Beyond "Team of Rivals": Books to Stock on Air Force One

Enough already with Kearns' "Team of Rivals." Obama and company will need more than history books to get them through the dark nights to come. They need to stock up on self-help books.
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Known as The Book Babes, Ellen Heltzel, a book critic who lives in Portland, and Margo Hammond, a book critic based in St. Petersburg, Fla., are authors of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures" (Da Capo Press). Their radio program airs monthly on WMNF-FM in Tampa. Check them out at

Hey Ellen,

Enough already with Doris Kearns' "Team of Rivals." Obama and company will need more than history books to get them through the dark nights to come.

They need to stock up on self-help books.

Don't laugh. How-to books are full of nuggets of wisdom. Here are my suggestions of a few how-to books, for examples, that could help politicians keep their New Year's Resolutions:

Barack Obama's Resolution to Give up Smoking
: When he starts craving a cigarette, Kearns won't help much. Instead, he needs to read Susan Shapiro's Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex. It's funny, and distracting.

Politicians' Campaign Promises to Eliminate Ear Marks: Both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate need to read The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude, a graphic memoir by author/illustrator Carol Lay. Lay knows about trimming fat and her checklist for starting a new routine for weight loss serves just as well as a guide to cutting out pork of another variety:

Make a decision to change
(Voters already have led the way on this one.)
Define your numbers
(A bailout here and a bailout there, and pretty soon it adds up to real money).
Make sure you know who's on your side.
(Lieberman, are you listening?)
Ask for help
(Okay, okay, we'll read "Team of Rivals.")
Stay in reality by being honest with yourself.
(If anything needs to change from the last administration, it's the notion that reality is optional.)
Stick with the program for two weeks.
(Preferably a bit longer, but please don't insist on failed policies just because you want to be seen as an unwavering decider.)

Hillary Clinton's Vow to Crack the Glass Ceiling
: During all those long airplane rides as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton needs to read Seducing the Boys Club, by Nina DiSesa, the chairman of McCann Erickson New York, the flagship office of the largest advertising network in the world. "If you hope to succeed in a boys club, you absolutely must understand the men you are trying to influence and eventually control," she writes. "You can label this process anything you want: manipulation, maneuvering, invisible persuasion. Whatever. Just get under their skin. Find their buttons and push them."

DiSesa, by the way, offers my favorite bit of self-help advice: "Screw the rules. Make up your own." But most politicians don't need to be reminded of that.

Hey Margo,

Here's my advice about advice: Beware people offering bumper-sticker wisdom. That's why self-help books (and their authors) always seem to lack the Right Stuff: They lack the nuance and imagination that's required whether you're playing poker or running the world.

The best solutions to our problems often come indirectly. So here are three imagination-twitching books that, believe it or not, offer insight on important issues. All ought to be stocked on Air Force One:

Culture Wars: Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill. Think Great Gatsby for the 21st century. This novel, which seemed like an obvious contender for both England's Booker and our National Book Award, was passed over on both counts, and I think I know why. It's politically incorrect. Here the dreamer role played by Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald's novel is a dark-skinned Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon, an immigrant striver who represents all the hustle and potential that America offers - as well as the possibility of failure, big-time. The story's narrator is a Dutch banker named Hans who is Chuck's temperamental and cultural foil. O'Neill's story humanizes rather than romanticizes foreign arrivals on our shores - and makes you think about America as a melting pot for hustlers and achievers of all stripes.

Health Care Reform
: Cost, by Roxana Robinson. Drug addiction gains potency and poignancy when you get down to individual cases. This novel effectively rolls out the dynamics between three generations as they unite to bring a heroin addict back into the family fold. This story, reminiscent of Bill Moyers' son's memoir about his struggle to beat a drug problem, underlines how complicated and expensive it is to overcome addiction. Our leaders can't do much about the emotional cost, but they can see this as one of the many health crises that few households are equipped to handle financially. When will we realize that education and health are issues that benefit both the individual and the commonweal?

Hands Across the Sea:Home, by Marilynne Robinson. More family dynamics: This novel offers a modern and theologically profound comment on the biblical story of the prodigal son. After decades of absence, bad boy Jack Broughton returns home to his widowed father and unmarried sister. But even as they throw their arms wide in welcome, the past is always present. Bygones can't truly be bygones because human memory is deep and long. Anyone who has studied the Middle East or Ireland knows what I'm talking about.

Crime and Immigration
: 2666, by Robert Bolano. Sure, your eyes may fall out before you finish this 900-page behemoth of a novel. But if you want to catch the zeitgeist, literarywise, Bolano's the guy to read, and this is his opus -- a novel that reveals both the author's erudition and his ability to gaze into the heart of human darkness. There's no straight line in this story of literary critics and unsolved murders and a Mexico that looks quite different than the one in the tourist brochures. I'm still digesting this one, while taking my cue from Bolano's own words: "Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming."

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