Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Obamas

By Jodi Kantor
New York, Little, Brown, 2012
360 pages    Nonfiction

It is hard to write a book about a presidential administration while the president is still in office. Harder yet to read a book about a presidential administration under the same circumstances. But The Obamas is more about the marriage of the Obamas and their working relationship than it is about the policy workings of the administration—except it is primarily about how their marriage intersects with the workings.

Jodi Kantor only had one interview with the Obamas and it wasn’t for this book.  It was for an article in the New York Times, but she became fascinated with the couple and their bond. She particularly became fascinated about how Michelle relates to Barack and how her influence permeates the White House.

Most of the book is free from gossip; it is rather straightforward journalism. Kantor interviewed present and past staff members to get the information she used. Apparently Michelle thought that Kantor was too hard on her and complained about it when the book was published, but my feeling is that Michelle comes across as an remarkable woman—strong, sensible, idealistic, and a firm supporter of her husband and his policies. Whether she wanted to be a politician or not is another whole matter and the subject of much of the book. 

Although the Obamas thought that the White House would be a hard place for their family to live, it way outpaced their expectations as to how miserable it would be for finding places for their children to play and ways of fulfilling other tasks about being a young family. Kantor writes about Sasha and Malia easily without descending into gossip. You’ve gotta feel for those kids; how do you go trick-or-treating when you are the President’s children.  As one reviewer notes: “Hope is easier to embrace than reality.”

The most poignant moment in the book came as the Obamas react to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. This is Kantor’s writing at its best. As she relates the speech Obama gave to the nation following the tragedy, Kantor says: “He wasn’t imposing his own agenda this time: he had correctly read, for once in a long time, what the country wanted and needed from him. The speech stood outside politics, but in a way that was good politics. Republicans congratulated him on his generous, reasonable, civil, unifying address. The expression on Michelle’s face was one of deep satisfaction. He had given the kind of speech she knew he could give. The look on her face said: this is the president I wanted you to be.” 

Obama was elected to lead “a rational, post-racial, moderate country that is looking for sensible progress,” a White House official told Kantor. “Except, oops, it’s an enraged, moralistic, harsh, desperate country. It’s a disconnect he can’t bridge.”  The reviewer in the Los Angeles Times sums it up: "The question at his inauguration was whether Barack Obama would oversee a historic, transformative administration that could overcome partisan politics; the question now is whether he will survive his re-election campaign.”

I have to say that I like Barack and Michelle Obama and it was interesting to read about their lives in the White House. I was trying to finish The Obamas last night while the returns from the Michigan Republican primary were coming in. Engrossed in thought about the Obama administration, I was thrust back to reality by Mitt Romney’s diatribe against him. And, I kept thinking…who would want this? Who would want this?

A couple more things—my son and his family live about four blocks away from the Obama’s Hyde Park, Chicago house. My first inkling about the neighborhood came in the spring of 2008 when I went to pick up Chinese food the day my son’s family was moving into their condo. Proudly displayed in the little carryout restaurant was a picture of Barack Obama with his arm around the restaurant owner. You can imagine the pride the neighborhood experienced when he was elected. There was a street celebration complete with fireworks on the corner, and my son and his wife as well as my daughter and her boyfriend made their way downtown to the giant celebration in Grant Park. I watched it all on television desperately wishing that I were there.

Then the neighborhood went into lockdown. My daughter-in-law never knew what streets she could go down to and from work. The downstairs neighbors, who had a daughter in Sasha’s class, had to have ID to get their children to school. And when the Obamas tried to return for a weekend in February after the inauguration, my son’s car almost got towed as the streets were cleared so that the family could get to their house. 

The other thing I wanted to share is that I have been a fan of Michelle Obama’s wonderful sense of style as presented in a charming blog, Mrs.O. It has been fun to see what she is wearing, and how many times she wears the same outfit. Although I don’t know much about designers, the blog has been a delight. Check it out.

