Book Review: ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card

October 23, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

EndersGameCover

After being thoroughly dissatisfied with last year’s Ender’s Game (review here), the long-awaited big screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 military sci-fi novel, I was advised to give the source material a try, with assurances that it will be “much much better.”

Well, I finally had a chance to get around to it. The book is indeed better than the novel — I don’t think anyone disputes that — though I must admit that I don’t quite get why so many people love the book to death. In a fascinating introduction to the book written in 1991, Card acknowledges that Ender’s Game divided readers, but many of those who loved it thought it was a life-changing book that got them through some tough times.

For me, Ender’s Game was an interesting read but not a particularly impressive one. Perhaps I needed to have read it when I was a child, or at least much closer to Ender’s age than I am today, or maybe I’m just not quite on the same wavelength as Card (I suspect it is a bit of both). Either way, while I was engaged by the book I don’t think the story ultimately resonated with me the way it has with countless others.

Like the movie adaptation I watched last year, Ender’s Game is set in a future where humanity is engaged in a protracted war with insect-like aliens known as “buggers”. The buggers attacked Earth, causing catastrophic damage, but mankind was saved when a brilliant pilot by the name of Mazer Rackham found a way to destroy the enemy fleet, earning humans a short term victory. Now, the International Fleet is recruiting gifted children in the hopes of training them up to become future saviours, and Ender Wiggin is selected to enter Battle School for training, where he quickly excels to become humanity’s best and last hope.

Reading the book, I understood why the film adaptation took so long to be realized. Apart from the special effects that were needed, the adaptation was made difficult because Ender is so young at the beginning of the book (7 years old) and is just 11 by the time the book ends.

To make the adaptation work, The filmmakers made Ender much older (Asa Butterfield was already about 15 when they shot the film) and dramatically condensed Ender’s Time at Battle School. Key characters such as Ender’s sister Valentine and his brother Peter were basically written out of the film completely. Unfortunately, these changes gutted the film, and other aspects could not do enough to compensate.

On the other hand, I was surprised that the book failed to address some of my biggest issues with the movie. I thought the film did a horrendous job in conveying what the kids were doing in the Battle Rooms, which frustrated me because I had no idea what they were doing or trying to accomplish. But now, I realise it’s because the book isn’t exactly clear either. You get bits and pieces, like how to win a game and how to disarm opponents, etc, but there are still so many missing slabs that you never feel like you know enough to be truly immersed in their world.

The other major problem is that the entire premise of using child geniuses to fight a war is a shaky one. I bought into it after having Card repeatedly beat into my head that Ender and his cohort are the best the entire world has to offer, as well as numerous reminders from the characters that these are not “normal” children. But I can certainly understand why some readers just couldn’t swallow the story.

My issue was less with the premise and more with the actions of the children, in particular the Wiggins trio of Ender, Valentine and Peter. Even when I accept that they are extraordinary children I still have difficulty believing many of the things they are capable of. I guess that is why I believe I would have received the book very differently had I read it as a child.

That is not to say that the book is without merit. For starters, the central idea itself is quite brilliant, and Card does not waste the golden opportunity to make some astute observations about human nature and the way we perceive children.

Secondly, Card’s writing is strong and confident, such that you tend to not question (at least not immediately) the plausibility of his narrative. There is an enviable clarity and simplicity to his voice and style; even though the sci-fi terms can sometimes get a little technical, Card appears to have the uncanny ability to always explain things in the most straightforward manner.

Thirdly, Card does an excellent job of developing Ender’s character, which is not easy considering that he is not a normal child nor your typical protagonist. Yet, Card makes us care about Ender and empathize with his plight. The book is at its most engaging — by far — when Ender is put through one grueling challenge after another and is pushed to the limit, both physically and emotionally, while trying to cope with the stresses of training as well as the jealousy and prejudice of his fellow cadets. Notwithstanding how unlikely the situations are, there is an air of genuineness about the interactions between the characters.

