RODHAM by Curtis Sittenfeld

Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of the most scrutinized, analyzed and discussed public figures in the world. Most of us are pretty familiar with her narrative at this point, from her Yale Law School days through her years in Arkansas when Bill Clinton was governor, her 8 years as First Lady, and then her post-White House career as senator from New York, Secretary of State, and candidate for U.S. President. But what if that narrative had taken a very different turn? What if Hillary had turned down Bill’s multiple marriage proposals? How would her career have turned out? Would she have run for office, and would she have won? This is the subject of Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham.

Why I picked it up: I am a big fan of both women – Sittenfeld and Clinton – so this was a no-brainer for me. (I am also a Sittenfeld completist.)

[A confession upfront: I love Hillary. I voted for her, I wish (hourly) that she were our president. My husband worked for her at the State Department, so I’ve met her and know (through him) what she was like to work for. I also feel a little protective of her, so I approached Rodham with a little trepidation too.]

I liked Rodham and found it engaging and thought-provoking. Sittenfeld is a master storyteller, and she doesn’t disappoint in this latest book. There’s a lot to unpack here – Hillary’s relationship with Bill, the origins of her public service career, the misogyny she has faced from the beginning of her professional life. The book is very sympathetic to Hillary, offering her perspective on some of the statements that have dogged her for years (remember the “home baking cookies” comment?) and expressing her own confusion over why she often provoked such enmity. And of course, it’s interesting to think about the ways in which our history would have changed if Hillary hadn’t taken the path she had: the elections she would have fun for, the offices she could have held, the presidencies (ahem!) she could have prevented. I had to remind myself often of Sittenfeld’s timeline, replacing history in my mind with this new fact pattern.

I did have a few issues with Rodham First, I am not sure Sittenfeld sufficiently made the case for why Hillary was so polarizing beyond just being an accomplished, smart woman. Without Whitewater, her failed health care reform and the scandal of Bill’s presidency, the foundation for why she was so hated by the time she ran for president was a little shaky. Second, I think Bill gets a raw deal here. (This Bill is pretty awful.) I mean, the man has flaws, but there were some great things about Bill Clinton. And finally, Trump plays a role here too – not the one he’s in now, thank god, but one that felt inconsistent with the rest of the book. (Sittenfeld does portray him pretty accurately, though.)

Overall, Rodham was a very good read. It kept my attention and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I finished it. I will read anything Sittenfeld writes, but I did seek this one out and was particularly excited to read it. It’s well-researched and never boring. And it will certainly get you riled up by the end, angry at the way women are treated in politics, the double standards and the extra hoops women jump through that men don’t even think about.

I listened to Rodham on audio and the narrator Carrington MacDuffie did an excellent job. She sounded kind of like Hillary – articulate, precise and rational. This was a take-the-phone-in-the-shower listen for me.

Rodham was Book #22 of 2020.

SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing came out to great acclaim in 2017, and even though I picked up an ARC at Book Expo that year, I just never got to it. Perhaps I was daunted by what I expected to be a difficult topic? It sat on my shelf until a few weeks ago, when I decided to try it in an audio/print tandem read. It helped that Ron Charles discussed how good the audiobook was when he came on The Readerly Report, and that Nicole also spoke highly of the book when she, too, finally got to it earlier this year.

Why I picked it up: I was way overdue.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is about a family living in Mississippi. Mam and Pop live with their grown daughter Leonie (their son Given is dead) and their grandchildren Jojo and Kayla. The kids’ father, Michael, is in prison but soon to be released. Leonie is black and Michael is white. Michael’s parents have never accepted Leonie as their son’s partner nor sought any relationship with their grandchildren, while Mam and Pop have basically raised Jojo and Kayla while Leonie is often off getting high. Jojo, 13, takes care of Kayla too, filling a parental void left by Leonie’s frequent absences.

When Michael’s release date approaches, Leonie decides to drive to get him from prison, along with their kids and a friend she knows from work. The road trip to and from the prison takes up much of the book. Along the way, the distance between Jojo and Leonie gets more pronounced, with Jojo increasingly frustrated at his mother’s failures as a parent and Leonie’s resentment of her children’s closeness and lack of need for her. Meanwhile, Jojo, on the precipice between boy- and adulthood, gains a clearer picture of his mother – her limitations and also the tenderness she shows to Michael.

