Category Archives: 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie

I picked up And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie for the Unread Classic category of the 2019 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge. I *think* I read it when I was pretty young and was going through an Agatha Christie phase, but I didn’t remember much about it. It’s one of her classic mysteries: ten unconnected people are summoned to a remote island under vague circumstances. One by one, they start dying. Who is killing them, and why?

And Then There Were None is definitely one of Christie’s creepier mysteries. There is no way on or off the island, so the killer has to be one of the ten people there, right? Who can be trusted? When the deaths start mirroring a children’s maudlin poem framed on the wall of the each of the guest rooms, the tension is ratcheted even further. You know HOW the people are going to die, but you don’t know WHO will die, or when.

My podcast co-host Nicole warned me not to read And Then There Were None at night, especially while in strange hotels when I was traveling. So I saved it for the plane ride home, which was a crowded daytime flight flooded with sunlight. That ended up being a good choice, because I wasn’t all that scared. It was a good mystery, and the characters’ backstories made it interesting. The resolution is pretty satisfying, if a bit (!) unrealistic. I was struck by one thing: this book is outdated! One minor character is referred to as a “dirty Jew”, and the deaths two of the victims – a butler and a maid who are married – are barely even acknowledged because they are hired help. I didn’t realize that Christie was anti-Semitic and that other racist language had appeared frequently in her works. This book actually had two earlier titles, both of which were racist and had to be changed.

I could have gone in a million directions with this category of the reading challenge, and this was a painless, if not terribly memorable, way to tick a book off the list.

BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou

I chose Bad Blood: Secrets And Lies In A Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou for the non-fiction category of the EDIWTB 2019 Reading Challenge. It’s the story of entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos, which rose to dizzying heights based on Holmes’ promise that her technology would allow an array of tests to be performed on tiny drops of blood using portable devices. The promise seemed too good to be true – and it was. Yet Holmes and Theranos managed to con investors, board members and fawning media into believing that Theranos was going to change the world.

Holmes dropped out of Stanford to pursue her dream of revolutionizing medicine through groundbreaking technology that would allow a single drop of blood to substitute for the vials that are traditionally taken from patients’ arms. A small box, which could be used anywhere – in a house, in a drugstore, in a supermarket – could perform hundreds of tests, instantly, delivering accurate results to patients and their doctors. It was an irrestistible premise, and even if the science behind it was nebulous, Holmes found willing audiences among venture capitalists, supermarket chain executives, even prominent people like George Schultz and David Boies.

Theranos’ greatest threat came from within. Employees at all ranks of the company, from the engineers in charge of the labs down to the technicians handling the tests, started having doubts about the science behind Theranos. Bad Blood chronicles in exhaustive detail how Theranos soared publicly while it was crumbling inside. Carreyrou also breaks down how Holmes managed to earn the confidence of very smart, powerful people who took Holmes’ word that the technology was sound without insisting on proof.

Bad Blood is a riveting and deeply disturbing story of arrogance and greed, thanks to brave, tenacious reporting by Carreyrou, an investigative journalist for the Wall Street Journal, who pursued the Theranos story based on a tip from a former employee even as his own newspaper was heralding Theranos’ bright future. The book reads like a newspaper article – factual and meticulous, even as the Theranos story becomes more incredulous. I didn’t find it to be as much of a page-turner as others have, perhaps because nothing really changed – the fraud continues through the book with little deviation or evolution. But in the end, it’s a well-written and compelling account of how one woman put lives at risk, destroyed careers and blew through hundreds of millions of dollars with no apparent conscience or regret.

EVERYTHING IS JUST FINE by Brett Paesel

I chose Everything Is Just Fine by Brett Paesel for my humor book for the EDIWTB 2019 Reading Challenge. I wasn’t really sure what to pick, and this is described as a “brilliant laugh-out-loud satire” so I figured it would fit the bill.

Everything Is Just Fine is about the private lives of a group of parents whose 11 year-old sons are on a Beverly Hills soccer team. The book is told in large part through emails among the parents as the fall soccer season gets underway. There’s the hapless coach who writes emails with spelling mistakes and quotes trite movie lines, and who is also hiding his work misfortunes from his wife. There’s the boozy divorcee who hits Reply All late at night when she’s had too much wine. There are feuding exes who can’t tolerate being at the same game, an eternally positive team mom who can’t admit that her son may be on the spectrum, and a workaholic absentee mother whose nanny covers the games. These characters interact through email exchanges and occasional chapters told through third person narration as they all dig themselves into deeper holes at home.

