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Thursday, 19 August 2021

Barack Obama: Dreams From My Father

Barack Obama:
Dreams From My Father: a story of race and inheritance (2*)

It took me ages to get through this and I have to confess I did not particularly enjoy it. Sorry, but by my scheme that’s two stars.

I got it after reading a newspaper article by Obama, which I thought impressively written. You see it in the book. His descriptions are magnificent. For example, when watching the dawn on an African safari:

To the east, the sky lightens above a black grove of trees, deep blue, then orange, then creamy yellow. The clouds lose their purple tint slowly, then dissipate, leaving behind a single star. As we pull out of camp, we see a caravan of giraffe, their long necks at a common slant, seemingly black before the rising red sun, strange markings against an ancient sky. (p355)

Clever as it is, the effect throughout the whole book is exhausting. There is something too precise, too calculated, lacking in feeling. Whether he is describing community meetings, thinking about what family means, or discussing how white people treat black people, it is overwhelmingly analytical, without warmth or humour. There are also too many long passages of apparently verbatim dialogue which seem to be concocted just to give us large amounts of information, for example about Kenyan tribal customs. 

There is an agenda here. I suspect that when he began to write the book as a law lecturer in the early nineteen-nineties, he already had a political career in mind, and was being careful not to give too much away.

Yet he tells us a lot – as if writing about someone else. It is a memoir of his life from early childhood to law school. There are three sections:

  • Origins covers his early life in Hawaii and Indonesia, at College in Los Angeles and at University in New York.
  • Chicago describes his work as a community organizer in Altgeld, a poor, black area of Chicago.
  • Kenya tells of his first visit to his large extended family in Kenya.

Obama has an interesting background. He had a well-educated, high achieving but absent Kenyan father who had numerous children to different mothers. Obama’s own mother was white. She remarried an Indonesian man and they moved to Jakarta. At the age of ten he went back to his white grandparents in Honolulu where he attended a private preparatory school. He then went to college in Los Angeles and to Columbia University, New York. Afterwards, he became a community organizer in Chicago. He visited his extended family in Kenya for the first time at the age of twenty-seven before going to Harvard Law School.

Throughout his account of these years, he repeatedly reflects upon race relations in America and elsewhere, and his own racial identity. He writes about the attitudes between whites and blacks, deprivation in Chicago and the legacy of colonialism in Kenya: serious ideas in complex wordy language; what you might expect of an academic lawyer and politician.

You might say that, as someone privately educated, brought up in multi-racial Honolulu by white grandparents and privileged, it cannot apply to him, but he is non-white and perceived as such, and that has implications. I still think the book too long, that all the race stuff interferes with a cracking story. He looks for prejudice everywhere. Do white tourists really visit Nairobi to experience Isak Dinesen’s Africa and admire portraits of Hemingway surrounded by grim faced-coolies in the Lord Delamere Hotel [p314]?

His mother and grandparents, by the way, were called Dunham. Their ancestors were already in America in the sixteen-thirties and the Dunham surname may have been assumed. Links to Dunham settlers from England are speculative.

 
Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

17 comments:

  1. I was reading this book in 2013 and as I recall I was very much enjoying it. It was in my backpack - which was stolen from the front basket of my rented bicycle when I was cycling in the countryside near Ayutthaya in Thailand. Mr Obama is an admirable fellow but I have sometimes wondered why his black heritage is emphasised ahead of his white heritage. This seems to be a pattern with people of mixed race. I hope that saying this does not make me accidentally racist. In my defence, all that I can plead is my ignorance.

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    1. I very much enjoyed the beginning and thought the first chapter brilliant, but became more and more dissatisfied with it as I read more. I hope my post isn't racist either, it's a very nuanced and complex issue.

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  2. I must say it doesn't sound the book for me although I thought his descriptive writing in the passage you guoted was beautiful and I admired him as president - thought he made a refreshing change.

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    1. He certainly writes well but the more I read the more it felt formulaic.

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  3. I never liked him fucking preaching to us about our Referendum. Preachy man, always treated everyone like a fucking student whose essay he was marking.

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    1. In the middle section he says that in working with disparate groups and individuals, he looked to see what desires and interests they had and how that could be turned towards involving them in his projects. It sounded cold, manipulative and calculating. I know you've talked on your blog about political memoirs you've enjoyed, and I've enjoyed some too, but in this one Obama seems mainly interested in his own advancement and displaying his own cleverness, and I found it less enjoyable and liked him less the more I read. Someone told me that Michelle Obama's book paints him as highly driven, which I can believe, although I'm not minded to read it.

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  4. I thought Michele Obama's Becoming was a very readable book. I think that Obama is a very driven man, and as a president, I respected him greatly.

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    1. Probably my views are because of aversion to anyone who schemes ways to change others behaviour to serve their own causes, which probably includes most driven politicians. I didn't dislike him as President.

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  5. Your views of the book are interesting. It sounds a little too heavy for me. He is certainly a man of the world. I don't think you find racism under every rock you turn over with often a simpler explanation for many things perceived as racism. But that not is to downplay racism at all.

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    1. I'd find anti-northern and class prejudice under every rock if I wanted. Homophobia and prejudice against women too. One form doesn't take precendence over others.

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  6. Like Debby, I enjoyed Michele Obama's "Becoming" very much. I was also very impressed with Barack Obama's "Audacity of Hope" and am currently reading his "Promised Land", which is a doorstopper of a book but still very readable. Maybe he honed his writing skills after his first book, which I have not read yet.
    If you are interested, you can find my reviews of these books here on my blog.

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    1. So html does not work in comments. The word "here" in my last sentence should have been clickable with this link:
      https://librarianwithsecrets.blogspot.com/search?q=obama

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    2. Thanks for the link. I put some html code in the template to disable them in order to thwart the advertisers. I believe Obama now has reservations about his first book too.

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  7. Dreams From My Father appeared in paperback 1996-7.
    Barack wrote of living in an apartment in New York and finding an elderly man dead in his rooming house.
    Barack was going to work and he noticed the old man's door was ajar.
    Inside he found photos of the man's late wife, his parents and grandparents, relics of the old country.

    His speechwriters (YouTube) said they never worried about his delivery of a joke. He is a master of timing. Just listen to his farewell speech (YouTube) to senators and press, his jokes about race and religion.

    Like Debby I respected him greatly even if Noam Chomsky called him a master of illusion.
    High school kids (YouTube) asked him how he wanted to be remembered.
    He said that on his deathbed he would not be thinking about the presidency, but moments with Michelle and the children.

    Croatians say that to prosper all you need is a good enemy.
    Friends flatter, but enemies stimulate and strengthen you, keep your mind alert, sharpen your skills.
    It is instructive to listen to Barack's enemies even now.

    *America's Great Divide: Ann Coulter Interview/Frontline.*
    Frontline PBS Official. YouTube.
    Ann Coulter and I would not agree, but unlike the snobs in the Upper East Side, I would have her at my dinner parties. She has un-phoney wit.
    And she is Obama's good enemy.
    Haggerty

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    1. As said to Debbie, I didn't dislike him as president and think him a whole lot better than his successor and predecessor. There is a lot in this book, too much, and I might find it more palatable after a good edit. It may also be a more demanding book than I want to read at the moment.

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  8. I've never read this book, but I suspect you're right that he was trying to get people to "know" him without giving away too much emotion or vulnerability. He WAS an excellent president, and I think his global perspective is enviable. He really is a "citizen of the world"!

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    1. He was one of the most able presidents you've had in a long time. But its the nature of politics and politicians to keep your cards close to your chest.

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