Girls’ Night Out – Lisa Steinke & Liz Fenton

It’s been a hot minute or year since I read an actual, physical book that wasn’t nonfiction. Audio books have been a staple of my life for the last year and I found that I can only listen to nonfiction while driving … because I like to imagine the fiction and that doesn’t exactly bode well for being behind the wheel. If you check out my Good Reads list you’ll see a plethora of political memoirs with a few fun books mixed in. Not going to like, this makes me feel a wee bit smarter than I was before. Can’t say for sure whether or not that statement is rooted in actual fact.

I recently took a new job with a nine (9!!!!) minute commute, which all but annihilated my audio book time. So, I needed to fill that void and to be honest, I have really missed getting lost in a good women’s fiction novel. I suggested an online book club to my mom group and BAM I’m back in the business of reading for FUN!

But, I digress.

The first book we chose to read was Girls’ Night Out by Lisa Steinke and Liz Fenton. The book is centered around three friends – Ashley, Lauren and Natalie. Ashley and Natalie have a business together called BloMe (for real) and have a big offer from Revlon that could change their lives for the better, if only they both agreed on the outcome. Lauren is recently widowed and we quickly learn that she had a falling out with her two best friends at her husband’s funeral – but, we don’t learn the details until much later in the book.

I have read a few of Lisa & Liz’s books and I have enjoyed each one. I love their method of storytelling from multiple characters and perspectives. The writing is seamless, but each character’s personality is distinct. The same is true in GNO. Early on Ashley, Natalie and Lauren are all well-developed and defined. And they stay true to character throughout the book.

When I first started reading GNO, I was afraid I was about to embark on the female version of The Hangover. Natalie wakes up along on the beach after a night of drinking. Her dress is wet and she is covered in sand and has no memory of how she got there. She also quickly discovers that Ashley is missing. From there the book turns into the mystery thriller I was expecting.

(I am going to attempt to write this review without giving away any spoilers … but, just in case, you’ve been warned).

Although the book dives right into Ashley going missing, I felt the first few chapters dragged a little and I was speed reading to get to the reveals (Why was Lauren so mad at Ashley? Why was Natalie so desperate for this Revlon deal to happen and why was Ashley so against it?). The book wove in and out of timelines as well as character POVs in order to set the stage for Ashley’s disappearance, so it takes some time to get to the juicy bits of the plot. Normally, I can guess the answer to the mystery (an annoying trait I am sure comes from my own desire to be a writer), but not in this case. I was way wrong on what happened with Lauren and Ashley at Lauren’s husband’s funeral and I was only partially right on what happened to Ashley.

As much as I love Lisa & Liz and their writing and dynamic characters, I could not find a single redeeming quality in any of the girls. I found Lauren to be too whiny, Ashley too demanding and Natalie too much of a doormat. I kept reading and waiting for something to flip my opinion, but even in the end, the girls didn’t evolve. They left vacation the

same as they came to it, well almost – can’t really spoil that part for you. This disappointed me. These three girls went through a major life changing event not only on this trip but in the year leading up to it and none of them learned anything or made any efforts to change. Perhaps this is grounded in real life, but I was missing the “lesson,” if you will.

I devoured this book in three days – even stayed up past midnight reading and woke up early to finish it the next day (as a working mom with two kids, midnight is WAY past my bedtime). I enjoyed the shifting perspectives and timelines and the writing kept me turning the page to get to the next reveal. The one negative is that I never actually cared what happened to the characters – I wanted to, but I was more interested in the what than the who. If that makes sense. I loved the story, but not the characters.

In all, I enjoyed GNO and it was a great first read in my return to fiction journey.


A Higher Loyalty

As hard as I tried to avoid coming into this book with a bias, I definitely still had one. The problem? I wasn’t really sure what that bias was – did I love or loathe Jim Comey? The whole email BS with Secretary Clinton provided a roller coaster of emotions towards him, but I am not sure I can answer honestly which side of the spectrum I landed on. As much as I appreciated the July 2016 announcement that the email investigation was closed and as much as I hated the October 2016 announcement that it was reopened, I still don’t know how I felt towards him as a person. Sure, his public comments since his very public firing have been insightful to who he is as a person, but still … no idea.

