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Movie Review: “Trumbo”

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening day of the new film, Trumbo, at the Plaza Cinema in Manhattan. I was invited by my friend, Alan Klingenstein, one of the film’s producers, and it was indeed a pleasure, if a disturbing one. Trumbo, directed by Peter Asken, is a documentary about the great Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was caught up in the early fifties in the hysteria of the anti-Communist era in America. Called before the demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, Dalton Trumbo refused to name names and was consequently jailed and blacklisted by the Hollywood community. All this deprived him both of his place and his livelihood, but the greater psychological loss, I think, was his sense of betrayal by his friends and his country. He and his young family struggled for years afterward not only to survive, but with vicious ostracism. Trumbo did write a film here and there under assumed names, and he even won an Oscar for his work on “The Brave One,” but of course he couldn’t show up to claim the prize and it went unclaimed until the blacklist was finally lifted in 1960. I found the clips from the famous “I Am Spartacus!” scene in Spartacus, and also from The Brave One, The Sandpiper, Johnny Got His Gun and the Fixer among the most interesting parts of the film. How is art related to life? Here’s how. Into these films Trumbo inserted his beliefs about free speech, and themes of both betrayal and friendship. That these themes figured prominently in both his letters and his fiction shows how deeply he felt about them.

Trumbo was adapted from the play of the same name by son Christopher, and features emotional readings of letters written by the cantankerous, brilliant, witty Trumbo, many from jail, by a collection of extraordinary actor/celebrities including Liam Neeson, Paul Giametti, Nathan Lane, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Joan Allen, Donald Sutherland, and David Straithairn. All this is intermixed with frightening but familiar archival footage of the “Hollywood Ten” hearings stage-managed by Senator McCarthy, touching Trumbo home movie footage, personal photographs, and interviews with Trumbo’s daughter Mitzi, along with Christopher and many others who knew the man. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that somehow manages to be both informational and dramatic, and provides not only a compelling window into the struggles of this man and his family and others caught up in the Committee’s net, but also demonstrates the danger that demagogues who pray on unbridled fear pose for this country. Over and over in history, we have seen eras in which demagogues like McCarthy take control and whip this country into a frenzy, from the Red Scare of the early last century, to the Vietnam War, to the tenure of our current disastrous Administration. Why does this happen in our democracy? Is it something gullible in the American character? The film ought to be required viewing in every high school in America.

Congratulations to Alan.  Also check Alan’s new film venture at www.filmcatcher.com.

More guns, more death, more grief

Every day now, it seems, we have to eat more of the poisonous fruit that has grown out of the election and re-election of George Bush. Yesterday’s 5 to 4 decision by the Roberts Supreme Court endorsed a so-called “personal right to own guns,” and overturned precedent of seventy years. What happened to Roberts and Alito’s promises during their confirmation hearings that they would honor precedent whenever possible? We can’t have “activist” judges, conservatives scream.

The net effect will be more guns, more death, and more grief. More mothers and fathers will suffer unspeakably over the tragic and unnecessary deaths of their children. More sisters will grieve over brothers. More brothers will weep over sisters. More grandmothers and fathers will have to bear watching their children endure the worst possible thing that could happen to them. Perhaps the honorable Justices who think there should be MORE guns in this society and not fewer guns would like to provide funds for grief counseling for the victims of their decision, one which completely defies decency, reason, and common sense. Oh, I forgot, Congress provides funds.

According to Adam Liptak’s news analysis in today’s NY Times, the precedent in this case was a 1939 decision in which the Court, in United States v. Miller, upheld a federal prosecution for transporting a sawed-off shotgun. A Federal District Court had ruled that the provision of the National Firearms Act the Miller defendants were accused of violating was barred by the Second Amendment, but the Supreme court disagreed and reinstated the indictment. This was followed by decades and decades which a majority of “courts and commentators regarded the Miller decision as having rejected the individual-right interpretation of the Second Amendment.

The court’s slim decision is yet another in a long line of devastating and destructive decisions that have followed from the stacking of the Court with conservatives. Here’s NPR’s Nina Totenberg, writing a year ago, about this matter.

“For conservatives, this term was pretty close to the best of times, and for liberals, it was pretty close to the worst of times. Although Roberts and Alito both promised at their confirmation hearings to honor precedent whenever possible, in their first full term together, they effectively reversed a number of key precedents. In each case, it was by a 5-to-4 vote.”

And the trend has only escalated during this current term.