Overall, I can’t say I was fully satisfied with Ender’s Game, even though there were sections I either really enjoyed or thought were executed with impressive skill and creativity. I think the book ends on an apt note, so I have no interest in checking out any of its sequels.

3.5/5

Book Review: ‘Undisputed Truth’ by Mike Tyson

September 19, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Boxing, Reviews, Sport by pacejmiller

undisputed-truth-my-autobiography

Love him or loathe him, Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth is not just one of the best sports-themed books I’ve ever read. It’s not even just one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. It’s one of the best books I’ve read, period.

That’s a big call for a book written by a convicted rapist, notorious ear-biter and school drop-out with arguably the most renowned lisp in the world, but I’m sticking with it. Undisputed Truth is fascinating, it’s explosive, it’s horrifying and it’s downright hilarious. In fact, I’m fairly certain I have laughed out loud from reading this book more times than any other book I’ve ever read.

I don’t know if this is a comparison anyone has made, but Undisputed Truth reminds me of another one of my favourite books, Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. Both are about the real-life wild and wacky adventures of athletes who love girls and drugs, told with an unflinching honesty and often veering into extremely dark territory.

However, while The Basketball Diaries is a short book traverses only a portion of Carroll’s adolescence, Undisputed Truth is a monster (but swift) 592 pages covering Tyson’s entire life up to last year. And while Carroll was a pretty good basketball player and womanizer, he was never the “baddest man alive” or a world class sex machine like Tyson (who would have given Wilt Chamberlain a run for his money as he was notoriously undiscriminating when it came to his partners).

So what makes Undisputed Truth an all-time read? Well for starters, Tyson does not hold back at all. He absolutely pours his heart out, infusing every page with his damaged soul. The unique voice is pure raw emotion and distinctively Tyson, and you can almost picture Tyson spewing the words out as they are recorded by his co-writer Larry Sloman (best known for Howard Stern’s Private Parts). The narrative is fluid, albeit occasionally rambling and often contradictory (for instance, Tyson goes on about turning into a devout Muslim, only to say on the next page that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife), but at the same time it is always coherent and sharp. Besides, Tyson is so messed up, even right now, that a little craziness is expected.

I don’t want to give away too many golden nuggets from the book, so I’ll just give a very brief overview to provide an idea of what’s in store. The autobiography begins with an introduction that describes one of the most pivotal moments in Tyson’s life — the sentencing for his rape charge — before taking readers right back to the beginning of his troubled and dysfunctional childhood in Brownsville, one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the Bronx. And it’s an unimaginable childhood for most of us, one completely devoid of love and hope. Those early portions of the book are difficult to swallow, but they are also essential to understanding the man Tyson would become.

tyson cus

Tyson and the man who changed his life, Cus D’Amato

Tyson’s life makes a dramatic turn when he meets Cus D’Amato, the hard-nosed trainer who would transform Tyson from a scared little punk kid into the heavyweight champion of the world. Cus was far from perfect, but Tyson loved him unlike anyone else he has loved in his entire life, and you can truly feel that love flow through the pages as Tyson describes their relationship and what the old man means to him. One can only imagine how Mike Tyson’s legacy would have turned out — both in and out of the ring — had D’Amato not died as Tyson zoned in on the heavyweight title.

Tyson’s rise through the ranks, from amateur to professional, is one of the most exciting aspects of the book. People tend to take his success for granted and attribute it to his natural gifts, but Tyson was one of the hardest, most obsessive workers I have ever seen in any sport, shadowboxing literally for hours, devouring classic fight tapes and reading everything he could get his hands on about the all-time greats.

I had not expected this, but Tyson literally describes every single one of his professional bouts (and many of his key amateur bouts too), including the lead-up, the fight itself and how it ended — and what was going through his mind the whole time. I loved this about the book and the insights it provided into the psyche of a Hall-of-Fame boxer, and it also shed light on a lot of Tyson’s performances because he admittedly wasn’t in shape or motivated for many of them, especially later in his career when all he wanted was another paycheck. For me, the best part about his detailed analysis of the bouts is being able to go straight to YouTube to watch the spectacular fights right after reading his take on them.

