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

The Ghost Story Without a Ghost…Maybe: ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier

Sometimes a perfect book experience doesn’t need a synesthesia like comparison to know what it feels like to read that book (but even so, the song and food comparisons are below). Sometimes a novel is such a shining example of genre that all you need to do is name comparable titles and you’ll know exactly what you’re in for. That’s the case with ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier.

If you’re like me and you came to this novel later in life, you’ll admonish yourself for not reading it sooner. While it would be easy to compare ‘Rebecca’ to other books, it’s more likely that ‘Rebecca’ was the origin for a wave of literature inspired by it.

‘Rebecca’ both in the way it’s written and the way it was critically received cannot be easily categorized. It’s both larger and smaller than it seems. I know, I’m being obtuse, so I’ll say this: I recommend the book as much for the story as for the Afterword by Sally Beauman. The insights and context she provides for du Maurier’s novel significantly enhance the reading experience.  And I can’t say much more about it because…spoilers!

But, let’s talk about ghosts.

If you’ve ever been told that what you saw with your own eyes was not real or true and you felt the gut-wrenching torture of your mind slowly folding in on itself, than the horror of this novel will resonate with you. It’s got a creepy house. It’s got a shifty businessman. It’s got mean girls. It’s got a ghost without the usual paranormal trappings.

This book will exercise your brain. Watch how everything you learn throughout a chapter will be swiftly turned on its head in the last sentence and you’ll have to mull over the implications for a week before moving on to the next chapter. This is a story crafted with impeccable literary puzzles. Writing teachers talk about leaving ‘breadcrumbs’ for readers and du Maurier certainly does…but the crumbs lead in circles, and critters have eaten a few of them, and eventually you’re not sure if what you’re following is crumbs or pebbles.

And yet, it’s much less frustrating than it sounds.

What it sounds like:

The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29, Sergei Rachmaninoff

What it tastes like:

Raw lemon. Tart, refreshing, cleansing.

A note about the movie adaptation on Netflix:

The film does an excellent job of capturing the aesthetic of the book, and the casting is good. But like many adaptations, the changes to the story rob ‘Rebecca’ of its impact. Ye be warned.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read If:

  • Your favorite book is ‘Jane Eyre’ (or it’s one of your top 5)
  • You’re looking for a classic novel to read at Halloween and you’ve already read all the other classic novels that are fun to read around Halloween
  • You like books that are difficult to put into any one genre
  • You like subtext
  • You’re an English major and hot takes like “actually, the house was the protagonist” thrill you

Photo credit: Little, Brown and Company

The Book That Embodies the ‘Blue Dress/Gold Dress’ Debate: ‘The Midnight Library’ by Matt Haig

The internet of books is having an argument. ‘The Midnight Library’ by Matt Haig is a book that generates polarizing reactions. Naturally, this has lead to its popularity. As of this writing the book has spent 20 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers list and is currently in the top 10 for fiction. This book is being read by a lot of people, and you’ve probably read it, plan to read it, or have heard about it from someone else. In a way that inevitably feels like life imitating art, the conversation around this book is much like the experience of reading the book: it is the blue dress/gold dress debate all over again.

In the debate over the dress, the difference of opinion ultimately rose from differences in perception, and the opinions of this book likely arise from the same place, and coincidentally, perception is the major theme the book’s protagonist grapples with. It’s all perception. Which, everything is, but this is especially.

So, whether you’ll appreciate this book for its commentary on mental health among other things, or feel like you were expecting a chocolate chip cookie but bit into a raison one, as a reviewer named ’emma’ says on Goodreads, you may want to plan to read this book more than once.

This book is less about what mood it will put you in and more about the story transmuting to fit the mood you’re already in.

Which makes me think about how difficult it is to decide on what to eat when you don’t know what you’re in the mood for. Or, if you’re planning food for a party and you don’t know what the guests like to eat. I think this is what lead to the invention of charcuterie boards (it’s not). Reading ‘The Midnight Library’ is a bit like ordering a charcuterie board.