During the arguments the appallingly arrogant and seriously misguided Justice Antonin Scalia, the darling of the right, parsed the meaning of the words “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Justice Scalia argued that “the prefatory statement of purpose should not be interpreted to limit the meaning of what is called the operative clause.” His word-parsing, semantic argument is not unlike the argument over the placement of the comma in the clause that has been going on for some time now, and which, for all I know, may even be part of the decision. How do we argue semantics over common sense? That’s what I want to know. The “liberal” Justice Stevens argued more globally and sensibly that the majority’s understanding of the Miller decision was not only “simply wrong but reflected a lack of respect for the well-settled views of all our predecessors on the court, and for the rule of law itself,” and was “based on a strained and unpersuasive reading of the Second Amendment.”

As the kids say, “Whatever.”

The net effect will be more guns, more death, more grief.

I so well remember a conversation I had back in 2004 with a young woman who said she was going to vote for George Bush, because he would keep us safe. I decided not to address the “safety” argument, and pointed out that the reelection of George Bush would lead to the overturn of Roe v. Wade, which I knew she cared about, and many other laws that she counted on without even realizing it. She looked at me and shrugged, “Never happen.” Well, it IS happening, and it will continue to happen…

And it is yet another reason to support Barack Obama for President. John McCain comes right out and says he will continue to appoint conservative Justices like Scalia and Alito and Roberts to the Supreme Court. We cannot and SHOULD NOT just shrug that off, we should take John McCain at his word. Here’s yet another case of the unquestioning acceptance and operational reality of “doublethink” in this country. WHO are the “activist” judges?

Let’s do some real straight talking. If John McCain is elected, we can look forward to even more poisonous decisions by the Supreme Court, with majorities that will not be so slim.

Immersed in the language of our dissolving country

their cronies

and the poor

American landscape

disappearing in the rockets and red glare,

battle hymns of them and us.

Who are these people who

hang unbroken in creation

stimulate their Jesus action figures

steamrolled by flat-out hucksters

stupefied by the complex,

stream across the detritus of America

abrogate treaties, inform parades

circumnavigate the globe with their

misbegotten little wars,

sell any crapola like Good News,

stir any Orwellian double talk into their soup,

eat any fiction they find strewn across the open plains,

while little girls spread their legs

and people die without good reason

and we eat the poisonous fruit.

What is human without a microphone?

To which country did my grandfather Abraham come,

carrying his clothes on his back?

On my bookshelf

Up next on my book-laden night table are:

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. One of my favorite writers. This one is Roth in the winter of his life. Brilliant and provocative, as always.

Nowhere is a Place by Bernice McFadden. I heard Bernice speak at a Book and Author Luncheon and there was something about her that moved me. So I picked up her book. Toni Morrison called one of her books, “searing and riveting.” That’s good enough for me. As soon as I finish reading it, she and I are going to have a little interview. She’s agreed. I’m sure I’ll have lots of interesting questions for her, and she’ll have lots of interesting answers. Watch for it.

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Happens by Amanda Ripley. I heard Amanda Ripley on Diane Reehm’s show and for some reason, possibly because a friend of mine just barely made it out of the Towers, I was fascinated. In order to write the book, Amanda endured a series of dangerous situations to see how she herself would react. It seems most people freeze, or wait and see what other people are doing, or waste time to gather up their belongings, all of which are exactly wrong. Denial, deliberation, and then taking action are the three steps. Amanda says that you matter more than you think, you must act, luck is not the only factor, although 9/11 was a case in which it was unclear what to do, or as she put it “there was no true north.” She also advises that you should get to know your “disaster personality” and to give your brain something to work with. For example, when you get on the plane, count the number of rows, so that when it’s dark and full of smoke and you can’t see, your brain has something to work with…in a theater know where the exit is, and so on. People who think they have control over their destiny do much better. This seems confirmed by my friend in the Trade Center. She had been in the 93 bombing, and simply wasn’t going to listen to the authorities when they came on the loudspeakers and told everyone to stay. Others who listened to authority weren’t so lucky.