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Mike Tyson with Evander Holyfield, back in the day when both ears were in tact

Tyson’s later decline and bad losses may tarnish his legacy, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he was unbeatable in his prime if he was motivated and had his head on straight (two very big IFs). He was just so ferocious, so quick and so powerful that he often beat opponents psychologically even before stepping into the ring. But the loss of Cus to keep him in line and the introduction of Don King to his life, not to mention all the money and the women and the drugs, eventually took their toll on his mind and body, and he was simply never the same again.

It would be wrong, however, to be under the impression that Undisputed Truth is only about boxing. Many of my favourite parts of the book are about Tyson’s life outside of the ring. He was just an insane spender who had no idea what to do with the millions and millions of dollars he was raking in (and this excludes the millions and millions others ripped off  him without his knowledge). The fleets of luxury cars, sports cars, the custom-made bling and outfits, the entire house adorned with Versace, and even keeping real tigers as pets. He was literally giving away money to poor people left and right, and that’s not even taking into account all the real and bogus legal claims he has had to settle (often just random strangers coming up to his house with fake injuries or people off the street trying to bait him into a fight) and the millions he has spent on lawyer fees. It’s no surprise that despite all the money he has made in his career, Tyson still ended up being dead broke.

Tyson threw away all his money, sometimes literally

Tyson threw away all his money, sometimes literally

Tyson’s brushes with celebrities are also a highlight of the book. There are so many priceless celebrity anecdotes littered throughout the book, including classic stories about Naomi Campbell, Prince and Eddie Murphy as well as crazy brushes with guys like Rick James, Wesley Snipes, and of course, the infamous encounter with Brad Pitt. They tend to be short, but they are always pure gold, and reminds us just how famous Tyson was back in his heyday, and that shockingly, it wasn’t until his cameo in The Hangover that completely turned his life around. Funnily enough, despite working with a convicted rapist like Tyson, the cast and crew of the sequel collectively vetoed the decision to do the same with anti-Semite Mel Gibson.

Another inescapable part of Tyson’s life was the women. My god, the women. After not knowing how to even approach a girl as a teen, Tyson was propositioned by thousands and thousands of women after becoming rich and famous, and he never quite figured out how to say no. A lot of this stuff is extremely crude, but it’s also extremely funny because of how low Tyson would stoop. Oldies, fatties, uglies — it didn’t matter to him. He speaks of those days of debauchery with shame — including all the STDs he picked up along the way — but the way he describes his way of thinking and his actions at the time is gut-bustingly funny stuff. At one stage he even apologizes to his readers for having to put up with his antics.

When it comes to women and Tyson, however, it’s impossible not to mention two names — his first wife Robin Givens, who accused him of domestic violence, and beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington, whose allegations of rape sent Tyson to prison for three years. Tyson is a little coy when it comes to Givens, the actress he says he fell head over heels for but believed she was a manipulative gold digger along with her mother Ruth, whom he affectionately calls “Ruthless”. He never directly denies the domestic violence allegations but says multiple times that her claims are all BS. 

As for Washington, Tyson says he is prohibited from discussing his case in detail due to British laws, though he strongly insinuates that he is innocent and insists that he will maintain his innocence to his grave. Everyone will have their own views on this case, but based on my readings of Undisputed Truth and other sources I followed up on, I think there is no doubt Tyson got screwed in court.

