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A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother Paperback – January 3, 2012

4.1 out of 5 stars 150 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“An ambitious new biography. . . . Scott pursues a more perplexing and elusive figure than the one Obama pieced together in his own books.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Even Obama knew that he had not his extraordinary mother justice. Janny Scott . . . does. She portrays Dunham as a feminist, an utterly independent spirit, a cultural anthropologies, and an international development officer who surely helped shape the internationalist, post-Vietnam-era world view of her son. Scott’s book is tirelessly researched, and the sections covering Dunham’s life in Indonesia especially are new and valuable to the accumulating biography of Obama’s extended global family.”—The New Yorker

“Janny Scott packs two and a half years of research into her bio of Stanley Ann Dunham, the quixotic anthropologist who raised a president.”—People

 “The restrained, straight-ahead focus—rather in the spirit, it turns out, of Dunham herself—pays off. By recovering Obama’s mother from obscurity, A Singular Woman adds in a meaningful way to an understanding of a singular president.”—Slate

“The key to understanding the disciplined and often impassive 44th president is his mother, as Janny Scott, a reporter for the New York Times, decisively demonstrates in her new biography A Singular Woman. . . . Scott [uses] meticulous reporting, archival research and extensive interviews with Dunham’s colleagues, friends and family, including the president and his sister. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who is both disciplined and disorganized, blunt-spoken and empathetic, driven and devoted to her children, even as she ruefully admits her failings and frets over her distance from them.”—The Washington Post

“Meticulously-researched and well-written . . . a necessary counterpart and corrective to Obama’s first book Dreams from my Father.”—Financial Times

“In her own right, Ann Dunham was a fascinating woman. . . . The story of the ‘singular woman’ at the center of this book is told, and told well, by Scott.”—San Francisco Chronicle

 “What emerges in this straightforward, deeply reported account is a complicated portrait of an outspoken, independent-minded woman with a life of unconventional choices.”—USA Today


“We get a much fuller story of Ms. Dunham’s life in A Singular Woman, Janny Scott’s richly researched, unsentimental book.”—The New York Times

“If you want to understand what shaped our president, don’t look to his father’s disappearance. It was his unconventional mother who made him. . . . [An] incisive biography.”—Newsweek

“A richly nuanced, decidedly sympathetic portrait of President Obama’s remarkably accomplished, spirited mother. . . . A biography of considerable depth and understanding.”—Kirkus

“Scott gives us a vivid, affecting profile of an unsung feminist pioneer who made breaking down barriers a family tradition and whose legacy extends well beyond her presidential son.”—Publishers Weekly (starred)


About the Author

Janny Scott was a reporter for The New York Times from 1994 to 2009, when she left to write this book. She was a member of the Times reporting team that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (January 3, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594485593
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594485596
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (150 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #308,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I must preface this review by admitting I am a Republican and did not vote for Obama nor do I plan on voting for him next election. Still I must commend Scott for a simply amazing book considering how little has been known on Obama's mother and her fascinating life. Scott was able to pull together an incredible amount of information from which to tell write this book. I particularly enjoyed how she was able to win the trust of relatives not normally comfortable with detailing family history and also how even handed and impartial her take on the story was. The writing style itself also really lends itself to the story it told as Scott writes in a very fluid and coherent style which is easy to pick up. There is almost a dreamy quality to the early stories of the Kansas contingent of the Obama family and how education was such an important driver even many decades ago. One small criticism is that in some instances the same people are quoted multiple times saying basically the same thing which gets a bit repetitive. Plus often times the second half of the book seems more geared towards those interested in the history of Indonesian poverty then the actually story of Ann Dunham. It can get quite dense.

As for Stanley Ann Dunham who this book chronicles I don't want to give away the many intriguing elements of her life but will say there is a certain heartbreak in her likely sadness at not being in her son's life for long periods of time. One is left to wonder what their relationship would be like today has she not passed away at 52. One last point, I really enjoyed learning about Indonesia and other exotic locations which play a big role in this really well written book.

Totally recommended no matter your politics as long as you are interested in a fascinating life that nobody can deny had a profound affect on the world and history.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
We heard about Stanley Ann Dunham during Barack Obama's run for President in 2008. We knew that she had
been on foodstamps. We knew that she had been a young single mother in Hawaii in the early 1960s with a black son that she had to support.

By emphasizing this part of his mother's history, Barack Obama assured people that, yes, he understood their economic pain. And yes, his mother had been fatally ill with cancer while fighting with her insurance company not to cut off her coverage.

What we really had little comprehension of during these last few years as her son served as President, was the sophistication and complexity of Ann Dunham's professionnal life as an anthropologist and pioneeer working from the "bottom up" for AID and the Ford Foundation, a real pioneer who played a leading role in creating the whole field of micro-lending in which poor women were lent "seed money" to start their own businesses. "Women," New York Times reporter, Janny Scott, writes, "were playing a critical role in keeping poor households afloat. But Indonesian government policies and programs would not reflect that reality until there were more data to prove it. Officials at Ford wanted to encourage more village-level studies." After looking at a list of well-qualified candidates to do this work in rural villages, they decided on Dunham. "She's a specialist in small scale industries/non-farm employment and would be superb."

Dunham worked for the Ford Foundation for four years and Scott's reporting on her sojourn with that international organization is fascinating. She loved the job but in many ways was much more qualified than the Ivy-educated men who ran Ford's Indonesian office. She was fluent in the national language. They were not.
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Format: Hardcover
Author Janny Scott spent 2 years in research that spanned the US mainland, Hawaii and Indonesia. She interviewed over 200 friends and colleagues and read Dunham's field reports, letters and research papers. She had the cooperation of the Payne family, Maya Soetoro and even interviewed President Obama.

The result; however, is not as impressive as the effort. I think this is because the approach is that of a reporter and not a biographer. Interviews are dutifully reported. Some say that Ann boasted about her children all the time, but others say they were surprised to learn she had kids. Some friends report that she shunned doctors but her actions contradict this. Some say she was not judgmental but others say she was highly opinionated.... and so it went.

The clearest interview, that with President Obama, is not contradicted since he mentions new points, missed by others, and perhaps Scott too. He says that his mother was disorganized and that his grandparents sheltered him from the chaos of her life. This comes at the end, and is nowhere developed or critiqued in the text.

The reporting style works for the history of the Paynes and the Dunhams and for documenting the saga of Ann's health care claim. These are important biographical pieces. The well reported sections on anthropology, microfinance, Indonesian villages, the people Ann worked with and the 5 pages describing the East-West Center in Honolulu, with the few biographical elements removed could stand as independent articles on these topics.

There are a lot of good pictures. There are good plates and relevant photos printed side by side with the text. The page 27 photo of the President's great-great-grandparents is worth 1000 words. There is no index.

The subject is fascinating.
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