A Promised Land review: Gorgeously written, humorous, compelling and a life-affirming memoir

A Promised Land review: Gorgeously written, humorous, compelling and a life-affirming memoir

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A Promised Land

Barack Obama                                                                                                  Viking £35

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But was he successful? Was he any good? Again and again, in this gorgeously written, humorous, compelling, life-affirming memoir – already, rightly, a bestseller – you pause and wonder: what am I actually being charmed by? Who is this man?

What would Barack Obama have done if he had been granted the freedom to do anything he liked? Would he have created an American NHS? Would he have forced folk to drive wind-powered bicycles to the mall? 

Abroad, would he have visited Tehran and made friends with the mullahs? Cut off the haughty, cruel Saudis? Binned America’s nukes?

What would Barack Obama (above) have done if he had been granted the freedom to do anything he liked? Would he have created an American NHS?

What would Barack Obama (above) have done if he had been granted the freedom to do anything he liked? Would he have created an American NHS?

‘It’s a heck of a ride you are about to take,’ George W. Bush tells him when the Obamas call in at the White House after the 2008 election. ‘You just have to remind yourself to appreciate it every day.’ 

He certainly does that. Obama is often called cool – and he is – but it’s the warmth of the man that gives the book its inner glow. His ear for the dialogue of others.

‘What are all these people doing in the park?’

‘They’re here to see Daddy.’

‘Why?’

He loves his daughter Malia’s question as they arrive at a venue as he was beginning to be famous. Loves it when the kids are pleased at breakfast when he’s just won the Nobel Peace Prize: ‘Great news, Daddy, you won the Nobel Prize and its Bo’s [the dog’s] birthday!’

He is self-deprecating, too, in that charming manner that Donald Trump has never entirely mastered. ‘You were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,’ an aide tells him in an early-morning phone call that’s woken the first couple. 

‘For what?’ It’s a nice response.

And Obama – in more serious mode – recognises the foolishness of his fans, especially abroad, who idolised him too much, expected too much. When a crowd of well-wishers holding candles gathers outside his hotel window in Oslo before the Nobel ceremony, he writes that he thought of the wars he was still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

‘The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order to such chaos seemed laughable,’ he writes. ‘On some level, the crowds below were cheering an illusion.’

True. And many of them will be disappointed to read just how tortured Obama was about his own decisions. ‘I’ve had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it,’ he writes at the start of the book. 

But later he reveals the answer to that question. ‘If every argument had two sides, I usually came up with four.’

What emerges is not ‘tempering’ but a more fundamental uncertainty, even when his team has beaten into him the need to be brief and sharply focused. He is so damned reasonable. 

He sees every side of every question. When he kills Osama Bin Laden, he is racked with doubts about why ‘that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, was only possible when the goal involved killing a terrorist?’

He says he felt more exuberant passing the health care bill that led to all Americans getting insurance even with a pre-existing condition. Reading that, you half-feel ‘OK, nice guy, enjoys improving health more than killing someone’. 

But half of you wants to scream. He had just killed a man who has created more misery around the world than any other recent figure. Could you not just whoop, once? Seriously, Barack?

The trouble is, there’s not much badness in him. Devilment is missing from this man. He watches over himself like a deity keeping an eye on a slightly wayward son. It’s all so controlled. 

His take on his own political philosophy is the most revealing sentence in the book. Rather than having a ‘revolutionary soul’, he says, ‘I was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision’.

In the UK he would be a centrist dad Conservative. Jeremy Hunt, perhaps. Earnest, liberal, thoughtful, optimistic. But careful too: no burning barricades for Barack.

On the subject of UK leaders, he is slightly disparaging, but not very illuminating about his relationship with David Cameron. In a rare off-key description, he suggests Cameron ‘had the easy confidence of someone who’d never been pressed too hard by life’. 

Well, OK, but he had a son who died. Did he not know that?

Covering the 44th president’s first campaign from the snowy wastes of Iowa to the White House was the highlight of my professional life. Interviewing him was an honour.

At the end of it, he signed my notes with a note of his own to my children: he wrote out their names, ‘Martha, Clara and Sam’. And then in his scrawly writing: ‘Dream Big Dreams. Barack Obama.’ 

I framed it. It’s a bit faded now. But the essential decency of Barack Obama still shines through.

 

The Moth And The Mountain

Ed Caesar                                                                                                      Viking £18.99

Rating:

There were many attempts to climb Mount Everest before Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing made the first successful ascent in 1953, the most famous occurring in 1924 when George Mallory and Andrew Irvine died in still-controversial circumstances. 

This book is about the craziest attempt of them all.

Bradford-born Maurice Wilson, a Yorkshireman to his core, won the Military Cross during the First World War, but like many veterans found it hard to settle back afterwards into civilian life.

Bradford-born Maurice Wilson (above) won the Military Cross during the First World War, but like many veterans found it hard to settle back afterwards into civilian life

Bradford-born Maurice Wilson (above) won the Military Cross during the First World War, but like many veterans found it hard to settle back afterwards into civilian life

With two unsuccessful marriages and a string of business failures behind him, in 1932 he went to Germany to recuperate.

While on holiday, he read a newspaper article about Mallory and Irvine and decided on the spot that he was going to be the first man to conquer Everest. He also decided on a novel approach. 

He was going to fly an aircraft all the way to Nepal, crash-land on the lower slopes of Everest and strike out for the summit from there. He faced only two problems: first, he had never climbed a mountain in his life; second, he didn’t know how to fly.

It didn’t stop him, and the extraordinary story of how he learnt to fly and then undertook an epic solo journey to India in his flimsy Gypsy Moth plane is brilliantly told in this slim but captivating book.

