Friday, March 30, 2018

Book Review: "From the Corner of the Oval" by Beck Dorey-Stein

Beck Dorey-Stein was a twenty-something former teacher unsure of not only what she wanted to do with her future, but whether she'd even be able to find a job to sustain her until she figured out her life. Living in Washington, DC to be closer to her boyfriend, she cobbles together a number of part-time jobs to make ends meet, but she's envious of those who know what they want.

When she answers a Craigslist posting for a job, she figures it won't amount to anything. She's more than shocked to find out that this isn't a random clerical job—it's a position as a stenographer in the Obama White House. Stenographers don't take dictation anymore—instead, they're in the background of every speech, every presentation the president makes, no matter where in the world he is, microphone in hand, recording his words and transcribing them for history and/or public release.

From the Corner of the Oval follows Beck as she learns the ropes of her job and White House protocol, builds friendships with her colleagues in different positions throughout the administration, and begins to travel the country—and the world—viewing current events and the president's reactions to them at close range. She gets to have opportunities she never would have thought of, such as traveling on Air Force One and running on a treadmill next to the president.

"We're always just a few ticks, clicks, updates, and pings away from personal and collective disaster, but right now we're not our titles but our own selves—people with backgrounds and futures and exes and half-dead pets and crazy parents and broken hearts and broken hearts and big dreams; people who are listening to the president as he tells a funny story from two countries back, twelve hours ago, depending on which time zone you're counting in. We're so different, but we're swimming in this same punch-drunk delirium, and we have one major thing in common: We've found ourselves, shockingly, amazingly, how-the-fuck-did-this-happen crazily, flying halfway around the world on Air Force One. We are lucky. We are so goddamn lucky."

The constant demands of her job take their toll on her relationship with her boyfriend, who after volunteering with Obama's re-election campaign in 2012, becomes more desperate to recapture that enthusiasm and magic. Their on-again, off-again, often-long-distance relationship leaves her vulnerable to the advances of another senior staffer, someone far from appropriate relationship material, yet someone Beck finds unable to resist, no matter how many times she winds up hurt.

As the Obama presidency moves closer to its conclusion, Beck becomes ever more enamored with her job and the president, and more confused about what her next step should be. This book so accurately captures the enthusiasm so many felt around the Obama administration, his family, and his reactions to the events which unfolded—tragedies like Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombing, and his historic trips to Cuba and Vietnam. At times I felt sad reading the book because of the immense juxtaposition between his administration and the one currently in the White House.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Dorey-Stein is so engaging, and she drew me right in as she began recounting her experiences. Her story was told almost in an "aw, shucks" manner, as if she couldn't believe her good fortune in getting to be witness to history and be in such close proximity to this president. Her description of the despair many of her colleagues felt when Hillary Clinton lost the election stung, because I remember feeling similarly, although for different reasons.

I don't read a lot of memoirs, but this was so appealing, so enjoyable, and such a quick read. All of the people with whom Dorey-Stein shared her writing throughout her tenure in the White House weren't lying—she really can write, and we are lucky she shared her seemingly unbelievable journey with us.

NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group - Random House provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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