Despite minor flaws, Jefferson’s Demons manifests high energy, expansive scholarship, and fluid language.

JEFFERSON’S DEMONS

PORTRAIT OF A RESTLESS MIND

An examination of Jefferson’s career with attention to his psychological states, his debates with his inner voices, and his struggles with Federalist adversaries.

Lawyer/writer Beran (The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy, 1998) has an efflorescent style that sometimes charms, sometimes cloys (he’s especially fond of alliteration), but he says many striking things about Jefferson, the man and the politician. Jefferson’s greatest productivity often followed hard upon headachy periods of ennui, the author argues, but he establishes little beyond an interesting correlation. Beran divides his treatment into four seasonal sections, beginning with spring and ending with winter, and swiftly deals with the superficial biographical facts. Slavery is a consistent motif, and the author generally does well to point out—repeatedly—Jefferson’s failure to liberate people at Monticello as he simultaneously called for the liberation of people in general. (He is reluctant to believe that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children and appears to think that a master’s sexual relations with a slave could be something other than rape.) In his sprightly style, Beran takes us to familiar biographical landmarks: the Declaration of Independence, the death of Martha Jefferson, the sojourn in France, the Grand Tour, the battles with Hamilton, the decline of Aaron Burr, the two presidential terms (he characterizes both inaugural addresses as dull), the University of Virginia, the now-and-then intimacy with John Adams, and death. He also deals quite effectively with the troubling contradictions in Jefferson, a democrat who lived like an aristocrat (fine wine, fine food, fine first editions, high debts), a man versed in classical ethics who tried to purge the Supreme Court of his political enemies, a true believer in the Constitution who stepped outside its boundaries to enlarge those of the US with the purchase of Louisiana. A particularly intriguing chapter describes interior conversations among various portions of Jefferson’s mind.

Despite minor flaws, Jefferson’s Demons manifests high energy, expansive scholarship, and fluid language.

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2003

ISBN: 0-7432-3279-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2003

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

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BECOMING

The former first lady opens up about her early life, her journey to the White House, and the eight history-making years that followed.

It’s not surprising that Obama grew up a rambunctious kid with a stubborn streak and an “I’ll show you” attitude. After all, it takes a special kind of moxie to survive being the first African-American FLOTUS—and not only survive, but thrive. For eight years, we witnessed the adversity the first family had to face, and now we get to read what it was really like growing up in a working-class family on Chicago’s South Side and ending up at the world’s most famous address. As the author amply shows, her can-do attitude was daunted at times by racism, leaving her wondering if she was good enough. Nevertheless, she persisted, graduating from Chicago’s first magnet high school, Princeton, and Harvard Law School, and pursuing careers in law and the nonprofit world. With her characteristic candor and dry wit, she recounts the story of her fateful meeting with her future husband. Once they were officially a couple, her feelings for him turned into a “toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder.” But for someone with a “natural resistance to chaos,” being the wife of an ambitious politician was no small feat, and becoming a mother along the way added another layer of complexity. Throw a presidential campaign into the mix, and even the most assured woman could begin to crack under the pressure. Later, adjusting to life in the White House was a formidable challenge for the self-described “control freak”—not to mention the difficulty of sparing their daughters the ugly side of politics and preserving their privacy as much as possible. Through it all, Obama remained determined to serve with grace and help others through initiatives like the White House garden and her campaign to fight childhood obesity. And even though she deems herself “not a political person,” she shares frank thoughts about the 2016 election.

An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6313-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2018

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