All this rambling to say this, I don’t know what I expected from this book other than a tirade against Trump – this based on Trump’s Twitter freak outs about the book. But, I didn’t get that. Nor did I leave the book hating or loving Comey. I did leave it with a new respect for him and the tough decisions he’s had to make.

The book details his history with excellent leaders and retells the stories and cases from his career that shaped him as a leader. From his days working in a grocery store to his days in Manhattan working with Giuliani to investigate and prosecute members of the mafia. The stories that struck me most were not the sensational (Mafia, Martha Stewart), but the ones from his days as Deputy Attorney General under George W. Bush. A few months ago, I listened to Bush’s book, Decision Points. In it, he  tells his side of the Scooter Libby and Stellar Wind stories. If memory serves me, he mentions Comey in passing in the Libby story, but he goes into detail on Comey’s involvement in the Stellar Wind case. It was very interesting to hear Comey’s side of this story and a small part of me wants to go back and reread those chapters in Decision Points to compare the two … a very small part.

When it comes to the Clinton email case, I honestly believe this was a no-win scenario for Comey and the FBI. No matter which route he chose, he and his team would have ended up on the wrong end of a firing squad by whichever party was displeased. For me, the Clinton email bullshit isn’t what lost her the election. I am sure it played a part, but 2016 was a disgusting mess of emails, Russian interference, anger, racism, xenophobia, sexism and all the other awful isms I can’t remember at the moment.

I am sure Trump missed the memo on this, but only about 1/8 of the book is about him. Comey ends his book with the final chapter of his public service career, which is fitting. There is nothing new or particularly sensational revealed her. Just what we already know – Trump is an unethical, inhumane leader that lies for the sake of lying. I could go into this more, but I’ve already typed his name and thought it too many times. You know the story here.

The biggest takeaway from Comey’s book, the point I believe he was trying to make and what we all really need to hear is this – sometimes doing the right thing means going against one’s own personal political beliefs and it means putting yourself on the line. Comey’s retelling of his career and the cases that made it highlight this. In many cases he could have chose a different path, one that would have moved him forward politically and gained him favor and power. But he didn’t. His loyalty wasn’t rooted in politics, but rather in country and doing what is right and ethical, regardless of the public consequences.

And, he’s right. We are at a crucial turning point in America and we have to decide where our loyalty lies – with partisan politics or with something greater.


Matthew Desmond: Evicted

It’s been a while since a book has affected me the way Matthew Desmond’s Evicted did. In fact, I’d wager that it affected me unlike anything else I have ever read.

I had just finished Al Franken’s Giant of the Senate when I saw Senator Cory Booker’s post on a summer book club. I needed a new book and he was recommending one, win-win.

When I hit play that first drive home, I didn’t know what to expect. The narrator’s soothing voice added an expectation of calmness that I would soon realize would be much needed as Desmond weaved a complicated story of eight families living in poverty in Milwaukee in 2008-2009. The stories seemed distant to me at first, unrelatable and far away. But, as the stories progressed, I found myself deeply moved by these strangers.

Their stories aren’t necessarily unique to today’s cultural landscape in America. They are the stories you hear in passing on the news – families evicted, house fires devastating a family and killing an infant, a promising young nurse falling victim to to the opioid crisis, a young mother who doesn’t know where to take her children after her third eviction in as many months. These stories on the news are easy to ignore and pass off as someone else’s problem.

But these stories were different. The connection deeper as I spent hours listening to their intertwining lives. I cried for them and with them. I wanted to change their reality. I wished America was a better place with true equality and equity.

These stories are the reason arguments about pulling oneself up by their bootstraps is complete bullshit. These people don’t have boots nor do they have access to boots and when they are given boots, they are beaten with them. While they struggle to keep from drowning, society is dumping buckets of water on them rather than extending a helping hand.

