Wednesday, August 15, 2018

From the Corner of the Oval

By Beck Dorey-Stein

Spiegel & Grau     2018
352 pages     Memoir

“This place. This place. This place could break your heart.” With this poignant reminder, Beck Dorey-Stein begins her memoir of the five years (2012-2016) she spent as a stenographer in President Barack Obama’s White House. Beck, short for Rebecca, got the job through a rather unimaginable way. She had been working as a tutor and teacher at the Sidwell School, where the Obama girls went to school, but in an attempt to move on, she answered a Craigslist ad for a stenographer at a Washington law firm. Surprising, she finds during the second interview that it isn’t a job at a law firm at all, but a job transcribing notes “from the corner of the oval” office. Over the ensuing years, she kept meticulous notes of this incredible experience, fully aware that she was part of history in the making.

At once extremely funny and gut-wrenching, Dorey-Stein describes the men she dated (and bedded), the places she was privileged to visit, and the great friends she made among the White House staff. Once she is confident in her position and her gift for writing, she shares her reflections with White House staffers, and they all encourage her to become an author.  While she is critical of the “ladder-climbing bobbleheads” that make up a great deal of the Washington young adults, she is clear-eyed about her own experiences among those bobbleheads.

I stopped counting the number of times that Jason, the scoundrel, came to Beck’s hotel room on Presidential trips. And I laughed aloud when she was afraid that Jay Carney thought her hair straightening machine was a vibrator or the time she forgot her underwear and mentioned, “Today I’ll be traveling commando with the commander in chief.” Throughout, you never forget that Dorey-Stein is a young woman who parties a lot, drinks too much, and is far too critical of herself and her failings.

I was already feeling tremendously nostalgic for a president of integrity, grace, and humor when I opened From The Corner of the Oval. This account of Obama’s second term from the eyes of his stenographer just made watching Omarosa expose details about the Trump White House all the more painful. Dorey-Stein witnessed some of the greatest moments in the Obama years. I almost cried when she told about watching the speech after the church shootings in Charleston when Obama broke into singing “Amazing Grace.” I was touched when on Dorey-Stein’s birthday, her friends got her a ride on the Presidential helicopter and the President told her about how he met Michelle. Ah—the humanity of the man, and the humility with which he faced his job.

The most interesting review came from Paul Begala who calls it “equal parts C-Span and ‘Sex and the City.’” Other former White House staffers have expressed their impressions of this memoir, but as Begala says, you just keep rooting for Beck to succeed, become a writer (which, of course, she has) and find love. This is not a book about Obama policy or Obama wins and losses, but it  charmingly relates the brief interactions Dorey-Stein had with a wonderful man. The reader ends up being sad that the presidency is currently a laughing stock and longing, like Dorey-Stein does, for those glory days when a beautiful family brought honor to the office of President of the United States.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Becoming Starlight: A Shared Death Journey from Darkness to Light

By Sharon Prentice PhD

Waterside Press     2018
185 pages     Spiritual
The Shortlist

Although I only read parts of Becoming Starlight by Sharon Prentice, I wanted to share the book with you. It seems that currently there are a plethora of books about grief and the death of spouses and partners. Frankly, I was burned out before Becoming Starlight came from the publicist. I just couldn't relive my own grief journey again. This book, however, appears to be particularly meaningful. The theme of Prentice's memoir is grief as a spiritual journey. Prentice has a “shared death” experience at the moment of her husband’s death. Here is a summary of the book.

“Becoming Starlight is the true story of one woman’s tumultuous relationship with God during the soul-wrenching deaths of her daughter and husband, and her eventual redemption as her soul slipped over to another framework of existence—a realm of pure love and light—by means of a Shared Death Experience (SDE) at the moment of her husband’s death. 

The little known Shared Death Experience—a profound transcendent consciousness—afforded the author a peek into forever-ness, a lifting of the veil between this life and the next.

Deeply embedded in Becoming Starlight is a life-and-death struggle with Spiritual darkness and loss of faith. It’s a story brimming with the stuff of life—tremendous love, agonizing loss, quiet rage, inconsolable sorrow, and a complete fall from Grace. At the heart of it is a war between who lives and dies, a battle that brings us face to face with our own mortality.”