The ride also provides Ward a vehicle to explore racism – the group gets pulled over by the police en route back from the prison, and an unannounced visit to Michael’s parents does not go well. Meanwhile, both Jojo and Leonie are haunted by ghosts along the way, with Leonie seeing her dead brother Given every time she gets high and Jojo being accompanied by the ghost of boy his age named Ritchie who served time in the same prison as Pop decades earlier. These ghosts serve as a painful reminder of the legacy of racism in Mississippi and are a grim foreboding of what Jojo will face in his life as a black man.

Ward’s writing is lyrical and sensuous. I felt like I was in the back of that hot car with the kids, experiencing their mixture of dread, curiosity, anger and the yearning for a family unit that could buffer some of the pain of growing up amidst racism and inequality. There is a lot of pain here: guilty characters trying to redeem themselves and disappointed characters trying to forgive and rebuild. The ghosts – victims of horrific acts of violence – add another layer of unease to the story. So while this is not an easy read – and arguably not the best choice for a pandemic – I am so glad I picked it up.

I listened to Sing, Unburied, Sing on audio and also read the print, probably a 50/50 split. The audio is fantastic. It is performed by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chris Chalk and Rutina Weley, and they make the prose sound like poetry. Ron Charles (or was it his wife?) was exactly right – it’s a superb audiobook. I recommend having the print available too because there are times, especially those involving the ghosts, when it’s helpful to reinforce the audio with the print just to make sure you’re following what’s going on.

Sing, Unburied, Sing was Book #21 of 2020 and it satisfies the “Book That’s Been On My Shelf For 2+ Years” category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

INSIDE OUT by Demi Moore

One book genre that has unexpectedly been holding my attention during quarantine is what I call pop culture nonfiction. The Office was an engaging audiobook, one of the few books I finished in April, and after finishing it I turned to Demi Moore’s memoir, Inside Out. It turned out to be surprisingly interesting, and was a book I returned to eagerly whenever I had the chance. (I know I’m into a book when I bring my iPhone in the shower to get a few extra minutes of listening in. Weird?)

Inside Out is the story of Demi Moore’s chaotic childhood, entry into acting, rise to superstardom and experience as a wife and mother. As a child of the 80s, my Demi Moore consciousness was shaped by movies like St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night, but her bigger hits – movies like Striptease and G.I. Jane – and celebrity marriages propelled her into the echelon of highest-paid actresses and cemented her place on Hollywood’s A-list. In recent decades Moore has perhaps been best known as the mother to her three daughters with Bruce Willis, as Ashton Kutcher’s wife – and ex-wife, and for her well-publicized struggle with drugs, topics she covers with honesty in Inside Out.

Moore was born to two alcoholic parents who provided their daughter with an extremely unstable home life punctuated by frequent moves and school changes, separations and reconciliations, exposure to drugs and alcohol and a complete lack of parenting and guidance. Moore’s crazy childhood and adolescence, coupled with her complicated relationship with her troubled mother (her father committed suicide in 1980), formed the root of problems that would follow her throughout her life – alcoholism and drug addiction, lack of self-confidence, disordered eating and issues with intimacy and reliance on others. Moore is very honest in the book about her doubts about her acting ability and her attitudes about her body, exercise and dieting. She also goes deep into her relationships with the men in her life – Emilio Estevez, Willis and Kutcher, explaining what attracted her to them, what worked, and what eventually broke them up.

I found the sections about being a mother to her three daughters especially poignant, as Moore identifies parenting as the one activity and accomplishment in her life that she is most proud of. After a drug overdose in the early 2010s, she endured three years of her family not speaking to her, a very painful time for Moore. After reconciling with her daughters, she embarked on the book project, publishing Inside Out in 2019.

Moore does like to play the blame game, shifting responsibility for some of her poor decisions onto her parents, her exes, her critics, Hollywood’s expectations, etc. That got a little tiresome. But I liked a lot of what she had to say about pay equity, balancing motherhood with career and not losing your identity in your relationships.

I listened to Inside Out on audio, narrated by Moore. I couldn’t imagine hearing these words in anything other than Moore’s signature raspy voice. Great audiobook (and pretty short too, at 6.5 hours).

Inside Out was Book #20 of 2020 and satisfies the Celebrity Memoir category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney

Normal People by Sally Rooney is enjoying a moment, because not quite two years after its release, it has been adapted into a series on Hulu. With everyone stuck at home in search of new entertainment options, the series has caught on, fueled by strong reviews and word of mouth. I read, and did not particularly like, Rooney’s earlier book Conversations With Friends, but I found the buzz around the TV series hard to resist. And of course, I wanted to read the book before I watched the show, so Normal People was my latest quarantine book.

