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Review: And the Pursuit of Happiness by Maria Kalman

Review: And the Pursuit of Happiness by Maria Kalman post image

Title: And the Pursuit of Happiness
Author: Maira Kalman
Genre: Nonfiction/Graphic Memoir
Year: 2010
Acquired: From the publisher for review as part of a TLC Book Tour.
Rating: ★★★★½

One Sentence Summary: Maira Kalman, an author and illustrator, spent a year exploring both well-known and quirky aspects of American democracy and what it means.

One Sentence Review: And the Pursuit of Happiness is a delightful book to read, both because of the lovely illustrations and because of the thoughtful and optimistic away Kalman approaches the questions of the whole American democratic experiment.

Why I Read It: I was a little familiar with Kalman’s New York Times Blog, And the Pursuit of Happiness, so was excited to read the book it inspired.

Long Review: Starting on Inauguration Day in 2008 and traveling through the year, And the Pursuit of Happiness is one woman’s exploration of American democracy. It’s a meandering and quirky journey — covering everything from George Washington to the New York City sanitation system — that feels both deeply personal and widely applicable.

What I think I liked best about this book was the way Kalman was able to be critical without being nasty, pointed in her observations about the country without adopting a sarcastic or cynical approach. I struggle daily to keep my cynicism in check, to have faith in leaders — from both parties — elected every November, and to not let news about the worst in people get me down. Even when I purposely avoid it, I often find myself angry and confused after listening too much to what Jon Stewart describes as, “our country’s twenty-four hour politico, pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator.”

Any yet, so much of the whole American system works. Early in the book Kalman goes to a town meeting where,

People speak their mind with grace and civility. They listen with respect. The enterprise is based on trust. Will you trust what your neighbors tell you? Will you trust that the system will work and people will be fair? I have my paranoid, pessimistic side. But who doesn’t?

It reminded me of Gilmore Girls and a town meeting, but those are not always civil and respectful!

Yet even when Kalman finds things that are wrong, she seems to maintain a faith in the overall system and joy in the little things that go right. I really enjoyed the September chapter, which looked at many of the government bureaucracies in New York. She went into the mayor’s office expecting to find closed doors and busy schedules, and was rewarded with an open office where the mayor sits with his employees and they all maintain a sense of tranquility — proof, to me anyway, that believing in the system can work.

Oh, and the illustrations and pictures! I included a couple of them here from the New York Times blog, but they’re just a tiny sample. The photographs in the book are just beautiful, and the cartoon illustrations are rich and lovely. They make it the sort of book you linger over, soaking up the details.

And the Pursuit of Happiness made me think about politics and history, and it made me smile at the possibilities my country holds, something I haven’t done this much in awhile. For that alone, I’m deeply happy to have read it and highly recommend it.

I’ll end this with one of my favorite quotes from the book, from the chapter where Kalman is looking at Thomas Jefferson:

If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to his home in Virginia. Monticello.

Other Reviews: | Suko’s Notebook | Rundpinne | Library Queue | Chaotic Compendiums | Daydream Believer | 1330v | sfgirlbybay | Booksie’s Blog | Eleanor’s Trousers | Books Like Breathing |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Photos taken from And the Pursuit of Happiness at the New York Times

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Steph November 17, 2010, 9:56 am

    Wonderful review, Kim! I picked up a copy of this book from work, simply because I was intrigued by all the art, but I knew nothing about it when I did so. The more I read about it, the more I feel like it was such a lucky find! I think it’s really hard to not let politics get us depressed and apathetic, so it’s always nice to hear about someone who manages to do more than tread water when it comes to the topic.

    • Kim November 17, 2010, 5:13 pm

      Steph: I agree – a really lucky find! I do like the way she takes an active stance in trying to get over apathy and skepticism and do something about it.

  • nomadreader (Carrie) November 17, 2010, 10:22 am

    I really love the illustrations in this one. I’ll have to check it out; I’ve been meaning to read more graphic books.

    • Kim November 17, 2010, 5:13 pm

      nomadreader: I thought the illustrations were beautiful – I love how colorful they are.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) November 17, 2010, 2:37 pm

    This is near the top of my wish list and I plan to buy it the next time I’m in the bookstore. It looks wonderful to me.

    • Kim November 17, 2010, 5:13 pm

      bermudaonion: It is wonderful – I hope you enjoy it when you get to buy it!

  • Bibliophile By the Sea November 17, 2010, 6:40 pm

    This is one I have been seeing more and more of –thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Kim November 20, 2010, 9:42 am

      Bibliophile By the Sea: It has been on a tour recently, and I think getting good reviews.

  • Erin November 17, 2010, 7:15 pm

    This sounds wonderful! And I’ve been meaning to read more graphic books. It’s going onto the list. Thanks!

    • Kim November 20, 2010, 9:43 am

      Erin: I think is a good middle ground sort of book between graphic novel and books – the illustrations add a lot to the story.

  • Trisha November 17, 2010, 7:23 pm

    I’ve been loving graphic memoirs lately, so thanks for the suggestion!

    • Kim November 20, 2010, 9:44 am

      Trisha: I’ve been loving them too – this is a different sort of one but also a lot of fun.

  • Jenny November 17, 2010, 7:56 pm

    I love Maira Kalman, for all the reasons you’ve said. I got The Principles of Uncertainty for my sister for Christmas, and read the whole thing before giving it to her. Kalman’s handwriting and her artistic style and her small, perceptive observations — the whole thing makes me happy.

    • Kim November 20, 2010, 9:45 am

      Jenny: I actually didn’t know she’d done another book – I’m going to look for The Principles of Uncertainty really soon.

  • Cass November 20, 2010, 7:07 am

    I was kind of hoping this would be all text, so I refused to acknowledge it was a graphic book until I read the comments. Boo. Not that I mind, necessarily, I just really would have enjoyed a big book about politics and becoming less cynical. Maybe after the disappointment wears off I’ll give it a read 😉

    • Kim November 20, 2010, 9:49 am

      Cass: Lol, that’s funny. I’m not sure the book would have worked quite as well if it had just been text, but totally agree – I’d love to read something like this as a straight memoir. I hope you do give this one a try, at some point 🙂

  • Dawn - She Is Too Fond of Books November 20, 2010, 1:01 pm

    I’m going to put this on my Christmas wish list! we have a few children’s books illustrated by Kalman, and I think my husband and I would enjoy this book geared toward (perhaps) an older audience.

    • Kim November 22, 2010, 9:27 pm

      Dawn: I think you’d really enjoy this Dawn, with all the history you have close to where you live.

  • Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours November 21, 2010, 6:47 pm

    I love it when a person can approach politics without becoming nasty or too snaky, yet without being overly optimistic as well and it sounds like that is exactly what Kalman does in this book.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it – thanks for being a part of the tour!

    • Kim November 22, 2010, 9:28 pm

      Heather: I am glad too, it was really enjoyable. I have a couple friends I’m going to recommend it to. I think Kalman does strike a good balance between criticism and admiration, but that could just be because she hits my level 🙂

  • Care December 2, 2010, 4:11 pm

    I want this! Thanks for bringing to my attention.

    • Kim December 5, 2010, 11:04 am

      Care: It’s such a lovely book – I hope you can find a copy!