Amanda also talked about the differences between reactions in men and women, blacks and whites, different income levels, etc. For example, income absolutely determines who dies in fire; as one firefighter said, “I never fought a fire in a rich man’s home.” In some disasters it’s much better to be a man; in the Tsunami, for example, women drowned because they were never taught to swim. On the other hand, in hurricanes and floods, men are more likely to die, because women evacuate earlier. This led to the point that really gave me pause, which was that women and minorities differ substantially from white men in their reactions to disaster. According to Amanda, this probably has to do with world view and might reveal that white men have more self confidence, hence their superior ability to take action. Thirty percent of white men, according to this author, seem completely unworried about hazards. I think my husband is in that camp. In many situations, like a hurricane, worrying can be an asset. Men may eventually take action because of their confidence, but they’re already too late. The people who worry have already gotten out. Presumably this means women and blacks, but it seems belied by what happened in New Orleans. I shall have to check the point when I read the book. As for the point about women, maybe some of the propensity to worry has to do with women being the primary caretakers of children, instinctively attuned to worrying about their children. I mention this with apologies to feminists, a group I consider myself part of. Anyway, this is fascinating stuff, at least to me. Can’t wait to read the book.

The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi. Apparently Matt went under cover in the Reverend Hagee’s church and found out just how deranged these people are. Still, he even, apparently, admits to having felt sucked in at points. It reminds me, for some reason, of one of my favorite bits of interior monologue of all time. It’s from (I think) Jay Mcinerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. The character sees a Hassid on the subway, and goes on about how it would be so nice to have rules and laws like he does that tell you what to do in every aspect of your life, your path and God’s plan all laid out for you, how safe and secure that would be…and goes on and on, and then finally says, “But what a f—ing haircut.” I just loved that paragraph, and have always remembered it from way back in the early 80s, despite my currently failing memory. I hope I got the source right. In any case, Taibbi is a provocative and facile writer, his Huffington post spat with Erica Jong notwithstanding.

More Book Recommendations: Psychological Thriller/Dramas

Here are more psychological thriller book recommendations.   At the risk of being accused of shameless self-promoting, I will again first recommend my own books: Saving Elijah, Flight, and A Reasonable Madness. Here are some others that can be placed only loosely in the category of psychological thriller.

Raveling by Peter Moore Smith. I loved this one. An eerie, deeply psychological, highly entertaining thriller and family drama by the brother of actress Julianne Moore. About a man who feels his sanity slipping away while he’s trying to deal with a mother who is seeing ghosts, a fastidious neurosurgeon brother , and a difficult past that includes the long ago disappearance of his sister.

Anything by Paul Auster. Auster’s books include City of Glass, Oracle Night, Leviathan, The Book of Illusions, The Brooklyn Follies, and Moon Palace. While Auster does stand back emotionally from his characters, his books are deeply absorbing page turners, intellectual thrillers. The fascinating and brilliant Auster is not to be missed, even if he is the darling of the literati.

The Witching Hour by Ann Rice I also liked Interview with the Vampire, but this one is by far my favorite Ann Rice. Written in her usual ornate style, this long, engrossing and hypnotic tale of witchcraft and the occult spans four centuries of a great dynasty of witches–a family given to poetry and incest, to murder and philosophy, a family that over the ages is haunted by a powerful, dangerous and seductive being.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Also The Little Friend. I include Donna Tartt’s books, which some may argue are primarily “literary,” because they read like the very best psychological thrillers. Powerful and evocative page turners about friendship, arrogance, murder, the recklessness of youth, family secrets, crime and punishment, and lots of other fascinating subjects that matter.

Blood Test, Over the Edge, Therapy, Self-Defense, Bad Love by Jonathan Kellerman. Kellerman, a psychologist himself, writes effectively and believably (although very violently) in this series, which features a crime solving psychologist named Alex Delaware and his policeman sidekick. Kellerman has millions of fans. I’ve listed some of the earlier efforts in the series as I haven’t read one recently. These books fall more traditionally in the “psychological thriller” genre.

The Key to Midnight, False Memory Phantoms, The Darkest Evening of the Year, Watchers, The House of Thunder, by Dean Koontz. Another extremely popular writer whose work falls more traditionally in the thriller genre, although this one leans more toward horror, as his plots usually involve supernatural doings. Also conspiracies, elaborate technology, and extreme violence. I especially liked The Darkest Evening, which involves a wonderful Golden Retriever. I share Mr. Koontz’s love of dogs, though my dog is a Lab. Again, I’ve listed earlier work, because I haven’t read one recently.

The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. While Atwood is a “literary” writer I list some of her books here because she’s probably my favorite writer, and her books, whatever else they are, are page turners. She’s brilliant and unique and sophisticated and her books are always psychologically sound.

The Stand, by Steven King. This is my favorite, but most of his books are amazing. He’s a great writer.

