Let’s be real. There’s something extremely satisfying in reading about women being their most successful and most candid selves, and never backing down from who they are. The three new memoirs in this week’s book club are all by and about women who are or were the queens of their game, be it movies, food, or sports. It’s too late now to say sorry (and they wouldn’t want to, anyway), so learn a little about the lives behind the success.
1. Miss D and Me: Life With the Invincible Bette Davis by Kathryn Sermak with Danelle Morton ($27): Kathryn Sermak may not have Bette Davis eyes, but she had the Grande Dame of cinema’s confidence. Sermak began her long acquaintance with the devastating Davis when Sermak was just 22; fresh out of college, she landed a personal assistant job with the diva. A decade later, she would become the executor of Davis’s estate, as one of her best friends. In the 10 years they spent together, Sermak helped Davis try to hold onto her lifestyle and her dignity, and Davis molded Sermak, My Fair Lady-style, to properly take charge in Davis’ world (a world which, unfortunately for Davis, was rapidly changing).
Sermak shows that Davis could be both doting and terrifying. Miss D was often very kind, but was no saint (who wants to be)? She records Davis at her highest and lowest, through both a renewed surge in popularity and betrayal from her daughter and her own aging body. (A choice line: “Since her stroke two years ago, Miss D could only drink wine spritzers.”) The memoir concludes with a blow-by-blow description of a road trip the two took, four days from Biarritz to Paris that featured a showdown and exploration of their multilayered friendship.
Sermak herself is a legend in the personal assistant world, receiving one of the first Personal Assistant Career Awards, and assisting celebs as varied as Buzz Aldrin, designer Patrick Kelly, and the co-creator of Where’s Waldo. One wonders what dirt she’s got to share on all of them, but for now, she’s got Bette Davis goss.
2. I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg ($17): In recent years Jen Agg has soared to notoriety, becoming one of the hottest names in Canada’s food scene. Her restaurant ventures, including Toronto’s The Black Hoof and Montreal’s Agrikol, focused on charcuterie, a choice that makes the selection of superior raw ingredients essential. Agg proved that she had the right ingredients for success, but of course, because she was a woman, traits that would have been praised in other restauranteurs (an uncompromising attitude, a demand for quality) garnered her epithets and derision as much as respect (the title is just one mild example). Agg reclaimed the word, organizing a 2015 conference around the issue of sexual harassment in the kitchen, calling it Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time.
Agg’s memoir is mostly filled with uncompromisingly candid observations about her rise to the top and her business philosophy; for example, she’s a huge proponent of teamwork rather than rivalries between her employees, particularly the front and back of house. There’s some dish about the rough early days, featuring bankruptcy and her split from celebrity restauranteur Grant van Gameren, as well as happier observations about her marriage to Roland Jean and their opening of The Black Hoof.
She bares all, even including a nude portrait, as she calls for an end to the bro culture of the restaurant industry with wit as sharp as a charcuterie knife. Already a hit in Canada, this book now comes to the US to introduce Agg to the world. A rallying cry for any woman in a male-dominated industry, it might just be a new Bible for aspiring female restauranteurs.
3. Unstoppable: My Life So Far by Maria Sharapova ($28): If you’ve even heard of a sport called tennis, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the name Maria Sharapova. The 30-year-old Sharapova is a dominant player who, at 17, defeated Serena Williams to become the third-youngest woman to win Wimbledon. However, her road to success was an unlikely and coincidental one. She got into the prestigious IMG youth tennis academy in Florida, despite arriving in the US with no English, no home, and no connections. She was able to travel to Florida as a seven-year-old because her father Yuri managed to convince her mother to stay in Russia while they spent their life savings bringing father and daughter to the potential of tennis training. Even before that, Yuri’s obsession with tennis was only recent, and his recognition of the talent his daughter possessed was not a given. Once all of the pieces fell into place, however, Sharapova’s ability and determination quickly led to her success.
In her new book, Sharapova chronicles her life and passion for the game, as well as the ups and downs of having to be a good celebrity when you just want to play some tennis. She focuses on her rivalry with Serena Williams, and the desire to be the best that has fueled her every achievement, including four more Grand Slam tournament wins. “Serena Williams,” she says, “has marked the heights and the limits of my career — our stories are intertwined. I approach every match against her with trepidation and respect.”
She also doesn’t shy away from the newest challenges she faces: Last year, after testing positive for meldonium, a recently banned substance, she was suspended from tournament play for 15 months. “I’d never even heard of it,” Sharapova writes. “This must be a terrible mistake. Sitting on my bed, I googled it. Looking at the results, my heart sank. Meldonium also goes by the name Mildronate, and that was something I had heard of.” Though she believed the substance was akin to Ibuprofen, rather than performance-enhancing, she was, for once, temporarily stopped. Whether this will cast a permanent pall on her career has yet to be seen, but the determination she shows in her memoir suggests that it won’t.
Which books make you want to take charge? Tag us in your next boss read @BritandCo.
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