Category Archives: Non-Fiction

WHAT HAPPENED by Hillary Rodham Clinton

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and rarely political non-fiction, but I made an exception for Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, which is her post-mortem on the 2016 election.

Full disclosure: #I’mWithHer. Have been from the beginning – even the 2008 presidential race. My husband worked for Hillary for four years at the State Department, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet her, as have my kids. So I went into What Happened already a big fan of Hillary’s. And I went into it as someone who was existentially disappointed after the 2016 election and who has been depressed and angry ever since. So that’s the prism through which I read the book.

Even though What Happened got me angry all over again, I really enjoyed it and am glad I read it. There are several sections of the book: some background on her decision to run for president in ’08 and ’16, some chapters about her personal life, a fair amount (too much?) about her policy positions, and, of course, a detailed dissection of the months leading up to Election Day 2016. There is a lot of coverage of Comey and the emails, and a very alarming chapter on Russia’s tampering in the election. But she doesn’t just blame her loss on Bernie and the emails and the Russians. Hillary takes on a lot of responsibility for the way things turned out. She knows there are a lot of people who don’t like her (as hard as that is for her), and she acknowledges missteps she made during the campaign, such as her controversial comment about coal mining. She also offers a lot of theories for why certain groups voted for Trump, why some didn’t vote at all, and how campaign tweaks might have flipped key districts that ended up sealing the deal for Trump.

It’s so clear to me that Hillary was absolutely qualified to be president and that our world would be such a different, safer and better place than it is now, had she won. What Happened confirmed all that, of course, but it also gave me a better sense of who Hillary is as a person, which I appreciated. Her humor shows through in the book, as does her intellect and her passion for public service and making the world a better place, particularly for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged.

Here are some of the criticisms and reservations I’ve heard about this book: “I can’t read it. Too soon.”; “She’s not going to talk about her role in losing the election.”; “Enough from her already.”; “It will make me too upset”. I get it; yes, she did; it’s never enough; and yes, it’s beyond upsetting. But it was oddly reassuring to hear her perspective, and to hear her say that we’ll get through this and that things will get better again. I hope she really believes that, because I am depending on that hope.

I listened to What Happened on audio. It’s narrated by Hillary, and hearing this all in her words and in her voice made for a very powerful experience. I highly recommend the audio on this one. I am not going to go into her narration – you know what Hillary sounds like. (I will confess that I sped it up a little bit because she talks pretty slowly. It’s a long book!)

My guess is you’re either going to read this book or you’re not. I can only say that if you’ve been hesitating because you’re worried you’ll be too upset, give it a try. You may be surprised by how it makes you feel.

REAL AMERICAN by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims’ memoir Real American is about the author’s experience growing up biracial in America and how it shaped who she is. Lythcott-Haims, daughter of an African-American father and a white British mother, was born in Africa when her parents were working there, but moved as a young girl to the U.S. She lived in a few different places, some more racially diverse than others, and spent much of her life feeling conflicting about her mixed race. She didn’t have many black friends as a teenager, and in many ways she suppressed that side of herself in order to fit in. She went on to college and law school, eventually moved to California, and in her late 20s she took a job as a dean at Stanford.

It wasn’t until that job at Stanford, and her marriage to a white man, that Lythcott-Haims really started investigating her relationship with race, her roots and the society into which she brought two mixed-race children. Real American is a collection of short, essay-like chapters (some as short as a few paragraphs) in which Lythcott-Haims explores her childhood and the emergence of her black identity.

I really liked Real American. It’s an intensely personal book, written with unflinching honesty and inspired by strong feelings, and it opened a real window for me into what it is like to grow up black or mixed in this country. The author and I attended the same law school and lived for many years in the same place, but our experiences were very different. I honestly think everyone I know should read this book. I dogeared so many pages that moved me, way too many to try to include here. Toward the end of the book, Lythcott-Haims talks about Black Lives Matter and the series of police killings of black men and boys, and she relates her deep fear about her son’s safety as a dark-skinned boy. Really painful to read, especially as a mom of a young son myself.