Seventh Heaven, The Foretelling, Practical Magic, Here on Earth, Fortune’s Daughter by Alice Hoffman. I’ve only listed a few of her many, many books, but I always find Hoffman’s unique magical realist page turners compelling, psychologically sound and irresistible.

Also, Jeffrey Deaver and Dennis Lehane, for more traditional psychological thriller fare.

Book Recommendations: Psychological Thriller/Dramas

A reader from Texas writes:

Dear Fran,

Thanks for writing three unforgettable books. I hope you will keep on writing. And now I would like to have your suggestions for other books in the same category as yours.

Well. Hmmmm. I thank you for joining the small but select contingent of people on the planet who have read the complete works of Fran Dorf, to date. I’m adding “to date” since you hope that I will keep on writing. Another fiction? I’m not sure. I’ve been working on a memoir and essays (one of which I’m going to present at an academic conference in October), and of course I have my blog. The blog is fun, and I’ve had quite a few visitors, more than I expected, to be honest, but it certainly hasn’t taken the world by storm. I heartily thank everyone who’s come to visit, and hope you will come back and recommend it to your friends.

I started three or four novels after Saving Elijah, and even finished one, but it didn’t sell to a publisher and the others just didn’t pan out. The business has changed so much. And maybe I have too, after the experience of losing my son and then writing and publishing Saving Elijah. In any case, there just doesn’t seem to be much room for writers who used to be called “the midlist,” that is, those who sell modestly but are given the chance to keep publishing, even if they don’t achieve bestseller status. The whole business– publishers, editors, big store retail–is geared toward bestsellers. Whereas publishers used to understand that a writer grows with each effort and nurtured you along, nowadays it’s all about the bottom line, and if you don’t hit it out of the park right away, you are going to have a tough slog. The publishing world is full of people like me who’ve published three novels and now can’t seem to find a place. And it doesn’t seem to have all that much to do with reviews, as my books were very well reviewed. The truth is, Saving Elijah may well be my last fiction. My longtime editor writes constantly to encourage me to do what I do and write fiction again. She’s very persuasive and persistent, so you never know.

But other writers have produced and will continue to produce wonderful novels and somehow these get published, and so now on to the recommendations. I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of recommending books that would be in the same “category” as mine, as I don’t think my books fit neatly into a category, particularly Saving Elijah, which is part family drama, part ghost story and part thriller. Oh, perhaps they’re all broadly in the psychological suspense category, but I think all good books are psychological, and all good books are also suspenseful. With psychological and suspense as the two criteria, anything might fit, from Toni Morrison to James Patterson. I won’t be recommending James Patterson (He hardly needs me; he has millions of fans), and the truth is I only rarely read the classic psychological thrillers any more, and so I admit this is an eclectic mix indeed, but nevertheless I offer some of my favorites. This is completely subjective of course, but to a greater or lesser degree all of these books have literary merit, authentic human drama, some degree of psychological sophistication, plots with compelling narrative drive in which plot is no more or less important than the characterizations, and characters with interesting and believable interior lives whose actions are convincing. All have a protagonist who is, either from inside demons or outside forces, in some degree of psychological danger. Some may be obscure, but all are in my opinion worth it. So aside from my own three books which I list first in a shameless act of self-promotion (hey, every other writer self-promotes, I figure it’s about time I did it too), here are my recommendations in no particular order:

A Reasonable Madness by Fran Dorf. Entertainment Weekly called it “satisfying” and United Press International called it a “wonderfully believable psychological thriller.”

Flight by Fran Dorf. A Booklist starred review said, “Fran Dorf pilots this ambitious book with infallible accuracy…an emotional landscape, two decades of decaying counterculture, artfully distilled and disassembled. Ethan skit is the quintessance of the ex-con loner.” Pub Weekly called it “riviting, tantalizing, shocking.”

Saving Elijah by Fran Dorf. Part ghost story, part family drama, part thriller, Saving Elijah is my baby, my “testament to maternal grief,” as the reviewer at Amazon.com called it.  The Wall Street Journal called it “ambitious, imaginative, and beautifully done.”  See more reviews above and on the novels page. I especially recommend the book to the bereaved, because for all its supernatural trappings and its wise-talking, spectral literary devise the book is more than anything an extended metaphor for the psychological process of grief.

Affinity by Sarah Waters: This period novel takes place in the nineteenth century, and is one of the best ghost stories I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I also loved Fingersmith, by the same author, another period piece.

