Three minutes to Doomsday, by Joe Navarro***

threeminutestodoomsday“Nothing’s ever over till the fat lady sings.”

Trite? Yes. Abrasive? Absolutely!  Sexist? All the damn time. Profane? Seriously profane, and not in a way that some of us might find amusing. And yet, this memoir has a strangely fascinating aspect as well.  It combines two stories, the primary one an espionage case in which the author plays the primary role, and a secondary one, the implosion of the author’s personality and marriage. It’s not fun reading, but after a certain point, there’s no turning away from it either. Thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

Navarro is a hot-shot young FBI agent in 1988, and it is while conducting what is expected to be a fairly routine interview that he notes a “tell” from former US soldier Rod Ramsey. It becomes the basis of an espionage case that goes much deeper than anyone anticipated. Navarro uses his expertise in nonverbal communication to tell what Ramsey is feeling during the various phases of his interviews, and he also uses it to control and manipulate Ramsey into cooperating with the investigation. Ramsey is the one soul on this planet with fewer friends than Navarro, and so Navarro spends years making Ramsey believe that he himself is that friend, practically family. He does it so he can have this kid busted and send him away for a really long time.

Navarro knows a lot about reading and controlling others nonverbally, but he doesn’t know a thing about building a family life or about how to make friends, and it’s clear he knows this, yet he can’t help himself. He tells us that an agent he wants to assist him tells a supervisor that she would prefer to work with someone else, and specifically, with anyone, anyone, anyone else but him. A number of other people echo this, and yet his personality continues on its hell-bent-for-leather downhill trajectory.

While he continues his self-aggrandizement with a hearty side-serving of brazen braggadocio, Navarro recounts again and again how much he hates the office staff at work, little people that are getting in his way by attempting to do their jobs. Clearly they just don’t understand how very important he is, but that’s okay, because he is letting the world know now.  Regarding the office manager that dares remind him of small requirements like changing the oil in his official vehicle, he uses a tired aphorism:

“Don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It annoys the pig and it wastes your time.”

He lets us know that he swore at, patronized, and berated her constantly, and lest we take his admissions as a sign of penitence, he also lets us know that he hates her still. He has changed her name for obvious legal reasons, but he hasn’t changed his obnoxious attitude or gained a speck of humility.

Add to this the fact that, though this case is terrific book material, the guy isn’t much of a writer. Clichés abound, and very basic principles of narrative writing are either never learned or disregarded. He starts chapters with lists, apparently too busy and important to transform these into paragraphs. I’m not all that sure he ever edited his work (because he might have noticed his overuse of parenthesis) and I’m not sure he permitted anyone else to do so either (because surely they would have come to his rescue).

Still, it’s an interesting story. Whereas someone else could no doubt do a finer job of writing this thing, it’s undeniably compelling. I recommend this memoir to those that enjoy espionage thrillers and true crime stories, but don’t give up the full sticker price. Read it for free or cheap, and save your serious dollars for serious writers.

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li**

dearfriendfrommylifei  It’s an honor to be invited to review any book by Random House and Net Galley, and so when the email came, I accepted without hesitation; I thank them for thinking of me and wish I could honestly recommend this one. Others have referred to this memoir, whose title is taken from a quote by Katharine Mansfield, as “exquisite, intimate, and lyrical”, and the author has won awards for her novels. I looked carefully to see if I could locate the genius in this book, but it eluded me completely.

The intimacy of the work is surely apparent. In essence, this is a mental health memoir, and the author writes of her fight with depression, her multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations, of the expectation of others that she should continue to live when she didn’t want to. It’s brave writing, although mental health battles are now a fairly mainstream topic, but I am unable to find anything tangible to engage my interest.

My only real pleasure is in discovering that Li is already a successful writer; had it been a debut, I would have been scared silly. After all, if I say I don’t like the book, will the writer harm herself? What if I simply dodge the whole thing and let it get lost in the shuffle; will it happen then as well? But in seeing that this is someone with an established career and a wall full of accolades, probably the displeasure of one humble blogger won’t create a great deal of trauma.

The whole thing is bleak. The writer reminds us repeatedly that her life is private, that no one has the right to know any of its details and all I can think is, so what are we doing here, exactly?

Those that have read and enjoyed Li’s novels may find more to hang their hats on than I have found. All I know is that it is painful to read, has no beginning, middle or end that I can find, and is devoid of the literary qualities that can sometimes make a sad book enjoyable. I can’t recommend it.

Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty, by Kate Hennessy***

dorothydayDorothy Day is an interesting historical figure, the woman that founded The Catholic Worker, which was initially a combined newspaper, homeless shelter, and soup kitchen. I once subscribed to The Catholic Worker, and since it cost one penny per issue, you couldn’t beat the price. I saw this biography available and snapped it up from Net Galley; thanks go to them and Scribner, who provided me with a DRC in exchange for an honest review. This title was published in late January and is now available for purchase.

I always had a difficult time getting a handle on what The Catholic Worker stood for. The name suggests radicalism, and indeed, Day was red-baited during the McCarthy era. Day was a Catholic convert and a strong believer in sharing everything that she had with those that had nothing. She worked tirelessly and selflessly, and despite often living an impoverished existence somehow made it into her eighties before she died, an iconic crusader who became prominent when almost no women did so independently—though she was no feminist, and believed that wives should submit to husbands. Since her demise, speculation has arisen as to whether she might be canonized.

What was that huge crash? Was it a marble statue being knocked the hell off its pedestal? Hennessy takes on the life and deeds of her famous grandmother with both frankness and affection. In the end, I came away liking Day a good deal less than I had when I knew little about her. Her tireless effort on behalf of the poor included anything and everything her very young daughter had in this world, and at one point she remarked that she felt unable to ask others to embrace a life of poverty if her child wasn’t also a part of that. It was a different time, one with no Children’s Protective Service to come swooping down and note that the child was sleeping in an unheated building in the midst of frigid winter; that there was no running water, since the building was a squat; that the only food that day was a single bowl of thin soup and perhaps a little hard bread donated from the day-old stores of local bakeries; that even small, personal treasures and clothing given the child by other relatives and friends would either be stolen by homeless denizens or even given away by her mother, a woman with the maternal instincts of an alley cat. Day did a lot of good for a lot of people, and no one can say she did it for her own material well being, but she more or less ruined her daughter’s life, and even when grown, Tamar’s painful social anxiety and panic attacks derailed her efforts to build a normal life for herself.

Nevertheless, the immense contribution that Day made at a time when the only homeless shelters were ones with a lot of rules and sometimes religious requirements cannot be overlooked. She is said to have had a commanding presence, endless energy (and the mood swings that accompany such energy in some people), and a mesmerizing speaking voice. Day’s physician also treated the great Cesar Chavez, and reflected that their personalities were a lot alike.

I confess I was frustrated in reading this memoir, because I really just wanted the ideas behind the Catholic Worker laid out for me along with the organizational structure. Was the whole thing just whatever Day said it was at the moment, or was there democratic decision making? I never really found out, although I gained a sense that the chaotic events shown in the memoir reflected an unarticulated organizational chaos as well. This is a thing that sometimes happens with religious organizations; the material underpinnings are tossed up in the air for supernatural intervention, and the next thing they know, there’s an ugly letter from the IRS.

Only about half of this memoir was actually about Day; my sense was that the author did a lot of genealogical research and then decided to publish the result. The first twenty percent of the book is not only about Day’s various romantic entanglements; a significant portion of the text is mini-biographies of those men, and frankly, I wasn’t interested in them. I wanted to know about Day. Later I would be frustrated when long passages would be devoted to other relatives and their lives. Inclusion of daughter Tamar was essential, because Dorothy and Tamar were very close all their lives and shared a lot, and so in some ways to write about one was to tell about the other. But I didn’t need to know about Day’s in-laws, her many and several grandchildren, and so on. I just wanted to cut to the chase, but given the nature of the topic, also didn’t want to read Day’s own writing, which has a religious bias that doesn’t interest me.

Those with a keen interest in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker may want to read this, because not many books are available that discuss her life and work. On the other hand, I don’t advise paying full cover price. Get it free or at a deep discount, unless you are possessed of insatiable curiosity and deep pockets.

Blind Ambition, by John Dean*****

blindambitionJohn Dean was counsel to the president during the Nixon administration, and was the first to testify against all of the Watergate conspirators, including Nixon and including himself, a bold but necessary decision that led to Nixon’s resignation—done to avoid imminent impeachment—and Dean’s imprisonment. Dean’s story is a real page turner, and Nixon-Watergate buffs as well as those that are curious about this time period should read this book. I read the hard copy version, for which I paid full jacket price, shortly after its release, and when I saw that my friends at Open Road Media and Net Galley were re-releasing it digitally, I climbed on board right away. This title is available for sale today, December 20, 2016.

