Category Archives: Non-Fiction

MAID by Stephanie Land

When Stephanie Land was in her 20s living in the Pacific Northwest, she got romantically involved with a man and ended up getting pregnant. She hadn’t planned on becoming a mother then – and was in fact planning to go to college in Montana – but she decided to have the baby and try to make it work with her boyfriend. They ultimately broke up, sending Land down the path of trying to support herself and her daughter Mia as a single mother with no safety net from her family or other means of income. Maid is Land’s memoir about her years working as a housecleaner and living off of the very low wages she earned doing physically exhausting work while trying to keep a roof over Mia’s head and furthering her own education and a career as a writer.

While Maid is a very personal account of Land’s life, it is also a look at low-wage jobs in America and how poverty leads to a precarious existence that is one bad stroke of luck away from homelessness. Land writes about her hopelessness after a car accident that left her without any means to get to and from the houses she cleaned, the black mold and frigid temperatures in the studio apartment she rented (the only one she could afford), and the disdain she felt from those behind her in line at the grocery store when she used public assistance to pay for her food. The chips are stacked against single mothers, and Land’s everyday existence was a struggle, from trying to get access to the welfare money for which she qualified to finding care for Mia when she was sick and Land couldn’t miss work.

So Maid is a pretty controversial book. Some readers have very moved by it, while some found Land whiny and entitled. I fell into the first camp. Land is not perfect and sometimes made some bad decisions, but generally I found her very compelling. She clearly wanted the best for her daughter and did the best she could to provide it. She worked hard, despite hating the work itself, and always had Mia’s best interests at heart. Land was alone, without financial or emotional family support, and her existence was often a lonely one. She bore sole responsibility for Mia’s health and enrichment, except on the weekends when Mia saw her father, and she did it on a very low income. I tried to imagine myself in her position several times, and it was hard – I have family nearby and backup funds and the means to provide basic things that Land had to work so hard for.

Maid provides needed perspective and insight into an often invisible demographic. It made me think harder about the people who do the menial jobs we take for granted – cleaning and custodial work that. How many times have I passed my office’s cleaning staff on my way out the door without giving them much thought? Since reading Maid, I’ve tried to be more aware, more mindful and more appreciative of the people who do these jobs, working very hard to make ends meet and often falling short.

I listened to Maid on audio and I highly recommend it. It’s narrated by Land, and she’s a clear, precise performer. Some listeners complained that she was whiny, but I don’t agree. My only complaint is that there are a lot of unanswered questions about her own family and why they were so unhelpful to her. The sections about her family seemed most unsatisfying on audio, where her narration seemed almost too dispassionate on this topic. Overall, though, I am really glad I opted for the audio version.

Maid was Book #11 of 2020.

UNCANNY VALLEY by Anna Wiener

Anna Wiener was a twentysomething living in Brooklyn in the 2010s and working in publishing when, on a whim, she applied to work for a tech startup in the e-book space. After a few months there, she decided to move to San Francisco and try her luck in the promised land of tech. Uncanny Valley is Wiener’s memoir about working at two startups in San Francisco and her take on the digital economy and what it’s like to experience it from the inside.

Why I picked it: I love memoirs, and I work for a tech startup so I figured I’d recognize some of what she describes. I am fascinated – always have been – with anything Internet-related, so this was a no-brainer.

Off the bat: Wiener is a beautiful writer. What I would give to have her talent! She writes so eloquently about San Francisco, her colleagues, the work she did – she made it poetic. About SF: “The city, trapped in nostalgia for its own mythology, stuck in a hallucination of a halcyon past, had not quite caught up to the newfound momentum of tech’s dark triad: capital, power, and a bland, overcorrected heterosexual masculinity.” About a cabinet secretary: “I wondered what it was like to lead a life of public service – climbing the ladder, accumulating credentials, walking the thinnest lines, probably owning a tuxedo – only to find himself catering to the growing power of Silicon Valley, with its baby tyrants, all the one-hit wonders who had dropped out of school and become their own bosses and thought they knew how the world worked.”