There is a very long review of The Obamas in the New Yorker.
Jodi Kantor's website:

Monday, February 20, 2012

Into the Beautiful North

By Luis Alberto Urrea
New York, Back Bay Books, 2009
338 pages    Fiction

All the men are gone from the small fishing village village of Tres Camarones in Sinaloa Mexico—gone to  Los Yunaites (The United States). Nayeli and the other young women in the town acutely realize that there are no young men for them, and after watching the Western, The Magnificent Seven several times in the village’s movie theatre, Nayeli decides to make a romantic quest to the United States to bring back seven strong Mexican men to marry the young women and protect their town from the drug traffickers who are moving in. Perhaps she will even be able to bring home her father, who has gone to Kankakee Illinois. Encouraged by her aunt Tia Irma, the village’s new mayor, she embarks on her journey, accompanied by two girlfriends and the young gay owner of the taco stand where she works. 

The first half of Into the Beautiful North takes the travelers as far as Tijuana. The second half gets them to Kankakee and home again. Along the way, they experience humiliation, deprivation, and severe complications. But at the same time, they have moments of hope and inspiration. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that the travelers can depend on “the kindness of strangers.” Two beggars in Tijuana house them. Atomiko, one of modern literature’s truly great characters, becomes their defender. A fisherman gives Nayeli a sweatshirt to warm her and a truck driver offers her a fresh mango. A former missionary houses them in San Diego. The kindnesses are accepted with the same sense of inevitability as the misfortunes. 

The book is filled with so many funny characters and so many funny situations and so many funny sentences that my attempt to catalog them for this review totally failed. There was too much that was laugh out loud funny. One of my favorite passages is a poignant look at the homeland by an immigrant who has lived in the United States too long. “He realized there was no one in Los Yunaites who could transport him so easily to Tres Camarones, the Camarones that throbbed in his mind every night, the old world that would not let him sleep, that would not allow him to read a book or watch a movie. . .In Camarones, he had been a fire on two legs, he had been a human waltz and a walking tango, he had brought music and cologne into the plazuela on each humid mysterious love-scented Saturday night.“

I particularly liked the character of Nayeli. She is strong and vibrant, committed to her mission to bring her father and seven other men home to her village. She is not about to get distracted from her quest. That gives her a unique voice, and she becomes a terrific foil for the other more ridiculous characters. That is not to say that she is shallow; she is the glue that holds the entire enterprise together.
If this were a movie, it would be a quest or road trip movie with the usual set of unlikely companions. But Urrea weaves much more into the story—the despair of small Mexican towns; the bravado of men and women who have seen too many old movies; the desperate situation at the border for people on both sides and the American anger over the constant influx of Mexicans. Add to that the remarkable set of fully-realized characters and you have an incredibly readable and rollicking romp through the eyes of a Quixote-like young woman. One reviewer says, “There are misfortunes, but this is a comedy and the suspense, adventure, and resolved hardships are in service of an exuberant escape and a happy ending.”

Into the Beautiful North is the 2012 Reading Together book sponsored by the Kalamazoo Public Library. It is an interesting choice because while it is a book about immigration, it is not overtly so, and usually the book the community chooses to read is a message book of some sort. This one is just too funny.  Among the activities being planned is a screening of The Magnificent Seven with Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner.  One of the running jokes in the book is whether or not Yul Brynner is Mexican.  It should probably be followed by one of my favorite movies, The Three Amigos with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short. 

Luis Urrea is a professor at The University of Illinois, Chicago and will be in Kalamazoo to speak on March 6. My book club read Into the Beautiful North and will be at the lecture. The publisher has sent me Urrea’s newest book Queen of America, which I will be reviewing next week. 

Urrea’s website:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals

By Jack Murnigham and Maura Kelly
New York, Free Press, 2012
202 pages Non-Fiction
The Shortlist

Here’s a clever premise for a book: Advice for the lovelorn from the pages of classic literature. Through many short chapters in Much Ado About Loving, Jack Murnigham and Maura Kelly discuss the failings and the graces (but mostly the failings) of main characters in novels that most of us have read. 

