Sunday, December 22, 2019

Becoming by Michelle Obama: Book Review and Reactions


This was a marathon of a book, but after forcing myself to sit through all 15 hours of Michelle Obama's Becoming (the audiobook version narrated by her), I have at last finished it. I had hoped that Michelle's book may be more stimulating after hearing her interview on Oprah's podcast, but alas, the book falls into the same predictable narrative stream and carries the same self-aggrandizing tone that other recent famous-people-mid-life-autobiographies have done. It's not that it isn't worth a read, as there are plenty of juicy nuggets regarding life in the White House as well as thoughtful interludes and reflections on the challenges faced by minority groups in the US, but it's also more than a little long and meandering and surprisingly frustrating, ultimately not worthy of 15 hours of one's focused time. I can only recommend the audiobook, and only if you listen to it while doing something else. 

Below, I'll go through the main highlights of the book as well as my reactions to it (it was mixed to say the least), including what my key frustration was.

My general pet peeve with these autobiographical books of late (some recent ones I've skimmed include Sonia Sotomayor's and Megyn Kelly's) is that they spend an overlong period of time on the subject's childhood. My one takeaway is that everyone seems to find it necessary to demonstrate how many challenges they faced as a child, as if that somehow is the reason why they deserve all the success of their lives and paints them in a "relatable lens". Everyone's childhood, from the most to least fortunate of authors, will include one or more instances of bullying (kids are indeed cruel to each other) combined with some tale on familial love and struggle, whether it's loss of a loved one, poverty, poor schooling, or some other factor like health challenges (in the case of Sotomayor, her diabetes). What I would say to this? Edit it down. Nobody cares. A good example of how this is done right is Bob Iger's book, in which he presents only the pertinent lessons from his childhood, and then zips into his career, which let's be real is the reason why people read.

In Michelle's case, a rather forgettable yet very long portion of the early book is about her childhood in the South Side of Chicago, a fact that she repeats throughout the book and that is oft quoted in her speeches as First Lady. She grew up in a small residence with her brother, mother, and a father who suffered from MS. She describes in too much detail the time spent with her extended family, referring to them with so many nicknames that one quickly loses track. She talks about random moments she remembers, such as freezing up in a piano recital, and about how her manner of speaking was made fun of by others in her school. She also talks about a pivotal moment when her mother withdrew her from the school she was in to put her in the school that would change her life.

It's all well and interesting, but this section should have been edited down and was quite a slog to get through (indeed, many folks I know never made it past this). I always am skeptical as to how many of these stories are truly being "told from memory" given how far back they take place. I for one barely remember any stream of events from my childhood, while Michelle is decades my senior and even further removed. 

Once this is over, Michelle transitions into her life as a young adult after getting into Princeton and then Harvard Law School (a track record very similar to Sonia Sotomayor now that I think of it). The only real piece of this phase that I remember is when she talks about her father's increasing struggles with MS followed by his death. This was truly a tragically beautiful sequence in the book, and the integrity and character she imbues into her description of her father made me also admire him and tear up at his death. The line that has still stuck with me is when she reflects on how lonely it must have been for him, trapped in his body, suffering from a debilitating disease that few could imagine or ever relate to. That was beautiful, and truly I wish she'd shone more of a light on her father rather than her myriad of other relations. 

Beyond this is when Obama comes into the picture, when she meets him while a young associate at a law firm and he comes in as a summer intern she's meant to mentor. It's a bit of a juicy tidbit I hadn't known, the fact that she not only met him at work but was actually his superior for a period (Obama never went back to work full time).  

Following this the book talks about her struggles to find meaning in her work, on what led her to leave her high-paying and prestigious law job and begin a career at a nonprofit followed by a role at U Chicago. It also describes her struggles to balance her own ambition and career with her husband's simultaneously growing political career, as Obama goes from a nonprofit to join the Illinois Senate and then the US Senate. She describes the skewed amount of responsibility in being the woman and therefore the ultimate grower and caregiver of their eventual two children, Malia and Sasha, especially given their fertility challenges that ultimately required IVF to go through. This was refreshing to hear about, as so rarely do we get a candid view into the increased sacrifices in time and one's literal body that a woman has to make versus the man. 

