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Book Club Mon Sep 17 2007

October 2007 Selection: Dreams from My Father

Our October 2007 Book Club selection is Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama. And, although the upcoming primary elections influenced our decision to add this book to our book list this fall, as Mary Mitchell wrote for Black Issues Book Review in 2005, "Obama may be the first candidate whose political campaign sparked interest in his memoir, rather than the other way around." Dreams from My Father is not a campaign book, and readers expecting an account of his seemingly meteoric rise in politics will be disappointed. But, that is exactly why we chose it over his second, more politicized book, The Audacity of Hope, or even Living History, the memoir of Chicago-area native Hillary Clinton.

Dreams from My Father was originally published in 1995, two years before Obama first took office as an Illinois state senator. It received favorable reviews, but was not exactly a bestseller, for the 34-year-old attorney was then best known as the first African-American president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. But the book was reprinted in 2004 to coincide with his run for U.S. Senate and after his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention had everyone wondering who he was.

Instead of a campaign book, we get a thoughtful, engaging memoir that chronicles Obama's struggle to understand himself within his ethnically and racially diverse family. The story begins in New York, where Obama, then just a 21-year-old Columbia University student, learns that his father was killed in a car accident in Kenya. He barely knew his father, who left him and his mother when Obama was a toddler. He met him once after that, at age ten, during a brief visit his father made to his maternal grandparents' house in Hawaii.

The first section of the book traces Obama's mother's family from Kansas to Hawaii, where his mother, who is white, and father, a black man from Kenya, met as fellow students at the University of Hawaii. It also tells the story of his own childhood and upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia, and his growing awareness of racial divisions, both in the world and within himself.

As a young adult, his father's death fuels Obama's determination to understand his complex heritage. The second part of Dreams from My Father chronicles his work in Chicago as a community organizer in the troubled Altgeld Gardens neighborhood on the South Side, where he learns some hard truths about Chicago-style politics and confronts this city's own poverty and racial strife.

Then, in the final part of the memoir, Obama travels to Kenya to connect with his father's family and encounters the bitter tribal conflicts and poverty of his father's country. But through all these episodes, Obama finds community within these common struggles and is able to begin to heal the divisions of racial identity within himself.

Dreams from My Father is well-written, has a wonderful narrative flow and has been compared to the writings of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois. But Obama's reflection on race and identity transcends race, teaching all of us how to navigate a world that is neither black nor white, but many shades of grey.

So, read the book, and then join us on Monday, October 8 at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square to talk about it. And, audiobook fans, remember Barack Obama won a Grammy Award in 2006 for his recording of Dreams from My Father. So, tune in.

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Book Club is the literary section of Gapers Block, covering Chicago's authors, poets and literary events. More...

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