BOOK REVIEW: Becoming, an interesting, honest, and insightful autobiography from Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama

In Becoming, Michelle Obama offers a graceful, insightful, and eye-opening account of her life from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to the close of Barack Obama’s second term, when she and Barack accompanied the Trumps to the inauguration ceremony. The book has three sections: “Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us,” and “Becoming More.”

Even without being First Lady, Michelle’s story is interesting and valuable. Although she was surrounded by a loving extended family, she still struggled to feel seen and be good enough. With this pressure, she pursued a track through the Ivy League to a coveted job at a Chicago law firm without ever questioning if her goals reflected her values and priorities. After a lengthy reflection period, she took a position in the city government, one of the first propitious “swerves” from her life plan. Throughout her career, she had to struggle to balance motherhood and her work; she also had to figure out how to make peace with Barack’s political career.

Becoming also recounts her love story with Barack Obama, another swerve—they met when he was a summer associate at her law firm and she was his mentor. Not only did she think the relationship might be inappropriate, not only was she focused on her job and uninterested in dating—Barack smoked! Still, they fell in love. I enjoyed seeing Barack through her eyes. It only confirmed my positive impression of him. As much as she loves him, though, she revealed personal details about their relationship: a miscarriage, fertility struggles, and marriage counseling.

Once Malia and Sasha were born, Michelle struggled to balance her work and parenthood, especially since Barack was so often away due to his responsibilities as a state representative in Springfield, Illinois, then as a U.S. Senator in Washington, DC. Michelle honestly conveys the challenges which only increased once Barack ran for and became President. The girls didn’t ask to be in the public eye: how could Michelle and Barack keep things as grounded as possible for them?

Michelle also tells about her experience campaigning for Barack, particularly in Iowa, and how hurtful it was for both her and Barack to be the target of attacks, many racially based and which didn’t end once they moved to the White House. She reveals her stumbles on the campaign trail and discusses how “optics” ruled her words and behavior.

As FLOTUS, Michelle wanted to have an impact and spearheaded the initiatives with which we are familiar: Let’s Move!, symbolized by the White House garden, her advocacy for military families, and her promotion of education for girls. Less well-known was a leadership and mentoring program she created for high school students in Washington DC area. Michelle writes extensively about gun violence, especially how the Sandy Hook massacre affected her and Barack, and expresses frustration that lawmakers still would rather line their pockets with NRA contributions than pass meaningful gun control laws that would save so many. (And as I was reading this section, I saw breaking news that four people were killed in a shooting at a Chicago hospital.)

Although Barack and Michelle didn’t accomplish all they wanted, and although the Trump administration is malevolently undoing all the positive gains they made, she writes proudly of what they did achieve. Furthermore, though it is clear she dislikes Trump as a leader and as a misogynistic racist, she is much more reserved with her criticisms than I would be. It’s been widely reported that she wrote she’d never forgive Trump for his role in the birther controversy. What she said was more subtle than that. It wasn’t simply Trump’s unfounded attacks on Barack’s citizenship that angered her. It was the fact that those attacks stoked the fears of individuals who had every capability of traveling to Washington DC to harm Barack, her, or the girls. She said she could never forgive Trump for putting her family in danger, and I don’t blame her.

I learned so much from this book not just about Michelle and the Obamas, but about experience as a minority on a mostly white Ivy League campus, about strategies for advocating for oneself and finding one’s voice, and about life behind the scenes on the campaign trail and in the White House. Her insights and anecdotes were so interesting and rooted in history and current events. When talking about her family, she offers insight into the Great Migration and the discrimination blacks faced in Chicago in the segregation era, for example, being barred from holding union cards which kept them from skilled jobs. Her discussions of gun violence and education for girls are accompanied by current statistics and trends.

I though the three-part structure of the book was clever, and Michelle weaved in the theme of becoming, stressing it’s a never-ending process. Although I loved reading about Barack’s presidency and Michelle’s FLOTUS initiatives, I thought the first half of the book, when she discusses her childhood and her life a Princeton, was stronger. Those sections seemed more coherent and polished. The information in the second half of the book was fascinating (meeting the Queen! hanging out with Bo and Sunny!) but seemed slightly disorganized and rushed. On the one hand, it’s understandable—there is just too much information to fill one volume. On the other, maybe it shouldn’t have been a single book so that the material could have been given more attention.