This book outlines the very problem with “equality” in America. We have this notion that segregation and discrimination are ancient history. But, both are alive and well and until we can finally see that, we will never move forward. Until we can see the line of demarcation between privilege and poverty and the clear part that race  plays in this, we will not prosper as a nation.

The only way our nation and our economy can sustain and succeed is when we all have equal access, equal opportunity and a safe place to call home.

George W. Bush: Decision Points

Seventeen years ago I voted in my first presidential election, I was nineteen. For as long as I could remember politics were a passion of mine and my opinions and ideals always aligned with the Left. So, when I watched the election of 2000 unfold, my heart was crushed. Then, in 2004, it was crushed again.

But, 2016 provided a completely new perspective. 2000 and 2004 were nothing compared to the devastation and disappointment I experienced in 2016. It was with this new perspective that I was inspired to listen to George W. Bush’s post-Presidency book, Decision Points. And, let me tell you what a difference eight years makes.

The premise of Decision Points is essentially a full dissection of the critical decisions Bush made during his eights years in office. Everything from stem cell research to his HIVA/AIDS work in Africa to Iraq and 9/11. While, I don’t agree with a lot of the decisions made during his presidency, particularly on Iraq, I now have a better understanding of how he came to the conclusions he did. This is especially true when it comes to Iraq, which accounts for almost half of the book. As he walks through the intelligence he received and the rationale behind the decision to invade Iraq I was able to walk away with a clearer picture of the how and why. I still disagree with the decision he and his administration made, but I understand it.

What struck me the most was his passion and compassion. His storytelling is clear and concise and made his deep love of American and its people apparent. More than eight years have passed since his presidency came to an end and in that time, history, and I, look upon his time with more appreciation than contempt.

Malala Yousafzai: I am Malala

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban is a powerful story of a young girl fighting for the things she believes in: peace and education for all children. Malala’s story delivered the kind of inspirational tale that I was expecting – a strong, brave, intelligent and outspoken young woman who fought for her education. What I didn’t expect? The detailed insight into how the Taliban came to power in her valley in Pakistan.

What also came as a surprise? The parallels I was able to draw between the current regime in America and the way in which the Taliban was able to draw in supporters.

As I listened to this young girl detail the history of the Taliban in Pakistan and the way they moved into her home in the Swat Valley, my jaw dropped. From the man who came to power by promising to release his taxes and drain the corruption from the government to the Taliban leader who took to the radio airwaves to spread fake news and false narratives while calling out those he felt didn’t follow the Islam that he deemed to be correct. Every step they took rung true as I thought about Donald Trump, the alt-right and those that follow them religiously. It was eerie how similar these tactics are.

What struck me the most as I listened to Malala’s life story was how important it was – not just her plea for education and rights for girls – but to story of how the Taliban and other extremists have perverted the Islamic of religion. Malala and her family are passionate about their faith and they are adamantly opposed to the message of the Taliban. She offers a perspective that all Americans and Westerners need to hear. It is something I’ve said for years, but that her book reinforced, extremists do not represent the Muslim community and those in the community are as appalled by their actions as we are.

Malala’s story was eye opening and provided me with a perspective that one could only get from someone who lived through it.

Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In

When I started listening to Lean In I had no idea that it would take me on an emotional journey into self-realization and ultimately self-reassurance.

I know I am a few years late to the Lean In movement, but the timing could not have been more perfect for my life. Being a working mom is still fairly new for me and having a career with goals and a ladder is almost equally as new. The combination of the two – motherhood and career – is an ongoing struggle for me. The mere mention of the words working, daycare, child, mom, etc. will almost always bring immediate tears to my eyes. So, listening to this book made me incredibly thankful for waterproof mascara.

Sandberg is an expert in both being a career woman and a mom and her words were incredibly powerful. Her message? Was like an atomic bomb. So many of the self-inflicted issues women face in the workplace and in life struck me right where I needed to hear it. I found myself nodding in agreement almost every other sentence.

Whether your career is in or out of the home, Sandberg’s message of Leaning In is important. Women often place themselves inside imaginary boundaries when it comes to our roles and though they may make us unhappy or unsatisfied, we don’t push back against the norms. It is up to us to redefine the norms and roles for our generation and future generations.

