The Dumbledore Effect in ‘A Promised Land’ by Barack Obama

It’s no secret that Barack Obama is cool. His annual reading and listening lists show he has his finger on the pulse of culture in a way that rivals the most hipster of hipsters. So, I was a bit apprehensive about creating a Perfect Book Experience for the first volume of his memoir, but here it goes.

You know how at the end of most Harry Potter books Harry has a thoughtful and revealing conversation with Dumbledore? The reader is usually given one more clue to the mystery behind Harry’s scar. Reading ‘A Promised Land’, and especially if you get the audio version, is a little like having Dumbledore explain to you how and why everything happened during his tenure the way it did.

You’ll find yourself remembering things you had no idea were lodged in the recesses of your brain. And if you’re not one for following the news, you might find there are several events you’re hearing about for the first time. Obama’s account of his (roughly) first four years in office is, in this Unsanctioned Book Influencer’s opinion, thorough.

What It Tastes Like

While I’d love to recommend his favorite campaign meal of steak, potatoes, and vegetables as the food that represents the book best, this book needs ice cream. For its objectivity I’d go with something invigorating like mint and add chocolate chip for the moments of tenderness. I mean, after his presidency, I think some comfort food was in order.

What It Sounds Like

Trying not to be too on the nose, but I’d sincerely compare this book to Miles Davis’ album ‘Kind of Blue.’ Because he is so cool, Obama beat me to it, as he added ‘Freddie Freeloader’ to his ‘A Promised Land’ playlist (of course he has a playlist for the book) but to me, this book feels like the entire Davis album: moody yet dynamic, heady yet conversational.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read If:

  • You’re ready to wade back into the practice of following current events, but you need some hand-holding
  • If you’ve got a ‘Crush on Obama’
  • If you want a glimpse behind the scenes of major legislation during the late ’00s and early ’10s.
  • If you miss hearing Obama’s idiosyncratic voice and speech patterns

Photo credit: Published by Crown, Penguin Random House

Finding a long-lost love of country: ‘What Unites Us’ by Dan Rather

After years of civic breakdown in America, where just sitting around the dinner table with opinionated family members can be considered a toxic environment, it sometimes feels like there’s no hope for our democracy. Maybe you feel yourself, like everyone else, slipping down your own rabbit holes with little chance of escape. Then you pick up “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism” by iconic reporter Dan Rather and everything changes.

This book feels like sipping a cold one with an old reporter friend in a slightly seedy downtown bar, the kind frequented by journalists working for near minimum wage, and sharing stories about the US of A. For every story that Rather shares, you feel a story of your own surface in your mind. It becomes a conversation. Rather talks through not only the highs and lows of his career, but the highs and lows of the nation since the darkest days of the cold war. He describes with surprising passion (for a former TV anchor) how the world has changed, and how the world changed him. 

A special treat is listening to the audiobook narrated by Rather himself. You’ll probably hear his steady, nightly-news-broadcast voice in your head while reading his words, but having his earnest, thinly-veiled Texas drawl in your ears will put you on the barstool next to him. You’ll feel your eyes get misty as he recounts stories of how his family shaped him, selfless acts of courage, and even little “p” patriotism. It will be in those moments when you’re looking around to see if anyone is watching you that his voice will break with emotion as well. You’ll share a moment remembering a love of country you thought you lost during this period of hyper-polarized rhetoric. 

This book is as unapologetically American as a Springsteen song. While there’s plenty of apple pie and Fourth of July, Rather dives into the darker side of society, approaching everything from race to fake news with a clear-eyed depth of understanding that only comes with reporting the news for over seventy years. Rather’s clarity about the differences between patriotism and the kind of blind nationalism that’s wreaking so much havoc today is a refreshing pathway back toward what makes the American social and governmental experiment something to celebrate.

Rather loves his country. It’s an inclusive, inviting love that you can’t help but get swept up in. Maybe it’s because he’s asking something of the reader. He’s not telling you that America is perfect and you should love it without question. Quite the opposite. He challenges you to question it. He’s also emphatic that America is pretty darn good and will only remain pretty good only if you, whoever you are, get involved in the messy processes of trying to make it better. That might be as heady as running for office, or as pedestrian as taking a plate of food to a neighbor who’s just experienced a loss. What makes America great is everyday Americans actively creating better communities.