Dean was a young lawyer whose career rose rapidly. When Nixon found out that men employed by the Committee to Re-Elect the President had been arrested for the burglary of the Democratic Party National Headquarters, which was housed in the Watergate Hotel, he quickly became enmeshed in a plan to bury the whole thing. Once he realized (belatedly) that he and his closest advisors had made themselves vulnerable to criminal charges, he had Haldeman, his right hand man, reach into the White House legal staff to find an attorney that could serve as an intermediary so that none of them would need to have illegal conversations with each other. Dean was sometimes called upon as a problem solver, but more often he was essentially the messenger between the president and his closest advisors. Nixon’s thinking here was that everything that passed through Dean would be covered by client-attorney privilege. When this turned out to have no legal basis and heads were going to roll, Dean learned that his own head would be among those served up on a platter by the administration in its effort to save itself. He chose to strike first by testifying against everyone involved in the conspiracy to obstruct justice, and eventually this included President Richard Nixon.

 

Those old enough to recall having watched Dean testify on television will be interested in the back story here. Dean has a phalanx of his own attorneys, but he decides to appear at the microphone without them; they are among the faces in the back on the TV footage. He also chose to speak in a dead monotone, because the information he was transmitting was itself very dramatic, and he had already been represented as a squealer in some media sources. Instead, he chose to portray himself as a small man, slightly balding, with his horn rimmed glasses and his notes, sitting alone in front of a microphone in order to bravely announce the truth to the Senate and the world.  And it’s effective. See what you think:

 

 

When I first read this book I was not long out of high school, and I met the text with snarky disapproval, based more on the very idea that a man as young as Dean could choose to affiliate himself with the Republican Party during the time the Vietnam War raged than on the skill with which the book was written. This time I come to it as an adult with a lot more experience related to writing, and my reaction is completely different.  Dean writes his story like a legal thriller. It’s fascinating and enormously compelling.  I find that what I think of Dean morally and politically is irrelevant when I rate this text; the writing is first rate. Most interesting of all is the way he is able to inject wry humor into the series of events that ended his legal career and sent him to jail. His sentence is not long, though, and much of it is spent in a relatively gentle confinement. He becomes a college professor and writer later in life, which he still is today.

 

Those that have real depth of interest will also be interested in a later book, The Nixon Defense, written once all the Nixon tapes were released to the public:

 

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2014/09/01/the-nixon-defense-what-he-knew-and-when-he-knew-it-by-john-dean/

 

Both are riveting, and highly recommended.

Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, by Dierdre Bair***

caponeWhat is it about mobsters that draws our attention?  National Book Award winner Deirdre Bair takes on America’s most famous mobster, Al Capone, and examines the myths and legends that have sprung up in the time since his death. I thank Net Galley and Doubleday for permitting me the use of a DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The book is available to purchase now.

Alphonse Capone was the first child in his large family to be born on American soil. His family was terribly poor. To steer him toward employment after he had left school, his father purchased a shoeshine kit for him so that he could begin his pursuit of the American dream; Al had other ideas, and his first racket was begun at age 16, shaking down other shoeshine boys as part of his very own protection racket. He was mentored by a man named Torrio, a mobster of the old school. Later Torrio would move his business to Chicago, and once New York became uncongenial, Al’s family sent him out there to join him.

The biography is intended to examine Capone’s life primarily from the vantage point of those near and dear to him; some of his grandchildren are still alive, and I gained the impression that the book was initiated by them. It is obvious from the start that the brutal killings—at the apex, Chicago saw a murder every day—and other vicious acts of retribution over what were sometimes small or even imaginary slights, are soft pedaled and his family life is emphasized.

I guess it’s all a matter of what you’re looking for.

Capone had an organizational genius, and since his entire empire was an unofficial one, he became the embodiment of capitalism unfettered. Bair tells us that the Harvard School of Business uses his business plan, or aspects of it, as part of the curriculum. And had the US Supreme Court not ruled in 1927 that income derived from illegal sources is still taxable income, chances are outstanding that Capone would never have gone to prison. He surely would not have found himself on Alcatraz Island without access to quality medical care; one wonders, however, whether having him live longer would truly have been desirable.

In fact, relatively speaking, I almost feel moved to thank the Bloods and the Crips for their restraint. Well, almost.