Gloria Steinem: My Life on the Road

Gloria Steinem’s name is one I’ve heard most of my life – from my mother, from the news, from other political leaders and activists – but, until I read , I didn’t really understand who she is. I knew she was a powerful voice and force during the women’s movement and I also knew she was still active in organizing and campaigning. What I didn’t know?

How powerful her words were.

In My Life on the Road, Steinem doesn’t just tell her story, but she also tells the stories of the people who influenced and impacted her throughout her life. She weaves these stories into lessons of American history, whether intentional or not. In this collection of life experiences and personal stories, she brings these often static moments to life – from Vietnam to Civil Rights to the assassinations of JFK and Bobby Kennedy.

These stories made me laugh out loud, but many brought me to tears. The courage and fight held in these pages showcases the very spirit of America … and they are just the words we need to hear right now. Steinem reminded me that We, The People, have the power to use our voices and our actions to enact real, impactful change.

Paul Ryan: The Way Forward

I live in a self-created liberal bubble. I have intentionally surrounded myself with like minded or a-political friends, with few exceptions. Rarely do I seek out those with thoughts different from my own, unless I am looking to prove a point or start a debate.

After the disaster that was 2016, I realized I needed to expand my horizons and widen my thought bubble. In doing so, I sought out to find a book that was from a current thought leader on the Right. I chose Paul Ryan because I cannot stomach a Donald Trump book. While I know Ryan is not a true representation of Trump’s Republican party, he is a leader and one I would consider to be more representative of the Conservative way of thinking.

My goal was to listen to this book with an open mind to gain insight into Ryan and the Conservative agenda. I knew there would be liberal bashing and expected harsh words on President Obama. I was not disappointed. However, I was disappointed in the tone taken. The criticism of President Obama was done in a manner that appeared to be whining. He called POTUS a bully and a heartless politician pushing an agenda, which isn’t unique to POTUS. Ryan didn’t come across as a man offering constructive criticism of the president. Instead, he sounded like a child whose big brother didn’t let him ride along on his date.

Digging deeper into the book, Ryan did address the Conservative agenda and provide his ideas for solutions. A common theme, privatization. Rather than work to fix government institutions and alleviate the bureaucratic problems, his goal would be to have all government agencies and citizen safety nets outsourced to private companies – education, Social Security, Medicare, Healthcare, etc. I don’t disagree with his assessment of the issues we face, but I don’t agree with his shortsighted approach to solving them. We cannot, as a society, in good conscious send all of our public programs to private entities where profit will become the driving factor. Our citizens deserve better.

Herein lies the key difference in the Right and the Left. The Right focuses first on finances and second on people. The Left focuses first on people and second on finances. Which one is the correct way to run our country? The answer isn’t a clear cut right or left answer and we have to find balance. Ryan discusses this in his book, but in doing so he asserts that the Conservative agenda is the only clear choice to solving America’s issues. He doesn’t seek to understand the Left and he doesn’t care to incorporate its beliefs and values into his plans.

Ryan is also a devout Catholic and he inserts his beliefs very heavily into the book. I feel he may have missed the separation of Church and State portion of the Constitution. And that whole First Amendment piece on freedom of religion. I can respect a man’s beliefs, but I cannot respect his desire to impose those beliefs on a free nation.

My final takeaway -Ryan is clear in his mission, push the Conservative agenda at all costs. He does not believe Liberals have anything to offer. He does clearly have a passion for his country, but falls short on compassion for people. He talks about the poor and minorities in an abstract way. He brags about going out on tours to visit poor cities and talk to the poor. His solutions are about bringing back the dignity of work and he does address the issues that for some, getting ahead isn’t as simple as pulling up your bootstraps. But those rare moments of understanding are overshadowed by his simplistic solution of privatization.

I still have a great deal of work to do on expanding my bubble. I often found myself arguing with the narrator. Listening to Ryan’s book was step one. Step two is researching some of the works he referenced as the guiding principles of the Conservative movement.

