THE STATIONERY SHOP by Marjam Kamali

The Stationery Shop by Marjam Kamali is a novel set in 1950s Iran and 1960s California/Massachusetts about a couple – Roya and Bahman – who fall in love as teenagers but are kept apart by family obligations and political upheaval shortly after their engagement. They end up living separate lives on different continents, passing the decades adjusting to new realities and the sharp pain of lost love. But they never forget about each other.

Why I picked it up: I put The Stationery Shop on the library hold list months ago after seeing several positive reviews. When my pickup library finally opened up again and the book came in, I grabbed it and also got it on audio so I could listen to it.

Roya and Bahman are teenagers in Tehran who meet in a stationery shop, where they fall in love. They both love reading and literature, while Bahman is politically active and supportive of Iran’s progressive prime minister Mossadegh. Their relationship grows during a time of political upheaval for Iran, yet the two remain steadfast and get engaged. Suddenly, however, Bahman disappears, with no warning or explanation. The two communicate by letter, via the owner of the stationery shop, and they make a plan to meet downtown and elope. Roya is there at the appointed time, but Bahman is not. He later breaks up with her by letter, shattering her dreams of her future.

A few years later, while attending college in California, Roya meets an American man with whom she builds a life. They experience joys and losses, the highs and lows of married life, but remain committed to each other over the decades. The reader hears sporadically from Bahman, who has remained in Iran and forged ahead with his life as well. Roya slowly adjusts to America, though she misses Iran deeply and never forgets about Bahman.

The Stationery Shop may be billed as historical fiction, but it’s really a historical romance. There isn’t all that much history here. The first third of the book explains the political situation in Iran in the 1950s, with uprising and upheaval serving as the backdrop for Roya and Bahman’s romance. Kamali writes about the Shah and the defeat of prime minister Mossadegh, then later briefly describes the unrest in the country when the Shah is ousted. But overall, The Stationery Shop is pretty light on history.

Kamali does better when she explores love, loss and acceptance. While I was never really all that convinced of the sustaining power of Bahman and Roya’s love, I found some of the other storylines and characters more interesting. I also liked the chapters about Roya’s new life in the U.S. But in the end, The Stationery Shop was a relatively light read that I’d characterize as romance/women’s fiction, rather than historical fiction. It’s a memorable love story, just not a particularly deep one.

I listened to The Stationery Shop on audio, and I enjoyed it in that format. Mozhan Marno, the narrator, is Iranian-American and therefore knew how to pronounce the foreign words, especially those having to do with Iranian food, which Kamali talks a lot about. I listened to the audiobook during long walks on the beach and it definitely kept my attention.

The Stationery Shop was Book #38 of 2020.

MY FRIEND ANNA by Rachel DeLoache Williams

My Friend Anna: The True Story Of A Fake Heiress by Rachel DeLoache Williams is a memoir about the author’s experience with a generous but enigmatic friend who treated her to dinners out, personal trainers and a lavish vacation in Morocco and then convinced her to charge tens of thousands of dollars on her credit card with the promise of repayment that never came. It offers a fascinating glimpse into a friendship that, imbalanced from the start, turned into a power game as Rachel tried fruitlessly to be repaid and to figure out who Anna really was.

Why I picked it up: My Friend Anna sounded fascinating! And then my hold on it came in at the library and I read the first 10 pages in the car and was hooked.

Williams was living the twentysomething dream in New York City in the mid 2010s with a group of friends and a job as a photo editor at Vanity Fair. She met Anna Delvey, a German heiress, through some mutual friends and they hit it off. A few months later, Delvey returned to New York after some time away and sought out Williams. Their friendship intensified, with the women hanging out regularly, eating at expensive restaurants, enjoying spa treatments and generally cavorting with a fashionable, trendy crowd. Delvey routinely picked up the bill, which Williams appreciated but didn’t question, given Delvey’s family money and the lack of constraints on her spending. Within a few months, Delvey proposed a vacation in Marrakesh with Williams and Delvey’s personal trainer and a videographer she hired to take footage in Morocco for an upcoming documentary, all on Delvey’s dime.

That’s when things got weird. Delvey, who was chronically disorganized and behind schedule, got Williams to charge the airline tickets on her credit card. Then, after an indulgent week in Morocco, the hotel came after Delvey, saying that her credit card was rejecting the charge. Again, Williams agreed to put the charges on her own credit card – $36k on her own and $17k on her corporate AmEx. In the weeks that followed, the two played a prolonged cat and mouse game with Williams constantly asking Delvey for the money and Delvey stalling, making excuses and shifting the blame for the lack of reimbursement. As Williams grew increasingly desperate to get the money from Delvey, she started to realize that Anna might not be who she says she was and that her finances weren’t what Williams was led to believe. The rest of the book details how their relationship changed as Williams goes to extreme measures to try to get money back from Delvey.