Capone was once called “The most shot at man in America,” and Bair examines the stories that are told or that have been written about him. For the diehard aficionado of all things Capone, hers is a must-read. For those with a more general interest looking to read just one book about him, I suspect that one of the many other biographers Bair quotes may be a better bet; it’s hard to say, though, because as Bair points out, after Capone’s death from pneumonia related to syphilis, his wife Mae burned all of his letters and other papers left behind, knowing that private business can quickly become public when one is sufficiently famous. And though Capone loved the limelight and even courted it, wearing flashy clothing and ostentatiously bestowing large gifts on total strangers at times, Mae was a private person. So there aren’t many primary sources to tap, when it comes down to it.

Nevertheless, I found myself highlighting in blue (which is the color I use when I see problems with a galley) the many times I saw the literary version of a flow chart drag down the pace:  “…according to rumors”, “…what may have happened”, and similar catch phrases, along with the menu of choices of what may have happened here, there, everywhere. I think that as a reader just looking for one definitive biography, I would have been happier to see the actual facts that are known. Many of them are riveting! For example, when it became clear that rivals sought to kill him, Capone had his home remodeled to accommodate a machine gun turret. His dining chair had a bullet proof back, as did the windows of his car. There are a lot of fascinating little details that are unquestioned in their veracity, and these are the places where my interest is piqued.

Second to Capone, by far the most interesting character is his wife Mae. Mae was lace curtain Irish, and intermarriage between the two still very distinct cultures was unusual. As I read of the things she has done to keep her family together and herself sane, particularly during Frank’s decline after his final illness began to affect his thinking and motor skills, I am truly impressed. The fact that ultimately it is she, and not a male family member or associate to whom Capone’s men come for business decisions once Frank can’t do it speaks volumes about her intelligence and talent.  I might like to read more about Mae Capone.

For those with an interest similar to mine, my recommendation would be to read this book if you can get it at your library or access it inexpensively, but barring deep pockets or strong interest, I wouldn’t pay full jacket price.

US Grant: the Civil War Years: Grant Moves South and Grant Takes Command*****

usgrantthecivilwaryI was fortunate to receive a DRC of this two volume biography of America’s greatest general, US Grant. Thanks go to Open Road Media and Net Galley for providing it in exchange for this honest review. This is the sixth Grant biography I’ve read, and aside possibly from Grant’s own memoirs, which are valuable in a different way than this set, I have to say this is hands-down the best I have seen. Catton won the Pulitzer for one of his civil war trilogies, and this outstanding biography is in the same league. Those with a serious interest in the American Civil War or military history in general should get it. It’s available for purchase now.

When I had read a couple of US Grant biographies, I told myself that enough was enough, and that I should push away from this one subject in favor of others. I am glad I ignored my own advice, because I have come away from this prodigious, in-depth study with a deeper understanding than anything else has provided.  It’s over 1100 pages long, and over 800 pages once one discounts the end notes and index, but it is as great a pleasure to read at the end as at the start, if not more so.

Is this a good choice for someone new to the American Civil War? Generally speaking (if you’ll pardon the pun) I’d say no, but for someone otherwise well versed in military history or with a tremendous interest level, time, and stamina, it could be. Because Catton is known as an expert in this field, I especially enjoy not having to review his citations. I know his sources will be strong, and one brief overview convinces me this is true.

The first volume starts with his less than glorious entry into the war. As many know, he had been a member of the regular US army during the conflict with Mexico, and had fallen apart and had to go home. Now he is back, but only after a string or two has been pulled by a family friend, and even then, his task is a daunting one. Volunteer soldiers don’t take orders or submit to discipline as a West Point soldiers do, and when he arrives, it seems the lunatics are running the asylum. One of the things that I am impressed with anew every time I read about Grant is his unerring judgment, the social radar that is an indisputable part of his talent. By knowing where to go easy on his men and how to bring them into conformity where it’s most important, he creates a solid force to move South with.

The battles of Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and the tragic but technically successful battle of Shiloh open up the Mississippi River for the Union and divide the South. Catton uses a number of anecdotes that are new to me, and his congenial tone, occasionally caustic wit, and spot-on analysis leave me both energized and contented at the same time.