Why I picked it up: I wanted to watch the TV adaptation, and reviews of the book Normal People were good enough (though definitely mixed) to convince me to give it a try.

Normal People is about two people living in Ireland – Marianne and Connell – who go in and out of each other’s lives from high school into graduate school. Marianne is wealthy and smart but also socially awkward and not well-liked in high school. Connell is not wealthy, but he is popular and smart. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s home, so the two often cross paths both at school, where they have classes together, and at Marianne’s house, where Connell comes to pick up his mother. An undeniable physical attraction between the two starts off a relationship that’s on-again, off-again over the course of many years.

In high school, Connell is afraid to go public with his feelings for Marianne, an act of weakness that forms an uneasy foundation for their future. They end up in college together, where their fortunes change: Marianne becomes popular and finds her footing, while Connell feels out of place. They find their way back to each other at different points throughout their years at Trinity, but always seem to implode eventually, due either to lack of communication or the pressure of outside forces like family dysfunction or mental illness.

I ended up really liking Normal People. Unlike Conversations With Friends, where I found the relationships implausible and not compelling, I felt totally invested in Marianne and Connell. Rooney’s strength is her depiction of emotions and the angst that accompanies romantic relationships, especially those among young adults. While keeping Marianne and Connell apart sometimes made for frustrating reading, the scenarios that caused the distance were totally reasonable. I liked Rooney’s writing quite a bit this time and had a really hard time putting the book down! She really nails intimacy and longing, as well as the comfort of finding someone who makes you feel safe.

So Normal People was definitely a departure for me from Rooney’s last book, and I am firmly in the “read it!” camp on this one. I started the Hulu series last night and watched the first episode. So far, I like it! A good book to movie/TV adaptation can be so satisfying.

Normal People was Book #19 of 2020.

7 Backlist Books I Want To Read

Are you running out of books to read? (If yes, I can’t relate, given the stacks of books piled up in my house). If you want to borrow ebooks or audiobooks from your library without a wait, here are 7 backlist books that remain at the top of my TBR. They may be available from your library sooner than new releases.

Someday, someday I’ll get to them.

  1. The Ensemble (2018) by Aja Gabel – relationships between four musicians in a classical quartet tracked over the years
  2. The Dream Daughter (2018) by Diane Chamberlain – time travel + a mother with an unborn child with a heart defect + amazing reviews
  3. Home Is Burning (2015) by Dan Marshall – memoir about twentysomething who moves home when his mother, who has cancer, calls to tell him that his father has ALS. Incredibly, this is supposed to be funny.
  4. Christodora (2016) by Tim Murphy – novel tracking characters through many changes in East Village, with focus on heartbreak caused by AIDS
  5. Saints For All Occasions (2017) by J. Courtney Sullivan – not sure how I haven’t gotten to this book about secrets between sisters, because I’ve loved her other books
  6. Plainsong (2000) by Kent Haruf – I fell in love with his Our Souls At Night last year and can’t wait to read this book about unexpected friendships
  7. The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) by John Boyne – this book about an Irishman in search of his identity comes very highly recommended

THE AUTHENTICITY PROJECT by Clare Pooley

I had a terrible reading month in April – only three books, and one was an audiobook. I am surrounded by books I really want to read and am yet paralyzed by pandemic stress, anxiety, exhaustion and the ever-present temptation of the iPhone. I did make it through a book this week, finishing at the end of April – The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley, a lighthearted novel about what happens when people stop being polite… and start getting real. (Bonus points if you get that reference.)

Why I picked it up: The Authenticity Project came out in February and started making the rounds on roundups and book-swapping sites. I was drawn in by the premise and the cheery cover.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist in England, decides one day to leave a journal in which he has confessed his deepest secrets – that he is desperately lonely and was a bad husband to his late wife – in the middle of a cafe. The book is picked up by Monica, the cafe’s owner, who reads Julian’s story and adds her own tale of woe. The book passes into more hands, with each new recipient privately laying bare their biggest fears and insecurities. Ultimately, these characters find their way to each other, forming a motley crew of people who find that they can help each other and meet some of each other’s needs.

Yet some dishonestly persists even after the characters share their notebook confessionals, and The Authenticity Project addresses the difficulty of coming clean to people you care about, especially when your relationship with them is built on a lie. Everyone’s hiding something here, and the question is how and when their lies will be exposed.

