Memoirs of a different time

Today I am beginning a new series writing about the books I have completed. At the end of each month I will provide a very brief description of the content and convey my impressions of the work. I do not intend these blogs to be book reviews; rather I hope they generate interest, or not, in something you had not considered or had your eyes on since the book was released.

I am a collector of first printing Canadian literature, a number of which are signed by the author. I own an extensive collection but have read only about a third. I continue to purchase, new and used, making them my first choice when I am looking for something new to indulge my reading pleasure. I have my favourite authors (Miriam Toews, Helen Humphries, Craig Davidson, Michael Redhill/Inger Ashe Wolfe) from whom I immediately purchase and consume everything they have published. Simultaneously, I am building a selection of baseball books which have become my preferred non-fiction genre for summer enjoyment. None of the first three books of 2021 match any of these criteria, making January an unusual reading month for me.

I received A Promised Land as a Christmas gift from Olga. In our home, regardless of whatever else is purchased, everyone receives a book. This 700 page tome is intimidating at the first flip through the pages. The print is small, the paragraphs long, and the dialogue minimal. I expected it would take me weeks to complete (being a slow reader), anticipating I would put it aside and peruse something else in between sections for a break. Once I started, however, I could not put the book down grabbing it at every spare moment of the day. The book is so well written, it’s length was a non-issue forgotten in the magnificent prose. He utilized “impact” properly as a noun and only once included a derivation (impactful…one of my literary pet peeves). Obama used the word “torpor”. West Wing fans will recall a debate about including it in a speech, those against arguing people would not understand its meaning. Jed Bartlett settled the decision declaring, “they can look it up”.

Indeed, reading this book was akin to watching West Wing which seemed to have played out years earlier many of the scenarios depicted in Obama’s biography during his time in the White House. The memoir starts with the idealism of fresh players in Washington becoming frustrated when much of their legislative intentions are compromised in order to make only incremental change. Obama provides considerable context to each situation, explaining arguments of competing sides, before delving into the actions and ending each chapter with honest, personal reflections. It is both a reminder and a primer of the major events in America during his first four years in office. I am anxiously looking forward to volume 2 (yes, this is the planned first of two).

Having enjoyed A Promised Land, I was curious about Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, published a few years earlier. It became an instant bestseller breaking all first week records for sales, only to be surpassed by Barack Obama’s own. Olga and I read the entire 421 pages out loud to each other in the span of a couple weeks.

The book is much more personal, detailing the thoughts and emotions and development of Michelle from her very early days growing up on the southside of Chicago, through her brief stint as a corporate lawyer, to her marriage and eventual First Lady of the United States. We got an insight into the life of a woman of colour striving to find her true calling in a country where the positions of power and influence are dominated by white males. Her analysis of the politics of Washington and the foreshadowing of recent events are prescient.

Becoming is also a complement to A Promised Land because Michelle reveals considerable detail into the personality of Barack himself. Combined, the two books are a compelling read into America’s first Black president. The book stands on it’s own as well. Olga and I would highly recommend it, suggesting couples might consider reading it out loud to each other.

The final book for January was also a Christmas present, this one from Olena and Daniel. Olena has found various ways to support my aspirations to write more, including a notebook and a previous book on writing workshops. I started Stephen King’s, On Writing, after completing Obama’s memoir and as my evening entertainment when Olga and I retreated to our solo readings before bed.

King has some helpful advice on writing even if I question his dislike of descriptive prose and disdain for the use of unfamiliar vocabulary. His contempt for adverbs spans several pages in the section on the Toolbox, and we are constantly reminded of his opinion afterwards. The point is valid and the example of an edited first draft helps an aspiring writer look more critically at his/her work. Advice on second readers, the timing for revision and how to become published all have merits worth considering.

I did not enjoy the writing at all. The tone and the language resembled that of a nineteen year old who thinks vulgarity and macho imagery are appropriate descriptors. A number of his metaphors do not stand up well today. If he decides to publish a fourth edition, the editors would be advised to slash a number of those incriminating sections. I had not read a Stephen King novel before and this book did not entice me to seek them out.

In February I will be exploring new books to celebrate Black History month. I welcome any suggestions. Till then, happy reading.

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