You may be wondering, “Why is this worthy of a memoir?” $60k is a significant amount of money, but books about financial fraud usually deal with a larger scale – more people and bigger sums. My Friend Anna was nonetheless fascinating because it chronicled in great detail the unraveling of this friendship, as months of denial by Williams eventually gave way to her desperation to get to the bottom of Anna and who she really was. Williams saved all of their exchanged texts and painstakingly reconstructed the chronology of their interactions. You can blame Williams for being too complacent with Anna, for taking advantage of her generosity and enjoying a lifestyle she couldn’t afford, but I actually found her pretty sympathetic and relatable.

Reviews of My Friend Anna are all over the place. Some questioned Williams’ I’m-just-a-Southern-girl-with-old-fashioned-values image and call out her white privilege. Others describe it as an addictive read, finding it fascinating that Williams could get into this predicament. I am definitely in the latter camp. I had a hard time putting it down and read it at the beach in a day or two. I really liked it! I’m now looking forward to the Netflix series

My Friend Anna was Book #37 of 2020.

THE LAST FLIGHT by Julie Clark

The Last Flight by Julie Clark is a breathless thriller that’s gotten a lot of buzz this summer. Claire Cook is married to the Rory Cook, scion of a famous political family. They live in New York City, and while her life may appear enviable, the dirty truth is that Rory is abusive and controlling, and that Claire is trapped and miserable. She concocts a plan to escape her marriage – and her whole life – during a business trip, but a last minute change o destination thwarts the plan, leaving her desperate for a new path. When the opportunity to switch places with Eva, another woman who is herself escaping a difficult situation, before boarding a different flight presents itself, Claire takes it, with dramatic consequences for both women.

Why I picked it up: I was intrigued by the buzz around The Last Flight and thought it would make a good beach read. It turns out I have read and enjoyed another book by Clark – The Ones We Choose – which was very different (not thriller-y at all). I didn’t recognize the author’s name when I started this one.

The Last Flight is a propulsive read, with twists and surprises along the way that keep the pages turning. Eva and Claire are strong, smart women who have found themselves in untenable situations. The flight that Claire was supposed to take ends up crashing, with no survivors. The Last Flight tells Eva’s backstory leading up to the flight, and Claire’s narrative mostly after the flight. I enjoyed Claire’s story more, though the book seemed to focus more on Eva. Like most thrillers, the book is heavy on plot and suspense and light on character development, although I feel like I got to know Claire and Eva more than I would have expected from the genre.

There are some plot points that are heavy on coincidence and rely too much on implausible turns of events, but if you put those aside, The Last Flight is an addictive and engrossing book. The theme of female empowerment and friendship is strong throughout; men do not fare well in this book at all. I’d call this book a “light thriller with a heavy dose of women’s fiction”, which is how I prefer my thrillers!

The Last Flight was book #36 of 2020.

ONE TO WATCH by Kate Stayman-London

I am on vacation and trying to stay off the computer, so this review will be shorter than usual.

One To Watch by Kate Stayman-London is the story of Bea, a plus-size fashion blogger and influencer who goes on a Twitter rant about the lack of diverse body types and personalities on a Bachelor-esque reality show called Main Squeeze. The show, facing falling ratings, replaces its showrunner with a woman who wants to shake things up. She reaches out to Bea to ask her to be the next star of the show. Bea, nursing heartbreak after a hookup with her close friend and longtime crush, overcomes her fears and insecurities and agrees to do the show.

Why I picked it up: Reviews of One To Watch were really positive (it was a June BOTM pick from Ashley Spivey) and I wanted a beach read to kick off my vacation.

One To Watch was a fun read, especially if you’re a fan (or a hate-watcher) of The Bachelor. Bea is a compelling heroine – smart and kind. The male contestants and some of the supporting characters are actually diverse (race, gender identity, etc.) and Bea brings a fresh openness and lack of predictability to the show. The writing is clever (though all the fashion references were lost on me) and I liked the integration of chat, Twitter and blog posts throughout.

There were a few lost opportunities here, though. One of the male contestants, Sam, is Black, but there is very little mention of that after the introduction, even as their relationship gets more serious. Stayman-London could have explored this more, especially now that we will finally have a Black Bachelor and there will undoubtedly be some biracial coupling on the show. Also, I wish Bea had been less insecure. If the message is that fat-shaming is bad and that people should feel comfortable and proud in their own skin, then Bea shouldn’t have needed designer outfits to feel sexy and desirable.

