Tag Archives: memoir

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.

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.

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.

HOME IS BURNING by Dan Marshall

I have found that some pandemic reads are too light, while some are just too heavy. Others, for whatever other reason, just don’t fit the bill. From what I’ve learned from talking to my friends and those who follow my blog and Bookstagram, we readers today are a picky and fickle bunch. I am not sure what drove me to read Home Is Burning this month, other than that it was on my list of 7 Backlist Books I Want To Read, and I’ve been enjoying memoirs lately. It’s about Dan Marshall’s year taking care of his father, who was dying of ALS, and while it sounds super depressing, it’s also very funny at times.

Why I picked it up: Home Is Burning has been on my shelves for years (it came out in 2015). I don’t even remember where I got it. It thought it might hit the weird reading spot I am in right now. And, I was able to get it on audio via Scribd, which sealed the deal.

Dan Marshall was living the dream – working in LA in his early 20s, seeing his long-distance girlfriend regularly – when his father finally got an explanation for some strange symptoms he’d been having. He was diagnosed with ALS, a crushing blow for a family man who ran marathons and took care of his wife, Dan’s mother, who was in treatment for a second bout of cancer. Despite having three siblings living near or with his parents in Utah, Dan and his brother Greg made the difficult decision to move back home so that they could care for their father full-time. Home Is Burning chronicles the year after Dan returned to Utah, when his father’s condition deteriorated and Dan had to contend with the loss of his father as well as that of his job, home and girlfriend.

The Marshall family, made up of Dan’s parents, two sisters and a brother, was a close one, with his father the source of financial and emotional support for all of his children. Watching his father deteriorate was horrific for everyone, especially Dan, who took on the lion’s share of his father’s physical care. He chronicles the ways they adapted the house to accommodate the wheelchair, the difficult decision to intubate his father so that he could breathe and receive nutrition, and his father’s ultimate decision to end his life by going off the respirator. He’s quite honest about his own shortcomings as a son and a caretaker, and he admits that he was quite hard on his poor mother, who was undergoing chemo while all this was going on. This is all heavy, sad stuff, but Dan is so entertaining and honest that I actually wanted to keep returning to Home Is Burning, even though I knew what was going to happen. He’s really funny. The book is also full of sex and profanity (be warned!), so even at the most touching and poignant moments, there’s always a funny line coming out of Dan’s mouth. There isn’t much here about the nature of loss and how to survive it – Dan’s not the most introspective guy – but it was memorable and thought-provoking and even entertaining.

I listened to Home Is Burning on audio. It’s narrated by Dan himself, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. You know how you can tell when an author is reading his or her book, rather than a professional narrator? You can tell here. But it’s totally worth it for the personal perspective (because this is a highly personal book) – and for his imitations, particularly of his family’s housekeeper.

Home Is Burning was Book #26 of 2020 and fulfilled the Book Sitting On My Shelf For 2+ Years category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

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.

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.

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.

ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW by Nicole Chung

It’s Non-Fiction November, folks! So I read some non-fiction.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung is a deeply personal memoir about the Korean-American author’s life as an adopted daughter. Born to Korean-American parents in 1980s Seattle, Nicole was given up as a premature baby and adopted by a white couple from a small town in Oregon. She grew up as the only Asian in her whole town, suffering teasing and bullying by those around her who couldn’t accept her being different. As a result, she was shy and insecure, constantly trying to fit in.

When Nicole got to college and was surrounded by other Asians, she started to think more about her identity and what it meant to be Korean. After a few years, she decided to pursue a search for her birth family. When she initially learned that her parents were alive – but not living together – and that she had two sisters, her reticence about hurting her parents and her fear of rejection were both overpowered by her intense curiosity about her birth parents and her roots as a Korean girl. All You Can Ever Know is a detailed, emotional and very clearly written memoir about the experience of tracking down her birth family and what their reunion was like.

I liked All You Can Ever Know a lot. I appreciated the insights into her unique circumstances, including her interactions difficult birth mother and formal, academic father. Chung is so honest and forthright that it’s hard not to get emotionally involved with her story and feel affected by what happened to her. The book is a good look at adoption from the point of the adoptee, with all of the conflicting emotions and identity questions that it raises.

I listened to All You Can Ever Know on audio. It was narrated by Janet Song, who did a decent job with it. Song’s precise, clear delivery mirrored Chung’s writing style, and it was easy to follow. I was surprised that it wasn’t narrated by the author, which I think would have been very powerful. Ultimately, I felt a bit of a remove from the content, knowing that it wasn’t the author herself that I was listening to. I wonder if it was just too personal for Chung, and that she didn’t want her own voice out there talking about her parents and her feelings.

All You Can Ever Know is a short and satisfying read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in adoption, particularly trans-racial adoption.

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:)

YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler

513gpyqm6bl-_sx324_bo1204203200_My family has been been on a Parks and Recreation binge over the last few months, so I’ve been watching a lot of Amy Poehler. I received an ARC of Yes Please when it came out last fall, but hadn’t gotten to it yet, so I decided to listen to it on audio a few weeks ago. Many hours of Amy Poehler in the car!

Yes Please is Poehler’s memoir about her childhood, her early years in comedy in Chicago, her time on SNL and (thankfully) her experience on Parks and Recreation. Along the way, Poehler shares her insights on being a working mom, her divorce (a little), her children, and some celebrity gossip from SNL and various awards shows. Yes Please is well-written and, if not chronological, at least loosely organized around themes and phases of Poehler’s life.

I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants 5 years ago (review here), and I just re-read my review of it. On the surface it sounds an awful lot like Yes Please. But I liked Poehler’s book better. I think there’s more substance, and more to take away from it. Maybe I identify more with Poehler, with her 80s childhood and her pop culture influences. Maybe it’s because it was narrated for me by Poehler. Regardless, I think it hangs together better as a book. Poehler is relatable and funny and imperfect. She is generous to others and grateful for their roles in her life. And part of her is Leslie Knope, and who doesn’t love Leslie Knope?

I could have done without all the whining about how hard it is to write a book.

Yes Please isn’t the deepest or most satisfying book I’ve read recently, but it was a lot of fun and certainly made my commute go by faster. As for the audio narration – it’s really fun to hear it all in Poehler’s voice. She has a few guest narrators – Seth Meyers, her parents, the creator of Parks and Recreation – but I like her solo sections the best.