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Life is not all political in the Oval Office . . . or is it?

From The Corner of The Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein is not an exposé about the political goings-on behind the  scenes à la Bob Woodward or Michael Wolff. It’s chick lit, for better or worse, and I’m inclined to lean toward better. This memoir is about Dorey-Stein’s five years working at The White House during the Obama administration, including her love affairs prior to and during her time working there and her relationships with fellow employees. As a low-level staffer, she was not privy to confidential meetings with executive staff but she was privileged to accompany the President and his staff on overseas trips, local fund-raisers, family vacations in Hawaii and meetings with foreign leaders.

Dorey-Stein was an under-employed English teacher working several part-time jobs when she spotted an ad for a stenographer on Craig’s List.  Desperate to work at something other than waiting tables, she applied for the job, then blew off the interview. Because part of her past experience included tutoring students at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School attended by Malia Obama, the interviewer followed up and Dorey-Stein was given a second chance to interview.

What she didn’t realize and had not been disclosed in the advertisement was that the job was as a stenographer at The White House, the big one on Pennsylvania Avenue. The job required her to be part of a team that attended every interview, press conference and public speaking event attended by President Barack Obama. His words were recorded and transcribed by stenographers like Dorey-Stein for release to various media sources as well as being kept for historical records. She does have opinions, however. After the Boston Marathon bombing attack, her comments, “You’d think these ‘red-blooded’ conservative congressmen who don’t want equal rights for gays or the right to choose for women would be embarrassed to have the NRA so publicly cupping their balls.” Good one!

Beck Dorey-Stein was there, in the big house, during the saner Obama years.

When she was hired, Stein was advised to “keep her boyfriend” and avoid relationships with secret service agents or fellow employees. Naturally, a young woman in her twenties with raging hormones and a flair for being social found it difficult to adhere to that advice. She was soon romantically involved with a senior member of the executive staff, betraying her boyfriend and her principles. Her new lover, Jason was a chronic and well-known womanizer but she’s already too emotionally involved before she discovers the painful truth about his true colours. Their on-again, off-again affair pulls her under like a drug addiction with no upside other than infrequent good conversation and good sex.

Fans of The West Wing and HBO’s VEEP starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus will love this book. In fact, even if you’re not familiar with those television shows, I think you’ll love it. That’s why it’s a New York Times best-seller. While we learn nothing salacious about White House operations during her tenure, it’s a fascinating read nonetheless. Being a fly-on-the-wall observer at a low level, the author treats us to a rare view of life in the West Wing of The White House. We follow her steps through rooms, corridors and offices, journey along on trips within the United States and internationally aboard Airforce 1 and experience personal exchanges with POTUS through her eyes.

From The Corner of the Oval is a fun beach read about the love affairs and working relationships between Obama-era staffers. You won’t learn any dirty secrets or inside political skullduggery but you will enjoy the observations of an articulate young woman who was there. And her Epilogue is titled, Send in the Clowns. Pour yourself a glass of wine, put your feet up and escape. I’d rate it 7 out of 10.

Click here to order From The Corner of The Oval by Beck Dory-Stein from Amazon.

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Wash your face and get your life together

When I saw Rachel Hollis, author of Girl, Wash Your Face interviewed on CTV’s The Social recently I was impressed by her enthusiasm and energy. But what does a 35-year-old Christian mother of four children with a type A++ personality have in common with me? I wondered the same thing when I started reading her book but soon became so engrossed I couldn’t put it down. I read the entire book in a day. And despite it being less than 300 pages (depending on the font size on your e-reader) I had dozens and dozens of pages bookmarked.

Rachel Hollis grew up in an all-white middle-class small town in California. Her father was a pastor and her life was seemingly typical of 1980s America. Except her father had a hair-trigger temper, her troubled older brother committed suicide at sixteen and she lived in constant fear of disapproval. She focused on doing well in school so she could graduate early and leave her home town. At the age of seventeen (the same age I was when I left home) she moved to Los Angeles where she expected her life to take a positive turn. But our problems have a habit of following us regardless of our geography.

Young women often have a naïve life plan for themselves—love, marriage, babies, living happily ever after. Rachel Hollis was no different. When her plan started to go off the rails, the stress caused physical reactions including Bell’s palsy and vertigo which forced her to reevaluate her entire life. Along the way she made many mistakes and learned valuable lessons which she generously shares with readers.

Each chapter of the book sets out to debunk a common myth that sets women up for disappointment and even failure, starting with the title’s tag line: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You were Meant to Be. Hollis begins the first chapter with Lie #1: SOMETHING ELSE WILL MAKE ME HAPPY and each subsequent chapter follows the same theme. She articulates a lie, describes her personal experiences with this misconception and delivers the beef, summing up each chapter with point-form THINGS THAT HELPED ME. . . The book is filled with so many wonderful bon mots:

  • Comparison is the death of joy. (One of my favourites.)
  • Our words have power but our actions shape our lives.
  • Take care of yourself first.
  • When you’re looking for a community of women, look for the ones who want to build each other up instead of tear each other down.
  • Someone else’s opinion of me is none of my business.
  • Bras are the devil’s work.
Rachel Hollis and her husband Dave are the parents of three sons and one daughter.

