Showing posts with label political. Show all posts
Showing posts with label political. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

5 Things I Was Reading 10 Years Ago

Hello, reader friends!  So, ever since I started The Well-Read Runner feature back in March, I've started following a few running blogs in addition to my favorite book blogs.  (Howdy to you as well, running friends!)  A few weeks back, one of the topics I saw flying about with the runners was "5 Things I Was Doing 10 Years Ago" (part of the DC Trifecta Friday Five Linkup hosted by Eat Pray Run DC, You Signed Up For WHAT?!, and Mar on the Run).  I missed out on the running meme that week, but I thought it would be fun to rework this in a book-related way.

Thanks to the magic of Goodreads, I looked back to see what I was reading around this time 10 years ago.  In summer 2005, I was a newly-minted college graduate, and had just started my first big-girl job.  I realized that I no longer had to spend all of my time reading TEXTBOOKS!  I was free to browse the library as I wished!  With that in mind, here are 5 of the books I was enjoying in the dog days of 2005:

1. The Godfather by Mario Puzo

My mom passed down an old copy of this book to me, and I finally had time to read it once I graduated from UConn.  For some reason, back then I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads, but my recollection is that I didn't really like it all that much...?  Ohhhhhh boy, I'm gonna go and say it...I LIKED THE MOVIE BETTER!

2. Funny--He Doesn't Look Like A Murderer by Shirley Bostrom

I actually obtained this book during the Family Violence course that I took during my senior year at UConn.  The book is a nonfiction account of the author's tragic experience with domestic violence, as her daughter Margie was murdered by her (Margie's) husband.  Bostrom came and discussed the incident with our class, as well as her work as a victim's advocate in the wake of this tragedy.  A very sad book, but one that is important to the conversation on domestic violence and its consequences.

3. The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

This is a nonfiction account of what happened when a group of Mexican men attempted to cross the US border via the Arizona desert in 2001.  As you can imagine, this book speaks to much more than  this individual journey, as it examines US border policy and brings the physical and emotional toils of the migrants to life.  This book still sticks with me 10 years later--a must-read!

4. The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

Honestly, I have no idea what this book is about.  That is pretty much the case for every John Grisham I've ever read.  I highly enjoyable at the time that I am reading them, but then I quickly forget which one is which because they are just SO DARN SIMILAR.  I once started reading a Grisham novel and made it a third of the way through before I realized that I'd already read it once before.  I guess that's a long way of saying that this book did not make much of an impression on me. :)

5. The 9/11 Commission Report

Yes, I actually did read this brick of a book.  It took me ages (I remember reading it between other novels throughout the summer), but it brought 9/11 (the actual day, as well as it's lead-up and consequences) to life in a way that I couldn't get from CNN or the New York Times.  Very comprehensive, though very very dense.

Apparently not much light reading for me in summer 2005, eh?  I suppose all that college book-learnin' was still rubbing off on me.  ;-)

What were you reading 10 years ago??

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The White House + Downton Abbey = The Residence by Kate Andersen Brower


Title: The Residence: Inside the Private World of The White House
Author: Kate Andersen Brower
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

America’s First Families are unknowable in many ways. No one has insight into their true character like the people who serve their meals and make their beds every day. Full of stories and details by turns dramatic, humorous, and heartwarming, The Residence reveals daily life in the White House as it is really lived through the voices of the maids, butlers, cooks, florists, doormen, engineers, and others who tend to the needs of the President and First Family. 

These dedicated professionals maintain the six-floor mansion’s 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, three elevators, and eight staircases, and prepare everything from hors d’oeuvres for intimate gatherings to meals served at elaborate state dinners. Over the course of the day, they gather in the lower level’s basement kitchen to share stories, trade secrets, forge lifelong friendships, and sometimes even fall in love.

Combining incredible first-person anecdotes from extensive interviews with scores of White House staff members—many speaking for the first time—with archival research, Kate Andersen Brower tells their story. She reveals the intimacy between the First Family and the people who serve them, as well as tension that has shaken the staff over the decades. From the housekeeper and engineer who fell in love while serving President Reagan to Jackie Kennedy’s private moment of grief with a beloved staffer after her husband’s assassination to the tumultuous days surrounding President Nixon’s resignation and President Clinton’s impeachment battle, The Residence is full of surprising and moving details that illuminate day-to-day life at the White House.


