Saturday, May 11, 2019

Valerie Jarrett Found Her Voice

...And what a pleasure it is! How did this shy little girl, born in Iran, later moved to London, and finally settled on the south side of Chicago because her parents worried that she wouldn't know her family, end up being the most senior advisor in the Obama White House for the entire eight year run? Well, she'll tell you, and I defy you not to enjoy the tale because Valerie Jarrett is a delight to spend time with. She's honest, unassuming, funny, and yes, brilliant.

Unlike Michelle Obama, who had to cautiously write her bestselling memoir "Becoming," Jarrett feels no compunction about calling out racism everywhere she confronts it. From her youngest days she understood that her father, a black physician, could not be hired in the United States because of his color. In Iran, he was welcomed and prompted to write and research, until he became a renowned geneticist who lectured around the world, taking his wife and little girl with him.

But back in Chicago, in the dismal public school system that her parents firmly
believed in, Valerie was bullied for her accent, denied access to proper school materials, and seldom challenged by her work. Private schooling followed and Valerie set her sights on Stanford. California during the '60's and '70's was a hot bed of political activity and awakening for students of color and, against her parents' wishes, she settled into a black house where she could find her authentic self.

Like most political figures, Valerie Jarrett earned a law degree. She was soon working in a corner office overlooking Lake Michigan, making more money than she ever could have imagined, yet she was feeling unfulfilled and, like so many working moms, terribly guilty about the dearth of time she had left over to share with her beloved daughter Laura. 

Without telling you her entire story, let's just say that Jarrett found her calling to public service in Chicago's department of planning and development. Soon she was working a couple of doors down from Mayor Washington's office, and after his untimely death, she stayed on as deputy to Mayor Daley. That's when a stellar resume crossed her desk attached to a personal note from a trusted friend that read, "Very impressive! Bright, mature, interested in public service." 

The next day Valerie Jarrett interviewed Michelle Robinson. The rest is history.

Jarrett became best friend and confident to the future Michelle Obama and her fiancé, Barack Obama and for the past thirty years that relationship has held steady and true. She is the rock, the big sister, the strategic thinker, and the organizer behind the winning and losing campaigns and the president's most trusted advisor in the West Wing. When she describes the three of them sipping martinis on the Truman balcony after the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, devastated by the results of increasing gun violence and their failure to stop it, I pictured the Roosevelts sitting there decades earlier considering whether or not to enter the world war.

Valerie Jarrett has lived an amazing life, beyond her wildest dreams, yet her voice is still awe-filled with what she deems the luck that has come her way. Now that she's found her voice, I wonder what will come next?

Monday, May 6, 2019

Two New Novels, Similar Themes

I've just finished two new novels that were on Elaine Newton's summer reading list, meaning that, if she could bring the author to town, or if she decides they are worthy, she'll cull them from over thirty choices to be on her discussion program next fall. Many of her options are on my TBR list.

"The Editor," by Stephen Rowley, and "The Dakota Winters," by Tom
Barbash are each set in the late 1980's, early 1990's, a time when you might think not all that much happened. But, lest I forget, we're dealing with a generation of wonderful new writers for whom the '80's were my '60's. Each novelist focuses on familial dynamics and how they are shaped and changed by the outside influence of a celebrity personality seeking anonymity for a while.

Rowley's book introduces James Smale, a struggling writer whose latest manuscript, a semi-autobiographical investigation into the close relationship between a mother and her son, has been optioned by a new editor at Doubleday. Imagine James' intimidation when, at his first meeting, he discovers that one of the most famous mothers of all time, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is the editor he'll be closely working with.

Then, imagine his utter dismay when, at the annual family Thanksgiving dinner, he shares his exciting news only to have his mom stalk out of the room. For months she refuses to speak to her son about the uncomfortable fact that she is the impetus for, and the subject of, his book. A book that Jackie O. fell in love with and for which she pressures James to create a more authentic ending.

Rowley is a kind writer, creating the same realistic, sensitive characters that graced his first book "Lily and the Octopus." As James searches for a truth that seems just out of reach, his friendship with Jackie blossoms even as his union with his partner begins to suffer. Rowley beautifully humanizes Mrs. Onassis and is especially adept at reflecting the depth of gay relationships.

Similarly, Tom Barbash focuses on the push/pull, father/son dynamic of twenty-three-year old Anton, just home from a stint in the Peace Corps, and his dad Buddy Winters, a once respected television talk show host who suffered an on-air meltdown, a la Howard Beale in "Network." Now hoping to stage a comeback, Buddy exerts pressure on his son to take on management of his rebirth and find a station willing to take a bet on the man who walked away only a few years ago.

When I first spotted this title I actually thought the novel was about winters in New York City at the famed Dakota. Well, I may have been a bit off base but certainly The Dakota itself, along with its most renowned residents, John and Yoko, are central characters in this original, evocative mash-up of the fictional and the actual.

In Barbash's imagination, John Lennon is undergoing a crisis of confidence. Hiding from his adoring public he finds refuge in The Dakota and befriends Anton who promises to teach John how to sail. Something like a miracle happens on their virgin trip to Bermuda, a miracle that bodes well for Anton's forthcoming revival of his dad's career, but leaves Anton wondering what his own future happiness might look like.

I can recommend each of these books for exactly what they are, quick, easy reads that you can take to the beach or enjoy on the back porch. Still they will leave you with thoughts about families, what we tell each other and what we hold back, and how it sometimes takes an outside observer to point out what we may be too close to see.