Review of “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics” by David Axelrod

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

David Axelrod has written a paean to his favorite politician, Barack Obama. The book is also a memoir of a gifted political insider. Although the title, Believer, would imply that Axelrod has some “higher” motivation underpinning his career as a political strategist, he hasn’t always found the most worthy role models for whom to apply his skills; at one time he conducted the election campaigns of the notorious Rod Blagojevich, the former (and currently imprisoned) governor of Illinois, known for mediocrity as well as for a tendency toward graft.

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Nonetheless, Axelrod contends that in Barack Obama he found a worthy focus for his efforts, believing Obama’s objectives to be praiseworthy. Axelrod began working with Obama in 2002, and quickly became Obama’s éminence grise, the principal architect of the strategies that helped Obama get elected first to the U.S. Senate, and then twice to the nation’s highest office, despite the fact that Obama had very little prior experience that prepared him for the work ahead. Axelrod hoped in part that he would feel energized and inspired by Obama’s optimism and idealism; after working in Chicago politics for so long, Axelrod felt cynical.

Unfortunately, once Obama got into office, it seemed (and still does seem) as if the Republications were determined to defeat every initiative of Obama’s no matter its merits. But beyond reproaching the Republicans and pointing out that Obama inherited major problems when he took over the Oval Office, Axelrod doesn’t offer much analysis about what happened to most of the hopes that were more characteristic of the confident candidate than the oft-stymied President.

President Obama with David Axelrod

President Obama with David Axelrod

About half of the book is devoted to Axelrod’s personal history, which is also interesting, especially for a look at the path one might take to become an important counselor to the movers and shakers of the world. Axelrod studied politics at the University of Chicago, and then wrote a political column for the Chicago Tribune. But he realized he didn’t want just to write about the political process; he wanted to be a part of it.

He founded a political consulting firm, and got the job of running the re-election campaign of Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington. The expertise he gained in building cross-racial coalitions would eventually lead to his successful campaign management of the nation’s first black president. And it is that story, more than just Axelrod’s own, that is the most compelling.

Evaluation: Axelrod seems affable, unaffected, and still wide-eyed, in spite of his fear of having been made jaded by Chicago politics. He isn’t totally uncritical of Obama, but is definitely supportive of him and what he has tried to accomplish. Most importantly, Axelrod has been an insider during a pivotal moment in American history, and thus has a very engaging story to tell.

As a side note, Axelrod continues to push for higher ends through the nonpartisan Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago that he founded in 2012. His stated mission is “to ignite in young people a passion for politics and public service.” We have attended a number of his programs [most of them being open to the public], in which prominent speakers discuss current events and political life, generally in an interactive format. It is truly inspirational to observe the idealism and enthusiasm with which participants engage in the exchange of ideas. Axelrod is continuing to make a difference, and is providing many others with opportunities to learn to make a difference as well.

IOP event during which Axelrod interviewed Nobel Peace Prize recipient and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel

IOP event during which Axelrod interviewed Nobel Peace Prize recipient and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel

Rating: 3.5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narration is done by the author, who is a decent reader. It’s nice to listen to an author read his or her own book as long as the narration is capable, and Axelrod certainly is.

Published unabridged on 15 CDs (19 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, a member of Penguin Group, a Penguin Random House Company, 2015

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Kid Lit Review of “Don Quixote: A Spanish Language Primer” by Jennifer Adams

This adorable board book for the very young does everything right. It is part of the “BabyLit” series of literature-inspired books for toddlers and children.

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Each page spread features a word in English on the left and Spanish on the right, along with adorable colorful illustrations by Alison Oliver. The words and pictures are suggested from the famous story of Don Quixote (fully titled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha) by Cervantes. In that book, a member of the Spanish nobility reads so many tales of chivalry that he decides to become one of those heroic characters himself. He calls himself Don Quixote, and recruits a farmer, Sancho Panza, as his sidekick. The two travel the world pretending to be a knight and squire and go off to save the world.

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Don Quixote is considered one of the greatest works of “classic” literature, and its characters and tropes have earned permanent places in Western culture. It has inspired other authors and artists as diverse as Gustave Flaubert, Mark Twain and Pablo Picasso. Unfortunately, it is known better for being one of those books nobody ever reads anymore than anything else. However, its cultural influences have endured, and many people know that the word “quixotic” refers to something that is ”exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical,” i.e., “tilting at windmills.” (In a famous scene in the book, Quixote jousts, or “tilts” at windmills, imagining them to be giants.) Or people may remember the song “The Impossible Dream” from the musical “The Man of La Mancha,” about quixotic quests.

Thus in this book, you will find the English and Spanish for “horse” and “windmills” and “castle” – in all, ten words. Pronunciations are given on the back of the board book.

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As a reminder of what the story is about, you can watch Peter O’Toole (as Quixote) singing the song The Impossible Dream to Sophia Loren as Dulcinea, Quixote’s lady love.