As well as telling the story, the concept of shared death is explored and many examples are given from Prentice’s life experience. In my own experience with death, I know that there are people who wish to die in the presence of family, thus sharing the experience. I also know that there are people who choose to die when they are alone—making death a singular experience. This would be the case for my father, who waited until it was quiet and he was alone. My husband waited until his whole family was in the room. I said, “You can go now. Everyone is here.” And everyone in the room saw and felt his spirit leave his body in a whoosh. This is the type of experience Prentice describes in great detail in her memoir.

If this book has resonance for you, here are some other books that I have read and written about—these are the most recent.

·         Waiting for You at Midnight by Vicki Salloum
·         You Are Not Alone by Debbie Augenthaler
·         Grief Works by Julia Samuel

Here is Sharon Prentice’s website.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Me and My Fear

By Francesca Sanna

Flying Eye Books     2018
40 pages     Picture Book/Children

My love affair with Francesca Sanna, her books and her illustrations, continues with Me and my Fear. Two years ago, Sanna published the outstanding book, The Journey, about refugees beginning the journey to safety. This new book, also beautifully illustrated, finds our little girl, now an immigrant, facing her fears as she reaches a new home, a new language, a new school, and no friends. Fear becomes her constant companion, and “she” (her fear) keeps growing and growing. The character, fear, is a white blob with a face. It grows and takes up the whole room, but then shrinks as the girl learns to deal with her fear. The breakthrough comes when she makes her first friend at school.

I read Me and My Fear with my granddaughter, Adela, age 7. I did have to explain to her that the white ghost-looking blob was a representation of the idea of fear. Once that was understood, Adela felt that the book was wonderful. We talked some about a girl in her class who had moved to Kalamazoo from Czechoslovakia and couldn’t speak any English. We wondered if she had the same kind of fears as the little girl in the book.

I told her that one of my current fears was falling and breaking something. I said that it was a common fear for older people. “Grandma, you’re not old!” she said. But when I asked her what her fear was, she quite surprised me by saying that she was afraid that her mommy and daddy might die and leave her and her brother alone. I told her she was experiencing  a common childhood fear, but she had a big family and if something were to happen to her parents, there would be lots of people to take care of her and her brother.

I believe that Me and My Fear is a great follow-up to The Journey. I think that it has many classroom applications, and should be used in classrooms where there are immigrant and refugee children. As with my granddaughter, some great discussion can follow for individual readers and classrooms.  The Publisher’s Weekly starred review says, “this creative depiction shows how friendship, empathy, and connection can help bring the overwhelming down to size for all.”

Friday, August 3, 2018

Collaboration: The Ways We Work Together

By Tomas Moniz and Alicia Dornadic

AK Press      2018
38 pages     Children nonfiction

Collaboration is a charming book, in both English and Spanish. It describes the manner in which the we work and play with each other and with the world around us.  It is designed for children in the early elementary grades. I read it in English with my granddaughter Adela, who is going into the second grade.

First we discussed the term collaboration, then we read the book, and then we discussed the ways in which she collaborates. She happens to be attending a summer day camp that her mother is running for a bunch of elementary school children, so she had lots of examples of collaboration. Her analysis of the book was that the words could help children understand how people work together, but she felt that some of the pictures were difficult to decipher. They are watercolors, rather monochromatic, and do need some interpretation. We also talked about how reviewing this book for my blog was also a collaboration.

My favorite lines were “the way you turn the page and I read the words and we dream the story.” I loved the thought “we dream the story.” Adela’s favorite page was “the way you sing the words I make the beat we make music.” She had just come from singing at a nursing home with her other grandma and the children from the day camp. They collaborated with guitars, drums, and a viola!

We would recommend this book for classrooms—particularly bilingual classrooms. My daughter will use it in her classroom this school year as she teaches her school children to work together.

The publisher AK Press, is primarily a publisher of adult books. This is their first foray in children’s book. It’s a meaningful start.