So I thought the first half of this book was brilliant. Wiener depicted so well the culture shock in the tech world, her vacillation between wanting to belong and questioning the value of her work, and the occasional absurdity of the digital economy. She also raises legitimate questions about privacy and the amount of personal information available to employees at all levels of the companies she worked for, a data analytics startup and an open source sharing site (unnamed, but it’s Github). I relished every page, nodding in recognition at times, eagerly absorbing information at others.

The second half of the book took a turn, though, and became somewhat meandering and lost its purpose. Wiener has general complaints about how women are treated in tech, but she doesn’t base them in her own experience beyond a few limited examples. She is restless in her customer success manager role, far removed from and considered less important than her developer colleagues’, but she doesn’t seem to have a sense for what she’d rather be doing. She’s sort of along for the ride. Aside from Weiner’s high-level doomsday warnings about the dangers posed by “the social network everyone hates” and the monetization of data and erosion of privacy, it’s hard to get at her agenda.

So Uncanny Valley was a mixed bag for me. I *loved* a lot of it, but in the end was left a bit empty. On balance, though, I’d recommend picking it up.

Uncanny Valley was Book #2 of 2020 and also satisfied the Non-Fiction category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

THE ONLY PLANE IN THE SKY: AN ORAL HISTORY OF 9/11 by Garrett Graff

The Only Plane In The Sky by Garrett Graff is an oral history of 9/11, told by hundreds of people who experienced that day firsthand. Graff painstakingly reconstructed the chronology of September 11, 2001, from the four planes boarding and taking off and President Bush’s now-famous appearance at a school in Sarasota, FL, to the planes colliding with their targets, the falling of the buildings, and the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero and the Pentagon. While this is a very difficult book to read, it is incredibly powerful and one that I highly recommend.

The Only Plane In The Sky is structured as an oral history, with limited additional commentary and information by the author. Hearing the words of the people who lived through it made the whole day more immediate – and, in retrospect, even more scary – for me, and I have a better sense of what they went through and the enormity of the efforts by first responders in both New York and Virginia to rescue people in the buildings. Graff also interviews people who lost loved ones in the building and on the planes, which is of course unbelievably moving and a reminder of the grief that so many people still feel personally experience from 9/11.

I learned a lot from The Only Plane In The Sky as well. One of the people Graff interviewed describes how the nation’s air traffic controllers were able to ground 3,500 of the planes in the air at the time within the first hour of the attacks, and 700 within the first ten minutes. (Of course, one of the things many people commented on about the days after 9/11 was the disconcerting quiet of the planeless skies, punctuated only by the buzz of military planes patrolling major U.S. cities.)

Graff also interviewed people close to President Bush, such as Ari Fleischer and Karen Hughes, and I learned much more about what he did immediately after the attacks and how handicapped Air Force One was by a lack of information and crude communications technology. The president’s plane circled a Florida city while advisers tried to decide where to go, with their only source of news a local TV station whose signal would go in and out as the plane circled in and out of range. Bush and his staff were more in the dark than people watching CNN at home.

I was also unaware of the huge evacuation efforts that took place by boat from lower Manhattan as people fled Ground Zero. Thousands of people were taken to Staten Island and New Jersey by a fleet that consisted of pleasure boats, ferries, Coast Guard vessels, and even private yachts that NYPD broke into while docked to get people (some of whom were jumping into the Hudson River) out of Manhattan.

The Only Plane In The Sky was a tough read, and I did it over about two months because I just couldn’t read that much of it at one time. (I especially had trouble reading it before bed.) But it is one of my top reads of the year, and I feel grateful for the experience of reading it. I never like to call anything “required reading”, but I will call this “very highly recommended reading” for anyone who wants to really understand that happened that day, or who perhaps wasn’t alive in 2001 and didn’t experience it themselves.