I could go on and on about this book. I am so glad I read it. It’s not always an easy read, but it is a good one, and surprisingly hard to put down. It comes out on October 3 – look for it then.

 

2017 Summer Reading List

One day before the last day of spring… and here is the annual EDIWTB Crowdsourced Summer Reading List! I asked my Facebook community to recommend their favorite books from the past year, and once again, they didn’t disappoint. Here’s the what they came up with.

I’ve put ** next to those that were recommended by more than one person. When it’s a book I’ve read too, I’ve included a link to my EDIWTB review.

The Library At Mt. Char by Scott Hawkins

The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor

**The Girls by Emma Cline (reviewed here)

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

**Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (reviewed here)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

**The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

**Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (reviewed here)

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Fallen Land by Taylor Brown

**News Of The World by Paulette Jiles

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

**The Nix by Nathan Hill

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

**Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (reviewed here)

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

The End Of Eddy by Edouard Louis

The Girls In The Garden by Lisa Jewell

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

**A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Untangled by Lisa Damour

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Sapiens and Homo Deus by Yuval Harari

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

**My Name Is Lucy Barton (reviewed here) and **Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

**The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal (reviewed here)

A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable

**When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

**A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry and Beartown by Fredrik Backman

The Red Bandanna by Tom Rinaldi

Golden Son/Red Rising Trilogy by Pierce Brown

**Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (reviewed here)

For The Love by Jen Hatmaker

Crazy Rich Asians and Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

Elena Ferranta Neopolitan Series

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Circling The Sun by Paula McLain

**Before The Fall by Noah Hawley (reviewed here)

The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee (reviewed here)

The Improbability Of Love by Hannah Rothschild

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (reviewed here)

**City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

What The Lady Wants by Renee Rosen

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

The Secret History Of  Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel

The Imagination Gap by Brian Reich

Heat And Light by Jennifer Haigh

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

**Fates And Furies by Lauren Groff (reviewed here)

The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close (reviewed here)

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

4-3-2-1 by Paul Auster

Kill Process by William Hertling

**A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

Love, Africa by Jeffrey Gettleman

The Shape Of Mercy and Secrets Of A Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

The Marriage Of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (reviewed here)

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (reviewed here)

**Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (reviewed here)

City Of Thieves by David Benioff (reviewed here)

**Under The Influence by Joyce Maynard (reviewed here)

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan (reviewed here)

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (reviewed here)

Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson (reviewed here)

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

The Book Of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea by Barbara Demick

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

All The Ugly And Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics And The Sterilization Of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen

Sons And Daughters Of Ease And Plenty by Ramona Ausubel

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Beautician’s Notebook by Anne Barnhill

Louise’s War by Sarah Shaber

The Darcy Monologues by Joana Starnes & others

Kiss Carlo by Adriana Trigiani

Will Your Way Back by James Osborne

 

Happy Summer Reading! Report back and let me know what you picked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. Vance

27161156I am one book away from my reading goal for 2016. Book #51 was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a “personal analysis” of hillbilly culture and how it has shaped the political views, economic conditions and troubled lives of poor, white Americans. I can’t think of a more relevant book to read in the wake of Trump’s victory, as I think it explains a lot about the election’s outcome.

Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but his family’s roots are in Kentucky, which is hillbilly central. His grandparents moved to Ohio to escape their poor Appalachian roots, but as Vance explains throughout the book, they never really left Kentucky behind. His childhood was chaotic and stressful. His mother married five times and fought addiction throughout most of her life. He lived mostly with his grandmother Mamaw, a strong-willed woman who provided stability and encouragement to Vance as he grew up, but who also struggled economically after her husband died. Mamaw raised him with the hillbilly values and views that she herself grew up with, so even though Middletown was more economically successful than “the holler” where Mamaw and Vance’s mom came from, his family history shaped him strongly.