But this is a relatively small quibble for a strong, well-written, and insightful autobiography. Multiple times I wept, sometimes with Michelle as she describes painful past events, sometimes in grief at how much I miss the Obamas and the intelligence and compassion they brought to the Presidency.

I was incredibly impressed with her candor, especially since she must know the extent to which her words will be dissected and criticized. Yet, I can’t imagine a woman who wouldn’t be able to see herself in Michelle, because of her childhood, poor in resources but rich in love, her job in male-dominated profession, her drive to seek work-life balance, her struggles with fertility, and her desire to find a career that conforms to her values and makes a difference while still paying the bills. Of course, she also speaks eloquently about being black in America.

Those who like Michelle Obama will like her even more after reading Becoming. Political opponents will only find superficial fodder to attack her and Barack. If you are in the former category, you will definitely want to read (or listen to) the book.

BOOK REVIEW: All We Ever Wanted, the rippling effect of cyberbullying

Griffin, Emily - All We Ever WantedAll We Ever Wanted
Emily Griffin

On the surface, Nina Browning’s life is idyllic. Her family, thanks to her husband’s lucrative sale of his company, has more money than they could ever spend. They life in an exclusive neighborhood in Nashville, Nina spends her time on philanthropy, and their son, a lifer at the prestigious Windsor School, has just been admitted to Princeton. They have everything they have ever wanted–until Finch, Nina’s son, becomes involved in a scandal that threatens not just the stability of their family but his very future.

At a party, Finch allegedly took a picture of a passed out Lyla Volpe, whose absent mother was Brazilian, holding a green Uno card and captioned: “She finally got her green card.” Nina is horrified, but her husband, Kyle, believes they should use their resources to protect Finch at any cost.

The book is told from the alternating points of view of Nina, Lyla, and her father, Tom Volpe. I wondered how Griffin would expand the story to fill an entire novel, but there are some interesting developments exploring themes of entitlement, class differences and the privilege of wealth, cyberbullying, children’s privacy, and the role of parents in terms of protecting children versus teaching them responsibility.

Kirk, and to some extent Finch, are presented as villains and have few if any redeeming characteristics, and I found this problematic, primarily because it seemed unrealistic that they would be so one-dimensional. It also brought out a very unattractive blood lust in myself, and I spent much of the novel hoping they would get their comeuppance and wondering if justice would be achieved.

Nina and Lyla to some extent irritated me because they were so gullible, willing to believe what they wanted and put themselves in unfortunate situations as a result. At the same time, it was interesting to have a character like Nina, a mother who wanted her son to face at least some consequences, since so many novels depict parents as willing to do anything to protect their children from the repercussions of their bad behavior.

All We Ever Wanted is an easy and compelling read and ultimately satisfying though not in the way I expected. At times, though, I thought the prose veered too close to maudlin. It’s not very demanding but is captivating enough that it’s an ideal airplane book.

BOOK REVIEW: Where the Dead Sit Talking, an intense and disturbing account of the relationship between Sequoyah and his foster sister

Hobson, Brandon - Where the Dead Sit Talking w AmeliaWhere the Dead Sit Talking
Brandon Hobson

Fifteen-year-old Sequoyah, half Cherokee, scarred from hot grease his mother flung when she ostensibly didn’t realize he was in the kitchen, has been in the foster care system since his mother was arrested with possession with intent to distribute. His tireless social worker has seen him through a placement with a family that didn’t work out and a stint at a group home where he was able to sneak out and roam the streets. She finally thought she found the perfect match with the Troutts, an older couple living in rural Little Crow, Oklahoma.