I am especially impressed with Garrett Graff, who undertook the task of reviewing thousands of interviews from witnesses to 9/11 and synthesizing them into this highly readable and compelling format.  

THE BEST SKIN OF YOUR LIFE STARTS HERE by Paula Begoun

You probably know people in your life who are good at makeup, intuitively know how to care for their skin and look polished and fresh all the time. I am definitely not one of those people. When it comes to my skin, I need all the instruction I can get. So when I had to choose a book for the Self Help category of the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, I picked one about skin care that has been on my shelf since 2016: The Best Skin Of Your Life Starts Here by Paula Begoun.

Here’s what’s good about this book. It gives very clear instructions for exactly how to take care of your skin. This is the kind of self-help book I like – one that gives very practical guidance that you can implement as soon as you read it (like Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up or Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Hungover). I am not into self-help books about being happy or productive or relaxed, or business books about effective habits and smart leadership. But a book that tells me to use a cleanser and then a toner and then an exfoliant and then a moisturizer? Yes.

The Best Skin Of Your Life Starts Here covers how to establish a skincare routine, which essential elements should be part of that routine, how to tell what kind of skin you have, how to treat acne, how to treat other skin problems and what plastic surgery and injections can accomplish. The book can be repetitive, but that just made me learn the content faster. A few key takeaways:

  • The most important thing you can do for your skin is wear sunscreen! ALL THE TIME.
  • Vitamin C does wonders for your skin.
  • Consistency is key when it comes to skincare regimens.
  • Don’t buy products in clear glass bottles or use old products.

I learned a lot from The Best Skin Of Your Life Starts Here and have implemented a new skincare routine since I finished Chapter 2. I also totally overhauled my bathroom counter and now actually understand what I have and what it’s used for.

Soon I’ll look 10 years younger. Right?

ONE DAY: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF AN ORDINARY 24 HOURS IN AMERICA by Gene Weingarten

Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten rolled the dice in 2013 when he asked three strangers to pick three numbers out of a hat. Those three numbers would form a date, and for his next book, he would find noteworthy things that happened on that day and tell those stories. The date he ended up with? December 28, 1986. Weingarten was triply disappointed – 1986 wasn’t terribly newsy, and the 28th of December – a Sunday, ugh – fell during the sleepy lull between Christmas and New Year’s. He had his work cut out for him.

One Day: The Extraordinary Story Of An Ordinary 24 Hours In America is the collection of some of the stories he unearthed while researching what happened across America on December 28, 1986. There’s a wide range here – some love stories, some crime stories, a story about race relations in New York, a story about two men who died of AIDS on the same day, and many more. Most of the stories use that date as a launchpad but continue decades into the future, relating the strange and improbable turns that many of the lives took in the decades that followed. Most of the stories have some sort of a twist – the couple with the abusive husband has stayed together; the baby pulled from the burning home survived; the woman accused of killing her parents never served time. Weingarten was clearly most interested in writing about times when people beat the odds and managed to make it past that fateful day.

Some chapters of One Day are more interesting than others. Looking back now, having finished the book, there are chapters that bleed into each other in my mind, and few that truly stand out as memorable. But that said, I enjoyed One Day quite a bit, and I admire the book perhaps more for what it accomplished than for the actual substance of the chapters. I can’t imagine the amount of research that went into this book – identifying stories that had their germ on that day and then tracing their resolution to determine if anyone would want to read about it, and then setting up and conducting all those interviews. Weingarten said that writing One Day took four years longer than he expected, and I can see why.

If you enjoy books like A Day In The Life Of America (I was obsessed with this book as a kid), this is its prose-format cousin.

I listened to One Day on audio, which I don’t recommend. It is narrated by Johnathan McClain, and I found his delivery to be too glib for the subject matter, which often included death, murder, abuse and other serious topics. I was put off by the tone he often used when he relayed some of the chapters. He’s not a bad performer; he just wasn’t the right choice for this book.

