Spoken From the Heart

Spoken From the Heart by Laura Bush 9781439155202

publication date: 2010
pages: 456
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5521-9

Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush, the 43d president of the United States, published this memoir about two years after her husband left office. The book, which wasn’t short, spent about 200 pages discussing Laura’s childhood, the early years of her marriage with George, and the first few months of George’s presidency. The remaining half of the book focused on 9/11 and the years following.

I was surprised by how much I liked this book. Bush was a fine writer and had access to many interesting stories, which she usually told with aplomb. The book was most effective when Bush depicted the stories of all the amazing, ordinary people she had met, like the doctor on the Thai-Burmese border who dedicated her life to providing medical care to Burmese refugees.

Bush’s retelling of the events surrounding 9/11 was very moving. I cried. In her description of that day – and throughout the book – Bush included perfect details to capture the essence of whatever she was recounting. For example, here was her portrayal of the evacuation of a nearby school:

Within minutes of the attack, many parents had rushed to the school to pick up their children, but as the streets clogged with evacuees and emergency vehicles racing south, 150 students remained behind. The school’s principal, Anna Switzer, herded them, their teachers, and a few parents inside. Before the South Tower fell, Switzer and her teachers lined up the students, ages five to eleven, in a single file and told them to hold hands. They stepped out of the building into the ash and smoke. Some looked up and watched as men and women flung themselves from the upper floors of the towers, their bodies passing through the billowing flames. One child said, “The birds are on fire.”

Although Bush spent a significant portion of the book discussing politics, she didn’t offer much criticism of her husband or herself. She attempted to rationalize much of her and her husband’s behavior, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. She completely skipped over things from the Bush administration that existed but that she seemingly didn’t agree with. For example, in the entire book, she only referred to Dick Cheney twice, although she brought up other political figures numerous times. She also never mentioned the controversial use of torture that was a huge issue for the Bush administration. She managed to remain silent on torture even as she recounted her visits to Bagram Air Base and dismissed the travesty at Abu Ghraib prison as a failure of the system of command.

The book humanized Bush and her husband, by detailing intimate moments of their lives and by describing all the time and attention to detail that goes into being a head of state. However, it didn’t remove the feeling of dissatisfaction with their performance, especially surrounding the nonexistence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Spoken From the Heart was obviously very political. If Bush’s politics are so disagreeable to you that you can’t see them in print, then I would not recommend this book to you. However, the portraits that Bush created in this book, of people doing amazing, or interesting, or important things, were very compelling and effectively rendered.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian

The Force of Reason

Powell’s Books

The Force of Reason by Oriana Fallaci

publication date: 2006
pages: 307
ISBN-10: 0-8478-2753-4
ISBN-13: 978-0-8478-2753-4

I so much did not want to write a negative review of The Force of Reason because it is too easy. It’s like making fun of Nickelback. But, unfortunately, this book simply was not very good. I discovered it when I came across Brendan Bernhard’s review of it on the website for Powell’s Books. Bernhard describes the book as an attempt to answer certain questions about the influx of Muslims and the Islamic culture into Europe. In his review, Bernhard bestows moderate praise on the book and Oriana Fallaci, who was Italian (she died of breast cancer in late 2006). He describes the book as “riveting firsthand reportage” and calls Fallaci “a world-class journalist.” When I read the review, I thought, “Wow, this book must be really good and quite balanced for this reviewer to discuss it so positively even though it is about an obviously controversial topic. Sounds interesting.” It was not.

The book has many, many problems. In general, it is not convincing. First of all, Fallaci does not actually state any sort of thesis. It is clear she dislikes Muslims, but beyond that I don’t know what her point is. Second, even if she had a thesis, she doesn’t support it with any logic or, ironically, reason. Her only points are that Islam has a history of violent conquest and there are a lot of Muslims in Europe. What that proves, I don’t know.

Additionally, there are numerous small flaws with The Force of Reason. As Fallaci mentions at the beginning, she translated the English version and maintained “a punctuation and lexical choice and above all a sentence structure which reflects or repeats my way of writing in Italian.” This results in some awkward phrasing, such as the sentence: “That scream of pain which the Fra’ Accursios defined as impious, profane, indecent, abject, a book opposite to orthodox faith, an iniquity written on the Devil’s suggestion and infected by the most pernicious heresy.” And the simile: “like sardines in a can of sardines.”

The sardines line is not an anomaly: The Force of Reason contains several small-scale metaphors or explanations that simply are unsatisfactory. For example, in a passage that Fallaci describes as a letter to pacifists, Fallaci explains to the reader what war really is. Not only does war include human-on-human combat, it includes soccer and “when a lion pursues a gazelle” and “when weeds invade a cornfield.” Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think the concept of “war” includes dinner on the African savannah and minor agricultural issues.

Also, the book is almost devoid of cites. If an author wants to convince me of something, especially using empirical evidence as Fallaci attempts to, I’m going to need some cites. In fact, the first cite does not arrive until page 19 and it is a cite to The Bible! (Fallaci often appeals to Christian readership and sensibilities, although she claims to be an atheist who detests Christianity.)

I did discover at least one valuable thing about the book. Toward the end, Fallaci graphically compares female genital mutilation to castration. That is an effective comparison because it emphasizes, especially to men, how life-changing and devastating such a procedure is. That is not a comparison I had thought of before, so I appreciated the observation.

As a caveat, I did not finish this book. I read the main text and then got about 15 pages into the 66-page epilogue before I gave up. Maybe the rest of the epilogue was inspiring and convincing and I just missed it.

1/6: couldn’t finish

Here are other reviews of the book:

National Review
The Constructive Curmudgeon