The Troutt family includes Howard, a bookie, Agnes, who we don’t learn much about, and their current foster children, George, about thirteen and likely autistic, and Rosemary, seventeen, a Kiowa Indian who is planning to go to art school on east coast. Sequoyah feels more comfortable at the Troutt home than he did in previous placements, though he bemoans the loss of freedom. He becomes particularly attached to Rosemary, feeling they are connected, like twins, or even the same person at times and able to communicate telepathically, and obeys her directives whatever she asks, though internally, he has violent thoughts about her.

No narrator has scared me like Sequoyah in a very long time. The sentences are simple with little variation in structure, a deliberate choice that bleaches the emotions out of Sequoyah’s delivery and makes his fantasies of violence and, at times, descriptions of actual violence, even more harrowing. Sequoyah frequently begins his statements with I saw…, I watched…, I remembered which also places him in a position of observer and further distances him from the emotions associated with the events in the novel.

One latent emotion is present–rage–and perhaps Sequoyah’s rage is justified. Not only is he judged for the scars on his face and torso, not only has he been abandoned by his mother, he watched a series of boyfriends abuse her and was possibly abused himself. He struggles with identity, his Indian identity, but also his gender identity. He wears eyeliner, a bold choice in rural Oklahoma for young men even today, but in the late 1980s completely radical. His desire to become Rosemary speaks to his desire to shed his masculine skin.

Sequoyah’s navigation of the foster care system and his sense that no place for him is really home reflects the displacement and forced removal of Native Americans in the United States. He carefully observes the markers of home: portraits and paintings on the walls, books on shelves, pictures in frames, with the sense that that type of belonging and way to inhabit space is barred from him. (Interestingly, by the end of the novel, he spends most of his time in a teepee that Howard helped him construct.)

The presence of birds–hawks, geese, blackbirds, cardinals, and generic birds–looms large in the text, at times, serving as a symbol of freedom or protection, other times appearing as potential threats. Most frequently, though, they seem to be completely indifferent to whatever events Sequoyah is describing and highlight the sense that he is alone and rudderless.

Sequoyah and Rosemary often relate their dreams, with Rosemary especially aware of the preternatural meaning they hold, as warnings but as sources of hope as well. More than once, Sequoyah dreams about his father coming back to life and returning to him covered with dirt and debris from his grave. (As far as the reader knows, his father is in Mexico.)

Although Sequoyah does have moments of empathy–he carefully considers the life of an elderly man with dementia he encountered–he is not really able to see others, especially Rosemary, as distinct individuals. A final confrontation with Rosemary arises in large part because, in crisis, she pulls away from him, and he sees that as a personal affront rather than a reflection of her current state. That might not be so unusual for a teenager, but there are brief allusions indicating that Sequoyah didn’t change after his time with the Troutts.

Where the Dead Sit Talking, a 2018 National Book Award Finalist, is undoubtedly intense and disturbing. I always love reading books set in Oklahoma, but besides frequent trips to the Sonic Drive-In, the novel didn’t really evoke a sense of place unique to the state. Additionally, there are multiple scenes with violence toward animals. To some extent, I can accept that these depictions play a role in characterization, but I also think that the characters were fully drawn as disturbed individuals without including these scenes.

To fully appreciate the novel requires a degree of attention and concentration to unpack Sequoyah’s narration. Though there were many things about it that unsettled me, I was ultimately glad I read it.

BOOK REVIEW: We’re All Wonders, a picture book with the powerful message to choose kindness

Palacio, RJ - We're All Wonders
We’re All Wonders
RJ Palacio

We’re All Wonders
, a picture book for young readers ages four to eight based on the runaway phenomenon Wonder, could not have a better message: choose kind. The narrator (Augie Pullman, unnamed in this book but recognizable from Wonder) loves to do the things all children do: ride a bike, eat ice cream, play ball, and hang out with his dog, Daisy. But, he doesn’t look like other children. Although his mother says he is unique–a wonder–other people often stare or laugh which understandably hurts his feelings.

At these times, he images putting on a space helmet and traveling to Pluto where he says hello to old friends and watches the earth from far away. He reflects on the diversity of humans on the planet, room for everyone. Although he knows he can never change his appearance, he hopes that other people will change their perspective and see him not as different, but as the wonder he is. And in choosing kindness, they’ll know that they are wonders, too. The book closes with the reminder: Look with kindness and you will always find wonder.