We’re never too old to learn

One of Hollis’s lessons learned hit me smack in the face the other day at the hairdresser’s. There was a little boy around six or seven years old in the next chair who refused to get his hair cut. Despite the best efforts of his dad and the stylist, the little guy kept whining and wiggling, squirming his way out of the chair. My first reaction was to judge the child as spoiled and the father as indulgent. When baby boomers were children, if we’d have displayed similar behaviour our parent would have simply slammed us into the seat, ordered us to sit still and that would be the end of the discussion. We’d be too terrified to move.

Instead of casting my usual disparaging judgment and shooting the father the evil eye, I considered for a moment that the child might have special needs and challenges. Perhaps he had sensory issues. Maybe the man was a “Big Brother” and the child was from an abusive home and didn’t like being touched. Thanks to Rachel Hollis, I cast the father a sympathetic smile and went back to reading my book. We should never judge the actions of others without knowing their particular back story.

I not only enjoyed this book, I devoured it which proves this old boomer still has room to grow and learn. Rachel Hollis is so inspiring and a perfect illustration of what we can learn from someone we perceive as having nothing in common with us. She admits to being an impatient mother who sometimes yells at her children. She has bad habits like the rest of us (i.e. Diet Coke) and describes how she works on fixing her shortcomings. Her writing, like her personality, is fast, full of relatable personal experiences and surprisingly mature for someone only 35 years old. I can only imagine what lies ahead for this young woman. I’d rate Girl, Wash Your Face 9 out of 10.

Click here to order Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis from Amazon.

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The September issue blows

September 2018

Every year I look forward to writing a bitchy critique of the famous September issue of Vogue magazine. At upwards of 800 pages, it arrives with a heavy thud in my mailbox (a couple of years ago the postman actually rang my doorbell and personally handed it to me) and usually gives me a couple of hours of entertainment.

Most of what Vogue offers up is utter nonsense and completely irrelevant to the average woman. Despite this, somehow I usually manage to find one or two tiny sparks of inspiration in its superficial pages. This year? There’s nothing to write about. No inspiration. Nadda. Zero. Rien. Ziltch. Not a single thing. There is an article about an upcoming HBO series on Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan quartet, but otherwise, the September 2018 issue of Vogue is barren of anything relevant or worthwhile to this old boomer.

Is it just me or are fashion magazines seriously out of touch with their readers? I’m becoming increasingly fed up with fashion media, despite their few and infrequent pathetic attempts at recognizing older readers, a.k.a. baby boomers. As the saying goes, “I don’t know why I botha’.“. Who’s out of touch? Me? Or them?

Links to relevant reads:

Is the fashion media still relevant?

The September and other irrelevant issues

The September issue has arrived

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Is Chrissy Metz really . . . just like us?

We can forgive Chrissy Metz, who plays Kate in television’s Just Like Us series, for using a ghost writer (Kevin Carr O’Leary) to help with her autobiography. This Is Me, Loving the person you are today is well-written and full of wisdom. Her struggles before becoming a famous actor carry into her current adult life and she doesn’t hold back. Metz was born in Gainesville, Florida, the third child and second girl of a navy father who wanted only boys. Consequently, she refers to her biological father by “Mark” as he provided little to no support of any kind in her growing up. Her parents divorced when she was eight years old leaving her mother in a desperate financial situation. Consequently, her mother makes unwise romantic choices in an effort to provide for her three children which eventually grew to five.

As Chrissy was growing up, she experienced a disproportionate amount of negative feedback but uses those experiences to dispense wisdom to help others who are struggling. Acknowledging that we all experience challenges in life, Metz is honest and generous in sharing hers. She stresses the importance of having an ‘attitude of gratitude’ which personally I’ve also found to be valuable when we’re feeling defeated. Through years of verbal and emotional abuse by a step-father and suffering alienation by her peers because of her size, Metz developed a strong backbone and learned to adapt. Even her own mother was not always supportive in misguided efforts to keep her family housed and fed in a modest trailer park lifestyle.

Chrissy Metz stars as Kate on tv’s This Is Us.

Life often sends us on a circuitous journey to success. When she took her sister to a talent search audition, Metz struck up a relationship with the agent that landed her a job wrangling young talent. Traveling to Los Angeles with little money and a broken down car with her work, she leveraged the opportunity to market her own talents. But she spent more than ten years doing menial work for low wages behind the scenes. Like any young woman, she wanted love in her life and connected with a like-minded Scotsman she met through a computer dating site. Their marriage was loving but fraught with difficulties that eventually resulted in divorce. When Metz was cast as Kate in This is Us her life began to resemble what we would call success.

I really enjoyed reading This Is Me by Chrissy Metz. Her story is written with humour and is an easy read delivered in a hip, contemporary tone. The strongest recommendation for reading this book is its inspirational value. It serves to remind us that despite life’s challenges, we don’t have to accept negativism and defeat. Metz offers an abundance of solid suggestions for rising above adversity without being preachy or self-righteous. I’d give this book 9 out of 10.

