THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker

2019 has been a good reading year so far!

The Dreamers is Karen Thompson Walker’s second novel, after The Age Of Miracles (reviewed here). I loved her first book, and I loved this one too.

In a small California college town called Santa Lora, a girl in a freshman dorm falls asleep and doesn’t wake up. She goes to the local hospital and they can’t figure out what is wrong with her or why she sleeping so soundly and for so long. Soon, another girl on the same floor also falls asleep, and before long, there are several affected students in the dorm. The school quarantines the kids, eventually moving them to the school gym, but soon the sickness has spread beyond the school to other people living in Santa Lora. The condition – identified as a virus – affects young and old, and the hospital eventually becomes so crowded that the sleepers are housed in libraries and gyms and anywhere where cots and IVs can be set up.

Doctors and nurses caring for the sick catch the virus themselves, and the health facilities become desperately short-staffed. The whole city is quarantined while the worsening situation gains attention worldwide, Businesspeople in town for a conference are marooned when the whole city is walled off, and they eventually fall asleep too. A psychiatrist called in from Los Angeles is barred from leaving, separating her from her young daughter a hundred miles away. Desperate parents wait outside the perimeter for word on their students, while kids in Santa Lora are temporarily orphaned and pets run wild in the streets. Meanwhile the sleepers all share something else in common: while asleep, they dream intensely, their brains registering more signs of activity than ever before recorded.

The virus and public health element of The Dreamers was very interesting, but what I loved about this book was Walker’s treatment of the people affected by the epidemic. The two girls whose survivalist father fell asleep, leaving them to fend for themselves. The couple with a newborn. The professor whose partner was in a nursing home, felled by dementia. Like in The Age Of Miracles, Walker is adept at making the universal extremely personal. She especially treats people in transition – adolescents, new parents, etc. – with keen understanding and sympathy.

The Dreamers was a 4.5 star read, only because the ending is a bit murky. I wondered how Walker was going to end the story, and what its purpose ultimately would be. In the ARC I read, there is an interview with Walker in which her interviewer, the author Karen Russell, says, “Dreams seem to me to be the most honest communication a body can have with itself” (um, YES). As the afflicted wake up from their sleep, they talk about the intense dreams that had and mourn the loss of people who existed only in their slumber. Walker let her characters explore in sleep what was unfamiliar or unknown in their lives, and that was meaningful. But ultimately, I found the rest of the book even more compelling, as her characters had to deal with the effects of the epidemic on their own evolving lives.

FROM THE CORNER OF THE OVAL by Beck Dorey-Stein

I am on a non-fiction tear! So unlike me.

From The Corner Of The Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein is the author’s memoir about her 6 years serving as a presidential stenographer under President Obama. This is a good book for people who like dishy behind-the-scenes Washington insider perspectives, though be forewarned: it’s pretty light and spends a lot of time on her social life.

In 2012, Dorey-Stein answered a Craigslist ad looking for a stenographer at a law firm at a time when she was jobless and unrooted, working a bunch of part time gigs. She missed the first interview but showed up for the second, and found out later that the job was actually working for POTUS, not for a law firm. From there she embarked on a whirlwind term-and-a-half of recording and transcribing Obama’s speeches and interviews, a job that took her all over the country and the world on Air Force One and cemented friendships with staffers in- and outside the White House.

Dorey-Stein is funny, self-deprecating and observant. I really enjoyed reliving the Obama days (sigh) through her perspective, especially hearing about the days that stood out to her, for good or bad (Sandy Hook and other mass shootings; Election Night 2014; meetings with world leaders; travel to international sites like Petra). In From The Corner Of The Oval, readers get a lot of glimpses of Obama, learning that he is competitive, funny and patient, yet also sometimes testy after long days of dealing with reporters. It’s also fun to get a glimpse inside the White House, at the egos and personalities that flank the President, often unnoticed by the public.