Now, I’m not saying for one second that I believe Tyson is innocent — only he and Washington know what happened — but I do find it shocking that he was convicted based on the lacklustre evidence that was available and adduced at court. The truth is, if the accused was not someone as universally loathed as Mike Tyson, he probably would have walked away. But all the stars aligned at the wrong time for him: (1) Don King used his prudish tax lawyer to represent Tyson in a rape case, and the dimwit probably did the worst job imaginable, including not using the lack of physical evidence to their advantage; (2)  an admitted Tyson-hater somehow slipped through the cracks to not only get on the jury, but become the jury foreman; (3) rape shield laws prevented evidence of Washington’s earlier false rape allegation made against a former boyfriend and witnesses who could have shattered the innocent and naive image she created by detailing her sordid sexual past; and (4) the fact that she signed secret book and movie deals around the same time she made her accusations public was not enough to earn Tyson an appeal.

mike tyson prison

Having said all that, my personal guess is that Tyson probably was guilty under the legal definition of rape, because no matter how much Washington pursued Tyson and bragged about spending his money as “Mrs Tyson”, all she had to do was say “No” at any time during the ordeal for consent to be taken away. It didn’t matter that she obviously lied about having no idea that Tyson wanted sex when he invited her up to his room in the middle of the night, or that she curiously went into the bathroom to remove a liner from her underwear before the incident took place. She may have initially wanted to go through with it and changed her mind at the last moment, but Tyson was too much of a reckless animal to hear or sense her terrified opposition.

If she did falsely accuse him, I believe the intent came not before but after, when she furiously realized that she was just another piece of meat that Tyson was tossing away after he was done with it. That’s why I also don’t doubt at all that Tyson honestly believes he is innocent, which is why he turned down an opportunity at an early release because he simply refused to apologize to her — just an apology, not even an admission of guilt. In any case, the rape case is a fascinating part of the book, and I would recommend everyone to read up about it as much as they can before making their own judgment.

That was heavy.

The book slows down towards the end and becomes more contemplative, as Tyson’s drug and alcohol abuse, sex addiction, accumulated boxing injuries and uncontrollable fury prevent him from having any semblance of a real life. In the end, it’s his love for his current wife and the loss of one of his children in a tragic accident that keep him from completely falling off the wagon, though as he concedes in the book’s postscript it’s still an ongoing battle he’s taking one day at a time. Just as I was finishing the book I read elsewhere about Tyson’s latest implosion on Canadian television during an interview, confirming that no matter how much therapy he receives his demons will likely follow him until the day he dies.

It’s strange, because despite wasting all his talent and hard work and throwing away all the fruits of his success, I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. On the other hand, even Tyson’s staunchest defenders would concede that he is a destructive individual with loathsome qualities — and that’s even if you believe he is innocent of rape. You can defend his actions to some extent because of his horrific upbringing, the toxic environment and people he grew up with, and the constant bullying and abuse he suffered as a child, but apologizing for Mike Tyson can only go so far because there are some things he has done — things he readily admits to in the book — that are simply inexcusable at any level of human decency.

Tyson understands this himself and appears genuinely remorseful at times (though at other times he remains defensive), attributing his insanity to the combustible combination of a massive ego and extremely low self-esteem. He was born in the gutter, and no matter how much success and money he achieved throughout his career, he still believed that he belonged in the gutter, which is why he could never put an end to his self-destructive tendencies.

That’s why I say you cannot treat Tyson like a real person if you want to truly enjoy this book. It’s a strange comparison, but I like to think of him as Homer Simpson — a character you find endearing in spite of, and maybe even because of, his anti-social qualities, but would hate if you knew such a person in real life. Everyone probably has an opinion on Tyson, both as a boxer and as a man, and neither might be flattering. But don’t let your prejudices get in the way of one of the best books you might ever read.

5/5

Orange is the New Black: Book vs TV Series

August 26, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

OTNB

They say the truth is stranger than fiction, but that’s not the case with Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the inspiration for Netflix’s hit series of the same name.

Orange is the New Black, the TV show, was last year’s best new series, full of wonderful characters, witty humour and compelling drama. It was intriguing, exciting and dangerous, while at the same time making some insightful comments about society, human nature and the US prison system. The second season, which aired earlier this year, started off a little slow, but by the end of it I was convinced that it was just as good, if not better, than the first season.