This is a cute premise, but The Authenticity Project was just okay for me. It’s too cute, and while I was curious to see how things ended up, it was all too light and breezy. I felt like it was written with the adapted-for-Netflix movie already in mind, down to the cute stray dog who comes into Julian’s life and the happy rom com ending. (Though there were some loose ends that never tied up, which surprised and kind of annoyed me.)

Lighter fare isn’t doing it for me during this pandemic, and The Authenticity Project sadly fell into that category.

The Authenticity Project was Book #18 of 2020.

THE OFFICE by Andy Greene

I am reading in fits and starts these days. Most books don’t stick very well, which means that I end up slowly getting through them while wishing I was reading something else. Such is life during pandemic. One book that stuck, though, was The Office: The Untold Story Of The Greatest Sitcom Of The 2000s by Andy Greene. This oral history of one of my favorite sitcoms was entertaining all the way through.

The Office was a sitcom on NBC that aired from 2005 to 2013. Set in the Scranton branch office of a failing paper company, its motley crew of characters combined with single camera setup and a documentary-style production to create must-see-TV in an era when most people time-shifted or ultimately downloaded shows. I watched it when it aired, and then watched it again when my daughters discovered it a few years ago on Netflix, just as many of their Gen Z friends have. It’s a very, very funny show that made Steve Carell, John Krasinski and Rainn Wilson, among others, household names and earned trademarks like “That’s what she said”, The Dundies and Jim and Pam’s first kiss well-deserved spots in TV history.

The Office (the book) is an oral history of the show, told through the perspectives of its creator, Greg Daniels and many of the show’s writers, cast and crew. Starting with the ill-advised decision to recreate the hit British version of the show in the U.S., The Office chronicles the show’s early days when ratings and budgets were low and runs through the nine seasons in which it aired. Greene devotes individual chapters to a few seminal episodes as well, sprinkling in the backstory behind “Diversity Day”, “Casino Night”, “Dinner Party”, “Niagara” and others of The Office‘s most memorable episodes. You’ll learn a lot about the creative process behind the show, the history of its brilliant casting and the legacy it left on television.

You probably already know whether you want to read this book. If you’ve never seen the show, or watched only a few episodes, The Office shouldn’t be on your TBR. But if you watched the whole run (even the dreadful James Spader era), cried when the wedding guests danced down the aisle to “Forever” at Jim and Pam’s wedding, gasped when Michael Scott reappeared in the finale and can’t resist your own well-placed “That’s what she said,” then this is the book for you. Things are pretty dark right now, but The Office provided 14 hours, 20 minutes of escapist entertainment for me at a time I really needed it.

I listened to The Office on audio, which I think is the way to do it. It’s an oral history (the people reading the parts aren’t actually the actual cast and crew) and I liked that I could recognize the different contributors by the narrators’ voices. Plus, Therese Plummer performs the Jenna Fischer sections – score! So if you’re thinking about picking up The Office, give strong consideration to the audiobook.

I’ll finish this post with a list of my favorite Office episodes:

  1. Niagara
  2. The Injury
  3. Basketball
  4. Casino Night
  5. Stress Relief

The Office was Book #17 of 2020.

8 Awesome Books About The 80s

This pandemic has made me nostalgic. Something about quarantine has made me – and clearly other people I know – reach out to old friends and set up Zoom reunions to get back in touch. Seems like we’re all casting back to easier and happier times. If you find yourself in a similarly nostalgic mood… here are my favorite books about my favorite decade, the 80s. Pick up one of these and take a trip back to a really different time.

