Author Archives: gayle

BECOMING by Michelle Obama

I just finished the 19-hour audiobook of Becoming, narrated by author Michelle Obama. It was totally worth the time investment, as I loved every minute of it.

Becoming is Michelle Obama’s memoir of her life to date (age 54 when she finished the book). It opens with her childhood on the south side of Chicago, where she lived with her parents and her older brother Craig. She describes the Robinsons’ small apartment, her father’s debilitating MS, her mother’s consistent and loving parenting, and the schools she attended in Chicago. The book follows her to Princeton, to Harvard Law School, to her years as an associate at a big law firm, and to her meeting a young summer associate named Barack Obama. The rest of her story is well-known, at least on the surface.

Becoming is an intensely personal, eloquent and relatable memoir about, as Michelle herself describes herself, “an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey”. My favorite parts: her days as a young working mother, when she would run errands at a nearby mall during lunch and congratulate herself on getting it all done; her struggle with infertility, combined with a frequently-absent husband; her struggle to balance the demands of the White House with the need to support her daughters and keep their lives private; and the insights into her partnership with Barack and their relationship within the walls of the White House.

It’s powerful to hear her talk about the issues and causes that meant so much to her – healthy eating and exercise for kids (including the White House garden), supporting military families and wounded veterans, empowering girls around the world – and how hard she worked to use her position to make meaningful progress with those causes.

I also loved the behind-the-scenes details about life at the White House and how isolating it could be. One night, when the White House was lit in rainbow colors to celebrate the legalization of gay marriage, Michelle and Malia tried to sneak out of the residence in order to experience the lights the way the thousands of celebrants outside did. She wanted to hear the sounds – something that was impossible to do within the White House.

Becoming is beautifully written, utterly captivating and pure pleasure to read. I can’t say enough good things about it – and its author.

I listened to Becoming on audio. Michelle’s narration makes the book even that more powerful. It is amazing to hear her experiences and thoughts in her own voice. She’s a consistent and compelling narrator. If you can spare the time, I highly recommend the audio!

THERE THERE by Tommy Orange

There There, the debut novel by Tommy Orange, takes a group of 12 Native American characters living in Oakland, explores each person’s history, and then throws them all together at the same event, a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. There are recovering alcoholics, kids whose parents have left them behind, drug dealers, drug counselors, aspiring filmmakers and obese gamers… a kaleidoscope of interwoven lives of sadness, disappointment, resignation and the occasional glimpse of hope.

There’s quite a lot to like about this searing novel. Orange takes his readers through a shameful litany of the ways America has treated and depicted Native Americans over the centuries before introducing his cast of characters, hanging a backdrop that provides the grim context for their lives. He revisits each character a few times throughout There There, tracking their progress toward the event that brings them all together at the end and exploring the reasons why they attended it. Some worked at the powwow, one went to meet his birth father, one discovered her birth mother, and some just went to get a better understanding of their Native American heritage.

This isn’t a light read, but it’s a good one. Orange is an efficient, incisive writer who isn’t afraid to shock his readers with the harsh reality of our shameful history with Native Americans. Some of the characters ran together, but I started jotting notes at the beginning at each chapter, which helped. In the end, it’s the cumulative effect of their stories – not the individual threads – that really heighten the book’s power.

I was disappointed by the ending, where Orange turned to violence to wrap up these stories. Is that his message? The only way out from these lives is blood and murder? History may have proved him right, but it felt like a cop-out here, especially after such a rich buildup.

I listened to most of There There on audio, and it was narrated by four people – Darrell Dennis, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Kyla Garcia and Alma Cuervo – who each took on a few characters. The narration was quiet and moving, fitting for the book. It’s a little confusing to listen to There There on audio, simply because the chapters are short and there are so many changes in perspective. I recommend having a copy of the print as well, and as I mentioned earlier, jotting down a few notes while characters were fresh was very helpful for me.

Despite the ending, I recommend There There, both for the importance of the subject matter and the merits of the writing. It’s a worthwhile book and I am glad that I read it.

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT by Kent Haruf

My hot reading streak in January continued with Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls At Night. Addie and Louis are single, in their early 70s, living in a small Colorado town near Denver named Holt. Both lost their longterm spouses within the last few years. One night, Addie appears on Louis’ doorstep with a proposition: she is lonely, and suspects he is too, and wonders if he would like to come over and night and sleep in her bed. She’s not suggesting a physical relationship, just companionship at night.

Louis is surprised, but intrigued, and decides to give it a try. The two embark on a sweet, gentle relationship in which they reveal their true, flawed selves to each other, acknowledging mistakes they made in their marriages and their disappointments in their lives. Not only do they accept each other as is, they genuinely enjoy each other’s company. This is a grownup, realistic relationship, one without expectations or delusions of forever.

Their quiet routine – which has attracted the attention of their small town – is disrupted when Addie’s young grandson Jamie comes to stay with her while his parents navigate a separation. Addie and Louis absorb Jamie into their lives, providing him with love and stability while their relationship deepens around him. Sadly, Jamie’s father, Addie’s son Gene, distrusts Louis and puts pressure on his mother to stop spending time with him.

There is a melancholy that pervades Our Souls At Night, turning the sweet moments bittersweet. It is not surprising that Kent Haruf was himself dying as he wrote Our Souls At Night; mortality and looking back on one’s life are pervasive themes. (And the ending is simply heartbreaking.)

I loved Haruf’s spare, quiet writing, his depiction of simple scenes that carry deep meaning and significance. I can’t believe I haven’t read anything else by him before – I am going to add some of his other Holt-set books to my list this year. What a lovely book this was.

One caveat – no quotation marks! Annoying.

THE HATING GAME by Sally Thorne

Like so much of life – relationships, career moves – reading is all about timing. Sometimes you’re in the mood for a particular kind of book, and sometimes you’re not. It’s just timing. This is why I don’t plan my TBR – I just let it happen.

Recently, I had finished my audiobook and started the one I had planned to read next, a memoir about a man who had been on death row for 30 years for a crime that he didn’t commit. I listened to the first half hour or so, then picked up the print to see what I thought, and then came to the conclusion that it was just the wrong book for me at that time. It was well-written and extremely compelling, but I was too stressed out and preoccupied with life to get into it.

Instead, I picked up something light and fun, and it turned out to be exactly the right choice.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne is about Lucy Hutton and Joshua Templeman, two junior executives at a publishing house who are bitter, angry rivals. They report to co-CEOs, a management structure dictated by the merger of two companies, and spend their days sitting outside their bosses’ offices playing immature games designed to unnerve, infuriate and enrage each other. Whether it’s staring, eavesdropping or making snarky comments, every action taken by these two is meant to sabotage and destroy the other.

So we all know what’s going to happen, right? But how Thorne gets Lucy and Josh from detesting each other to something very different is a great ride. Their banter is genuinely funny and clever, and the buildup of the physical tension between Lucy and Josh makes the pages turn quickly. I would have liked a *little* more hating – maybe two more chapters – before the wall began to crumble, but that’s a minor quibble. I also think The Hating Game wrapped up too quickly – as readers we should have had a little more time to enjoy its hard-won glory. But in all it was a great palate-cleanser. Every now and again, I need something like this to balance the depressing weight of my usual fare.

I listened to The Hating Game on audio (except when I just couldn’t put it down and picked up the print). I know I’m enjoying an audiobook when I bring my phone into the shower to listen. Katie Schorr was the perfect Lucy. I can’t imagine any other voice for that character!

If you’re in the mood for something light that will distract and entertain you, try The Hating Game. I was surprised to like it as much as I did.

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.