Frankly, I am ashamed to say that I have not read many of the classic novels; never spent a month reading War and Peace, and outside of A Christmas Carol, I haven’t read any Charles Dickens. I won’t tell you that I have read no Bronte or Tolstoy. Lucky for me, Murnigham and Kelly discuss a bunch of books I have read, like The Bell Jar, Revolutionary Road, A Farewell to Arms, and The Great Gatsby.

Much Ado About Loving is a very witty book. The chapter titles are perhaps the most clever part of the entire project, but the advice is sound if you are a person who is on the hunt for your true love and you aren’t having any luck. As Murnigham says, “It is a uniquely human gift to see reality for something that it isn’t, to take the life in front of us and perceive it instead into a shape we want it to be.” 

Murnigham and Kelly tell stories from their own life experiences to illustrate the dilemmas posited by the literary characters. When I was trying to decide who might benefit from this book, I realized that it might be good not only for the lovelorn, but also for college students having to pick an angle to write a term project about in their English Lit classes. There’s an essay about Darcy just waiting to be written or the “not so great” Gatsby. 

This is a fun read, not so much for the love advice, but for the reminders of the classic books we once read or didn’t read. Clever, clever, clever!

Today's (Feb. 14) has some clever advice to the lovelorn by Murnigham and Kelly:

The Hunger Games

By Suzanne Collins
New York, Scholastic, 2008
374 pages,   Fiction

What? Not another blogger writing about Hunger Games! Yeah—I know, but…I had to get it read before the movie comes out or I wasn’t going to be invited to the Hunger Games party a friend is having.
Suzanne Collins is a genius, I think. She has taken the concept of the dystopian novel and married it to reality television with spectacular results. What I think I will focus on in this posting is not the dystopia, or the fighting and killing, the parallels with reality television, or the United States, or any of the stuff other people have talked about. What I would like to focus on is the concept of altruism and how Collins toys with the better natures of the characters and confuses us as well.

In a future United States called Panem, Katniss Everdeen is a smart girl who has to take over as the breadwinner when her father is killed in a mine accident in District 12. Her mother ceases to function well after the accident and someone has to take care of her little sister, Prim. Katniss uses the hunting, fishing, and scavenging skills that her father has taught her to support her family, and partners up with Gale, a neighborhood boy, to keep both families fed.

So, we feel good about the character Katniss from the very beginning. She has used her intelligence and survival skills to her best advantage and has the makings of the classic altruistic heroine. We also see a glimmer of altruism in the opening pages of the book in the character of Peeta. He is the baker’s son and gives a loaf of bread to Katniss one day when she is very tired and hungry. Much later we learn that Peeta has had a crush on Katniss for a long time, or so he says.

The first major altruistic moment in the book comes when names are being drawn for The Hunger Games, the sadistic annual event run by the “Capital” in which two teenagers from each of the 12 districts of the country much fight each other to the death for the televised amusement of the entire country. Fatefully, Prim’s name is called, and shockingly, Katniss rushes to the stage to take her sister’s place. This is something that never happens; no one volunteers for the Hunger Games! Katniss knows that her sister would never survive the games, and that she might have a fighting chance. Peeta, the baker’s son, is chosen as well, and for better or worse, the fates of Katniss and Peeta are forever connected.

It is at this point Collins begins to play with the concept of altruism. We believe that Katniss has made an altruistic decision in defending her sister, but can we trust her future decisions? After all, she is fighting for her life, and in effect, fighting for the future of her family. Things become complicated when we are reintroduced to Peeta, the boy from the district, who in the early interviews, tells everyone that he has a crush on Katniss, and that he has felt that way since the age of 5 or 6. When he makes a couple of defensive moves to protect Katniss, the country believes that he truly does love her and wants to keep her alive. The manipulators of the game decide it is to their advantage to keep them both alive, and now they have to function as a team.

