Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...
The title of David Maraniss' well-researched tome,
Two points about yours truly before I proceed- I have not read Dreams from My Father, and (by pure coincidence, as far as I know) happened to be concurrently reading Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) while working my way through this biography. Why am I telling you these things? The first is relevant because Maraniss' book is, in many ways, a narrative fact-checking of Obama's memoir. While this biography definitely stands on its own, Maraniss' findings are frequently compared and contrasted to Obama's earlier narrative, which meant very little to me as I have not read it. I bring up my simultaneous literature choice due to its influence on my own thoughts regarding the nature of memory, and narratives as reflections of "truth." I believe in facts and fact-checking, and believe them to be important. However, I the cognitive mechanisms of things like "source confusion" were salient for me as I read. Onward ho!
Obama's parents were quite a pair. They were, spoiler alert, not of the same race, place or, well, a lot of things. Neither parent played a constant role in Obama's life, but this was emphatically so with Barack Obama Sr. who was, by most measures, not really a "father" to the future president at all (they basically met once, in 1971). As it turns out, this may have been for the best given the senior Obama's track record for bigamy, irresponsibility, alcoholism and reckless driving, which would end his life in 1982.
Stanley Ann Dunham was, likewise, a complex character. Born in Kansas, she met Obama's father while she was in college in Hawaii. They were briefly married (though the elder Obama's marital status in Kenya at the time is unclear), including at the time of President Obama's birth in 1961. There's a lot of moving around, another child and another marriage in there- her story could (and has been) fill a book all its own. The big summary point, for me, had to do with Stanley Ann's comfort with (and perhaps preference for) her "outsider status" in various environments. She was an anthropologist by trade, so this was a useful trait to have. However, one need only think back to one's own "wonder years" to realize that this isn't always a desirable feature of a young person's life.
Hawaii, Haoles, and Hapas:
Yes, President Barack Hussein Obama was born in Hawaii which, in 1961 was (and today is) part of the United States. Some of Obama's formative years were also spent living in Indonesia, but the bulk of his youth and his high-school years were spent living in Honolulu (primarily with his grandparents, as Stanley Ann was back with baby sister Mia in Indonesia).
Hawaii has a racial dynamic all its own- one that is cleverly lampooned in the South Park episode, Going Native. Any popular vacation destination has a certain derision for tourists, but the point about Hawaii that Maraniss makes is really one of acute racial awareness. I can't claim to know all of the nuances of the terms Haole (essentially, white person, but with a flare of "newcomer") and Hapa (mixed-race), but they were certainly ideas of which Obama was acutely aware.
By the time Obama was enrolled at the prestigious Punahou School, however, he had a sense of belonging to at least two "family" units: his semi-stoner, but harmlessly adolescent group of friends known as "the Choom Gang," and the basketball team. Though I love basketball, Maraniss' discussion of what details of Obama's account of his bball days may or may not have been accurate was a big lull in the book for me (one I think was only partly due to my not having read the memoir with which Maraniss cross-checks play time). This is also around the time when Maraniss starts comparing Obama to the young Bill Clinton- the summary point of which is that Obama was in no way the young, glad-handing politician that Clinton may have been as a fourth grader.
The Mainland and Beyond:
That Obama tried on and struggled with various identities during his college years is no surprise- it's pretty par for the course. That much of this would be intertwined with race is also not a shock. While it was interesting to hear various voices speak to Obama's character and evolution from his days at Occidental College, to his transfer to Columbia and his role as a community organizer in Chicago, it sometimes felt like much ado about nothing. It's not that I don't believe the facts or stories, it's just that any inconsistencies between these accounts and Obama's didn't seem particularly scandalous. This was when I felt like Maraniss was just giving discrepancies for discrepancies' sake.
Three and a half stars feels just about right for me on this one- Maraniss did a lot of research, and kept me interested, but one of us (and it very well may have been me) started to run out of energy toward the end.