You might fancy the cheese bits, or crave the salty cured meat, but I’ll bet you don’t sample every item on the plate. You probably stick to two or three favorites. This tendency for favoritism shows up in ‘The Midnight Library’ too. With a structure that almost feels like a collection of short stories, it’s likely that some chapters will stick out more to you than others.

And while the book might feel like you’re being taken through many books, the thread that weaves the story together is a tone that gradually moves from despair to, well, I don’t want to spoil anything.

There’s a bittersweet feeling to this book that I think you’ll hear in the song “If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot (and you might find a few literal allusions in the lyrics, too).

This Book Might Be Your Next Read If:

  • You like to see what everyone else is talking about when it comes to popular books
  • You can’t get enough of stories about the multiverse
  • You like stories that feel especially ‘of the times’
  • You’re feeling lost and looking for a story that reflects your experience (or at least is in the ballpark of your experience)

Purchase ‘The Midnight Library’ by Matt Haig (Viking/Penguin Random House LLC)

Deceptively Simple: A Book About Eating and a Book About Running

Eating and running are arguably two of the oldest activities that humans still find themselves engaged in. We’ve had thousands of years to perfect both. And as a species, we tend to start both activities when we are very young (or right from the start), so why would either topic need a book? Because “How to Eat” by Thich Nhat Hanh is not about eating, and “I Hate Running and You Can Too: How to Get Started, Keep Going, and Make Sense of an Irrational Passion” by Brendan Leonard is not a book about running. Sometimes we need to read short books that appear overly simplistic in order to understand that which is overwhelmingly complex.

Both of these books are under 200 pages, and interestingly, they both contain thoughtful graphics and images, which makes them have even fewer words. Yet, that’s the point. We don’t need a lot of words when what we are discussing is universal truth.

Thich Nhat Hanh presents his insights in short statements that could almost be mistaken for poetry. And they’re just as poignant. In a vignette titled “Our Ancestors Are In The Soil” he takes the reader through a powerful visualization that leads the reader to this conclusion: when we eat food from the ground, we are eating from the same soil that holds our ancestors. I don’t think anything about this sort of realization and its implications is simple.

Brendan Leonard’s book follows a more nonfiction-like format but what drives his insights are the graphics he’s drawn to illustrate his words. As you’ll see in some of his graphics, the true value in his work is that his advice can be applied to myriad situations and irrational passions. This book could just as easily be called “I Hate Writing Novels and You Can Too” or “I Hate Home Renovations and You Can Too.” He is writing about how to get through anything difficult or uncomfortable, and these realities are not simple.

So what do these books taste and sound like? They taste like rice and they sound like scales. Hear me out.

Not only is rice super old and eaten by people all over the world, but its ubiquity only underscores the fact that it’s really good for you too. Just as the observations of these authors are not wildly innovative they are time-tested and valuable.

And scales are the foundation of a musical practice. Young musicians may hate them, but scores (accept this pun) of music are composed using scales. Just as scales are foundational to music, so too are mindfulness and resilience to the human experience. That’s what these books have to offer.

These Books Might Be Your Next Read If:

  • If you find yourself needing to get back to the basics of anything
  • If you’re looking for a catalyst for reflection
  • If you like to run or are interested in mindfulness
  • If you wish you liked running and wish you were more mindful
  • If you find small, short books delightful and appreciate graphics as much as you appreciate words

Purchase “I Hate Running” here. Purchase “How to Eat” here.

The Book That Would Be a Casserole: ‘Greenlights’ By Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey might remind you a little bit of Ernest Hemingway. They both favor declarative sentences, and while there wasn’t any bullfighting in ‘Greenlights’ there may as well have been. If you choose to read this book, opt for the audio version, if only to make the affects of this book more potent. Be warned, your reaction to the first twenty minutes just might be an honest to goodness “WTF.”

The structure of the book is almost thrust upon the reader/listener. Think of the boat scene in the 1971 classic, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” As strange as the book starts, almost just as abruptly you’ll find yourself accustomed to his verbal-heading outbursts of “Note to Self!” and “Pree-scription!” and “Bumpersticker!” The trippy boat ride stops and you settle in to what is generally more akin to a smooth canoe ride down a glassy river.