Katniss doesn’t quite trust this turn of events, but because the love story is playing out well on television, she decides to go along with it as a way of maintaining her social capital and her television fans. Later, when she saves Peeta’s life, we believe again in her altruism—for the moment. At the end of the book, we are left confused as to whether she really does care for Peeta, or if she did everything she did for the sake of her own survival. We are even ambivalent when she attempts one last lifesaving ploy for both Peeta and herself after the Capital has in effect betrayed them. Did she do that for altruistic reasons, or did she attempt it as a way of thumbing her nose at the Capital?

Our skeptical natures believe that Katniss knows how to play the game; after all she has watched it every year of her life. We know that she is very smart and savvy, skilled with a bow and arrow, and has a lot of survival skills. This is what we have been shown. Is she also capable of being a true heroine, able to save herself and others?

I was as captivated by this book as my 12-year-old grandson and my son-in-law. Its themes are universal. One reviewer says: “Collins sometimes fails to exploit the rich allegorical potential here in favor of crisp plotting, but it’s hard to fault a novel for being too engrossing.” I have yet to read the other two books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, but I can’t wait for the movie to arrive. How will the movie handle Katniss’s altruistic motives and heroic nature?  

Here is a review in The New York Times:
I will leave it to you to find all the online hype about the movie.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Preacher

by Camilla Lackberg
New York, The Free Press, 2011
401 pages      Fiction
There is a tremendous sense of place in the mysteries of Camilla Lackberg. Fjӓllbacka is a small fishing village in northern Sweden where nothing ever happens…or so it seems. The Preacher is the second installment of the series; the first being The Ice Princess, which I read last winter. Violence continues to happen to women in Fjӓllbacka; this time a young German tourist is found murdered and when they rescue her body from the cliffs overlooking the sea, they find the skeletons of two other young women who disappeared 20 years before. The three bodies bear similar wounds.

The tourist season is in full swing in Fjӓllbacka, and as Patrik and Erica are getting ready for their first baby, the relatives are descending on them enmass. It’s hot, the relatives are obnoxious, Erica has had enough, and Patrik is happy enough to escape to the police station, where he is the detective in charge of the murder investigation.

The main suspects seem to be the Hult family, influential in the community for three generations, the grandfather having been a free-church evangelist. The rest of the family has been influenced profoundly by his spirit. It takes until the end of the book to find exactly how powerful his influence has been.

Lackberg’s writing style takes a bit of getting used to. She writes the book in segments, varying the characters with the action; one reviewer suggested making a list of the characters and groups so you don’t lose track of who belongs where. Because I read the book in two plane rides, I didn’t have the problem of figuring out the cast of characters, but the list is probably a good idea if you are having trouble or are reading in spurts.

Although mystery series are fun to read in order, it isn’t necessary to read The Ice Princess to know what is going on in The Preacher. The Ice Princess takes place in the winter and The Preacher in the summer, and while the community and the characters are the same, the plot stands alone. Patrik and Erica are in very different places in their lives; happily living together expecting their first baby, and the reader is able to jump into the storyline without any confusion about the main characters.

The immense pleasure in The Preacher comes from not knowing too early whodunit. I was kept guessing until near the end. And by then, I was reading as fast as I could to try to keep up with the plot. The characters keep you entertained as well; some of Patrik’s fellow police officers are great bumblers, Patrik has a wonderfully idiosyncratic personality, and the police chief, who played a large role in the first book, has taken a lesser role in this episode but is as funny and annoyingly endearing.
The Preacher deals with the concepts of good and evil, family rivalry and family ties, and divine destiny. The shock in the book comes not from finding out the killer but why he is the killer. For quite a while, I wondered why the book was called The Preacher, when the preacher character has been dead for many years, but then I realized that his spirit permeated every pore of the Hult family and every action they took over a 20 year period. Every secret they kept was because of him.

Two other things to mention: first, Lackberg can hold her own as a writer. She doesn’t have to constantly be compared to Steig Larson of Dragon Tattoo fame. They are two very different writers. Lackberg is not concerned with political corruption, only the corruption of the soul. It would be like comparing American writers just because they are both Americans. The second thing to mention is that the book is skillfully translated by Steven Murray (who also translated Steig Larson’s books). He is such a skillful translator that I completely forgot that I was reading a translated book.