I don’t know that Everything Is Just Fine is ‘laugh-out-loud’ funny. There are definitely funny moments throughout, but it turns out to be a sadder and deeper book than it’s billed as. These characters are having trouble connecting and communicating, and they have deep regrets about how they’ve lived their lives. There isn’t a healthy marriage in the bunch. So while there is some voyeuristic fun in watching their lives implode and snickering at the email stereotypes, in the end it was all kind of depressing. This was supposed to be my funny book for the year!

In the end, Everything Is Just Fine was a quick and painless read, but it’s not a book I can strongly recommend. It was like reality TV – easy to digest but not very filling.

BELONGING by Nora Krug

Belonging: A German Reckons With History And Home by Nora Krug falls into a new book category for me: graphic memoir. The author is a woman in her thirties who was born in Germany long after World War II, and Belonging is her quest to understand the role her family played in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

Nora Krug grew up in the south of Germany in a town that housed an American air base after WWII. Throughout her childhood, the Holocaust was not discussed or addressed by her family or friends. She recalls a strong feeling of shame about being German, despite having only a vague understanding of what had happened in her own country. She moved to America as a young adult, but remained both homesick for and intensely curious about her home country and her own family tree. She decided to return to Germany to trace her predecessors on both her mother’s and her father’s sides to learn what responsibility they had in the killing of Jews.

There are two elements to Belonging: the research and storytelling, and then the unbelievable visuals that go with them. Krug spent years tracking down her cousins and aunts – estranged on both sides of her family tree – to learn more about her grandfathers and a great-uncle who died in Italy fighting for Germany. Krug, now married to a Jewish man, seeks any evidence she can find that these men were not Nazi supporters, and evem that they had worked to help Jews survive during the Holocaust. She places this quest in the larger context of exploring how Germany as a country dealt with its own responsibility for what happened, and how that sense of responsibility has changed from generation to generation.

Belonging is also a love letter to Germany, one that Krug had clearly suppressed for a long time. She singles out certain objects from her homeland – a special kind of bandaid, a hot water bottle, the forest – and perhaps for the first time, publicly expresses how much these mean to her. I confess that, as an American Jew, I have had little curiosity about German, nor any desire to visit. By showing me Germany through Krug’s eyes, Belonging softened my views and at least piqued my interest.

What’s most compelling about Belonging, though, is the graphic part of the graphic memoir. This is a gorgeous book. It is hand lettered in a clear, consistent type (across 288 pages), interspersed with photographs, drawings, memorabilia, letters, maps and clippings. Krug scoured flea markets and eBay for photos and letters from the time periods she wrote about, so when she didn’t have artifacts from her own family, she borrowed those of others’. What a labor of love this book must have been. I tried to appreciate every page, thinking about how she chose the content she did and how it affected the reading experience. I am not well-versed in graphic novels or memoirs, but I was extremely impressed with Belonging. It reminded me of The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston (which I also loved), but in format only, as this one is non-fiction and intensely personal.

Belonging was a bit of a departure for me, but I am really glad I picked it up.

A WOMAN IS NO MAN by Etaf Rum

A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum takes on a tough topic: three generations of Palestinian women facing lives of restriction, abuse and shame – in America, in the 2000s, no less.

Isra is born in Palestine and married off to a Palestinian-American man named Adam when she is only 17. She moves to Brooklyn, where her life is reduced to her in-laws’ house. She waits each day for her husband to come home, rarely venturing out or doing anything more than preparing meals and cleaning alongside her strong-willed mother-in-law Fareeda. When she produces daughter after daughter, rather than the sons her culture prizes so highly, she sinks deeper into shame and depression. Many years later, her oldest daughter Deja faces the same future her mother did at the same age: a planned marriage to another Palestinian man and the same claustrophobic cycle of housework and servitude.

Is there hope for these women, or at least for future generations? How can these cultural expectations be changed to allow for more fulfilling, equal lives for women? That’s Rum’s question and agenda in writing A Woman Is No Man. For what goes on for these girls is pretty shocking from a modern perspective, but it’s largely invisible. Who knew this was happening in the shadow of one of our most modern, progressive cities?

A Woman Is No Man has been a big book this year, including being selected as a Book of the Month choice, and I am certainly glad that Rum is shining a light on these women and this culture. That said, I found the book to be really repetitive and somewhat of a slog. Rum hammered her theme home over and over, with little plot progression or character development. These women had the same internal dialogue going the whole time. This of course enhanced the repressive, claustrophobic nature of their lives – it was a claustrophobic reading experience! – but it made me enjoy the book a lot less. I kept saying, “Yes, I get it,” in my head as I was reading. I also think this book is a good example of “show don’t tell”. Rum – a debut author – should trust her readers more. We can handle more nuance and subtlety. So while I appreciated the story and the characters, I was overall frustrated by the overall book.