This book might be your next read if:

  • You’re looking for a steady voice of civility to walk you through the America of today while providing the context of the past
  • You need to be reminded that the vibrant tapestry of America is actually its strength, rather than its weakness
  • You love America, but you’re not sure you really like it
  • You’re wondering if the American experiment can survive the next fifty years
  • You want to have a quiet conversation about history, the present, and how you can be a better member of society
  • You’re looking for hope, [even if it’s going to take some work]

Photo Credit: Amazon, Publisher: Algonquin Books

Delightfully Uncomfortable and Perfectly Tender: ‘The House in the Cerulean Sea’ by TJ Klune

Whether it’s because of what I’ve been reading lately, or what writers have been writing, I haven’t cried during a book (multiple times!) for a very long time. ‘The House in the Cerulean Sea’ by TJ Klune will bring tears to your eyes for all the right reasons.

This story feels like a parable, except the teachers, or rather mentor figures, are comically authentic children, residents of the Marsyas Orphanage, and the student is a 40-something caseworker who needs to live a little. This story is what you wish Disney could be—woke enough to have an overtly gay protagonist and irreverent enough to make the Antichrist likeable.

This novel is character driven, and Klune has found a way to bring out both the child and adult in his characters. You will feel ‘all the things’ along with them—mischievous, indignant, curious, joyful, hurt, frightened, cared for, and loved. Don’t be surprised if you hug this book fiercely when you’re done with it.

Given the fantastical nature of this book, you can almost hear Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ as a soundtrack to this story.

The idiosyncratic characters are reflected in the tone of each movement. It’s said the composer, “intended to write the work for his students” (Wikipedia) and as such, you could pretend the songs were written for the children of the Marsyas Orphanage. This is not to say the children are like animals, they are not, and they experience painful bigotry in the story because of their magical status. This piece of music is fun, and the children remind the protagonist that fun is necessary.

Given also that the story follows idiosyncratic, authentic, witty, mischievous children, you’d do well to eat a dirt cupcake while helping yourself to this story. After all, isn’t the idea of eating worms positively silly and delightful?

This Book Might Be Your Next Read:

  • If you need to be reminded of the goodness in people
  • If you’ve ever worked with children as a social worker or in any other teaching/mentoring role and loved it
  • If you’ve seen “Joe Versus the Volcano” and liked it
  • If you like your fantasy to feel very realistic

The Book for Coping with 2020: ‘Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope’ by Mark Manson

(The headline probably tipped you off, but just in case, there’s some profanity in this book experience. Ye be warned.)

If you’ve reached the stage of the pandemic/post-election/post-insurrection surreality where you’re ready to dive deep into the abyss-like psychology of the United States but don’t want to get the bends, then the oxymoronic ‘Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope’ by Mark Manson, is just what this uncertified bibliotherapist ordered.

While not required, consider reading ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’ or Mark Manson’s blog first, if only to orient yourself to his particular brand of ‘self-help.’ If that brings up feelings of TL:DR, this description from his website should give you a pretty good idea of what he’s about:

I write life advice that is science-based, pragmatic, and non-bullshitty – a.k.a., life advice that doesn’t suck

With that out of the way, this book will both overwhelm and make you feel like you’re getting the CliffsNotes. You may want to seek out some of the primary texts mentioned in the book, like Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ or the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The tone of Manson’s writing is a bit like a burnt marshmallow. You’ll have a mouth full of ash but then you’ll find a sweet, gooey center. Manson’s rhetoric is both sarcastic and contemplative, apathetic and industrious. He respects the thinkers who have come before him and endeavors to take thought to its next logical conclusion. SPOILER ALERT: it’s robots.

Since he advertises his brand of self-help as being science-based it’s no surprise that the book eventually veers toward the singularity. Yet with it’s breaks for subtle humor and overall Gen Xer attitude, there’s nothing that will get you more in the mood for this book than this work of musical genius:

(you were warned, this video is also NSFW)

So, how does this book help with the quagmire of feelings we’re still sorting through from 2020? Well, it’s tough love. Simple as that. It’s a friend who’ll tell you there’s vomit on your shoe and helps carry you to the Uber in the same breath.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read:

  • If you have a penchant for parodies
  • If you don’t have time to study philosophy, or the interest, but you like making thoughtful conversation at parties
  • If you think you might be interested in philosophy but you don’t know where to start
  • If you like gray areas

photo credit: HarperCollins (purchase the book here)