, conspiratorial chat, which, yes being the realist I am could mean she just listened to her agent and editor really well, or, and really this is just how it feels, like she just poured out her heart, wove in all kinds of jokes, hilarious oneliners and a healthily-down to earth sense of self, and gave, end of year exhaustive blues be praised, the kind of celebrity tome that actually feels, rather happily like you’re friends with the author and will no doubt be hearing from them again, any moment now.

 

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