Review: Becoming, by Michelle Obama

I decided to read Becoming because I’d heard such great things about it, and it did not disappoint. I was delighted to find how well-written the book is, given that it’s a memoir by a public figure. I waffle between 4 and 5 stars, so we’ll say 4.5 / 5 stars. Maybe 4.75 / 5.

Levels

I was delighted to find that Becoming is a book with themes that works on several different levels. Many celebrity memoirs contain seemingly random stories that are important to that person but not necessarily relevant to the book’s overall message. In Becoming, each story in the book has clearly been chosen carefully and ties into the issues that Obama discusses.

On the most basic level, the experiences Obama brings up give you a sense of who she is and how she became that person.

On the next level, the book has a comforting sense of place. You feel at home with her on Euclid Avenue, and later Obama helps you see the White House first like a museum and then like a home, as she did. Obama helps you experience her surroundings with her.

Third, Obama ties her experiences into larger issues she’s connected to, such as education, nutrition, health, racism, sexism, and gun violence. She doesn’t just assume that because she’s famous, any of her experiences are automatically relevant and interesting. She ties her memories into universal issues so we can see the insight her unique experiences provide.

Politics

A book review in The Nation describes Becoming as scrubbed of politics, perhaps because Michelle Obama is using the book to prep for a political campaign of her own. I feel like that’s wishful thinking on their part. Michelle Obama says directly that she is not running for office ever, and we have no reason not to believe her. She even explains why she did write the book — because she wants to finally have more control of her own narrative and image, so she can explain who she is and why she’s done the things she has.

That being said, the book does talk about politics a lot. That makes sense, seeing as Michelle Obama was First Lady and that politics is why she’s famous. But it’s true that she doesn’t get into the partisan clashes, details of campaigning, and so forth for their own sake. She discusses politics in relation to her development as a person and her individual experience.

And that’s nice. If the book were just about Barack Obama’s political career, it’d be much less interesting to me. If I wanted to learn about Barack Obama, I’d read a book by or about him.

Honesty

I was impressed with how honest the book was — more than I expected, though less than I came to hope. She talked about the less-than-perfect aspects of Barack Obama — how initially she was less than impressed with him, how his constant optimism drained her at first, how he left his socks on the floor, and how she hated his smoking habit.

That level of honesty is rare and refreshing coming from the wife of a politician, and it makes the book seem intimate, genuine, and candid. Which it is, but it’s also a memoir, so things that didn’t fit in with the overall message and Michelle Obama’s image of herself didn’t make it in.

When Michelle mentioned that Barack was not able to close Guantanamo Bay within the first year of his presidency, I started to hope that she’d go to perhaps the most emotionally difficult places — the human rights controversies of her husband’s presidency and how they affected her, her view of her husband, and her family at large.

True, with a presidency bookended by those of George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump, Obama’s actions aren’t exactly the top concern of human rights activists. Michelle’s audience wasn’t clamoring for more information about Barack’s role in overseas wars.

But still, she must have been personally affected by allegations that her husband could be a war criminal. However, she simply says that they made it eight years without a major scandal.

In fairness, I didn’t really expect her to address such issues. She talks about isolating herself from potential bad news during elections until she absolutely had to deal with the results, so maybe she hasn’t processed them herself, let alone enough to publicly discuss them.

And maybe I just wanted her to explain things to my satisfaction so I can feel better about what my country does to other people — and that isn’t her responsibility.

Feminism

I love how focused the book is on efforts to improve women’s lives through substantive means, such as education.

I don’t agree with the criticism that Obama gets sucked into thinking that being warm on The View or having people copy her dress was making a difference. I think the book is pretty clear that Michelle Obama, when confronted with criticism, worked hard to learn how to appeal to the average American so that they’d listen to her when she talked about things that mattered.

I was impressed with how she took the hand she was dealt and used it to her advantage. For example, she talks about how the fixation on her clothes was strange to her, but she learned to make clothing choices that supported American designers and helped facilitate her messages. She used media obsession with her activities to draw attention to issues facing veterans and their families.

Michelle Obama talks about how she didn’t want to be the kind of person who has three employees to help her present herself to the public — one for hair, one for clothes, and one for makeup — but that every woman in Washington political life basically had to in order to be effective.

That situation is certainly sexist and not great, but I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Michelle Obama for working within a system she has no control over. The sad reality is that if she hadn’t gone the distance with frivolous measures, she wouldn’t have been as effective in actually helping people.

Especially since as the first Black First Lady, Obama can’t deviate at all from what women are expected to do without being doubly judged. Michelle Obama reserved her energy to take stands that made a substantive difference, and I’m okay with that.

4.5 stars. Maybe 5. I don’t know: it was a really good book, but also I wanted her to grapple with the whole double-strike thing or at least the allegations of an extreme lack of transparency. And thus we see that book reviews are subjective.

 

 

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