Becoming by Michelle Obama

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I was fortunate to have this book to read during that endless travel day to Malta last week and it has been a good companion as I recover from jet lag.¬†Though I knew the reviews for this book were positive, I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I especially loved reading about her childhood and her modest, fun-loving, and hard-working family background. Throughout the book the importance of race is never neglected and I feel fortunate to have read such a personal take on her experience.

Her life as a kindergartener is especially appealing; she preferred the world of high drama and intrigue she created for her dolls to what she calls the messy kid dynamics.

I wasn’t shy, but I also wasn’t sure I needed any of that messiness in my life outside school. Instead, I sank my energy into being the sole animating force in my little common-area universe….The point was that the dolls and blocks needed me to give them life, and I dutifully gave it to them, imposing one personal crisis after another. Like any good deity, I was there to see them suffer and grow.

Her athletic older brother Craig paved the way for her at school; he was always easy-going and successful in school, and she appreciated him. The extended family was present in her life, and one memorable figure was her mother’s father, rechristened Southside by the two siblings when he moved to their neighborhood from the West Side of Chicago. He loved music and wired in speakers where he lived, didn’t trust dentists, resulting in his losing all of his teeth.

When she was in the ninth grade she began her time at Whitney Young High School, Chicago’s first magnet school, and encountered high performing students of all colors. When a trip to Paris was planned, she said nothing to her parents, assuming the cost was prohibitive. Her parents learned about it and found the money to make it happen. At the time she says,

They were in their early forties then, married nearly twenty years. Neither of them had ever vacationed in Europe. They never took beach trips or went out to dinner. They didn’t own a house. We were their investment, me and Craig. Everything went into us.

She followed Craig to Princeton, then went on to law school, and a position with a law firm in Chicago where she mentored that law student from Harvard, Barack Obama. She describes her struggles when she realized she wanted a different life than the “prescribed” successful lawyer. Having fallen in love with Barack, she then had to struggle with her competing desires for a family with a mother as devoted as her own and a career where she made a difference in the world. And finally there was the struggle with having fallen in love with someone in the political realm, a realm she could barely tolerate. Her descriptions feel honest and insightful in ways that made the reading endlessly interesting.

Not surprisingly the recounting of the 2008 election and their time in the White House was fun to read. She stayed focused on creating a reasonable life for her daughters. I love this little anecdote about life in the new world of iPhones everywhere. “As Malia and Sasha moved around Washington with their friends after school or on weekends, they’d catch sight of strangers pointing their phones in their direction or contend with grown men and women asking–even demanding– to take a selfie with them. “You do know that I’m a child, right?” Malia would sometimes say when turning someone down.”

Near the end of their time in the White House she did a bit on James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” series that I remembered seeing on Youtube (it’s worth looking at). I was very impressed she could sing along perfectly, so it was nice to read that “I’d practiced diligently for my karaoke session for weeks, memorizing every beat to every song. The goal was to have it look fun and light…”

What a wonderful book and an amazing woman.

Michelle Obama, Becoming, Crown Publishing, 2018, 448 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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