I’ve read the book a few times now, and each time, I find myself crying for Augie and for his beautiful message which seems to be needed now more than ever. The story packs an emotional punch and will help guardians discuss differences and empathy with young readers. The illustrations provide an added element of emotional engagement as they vividly display Augie and Daisy’s reactions to cruelness–and kindness.

We're All Wonders Collage

While there is very little to criticize about the book, I did hesitate to give it a full five star rating because, as much as I loved the message, it seemed the story was slight, even for children’s book, and could have been slightly expanded, but I am on the fence a little about this since I wouldn’t want the narrative to overwhelm young readers. On a different note, Augie might look different, but his difference is very cute: he has one big eye in an otherwise empty face. I worried that the benignity of his appearance might undercut some of the prejudice and discrimination he faced and misrepresent the hardships of people who look different. I am on the fence about this, too, because one, Augie’s difference is representational and can be applied to so many aspects of difference, and two, again, this might be the most appropriate representation for young readers. Things to think about anyway while you read this book yourself and to the young readers you know…you definitely should!

BOOK REVIEW: The Emissary, an isolationist Japan in the aftermath of environmental catastrophe

Tawada, Yoko - The EmissaryThe Emissary
Yoko Tawada

Environmental degradation in Japan has damaged the youth of the country: they are weak, have a near constant fever, suffer from digestive issues, and are sensitive to temperature changes and extremes, though they also have indomitable spirits. At the same time, the elderly are near-immortal, blessed with energy and strong constitutions. Still, the government of Japan instituted an isolationist policy terminating all imports and exports with foreign countries, forbidding travel abroad, and prohibiting the use of foreign terms (e.g., “overalls”).

In this milieu, Yoshiro cares for his great-grandson, Mumei. Mumei’s great-grandmother runs Elsewhere Academy, an institution for “independent children” while his grandparents work on an orchard in Okinawa. His mother died in labor, and his addict father’s whereabouts are unknown.

If you are wanting a book with plot or with a clear resolution, The Emissary (also released as The Last Children of Tokyo) will disappoint you. However, the novel does present a chilling though viable view of a future Japan reacting to the devastation wrought by changes in climate, environmental toxins, and shifts in the relationship between older and younger citizens.

My favorite parts of the book related to language and how language changed in response to the culture and environmental changes. In addition to the prohibition on foreign vocabulary, other words fell out of favor or lost their meaning, with no new words replacing them. Characters gave a great deal of thought to words that didn’t sound right like “chum” and “cleaner.” The Japanese voted in a slew of new holidays and changed the names of many others. In my favorite shift, “Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day.”

The Emissary also hinted at the tensions between regions of Japan and how an isolationist policy can foster suspicion and resentment among a country; it also was a dirge to the experience lost when travel was no longer possible and when people no longer could see diverse flora and fauna due to extinction. There are also interesting references to fluidity between sexes increasing.

Mumei is presented as a charming, precocious character who stole Yoshimo’s heart as well as those of his great-grandmother and teacher. I found him annoying at best and at worst creepy. This was only heightened for me about three-fourths of the way into the book when there is an unexpected and jarring shift from Yoshima’s point of view, which had been constant until that point, to Mumei’s. After Mumei’s voice intruded, those of his great-grandmother, Marika, and his teacher, Mr. Yonatani, followed. I certainly don’t mind having multiple points of view in a book, but I do think that each novel creates its own grammar, and changing perspectives was a shift in the book’s grammar that I found irritating when it occurred so late in the narrative.

So for me, there were delightful elements in the prose, but the individual parts did not come together to me to elevate the whole, and I can’t say that I enjoyed the book that much, thought it was definitely different and somewhat interesting. However, I do take to heart Mr. Yonati’s reflections on isolationism: “It was clearly necessary to think of the future along the curved lines of our round earth. The isolation policy that looked so invulnerable was actually nothing but a sand castle. You could destroy it, little by little, with those plastic shovels kids use at the beach.”