on May 3, 2011
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.
on May 5, 2011
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. She had deep friendships in scores of villages, and was in fact, marrried for a time, to an Indonesian. Villagers had actually seen her give birth to an Indonesian baby. At the International School where her daughter, Maya, attended, and where all the children of Ford Foundation employees attended, Dunham's child was the only Inndonesian.
Scott's prodigious, intelligent reporting -- she interviewed more than 200 people who had known Dunham -- has produced a biography rich in detail about a strong-willed, impulsive, often generous,financially stressed woman of the late 20th century who admittedly, made many mistakes in her personal life, but never gave up her dream of doing something that she thought was important, and giving her two children good educations and good values. She succeeded, but her life was rocky, often lonely and financially difficult. Her parents, living in Honolulu brought up Barack Obama from the age of ten and Scott tells us that Dunham often told friends that "he was brilliant" and that she missed him terribly. Scott's reporting is all original. Noone else has recreated Dunham's life with its exotic inntellectual interests, and stormy marriages, the way she has. What is missing in the book is Barack Obama himself. He is largely absent physically in this detailed book, and if Scott fails in any way it is in decribing the deep bond between mother and son, and his psychological development and relationship to her in all the many years that they were separated.
on May 8, 2011
Janny Scott worked as a journalist for The New York Times. And just before President Obama was elected President in 2008, she wrote a piece for the Times about Stanley Ann Dunham, the about-to-be-elected President's dead mother. I have read Mr. Obama's books and have learned some about his mother. But I noted that very little seems to have been written about this woman who must have had a profound influence upon her son. And now Janny Scott has provided me with so many researched pieces.
This is what she did: she spent years interviewing people who knew the President's mother. And this book is filled with that information, presented in the chronology of Ms. Dunham's life.
However, I would want potential readers to know this: this is not written in the style of a fluid novel because it isn't a novel. Instead Ms. Scott has presented details through the mouths of those she interviewed which include a few members of Mr. Obama's family (we must remember that he has few family members who are still alive) and then dozens of people who knew this remarkable woman as friends and colleagues.
Several chapters are devoted to Ms. Dunham's professional life most of which was spent in Indonesia were she lived, for a while, with her second husband who was from that island-filled country. This is also where the President lived for a while and where his half-sister, Maya, was born and raised.
Ann Dunham (she dropped the Stanley when she moved to Hawaii--her father's name) was a rather usual mother. She was only seventeen when she found herself pregnant with the future president, newly arrived in Hawaii, a student at the University. She married the senior Barack H. Obama, but soon he was off to Harvard. She apparently was unaware that he was already married and a father, his wife back in Kenya. With the assistance of her parents--Stanley Ann was an only child--who had also just moved to Hawaii, she was able to continue her studies and to begin raising her son.
I won't go into any of the details. But I do want potential readers to know that if you are really interested in the life of his amazing woman, then by all means purchase this well written book. But beware that it is filled with details.
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. This is the only biography of Stanley Ann Dunham that I know of, and for this alone, it is worth a read. Hopefully, someone more experienced in the biographical writing will take this up in the future. While this review, might dwell on the negative, Scott has made a contribution by providing a blueprint for the next person to try to define this fascinating and indeed, singular, person.
on May 29, 2011
I purchased a kindle version of a book called " A singular woman " by janny Scott, a journalist for the New York Times.
The story is about Barack Obama's mother. A fascinating book and so easy to read too. The book reveals a strong but eccentric individual who everyone would have more readily accepted as within norm if she were a man. She had often been criticized as being irresponsible, but the book revealed a complex person who was highly intelligent, idealistic, curious, fearless and unorthodox on one hand and restless, chaotic in her life and finances and driven by social issues to lead her own life on the other hand. The repercussions of such traits on her own life and her family are fascinating. Her life illustrates the difficulty in recommending one parenting style above any other as parenting can have unexpected consequences. The lives of her children were then affected by her decisions, but it would seem to me that it was on hindsight the best training for Obama. Fortunately, he was mentally tough enough to manage all the chaos and use them to forge his character.
The book provides some insight into why Obama did not write about his mother : not while she was alive; later he would find it hard for people to understand his mother in the correct way; and also because his political aspirations handed him the cards that he had to play [ as a black guy]. Apparently, Obama had said cryptically that the best in him came from his mother. In a recent visit to the UK, in response to a question posed by a student in Oxford, UK, his wife Michelle Obama had said that she was first attracted to him because he was bright, and unlike most lawyers he was not focused on money and that he had a special relationship with his mother, sister and grandmother and is very respectful to women. The book gives insights on why this was so.
I enjoyed the description of Indonesia and the potential influences on a growing boy. He was described as "haloos' [ refined and polite] by the local people that the author interviewed. There is a section on Indonesian snacks which is quite funny. Altogether, a very well researched and accurate book [ judged by the historical events in south east asia at that time and the descriptions of Bandung, Jorgjarkarta, jarkarta, all of which I know].
