Biography and Memoir Reviews: Barack Obama and David Foster Wallace

Unsure what new book to read next? Sit back: We read the book reviews in case you missed them. Below are the collected reviews of two new books being discussed in leading journals and magazines. Today we look at “Barack Obama: The Story” by David Maraniss and “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace” by D. T. Max.

“Barack Obama: The Story” by David Maraniss

The latest in a slew of Obama biographies (following David Remnick’s “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama” and Janny Scott’s “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” among others) attempting to uncover the source of the President’s political ambition, David Maraniss’s 641-page tome, “Barack Obama: The Story” arrived on bookshelves with some handwringing from the White House. That fear, which stems from Maraniss’s careful disassembling of Obama’s memoir, “Dreams from My Father” within “The Story,” is not completely unfounded, but as Darryl Pinckney observes in The New York Review of Books, its impact is rather muted. “Maraniss’s competition with Dreams from My Father makes him a prisoner of his material,” Pinckney writes, “resulting in a sort of biographer’s Stockholm Syndrome about those he has interviewed. Often you get the feeling that because they gave him so much of their time, their trust, and that he bonded with them in some way, he bestows on them the glory of his narrative sun.”

Jonathan Karl, writing in the Wall Street Journal, sees an obscure portrait of Obama in Maraniss’s biography, noting that, “The recurring theme that runs throughout ‘Obama: The Story’ is just how unlikely is was that someone with Mr. Obama's exotic and tangled family history -- whatever his race -- would end up in the Oval Office.” Kevin Harnett of the Christian Science Monitor is similarly fascinated by Obama’s opaque ambition as presented in “The Story,” admitting that it is unclear why the President pursued power or what exactly he would do with it, but concludes, “Maraniss ably outlines the mystery of Obama’s character, even if he’s not able to solve it.”
Bio-Metric: 3/5

“Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” By D. T. Max

The first major biography of the beloved author of the seminal novel "Infinite Jest," D. T. Max’s “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” attempts to chart David Foster Wallace’s epic and public struggle with depression and addiction, culminating in his suicide at age forty-six in 2008. Though Max wrote his biography with cooperation from Wallace’s friends and family, Publisher’s Weekly Gabe Habash finds the effort disappointing, noting that, “The facts are all there, but Max…often seems in a hurry to report them, rarely stopping to explore Wallace’s struggles with his social identity or his creative evolution.” Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times is much more generous, declaring, “What Mr. Max’s book does do -- and does powerfully -- is provide an emotionally detailed portrait of the artist as a young man: conflicted, self-conscious and deeply thoughtful, like so many of his characters a seeker after an understanding of his own place in the world and a Melvillian ‘isolato,’ yearning for connection yet stymied by the whirring of his own brain and the discontinuities of an America reeling from information overload.” Kirkus’ Review is similarly impressed, simply calling Max’s work, “A stellar biography of a complicated subject: Max's portrait skillfully unites Wallace’s external and internal lives.”
Bio-Metric: 4/5