Click here to order This is Me by Chrissy Metz from Amazon.

 

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Zadie Smith’s back in my good books

Do male authors explore the complicated relationships between childhood friends to the extent women do? I found myself wondering that as I read Swing Time by Zadie Smith about two girls growing up in the council estates of suburban London. Another author, Elena Ferrante managed to fill four voluminous novels about two close friends growing up in Naples, Italy, post World War II. I devoured all four of Ferrante’s books, one after the other. Female relationships are endlessly fascinating.

After hearing a delightful interview with the British writer Zadie Smith on the radio about her novel NW a few years ago, I bought the book and couldn’t wait to read it. After three tries, I gave up but a couple of weeks ago I picked up her earlier book, Swing Time, which tracks the lives of two bi-racial young girls who bond through a shared love of dancing when they meet at Miss Isobel’s dance class in their neighbourhood community centre. Like the protagonists in Ferrante’s books, Smith’s main characters are soul-mates, competitors, combatants and, most importantly, enduring life-long friends. The title of the book is drawn from their mutual love of classic musicals featuring dancers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The narrator comes from a comparatively secure, two-parent home with a loving, conscientious white father who works at the post office. Her driven, feminist, leftist Jamaican mother’s life is devoted to expanding her knowledge of social issues and working on getting a university degree through extended learning programs. Her best friend Tracey has a white mother and a largely absent, ne’er-do-well Jamaican immigrant father, Louie, who appears during brief releases from prison to bestow upheaval on the family.

Both girls love dance and envision their futures in West End musicals. They practise, they improvise, they study the moves and techniques of early dancers and build a fantasy world of their own in their London council estate. Tracey is the more feminine of the two and her body and personality lend themselves to precocious behaviour which ultimately causes a rift in the friendship. As the girls become teenagers, the gap widens.

The main plot line and subplots are interesting to follow as the various colourful characters take shape and grow. Through a series of serendipitous events, the narrator (we never learn her name) lands a job as one of several personal assistants to a major rock star, Aimee, reminiscent of Madonna. While she devotes her life and work to serving Aimee, Tracey pursues her stage career with the two women crossing paths intermittently. Work with Aimee takes our protagonist to a poor village in Africa where the star is building a girls’ school and we are given insights into the political, sociological and economic implications of interfering in a foreign culture, despite all good intentions.

Author Zadie Smith.

Now I can see why Zadie Smith is such an acclaimed writer. Her story lines, characters and writing are interesting. The dialogue captures the working class idiom and psychology of the council estate residents. As with Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series of books, however, I found Smith perhaps spent too much time on the girls’ early years in school. That slowed down the pace and it was tempting to just skip over those pages. Otherwise, my only complaint is a personal one which I’ve mentioned before. I get confused when authors toggle back and forth in time; it disrupts the rhythm of the story. I prefer things to progress chronologically. After reading Swing Time I decided to once again give NW a try, but the loose, stream-of-consciousness writing and lack of punctuation confused and annoyed me, so I gave up—again. I really enjoyed Swing Time though and give it 7 out of 10.

Click here to order Swing Time by Zadie Smith from Amazon.

Click here to order Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels from Amazon.

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Warlight was worth the wait

It’s an enigma wrapped in a mystery—or is it the other way around? However you look at Michael Ondaatje’s latest book Warlight it’s a compelling story about a puzzling set of relationships. The story is set in London right after the Second World War. When 14-year-old Nathaniel and his 16-year-old sister Rachel are informed by their parents that work will be taking them far away to Singapore, they are stunned to learn they will be left behind in the care of a vague family friend they call “The Mole”. Feeling abandoned, the young people become increasingly confused when they find their mother’s fully packed trunk still in the basement after she leaves. Where is she? Why did she not take them?

Life for Nate and Rachael soon becomes filled with a strange and nefarious assortment of characters. The Mole, who supposedly worked as an air-raid warden on the roof of the Grosvenor Hotel resumes his pre-war duties as catering manager and is often absent, leaving the siblings to fend for themselves. An odd assortment of people begin frequenting their home and before long, Nate and Rachel become involved in strange adventures. Piecing together fragments of information they pick up along the way, Nate realizes his mother is involved in what appears to be covert intelligence work for the government, a continuation of her war work.

Thanks to The Mole, Nate gets part-time work after school and on weekends in the hotel kitchen and has a romantic affair with another teenaged hotel employee known as Agnes. A shady character called “The Darter” who was once a prize-winning boxer and possible criminal becomes a regular in their lives. He takes Nate along on his mysterious nightly runs smuggling illegal greyhounds and other secret cargo on a barge up the Thames River during dark London nights.

Ondaatje has a keen knowledge of London and its wartime buildings. It’s a treat to follow the observations of Nathaniel as he accompanies The Darter around the city. His sister becomes increasingly less visible until a dramatic event changes the course of their lives. The author is a skilled wordsmith and I was totally engaged in the writing, the psychology of the characters and the progression of their lives. I was a teensy bit disappointed in how it wrapped up but that’s just me. I’d rate it 8 out of 10.

Click here to order Warlight by Michael Ondaatje from Amazon.

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