Ed Caesar has diligently researched Wilson’s life and has turned up many hitherto unknown facts about it, but what’s particularly striking is the way he’s been able to get inside Wilson’s mercurial mind and offer plausible explanations for his often bizarre actions.

He never had a chance of succeeding, of course, but he got much further than anyone could have expected, and his quixotic, doomed attempt is a testament to good old-fashioned British pluck.

Simon Griffith

 

Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes 

Claire Wilcox                                                                                  Bloomsbury £16.99

Rating:

It’s fashion and it’s radical,’ states Claire Wilcox in her memoir of working in the fashion and textiles department at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Clothes can shock and dazzle and, of course, sell tickets: last year, the museum’s Christian Dior extravaganza broke visitor records. 

But, as Wilcox ably proves, clothes can also be entertaining diary entries.

This is no collar-to-cuffs memoir, but rather a collage of moments, personal and professional, flitting back and forth across the years. We learn that even as a teenager, Wilcox was more studious than practical: she was ‘outdone by the ribbon’ on the haberdashery counter of a Chiswick department store. 

Claire Wilcox writes elegantly about the curator’s craft, and how a spectacular personality, such as Alexander McQueen (shoe, above), can inform an engaging exhibition

Claire Wilcox writes elegantly about the curator’s craft, and how a spectacular personality, such as Alexander McQueen (shoe, above), can inform an engaging exhibition

But while studying for her A-levels she visited the National Art Library at the V&A and ‘felt like a parched traveller who had found an oasis’.

After reading English at university and a period selling crotchless knickers in a Fulham Road sex shop, Wilcox joined the staff at the V&A in the late 1970s (she is now its senior curator of fashion). 

She writes elegantly about the curator’s craft, and how a spectacular personality, such as Alexander McQueen or Gianni Versace, can inform an engaging exhibition. 

We even learn about the ghost curator who haunts the corridors at night. Meanwhile, holidays and homes are measured out in cardigans and quilts.

Into this tapestry of memories Wilcox weaves a melancholy thread; relatives die, her dog dies, even the museum is likened to a hospital: ‘Both institutions are reminders of endings, of time creaking and shifting, of entries and exits.’ 

This mournful note extends to the nostalgia of the clothes: these are Proust’s madeleines cocooned in hatboxes and airing cupboards.

The book really sings when Wilcox delves into the origins of a textile or the function of an unusual garment. These chapters are as gripping as short stories. They speak of history and humanity as much as cloth and stitching, and are punctuated with the language of seamstresses and tailors, exotic talk of rickrack and lappets. 

The narrative switches effortlessly from the charm of the family button box to a lush Mariano Fortuny dress pleated ‘like the delicate underside of a field mushroom’.

Readers hoping for catwalk gossip and iconic bling will be disappointed. Wilcox avoids the politics, celebrity and economics of fashion. And her impressionistic writing style, eschewing details, can sometimes feel like wilful obfuscation. 

A whole chapter on Vivienne Westwood – who serves Wilcox apple pie in a ratty basement flat in Notting Hill – doesn’t even mention her by name.

Wilcox confesses to being ‘egotistically shy’, but one senses the mangle of the museum’s PR department. While an outfit that delivers a glimpse is always more alluring than one with a plunging reveal, the opposite is true with memoirs.

Simeon House

 

Group

Christie Tate                                                                      Simon & Schuster £16.99

Rating:

When Christie Tate signed up for group therapy, she hoped it would mend her heart and heal her soul. Recently she’d got a job in a tip-top Chicago law firm, and there was no shortage of men willing to date her. 

Her parents back home in Texas were sane, sober and loving. So why was 30-year-old Tate praying that a stray bullet or car accident would polish her off?

Enter Dr Jonathan Rosen, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist with unorthodox ideas about how to run a therapy group. His patients are encouraged to gossip about each other to partners and friends: what matters to Rosen is that his patients’ pain is ‘witnessed’ by as many people as possible.

Second, there’s no bar on dating other group members and reporting back to Dr Rosen about how the sex is going. Third, members are free to phone Rosen at any time and scream down the phone that he’s a bastard and his methods aren’t working.

Suffice it to say, this is all highly unconventional. But for some reason Tate likes what she sees, and for five years spends three sessions a week with half a dozen people discussing in forensic detail her sexual hang-ups, bowel movements and intense loneliness. 

Readers be warned: this is like a far dirtier Sex And The City, and at times you might feel like a voyeur. On the other hand, the writing is brilliantly sharp and funny and, above all, truthful. 

Tate is unsparing in her portrayal of herself as a self-absorbed, uptight, clingy, cold, controlling young woman. Oh, and she’s also a recovering bulimic.

Dr Rosen’s unusual technique includes what he calls ‘prescriptions’. After Tate confesses to the group that she’s eaten seven apples the night before, Rosen tells her to phone another group member every evening and recount exactly what she’s eaten that day. 

‘The apples aren’t killing you,’ he explains, ‘the secrecy is.’ From this apparently benign start, the prescriptions get harder and weirder. Soon Rosen is instructing Tate to tell her new date that she is an incorrigible flirt (but he uses a much ruder word).

It’s at this point one starts to wonder about Dr Rosen. Even Tate begins to feel as if she might be in some kind of cult. And then there’s the fact that she is paying the good doctor several hundred dollars a month – over the years, enough cash to buy a new yacht.

And still she hasn’t found what she is searching for – a functioning relationship. Things do come right in the end. She marries a nice, sane, healthy man. Tate is convinced this wouldn’t have been possible without Dr R. Readers will have to decide for themselves.

Kathryn Hughes    



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