I would have liked more analysis of the Obama presidency, such as why gun reform always failed or more about Obamacare and its tortured rollout. Maybe Dorey-Stein stuck to what’s publicly available for confidentiality reasons? Either way, I would have appreciated a deeper treatment of the issues that defined the Obama terms.

The political stuff comes with an almost equal dose of Dorey-Stein’s social life, including an on-again, off-again (but mostly on-again) illicit relationship with an older White House staffer with a girlfriend. The guy is basically an a-hole, but she’s completely into him and ignores the signs – again, and again, and again – that he’s not looking for something serious with her. There’s lots of drinking and “do I have any friends?” and “wow, these guys really like me” and “why don’t I have any confidence?”- nothing unusual for a memoir of one’s late 20s but a stark contrast to generally more substantive political chapters.

That said, I really liked From The Corner Of The Oval and looked forward to listening to it each time I got in the car. I got caught up in Dorey-Stein’s rollercoaster social life. I gladly took in the Obama memories and appreciated her dedication to and love for her former boss – merited and deserved. And I listened with horror to her epilogue about her short stint in the Trump administration (she stayed on for two months in January 2017), which couldn’t have differed more from the six preceding years.

The audio for From The Corner Of The Oval is narrated by Dorey-Stein, and I can’t really imagine anyone else doing it. She’s not the most polished narrator, but this is her story, and it all felt even more personal coming from her voice. I was always eager to turn this audio back on (the sign of a good audiobook is when I play it in the shower, which I did here) and it went by pretty quickly.

From The Corner Of The Oval satisfies the memoir requirement for the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

DAISY JONES & THE SIX by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I’m not sure that the book blogosphere has ever been as excited about an upcoming novel as it is about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & The Six (release date March 5). I was lucky to get my hands on a review copy and read it because I just couldn’t wait until March. This is the fourth TJR book I’ve read in the last year and the hype had me very intrigued.

Daisy Jones & The Six is a fictional oral history of a rock band from the 70s called The Six. The lead singer of The Six, Billy Dunne, was a brilliant singer and songwriter, but was dogged by addiction and his past failings. Daisy Jones, another brilliant but troubled singer and songwriter, found her way to the band, joining it for one iconic album that catapulted the group to stardom and thrust the relationship between the two singers into the spotlight.

The book is told in the style of a Vulture or Rolling Stone oral history, with the story related through the words of the band members and others close to The Six. You hear everyone’s perspectives on the events that happened – the tour dates, the recording sessions, the drug binges (Daisy), the temptations (Billy), the band’s inevitable breakup and the milestones experienced by the other band members. It’s not until the end of the book that you discover who was doing the interviewing, and why.

I liked Daisy Jones & The Six, but not as much as I’d hoped. The beginning felt very familiar, as it included many of the typical rock cliches that pop up on every episode of Behind The Music. Then the book got a little more surprising, as Daisy and Billy’s relationship became more complicated. The question of whether these two flawed people, who were passionately drawn to each other, would end up exploring that passion or resisting it kept me interested throughout the book. It’s easy to forget that The Six didn’t actually exist because Reid makes the book so realistic. (There are even song lyrics at the end.) Ultimately, though, I found drugs/drinking vs sobriety/commitment angle a little tiresome. So many pills, so much coke – it all kind of blurred together. And that detracted from the overall power of the story.

The oral history format worked well here and made the book flow quickly.

Daisy Jones & The Six is going to be a big hit, and Amazon has already ordered a 13-episode limited series co-produced by Reese Witherspoon. I promise that you will be hearing a lot about it. It was a decent read, and as someone who loves rock history, I enjoyed many of the backstage elements of the story. In the end, though. just didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped.

Giveaway: EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL by Mira T. Lee

First, thanks for the great response to the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge! I am excited that so many of you will be joining me to read 12 books in 2019 across the categories on the list. If you would like to join, please search for the 2019 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge group on Facebook or email me – gweiswasser@gmail.com – so that I can add you. We have a Google doc going where people can add their name and book selections over the course of the year.

