Category Archives: Audiobooks

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.

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.

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.

THE FOUR: THE HIDDEN DNA OF AMAZON, APPLE, FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE by Scott Galloway

When The Four by Scott Galloway came out last year, I knew I wanted to read it. I work in technology, so this book about Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google was right up my alley. The company I work for, Homesnap, works closely with Facebook, Google and Apple, and Amazon is, of course, Amazon, so I was interested to hear what Galloway, an NYU business school professor, had to say.

The Four goes through each of the Four Horsemen, as he calls them, analyzing how they got so big and powerful, their respective strengths and weaknesses, and what they have in common. He also explains how they are both dependent on and competitive with each other:

Google signaled the end of the brand era… hurting Apple, who also finds itself competing with Amazon in music and film. Amazon is Google’s largest customer, but it’s also threatening Google in search[]. Apple and Amazon are running, full speed, into each other in front of us, on our TV screens and phones, as Google fights Apple to be the operating system of the product that defines our age, the smartphone.

Galloway explains why the Four Horsemen have so quickly outperformed the traditional brands and companies – across many sectors – that were the bedrock of the American economy for decades before Facebook came along. He also identifies the few companies with the potential – but not necessarily the likelihood – of becoming the Fifth Horseman. (Think Uber, Tesla, Microsoft, Walmart).

Even though The Four came out recently – October 2017 – it already feels somewhat outdated. Things have changed for Facebook, for sure, in the intervening months, and Amazon seems to have gained strength in a number of areas even in that short time. (Galloway updates The Four in this 2017 video; I’d like to know what he’d say today.) Amazon really emerges as the company to fear here. Trying to beat them is futile.

If you’re an intense b-school type who lives and dies by numbers, this book might be too light for you. If you like funny, slightly irreverent books about business and technology, this one is for you! I really enjoyed it and learned a lot in the process. If you’re interested in working for one of the Horsemen, then this is required reading.

I listened to The Four on audio. The format – short subsections – lends itself well to audio and I had no trouble staying focused. The narrator, Jonathan Todd Ross, was funny and engaging, faithful to Galloway’s tone throughout the book. If you like audio non-fiction, this is a good one to add to your player.

RAY & JOAN by Lisa Napoli

Ray Kroc is best – if erroneously – known as the founder of McDonald’s. He didn’t actually start the company – the first McDonald’s was owned by two brothers in San Bernardino, CA – but Ray did develop the franchise model that turned McDonald’s into one of the world’s biggest brands, making himself a billionaire in the process. Ray’s third wife, Joan, to whom he was married when he died, gave away the billions of dollars in wealth that her husband created, and she is the subject of Lisa Napoli’s 2016 book, Ray & Joan.

The first half of Ray & Joan covers the history of the McDonald’s chain, including its dusty inception, and the early, lean years of Ray’s ownership of the company. A salesman at heart, he made many missteps along the way to success, each of which is covered in the book. Joan, meanwhile, was a young wife and mother when Ray laid eyes on her in a Minnesota nightclub, playing piano and singing. She stole his heart, and while it would be many years before they were together, he never forgot about her. Ray and Joan were fiery, opinionated people who fought often but were drawn together by a passion that survived three marriages to other people.

By the time the Krocs finally got together for good in 1969, Ray was already very wealthy. The causes that he chose to support were determined by his conservative political views, and Joan often felt limited in her ability to direct her husband’s philanthropy. She tolerated his purchase of the San Diego Padres and took a limited interest in his funding of business schools and various health causes.

But as Ray’s health declined, and after his death in 1984, Joan began to take charge of the family fortune and kicked off what turned into a spectacular – and indiosyncratic – philanthropic career. Her first pet cause was addiction, fueled by her frustration with Ray’s lifelong drinking, and she sought out doctors and institutions who would study the disease and provide resources to other who suffered from it. From there, she moved to nuclear disarmament and end of life hospice support and a host of other causes that caught her attention. 

The most interesting aspect of Ray & Joan is Napoli’s coverage of what prompted Joan to give money away.  She was famously private, and hated being solicited or asked for money. When she gave, she almost always did it anonymously, in large part to prevent others from approaching her looking for a similar donation. She’d see someone on the news doing something that impressed her, and the next day a check would arrive from Joan. At the end of her life, she concentrated her giving on two recipients: NPR and the Salvation Army, though the enormous gifts she left both organizations upon her death came with strings and instructions that made them almost as burdensome (especially in the case of the Salvation Army) as they were lifesaving.

Napoli had a blank slate to work with, as no one had written about Joan Krok before, despite her enormous legacy. Napoli did a good job of unearthing the psychological roots of Joan’s motivations, and by the end I had a good sense of who Joan was, with all of her complications and contradictions. The book moves along pretty steadily, and it’s fascinating to track the path of Joan’s hundreds of millions of dollars.

I listened to Ray & Joan on audio. It was narrated by the author, and I didn’t love it. Napoli has a chirpy voice and she enunciates VERY clearly, and sometimes that voice just didn’t match the subject matter. She’d be talking about someone dying, or a terrible tragedy, and she was just too upbeat and perky for what she was talking about, like she was reading a children’s book. Also – warning – listening to this book for 9 hours in the car as you drive around will make you crave McDonald’s, and it gets really bad if you’re at all hungry. To date, I’ve resisted the urge, but it was challenging.

i enjoyed Ray & Joan and am glad I finally got to it, as it has been on my shelf for a few years. I recommend the print over the audio.

THE OTHER WOMAN by Sandie Jones

POPCORN ALERT.

The Other Woman by Sandie Jones is about a boyfriend’s-mother-from-hell. Emily, a twentysomething in London, meets Adam at a pub one night. They start dating, and he seems too good to be true – handsome, successful and attentive. After a few months, Emily meets his mother Pammie. At first, Pammie seems sweet, but by their second meeting, Emily starts to realize how manipulative she is. Pammie undermines Emily at every turn, excludes her and constantly makes her feel insecure about her relationship with Adam. As the chapters go by, Pammie’s behavior grows more and more egregious. Emily is constantly torn between her love for Adam and her hatred of his mother. (She is a rather frustrating and unlikable character herself, but she was in such an unenviable position that I tried to forgive her and cheer her on.)

The cover of The Other Woman proclaims that it is “fiendishly clever with a twist you will not see coming”. So I am not spoiling anything by saying that there is a twist in the book. But I do not want to say much more about the plot for fear of giving anything away. Pammie is definitely a force to be reckoned with and as I read I wondered how things could possibly be resolved. Which of these two women would win out in the end? That kept the pages turning.

I learned from an interview with Sandie Jones that she didn’t know where she was going with the plot when she started, that she worked it out as she went along. I can see that – the resolution wasn’t really consistent with the rest of the book and felt hastily appended.

The Other Woman was a fast read and certainly kept my attention. But it’s popcorn, in the end. If you’re in the mood for an engaging psychological thriller, you might enjoy this one.

I listened to The Other Woman on audio until I was near the end, when I finished it off in print. Great narration by Clare Corbett, who made Pammie just deranged enough to be realistic and communicated Emily’s insecurity and poor judgment credibly. I love those British accents!