By the way, I got the electronic version on my kindle for a great price.
Perhaps you would enjoy it as much as I am doing now.
on May 15, 2011
I knew very little about S. Ann Dunham before reading this book. I can understand Obama stereotyping her as "a woman from Kansas", and "white bread middle America" during his campaign. As Janny Scott said, "he was running for President in the U.S., not in Indonesia" where his mother was respected and revered in many villages.
I was so moved by this book that I wrote to President Obama to tell him how impressed I was of the story of his mother. I've never done that before.
Stanly Ann Dunham was older than I am by an amazingly huge twelve years but the way she lived her life, unintentionally, had a huge effect on how I could live mine. I too became involved with a black man in college who was there through an exchange program. I had a child and raised him primarily as a single mother. As his father said at the time, "from two very different roots will grow a mighty tree". I didn't take my son to Indonesia but instead to Iowa, a place almost as foreign to black people as Indonesia, in 1980. I understand the sacrifices a mother has to make for the benefit of her mixed race child even when others do not understand. I earned a Master's Degree, with my son in tow, when many women didn't go to or finish college. I made sure my son received a good education even when we didn't always live in the best school districts. I taught him how to positively deal with name calling and racial slurs without always getting in a fight. I often fought for him when he wasn't aware of what I was doing. I taught him to walk away whenever possible and feel good about himself for doing so but I also taught him to stand up for himself when necessary. He was only in one "fight" in high school over his race. I endured the enormous guilt and pressure of society when I allowed him to make the choice at the age of fourteen to leave my marriage with me or stay with his step-father. He chose to stay where he was (as Barack Obama chose) and it broke my heart but he made the best decision for himself. He went on to be his school's student body president, a four letter athlete, homecoming king and a graduate of Iowa State University. He didn't grow up to be president but he did grow into an intelligent man with a management level position in a well known company, a beautiful (Mexican American) wife and a wonderful family.
The strongest message Ann Dunham and I can make to women is FINISH YOUR EDUCATION. It's the best thing you can do for yourself and your children whether you stay with their father or not. Instill in them at a young age that education is an important factor of their life too. It's something no one can take away from you once you earn it. It was the reason Dunham let Barack choose to stay in Hawaii in a good school rather than insisting he leave with her. I was criticized for leaving my son where he was happy and successful and so was she but we both knew it was the best thing for them.
I am truly sorry that Ann Dunham did not live to experience the successes of her son. I've been fortunate to see mine grow into the wonderful man he is today. Personally I believe that Obama would not be judged solely as a black man if his mother and grandmother were alive today to support him. He is half white but the dead cannot speak on his behalf and he does not presume to speak for them. He is a man of strong character, supreme will and amazing intelligence. He can thank his mother for much of that and I hope in his personal moments he does just that. We are so fortunate to have him as the leader of our country.
on August 14, 2011
I hope that one day, maybe soon, Janny Scott will rework her field notes on Barack Obama's unusual (to say the least) mother into a real biography. She has plenty of interesting material here, but she does not yet have the skill of a mature biographer who can whittle away a mass of odd tidbits and genealogical diversions in the service of crafting a coherent story.
I get the feeling that "A Singular Woman" was written under an impossible time crunch. I think Janny Scott got swamped by her exhaustive research and couldn't raise her head above the bog of conflicting accounts from a few questionable sources.
But I did learn a lot from "A Singular Woman". I do have a better understanding of the enormous psychological forces that shaped President Barack Obama's famous grace under pressure. And I will happily and unreservedly vote for him again in the 2012 election.
That's it from me, folks. Janny, you need a rewrite. Obama, you're the greatest!
Janny Scott, a former New York Times reporter, has written an entertaining and informative account of the life of Stanley Ann Dunham, the mother of President Barack Obama. Many women of a certain age, and I am one of them, may identify with Ms Dunham's story -- a girl who was never popular in high school, but who had friends with whom she talked about deeper subjects than normally discussed in the high schools of the 50's and 60's; an only child whose parents had a somewhat troubled marriage but who loved and supported their daughter; a woman who made some bad choices about men, but deeply loved the children she raised as a single parent.
As a single parent who struggled to finish graduate school while working and being a mother, I can only marvel that Ann Dunham did this primarily while living in another culture, away from the supportive presence of her parents.
The author has conducted extensive research on her subject, including conversations with elderly family members. Ann Dunham, if she had survived the cancer that killed her, would have been 66 years old when Ms Scott started her research on Barack Obama, so it was literally a race against time for her to contact and interview the remaining older family members who knew Ann and her parents when they were young. This section of the book contains invaluable information about the young Ann, her parents and grandparents, as well as the fact that the president's roots in this country go way back on his mother's side. The interviews and the conversations with family, former friends, and co-workers, combined with information from her Master's thesis, give this reader a pretty comprehensive view of Ann Dunham -- save for one important aspect, and that is the lack of a really in-depth look at her relationship with her son. Not much time is spent on the president's father either, but that has been covered in Barack Obama's books, so perhaps the author did not feel it necessary to repeat that information in a book about the president's mother.