The second volume, however, is where I learn the most. Until I read this biography, I haven’t understood exactly how great a risk Lincoln takes when he orders that the US military forces should be given the ballot, an unprecedented move, as he himself runs once more for the highest office. His opponent, McClellan, is a former Union general that at the war’s outset, was at the top of the chain of command.  He didn’t go home a happy man, and now he is running as a Copperhead, the moniker given those in the North that want to end the war and let the South leave the Union, slaves and all. And though I know it is often the case that soldiers and sailors choose to support their Commander in Chief at the ballot box, I haven’t fully recognized how badly this may go for Lincoln. Doesn’t every soldier want to go home? This is the Democratic ticket’s promise; end it now and send them home.

On top of all that, Lincoln and Grant, who think a lot alike, clamp their teeth together and endure the white knuckled ride that they know they’ll be facing when they decide against further prisoner exchanges with the South. There are two strong reasons for this decision: first, the South refuses to recognize Black men in uniform as soldiers, and won’t exchange them, assuming that all of them must be escaped slaves, including those with Northern accents. Grant declares that no prisoners will be swapped until the South is willing to parole every Northern soldier, and he means it.

In addition, both Lincoln and Grant realize that the South is running low on manpower. There are thousands of their soldiers sitting in military prisons; to trade them out and risk seeing them back in uniform is to turn a military contest into a war of annihilation. With prisoner exchanges, the war will last longer, and there will be more death. In a peculiar way, refusing to exchange prisoners is the more humane policy.

In an election year, this is a tough sell. There are families up North that have been notified that their son, brother, father, is a prisoner of the enemy, and word has by now been spread as to what kind of conditions those poor men face. How much harder is it to vote for Lincoln and the fight for the reunification of the republic when to do so is to prolong the time their loved one sits behind bars, slowly starving? Lincoln and Grant could temporarily resume prisoner exchanges until after the election, but they stand on principle, and it pays off.

Another thing that I don’t really grasp until I read the second volume is Grant’s relationship with the Army of the Potomac, a collection of men that to some extent have been poisoned with McClellanism. It’s a real tightrope walk, and he is deft in his dealing with it. I can’t tell you everything he does here; that’s the point of the book, after all. But I came away with a renewed respect for General Sheridan, and an interest in reading biographies of that general also.

How much of Sherman’s march through Georgia and then to the sea is Grant’s idea, and how much of it is Sherman’s? I come away understanding this better than before as well, although I have read both Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs. Catton has a way of crystallizing events without oversimplifying them.

And I nod with solemn satisfaction at the cold fury Grant experiences when he learns of the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempts on the lives of others, including himself.

I still shiver with pleasure when I reread the denouement, in which Grant sends General Weitzel and his troops, some of whom are Black, into Richmond when the Confederate capitol falls. I want to cheer as the throngs form for the military review in Washington DC after the war has been won; all those thousands of soldiers, all those citizens and international visitors in the stands and on the sidewalks, singing “John Brown’s Body”. Think of it!

I promised myself to be brief, and I haven’t really done that, but this is the least I can bring myself to say about this excellent biography. If my review is too long to hold your attention, then this two book series—even while allowing for the fact that Catton is a far better writer than I—will also be more of a meal than you are prepared for.

But for those with a sufficiently great interest level and stamina, I cannot imagine a better memoir of Grant for you to buy and enjoy. Enthusiastically recommended!

Titles You’ll See Here Soon

The last time I put up a preview page, it was in the midst of household chaos, and I made the post by way of apology for not having a review to put up. I was surprised by the positive feedback I got, and so today, even though I have recently posted a review and will have more soon, I thought I’d show you what’s next. There are some repeats from my last preview that I haven’t done yet, but I’m happy to say most of those are done. Here’s what you can look for between now and Thanksgiving, barring catastrophe:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox, by Carol Burnett****

suchgoodcompany  When I saw that Burnett had published a memoir of her years as America’s favorite comedic performer on The Carol Burnett Show, which ran from 1967 through 1978, my first thought was, what, another memoir? She’s already published at least three others, one of which I have read and reviewed. But the fact is, she hadn’t used up all her juice yet. Each of her memoirs focuses on some particular aspect of her life, and so this book is new, it’s original, and it’s probably the stuff you were hoping she’d talk about in her other memoirs. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Crown Archetype. It was published September 13 and I am sorry to be on the late side, but I scored my own copy just prior to publication; I had no idea it was available till Crown put a promotion up on Facebook and it showed up on my home page.  I genuinely held my breath as I logged onto Net Galley to see if I was too late, and happily, the Literature Fairy smiled on me.