My Review:

I have such a fascination with life in the White House.  It started with a conference I attended in Washington DC as a junior in high school (any other NYLC alumni out there??), and then was fully exacerbated by my love for one of the all-time best shows on television...that's right, WEST WING!!
How I adore a good West Wing walk-and-talk.
I am happy to say that The Residence definitely gave me my White-House-insider fix.  I've read my fair share of political biographies/autobiographies that give the nitty-gritty on the political work that occurs within those walls.  But this is a completely different side of White House life.  Brower interviewed many of the butlers, maids, chefs, etc. that worked for first families from the Kennedys to the present day.  I was afraid that the narrative could fall too far into the category of tabloid fodder--digging up dirt on the first families for the sake of entertainment.  (You may remember that this is exactly how I felt about Ronald Kessler's In The President's Secret Service.)  However, I was delighted to find that that was not the case.

The interviewees in Brower's research did reveal some personal stories about the first families, but nothing particularly shocking or damning.  In most cases, these stories just lent a bit of emotion and intimacy to the descriptions of the workers' everyday responsibilities.  Instead, the employees focused much more on revealing the hidden machine behind what makes the White House tick--the hard work of the White House staffers that keep the lives of the first families moving along, even at the most chaotic of times.

The dedication of these staffers amazed me.  Many of them spent decades at their White House jobs, often to the detriment of their family lives, but always with the best interests of the first family in mind.  Brower delves into not only the way these employees felt about their jobs, but also how they interacted with the first families, how they dealt with the racial issues within the White House, and how they handled their work in the midst of chaotic international events (9/11, the Kennedy assassination, etc).

I did feel that some of the chapters bounced around too much--the gathering of information from so many different sources seemed to create many points in the book where random anecdotes would be plunked in among other stories that were only tangentially related.  While this did distract from my reading of the book at times, it wasn't a huge detractor from my enjoyment of it as a whole.

The Residence is an excellent Downton-Abbey-esque view of life at the White House.  If that sounds like your cup of tea, then this is the nonfiction for you.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Kate Andersen Brower on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ask The Expert...Nonfiction November Style!


Hello, Nonfiction November-ites!  We are in Week 2 of the event, and it's going well for me so far.  I finished At The Mercy of The Mountains last week, and have moved on to 1776 by David McCullough.  It's been a long time since I delved into historical nonfiction, and I'm enjoying the change of pace.  This is definitely a great event for me!  Nonfiction has been woefully absent from my life in the last year or two.

For week 2, we are tasked with any one of three options...

"Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert)."

With that in mind, I am choosing to "Ask The Expert".  Specifically, I'm looking for recommendations on nonfiction regarding American politics.  Let me explain, because that's a pretty broad category!  I enjoy books that provide an inside view into American politics.  I've tried autobiographies (My Life by Bill Clinton, Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama, etc), bipartisan reports (The 9/11 Commission Report), heavily biased political analyses (The Assault on Reason by Al Gore), and books that trended more towards peeping-Tom-expose than behind-the-scenes-informative (In the President's Secret Service by Ronald Kessler).  The list goes on, but that at least illustrates some of the breadth of what I've attempted.

In all that reading, I've realized that I have several desires when I step into this genre.

-Smartly written, analytical writing.  I loved the heavily detailed account of Clinton's presidency in his autobiography; I hated the obviously-pandering-to-the-lowest-common-denominator expose style of Kessler's book.
-Not too dry.  Clinton's book had a lot of detail, but also a human element that kept my interest up (not just Lewinsky, ha).  On the other hand, the 9/11 Report was impressive, but also put me to sleep on several occasions.  It's all detail, no emotion.  Not a bad thing (I mean, consider its purpose), but just not tops on my list of reading options.
-Too heavily partisan.  This is a big one.  It's very hard to write about politics without any sort of partisan bias--I get that.  I'm not asking for every political book to be nonpartisan/bipartisan.  However, I think you can write from a political stance in a way that isn't hateful to the other side.  If you've ever read Gore's Assault on Reason, you know that that is an example of a HEAVILY partisan book...annoyingly so.  And that's coming from a Democrat.  (And since I've mentioned that--yes, I welcome books written from the right as well!  But again, as long as they are not overly hateful to the other side.  Rush Limbaugh suggestions, I can safely assume, will be left at the door.)

Just to give you an idea...without knowing much about them, a few books that have been on my TBR for a while are Pennsylvania Avenue by John Harwood, What Happened by Scott McClellan, and The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder by Vincent Bugliosi (okay, I admit the title of that one is not promising given the above requirements, but reactions from those who have read it are welcomed!).  Autobiographies and biographies also seem to have worked well for me in the past.