Cory Booker: United

My post election hangover/funk deepened a little as I dove into Bernie’s book. I wanted to continue my path down political awareness, but also wanted something inspiring and positive. Enter Cory Booker – the eternally positive US Senator from New Jersey. I’ve followed him on Facebook for a few years and his posts are always a bright spot in the sea of news and depression.

His book did not disappoint.

Booker grew up in a solid middle class family with both him mom and dad. They fought to buy a home in a white suburb in New Jersey so he and his brother could attend good schools and his parents could commute to their jobs at IBM. He went on to get an Ivy League education and became a lawyer. His faith and personal beliefs led him to a desire to work in an impoverished community where he could make a difference.

His book details the stories of his experiences living in Brick Towers in Newark, his journey into politics and to the US Senate. The stores, while originating in Newark, are not unique to the city. All across America, minorities and those living in poverty face these realities on a daily basis. Booker offers insights and hope through his passion for helping others. He weaves in some politics as he discusses his ideas for solutions, but the majority of the book is nonpartisan, as we can all relate to and see the need to address these struggles facing Americans of all walks of life.

At times, the stories brought me to tears. But, Booker always brought hope back into the fold, not matter how depressing or solemn the story. Booker is the kind of politician America needs – passionate but pragmatic. He is idealistic, but he also takes and calls for action – a thinker and a doer. He sees people for who they are and his desire to help isn’t just a facade, it is genuine.

Bernie Sanders: Our Revolution

This may not be a popular POV, but I was and always will be a Bernie supporter. I was vocal about my support during the primary and am still following him. For me, there was always something missing in the straight democratic platform. Sure, I’ve been a democrat for as long as I can remember … I think Dukakis was the first I remember voting for in our school elections. But, I knew my ideals were far more left than even the most liberal democrat … and then Bernie came along. As did the terms Progressive and Democratic Socialism. It was then I realized what was missing in the platform of the DNC. And, while I voted for Secretary Clinton and was a fierce supporter of hers after the Democratic National Convention, I still find myself asking “what if.”

In the days and weeks following the election, I found myself sinking deeper into the what if narrative and started stalking Bernie on social media. I was delighted to see he had released a new book that outlined his platform in detail and provided a postmortem on his campaign. So, I quickly downloaded and have spent that past two weeks listening to the audio production (narrated by Bernie himself and Mark Ruffalo) during my commute.

The first half of the book provides some back stories on Bernie’s life and career and then dives straight into his presidential primary campaign. One thing I have always appreciated about Bernie is his honesty – no matter how brutal the truth is. He assigns sainthood to no one (except, perhaps himself at times, my only complaint). To be perfectly honest, this was likely my least favorite part of the book. I had already lived through the campaign process and this was like ripping open a closed wound and pouring salt into the now fresh wound.

The second half of the book, read by Mark Ruffalo, was a complete outline, in detail, of the progressive platform. It contained statistics, solutions, causes and, did I mention actual solutions to the problems faced by every day Americans. Real solutions … such a novel idea.

Several times in the book I was moved to tears. Why? Because Bernie gets it. He truly knows and understands the real struggles that ordinary Americans face every single day. He writes with passion, compassion and empathy as he tells stories of single mothers, coal miners, fast food workers – the under paid and under represented.

What he also knows and understands is how corporations and the 1% are guiding American politics. He discusses, in detail (shocking, I know), just how destructive their lobbying and political activism is to American democracy. If you don’t know the details of how Walmart is the largest recipient of government welfare, you are in for a shocking and rude awakening.

In Our Revolution, Bernie takes corporate America to task and he doesn’t apologize for his hard stance and definitive defense of working Americans. Most politicians today are so far removed from Middle America and the working class, but not Bernie. He took the time to listen and he actually paid attention to their stories and struggles.

I doubt many reading this are on the Right, but if you are and want to understand where Progressives are coming from, I recommend this book. Further, if you are one of the members of the DNC who attack and bemoan the “Bernie or Bust” voters, take the time to check out this book, at least the second half. The policies and positions he outlines are important and they are crucial to rebuilding the democratic party.