Maybe Congress should be sent copies and Adela will come and explain collaboration to them!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Baby Teeth

By Zoje Stage

St. Martin’s Press     2018
320 pages     Thriller/Horror

Why, oh, why did I ever start Baby Teeth? That was the question I asked myself over and over as I sat transfixed, suffering along with Suzette, a mother living in fear of her young daughter, Hanna. The plot summary of the book is almost beside the point, but here it is from the Amazon website.

The trials of parenthood are known to all: the sleepless nights, the teething, and the tantrums. In Baby Teeth, mom Suzette faces an additional trial: a young daughter, Hanna, who makes Wednesday Addams look positively angelic. Hanna is besotted with her father and violently opposed to sharing him with her mother. Withdrawn, refusing to speak, she’s waging a campaign of terror with Suzette as the prime target. But, apart from issues at school that Dad is able to excuse away, he sees no evidence of the terror his wife reports and stands ready to defend his silent angel, even against her mom. It’s the classic bad seed setup, but author Zoje Stage ups the ante, using alternating chapters to devastating effect. The swings from Suzette's panicked attempts to right the ship and fix her daughter to Hanna's chilling interior monologues drive much of the suspense in this creepy thriller. And the alternating chapter setup allows Hanna the last words, words which left me open-mouthed. Ever wanted to shout, “He’s behind you!” at a horror movie in a theater? Well, Baby Teeth may leave you wanting to howl something similar at the pages of a book.

The Hanna chapters are the most devastating because the reader is exposed to the machinations of a truly depraved mind—in a brilliant 7-year-old. At one point Hanna muses: “she knew how adults thought. They liked what they could see right in front of them, solid things. They encouraged imagination but hated anything imaginary. Hanna knew they didn’t understand how reality was malleable. It flowed on a wave in front of Hanna’s eyes, and she could choose to be outside or within it.” This, of course, is not how an ordinary child would think—but Hanna is not an ordinary child. For one thing, when she finally speaks to her mother, it is with the French accent of a child burned at the stake as a witch. No wonder Suzette is totally freaked out.

An excellent essay in the New York Times by Ruth Franklin looks at books and movies about “bad seeds.” Franklin references The Bad Seed and We Need To Talk About Kevin but particularly discusses how the mothers are the ones who suffer the worst from evil children, because the fairly absentee father can only see what is presented to him when he returns from work in the evening. In the case of Baby Teeth, he only sees his loving and adoring daughter, and all the evil Suzette reports to him seem to have no reality.

Is Suzette to blame for this evil child? Franklin asks this question as she explores how Hanna and the other psychopathic children of literature got that way? “Are some children simply born evil?” This was the thought that haunted me as I turned the last pages of the book.  Recently, my daughter who teaches in a public preschool had a 4-year-old boy in her afternoon class who was truly psychotic. By the time he came to my daughter’s classroom in February, he had already been kicked out of three other schools. He became her only charge when he was in attendance, and she had to monitor all his craziness—from manipulating his classmates, to horrendous fits, to the time he tried to strangle her. There were many days when the principal had to be in the classroom with my daughter because the boy was too manic to be contained. Eventually he was referred to mental health professionals and sent home for the rest of the school year. Like Suzette, this little boy’s mother was afraid of him and was helpless to know what to do. 

There are moments when every parent thinks that they are going crazy; there are moments when children lose control. For some children, fit throwing is a way of life, and this is the type of fear that Zoje Stage exploits in Baby Teeth. Is my fit-throwing child OK, or is there something wrong with him/her. Hopefully, none of them are like Hanna.

Here is Zoje Stage’s website. This is her first published novel and has received tremendous reviews.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Waiting For You at Midnight

By Vicki Salloum

Moonshine Cove     2018
240 pages     Fiction

In Waiting For You At Midnight, Vicki Salloum’s intimate look at grief is raw and very real—so real, in fact, that the reader forgets that it is a novel.