Ann Dunham was a complex woman -- she was obviously highly intelligent, emotional, driven to want to make a difference in the world through her spending years of her life abroad in a culture far different than the one in which she was raised. She felt great empathy for the people she studied, and worked to help establish the micro-loan process which is thriving in second and third world countries as a means to help individuals start a small business. It is ironic that she never learned to handle her own finances, and relied financially upon her parents almost her entire life. Her decision to send her only son back to Hawaii to live with her parents had to have been a wrenching experience for them both, and I would like to have heard more about the feelings they had on this subject. That there were conflicts is evident in the fact that early newspaper accounts of Obama's background contain little information about his mother, except that she was "a white woman from Kansas who had become an anthropologist and lived in Indonesia". Much more attention was paid to the absent father, who died a few years before Ann, both in Obama's books and in accounts written by others. We really get little in depth about possible conflicts that may have resulted in the president's feeling in someways estranged from his mother. The author remarked that Stanley Ann wondered why he suddenly started to focus on his black heritage when he had been raised exclusively by his white mother and grandparents. Was it, she wondered, a rejection? That is something worthy of exploration, but the author doesn't persue it with her son. Also, was what some saw in 2008 as an ability to connect to large groups of people, but less so to individuals, an outcome of his mother sending him away from her at an early age, even though it was with the best of intentions.
Overall, however, I enjoyed reading this account of the life of an unusual and compelling woman. President Obama resembles his mother physically: they both shared long faces with chins longer than average, have similiar ears, and in some pictures I could see the president's smile on his mother's face. He obviously inherited a sense of committment from her, as well as his intellect and interest in a wide variety of subjects. Perhaps someday there will be a more detailed biography about Stanley Ann Dunham but until then this will more than suffice.
on October 24, 2012
I thought the research for this book was extraordinary. A remarkable life driven by a desire to give the women of Indonesia an opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty. Besides the educational background of Mrs. Obama, it was her tireless determination that allowed her to continue against almost insurmountable odds. Barack Obama said in an one of his books that "all that is good in me, came from my Mother." This book illustrates just how deep her compassion for those suffering in poverty and trapped by lack of education gave her the driving desire to make a difference. Whether he knows it, or not. It is the same depth of compassion that led him to abandon a six figure salary with a law firm right out of college, to become a community organizer in a down-trodden section on the Illinois/Indiana area. Nice to know we still have some real idealists willing to serve humanity rather then serving themselves a pot of gold at the expense of many, many taxpayers.
on May 14, 2011
In the year 2000, author Bonnie Angelo published a book entitled "First Mothers, The Women Who Shaped The Presidents." If you are really curious about our current president and his mother's influence on him, you will enjoy reading about Stanley Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro (Sutero) a teenager who had an unplanned pregnancy that produced Barack Obama, our 44th. president of the United States!
Wisely, the young man born on August 4, 1961, penned his own memoir in 1995 entitled "Dreams From My Father, A Story of Race and Inheritance." I strongly advise reading this excellent book before or after reading "A Singular Woman." Ms. Dunham read some of the drafts before she died of cancer in November of that year, at age 52. Even she would agree, (borrowing from Hillary Clinton) it does indeed, take "a village to raise a child."
I particularly enjoyed the first part of the book about Kansas and Washington - about the Dunham family and their experiences. I can easily picture Stanley Dunham, Obama's grandfather, returning home from the war, transitioning to a civilian with his young wife Madelyn. They moved often, had a baby girl and named her Stanley Ann, worked at various jobs, took courses, dreamed of a better life (I remember those years also) and life was rather normal for the times - that is until the three Dunhams moved to Hawaii after Stanley Ann's high school graduation.
The author traces Ms. Dunham's life via dozens of interviews from friends, family, and colleagues in Hawaii, Indonesia, and New York. There are some repetitions, some interviews that put to rest false statements made over the years by unhappy voters, and the book could have been much shorter. There is no doubt that Ms. Dunham became the ultimate feminist who gave her son "an interesting life" (her words). After reading this book you will agree she is not the main influence. She depended on her own mother to provide security and financial help while she lived her life "her way," in Indonesia.
By the end of this engrossing book, you will either think Ms. Dunham is "amazing" or a "character" while scratching your head in disbelief! She described herself as "a woman from Mars!" In my opinion, the "amazing" person in this book is not Ms. Dunham - it is Madelyn Dunham! (I'm a grandmother).
It will be helpful if you view a map and study the islands of Indonesia - Java, Bali, etc. and the history of the country. I can imagine Obama as a little boy learning about the area from his Indonesian step-father, Lolo. This good-natured man and his story captivated me both in this book of facts and Obama's own 1995 memoir.
Barack Obama Sr., an African from Kenya, and Stanley Ann Dunham, a teenager from Kansas produced our 44th. president. What a fascinating story for the history books! They would be so proud of his accomplishments, the best of which was his marriage to Michelle.