She talks about Obama always overpromising on what time he would be home, which rather struck me in how disorganized and haphazard it depicted him as. Indeed, Obama seemed like a fairly absentee member in the early life of his daughters (as is sadly too commonly the case with fathers), with Michelle shouldering the bulk of the responsibilities and adjusting her job to accommodate the time she needed to care for them. It was the one bit that felt relatable and all too common, how such a qualified woman would take a pay cut and stymie her career to cater to her family. It was sad to see that was very much the case for the emblematic family of the US - it's even sadder to realize that while Michelle came out of the experience a celebrity and is able to build back her career and financial stability in her late stage of life, most women cannot recover. 

She goes through the campaign, which shocked me in how much time and effort it took - over 2 years of near-daily campaigning and travel visits to early states like Iowa. It was also an interesting reflection of what happened to build Obama's momentum - essentially he carried over voters by his sheer prowess of speech, nevermind his job experience or other qualities. His speech at the DNC following Kerry was what started up his fame, and the fame only grew with time until it propelled him into the White House.

The descriptions Michelle gives of life in the White House is interesting and dividing, for while I found it fascinating to learn about the going-ons of their new, incredibly decadent life, it also made me more than a little aghast and frustrated by the excesses. Here we are, in a time where so many in the US barely make enough to pay rent or feed their children, yet the President and his family are given the entire floor of a building rent-free, with personal chefs, people to make their beds, an army of security with them at all times, and so many other unimaginable benefits, all funded through tax dollars that arguably could be better off supporting citizens with less. They do pay for their own food, which I believe is the very minimum they should fund. 

And as I learned through reading this article, that's the bare minimum - they also get a vacation home in Camp David, plus lifelong reimbursements for "official" costs with no cap (George W Bush got a $1M reimbursement for an office in 2015) as well as a lifelong pension of over $200K/year, no matter the fact that they are all millionaires with assets to retire in a dignified manner. 

Michelle goes through one example that shines a light on the interesting conflict in perception that arises from living in such a position. She describes a date the Obamas took to NYC in his first few months of office, which required a couple private plane rides from DC, a helicopter, a security escort that closed down the entirety of 6th Ave in the city (which as a resident of the congested and crowded city boggles my mind and frustrates me beyond belief), and resulted in a delay to hundreds of attendees to a show in Times Square, all to attend a dinner and play one evening. 

Michelle describes the whole incident with a fond and woe-is-me tone about the rarity of the even and the inevitable backlash that followed; I read it and was aghast that something like this could even be allowed to happen. Taxpayers and our coffers should not exist to service the fanciful whims even of our head of state, and I don't believe for a second that they couldn't have found other, less environmentally and financially wasteful ways to go on a date. I can only attribute it to the incredible disconnect that arises when you live in a building that has a 50-seat luxury movie theater and bowling alley, to decide that a "date" must be something that must rise beyond your new normal.

The rest of the book focuses on Michelle's efforts to establish her own legacy of sorts, including her White House garden as well as a focus on children and education. There's much time also spent on the lack of "normalcy" afforded her children, who would spend 8 of their developmental years in the White House and surrounded by Secret Service any time they wanted to go for ice cream. Again, I read it while feeling conflict - I understand the challenges of the lack of normal for these kids, but I also found it a bit insufferable that she tried to make us feel sorry for them when they lived with more than they would ever need and met the most incredible of world leaders - from Nelson Mandela to the Pope. This is privilege of a very rare sort, and one that will open doors for them that few other children in the world can expect even a fraction of.   

All in all, I felt the latter half of the book veered too far to the tone of justification, justification for their luck, access, and the opportunity that will enable her family to do and have anything they want for the rest of their lives. The one thing I do give Michelle credit for is her seeming recognition of this. She's quick to mention her South Side background, as if this makes her more deserving of this and will make her seem like "one-of-us" when the rest of her life has been so far removed from this. She is introspective in the right ways, and her insights on the sad state of our divided party and politics as a polluted stream was helpful to learn and shed light on. For that reason, I do give her credit for putting this book out there, and for being open on everything. Indeed, it's the first time any presidential family member has been so open about the experience, laying it all out there for us to see and understand. 

For me, the book incites conflicting feelings, remaining insightful and thought-provoking in many ways but also providing a frustrating glimpse into a world that most of the country can never relate to. It felt genuine to what we the public know of Michelle, and it's a book that perhaps the youth will enjoy and learn from. But it's also an illustration of the issues in our country, not just the ones that Michelle calls light to, but more importantly the ones she seems oblivious to. It's a portrait of how those in power can live and perceive themselves, in stark contrast to the citizens they profess to govern. For this reason, I don't fully recommend the book. Read it if you can grab it from your library, but otherwise save yourself the money and the time and indulge in something more substantial or fulfilling.

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