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

August 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

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

The Beijing Diaries, Day 11: Farewell

December 4, 2012 in China, Travel

November 16

Can’t believe it. My 11-day visit to Beijing has come to an end.

My final day in the Chinese capital was a short one. I didn’t even bother grabbing some crap buffet breakfast in the basement of the hotel before checking out and hopping into a car headed for the airport. Out of fear of missing my flight, I gave myself an-hour-and-a-half from my hotel to the airport, but smooth traffic got me there in barely over 30 minutes.

My driver (from the same car company that took me to the Great Wall a couple of days earlier) wasn’t much of a talker, but he continually expressed shock over the fact that China allowed Japanese reporters to enter the country to cover the 18th National Congress.

“How dare they?!” he would say over and over, reminding me that every piece of land in the world claimed by China is, in fact, owned by China. “China’s just too big. We don’t have time to look after everything so people steal our land.”

Gotta love the locals.

I checked in at Terminal 3, which, I mentioned before, is supposed to be the largest airport terminal in the world. Again, I didn’t get that feeling at all, but I was impressed with the security. Not only did they get me to take out my laptop, they also asked me to take out my iPad, keys and coins from my bag and patted me down for good measure. My bag went through the machines three times and I twice. It can be annoying but at least you know you’re safe.

I started reflecting on my rare trip to China while seated at a Costa Coffee, sipping on an awesome lemonade (but passed on the exorbitantly priced Evian mineral waters which cost something ridiculous like 19 yuan (AU$2.92) – not crazy compared to the $5 mineral waters in Sydney but a lot considering local mineral water bottles cost around 1-4 yuan, as water should).

It has been a rare experience indeed the last week and a half. It’s rare to have the opportunity to see China’s leaders all together in a room and up close (once every five years, in fact) and even rarer to witness a Chinese leadership transition in person (once every 10 years).

It was challenging to work long, unusual hours and travelling on the crowded metro, and even more challenging being away from my young family, but I also got to meet a lot of interesting reporters from all over the world, sampled some delicious Peking duck, stayed in possibly the cheapest hotel I have ever stayed in and visited a couple of iconic tourist sites. And not even a single bout of food poisoning.

At that moment, all I wanted to do was to go home, kiss my wife and son and rest, but I’m sure in a few weeks, months or years from now I’ll look back and realize what a once-in-a-lifetime privilege this was.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 10 (Part I): Say Hi to China’s New Leaders

November 28, 2012 in China, Travel

Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and a bunch of other old guys

November 15

My Beijing trip is finally drawing to a close, and even though I as on a work assignment I intended for my last full day in the Chinese capital to be one of enjoyment and sightseeing.

But first, there was one thing left to write about: China’s new leadership lineup. Yesterday’s closing ceremony at the 18th National Congress saw the unveiling of the Communist Party’s new 205-member Central Committee. Today, the committee was going to conduct it’s first plenary session and “elect” the members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, effectively China’s highest ruling body. The new lineup would then be introduced to the media at a press conference at the Great Hall of the People.

The previous standing committee had 9 members, and this time there had been swirling rumours that it would be reduced to 7. Many papers had already “leaked” the names of the 7 members, of which five would be new members (only new party leader Xi Jinping and future premier Li Keqiang were returning as the others were all forced to retire due to age).

As I mentioned before, I was not invited to this event, so I had to watch it from the comfort of my hotel room. Like yesterday, the press conference began about an hour later than scheduled, but also like yesterday, there were no other surprises.

No one knows how the Communist Party really operates behind closed doors, but they did emphasize over and over that the members of the standing committee were going to be “elected” by the central committee that morning. And yet, the seven men who walked onto the stage in identical black suits and red ties shortly before noon were exactly the seven that had been supposedly “decided” by the party last month as reported by foreign media, including our own paper. Coincidence?

Nevertheless, I have to say I was very impressed with the speech given by new party general secretary Xi Jinping. Even with the eyes of the world all over him, Xi was cool and calm, and delivered a well rounded speech that sounded genuine and nothing like his predecessor, the monotonous cyborg known as Hu Jintao. Maybe China does have a bright future after all.

The great thing about the predictability of Chinese politics is that I had basically written 85% of my article before the press conference even began. And so within 15 minutes of the press conference finishing I had already sent out my 600 word article, meaning the remainder of the afternoon was going to be absolutely free. At last.

 
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