THREE WOMEN by Lisa Taddeo

Ack – I finished Three Women by Lisa Taddeo over a week ago, but haven’t had a chance to post a review yet. So here I am with a very late review. Three Women was one of the very buzzy books of the past summer. Taddeo followed three women – an Indiana mother, a restauranteur in Newport and a high school student in North Dakota – over the course of a decade to explore sexuality, love and intimacy in their lives. Three Women is non-fiction; the three women exist, and they spent years with Taddeo sharing their most personal thoughts and experiences.

I really enjoyed Three Women. Lina, Maggie and Sloane are different from each other, of course, in age, location and socioeconomic status, but they share universal feelings of loneliness, longing, lust and love. Maggie, the high school student who has a relationship with her English teacher that he later denies, is ostracized and punished when her allegations against him are ultimately followed by his exoneration. Lina, trapped in a marriage to man who does not desire her, embarks on an affair that brings her both passion and intense loneliness. And Sloane is happily married but indulges her husband’s desire for her to sleep with other people, bringing on a flood of feelings of guilt, lust and power.

Three Women reads like fiction because these women’s internal lives are so beautifully and thoroughly exposed throughout the book. It’s hard to believe that Taddeo was able to build such deep trust and extract so much detail and raw honesty from them. (This BookPage interview explains how she met the women and how she built that trust.) The end result is hard to put down. I think most women reading this book will recognize some of themselves in each of Lina, Maggie and Sloane, even if they haven’t been in a similar position before. The emotions expressed by the women are universal.

Three Women is not a treatise on female desire. It’s not a seminal work on male-female relationships. But it is an example of what can happen when a subject deeply trusts the author writing about her and is willing to look unflinchingly into the lens of scrutiny. It is rare to get such a look into someone else’s life, and I found the experience utterly captivating.

IN THE PLEASURE GROOVE: LOVE, DEATH AND DURAN DURAN

I am a sucker for rock memoirs (ie Born To Run and Not Dead Yet), and I’ve had In The Pleasure Groove: Love, Death And Duran Duran by Duran Duran bassist John Taylor on my TBR for a long time. I listened to it on audio this summer, and am so glad that I did. This may be a top 5 read of the year!

John Taylor was born Nigel Taylor to a working class family in Birmingham in 1960. He got into music as a young teenager, traveling around England with his best friend Nick Rhodes to see his favorite bands and rock idols (people like David Bowie), while cultivating his own dreams of rock stardom. While he had other interests like art and design, he convinced his parents to bankroll him for one year while he tried to make it as a musician. The Pleasure Groove takes readers through the earliest days of Duran Duran, how the band (Simon LeBon, Roger Taylor, Andy Taylor, Rhodes and J. Taylor) was formed, how they developed their sound and how quickly they got popular. The book follows the usual Behind The Music chronology – the first breakthrough single, the early success, the tours, the meteoric rise, the drugs, the fame, the women, the inevitable band tensions, the apex (Live Aid, in this case), the rift, the breakup, the spinoff projects, the rehab, the tentative reconnection and the band reunion. It’s all here. (I don’t think I have spoiled anything – this all really happened, decades ago.)

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. While the intensity of fame was difficult for him to handle at the time, he’s also very appreciative of his fans, then and now.

Plus there are lots of DD details, like how the band was run (as a democracy), what the album titles mean, the stories behind many of their hit songs, their various romantic relationships, etc. I loved that stuff. I decided I wanted to have a copy of this book for my shelves, so I ordered a used print copy since I only had the audio, and there are lots of photos included too. The photo quality isn’t great, but there are many pictures sprinkled throughout the book.

If you do The Pleasure Groove on audio, you get John Taylor himself as the narrator. He’s awesome. Funny, self-deprecating, eloquent. Just what you want from the guy who used to hang on your bedroom wall when you were a pre-teen. I caught Duran Duran in DC when they were on their reunion tour several years ago, but having Taylor tell me his life story in the car with me for 8 hours was also really fun. I highly recommend this book and audiobook.

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.

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.

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.