Evaluation: Children will enjoy looking at the bright pictures and seeing the names for them in two different languages. It’s a great way to introduce them to the concept of translation as well as to get them started on multilingualism. Parents might be inspired to read, or reread, Don Quixote.

Published by Gibbs Smith, 2015

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Review of “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

Note: There are no spoilers in this review.

A short review of this 861-page book might go: Life isn’t always fair, and sometimes people are really awful, but scientific knowledge and technology are very cool, and supremely useful.

But one could also go into a bit more detail without spoiling the plot.

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The book begins with this astounding paragraph:

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0., or simply Zero.”

What would happen under such circumstances? Stephenson explores the answer in the rest of this often brilliant book which includes a lot of discussion of earthbound physics, orbital mechanics, and robotics, inter alia, in writing sometimes dubbed “techsposition” – i.e., technological exposition. Most of the action, at least for the first two thirds of the book, is centered on the space station which was orbiting the Earth at the time of the Event.

It seems that even Stephenson may have been happier with the technological aspects of this saga than the characters he drew. He spends a lot more verbiage on the technological whiz-bang aspects of this story, which are truly amazing, and about which he wants you to understand everything. As for the characters, we get to know most of them more by sporadically-spotlighted actions and decisions than by their internal thought processes. They are more aptly described as one-and-a-half rather than two-dimensional. And while some are brave and smart and wonderful, there are others I dearly wanted him to kill off in some way or another. Alas, the author is more realistic than I about the inevitable mix of good and bad in the human race.

There is a division between the first two-thirds of the book and the last third. The first section seemed entirely plausible to me, but I’m not so sure I found the last third convincing. Nor did I find some of the “surprises” of the latter section unanticipated. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to think about, and a lot to discuss if you are lucky enough to find someone else willing to read this very long book with you!

Evaluation: This is a masterwork of science fiction imagination. You won’t find the detailed character development and interactions one would get with, say, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, or Robert Heinlein, but you’ll get much more analysis of the scientific background for whatever takes place in the story.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2015

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Review of “The Kill” by Jane Casey

This is the fifth in the crime series based in London and featuring Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan and it is excellent.

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Most of the very topical story based on tension between the police and poor people of color actually focuses on the relationship with Maeve and her frequent Murder Squad partner, Detective Inspector Josh Derwent. The complexity and nuance with which Casey limns both Maeve and Josh, and the two of them together, is riveting.

Josh often behaves like a sexist churl, and while it annoys Maeve, she understands it is in part a defense mechanism for Josh, whose rage and apparent lack of compassion is a shield, “hiding what he really felt, as if anyone would think less of him for being upset at what we were about to see.” Nevertheless, Maeve can’t keep herself from sparring with him, as in this exchange after he basically felt her up while dancing together at a colleague’s wedding, which he claimed was her fault for wearing a provocative dress:

“‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that gave you a license to grope me. What should I have been wearing? A suit like this, so you didn’t accidentally forget I was your colleague?’ I dropped the sugar-sweet sarcasm. ‘It was a wedding. A party. I wore a party dress. Maybe I should have got hold of a burqa since you find it so hard to control yourself when confronted by a fucking frock.’”

Nevertheless, while both of them attack each other when alone, both also come strongly to the other’s defense when attacked by a third party. We sense an attraction between them, even though Maeve is deeply in love with her partner, Rob.

The book begins with the murder of a policeman, and as the story unfolds, there are more casualties. But are they related? And if so, how? Interoffice politics threaten to undermine solving the mystery, but Maeve’s unusual insight into human behavior and motivations helps unravel the threads of the crimes.

Discussion: Casey is excellent at detailing the small aspects of police duty that often get lost in crime stories:

“Tea, the answer for every problem. Burglary? Tea. Missing child? Tea. Dead husband? Tea. No one ever seemed to drink it. For us, the cups were a prop, something to do with your hands while gently delivering the bad news and easing yourself back out to the street. Nothing ever felt as good as the first breath of fresh air when you walked out of a house filled with grief.”

Casey is also very good at characterization – especially with respect to complicated relationships, of which Maeve has quite a few. I also admire the way Maeve is growing on the job. While this book can be read as a standalone, you won’t want to miss the pleasure of following the evolution of Maeve and Josh, their superintendent Charles Godley, and others on the squad.

Evaluation: I think this is Casey’s best yet.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, 2015

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Review of “The Other Daughter” by Lauren Willig

Rachel Woodley has been a nursery governess in France for seven years when she receives a telegram that her beloved mother is dying. Her employer won’t give her time off to go back to England, so she quits, and hurries to her mother’s house, but she is too late. Moreover, her landlord is now evicting her, as her mother was behind in the rent.

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When cleaning out her mother’s things, Rachel gets yet another unpleasant and unexpected surprise: she finds, under her mother’s pillow, a newspaper picture from just five months previously – December, 1926, of a man who is clearly her father. But her mother always had told her her father died twenty-three years ago, when Rachel was four.

