Friday, February 06, 2009

Setting a President

Just before I left home, I finished reading Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama. I had to finish it because I was gripped in a way I don't normally associate with my reaction to biography, a genre which I tend to be able to read in parallel with a novel, on a pick up/put down basis. But this isn't your usual kind of biography - and not just because the writer has just become scarily powerful.

Two things struck me forcibly right from the start. The first was that this was a really good piece of writing: an effortless syntax; the easy integration of direct speech and dramatic narrative with recollection and reflection. The second was a profound relief that someone so reflective and self-aware, so luminously intelligent, had been elected to succeed Dubya, to whom I wouldn't apply any of the foregoing descriptions.

The book falls into three sections - Obama's childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his time in New York and Chicago, and his visit to Kenya. His family background is fascinatingly complicated, and when he is in Kenya meeting half-brothers and great-uncles, we realise why his take on race and colour is as sophisticated as it is. I found the Kenya experience strangely unsettling in its otherness, conveyed, it seemed to me, in a mood of passive acceptance: I had little sense of the American in Obama's reaction to the lives of his family, even when some family firewater renders a subsequent bus journey nightmarish.

The book ends with his marriage and a looking forward to a life lived in increasing self-knowledge. I shall read the second book later in the year, but right now it will be fascinating to watch this African American's presidency develop. Will he write about it?


  1. Anonymous5:27 PM

    I've not read the book but I did come across this blog post today - it turns out that Obama did the narration for the audio book, including the sweary bits. It did make me giggle quite a lot as I am at heart still just a very immature boy!

  2. You're right Chris. It was an amazing read. I read it whilst in The Gambia, and for me, the parallels between his Kenyan experience and what I was living amongst made it all the more poignant.

    It's good to know that someone with such sense and insight and a firm self-knowledge is in with the idiots of American politics.