Category Archives: Non-Fiction

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.

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!

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.

Best Books of 2018

In past years, I’ve done a Reading Year In Review as my last post of the year, including my standout reads from the last 12 months. This year, I’m adding a Best Books of 2018 post, because everyone else is doing one. (It’s always important to do what everyone else is doing, right?) 

Ok, here goes: my favorite 8 books of 2018 and why I liked them. These weren’t necessarily my favorites as I was reading them, but with time to reflect, they are the ones that I found the most moving and beautifully written, and which have stayed with me over the months. I’ve linked to my original reviews for each title.

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl by Jean Thompson is my #1 read of the year. Poignant, with spare writing and insights about being a woman, family and parenting, this book was a recent read and well worth it.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld. I’ll read anything she writes, but every page of this collection of stories was enjoyable. Memorable characters, believable situations. I want to re-read this one. 

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen. If the purpose of a memoir is to let the world know who you really are, then this one succeeded in spades. It’s long and sometimes meandering but hey, it’s Bruce, so it’s ok.

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. The first 3/4 of this book was very slow, but the final quarter made up for it. Heartbreaking, deeply moving and a story that has stayed with me for months.

Waiting For Eden by Elliot Ackerman. Don’t let the subject matter – a severely wounded soldier lying in a coma while his conflicted wife waits for his condition to change – drive you away. This short novel raises a number of ethical questions and is a good reminder of the constant danger our soldiers face.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Theres’s a reason this book is all over everyone else’s top 2018 reads. It’s a small story about a love triangle that says big things about the state of race in America. So well written and beautifully constructed.

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman. This one was a sleeper. I liked it fine when I read it, but the main character has really stayed with me and in retrospect I think this was a pretty good book. It’s sad and lonely and atmospheric, and at the same time it’s totally believable.

Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. I re-read my favorite book from 2017 and loved it just as much. I’ll shut up now.

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.