Moreover, this man is not identified as Edward Woodley, botanist, who she believed her father to be, but Edward Standish, Earl of Ardmore, shown with his daughter Olivia on his arm. She races up to Oxford to see her cousin David, who has always been a doting godfather, to find out what he knows about the truth. David astonishes her by admitting Edward Standish is her father. He confessed that her mother thought his leaving would be easier for her if she believed he had died.

Upset, she turns to leave, and runs into Simon Montfort, a former tutee of David’s, who had overheard what happened. As he shows her out, he explains he has connections and can help her meet her father. He offers to introduce her to the Standish’s social set as a Vera Merton, a distant cousin of his. He further arranges to house her at his mother’s empty flat and bring her socially appropriate clothes belonging to his (also absent) sister. He even sets up an appointment for her at a salon so she can get a hairdo more suitable to a society lady than a governess.

While even Rachel references the story of “Pygmalion,” there are more complications to the story than George Bernard Shaw’s play. The Great War has ended, but hostilities still loom on the horizon and occupy the thoughts of many of the characters. Everyone in the social set to which “Vera” gains entry accepts her readily, but they all have shared histories and secrets to which she is not privy. And what Rachel thinks she now knows is only the tip of the iceberg. Her world is indeed upended, but not at all in the way she (or we) anticipated.

Discussion: This turned out to be a good story, not as predictable as it seemed it might be in the beginning. The author manages to limn Rachel as naive and judgmental without making her unlikeable, and is adept at evoking the appearance of superficial decadence of the monied set:

“Cece dragged in deeply on her cigarette, trailing ash and ennui.”

I liked too how she had her characters query the nature of memory and of truth. Rachel’s insights about her recollections from her early childhood were especially appealing:

“Life, at four, had been a sea of knees and ankles, chair legs and the undersides of tables. She wished, desperately, that she had paid more attention, that she had lifted her head and looked up.”

Evaluation: The further I read, the more I got pulled into the story. It turned out to be an entertaining and engrossing book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2015

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Review of “Jacksonland” by Steve Inskeep

It is ironic that Andrew Jackson, a murderer, kidnapper, slave owner, slave trader, land speculator acting on inside information, and last but not least, the cruel architect of Indian genocide, should hold such a revered place in the pantheon of American presidents – so much so, that when the question arose of who’s image to replace on money, it was the image of Hamilton that garnered the most attention. [Ironic as well, since it was Jackson who was obsessively opposed to a federal bank, vetoing a bill to recharter the Bank of the United States, which led to an economic depression, and Hamilton, a fiscal genius, who championed the idea.] As much as Americans have been shocked or disappointed over the behavior of some of our recent presidents, their actions are minor peccadillos compared to the abhorrent and morally horrific activities of Andrew Jackson.

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Steve Inskeep, a cohost of NPR’s Morning Edition, and someone who has received multiple awards for investigative journalism, tells Jackson’s story, juxtaposing it to the story of the leader of the Cherokee people, John Ross. It is not hard for Ross to come off looking better.

It was truly difficult to listen to all the outrages committed by Jackson, and against the Native American people, and yet it is essential to understand this part of American history.

Evaluation: If you only read one nonfiction book this year, I hope you will make it this one. It is critically important that Americans understand what kind of man Andrew Jackson really was, and what was done to the Native Americans who occupied the land he coveted. It is an outstanding book, and a pleasure to experience via audio.

Rating: 5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

It’s almost unfair to compare other narrators to the cohost of one of the most widely heard radio news programs in the United States. Inskeep knows how to “read for the ear” and his impassioned narration hits all the right notes.

Published unabridged on 10 CDs (12 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015

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Kid Lit Review of “This Moose Belongs to Me” by Oliver Jeffers

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This is a very funny story about Wilfred, a young boy who thinks he owns a moose he encounters. He names the moose Marcel, and explains to Marcel “the rules of how to be a good pet.” Most of the time, it seems like Marcel isn’t paying attention to him, but sometimes, he is an excellent pet.

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One day, however, Wilfred made a terrible discovery: someone else thought she owned the moose. Moreover, this lady had named the moose Rodrigo! And the moose acted like she was correct!

Embarrassed and enraged, Wilfred rushed off for home, but tripped and got all tangled up in the string he used to keep track of his way. It got dark, and he was beginning to think about all the monsters that would be out soon, when along came the moose, who rescued him.

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“All was forgiven. And perhaps, Wilfred admitted, he’d never really owned the moose anyway.”

The final panel of the book adds a hilarious epilogue to the story.

The illustrations by Jeffers are creative and entertaining, as always. Most unusually, he puts the cartoon-like characters of Wilfred and the moose in front of gorgeous realistic oil painting landscapes in the background.

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Evaluation: This offbeat entertaining story has won several awards (including CBI Book of the Year Awards 2013 – Honor Award for Illustration). It could be read as a book with a message about how you can’t “own” those you love, or it could just be read as a very original, humorous story. Either way, it’s well worth it!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), 2012

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