So there it is, experts!  I know I gave you a tough assignment, but give it a try.  Lay it on me.  What political nonfiction should I read next?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Six Degrees of Separation: 1984

Let's do a little Six Degrees today!

As a reminder: the Six Degrees of Separation meme was created by Emma Chapman and Annabel Smith.  Basically, they pick a new book each month, and you start with your thoughts on that book...then, through free association, you link it to 6 other books.

This month's book is 1984 by George Orwell.  AND GO!

A year or so after I graduated from college (2006), I started making my way through some of the classics that I was never assigned to read in high school.  1984 was one of them, and I loved it.  This may have been my first real taste of dystopia (before Hunger Games/Divergent/etc made dystopia cool).

Other than working on the classics, another little reading project of mine in 2006 was trying to read my way through the library's fiction section alphabetically.  Yeah, I know.  I gave it up well before I was halfway through the A's.  But one of the books I remember from that project was...

How I Paid For College by Marc Acito

Honest to God, the only reason this book continues to stick out for me is because of the title and the cover.  They are, admittedly, hard to forget.  That said, I just re-read the book description on Goodreads, and I have absolutely no recollection of that plot.  I also gave it a 2-star review, so apparently it was a little bit awful.  Don't you hate that though, when you read a book and then years later, you can't remember a single thing about it?

There are GOOD books with college themes too, though!  That happens to be one of my preferred settings for a novel.  An example would be...

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

I have mentioned this book on the blog before (here!), and it continues to make the list of my all-time favorite novels.  I connected with so many elements of the novel as Charlotte made her way through a rocky freshman year of college.

Since we're talking about all-time favorite novels, let's give a shout-out to one of mine that I've never mentioned on the blog before...

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

Fun fact: my original college major was pathobiology, and I wrote several of my college admissions essays about this book.  I read it during my junior year of high school, found it completely fascinating, and then decided that I wanted to major in pathobiology, go to graduate school for public health, and eventually work at the CDC to find a cure for Ebola.

Yes, you read that right.  This is, indeed, a book about Ebola.  Timely, yes?  (Also, I think we can all agree that changing my major to family studies was an unfortunate decision for the entire world circa NOW.)  Even though my career goals did not stay the same, I still have a lot of curiosity and interest in biological sciences, and this book continues to be a favorite.  An interesting read for sure if you don't know much about this disease (beyond what you hear in the media).

Nonfiction!  Haven't talked about that a lot around here lately.  I actually just looked on Goodreads and saw that my last nonfiction read was...

Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

WHAT?  I read that back in MARCH!  It's a bit atrocious that I have read zero nonfiction since then.  Thank goodness that Nonfiction November is coming up.  This book was very entertaining though, and reminds me of why I need to get back into the groove with nonfic.

So let's see, what other nonfiction books are on my favorites list (other than The Hot Zone)...

My Life by Bill Clinton

Me sharing the former president's autobiography as a book on my favorites list does absolutely nothing other than reveal the fact that I am an unapologetic liberal and fan of Bill Clinton.

Wait, you're not supposed to discuss politics in mixed company!  Quick, think of a good memoir that's less political for us to talk about!

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Phew, that's better.

This is the strangest train of book thought I've ever had...although, I just realized that I started with 1984 and ended with Steve Jobs...and Apple had that famous commercial based on 1984 way back when.  CRAZY, RIGHT??  I'm a genius.  (Not really, just very sleep deprived, as Tater Tot has croup at the time of this writing.)

Have you read any of these books, friends?  What did you think?  And feel free to share your six degrees as well!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book Review: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

Title: Dreams From My Father
Author: Barack Obama
Publisher: Times Books
Publication Date: July 18, 1995
Source: Received as a gift

Summary from Goodreads:

Dreams from My Father tells the story of Obama’s struggle to understand the forces that shaped him as the son of a black African father and white American mother—a struggle that takes him from the American heartland to the ancestral home of his great-aunt in the tiny African village of Alego. 

Obama opens his story in New York, where he hears that his father—a figure he knows more as a myth than as a man—has died in a car accident. The news triggers a chain of memories as Barack retraces his family’s unusual history: the migration of his mother’s family from small-town Kansas to the Hawaiian islands; the love that develops between his mother and a promising young Kenyan student, a love nurtured by youthful innocence and the integrationist spirit of the early sixties; his father’s departure from Hawaii when Barack was two, as the realities of race and power reassert themselves; and Barack’s own awakening to the fears and doubts that exist not just between the larger black and white worlds but within himself.

Propelled by a desire to understand both the forces that shaped him and his father’s legacy, Barack moves to Chicago to work as a community organizer. There, against the backdrop of tumultuous political and racial conflict, he works to turn back the mounting despair of the inner city. His story becomes one with those of the people he works with as he learns about the value of community, the necessity of healing old wounds, and the possibility of faith in the midst of adversity.

Barack’s journey comes full circle in Kenya, where he finally meets the African side of his family and confronts the bitter truth of his father’s life. Traveling through a country racked by brutal poverty and tribal conflict, but whose people are sustained by a spirit of endurance and hope, Barack discovers that he is inescapably bound to brothers and sisters living an ocean away—and that by embracing their common struggles he can finally reconcile his divided inheritance.

A searching meditation on the meaning of identity in America, Dreams from My Father might be the most revealing portrait we have of a major American leader—a man who is playing, and will play, an increasingly prominent role in healing a fractious and fragmented nation.


My Review:

Happy Election Day, America!  I felt it was only appropriate to hit you with a politically-based book today.  And no, I'm not going to tell you who to vote for--that is not the point of this review!  It's a review, plain and simple.  Pinky swear.

I actually picked this book up on a sort-of dare.  Someone (who will remain nameless) forwarded our family an email that listed all sorts of horrible things that Barack Obama has done or said regarding race, religion, etc.  The email stated that all of these things were true--and if we wanted the proof, just read Dreams From My Father, because Obama wrote it all himself!

And I thought, "Wait...did you just dare me, a loyal maiden of literature, to read a book and fact-check you?  CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!"  So here we are.

The first thing I learned in this book: Barack Obama had no idea, in 1995, that he would be POTUS in 13 years.

Because if he did, he would never have written this memoir.  And that's part of why I enjoyed it.

I can see why the right wing likes to tear this book apart.  I mean, does any sitting American president want to write a book that airs his family's secrets (good and bad)?  That frankly (in a refreshingly non-roundabout way) discusses their personal views and struggles with race and racism?  That kind of admits that they did blow a few times?  Nope, they don't want to do that.  But Barack Obama wrote exactly that book before he went down the politics path, and now here it sits, for the world to judge.

I'm quite disappointed that I didn't read this earlier in Obama's presidency.  I've heard about a lot of the details in news stories (and, ahem, email forwards), especially the ones that caused a media sensation (the Jeremiah Wright controversy, his Kenyan heritage, various quotes on racial politics, etc).  But reading the actual memoir was much different than perusing the latest headlines--it gives you the story from the horse's mouth, so to speak.

Obama's voice is remarkably young and honest in his memoir.  None of this typical political vagueness that we hear from every government figure these days.  But despite his relative youth upon publication, this memoir gives you the opportunity to see how his political, personal, and spiritual preferences awakened throughout his early life.  For example, he admits that in his high school and college years, he often rebelled against white culture, while trying to come to terms with his black identity.  But as he gained a wider range of experiences (as a community organizer in the Chicago projects, and during a long trip to Kenya to reconnect with his family), he started to build a more inclusive vision for how communities need to work together to create change:

"What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom?  How far do our obligations reach?  How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love?...in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail." (p 438)

He also freely admits that he was not religious in the early part of his life--he had both Muslim and Christian education, but did not join a church and explore his spirituality until his mid-twenties.

Neither of these admissions (about race or religion) are good for him, politically.  But they're honest--and how often do you hear honesty on the campaign trail?  This is just one of the many ways you can see that, at the time this was written, he did not expect to end up where he is today--and this lack of awareness makes the whole book feel more down-to-earth than your average political memoir..  (He even has a section, during his trip to Africa, where he waxes about how nice it was to be in a place where people recognized and knew how to spell his name.  LOL, if you only knew, dude.)  I've read his second book--The Audacity of Hope--which was published after he entered politics, and that one is MUCH more voter-image friendly (read: uplifting and unlikely to ruffle feathers).

Beyond the general tone of the book, I also enjoyed hearing the story of how Obama's life was shaped by his complicated and far-flung family.  He spends many years trying to chase the dreams that he believes will connect him with his father--a man that he only met once as a boy, and who died before Obama had the chance to truly know him. So much of his life has been shaped by this relationship (or lack thereof).  Despite the book's often-dense musings and descriptions, this family story kept me interested and wondering what discovery would come next.  In the end, you get a detailed oral history from his grandmother, which explains his father's and grandfather's lives through the eyes of Kenya's rocky past.  (As a boring ol' WASP with comparatively uneventful roots in Italy/Ireland/Germany, this was both fascinating and heartbreaking to read.)

Overall, I think any reader (from the right, left, or center) who enjoys political memoirs should give this book a try.  Obviously, you're going to read different messages into it, depending on your political leanings.  But it paints a portrait of a president that you don't often get to see--one of idealism and hope, before the political jockeying of Washington muddies the water.  For that reason alone, it's worth the read.

(Oh, and that email forward?  Nearly every line was either taken out of context or misquoted.  CHALLENGE COMPLETE!  Somebody call Snopes.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review: In The President's Secret Service by Ronald Kessler

Title: In The President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect
Author: Ronald Kessler
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: August 4, 2009
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library via my Kindle

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Never before has a journalist penetrated the wall of secrecy that surrounds the U.S. Secret Service, that elite corps of agents who pledge to take a bullet to protect the president and his family. After conducting exclusive interviews with more than one hundred current and former Secret Service agents, bestselling author and award-winning reporter Ronald Kessler reveals their secrets for the first time.

Secret Service agents, acting as human surveillance cameras, observe everything that goes on behind the scenes in the president’s inner circle. Kessler reveals what they have seen, providing startling, previously untold stories about the presidents, from John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as about their families, Cabinet officers, and White House aides. 

Kessler portrays the dangers that agents face and how they carry out their missions–from how they are trained to how they spot and assess potential threats. With fly-on-the-wall perspective, he captures the drama and tension that characterize agents’ lives.

In this headline-grabbing book, Kessler discloses assassination attempts that have never before been revealed. He shares inside accounts of past assaults that have put the Secret Service to the test, including a heroic gun battle that took down the would-be assassins of Harry S. Truman, the devastating day that John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, and the swift actions that saved Ronald Reagan after he was shot.

While Secret Service agents are brave and dedicated, Kessler exposes how Secret Service management in recent years has betrayed its mission by cutting corners, risking the assassination of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and their families. Given the lax standards, “It’s a miracle we have not had a successful assassination,” a current agent says.

Since an assassination jeopardizes democracy itself, few agencies are as important as the Secret Service–nor is any other subject as tantalizing as the inner sanctum of the White House. Only tight-lipped Secret Service agents know the real story, and Ronald Kessler is the only journalist to have won their trust.

My Review:

Hey, Americans!  In case all the hate-ads and yard signs didn't tip you off, November 6 is Election Day!  And what better way for me to celebrate this time of awkward conversations with your opposite-leaning friends, than to review a book about politics.  However, never fear--this is not a political book full of hot-button issues and diatribes.  Kessler covers presidents on both sides of the fence in this tell-all book about the Secret Service.

First off, I have to say that I found the book's description a bit misleading.  Based on the title, I was hoping for some historical information about the Secret Service, and interesting anecdotes about the men and women who served with the agency.  There is some of that--and those were my favorite parts of the book.  Stories of thwarted assassination attempts, explanations of the training agents must go through, descriptions of how a typical Secret Service detail manages itself--that stuff is fascinating!

But those pieces of history and interesting tidbits did not seem to be the central goal of Kessler's research, unfortunately.  No, this book focuses much more on the presidents' personal lives, and it my opinion, plays out like a Perez-Hilton-esque expose rather than a serious political nonfiction.  You learn about how Jimmy Carter was a complete cheapskate; how JFK kept his lady-callers a secret; and (most unnecessary detail of all) the size of LBJ's penis.  Kessler shows no compunction about sharing this type of information.  He claims that this is because presidents are public figures, and so we deserve to know about their private mistakes.  However, as a reader, it just made me feel uncomfortable, and a bit embarrassed for the past leaders of our country.  It also didn't seem entirely relevant to the Secret Service, other than the fact that he got these juicy bits from the agents themselves.  This made me confused about the real purpose of the book.

The book does end with some more interesting facts about how the Secret Service has devolved into a horribly mismanaged organization--it's amazing to see how security issues are sometimes taken so lightly by these undertrained and overworked agents.  I appreciated that kind of revealing (and publicly important) information.  But I wish the rest of the book showed that level of useful journalistic discovery.

I do wonder if I would have enjoyed this book more, had I learned more about it beforehand and realized that it would delve so deeply into the presidents' personal lives.  Maybe I picked this one up for the wrong reasons (wanting factual vs personal information).  But despite that, I still am not a huge fan of how Kessler put this book together.  The awkwardly personal details cheapen the power of the solid historical and agency-specific information that he managed to uncover.

Overall--not the serious journalistic work that I was hoping for.  But if you don't mind a little peeping-tom look at the leaders of our country, this book could be right up your alley!

And hey, Americans--go VOTE on November 6!!
 
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