As the memoir begins, I am at first a trifle disappointed, because it appears as if she is just going to list every single person that’s ever appeared on her show and gush about how nice they were.  But she’s just warming up, and it gets more interesting. She describes how she made her way into show business, and though she skims over the early years, knowing that the reader wants to get to the show, it sounds very much as if she was the overnight success that aspiring actors only dream of becoming.  She was on a show that I wasn’t around yet to watch called “The Garry Moore Show”, and she must have made not only a tremendous impression, but also a lot of friends, because she was offered her own variety show—think of it!—and then was able to bring a head writer, a choreographer, a bunch of dancers and some other people west with her from New York to Los Angeles.

This show was a fixture in my childhood and adolescence. One of Burnett’s regular satirical sketches lampooned soap operas, and it was called “As the Stomach Turns”. It was one of the few things that made my parents and me laugh out loud at the same time. My friends and I spent ridiculous, late night hours creating our own satire of a satire, which we dubbed “As the Stomach Churns”, and which featured imaginary illicit relationships among our own teachers along with the administration, janitorial staff, and especially our librarian, a book hoarder that chased away all potential clientele from her sacred gates.  So when I saw that Burnett was writing about the show, I had to see what she’d written, because she had been an intrinsic part of my own development.

All comers that want to read this should do it near an internet source if at all possible, because the comedic sketches can be viewed on television and now also on YouTube. This is fairly new: I tried to view them a couple of years ago and they weren’t there yet, so this is exciting all by itself.

And if you have never seen any of her work and wonder what I am carrying on about, check it:

 

 

and with Robin Williams:

 

The life that she led sounds like something most actors could only dream of. She got up, got her kids off to school, started work on the show mid-morning Monday-Friday, with a single run-through on Thursday followed by a live show before a studio audience Friday, and then they were done at three o’clock and she was done by the time her kids were out of school. It came down to disciplined behavior on the part of the cast and crew, and to the unusually respectful atmosphere in which the show was done. Once a guest misbehaved and when he threatened to storm off the set, she let him go and said good riddance; they did the show without him.  (She won’t give us a name, but he was short. I have been speculating ever since.)

 

She does tell the many spoofs that were done on movies of the past, and which actors called to say they just loved what the show had done with their film, and which either called up and were angry or sent indirect messages that they were not amused. And she  offers a retrospective look at the way women in show business were expected to behave back then; she was sometimes a doormat, and exultantly recounts how Edie Gourmet, on a guest visit, gave some of it back to those that bullied Carol.

 

Some of the funniest bits of writing are included, and some of the regular cast’s best onstage moments are recounted, along with those of favorite guest stars. A complete list of every show and which guests were featured is at the back of the book for those that want to look up particular entertainers, or  peruse it for fun.

 

But the bottom line is that this is pure gold for those that love Burnett and the show, and that can follow along some of the high performance points online. If you aren’t interested in her work, then the memoir won’t mean much to you.

 

Recommended to Burnett’s many fans.

 

Michelle Obama: A Life, by Peter Slavin****

michelleobama I received this book as a birthday gift from a gracious house guest. I think he chose it for me because he knew of my strong interest in civil rights issues. Although this is actually out of my wheelhouse, I decided to read it, and I was surprised how much of it I enjoyed. Of particular interest was the beginning of the book, where a surprising amount of the narrative was devoted to African-American history, especially in Chicago. I hadn’t expected it and found it both interesting and useful.

I don’t generally follow the lives and careers of mainstream American politicians or their spouses, so  I didn’t know much of anything about Michelle Obama, other than that she had made it plain, upon taking up that famous residence, that her family would be her main focus and if the public didn’t like it they could lump it. After all, nobody was paying her a salary, so she had some choices.

Reading of how her parents struggled in order to get Michelle and her brother excellent educations, and of the tenacity with which Michelle approached school, social justice issues, and her career, I found myself feeling strangely sorry for her. Before her husband decided to pursue politics, her career outshone his. She was in demand and had a lot of choices. When she headed to the Ivy League, her classmates and professors were almost all white people, and the pressure was on her not only to succeed, but to be the one African-American that would be the example, the cultural education for a whole lot of privileged white people. That kind of hot spotlight would undo some people, make them decide to go on home and enroll at a school closer to home, but Obama—then Robinson—did it and did it well, and then she went back to her hometown, Chicago, to find ways to use her education to serve her community.