Asylum by Patrick McGrath: This writer, who apparently grew up as the son of an Asylum superintendent, writes hypnotically and knowingly about mental illness, obsession, and betrayal. Don’t pay any attention to the mediocre film of Asylum with Natasha Richardson; this is the real thing. An unforgettable narrator. Brilliant, deeply psychological, riveting. I also loved McGrath’s Tales of Manhattan Then and Now: a collection of three extraordinary novellas.

Privileged Conversation by Evan Hunter: This is an oldie but a goodie. It’s Ed McBain writing as Evan Hunter. Sexy and psychologically sound. About a middle aged psychologist who becomes involved with and obsessed by a beautiful young dancer. As the story progresses, the man gradually begins to see this troubled young girl as person rather than object, which implicates him as exploiter rather than lover. A fascinating book.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This is a broadly plotted, ornately written book by a Spaniard about a young man obsessed with a book called “The Shadow of the Wind” and its mysterious author. Daniel Sempere, the son of a widowed bookstore owner, is 10 when he discovers a novel, The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax. The novel is rare, the author obscure, and rumors tell of a horribly disfigured man who has been burning every copy he can find of Carax’s novels, and the search for the book takes Daniel on a journey that is full of thrilling twists and turns. Gothic. Scary, erotic, touching and tragic.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell: A haunting and absorbing novel about a young woman who receives a phonecall about her great aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, who is being released from Cauldstone Hospital-where she has been locked away for more than sixty one years. Beautifully written, told by a terribly believable if naive narrator, a pleasure, with an end that will shock and surprise you, until you realize how perfectly right it is.

My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due: This one is less believable than the others, of course, since it concerns the “immortals” who live forever, but it’s still thrilling and psychologically sound and keeps you going.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield A psychological thriller about the lives we invent for ourselves.

Dr. Neruda’s Cure for Evil by Rafael Yglesias. This a a large, long book, but well worth the read for the psychologically sophisticated reader, especially those interested in psychoanalysis. Pub Weekly calls it an “ambitious therapeutic morality tale that explores the banality of evil.” This one can’t really be classified; it’s a psychological thriller, a morality tale, a drama, an expose, and a novel of ideas all rolled into one.

More later. Gotta go now.

Movie Review: Grief is the backdrop for the wonderful film, “The Visitor”

Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in an absorbing, powerful film called “The Visitor.” While this low-key, underplayed film is humanistic and realistic in the extreme, memories of the dead loom over the characters like silent, watchful ghosts. The Visitor was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who several years back gave us another extraordinary film, “The Station Agent.” Like that earlier film, The Visitor explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, but this film also looks at immigration and other post-9/11 issues, and indicts the US government for its arbitrary, callous policies. It is a mark of McCarthy’s mature sensibility that the film makes this indictment quietly and subtly, by engaging us with a charismatic and likable young man living an attractive, authentic life, and then arbitrarily taking that life away from him. This stands in contrast to more traditional “Hollywood” fare, a movie like “Rendition”, which makes its indictment with a bludgeon. And the immigration issues, while crucial to the plot and deeply disturbing, are clearly secondary to the psychological and interpersonal matters this gifted director wants to explore. His vision is psychologically sound, particularly evident in the way he deals with grief.

“The Visitor” revolves around a depressed, middle aged economics professor named Walter Vale, played by the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher patriarch in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” With his hunched shoulders, immobile expression, furrowed brow and everyman face, Richard Jenkins literally inhabits this character. It’s a restrained performance, yet highly effective. While neither the circumstances of Vale’s wife’s death nor when she died are ever specified, it is clear that Vale continues to carry the weight of his grief, and that grief has transformed him into a silent, somber, disaffected man, lonely and isolated, floating through life, or rather going through the motions of his life, teaching his class, attending faculty meetings, pretending to work on a fourth book, and returning every night to his neatly kept suburban home.

It’s not that he isn’t trying to find some avenue back into the world, and some enjoyment or at least engagement in life. He’s been taking piano lessons, but while it is clear here that both he and his wife loved music, she was the pianist, and as the movie opens we find him dismissing his fourth piano teacher, played to spinsterish perfection by veteran actress Marian Seldes. I can’t help mentioning here that Seldes eerily reminded me in this role of my own elderly spinsterish piano teacher of long ago. Her name was Alma Drum, and she used to place a pencil under my hands just the way this one does with Vale. Miss Drum was as petite as she was stern and humorless, with her helmet of gray hair. Miss Drum would by now be about a hundred and thirty years old. (Hmmm, maybe I should meditate on her for a while, and do a post on her.)