That said, One To Watch was a quick and fun read, perfect to kick off my beach reading. I read it in about a day, which is really quick for me! I was eager to return to it and to see how it turned out. (Would Bea find love? Would the man who broke her heart get his comeuppance? What would happen on the reunion special?) One To Watch also filled the current Bachelor void.

One To Watch was Book #35 of 2020.

HOWARD STERN COMES AGAIN by Howard Stern

I’ve never been a regular Howard Stern listener. Long before he got to Sirius XM, Stern made his terrestrial home here in DC in the early 80s on DC-101 and I used to listen occasionally, but I rarely tune in to his satellite show. He doesn’t offend me, but for whatever reason, I never got on the bandwagon. I also never watched America’s Got Talent, so I didn’t witness his rebirth as a kind, encouraging judge/coach on that show either. So I came to Stern’s recent book Howard Stern Comes Again, a collection of his most influential interviews, with a mostly blank slate.

Why I picked It up: I was intrigued by Stern’s take on the interviews he’s done, as well as the content of the interviews themselves. I actually paid money for this one in the bookstore!

In the intro to Howard Stern Comes Again, Stern talks about his evolution as a radio personality. He started out as a shock jock, and continued that tradition at Sirius. It wasn’t until later in life that he softened a bit, becoming more introspective and overall kinder to his guests and to himself. Looking back now, he regrets the way he treated some of the people who came on his show and the wasted opportunities to have deeper, more meaningful conversations. The interviews he has collected in Howard Stern Comes Again are all ones in which he felt he made a real connection with the other person, learning about them and himself in the process. The people he interviewed are mostly comedians and actors, like Tracy Morgan, Jimmy Fallon, Chevy Chase, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Rock Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart, but he also talks to musicians (Ed Sheeran, Billy Joel) and real estate mogul/reality TV/president types (ugh).

Howard Stern Comes Again was my blow-dry book, the one I read while drying my hair in the morning. It’s the perfect book for that purpose, as I could get through about one interview every day. I enjoyed my mornings with these celebrities, getting to know them a little better. Stern probes his guests on the topics he himself grapples with – perfectionism, depression, mortality – which leads to honest, revealing and often surprising conversations.

My guess is that I am the ideal reader for Howard Stern Comes Again – I hadn’t heard any of these interviews before and I got to experience the new, improved Howard 2.0 fresh, without it dredging up memories of the old version (though some misogyny does sneak into his interviews, and he loves to bring up sex whenever possible). Overall, this was a worthwhile read and I am glad I picked it up. I learned a lot about a lot of people.

Howard Stern Comes Again was Book #34 of 2020.

THE SWEENEY SISTERS by Lian Dolan

People taking DNA tests and discovering that their biological parents are not who they thought they were is becoming more and more common with the availability of DNA kits, so it was only a matter of time before this fact pattern showed up in fiction. The Sweeney Sisters by Lian Dolan is a recent entry into this category. When William Sweeney, a famous novelist living in Connecticut, dies in his 80s, he leaves behind three daughters (Liza, Maggie and Tricia), a memoir that was promised to his publisher but can’t be found, some shaky finances… and a fourth child that his daughters didn’t know about. Turns out that he had had a relationship with the next door neighbor and fathered a daughter, Serena, who is two years older than Liza. The Sweeney Sisters is about how the original Sweeney daughters cope with their father’s unexpected death and the discovery of a fourth sister.

Why I picked it up: I learned about The Sweeney Sisters on a William Morrow Summer Book Preview event on Facebook and requested it from the publisher because I liked the premise.

I found The Sweeney Sisters to be a pleasant read about rich white people problems. The sisters make fun of each other, but they are generally supportive and get along well. Liza’s perfect life is not as idyllic as it seems, and Maggie’s is a bit of a mess, but honestly, the conflict here is all pretty gentle and doesn’t seem to affect anyone too much. William Sweeney is a larger-than-life character whom Dolan nonetheless paints in realistic detail, from the plots of his famous books to his speaking engagements, famous friends and ego-fueled infidelities and betrayals. Poor Serena, meanwhile, whose life has been upended, is generally ignored by the Sweeney sisters, who try to like and accept her into the family but are so focused on each other that they have trouble remembering she exists.

I commend the author for creating a very realistic world with flawed characters and plausible situations. But in the end, The Sweeney Sisters was just an OK read for me. I just didn’t care that much about what happens. I was invested just enough in the story to keep going and finish, but it was easy to put the book down and pick up something else.