Nicole and I are discussing A Woman Is No Man on our podcast The Readerly Report next week – I’ll drop a link here when the episode airs.

LOOK HOW HAPPY I’M MAKING YOU by Polly Rosenwaike

The short story collection Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike is a kaleidoscope of perspectives on motherhood. The collection roughly follows a chronology, starting with the first story about a woman who is trying to get pregnant and sees the same cute baby on the bus every morning en route to work. Other stories feature women who are pregnant but don’t want to be, women who get pregnant unintentionally, women contemplating single motherhood, new mothers with postpartum depression, women who have lost their mothers.

Rosenwaike’s perspective is fresh and honest, reflecting the often conflicting feelings women have at these points of transition in their lives. The women are smart and funny, emotional and real. This is not a book extolling the magic and mystery of motherhood, but one that puts the experience of parenting through several lenses to get at the many emotions it inspires.

I don’t usually like short stories that much because I find them unsatisfying in terms of character development. This collection overcomes that challenge a bit – the women in these stories are pretty similar, leading to the impression that this is the same character going through all of these different experiences. A degree of continuity throughout the book sets it apart from other story collections. The end result is a look at motherhood that, while not linear, covers a lot of ground.

I especially loved the last story, which made me gasp in recognition.

Someday we will tell you this story. How helpless we felt, how weak, how unprepared, how we couldn’t imagine you falling asleep on your own – and for years you’ve been doing it: lying down in your bed in the dark and trusting that soon the darkness will overtake you. It will please you to hear this, the way it’s pleasing to think of oneself as a baby: tiny, goofy, not quite yourself. To think of your parents younger, uninitiated, baffled by parenthood, people in their own right.

I am a few years past many of the the experiences Rosenwaike addresses in Look How Happy I’m Making You, but her expressive, accessible writing is evocative and insightful, deftly drawing me right back into those years. I really liked this collection and look forward to what Rosenwaike writes next – hopefully a novel so I can delve more deeply.

This book satisfied the short stories category of the 2019 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge.

EDUCATED by Tara Westover

Educated, the juggernaut memoir by Tara Westover, needs no introduction, but for those who may have just returned from time travel or a few years of hibernation, it’s the story of the author’s life growing up in a extreme, survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. At 17, Westover managed to separate herself from her family and go to college at BYU and graduate school at Cambridge. The book is about how education – she never attended school until college – opened her mind to understand her family and how her upbringing had affected her, often negatively.

Educated is a harrowing read, as there are many times when Westover and her parents and siblings were in grave physical danger, whether from a car accident or a gruesome accident at her father’s junkyard. Her parents did not believe in doctors or medicine and were deeply distrustful of government institutions like schools or hospitals. When her brother Luke suffered a horrendous burn when a fuel tank exploded, he was treated with natural remedies and painkillers. When her mother suffered severe head trauma in a car accident, she recovered at home, treating her frequent migraines with herbs.

Westover also experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father and one of her brothers, leading to a near-constant atmosphere of fear and tension at home. She is honest about the impact this abuse had on her as a young woman: she tried not to feel anything at all so that she wouldn’t have to face the pain that they caused.

I admire Westover’s remarkable resilience, as well as her clear, unflinching writing. Her ability to teach herself all that she missed growing up without schooling is astonishing. And her loyalty to her parents, despite their repeated failure to protect her from dangers at home or to take responsibility for the pain suffered by her and her siblings, is a testament to the power of family and upbringing.

I am glad I read Educated, but I can’t say that I loved it. It’s not an enjoyable read, for sure, given the nature of her upbringing. But even beyond that, there is a coldness there, a distanced retelling of her family’s stories that makes it hard to appreciate their full impact. Westover is probably still processing all that happened to her, and the book is clearly part of that process of coming to terms. I am not sure that she is fully on the other side yet. I wonder whether the book would feel more complete if she had waited a few more years to write it, when everything was a little less raw.

I listened to Educated on audio, and it was narrated by acclaimed performer Julia Whelan (aka the author of My Oxford Year and Grace Manning on “Once And Again”). Whelan won an Audie for Best Female Narrator for this performance earlier this year. Her narration was measured and unemotional, almost bordering on angry. I wonder how much her performance contributed to my sense of remove from the book, and whether reading it in print would have made for a different experience.