It was with such high expectations that I decided to read the book on which the series is based. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison details how Piper Kerman (Piper Chapman in the show) served 13 months of her 15-month drug trafficking sentence at FCI Danbury, a minimum security prison in Connecticut. I wanted to find out more behind-the-scenes stuff and learn about what the “real” Piper is like, but instead the book turned out to be a strange and disappointing read. There were familiar names and characters, and a few incidents here and there that I vaguely recognized, but for the most part the book and the show could not be more different.

To be honest, the book was a so much less interesting and boring than the show, which says two things: 1. Women’s prison in real life is nowhere near as dangerous or exciting as the show makes it out to be; and 2. The people who make the TV show are geniuses for creating such compelling television from this source material.

The book, published in 2010, is a fairly straightforward, mostly chronological memoir with 18 chapters for a total of 327 pages (paperback). It begins with some early details of Kerman’s life and how she got into a lesbian relationship with a drug smuggler, and how that dalliance came back to bite her a decade later when she was charged for her minor role in the drug ring. After making a plea bargain, she is sent to Danbury for 15 months, while her fiance Larry (played by Jason Biggs in the show) waits for her patiently on the outside.

The central narrative is Kerman’s individual experience, and each chapter deals with different aspects of minimum-security prison life, whether it is her fellow inmates, their families, strip searches, wardens, prison workshops, labour or meal time. Kerman is a fairly good writer and knew exactly what kind of book she wanted to write, and many of her observations are astute and reflective, especially those about how poorly the US justice and prison systems are run. There are dashes of humour, but most of the book is dedicated to documenting her journey of self-discovery, the people she met and how she came to accept responsibility for her actions, and in doing so became a stronger, better person.

Piper Kerman, right, with Taylor Schilling, the actress who portrays her in Orange is the New Black

Piper Kerman, right, with Taylor Schilling, the actress who portrays her

Fans of the TV show will recognise many of the names in the book (most of which were changed from their real life counterparts). Of course there’s Piper and Larry, but a lot of the other characters on the show are completely new inventions or a mish-mash of people from the book. Alex (played by Laura Prepon), for example, is Nora, and she never sets foot in Danbury. Characters with names like Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) exist, but they are different people, while Red (Kate Mulgrew) is known as Pop in the book (though there is another Red) and “Pornstache” (Pablo Schreiber) is known by the significantly less witty nickname of Gay Pornstar. Kerman’s relationship with each of these characters is also nothing like they are in the series. In other words, don’t read the book if you are looking to learn more about the series.

After two seasons and 26 episodes of around 50-60 minutes in length (and another season coming), the TV show has outgrown its source material. In the book, we only see things from Piper’s perspective, and even her closest friends in the prison are only given brief intros. As a result, we don’t get to know them as well as we do in the series, and we don’t care about them nearly as much. It’s not a knock on the book or Kerman’s writing, just an inevitable truth that comes with a more expansive and dynamic medium.

More importantly, the book sticks largely to the facts (as far as we know), whereas the TV series has been given free rein to exaggerate and embellish. This is why, after seeing how much conflict and danger and backstabbing and sex there is in the show, I got bored reading the extremely bland lifestyle in Danbury, where the most exciting thing for the inmates was wondering whether Martha Stewart would be sent there (she wasn’t). At Danbury, Kerman was rarely involved in any conflict with other inmates (if at all), and there were few suggestions that other inmates were in conflicts with one another. She was not starved, she was not beat up, she did not engage in a sexual relationship with anyone, and she certainly was never in danger of being stabbed or sent to the SHU. Good for her, but not so good for us readers expecting something more explosive and scandalous.

Ultimately, I found Orange is the New Black to be a solid read — nothing special but insightful enough to keep my attention. If you’re a big fan of the TV series like I am, however, it’s not a book I would recommend, especially if you think it might help you learn more about the characters or what might happen to them further down the track.