Hillbilly Elegy was an eye-opening and utterly important read. I learned quite a bit about what so many people in America believe and why they are so disillusioned. One chapter describes why so many poor white families have trouble breaking the cycle of downward mobility: their home lives are chaotic; there is drug usage and physical violence at home, in front of small kids; they don’t study and they don’t make their kids study; they don’t work, even when they don’t have jobs. “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

I dog-eared so many pages of Hillbilly Elegy that I could create an entire blog post full of quotes. I found a few passages about why poor whites distrust Obama to be especially powerful. They can’t relate to Obama  – not because of his color, but because he’s so foreign to them in every way: his education, his parenting, where he grew up. The modern American meritocracy worked for Obama, but it won’t work for them.

Vance beat the odds and went into the Marines, then to college and on to Yale Law School. The final chapters of Hillbilly Elegy talk about him having his feet in both words and ultimately feeling comfortable in neither, and about how he has reconciled his upbringing and his education. He ends with some ideas about how to help fix the ills of the white poor, based on his own upbringing and the challenges he overcame.

I highly recommend Hillbilly Elegy. It’s readable, compassionate and absolutely crucial to understanding the country we live in today.

NOT DEAD YET by Phil Collins

phil-collins-not-dead-yet-photoPhil Collins came out with his memoir, Not Dead Yet, this fall, joining a crop of rock bios that have been getting a lot of attention recently. I was a big Genesis/Phil Collins fan back in the 80s, so I was excited to get my hands on the audio version of Not Dead Yet.

Collins narrates the audio version, which enhances the sense of intimacy the listener feels with him throughout the book. It opens with his early days in suburban London and tracks his family life and his childhood/early adulthood obsession with music. From there, the juggernaut of Collins’ career kicks in: joining Genesis, touring larger and larger venues, taking over frontman status from Peter Gabriel, more Genesis albums, his explosive solo career, more Genesis albums, Disney soundtracks, hit movie songs, and on and on. There is a reason Phil Collins seemed ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s – he was. He was also a workaholic who couldn’t say no to any opportunity – to sing, to compose, to produce, to collaborate. He would travel the globe while on world tours, and then return to his home base where he would jump immediately into the next project without stopping.

This lifestyle took a toll on his personal life, which Collins does not gloss over. Three marriages, three divorces, long distance relationships with his five kids – these all weigh on Collins, and he perseverates on them throughout the book. He takes the blame for the failure of his marriages, though he manages to make himself look OK at the same time. Collins was criticized by the media when all of this was going on, particularly his delivering his request for a divorce from wife #2 via fax, and his affair with a woman half his age while on tour. Collins takes the blows here, for sure, but it’s clear that he is relieved to finally be telling his story.

He also shines a light on some other personal stuff, like his obsession with the Alamo and the physical ailments that plagued his later career, like an ear stroke that caused him to lose his hearing in one ear and the hand and back issues that put an end to his prolific drumming. The toughest section comes at the end, when Collins describes in painstaking detail his slide into alcoholism in the early 2010s and the terrible toll it took on his body and his family.

I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. On many occasions, I paused the audio to call up a song on Spotify or a video on YouTube, which definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.

Collins is apologetic about his ubiquity – almost overly so. He suggests that his transatlantic dual performances on Live Aid in 1985 were almost accidental, and he distances himself from the coincidence of having hit songs with two bands on the charts at the same time. He basically says, “I get it – I was sick of me too.” (Sometimes this is a little too much.)

Collins is clearly an emotional, complicated guy, and Not Dead Yet shows him in the most flattering light possible. I’m sure there are other sides to a lot of his stories (and in fact I heard a few of them at Thanksgiving dinner from someone who knows him), but I liked hearing (and believing) Phil’s version for 10 hours. I mean, that’s the point of a rock memoir, right? To clean up the reputation?

Collins’ albums have all been recently remastered, and if you listen to them on Spotify you get a new cover, a closeup of Phil’s sixtysomething face instead of the thirtysomething faces I remembered from the original covers. It’s kind of creepy, but it’s reality – our rock gods are aging. Not Dead Yet at least gave me glimpses of that younger guy, and for that I am grateful.