Because of the outbursts, the slightly unbelievable anecdotes, the compelling dialogue, the uneven life advice, and the vulnerability that borders on TMI, ‘Greenlights’ is a casserole.

A little of this, some of that, everything congealed with a sticky substance–and McConaughey’s sticky substance is charisma. He’s a good storyteller, almost as much because he thinks he is as the fact that he has some talent for it. In the introduction, he says the book is not really a memoir or self-help and he’s right; it’s both and so it’s neither. Yet, whatever he has thrown together in this literary casserole, it still satisfies.

To his credit, you’ll feel a lot of things listening to stories about his family and his upbringing. Some might say he has the power to move you. Others might say that there’s a lot of “emotional unpacking” he needs to do. Yet through his mantras/advice/insights he seems to take ownership of it all. I found his attitudes nicely reflected in the lyrics of Feist’s song “I Feel It All” (“I’ll be the one who’ll break my heart”,) though, McConaughey would probably prefer his book being compared to a John Mellencamp song.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read If:

  • You like celebrity memoirs
  • You’re interested in intentional and unintentional depictions of masculinity
  • You like the way Matthew McConaughey’s voice sounds
  • You want to understand the perspectives of people who are successful in their chosen profession
  • You want to laugh along with someone who’s laughing at himself

Photo Credit: Penguin Random House

The Book For Wordsmiths: ‘Dreyer’s English’ by Benjamin Dreyer

Benjamin Dreyer is making grammar cool. There’s a spectrum of grammar appreciators that swings from what I’ll call creative to…insistent, and Dreyer has taken the whole spectrum and said, “Here’s the rule, and something else you didn’t know, and this is why it’s funny.”

You might even compare Benjamin Dreyer’s approach to language in ‘Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style’ to Scott Schuman’s approach to fashion in the blog, The Sartorialist. Both have brought expertise and a touch of something special to their industry. What each one creates is a reflection of his artistry but also something larger than the artist himself. To put too fine a point on it, they have style.

If there was one word for the way Dreyer has written this modern guide for prose, it would be “approachable.” If there were two words I’d add “practical.” The book is a bit like a dictionary mixed with a glossary mixed with a comic strip without pictures, all sprinkled with witty phrases that take on a memoir-like quality. It’s a bowl of mixed nuts—full of nutrition, variety, and just a little salty.

It’s just the kind of thing a person might actually read if they truly needed to improve their writing. The advice he provides and rules he explains are not only useful but memorable. And if the book weren’t memorable enough, there’s now a game you can play to stay sharp.

That being said, it’s also the kind of book you’ll want to have around for reference, for the sake of remembering how many l’s are in the word skulduggery, and whether or not the word is in vogue (it is). As such, you might not find yourself reading it from first page to acknowledgements (which are thorough, btw, as is Dreyer’s wont), but every page is a treat.

In the vein of poking a little fun at the serious art of prose, this book reminds me of an amusing song commissioned for my friend who is a professional copy editor. The song was written by Trevor Strong of the Arrogant Worms, and if you like this bit of musical creativity, Trevor still writes personalized songs. You can commission your own at this link.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read:

  • If you love words and how they’re used
  • If you appreciate footnotes, particularly if they’re used to convey wit
  • If you can’t remember how to spell most things, and autocorrect be damned!
  • If you find yourself correcting the grammar and spell checkers that come with word processing software

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

If Pinterest Were a Book: ‘Domino: Your Guide to a Stylish Home’ by Jessica Romm Perez and Shani Silver

Magazine lovers, this one is for you. And not just lovers of Domino Magazine, but magazine readers of all kinds, especially lifestyle. If SNL’s Zillow parody is any indication of what Americans like to do in their spare time, then a book that teaches you how to design your living space without talking down to you is sure to be a popular read.

What this book has going for it is the format. Authors Jessica Romm Perez and Shani Silver draw on their experience as editors of Domino Magazine and have funneled their expertise into not one but two books. Both are beautiful, hardbound books with a silk ribbon to keep your place, and thick cardstock pages full of vibrant pictures and practical lists, especially the one at the end that includes suppliers for all of your design needs.