3/5

Book Review: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ by John Green

August 14, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

The-Fault-In-Our-Stars

It’s almost always a dilemma for me when a film adaptation of a popular novel is released. Do I read the book first or watch the movie first? I’m pretty sure this is something I have posted about on this blog many moons ago, and I still don’t know the answer.

This time, when faced with the agonizing decision between movie or novel version of The Fault in Our Stars by award-winning young adult writer John Green, I went with the novel first, partly out of necessity because I didn’t have enough time to watch movies not named Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (I’m serious).

I’m not much of a romance reader and I’m rarely emotionally gripped by a novel, but I admit The Fault in Our Stars got to me. Not right away, but slowly and gradually, and by the end of it all I was a bit of a mess. I can usually see through when I’m being manipulated by the author, so I thought I would be able to handle the book’s cancer-ridden themes, though in this case Green’s writing was so crafty that by the time I realized what was happening it was already too late.

The story itself is not groundbreaking in any way. Sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster is a thyroid cancer patient who is already living on borrowed time after being miraculously but temporarily spared from death. She begrudgingly attends support group, where she meets young amputee Augustus Waters. And so begins a courtship of two teenagers, one that’s strangely normal, typically awkward, but also incredibly sweet. A notable aspect of the tale is their shared love for a (fictional) novel called An Imperial Affliction, which sparks a search for the book’s reclusive writer halfway around the world.

So what is it that makes the fault in our stars a good read? Well, for starters, Hazel and Augustus are really likable people. They’re smart, they’re genuine and they have a great sense of humor. There are other — arguably more important — reasons too: Hazel supposedly looks like a young Natalie Portman, while Augustus is a former basketball star who happens to have an Indiana Pacers Rik Smits jersey. And if you have any idea how I feel about Natalie, Rik and the Pacers, you’ll understand why I enjoyed their company so much, and why I was perhaps a little biased.

The legend himself

The legend himself

Far from the beautiful, flawless protagonists from Twilight, Hazel carries around an oxygen tank with her at all times and is rarely seen without a tube under her nose, and Augustus of course has a prosthetic leg. They make a great couple.

And it’s not just them either. The minor characters, while generally in the background, are also well developed, especially the parents and the fellow cancer patients down at the support group. My favourite has to be Augustus’s best friend, Isaac, who is about to lose his eyesight and has the same wry humour as our star-crossed lovers.

What really surprised me about The Fault in Our Stars is that, as a book about cancer and death, it has a distinct lack of sappy melodrama. The way Green goes about the story is candid, realistic, with no trite sense of self pity (though even the most stoic of cancer sufferers have their moments). His prose is full of wit, just like his main characters, who, despite being teenagers, are incredibly level-headed and self-aware.

This is not to say Green makes light of cancer or cancer sufferers. But here, they are not heroes or warriors, nor are they weaklings — they are just ordinary people cursed with something they can’t control, doing whatever they can to cope. As a result, there is a subtle charm about this book that creeps up on you. I didn’t start off thinking, “Wow, what a great book, what great writing!” I actually recall early on thinking that it was pretty good, though I didn’t get what the fuss was all about. But at some stage I began to realize that I was emotionally involved in these characters’ lives, and I badly wanted them to make it against the odds.

I thought this was going to be quite a simple love story. On some levels, it is, but there are also many thought-provoking themes that will make you question what life is all about, what it means to be alive, and the legacies — whether big or small — that each of us leave behind when we die.

I was deeply touched by The Fault in Our Stars. I laughed, I (nearly) cried, and I thought about it a lot, even long after turning the last page. It’s a book I would recommend not only to young adults, but all readers.

4.5/5

PS: Can’t wait to see the movie.

‘Dreams from My Father’ & ‘The Audacity of Hope’ by Barack Obama

August 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Dreams_from_my_father

My plan to read a lot of books this year was derailed by Barack Obama. I started tackling his first book, Dreams from My Father (published way back in 1995), in early June, and I didn’t finish his second book, The Audacity of Hope (published 2006), until this week.