I am currently reading a memoir – From The Corner Of The Oval by Beck Dorey Stein – which counts as one of my books for the challenge. See? This is easy.

Second, exciting news: Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee is coming out in paperback next week, and Penguin has given me three copies to give away. I read and reviewed it last year, and it’s definitely a book that has stayed with me over the months. I recommend Everything Here Is Beautiful on print over audio, so here is a great chance to get your hands on the book if you don’t have it already. It’s about two sisters and how mental illness strains their relationship over the years. Thank you to Penguin for providing the books for the giveaway.

To enter to win, leave me a comment here and I’ll pick three winners on Friday, January 18. Good luck!

2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge

UPDATE: Here is the link to the EDIWTB Reading Challenge Facebook Group and here is the Google doc where we are sharing our progress.

On a recent Readerly Report podcast episode, Nicole and I talked about some popular reading challenges, including the 2019 PopSugar Reading Challenge and the 2019 Around The Year In 52 Books Challenge. Nicole was intrigued by them. I checked them out but in the end I am not tempted to join either of them. They include too many books that are outside my interest zone (“A book featuring an amateur detective”, “A book featuring an extinct or imaginary creature”), and I don’t like the idea of choosing books based on words in their titles (“A book with a plant in the title or on the cover”). I don’t read much more than 52 books in a year, and I don’t want to feel pressure to pick those books from a list of narrow categories just to complete a challenge.

But I do like the idea of putting a little structure to my reading for the year and forcing myself to broaden my horizons a bit. My friend Stephanie posted her own 2019 reading challenge in the Readerly Report Readers Facebook Group last week, and it sounded much more manageable and appealing. Here is the challenge: over the next 12 months, read at least one book in the following categories:

Short stories
Book being made into a movie this year
A Pulitzer Prize winner
Classic I’ve never read
True survival story
Memoir
Self-help/awareness book
Debut novel
Book set on a campus
Nonfiction book
Book published the year I was born
Humor book

I asked Stephanie if I could do her challenge with her, and she said yes! I am very excited and am officially adopting it as the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge. It will get me to read some genres that I don’t usually read – self-help and humor, for example – and will force me out of the contemporary literary fiction category I so often go to. Thank you Stephanie for sharing this challenge!

A few rules I am making for myself:

  1. Even if a book fits into two categories, it can only count for one.
  2. Books do not have to be read in any particular order and can be spread out or concentrated throughout the year.

Would you like to join this challenge? Please leave a comment here, and then we can create a text or Facebook group to share ideas for books to meet the challenge and discuss what we’ve read.

Happy reading in 2019!

THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai

What a great way to kick off the 2019 reading year.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is a dense, rich novel that toggles back and forth between Chicago in the mid-80s and Paris in 2015. The Chicago chapters follow a group of gay friends as AIDS ravages their community and upends their relationships, plans and careers. In 2015, one of the characters from the 80s chapters has come to Paris in search of her estranged daughter, and while there she reconnects with some of the people she knew in Chicago after her brother died of AIDS, one of the early deaths in the community.

I was too young in the 80s to truly grasp at the time how devastating AIDS was to the gay community, how it completely changed how these men lived their lives. The Great Believers brings it all into sharp focus, exploring how a positive diagnosis – and a negative one, for that matter – affected how they related to their partners and their friends. It’s hard to imagine a whole generation of men – many of whom had dealt with discrimination and estrangement from their own families – who were planning and looking forward to their futures, only to have them cut off in the cruelest and most painful way. Some passages I marked in the book:

“There was this tiny window where we were safer, and happier. I thought it was the beginning of something. When really it was the end.”

“If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it’s a judgment on your promiscuity. f you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that’s almost worse, it’s like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn’t, it’s a judgment on your hubris. And if you got it because you knew you could and you didn’t care, it’s a judgment on how much you hate yourself.”