Strangely, volume 1, ‘The Book of Decorating’ feels a little more like Intermediate Level Interior Design 201 where volume 2 takes the approach: “Hey, you do you, and here are some ideas!”

For example, you’ve probably attended plenty of parties with cheese plates, and maybe you’ve even brought cheese to a party, but do you know how to construct a cheese plate? They’ve got tips for that. And what about house plants–do you really know what each plant is called or how much light it needs, or do you read the little tags sticking out of the pots like the rest of us. They’ve got tips for that too.

This book is a bit like sitting on a porch on a summer evening with a light breeze, chatting with friends casually, sharing ideas and getting DIY style advice while sipping Rosé . While that may sound like a trope in and of itself, try removing the stereotypes. Then, it sounds sweet, relaxing, a little joyful, and refreshing. That is the experience this book can create sans summer and friends who aren’t in your pandemic pod.

Meanwhile, this book allows me the most perfect opportunity to introduce you to the musical you didn’t know you needed to hear. In one of the many sidebars where ‘Your Guide to a Stylish Home’ gives specific tips, they mention the possibility of using “turkish hand towels as a refreshing twist from terry cloth” which reminded me of the gem, “Towel of a Song: a documentary-musical.” When faced with no other way to adequately convey his sensory journey, Tom Howell decided to write a musical about purchasing Turkish towels, and it is pure entertainment. (Note: there is an intro, so if you’d like to skip right to the singing, start at 3:15.)

Though lighthearted, the true passion for aesthetic and function in Tom Howell’s musical is what you’ll find on the pages of the Domino books.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read:

  • If you’re not really into Martha Stewart but you’d still like to know what you’re doing when it comes to entertaining
  • You binge watch home improvement shows
  • You’re inspired by bright colors, textures, and unusual shapes
  • You always wanted to be an interior designer but got talked into a different major when you went to college
  • You love Domino Magazine and want more

Photo Credit: Simon & Schuster

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 That Feels Like an Imaginary Friend: ‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue’ by V.E. Schwab

‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue’ by V.E. Schwab is a story that feels so special you’ll want to keep it a secret. But you can’t because it seems everyone already knows about this book. In case you haven’t stumbled across this novel, know this: you’ll want to savor every word to make it last.

Reading this book will feel like a new lover, like limerence. You’ll want to talk to this story, and in its own way, the story will talk back. This is why this book will be your imaginary friend. If you’ve ever felt like no one notices you, that the world moves in rhythms you can’t mimic or match, you will feel seen by this book. Incredibly, the novel’s premise and the novel’s aesthetic are one and the same. It will feel like an imaginary friend because meeting Addie LaRue is like having an imaginary friend.

If this book could be distilled in to a poem, that poem would be the song ‘J’arrive à la ville’ by Lhasa De Sela. Listen to the song and then, if you’re not fluent in French, read a translation of the lyrics.

It’s a bit uncanny the way Addie’s story is mirrored in the lyrics. Particularly, the part of her “Invisible Life” that follows her through France as she grapples with the reality of immortality by way of invisibility.

As the reader, you’ll feel like Addie’s only companion, which will draw you further into her world and her confidence. Lhasa Del Sela’s melancholic voice holds the same sort of sorrow that Addie feels as everyone in her life forgets her. In both the song and the novel, this sorrow is dignified and points to a deep inner strength.

For a story about a French woman who has nothing, I would offer, almost as a gift, that the culinary companion to this novel should be a baguette. A simple, textured food that feels nourishing, a baguette can be meal or snack, served plain or with cheese, or as a sandwich, or with chocolate. A baguette, in its versatility, represents the joy and hope this story contains.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read:

  • If you are a Francophile, art lover, book lover, and/or lover of the difficult to explain
  • If you appreciate LGBTQ love stories
  • If you appreciate nondualistic descriptions of very old concepts
  • If you appreciate clever characters
  • If you appreciate modern ways of thinking applied to settings from the past

Photo Credit: Indie Bound, Publisher Tor Books