As the first Black first lady (FLOTUS), she’s had to make some difficult choices, and there would be a certain level of criticism no matter what she chose to undertake. Her career had been ascending like a rocket, and she took what will likely be a permanent leave of absence in order to keep her family well tended. She hadn’t wanted her spouse to go into politics, because she was convinced, as I am, that being a politician doesn’t end up making a difference. She urged Barack to become an inspirational instructor, or a school administrator, or go to work for a strong nonprofit, but that wasn’t what he wanted to do. He wrote a book; it didn’t sell. (Occupying the Oval Office would change that.) But when two parents put their careers on a fast track simultaneously, often the ones that pay the price are the kids, and she wouldn’t have that for their girls. If it came down to her career versus their development, she was determined to be there for them. And who am I to say that wasn’t the right thing to do?

Slavin is not an official biographer; in fact, after leaving the White House, Michelle plans to publish memoirs of her own. However, this writer was given interviews with people very close to the First Family with Michelle’s blessing, and maybe that is why some noteworthy items are glossed over.

Because whereas this memoir is about her more than him, a fair amount of the president works its way into the text. Their lives are joined, after all. And it does seem a little myopic not to have addressed the elephant in the room: the first Black president can’t prevent cops all over the country from shooting Black men—and sometimes women—all the damn time and for no good reason. After all the protests that took place all over the nation, with chants and signs of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” and “I Can’t Breathe!”, you’d think it would merit at least a paragraph.

It’s like it never happened.

So if you are an admirer of the Obamas, this is not a bad book certainly. And it’s tempting to jump into their court, so to speak, based solely on the amazingly stupid things about birth certificates and loyalty that the ultra-right has come out with, questions that a white presidential family would never have to confront.

But when push comes to shove, this book won’t make a big difference, and sad to say, neither will the Obamas’ eight years in the White House. It’s good to know that American society has moved forward enough to elect a Black president, but like all the presidents before him, his authority is limited and to some degree, illusory.

I recommend this memoir to those with an interest in Michelle Obama. Those eternally present polls that reflect the public’s perception of those in the White House show that a much greater number of Americans admire her than approve of the president. But of course, one doesn’t have to be American to want to read this; one only needs to be interested in the life of this historically first, First Lady.

Pancakes in Paris, by Craig Carlson****

pancakesinparisThe American dream has become harder for ordinary people to attain, but Carlson is living proof that it can happen; yet some of us may need to go somewhere else to find it. In his upbeat, congenial memoir, “the pancake guy” chronicles his journey, from the kid of a wretchedly dysfunctional home—and I don’t use the term lightly—to the owner of Breakfast in America, his own restaurant franchise in France. This title was a bright spot in my reading lineup last month, and it can be a bright spot in yours too. Thank you to Sourcebooks and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

Is this a thing that any kid in America could have done? Not so much. Carlson has a rare blend of  intelligence, organization, and social skills; above and beyond all else, he possesses unstoppable determination, clear focus, and a work ethic that never flags for one tiny minute until he discovers he is close to working himself to death. Those lacking talent and determination may never reach the end of the rainbow as this author has done; that much is clear. But oh, what fun to share the ride with him!

Given his family’s expectations for him, or lack thereof, it’s amazing he finished high school, and his acquisition of a college education is more remarkable still. But it is his junior year at a state college in Connecticut that plants the seed that will sprout and grow into a way of life; he is invited to spend his school year in Paris. Once he’s there, the tumblers click, and he knows that he has found his people.

As Carlson’s story unspools, he debunks stereotypes believed by many Americans, and a few of them are ones I believed too until I read this memoir. Carlson delivers setting in a way much more immediate than any number of Google searches can provide, but it’s his insights regarding French culture, law, and society that make his memoir so captivating. The prose is lean and occasionally hilarious. He plucks choice, juicy vignettes from his journey all along the way, and this makes us feel as if we are riding quietly on his shoulder taking it all in as he goes.

If you’ve never been to France and don’t intend to, you can still enjoy this book. If you don’t like pancakes or any aspect of the traditional American breakfast, it doesn’t matter. Carlson is enormously entertaining, and so his story stands on its own merits. I am furthermore delighted to see that the only recipe that is inserted into his narrative is actually a joke. A small collection of actual recipes is inserted at the end, and although I never, ever, ever do this, I intend to try one of them out tonight! But even if you skip the recipe section entirely, you should read this memoir. It’s too much fun to miss. The best news of all is that it’s available for purchase right now.

Get it, and read it!