I listened to a lot of The Sweeney Sisters on audio. The narration by Brittany Pressley was pretty good: precise and emotive without being too dramatic. I liked her as a narrator; I just didn’t love the book.

The Sweeney Sisters was Book # 33 of 2020.

BUZZ SAW by Jesse Dougherty

Last fall, something magical happened in DC. The Washington Nationals, who had started the 2019 baseball season with the pathetic record of 19-31, beat the odds to make it to the World Series. They dispensed with formidable opponents along the way, notably the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers, leading to a World Series against the Houston Astros, who had one of the best records in baseball and a scary lineup of ace pitchers. Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story Of How The Washington Nationals Won The World Series, written by Washington Post Nationals beat reporter Jesse Dougherty, chronicles the 2019 season from sad start to glorious finish, delving along the way into the personal histories and unlikely plays that made the Nats’ journey even more meaningful and historic.

Why I picked it up: I am a huge Nats fan, and I can’t resist any chance to relive the 2019 postseason. It was amazing!

Buzz Saw goes month by month through the baseball season, explaining how unexpected the streak was. The Nats had the oldest roster in MLB, with some players who had considered retirement before getting picked up by Washington. Some were overcoming injuries from the season before. And there were also young stars on the team, like Victor Robles and Juan Soto, who brought explosive raw talent to the Nats. As the wins piled up, the team worked to overcome its most glaring deficiency – the bullpen – trying different combinations and bringing in Daniel Hudson to offer relief to overworked starters like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasberg.

And then, of course, came the postseason, the many elimination games, the come-from-behind wins, the heroics of Howie Kendrick and Juan Soto and the clutch pitching. Ah, it was all so good! And so unexpected. And so much fun to experience. Buzz Saw brings it all back. And in a summer without baseball until just a few weeks ago, it was a great reminder of a season that feels like a lot more than 9 months ago.

I read Buzz Saw out loud with my son, so I guess I read it and did it on audio. The narration (me) – not great. The book is well-written. I like Dougherty’s writing style a lot – lively and descriptive – but I suspect that its publication was rushed to make an Opening Day deadline (or what was supposed to be Opening Day) and it could have used another round of copy editing, as I found a lot of typos and small mistakes. Overall, though, a really fun read.

So would you care about this book if you weren’t a big Nats fan? Hard to say. If you’re a hardcore baseball fan and/or enjoy underdog stories, then you might enjoy Buzz Saw as much as I did.

Buzz Saw was Book #32 of 2020. It satisfies the Book About Sports category of the 2020 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge.

CRAIGSLIST CONFESSIONAL by Helena Dea Bala

Helena Dea Bala was unhappy in her lobbying job in D.C. and, on a whim, decided to post on Craigslist soliciting confessions from strangers in an attempt to feel connection with other people and bring purpose to her life. To her surprise, the response to her ad was strong and immediate. She soon found herself setting up several meetings a week with respondents who sat down and shared their secrets with her, anonymously of course. Dea Bala eventually quit her job and moved full-time into telling these strangers’ stories on various online platforms. This summer, she released a collection called Craigslist Confessional featuring 40 of the people she has met with over the years.

Why I picked it up: These types of voyeuristic glimpses into others’ lives are right up my alley, and Craigslist Confessional came highly recommended by Sarah of Sarah’s Bookshelves.

Craigslist Confessional is an engrossing read. There are stories of mental illness, bad parenting, secrets, abuse, pain, redemption, regret and much more. The chapters are short – 5-6 pages – so it’s easy to pick up the book, read a few confessions, and put it down. The stories tend to blend together, and I didn’t leave the book with particularly distinct memories of more than a handful of the confessors, but the cumulative swirl of humanity spun by Dea Bala certainly leaves its mark. I don’t know how you could read Craigslist Confessional and not become a more empathetic person. It is a privilege to get a glimpse into people’s heads and hearts and hear them explain their feelings honestly, without fear of judgment.

I listened to Craigslist Confessional on audio and I wouldn’t recommend it. The confessions are narrated by performers, so there’s a remove between the voice and the content. Some of the intimacy of these confessions gets lost when you know, as a listener, that the people talking are not the people who experienced them. I also found some of the narrators a little robotic. So if you’re interested in Craigslist Confessional, go for reading the book over listening on audio.

Memoirs/non-fiction have been working for me during the pandemic, and Craigslist Confessional was no exception. If you’re a fan of PostSecret or advice columns or Humans of New York, you’ll like this one.

Craigslist Confessional was Book #31 of 2020.

