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Madeleine Albright, Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st-Century Memoir (New York: HarperCollins, 2020), 370pp.Madeleine Albright, Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st-Century Memoir (New York: HarperCollins, 2020), 370pp.

After Madeleine Albright (born 1937) concluded her service as America's first female secretary of state in 2001, she says that she needed a "new buzz," and that "retirement was a four-letter word." In some ways she enjoyed her newly private life as a "former somebody," and jokes about pumping her own gas and the lack of a security detail. But what really drove her was an abiding sense of civic service. How could she leverage her public persona on behalf of the things she cared about, namely, the promotion of democracy and the empowerment of women? This memoir, her seventh book, describes her "third act" in post-government life.

The "central theme" of the memoir, she says on the last page of her book, "is about how people of all descriptions can work together for common goals against a background of accelerating history. It is about trying to make sense of the world we have while attempting to contribute in small ways (though, as large as we can make them) to something better." Despite all that she has experienced and witnessed, she remains an incorrigible optimist.

In some circles Albright has a reputation as a "cold-blooded granny," but this book disabuses you of that notion.  I especially enjoyed her wickedly funny and self-effacing wit. Two examples will have to suffice. When she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, America's highest civilian award, she couldn't resist asking her successor Colin Powell if he had one. "No," said Powell, "I have two of them." Then, the title of Albright's memoir is a delightful and ironic double entendre. While introducing Hillary Clinton at a campaign event, Albright said, "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other." Many women were rightly offended at the remark, but with the book title she owns one of her few misstatements in an otherwise distinguished career. 

Dan Clendenin:

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