(And yes, I found out what “In The Air Tonight” is about. Not this:)

MY PICTURE PERFECT FAMILY by Marguerite Elisofon

5146laoj58l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Marguerite Elisofon and her husband Howard had boy-girl twins named Samantha and Matthew in 1990. The twins were premature, but Matthew developed normally while Samantha started lagging behind from an early age. After many rounds of testing, Samantha was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, which changed the Elisofons’ lives in every possible way.

My Picture Perfect Family is a painstaking account of how the Elisofons – and particularly Marguerite – learned to accept that Samantha would never be the “picture perfect” daughter they had hoped for, and how they worked tirelessly to enroll her in programs and schools that would allow her to learn and even thrive. Marguerite’s patience and persistence saw Samantha through several New York City schools until she finally ended up at one that was committed to her intellectual growth. There are many ups and downs along the way: schools that decided that Samantha was too much for them, endless tantrums and disastrous family vacations, punctuated by small steps forward, unexpected breakthroughs and some surprisingly positive playdates. Through it all, Elisofon never gave up hope that her daughter would find a place that would encourage her and allow her to pursue the activities she loved – acting and singing.

As a mother of twins myself, I was particularly interested in how Samantha and Matthew related to each other over the years, and how Elisofon navigated balancing of attention between the two, even when one twin needed so much more intervention and involvement. She includes family photographs along the way, along with the backstory of what was happening that the camera didn’t capture.

My Picture Perfect Family is a dense, engrossing read. While it is quite detailed, it is never tedious. Elisofon is a skilled writer, laying out the complications in Samantha’s condition and treatment. And it ends on a hopeful note. Samantha graduates from high school and, like her brother, goes on to college. The book ends as she leaves for college, with only a brief epilogue talking about the years that followed.

I am glad I read My Picture Perfect Family. It’s a very poignant and powerful look at the challenges of raising an autistic child and the power of a stubborn, persistent parent who wants nothing more than her daughter to be happy and challenged.

 

ANNE FRANK: HER LIFE IN WORDS AND PICTURES

Anne Frank is one of the most famous victims of the Holocaust, thanks to the diary she kept while she lived in hiding in Amsterdam for more than two years during World War II. Her diary, which survived the war and was published by her father in 1947, has sold over 30 million copies (and is on our mother-daughter book club schedule for the spring).

51bueiext-l-_sx258_bo1204203200_Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures, is a companion piece to Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl. It provides background on the whole family, much of it provided by her father, as well as photos of the family, the Jewish experience in Amsterdam before and during the war, and the Annex where the Frank family hid before being discovered by the police and sent to concentration camps. Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures makes the family human and relatable, rather than abstractions. We learn about their personalities, passions and conflicts, and their aspirations before their lives were so cruelly diverted. The book also intersperses commentary from other witnesses – friends of the family, people who worked in the building where the Franks hid, even survivors who knew Anne and her sister in the concentration camps – which extends Anne’s story beyond the day when the family was arrested and she was unable to write in her diary again.

Needless to say, this is a painful and difficult book in many ways. I, of course, dreaded the day when the family was removed from the Annex, and the section on the concentration camps is unfathomably awful. But, as always, it is so important to understand and be reminded of what happened to the Jews during World War II, so that we may address the roots of genocide and ensure that it never happens again, to anyone.

Anne’s message, in hiding, was one of hope:

“It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty, too, will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals! Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!”

If only Anne’s life, like the millions of others who perished in the Holocaust, could have turned out differently. What a world we would be living in.

I recommend Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures to anyone with even a passing interest in Anne Frank and the experience of Jews in the Holocaust. While it’s a good format for young adult readers, with pictures that make it more real than a chapter in a history book or a discussion in a Hebrew school class, it’s also quite upsetting and should be introduced with care and discussed with a parent or teacher.