UNTAMED by Glennon Doyle

I am new to Glennon Doyle. I never followed her parenting blog, and though I’ve long had an unread ARC of her memoir Love Warrior in the house, I didn’t really know who she was. But when her latest book, Untamed, came out earlier this year, it was hard not to notice the book all over Bookstagram and Book Of The Month and Reese’s Book Club. I was curious, so I swapped for it and read it.

Why I picked it up: Untamed isn’t usually my type of book, but I couldn’t resist the buzz.

Glennon Doyle was raised in Virginia, and during her teenage years developed bulimia and a drinking problem as ways to soothe her anxiety and stave off depression. She married young to a man with whom she partied more than she actually connected with, and amidst her substance abuse found herself pregnant with her first child. She got clean, threw herself into motherhood, and then had two more children with her husband. Doyle’s marriage was tested when her husband confessed to being unfaithful, a challenge she overcame through faith and public pronouncements of her commitment to her marriage. She wrote a book about her experience with addiction and forgiveness – Love Warrior – which was well-received and often held up as Christian guide to working through marital problems.

During the book tour for Love Warrior, though, Doyle met and fell instantly in love with someone else. That someone else – soccer player Abby Wambach – completely turned her world upside down. Could Doyle – now a symbol of the steadfast wife and mother who sacrificed everything for her family’s stability – leave her marriage to pursue her true love? Untamed is Doyle’s memoir of breaking free from expectation and finally being true to herself.

I don’t really like self-help books, and there is a lot of self-help in Untamed. I didn’t love some of the early chapters about “Knowing” and inner selves and sobriety – I found them repetitive and at times too self-centered. But as I read on, later chapters in the book really resonated with me. I liked Doyle’s messages about parenting, such as the importance of both pushing kids out of their comfort zone while also acknowledging that their knowing their limits is a form of bravery. She had some interesting, non-trite things to say about racism and what white women can actually do to help improve the situation. I also liked her wake up call – that we parents spend more time worrying about college admissions than the health of the earth they are inheriting. And her love story with Wambach is very compelling.

In the end, I was glad I read Untamed. Is it worth the hype? Possibly not, but still worth the read.

I listened to Untamed on audio, narrated by Doyle. Like many memoirs, narration by the author made it more personal and felt more genuine. Although there were a few times when I felt my mind wandering, Doyle generally did a good job of keeping me engaged and the book moving along.

Untamed was Book #30 of 2020.

IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In The Dream House takes a look at an emotionally abusive relationship between the author and her girlfriend through short chapters about The Dream House, which is really a home of nightmares where Machado spent weekends with her girlfriend. Using references to folk literature and movies, Machado explores the nature of abusive relationships and explains why she stayed.

Why I picked it up: In The Dream House came out last fall, and the reviews were amazing. I’ve had this library copy in the house since the beginning of the pandemic, and now the dropboxes are opening up so I need to return this by the end of the month. Nothing like a deadline to get you to read a book…

I really liked In The Dream House. It’s not an easy read, so be warned. Machado’s girlfriend – loving and magnetic in the beginning, turns jealous, irrational and abusive as their relationship progresses. The author is always anxious, worried about triggering rage in her partner and afraid of the consequences. She sacrifices much of her year in graduate school commuting between Iowa and Indiana to visit the Dream House, using the hours on the trip home to recover and convince herself that the relationship is healthy. The relationship, even when over, leaves Machado scarred and gun-shy, with little perspective about what went wrong. “Clarity is an intoxicating drug, and you spent almost two years without it, believing you were losing your mind, believing you were the monster, and you want something black and white more than you’ve ever wanted anything in this world.” In the next page, she writes, “Trauma has altered my body’s DNA.”

Machado talks a lot about the nature of same-sex partner abuse, which gets less attention and is awarded less legitimacy than heterosexual partner abuse by courts and the media. In The Dream House rebukes the notion that same-sex abuse is easier to escape or avoid in the first place. Just because two partners are women doesn’t mean that one cannot be abusive or difficult to extricate from. She explores dislocation and isolation – two common features that abusers capitalize on – and gaslighting, or convincing someone that they are crazy when they react to abuse.

The Dream House is both the physical location where Machado and her girlfriend spent time together, but it is also a prison, the symbol of their relationship at its worst Each chapter of In The Dream House puts the experience in a different literary or cultural context – Dream House as the Apocalypse, Dream House as Surprise Ending, Dream House as I Love Lucy, etc. This construct gave the book variety and texture, expanding the story well beyond a chronicle of one relationship to a more universal treatise on the nature of partner abuse and its causes and effects.

Memoirs have been my most successful genres for pandemic reading, and In The Dream House did not disappoint. Highly recommended.

In The Dream House was Book #29 of 2020.