July 22nd, 2019


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white house

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Craig's biggest fear, however, was also probably the most realistic, and that was fire. House fires were a regular occurrence in Chicago, in part due to slumlords who let their buildings slide into disrepair and were all too happy to reap the insurance benefits when a fire tore through, and in part because home smoke detectors were a relatively new development and still expensive for working-class people to afford. Either way, inside our tight city grid, fire was almost a fact of life, a random but persistent snatcher of homes and hearts. My grandfather Southside had moved to our neighborhood after a fire destroyed his old house on the West Side, though luckily nobody'd been hurt. (According to my mother, Southside stood on the curb outside the burning house, shouting for the firefighters to direct their hoses away from his precious jazz albums.) More recently, in a tragedy almost too giant for my young mind to take in, one of my fifth-grade classmates—a boy with a sweet face and a tall Afro named Lester McCullom, who lived around the corner from us in a town house on Seventy-Fourth Street—had died in a fire that also killed his brother and sister, the three of them trapped by flames in bedrooms upstairs.
I reviewed her husband's autobiography back in 2010, and here we are with the other half of the team. Michelle Robinson's background was less unusual than her future husband's - growing up among the African-American population of Chicago, but succeeding in qualifying as a high-flying lawyer until she decided to accept the realities of being a political family. But it's a story well told, and in particular the environment of her Chicago youth, which will be the least familiar for most readers, is well conveyed.

There's much less about her husband's election campaigns than I had expected - I guess that Michelle Obama is not a campaign diary sort of person, and she makes it very clear that she did not like the idea of Barack going into politics in the first place, and is rather glad that it is all over now. She does reflect on the demands made of her by campaigning and her occasional failure to rise to the occasion. There is a very moving little passage about celebrating the birthday of one of their daughters on the campaign trail in 2008, and both parents feeling that they had not delivered for the little girl, only for her to confound them by telling the whole campaign team that it was her best birthday ever.

Still, the most interesting part of the book is her exploration of being the first black First Lady at the same time as bringing up her daughters. She has nothing but good things to say about her predecessors. She is charmed by the Queen and awed by Nelson Mandela. She wisely says little (but not nothing) about the White House's current occupant. She grumbles that quite a lot of entertainment expenses had to be met from the Obamas' private means, as the White House budget does not cover the activities that are now expected of a First Lady. Having said that, they could afford it thanks to Barack's own best-selling writing; no US President since Truman has been worth less than $8 million, and the Obamas have several times that amount. But anyone who has had to juggle a demanding career (at any level) with family responsibilities will find resonance here.

Basically, it's a great read. You can get it here.

This reached the top of three of my lists simultaneously - top unread book acquired last year, top unread non-fiction and top book by a woman. Next on all three lists is Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver.