Showing posts with label kenya. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kenya. Show all posts

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? 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.)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: Sometimes It Snows In America by Marisa Labozzetta

Title: Sometimes It Snows In America
Author: Marisa Labozzetta
Publisher: Guernica Editions
Release Date: October 1, 2012
Source: E-galley received from publisher via NetGalley

Summary from Goodreads:
What happens when a "princess" from Somalia comes to America?

Combining fable, storytelling, and the grubbiness of harsh reality, Marisa Labozzetta tells the story of Fatma, a young woman from a storied family in Somalia. Brought to the United States as part of an arranged marriage, Fatma must undergo losing her child, drug addiction, abuse, and prison before coming out the other side. A tale of someone who never gives up, no matter how bleak her prospects. A novel that allows hope to shine even in the darkest hour.

My Review:

First of all, I have to thank Guernica Editions for giving me the opportunity to review this book!  I saw it listed on NetGalley, and given my attraction to novels set in other countries, I was immediately intrigued by Fatma and her Somalian/Kenyan/Arabian background.  This is my first ARC review and I was eager to dive into it.

However... was not as great as I wanted it to be.  And trust me, I so BADLY wanted it to be awesome.

Let me start with the good news.  This is not a novel that drags, or bores you.  Fatma's dramatic life history encounters everything from arranged marriage, to miscarriage, to attempted murder and alcoholism.  This is, at its core, a book about fighting against the odds and coming back from the brink--and Fatma certainly does a lot of that.  The story keeps you engaged simply because it never slows down.

I also learned a lot about Somalian and Kenyan history from this novel.  It is historical fiction--Fatma is supposed to be the niece of the real-life former dictator of Somalia, Mohamed Siad Barre (he has a different name in the novel, likely because Fatma is a fictional character unrelated to the real Barre...but a Wikipedia search made it pretty evident that that was who he (and she) were supposed to be).  This was an interesting perspective on Somalian Communism and the Somali Civil War.  This is why I love books from other countries--because I am a huge nerd and LOVE learning new stuff when I read.

Another thumbs-up goes to the ending.  Labozzetta switches tenses from past to present, which makes the whole feel of the ending much more hopeful than the darkness of the rest of the novel.  And she manages to tie things up enough that you feel satisfied, but still leaves unanswered questions so that it doesn't feel too "neat".  One of my favorite ways for a novel to end.

But now the bad news.

I had two main difficulties with this novel: the distant point of view, and the lack of significant detail.  The novel was told in the third person POV.  I thought so much of Fatma's character was lost in the story, because her perspective never seems to be accurately conveyed.  I know first-person POV is not to be chosen lightly by an author, but in this case, I think it would have been warranted.  Fatma is a Somalian princess, raised in Kenya, with a Saudi Arabian mother, and she moves to America in an arranged marriage at the age of 12.  Westerners (the presumed primary demographic for this novel) are not going to be able to naturally comprehend what she is thinking, feeling, doing given this unique African/Middle Eastern background.  A well-researched first-person POV could have helped that.  But instead, Fatma's story is told seemingly from a distance, with surprisingly little dialogue from Fatma herself.  (Every time she spoke a sentence, I felt like I was hanging on to it--"I FINALLY heard her voice!")  As a result, I often felt like I didn't understand why she made certain choices, or felt certain feelings.  As a reader, this was extremely frustrating.

As for the lack of detail--this book takes place over a period of 35 years in Fatma's life.  If a book is going to tackle such a large portion of someone's life story, I think there is a responsibility to give each part of it the level of detail and explanation that such an epic scope requires.  Unfortunately, I don't think this can be well done in 300 pages, as Labozzetta tried to do here.  There were some extremely important periods in Fatma's history that felt very glossed-over.  Without going into spoiler territory, there were events related to her childhood, her son, and her marital life that were described in a surprisingly small number of pages.  One terrible event was described in exactly ONE sentence before the story moved on to the next chapter.  Not only was this confusing time-wise (I would often lose track of what year Fatma was in), but it made events feel abrupt, and as such I don't think I absorbed the emotional impact from them that Labozzetta was hoping for.  It was clear that Fatma was greatly shaken by these problems, but as a reader, I just didn't get enough detail to fully connect with her at those points.  Paired with the distant perspective mentioned above, this was BEYOND frustrating, especially in a novel that is so steeped in violent, life-shattering events.

So, overall--I think this book has a wonderful story behind it.  It's sad and violent, but tells a tale of survival and persistence that could be truly inspiring.  However, the impact of that inspiration was lost on me because of the distant perspective, choppy timeline, and lack of good detail.  I so badly wanted to be let into Fatma's world, and to connect with her, but I never got that chance.  This book needs a first-person POV and at least 200 extra pages of detail--then it could really do Fatma's story justice.

Anyone else read this ARC--what were your thoughts?  Any other good recommendations for books that touch on East African history?
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