  1. VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave: Oral history of MTV’s early days told by Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman and Martha Quinn. From my review: “Give it a try – it’s a light but surprisingly engrossing read about a unique time at the intersection of television and music. MTV will never again be what it once was, nor will the music industry, but VJ: The Unplugged Adventures at least memorializes those bygone days.”
  2. Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins. Memoir of Collins’ life, from childhood through his Genesis and solo careers. From my review: “I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.”
  3. Don’t You Forget About Me by Jancee Dunn. Woman in late thirties returns home to parents’ house in this funny novel about the dangers of romanticizing high school in the 80s. From my review: “Dunn is an entertaining writer, and the book was perfectly paced. I laughed out loud several times while reading it, and didn’t want to put it down.”
  4. You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried by Susannah Gora. Detailed, juicy and insightful chronicle of the making of the great teen 80s movies. From my review: “It’s definitely a trip down memory lane, but also a compelling look at a decade of filmmaking that transformed a genre and made a permanent impact on the directors and actors we watch today.”
  5. In The Pleasure Groove by John Taylor. Memoir by Taylor, the bass player for Duran Duran who is thankfully on the other side of a bout with coronavirus. From my review: “Despite my familiarity with this fact pattern, it felt fresh and even suspenseful in Taylor’s words. I don’t know who partnered on this book with him, but it’s smart, well-written and very funny at times. Taylor is pretty honest about his flaws, especially when it comes to his drug use and self-centeredness throughout his addiction, but he is also grateful for – and even a little bit in awe of – all that Duran Duran achieved as a band and the experiences he had.”
  6. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. This is a beautifully written book about Chicago in the mid-80s and how AIDS ravaged the gay community there. It is not a light read, but it is an excellent one. From my review: 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.”
  7. Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein. I never reviewed this book, but I love it. From Amazon: “Mad World is a highly entertaining oral history that celebrates the New Wave music phenomenon of the 1980s via new interviews with 35 of the most notable artists of the period. Each chapter begins with a discussion of their most popular song but leads to stories of their history and place in the scene”.
  8. Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore) by Hadley Freeman. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s on my TBR and I will get to it at some point soon. It’s about “how the changes between movies in the 80s and movies today say so much about society’s expectations of women, young people and art.”

TWENTY-ONE TRUTHS ABOUT LOVE by Matthew Dicks

If you’re having trouble focusing on reading prose right now, how about reading lists instead? Matthew Dicks’ entertaining novel Twenty-One Truths About Love is exactly that: a collection of lists written by Daniel Mayrock, an insecure man in his thirties who is haunted by his wife’s dead first husband and his fear of being bankrupted by his failing bookstore. Lists are about my speed right now, so this was an easy book to get through during quarantine.

Why I Picked It Up: I’ve had Twenty-One Truths About Love on my TBR ever since it came out last year, and when my book club said they wanted a lightish read because we’re all totally stressed out, this was one of the ones I suggested.

Daniel Mayrock quit his teaching job to open a bookstore, thinking he could spend his days surrounded by beloved novels, which he’d recommend to a steady, respectful stream of passionate readers. Instead, he is faced with razor thin margins, customers with bad taste and surly employees. He watches his savings dwindle as the store becomes less and less profitable, a fact he keeps from his adored and newly pregnant wife Jill for fear of disappointing her and invoking inevitable comparisons to her successful, deceased first husband Peter.

Daniel is antisocial, generally friendless and opinionated on all kinds of topics. He’s also smart and funny, and his lists are entertaining, thoughtful and sometimes poignant. He loves his wife and his unborn child, and as he gets increasingly desperate to make (or win, or otherwise procure) money, he goes a little off the deep end. But Twenty One Truths About Love is funny throughout, and I didn’t have trouble sticking with it like I have with other books in recent weeks.

Examples of some of Daniel’s lists: “Why raspberries are a bullshit food”, 3 reasons why I am a terrible man”, “People I hate for being too accomplished”, “6 ways to annoy a child”, “Lyrics that make total sense and are the shit” etc. If those sound compelling, plus more plot-driven ones that won’t make sense in this post, then you’ll like this book.

It turns out that books in list form, when done well, are a lot of fun. Twenty-One Truths About Love is a pretty good choice for right now. Watching Daniel try to make himself into a better man without getting in his own way was a decent distraction.

Twenty-One Truths About Love was Book #16 of 2020 and satisfies the “book with the word ‘love’ in the title” category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

7 Books I Could Not Put Down

I have no attention span these days. Part of the problem is that I am multitasking on steroids, rotating with alarming speed between doing my job and parenting and running a house, while also functioning under a steady moderate to high level of anxiety. Not the most conducive circumstances for reading. Yet, reading is what I crave. So it is taking a special group of books to hold my attention now. Here are some of the books from past reading years that I simply could not put down. Maybe they will grab your attention in these remarkable days as well.

In no particular order:

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (historical fiction, literally the most addictive read ever)

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (smart romance)

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (bittersweet, start of a trilogy)

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (literary fiction about race in modern America)

The Wife Between Us by Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks (psychological thriller)

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (juggernaut Southern novel)

The Risen by Ron Rash (brothers with an old secret)

Stay safe and happy reading.