When Arabella Joseph’s husband Logan died of cancer in 2015, she is overcome with grief and fear. She muses, “What am I going to do without you? That is the quintessential question. How can I live a life without you? I am without any defenses. I am scared and alone and in pain.”

The narrative alternates between Arabella’s remembrances of her relationship with Logan and her struggles to move forward with her life after his death. She feels that she was only a whole person when she was with him and she initially has no understanding of what to do and when to do it.

Arabella is a writer, but also a long-time recovered alcoholic/drug addict, so her associates and friends are the people that she meets at the recovery meetings she attends on a nearly daily basis. She looks to the people in the group for friendship and companionship, but her grief and longing is so intense that she is worried that she will relapse. The relationships are powerful, and many of her recovery friends are very supportive and helpful to her. A couple of the men she meets at the meetings are interested in a relationship with her, but they also carry a great deal of baggage.

I was particularly interested in her contemplation on grief and loss. I understood the tragic journey a spouse takes when his/her partner is suffering from cancer—the dissociation, the anger, the unspeakable inability to “solve the problem.” My favorite parts, however, have less to do with Arabella’s struggles after Logan’s death than with the beautiful story of their relationship—how they found each other, how the accepted each other’s failings, and how they grew a loving and engaged marriage.

I wondered about why she wanted to have another relationship so quickly, and why she chose such damaged men to anticipate having a relationship with. Her loneliness was palpable, but the book’s climax doesn’t offer any relief from the pain which continues beyond the book’s climax. The book just stops.

This is not a cheerful book nor is it easy to read. I began it at the beach but had to put it away until I was in a more appropriate setting at home. I did, however, email the author, because in the bio it said that her husband had recently died, and the book was dedicated to him and his life. I asked her why she chose to write a novel rather than a memoir. Here is what she said: I choose to write my book as fiction because only part of it is autobiographical.  A big part of it is imagination.  Several major events in the book did not happen and many characters in the book, through inspired by people I know, were made up.  When I write, I sometimes start off with what I know and then, working in the unconscious, the imagination takes over and the result is an imaginary world that is only partly autobiographical.  However, in Waiting for You at Midnight, the voice and mood are very real.  The book, written as fiction, accomplished what I wanted it to:  it served as a tribute to my husband.  My love for him was in that book and that's all that counts.”

The value of Waiting for You at Midnight lies in its ability to help the reader understand the depth of the grief experience. At times, it almost was so close to my own grief experience that I had to catch my breath. Another book that is similar in tone but a memoir is You are Not Alone by Debbie Augenthaler.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly

By Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

Harper Collins     2018
464 pages     Mystery/Humor

The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly describes the further adventures of the Pensioner’s League: a group of old folk’s home Robin Hoods, who are seeking to create special events for their elderly compatriots and to justly compensate the low wage workers in the nursing homes and hospitals that serve them. The book is translated from the Swedish.

This is the third book in the series, and as some reviewers have noted, perhaps it ought to be the last. It is absurdist humor at its best (?). I chose it because of the title, since I consider myself a “little old lady behaving badly,” and thus I had few expectations and quite a few laughs. Martha is the mastermind of the group, and the others take roles that utilize their skills and sometimes involve their adult children. The first crime of this episode included robbing a bank using a garbage truck to suck the money out of the safe. Of course, the truck was full of garbage, so all the loot had to be cleaned and ended up smelling of vinegar, their cleaner of choice. When they had to decide what they would do with the stolen garbage truck, they drove it into their vacationing neighbor’s pool, covered it with cement, and planted sod and bushes over it. See what I mean about absurdist!

The other adventures of the pensioners aren’t quite so funny, although they are extremely creative. And, because they are old, they never get caught and actually cause little suspicion. Additionally, the book may have been about 100 pages too long and one adventure too crazy. Of course, I have been sitting at the beach this week, so this was a perfect beach read because my brain is already fried. My next read has someone die in it, and I am having trouble getting into it—not quite appropriate for the beach.

Other books in the series besides The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly include The Little Old Lady who Broke All the Rules and The Little Old Lady who Struck Lucky Again. The book reminded me of the movie, Going in Style about old men bank robbers.