Like everyone fascinated with Obama’s rise to become America’s first black president, I had wanted to read both books for years, but I have to admit that I found parts of them, in particular Dreams, to be a little dry. Having said that, there are some marvellous insights and ideas in these books that help shed light on the type of man and leader Obama is, and the things that have shaped his political philosophies (which I admit I find myself aligned with regularly). And so I thought I’d tackle the reviews in a single post so I can compare and contrast them a little.

For starters, both books were written before Obama was first elected president in 2008. Dreams from My Father was offered to Obama because he had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and written at a time when he was just about to embark on a serious political career. It is first and foremost a memoir, a 442-page epic that traces his mixed-marriage birth, his unconventional upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii, as well as his African heritage.The latter portions of the book are about his foray into politics at the grassroots level, through community organizing and church groups.

It’s not entirely chronological and it’s also not a blow-by-blow account of Obama’s life, but you do get bits and pieces of information that paint a (somewhat incomplete) picture of his life. The subtitle of the book is A Story of Race and Inheritance, so naturally race is a central theme of the book that fuels much of the discussion he has with his readers.

Hope, on the other hand, at a leaner 363 pages, came about because Obama had become a US Senator and a rising star in the Democratic Party. It would be two years before he would rise to the presidency, but I assume at the time the book idea was tossed around it was envisioned that Obama would eventually run for president, with a solid chance of making history.

It’s a completely different book to Dreams in that it’s less about Obama’s life and upbringing and more about his political and spiritual beliefs as well as his views on different aspects of American culture. He doesn’t shy away from the controversial issues such as homosexuality, abortions and religion, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and he admits to taking drugs, including cocaine), though some readers may be frustrated because most of the time he simply outlines the complexities of the issues without expressing a clear cut view or providing concrete solutions (but let’s face it, who can?). The last chapter on family is really the only time in the book that Obama divulges sizable chunks of his personal life (only snippets before this), but it’s arguably the most honest and heartfelt chapter of both books.

True to their respective titles, Dreams is more more personal and centered around family, with a more contemplative, reflective tone, while Hope is more about his audacious vision for the country and filled with optimism about the future.

And so it was an interesting experience reading both books in the context of when and why they were written. It’s interesting because we know who this man will eventually become, and even in the decade or so between the two books were written we can see how much he has matured and evolved as a politician — from someone with grand ideals but apprehensions about a political career to someone who is all-in and much more aware of what compromises he has to make both in the office and at home to make it to the top. It also made me wonder what type of book Obama would pen now if had the opportunity, and whether he is now a lot more cynical and disillusioned with the whole thing.

But if Obama didn’t become the most powerful man in the world, would the books be just as interesting? Of course not. It’ll just be the life and opinions of another intelligent, articulate black man. It would still be insightful, but not nearly as exciting or compelling.

Obama’s writing is solid. He’s an excellent writer on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level, but his ability to piece together a clear narrative thread is sometimes lacking, particularly in Dreams. He also tends to be, as he admits, verbose at times, meaning the experience could be lacking if you are stuck reading a topic you don’t have a real interest in. These are common issues for most writers, especially first-time writers, which is why I feel Hope is the superior book. Given that the subject matter is more defined and written more like a series of essays rather than themed-biographies (ie, more up Obama’s alley), the voice is much stronger and more confident. You can tell he is trying to craft the persona of a future president, and when I read his words I could almost picture Obama saying them to a crowded room.

So, Dreams could have been even more personal, insightful and captivating, while Hope could have been bolder and contained more innovative solutions, but on the whole they are solid reads I’d recommend to people anywhere along the political spectrum, and together they paint an illuminating picture of who Barack Obama is and what he stands for. You might not agree with what he says or believes in, but anything that encourages positive political debate and discussion can’t be a bad thing.

Ratings:

Dreams from My Father – 3/5

The Audacity of Hope – 3.75/5

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