Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Book Recommendation: Living Oprah

Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV's Most Influential Guru Advises Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV's Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 2008, Chicagoan yoga teacher/writer/performer Robyn Okrant decided to devote a year of her life to living according to the Gospel of Oprah Winfrey. She chronicled her adventures in a lively blog, which immediately began attracting thousands of followers. The blog is the basis for this memoir.

I am a VERY occasional Oprah watcher and O Magazine reader. Back in the old days when our TV used to be in our living room, I watched Oprah when I was home sick or on maternity leave after my first son was born. I tease my sister because she has a tendency to share scary statistics or stories that she learned on Oprah (where she lives, the Oprah show is broadcast in the evenings, and she watches it while she's on the exercise bike).

Not only do I love well-written memoirs and nonfiction, but I also am fascinated by the idea of doing one thing for a year. For example: Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America, and Bait and Switch: The Futile Pursuit of the American Dream, by Barbara Ehrenreich; Not Buying It: My Year without Shopping by Judith Levine; and The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose. So when I saw that a brave woman had taken on Oprah as an annual challenge, I was all over it.

When Oprah told her guests or TV audience to buy something, Okrant bought it. When she prescribed a "must-have wardrobe," she sought it out. When she told people that they had to read a book, see a movie, or attend a concert, Okrant was all over it. She did everything she could to follow all of Oprah's many directions. Each chapter has a tidy introduction summarizing the month, and it ends with a detailed accounting of what Okrant did, how much time it took, and how much it cost.

I really enjoyed this book--I like Okrant's down-to-earth writing style and her passion for justice. Here are some things that jumped out at me:

*When Oprah announces that Dr. Mehmet Oz will be a featured guest on the show, Okrant is excited--at first. Although she's energized by talk of a healthy lifestyle (and she speaks from experience, having been overweight when she was younger and now she teaches yoga), she talks about the "copious advertisements for turn-back-time products sandwiched between articles" in O magazine. (This has been my pet peeve with my otherwise-beloved More magazine, too.) Okrant talks about her ambivalence about "antiaging." Although she laments our constant obsession with how to prevent ourselves from growing older, she also calls herself a "big fat hypocrite." "I truly am willing to let go of all my fear and the time I spend looking at the skin on the back of my hands. But I'll only do it if you do it first. I don't want to be the only haggard-looking one out here." I love her honesty.

*She also notes Oprah's obsession with weight and her openness about her weight struggles. Another contradiction appears around food. Unfortunately, after Oprah and trainer Bob Greene urged viewers to sign the "Best Life Contract," she had Cold Stone Creamery on the show the very next day--she was indulging while her viewers were trying to stick to their contract. Many of the recipes Oprah features on her show, magazine, and web site appear to feature expensive, exotic ingredients and are not always the healthiest...they also do not encourage the thrifty, simple lifestyle that she encourages on other segments.

*The Gospel According to Oprah goes so far as prescribing S-shaped fecal matter (Dr. Oz, that is). Not only does Okrant have to make sure she is suitably dressed, but she also must "study the toilet bowl to make sure I'm a proper pooper."

*Okrant was waffling between Obama and Clinton in early 2008, and she felt deeply torn about her choice to vote for Obama since Oprah campaigned for him. "What would I have done if Oprah backed a candidate whom I didn't morally or ethically believe in? Would I have been able to continue this experiment or would I have had to pull the plug? In all honesty, I got incredibly lucky on this one." She also ponders the effect that the Oprah "brand" had on Obama's win. I suspect that it certainly didn't hurt!

*Oprah vacillates between advising us to simplify, get rid of stuff we don't need, and try to do more with less...and urging us to buy things and telling us the 12 things we need to own. This type of inconsistency would drive me absolutely batty if I were living out this type of experiment! "What's a gal to do when Oprah's advice for attaining my 'best life" is all twisted up in her excitement about exorbitant, to-die-for Christian Louboutin shoes? Whether or not this is her intention, her delight hints that material goods can bring us happiness...Oprah will always remind us that we can't be defined by our things, but she sure looks like she's having a great time with them." Her annual "Favorite Things" episode "doesn't discourage anyone from worshipping looks more like a cautionary tale about how greed makes us appear on national television."

Okrant lives according to her principles and her own rules for the year. When she starts losing steam and her sense of herself, and begins worrying about the toll all this is taking on her husband, she just keeps plowing forward and makes it through the year. When Oprah sending her a gift, she reluctantly returns it because Oprah had urged viewers to buy it "if you can afford it." According to her own rules, she had to buy it herself.

This was not an indictment of Oprah in any way. Okrant deeply admires her--that's why she set out on this path in the first place. While pointing out the many inconsistencies and oddities in the little TV microcosm of a world, Okrant seems to develop a deep and abiding fondness for All Things Oprah.

Okrant continues to write some on her Living Oprah blog, and she's also started cowriting a new blog, Ready-Set-Wife, with a friend. I'm glad I discovered her. I think she would be an interesting person to know, and I'm glad she invited us into her little social experiment of 2008.

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