We get some sense that Vale must have been something in his heyday, and we find some hope that he can actually make a spiritual comeback when circumstance forces him goes to present a paper at New York University, and he arrives at a Village apartment he and his late wife owned, but he hasn’t been to in years. There he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters in residence, Tarek, a Syrian musician played with winning charm and charisma by Haaz Slieiman, and his girlfriend Zainab, who is originally from Senegal and makes jewelry which she sells from a table on the street, the character played with with wary fierceness by exotic beauty Danai Guiria. These two freak out when he arrives; they think they were living in the apartment legally, and they offer to leave immediately. Walter agrees, but then realizes the couple has nowhere else to go, and changes his mind, for reasons even he doesn’t quite grasp. They stay, and Walter befriends them, first Tarek, who embodies youth in all its impetuous enthusiasm, and eventually Zainab, who is aloof and wary at first, but who gradually comes around. Now we begin to see some sparks of life in this graying, somber character, as Tarek introduces him to the lively New York City jazz scene, the filmaker here celebrating New York City in all its diversity. Finally, Walter Vale begins to take the first steps out of his isolation, most particularly in a scene of extraordinary power in which the reluctant Vail joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, a balding white man in a suit amidst the primarily black, hip drummers, dancers, and percussionists.

But then Tarek is arrested for no wrongdoing while with Walter in the subway, imprisoned in the kind of unnamed, unidentified detention center we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, this one somewhere in Queens. The arrest and the imprisonment are both arbitrary and capricious, a disturbing reminder that human rights are being violated every day in this country. Continue reading

Political Surprise: Dreams From My Father: Barack Obama is a real person and a real writer

For many months I’ve resisted the urge to read either of Senator Obama’s books, particularly the first, “Dreams from My Father,” the memoir written before he became a political candidate. Why? Because I had thrown in my hat, such as it is, with Senator Clinton, and was afraid that I would be so moved by Senator Obama’s memoir that it would undermine my support of Senator Clinton.

Fifteen years ago on the eve of publication of my second novel, in response to a moment in which I expressed grave self-doubt, an editor at Dutton named Michaela Hamilton kindly reassured me that I was a “real writer.” I think I suspected that I would find in Senator Obama’s memoir akind of kindred spirit, a “real writer”, to use Michaela’s words, someone to whom the “‘real writer” in me could truly relate, someone who understands what it takes to search one’s own soul honestly and carefully and accurately, and put that search on the page. Now that I’ve finally read the book, I find that my concerns were well founded. I have discovered not only a “real writer,” but someone who by breadth and depth and force of his personality and background, and by brilliance, honesty, clear thinking, and sheer talent, has rendered my past support of Senator Clinton, an admirable person in many respects, irrelevant.

The memoir is remarkable, and not only because it was written by a politician. The man is a real person–authentic, self-aware, probing, searching, honest with himself and with us, willing to be vulnerable, and most important, able to offer us a big piece of his interior life on his journey of self-discovery, not some made-up, faux patriotic, self-serving, self-deluding version of his interior life, but the real thing. Given the ghost-written pabulum served up by so many other politicians, “Dreams From My Father” is a revelation, a call to action, a sanctuary of hope that this man really can begin to build bridges across cultures and countries, and change the world. At the risk of sounding like I’ve bought into a cult of personality, I’ll say that I believe the country and the world needs such a man. How refreshing and different and hopeful it would be to have him as President.

What politician has ever, or would ever write these words?

“Sometimes I would find myself talking to Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot would come into say she was going to sleep, and those same words–white folks–would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.”

Or report the following outburst out of the mouth of a young friend, chastising the future candidate for sucking up:

…All that stuff about ‘Yes, Miss Snooty Bitch, I just find this novel so engaging, if I can just have one more day for that paper, I’ll kiss your white ass.’ It’s their world, all right? They own it, and we in it. So just get the fuck outta my face.”

Or present us with this wonderful paragraph?

Three o’clock in the morning. The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road. The revelers would be tucked away by now, paired off or alone, in deep, beer-heavy sleep, Hasan at his new lady’s place–don’t stay up, he had said with a wink. And now just the two of us to wait for the sunrise, me and Billie Holiday, her voice warbling through the darkened room, reaching toward me like a lover.”

The contrast with other “political” memoirs is, of course, astounding. I won’t dwell on that, however, except to point out the most compelling disparity, the one between this man, Barack Obama, and our current President, George Bush, who is revealed in Scott McClellan’s new book, “What Happened.” Continue reading