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January 30, 2007



The Audacity of Hope, By Barack Obama

It's easy to see why The Audacity of Hope quickly shot up to the top of the bestseller list. In a refreshing voice, presidential hopeful Barack Obama gives readers a blueprint of his view that America requires "a different kind of politics."

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Coming off as an earnest – if somewhat wide-eyed – new senator, Obama gives sweeping assessments of the country's intractable concerns: healthcare, education, and energy. Obama advocates, for instance, for universal healthcare, but leaves the details to be ironed out. If he decides to push beyond an exploratory presidential bid, the generalities won't be enough. But his writing is at least refreshingly free of the vitriol and nuanced policy positions that characterize the debates in Washington.

Obama takes on the most divisive topics in America, such as race and social issues, in a way that shows respect for alternate views. A constituent who has problems with Obama's pro-choice position on abortion receives a personal letter from the Senate candidate. On race, he's firmly in favor of affirmation action, but notes how "many Americans disagree ... arguing that our institutions should never take race into account. Fair enough – I understand their arguments."

Obama aims, too, for Americans to relate to the woes of politicians by placing them on a basic human level. Politicians are driven to win, not only by ambition, but also because they fear the humiliation of losing. "It's impossible not to feel at some level as if you have been personally repudiated by the entire community." Obama says he still "burns" over the "drubbing" he took in 2000, when he lost by 31 points to incumbent US Rep. Bobby Rush (D) of Illinois.

In several other places, Obama is surprisingly candid, opening up about vulnerabilities, such as his discomfort at spending time away from his family and the role that his Christian faith plays in his life. He describes the search for meaning that led him to be baptized as an adult. But unresolved questions and sensitivity on faith matters dogged him during his Senate race. While debating opponent Alan Keyes, Obama was thrown by Keyes's statement that he wasn't a true Christian partly because of his support for abortion rights. "I was frequently tongue-tied, irritable, and uncharacteristically tense" while debating Keyes, he writes. It leaves one wondering how he'd handle a more formidable opponent.

Yet the openness and eloquence with which Obama shares his personal story interwoven with his broad vision for America is compelling. For those who have been disillusioned by the divisiveness of politics, Obama inspires.
Ari Pinkus

Three books about slavery

When Columbia University professor Saidiya Hartman decided to retrace the steps of her ancestors in their forced migration from Ghana to the United States, she was also seeking to affirm something about her own identity. As it turned out, Hartman's trip to Africa included a number of disappointments, but that doesn't make Lose Your Mother, her account of her trip, any less powerful. A compelling mix of memoir and history, "Lose Your Mother" successfully combines a personal story with a larger look at the painful topic of slavery.

On the evening of April 15, 1848, 77 escaped slaves boarded a schooner named the Pearl and set sail from Washington, D.C., hoping to reach freedom in the North. Escape on the Pearl by Mary Kay Ricks tells of the remarkable twists and turns that marked the long odyssey of the passengers of the Pearl. Focusing on the stories of two young sisters who were among the escapees – and who ultimately attended Oberlin College under the sponsorship of Harriet Beecher Stowe – Ricks brings to life a story of heroism and a dark and complex chapter of American history.

She was only 16, but in 1741 a white indentured servant girl named Mary Burton was able to throw Manhattan into an uproar with claims that she knew of a plot by black men to burn New York. The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York by novelist Mat Johnson is a fascinating look at the madness that gripped the city – and the jailings and executions that ensued – before some began to suspect that Burton might be lying in an attempt to gain her own freedom.
Marjorie Kehe

Readers' picks

I'm reading William Trevor's The Collected Stories. Trevor's preoccupation with failure can be overwhelming, but his prose is so calm and precise that these stories resonate long after they've been read.
– Sean Long, Altamonte Springs, Fla.

In Ghost Warrior, storyteller Lucia St. Clair Robson introduces Lozen, a heroic Apache woman warrior who joins her brother Victorio and Geronimo as they defend their people from US and Mexican encroachment. Rich in the details and action that bring a story to life, "Ghost Warrior" also describes the US military men involved in the Indian wars.
– Anita Alvarez, Boulevard, Calif.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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