Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-03-19
- Reviewer: Staff
Between epic framing and prosaic content, a canny portrait of the 44th president through the age of 27 finally emerges from this sprawling biography. Journalist and bestselling author Maraniss (First In His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton) dwells too grandly on the mythic confluence of Kenya and Kansas in Obama’s veins; he’s more cogent in analyzing the legacy of his father’s keen intellect, his mother’s self-possession, social conscience, and anthropologist’s neutrality, and Obama’s cosmopolitan childhood spent bouncing between Hawaii and Indonesia. Deploying exhaustive research, including countless interviews with friends to correct Obama’s distorted memoir of youthful racial alienation, the author depicts a well-adjusted, basketball-crazy kid whose uneventful life involves more reflecting than experiencing. Maraniss pads this less-than-gripping narrative with the meatier back-stories of forebears, many scenes of the college-age Obama brooding over his identity, and pages of relationship angst from a girlfriend’s diary. The book doesn’t gel until the final chapter on Obama’s community organizing work in Chicago, where strands of his personality—detachment, aversion to confrontation, consensus-seeking, idealism tempered by an understanding of the realities of power, a “determination to avoid life’s traps”—coalesce into his mature politics. Obama’s story here is interior and un-charismatic, but it makes for a revealing study in character-formation as destiny. The book ends as Obama prepares to enter Harvard Law. Photos. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn, Sagalyn Literary Agency. (June)
The forces that shaped our first black president
The advance buzz for Barack Obama centers on the diary entries kept by Genevieve Cook, who was the one-time girlfriend of the man who would become the 44th president of the United States. Obama was 22 at the time, a recent graduate of Columbia University, living in New York and searching for his place in life. The diary entries, excerpted in Vanity Fair prior to the book’s publication, are intriguing because they reinforce the image of Obama being cool and aloof. Indeed, the 18-month relationship collapses under the weight of inertia as Obama decides to move to Chicago to become a community organizer. The rest, as they say, is history.
While Cook’s often-whiny diary entries are juicy, they represent only a fraction of what makes Barack Obama a great book. Author David Maraniss, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, uses his skills as a journalist to uncover new details about Obama and his ancestors. The book traces the Obama family tree back to his great-grandparents in Kansas and in Kenya. It follows Obama as a young boy as he hopscotches across the globe from Hawaii to Indonesia, and then as a young man attending college in Los Angeles, and later New York. The chronicles of this circuitous journey only reinforce how remarkable a story it is that Obama ended up in the White House.
Barack Obama fills in the blanks of Obama’s own memoir, Dreams from My Father, because Maraniss is such a thorough reporter and researcher. The author of a memoir has a singular perspective, and can be selective with the particulars, while a biographer strives to find all the facts. Obama’s book creates the frame for the portrait. Maraniss’ book connects the dots.
What is fascinating about Barack Obama is that it ends before Obama enters politics. In fact, the protagonist doesn’t appear until the seventh chapter. Maraniss explains that he took this approach to delve deeply into Obama’s background and discover what shaped his character: Growing up as a biracial child with no father and a mother who was often gone; raised by white grandparents who struggled with their prejudices, the future president faced many challenges. “It helped explain his caution, his tendency to hold back and survey life like a chessboard,” Maraniss writes. As Obama finishes his fourth year in office, some say he is even more of an enigma. Barack Obama is a book guaranteed to bring more clarity to his story.