“Let’s enjoy it while it lasts. Because this isn’t Mother May I. You’re not always advancing. I know it feels that way right now, but it’s fragile. You might look back in fifty years and say, ‘That was the last great time.'”

“As he got sicker, it was more and more often that he thought of people – of Charlie, certainly, and of everyone else here or gone: not as the sum of all the disappointments, but as every beginning they’d ever represented, every promise.”

Devastating.

I got totally immersed in The Great Believers, finding myself thinking about these characters often when I wasn’t reading, worried about them and invested in how their lives would turn out. (I had to remind myself frequently that they weren’t real!) Makkai clearly did a lot of research, not just on AIDS and the gay community in the 80s, but also about art, which plays a big prominent role in the book. I also really appreciated her attention to detail, little observations that made the book so believable. She’s an incredibly talented writer.

In the end, The Great Believers is about friendship and loyalty, and how our devotion to one person or cause can have consequences in other parts of our lives. It’s a long book, one that requires attention and thought. It took me a long time to get through it, but it was an immersive and very satisfying read.

2018 Reading Year In Review

This is the first year I easily surpassed my reading goal of 52 books. I ended at 56, with lots of time to spare. So I am happy about that. I took two longish international trips this year that really helped boost my book count. I’m not sure how I am going to repeat that performance next year, but I am giving myself a goal of 60 books for 2019. I’ll have to find other ways to increase my reading, especially since we don’t have any big trips planned.

Last December, I pledged to read 10 non-fiction books this year, and I read 11. I only read 8 male authors this year, so my goal next year is to read more than that.

Here are my overall goals for 2019:

  • 60 books
  • At least 2 classics
  • 12 male authors
  • 12 non-fiction books
  • More #bookstagram posts
  • More author readings (those have fallen by the wayside and I miss them)

When I look back on 2018, I read a lot of pretty mediocre stuff, which makes me sad. I spend so much time reading about and researching books – how am I ending up with so many books on the list that I don’t love? I think I need to be less impulsive in my reading choices. Rather than choosing my next read based on the mood I’m in, I need to be more deliberate and plan my books based on what others I trust have said about them.

Here are my standout reads from 2017:

Best audiobooks were Born To Run (read by Bruce Springsteen), I Am I Am I Am (read by Daisy Donovan) and Kitchens Of The Great Midwest (read by Amy Ryan and Michael Struhlbarg).

Most disappointing books: The Submission by Amy Waldman, Vox by Christine Dalcher.

Books that made me feel stupid: Bobcat And Other Stories by Rebecca Lee, Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday.

Books that should be required reading for all Americans: The Leavers by Lisa Ko, Waiting For Eden by Elliot Ackerman, Nomadland by Jessica Bruder, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Books I could not put down: One Day In December by Josie Silver, One True Loves, Taylor Jenkins Reid.

For the last several years, I have tracked the Depressing Themes of the books I read. Here are some of the depressing subjects covered by the books I read in 2018: Iraq war casualties, psychopathic husbands/boyfriends/neighbors (way too many of these!), death, cancer, addiction, divorce, dystopian America with no reproductive freedom, car accidents, family estrangement, brushes with death, dystopian America where women aren’t allowed to speak, infidelity, child illness, the Depression, mental illness, 9/11, plane crash, school shooting, suicide, false imprisonment, accidental death, the economy, illegal immigration and deportation, death, death, death.

The year by the numbers:

  • 45 fiction, 11 non-fiction
  • 11 repeat authors during 2018: Taylor Jenkins Reid, Jean Thompson, Maggie O’Farrell, Katherine Center, J. Ryan Stradal, JoJo Moyes, Meg Wolitzer, Tayari Jones, Laurie Frankel, Caroline Preston, Roz Chast
  • 2 rereads: Kitchens Of The Great Midwest; The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
  • 18 audiobooks
  • 8 male authors

How was your 2018 in reading? What were the highlights and what do you have planned for 2019?