Book Club: Barack Obama and Ava DuVernay talk ‘A Promised Land’

President Obama sits at the Oval Office desk.
President Obama sits in the Oval Office on his first day in office, Jan. 21, 2009.
(Pete Souza / The White House)

Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.

“My interest in books probably explains why I not only survived high school but arrived at Occidental College in 1979 with a thin but passable knowledge of political issues and a series of half-baked opinions that I’d toss out during late-night bull sessions in the dorm.”

This humble and self-effacing personal assessment comes from Barack Obama in an excerpt from “A Promised Land,” the 44th president’s bestselling memoir. The book charts his improbable journey to the White House, including a pivotal time at L.A.’s Occidental College that spurred his interest in politics and the civil rights movement.


“Oh, how earnest I was then — how fierce and humorless! When I look back on my journal entries from this time, I feel a great affection for the young man that I was, aching to make a mark on the world, wanting to be a part of something grand and idealistic, which evidence seemed to indicate did not exist,” he writes. “This was America in the early 1980s, after all. The social movements of the previous decade had lost their vibrancy. A new conservatism was taking hold. Ronald Reagan was president; the economy was in recession; the Cold War was in full swing.”

On Wednesday, April 21, Obama joins us for a very special edition of the Los Angeles Times Community Book Club. The former president will discuss “A Promised Land” in a conversation with filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

“A Promised Land” covers the first 2½ years of Obama’s presidency and is the first of two volumes. Times White House reporter Eli Stokols described the book as a fast-moving narrative that “puts the reader in the room at defining moments.”

The free virtual book club event will stream at 7 p.m. Pacific time on the Los Angeles Times Facebook page, YouTube and Twitter. Sign up on Eventbrite.

Paired photos of Barack Obama, one of him as a college freshman and one after his presidency.
Barack Obama as a freshman in 1979 at Occidental College and in his author photo for “A Promised Land.”
(Occidental College / Pari Dukovic)

L.A. Times Festival of Books

This month’s book club night comes right in the middle of the annual Festival of Books, which kicks off today as a virtual series with more than 30 author talks, readings and other events over the next seven days. Most events are free.

How to watch: The festival begins at 10 a.m. today, and the weekend lineup includes Guy Raz, Zooey Deschanel, James Patterson, Jia Lynn Yang, Yusef Salaam, Meena Harris, Douglas Stuart, Richard Thompson, S.A. Cosby, Danielle Evans, Nikky Finney, Robert Jones Jr. and more. Dorany Pineda compiled this handy watch guide to help you find events and sign up.

Spring reading: From poets to novelists to young adult writers, this story gallery shows what to expect from the featured authors. The complete list of panels is here.

Book Prizes: Check out the winners of the 41st annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, presented Friday night by books editor Boris Kachka. Among those honored in 14 categories were short story writer Deesha Philyaw, journalist Isabel Wilkerson, poet Victoria Chang, biographer William Souder and novelist David Diop. Stephen Graham Jones won the second Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction.

Keep reading

Shhh, time for your library voice: After being closed for more than a year during the pandemic, Los Angeles city and county libraries are getting ready to reopen. “It’ll look a little different, but we’re hoping all our safety measures ensure our customers have a great experience and still recall we’re the center for community,” says Skye Patrick, director of the L.A. County Library.

California dreaming: New books from Ronald Brownstein (“Rock Me on the Water”), Mick LaSalle (“Dream State”) and Joel Selvin (“Hollywood Eden) examine the mythology of the Golden State through pop culture. If California seems to think a lot of itself, these books argue that it has many reasons to, from the weather to its youthfulness and its unself-conscious diversity.

United We Read: In case you missed it, here’s the complete reading list of Heather John Fogarty’s yearlong project to read at least one contemporary book from every U.S. state, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.