A young man, left by his African father as a child, searches for his identity.
The books are Barack Obama's autobiography Dreams from My Father and Neil Gaiman's "magical-horror-thriller-ghost-romantic-comedy-family-epic" * novel Anansi Boys. Anansi is the West African trickster god, a spider who can appear as a man. Gaiman's wonderfully readable book follows the adventures of Anansi's son Fat Charlie, who gets mightily confused about his own identity when he realizes after his father dies that he was a god.
Right: Eartha Kitt (some kind of cat goddess, for sure)
Anansi stories are big in the Caribbean, where some of Anansi Boys' characters come from. But it took me a while to realize the characters aren't white because the author doesn't outright say they're black, like authors generally do. This is part of the fun of the book--realizing Gaiman is playing a bit with writing about race--I think almost the only time he gratuitously mentions someone's skin color is when they're white. (Early on, he tells us a nurse is white, for no reason--you never see her again.) Otherwise he says things like "she resembled a skeletal Eartha Kitt," but leaves it up to the reader to decide what the skin of someone whose father is an African god looks like.
Obama, of course, mentions race outright on the very cover of his book, which is subtitled A Story of Race and Inheritance. I can't say a whole lot about this book because I bogged down on page 94. I am totally sympathetic to his search, but this guy is sooooo sincere, so literal, he works so hard to explain behavior for us, the readers, I think he's a bit of a bore.
You know how I said recently I'm not interested in messages but in good stories? Well, Obama may be a good politician and a great guy, and I'm *very* happy he's my president, but his writing foot is heavy on the message. Fair enough, he never said he was a storyteller, right? His imagination is normal. Which is probably good in a politician.
This evening I finally finished Anansi Boys, which comes to a very satisfying conclusion. It ends with the main character basically saying just what I recently said: that he chooses the way of the storyteller:
"Charlie realized, with no little surprise, that he enjoyed singing to other people, and he knew, at that moment, that this was what he would spend the rest of his life doing. He would sing: not big, magical songs that made worlds or recreated existence. Just small songs that would make people happy for a breath, make them move, make them, for a little while, forget their problems."
I don't know much about Gaiman, but he seems to have chosen the same: to entertain rather than to put over a message. In the way of things, his book comes trailing clouds of meaning, of course, because words do. Entertaining stories end up making worlds and recreating existence, too... they just do it sneaky-like. I would choose Gaiman's as a story about a man's search for identity over Mr. Obama's ponderous, literal rendition of it.
My favorite kind of story talks to everybody and everybody hears it a little differently.
Like Jesus' parables. Jesus has some trickster-god qualities, come to think of it. He hands out these confusing little pearls and leaves folks trying to figure out just what it is they're holding--and what they want to do about it. Very tricksy.
* Interview with Gaiman about Anansi Boys, in which he says he really wanted to do "was try and emulate people like P. G. Wodehouse," which helps explain the book's charm.