Book review: Becoming

I really enjoyed Michelle Obama’s autobiography, as I knew I would. She comes across as a very kind, erudite, intelligent woman. I absolutely loved reading about her childhood, and the characters really came alive. I learned a lot that I didn’t know about the Obamas, and it was also fascinating reading her reaction to Trump, although I would have perhaps liked a bit more about that (although I suppose the book is not, and shouldn’t be, about him).

Overcoming adversity

A big theme of the book is overcoming adversity and striving for excellence, things that Michelle has always done. She talks about the “universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go.”

She was born in a neighbourhood in the south of Chicago that was just starting on a downward spiral. White families were moving out of the neighbourhood, and crime was increasing. “I’d never been someone who dwelled on the more demoralizing parts of being African American,” says Michelle.

But the inequality that surrounded Michelle as she grew up was very obvious to her, although, fortunately, she was the recipient of an excellent education and encouraged by her parents to work hard and always aim high. She then went to study at Princeton and, later, she studied law at Harvard.

Michelle and Barack’s love story

It was at her first job as an associate at a Chicago law firm where she met Barack, and I love what she had to say about him (sorry for the long quote):

“…Barack had arrived in my life a wholly formed person. From our very first conversation, he’d shown me that he wasn’t self-conscious about expressing fear or weakness and that he valued being truthful. At work, I’d witnessed his humility and willingness to sacrifice his own needs and wants for a bigger purpose. And now in Hawaii, I could see his character reflected in other small ways. His long-lasting friendships with his high school buddies showed his consistency in relationships. In his devotion to his strong-willed mother, I saw a deep respect for women and their independence. Without needing to discuss it outright, I knew he could handle a partner who had her own passions and voice. These were things you couldn’t teach in a relationship, things that not even love could really build or change. In opening up his world to me, Barack was showing me everything I’d ever need to know about the kind of life partner he’d be.”

Believing in a better world

That brings me to another strong theme in the book: optimism. Michelle talks a lot about Barack’s optimism, as well as her own. It’s what really bolstered them throughout their presidential campaign, and their time as the First Family.

One of my favourite passages from the book is this one:

“It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once—to have one’s feet planted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress. It was what I’d done as a kid on Euclid Avenue, what my family—and marginalized people more generally—had always done. You got somewhere by building that better reality, if at first only in your own mind. Or as Barack had put it that night, you may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be.”

Michelle’s life story

What I love about the book is that it focuses on Michelle and her own achievements and career trajectory. Even before becoming the First Lady, Michelle had a very interesting and successful career.

Deciding that corporate law wasn’t for her, she embarked on a career in public service shortly after getting married, working for the City of Chicago, becoming executive director for a non-profit leadership-training program called Public Allies, and working for the University of Chicago Hospitals as executive director of community relations and external affairs.

The thread running through all these different positions is that of trying to lessen the gap between the privileged and lesser-privileged, the well-served and the underserved, the haves and have-nots. As First Lady, Michelle focused on curbing childhood obesity, supporting military families, and championing girls’ education.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The reason I gave the book 4 stars is because some sections just felt a bit lengthy to me; she talks a lot about politics and policy, which, while fascinating, can drag on a bit, and felt a bit like reading a speech. I much preferred the more personal parts, where she describes the effects of living in the White House on her family, for example.

All in all, a wonderfully candid, thoughtful book about Michelle and her incredible life. She is truly an inspiration.

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