I look forward to the next mystery in Fjӓllbacka. And just where is Fjӓllbacka? Here is the description from Lackberg’s website:
"Camilla’s books are set in Fjällbacka, the coastal village where Camilla was born and raised. In northern Bohuslän, about 140 km north of Göteborg, lies the little community of Fjällbacka. Already a fishing village in the 17th century, Fjällbacka is now an idyll that’s steeped in history. Its name derives from the imposing rocky outcrop that the village encircles. Thousands of tourists visit Fjällbacka in the summer. For the rest of the year, there’s about 1,000 permanent residents. Fjällbacka might be small, but there are still hotels, cafés and shops. The best way to get to Fjällbacka without a car is by train to Uddevalla. You can also take a train to Dingle and from there take a bus to Fjällbacka, or alternatively fly to Trollhättan and make your way from there."

Camilla Lackberg’s website:

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

When Will There Be Good News?

by Kate Atkinson
Boston, Little, Brown, 2008
400 pages     Fiction

There was never a more appropriate book title than When Will There Be Good News?, and I don’t believe that I have ever read a book that began with more bad news.

Kate Atkinson creates murder mysteries with remarkable female protagonists, resilient, funny, strong and fated. She has also created an idiosyncratic detective, Jackson Brodie, although Jackson doesn’t appear until at least 100 pages into this particular mystery.

Joanna Hunter is a Scottish doctor with a horrific past—a tale that is recounted in the very first chapter of the book. Her siblings, mother, and dog are all killed in a random act of violence. Married now and with a young baby, her world seems to be tipping upside down because the killer has just been released on parole. Reggie is Joanna’s babysitter, sixteen years old, with a horrific history of her own. Louise is a police detective who is trying to warn Joanna about the release of the killer at the same time she is working on a case of domestic abuse and murder and trying to work her way out of a difficult marriage.  

Jackson Brodie has his own problems. On his way home from Edinburgh, he is involved in a fatal train wreck, an event which brings all these disparate events crashing together. As in all Atkinson novels, there is no hidden killer; all the details of the murder and mayhem are in plain sight. Brodie doesn’t come in at the last moment and explain everything. We know all the details from the very beginning, although in this book, there are some surprises left for the ending.

What Atkinson wants to explore is what is in the hearts of the actors; why do they respond in the way that they do to what is happening to them. In When Will There Be Good News? she is also exploring coincidence. As Jackson Brodie says, “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.” One reviewer says that “what seems of most interest to Atkinson isn’t the solving of crimes, but the solving of the problem of being alive. What happens to those left behind, the ones held hostage by sorrow and disappointment? How do we pull ourselves out of the rubble of grief? How do we cope with the death of a loved one, transcend a childhood worthy of Dickens, survive the accident of having married the wrong person? How do we get what we need?”

The women characters are particularly strong in When Will There Be Good News? Reggie, the teenager, is delightfully spunky, and it is a fulfilling to read about her tenacity and the remarkable way in which she views the world. She is a girl you would love to know. The way in which Joanna Hunter solves her particular problem, although gory, is just the way you hope you would act if you were in her desperate situation. I really liked Louise, the detective, because she is a character with a biting personality; a person you might enjoy hating.

This is such a literary book; in the world of sound bites and 400 character tweets, it is nice to know that there are some people who know literature and poetry and can (wonder of wonders) recite verse. Atkinson’s style is not the usual detective novel style, and as I entered her universe with Case Histories, I was a bit put off because I was expecting all plot and not literary brilliance.  I quickly warmed to her novels and remain a huge advocate of her brilliance.

I highly recommend When Will There Be Good News, but I would suggest that you begin with Case Histories and then One Good Turn. The fourth book in the series, Started Early, Took My Dog came out in 2011. As I noted in a previous review, the BBC has a television series called Case Histories which is now available on DVD.

Kate Atkinson’s website: