Category Archives: 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge

GOLDEN CHILD by Claire Adam

At the beginning of Golden Child by Claire Adam, Clyde, the father in a family of four in Trinidad, returns home from his job at an oil refinery. He learns that one of his twin boys – Paul – has disappeared, leaving his wife Joy and his other son Peter at home. Peter is an exceptionally smart boy who tested into a private school and is on track to go to college in America, while Paul, who had complications at birth, has been labeled “retarded” and struggles to keep up in school. Paul’s disappearance, coming on the heels of a recent burglary at their modest home, sets events in motion that will test the family’s love for and commitment to their two sons.

Golden Child is a tough read. I enjoyed the foreign setting of rural Trinidad and reading about the challenges the family faced in trying to move up. Clyde is a hard worker and doesn’t want assistance – financial or otherwise – from family members, even those who offered to help his sons with their education. His commitment to independence and self-reliance is tested when it becomes clear that Peter is unique and deserving of opportunities that Clyde cannot provide without help. Yet his acceptance of that help turns out to be the family’s downfall, as it brings with it menace and danger.

The decisions faced by Clyde and Joy are beyond painful, and Golden Child is a pretty stressful and sad book. It’s kind of a hard book to describe – it felt almost like a fable to me, written in a simple but literary style. I found it to be memorable, propulsive and ultimately, devastating.

Golden Child is the second book from Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint, SJP for Hogarth. Her first, A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (reviewed here) also explores complex family relationships and sibling dynamics in a non-American culture. I am impressed with SJP’s picks and eager to see what she releases next.

INHERITANCE by Dani Shapiro

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro is a memoir about the author’s discovery that the man she had always considered her father was not, in fact, her biological father. An Ancestry.com DNA test she did on a whim – her husband was doing one, so she decided to do it too – revealed that Shapiro and her half-sister were not, in fact, related, setting into motion an intense quest for truth and answers surrounding Shapiro’s conception. When Shapiro made this discovery, both her parents were already dead, forcing her to piece together the circumstances of her birth with little help from others.

I’ve read a few of Shapiro’s novels, but she is best known for her memoirs. And I can see why – her writing is clear and precise, honest and compelling. She takes her readers through each step of her path to understanding how she was conceived via a sperm donor – and whether her parents knew. She flashes back in time to instances during her childhood where she felt she somehow didn’t belong with her Orthodox Jewish family. Shapiro adored her father, and Jewish culture and custom were something she shared with him (even though she doesn’t really consider herself a religious person). Despite her fair complexion and blonde hair, Shapiro identified as a Jew growing up and resented when people pointed out that she “didn’t look Jewish”. Yet learning that her father was not her biological father explained confusion and distance she felt growing up, but also left her feeling rootless and without an identity.

I think I would enjoy reading about Shapiro’s trips to the supermarket – that’s how much I enjoy her writing – but this story of secrets and discovery was engrossing. You might be tempted to ask whether, at age 54, this news should really have had this much of an impact on the author, who is, after all, a successful, married author and writer. Yet whenever I had those thoughts, I kept reading, and really came to understand just how disorienting the discovery was for her, and why it was important for her to find her biological father. Good writing will do that.

I listened to Inheritance on audio, narrated by the author, and it was excellent. I feel lucky to have heard such a highly personal story read by the person who experienced it. Shapiro’s narration is like her writing: consistent, clear and eloquent. The audio was easy to follow and I was always eager to return to it.

Inheritance was a very good memoir and a good read – well worth the time.

WHEN YOU READ THIS by Mary Adkins

When You Read This by Mary Adkins is a modern epistolary novel told through emails, texts and blog posts. Smith Simonyi is a PR executive who has recently lost his assistant, Iris, to cancer. Iris had written a blog for a community for dying people, and he discovers after her death that she wanted him to have her blog published. He reaches out to publishers to gauge interest in her blog, while also starting up a correspondence with her sister, Jade, who is still deeply grieving and unwilling to open her sister’s writing up to the public.

Most of When You Read This is made up of emails between Jade and Smith, blog posts by Iris, and correspondence between Smith and his clueless college student intern and his increasingly frustrated clients. As Jade and Smith get to know each other better and Smith confronts some of his own issues, including his relationship with his paralyzed mother and his gambling addiction, the reader also gets an appreciation of what Iris meant to both of them and the guilt they each feel about her death.

When You Read This is a pretty fast read. It’s a little quirky and at times pretty funny (I don’t usually laugh out loud when I read, but I did several times while reading it), but also quite poignant. Iris’ blog entries are honest and sad, as she comes to terms with the end of her life at age 39. There is also a voyeuristic element to the book, as you know you’re reading things you’re not supposed to be privy to.

When You Read This is a realistic look at grief and relationships, with a modern, updated feel, thanks to its format. I picked it up at the recommendation of a few bloggers and I am glad I did.

THE ONES WE CHOOSE by Julie Clark

This year I made a resolution to read only books that came highly recommended by sources I trust. For the most part, I’ve stuck to that resolution, and the results have been stellar. I’ve only deviated a few times, with mixed results. One book I didn’t finish, and the other was The Ones We Choose by Julie Clark, which I picked up on impulse at the Elliott Bay Bookstore because the premise looked interesting and it had some 5-star Goodreads reviews.

The Ones We Choose is a debut about paternity, identity and expectation. Page is a geneticist living in southern California with an 8 year-old son, Miles, who she conceived using a sperm donor. When The Ones We Choose opens, Miles is asking more about who is father is and complaining that he’s different from everyone else because he doesn’t have one. Paige, meanwhile, is dealing with paternal issues of her own. She is leading a study on the role of oxytocin in fathers and whether levels of that hormone can predict the strength of paternal bonding with children. She has a complicated history with her own father, who has come and gone intermittently her whole life, leaving her feeling extremely protective of her own emotions and even more protective of her son’s. And finally, her romantic relationship with a kind, understanding man is at a crossroads, as he becomes increasingly impatient with her unwillingness to open up emotionally and let him get close to her son.

Fathers, fathers, fathers.

Unexpectedly, Paige comes face-to-face with her sperm donor – someone she and Miles have a connection to – and she has to decide whether to reveal their connection and cause reverberations for all parties involved.

I enjoyed The Ones We Choose. Clark has a nice handle on relationships, particularly those between women. She also does a good job with realistic dialogue and the ways people interact, physically and verbally. (In an interview in the back of the book, she said that as a 5th grade teacher, she spends a lot of time observing kids and how they behave.) There are also interesting explanations throughout the book about genetics, sperm donation, and related topics, which I liked a lot.

My one complaint about The Ones We Choose is that the theme of paternity was just too strongly and conveniently threaded throughout. I read in the interview that Clark didn’t make Paige a geneticist when she first started writing, and I kind of wish she hadn’t in the end. It was all too much – her issues with her father, her use of a sperm donor, her abandonment issues – and on top of all of it her own research on what makes fathers bond – or not – with their kids. There are too many parallels (and coincidences!) throughout the book, and it all felt a bit contrived. The book would have been more powerful if she had focused on one or two threads along this theme, rather than the four she included.

The Ones We Choose is an interesting and well-told story, and for a debut novel it is very promising. I’d like to read more by Julie Clark.

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.

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.