Tuesday, November 29, 2011

books report

The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs. That's right, a biography of the president's father. Would never have been written if his son hadn't become president, an event irrelevant to the (by then long-deceased) father's life, but that's what makes it so interesting. Most biographies are of people who were either successes at what they're famous for or at least spectacular failures (notorious criminals, fallen dictators). This is the biography of an average failure, a promising technocrat whose career fizzled. Jacobs says Barack Sr. was a competent economist; it was alcoholism, womanizing, jealousy of more fortunate contemporaries, and a certain amount of racism (of the Kikuyu against the Luo - it's inescapable, isn't it?) that did him in, as it was drunken driving which killed him.
Also valuable as a view of the flip side of the relationship: Dreams From My Son. Turns out there wasn't much; Ann and the baby were a small incident in a colorful life. Years later in Kenya, when Barack Sr. would mention he had a son in Hawaii, people would think it was just one of his fibs; apparently he was prone to them. Without discussing Birtherism, Jacobs makes clear just how batty the whole idea of the president being born in Kenya is: not only would it have been logistically incredible for Barack Sr., let alone the young and untraveled Ann, to have made the long trip back for a visit then, but he was trying to hide from her that he already had a wife and family back home. He was also trying to renew his student visa while hiding from the INS that he was, as Jacobs brutally puts it, "a bigamist with a mixed-race child." So he told them she was planning to put the baby up for adoption, though this was apparently not true.

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal. Here's a biography of one of those notorious failures. I was mostly curious as to how this German kid got away with convincing people, including his wife of several years, that he was actually an American plutocrat named Clark Rockefeller. Sheer gall, I guess. When people who actually knew the Rockefellers would tell him "I know the Rockefellers, and they say they have no cousin named Clark," he'd reply that he'd changed his first name to preserve his privacy, even though if you think about it that makes no sense (he changed his first name? when his last name is Rockefeller?). I once knew a charming, voluble guy in England who claimed to be a hereditary peer and (as many of them were in those days) a member of the House of Lords. Curious, since it was possible, I checked and he wasn't, but I didn't beard him on it; why bother? I just contented myself with quietly correcting other friends who'd swallowed the story.

The Use and Abuse of Literature by Marjorie Garber. Literary criticism is about literature. This book is about literary criticism. I find such rarified atmosphere comfortably breathable, when presented in a relaxed style as this is. I had to sigh at the point she denounced a popular books list which included The Lord of the Rings as "disenheartening" because it didn't have any canonic great literature on it. But there was some better stuff, especially a chapter on biography as literature. Garber polemically distinguishes between biographers who draw their characterizations and psychological insights skilfully from the actual source material (conspicuous good example: David McCullough) and those who build castles of assumption upon presumption upon assertion. I have my own problems with McCullough, but I agree he's exemplary in this respect, and this needs to be pointed out. Garber gets very tired of biographers who say their subject "must have" thought this or that when nothing of the sort need have been, and so do I.

C.S. Lewis's Lost Aeneid, edited by A.T. Reyes. I was turned off the Aeneid by a forced feeding in college lit class, so I'm not here for the translation, though it looks pretty readable. I want to know the story behind this book. Tina Turner would ask, "What's 'lost' got to do with it?" The introduction claims that Lewis's literary executor has had the manuscript since just after Lewis's death 48 years ago. But he never dropped any hints that it had survived, until this volume was recently announced for publication. If that's the story, it's only "lost" if for decades he forgot he had it. Or is there something funnier going on here, as there have been whiffs of regarding other posthumous Lewis publications that the executor has pulled out of his hat over the years? Unfortunately the chief sniffer on this topic went batty from the fumes and then died some years ago, but I'd like to hear what she'd have to say about this one. I just noticed that the Library of Congress cataloging record does not include Lewis's name as an author of this book. Are they trying to tell us something?

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