Becoming (Michelle Obama)

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In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African-American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments.

Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare. In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same.

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I listened to the audiobook, which is read by Michelle Obama herself.

I have always been a fan of Michelle and Barack and family. I liked that they appeared to stand above many political pundits, as evidenced by Michelle’s “when they go low, we go high” slogan. I was also a fan of her political and social movements, championing health and fitness for children.

Listening to this book made me feel closer to her. That is a weird idea, considering that we have never met, but I felt like I gained a much deeper understanding of her as an individual – not just FLOTUS – and appreciated what I learned. She comes across as more of the high-achieving girl next door, rather than as the “elite” I always pictured her as.

She is relateable.

She is the epitome of the American Dream.

I am a Canadian citizen. I agreed with a lot of the policies and values that were championed by the Obamas but I think I was granted some emotional distance from the political drama that always seems to unfold in the USA, by nature of my geographical distance. I remember thinking about the insane and unrealistic expectations everyone seemed to have of Barack Obama when he was first elected. He was optimistic and a talented politician, but he was still just one man who was forced to work within the same political machine as each of his predecessors and successors.

Becoming obviously tells Michelle’s personal history, as well as chronicling many of the key points in her journey through the White House. It is very informative. It also put certain things into perspective.

I am white. Michelle is black. I am Canadian. She is American. I grew up in a small town, she grew up in the inner city of Chicago. We are a lot alike though.

History that seems to have occurred so long ago – like Jim Crow laws – isn’t so long ago when you think of them in terms of generations. To have grown up knowing people who were oppressed by those laws. To know that their grandparents – your great great grandparents – were slaves…. that is a heady realization. It makes you realize that those periods of history weren’t so long ago after all. I have greater awareness for the lingering affects of this history today.

As I mentioned, I was easily able to relate to Michelle at times. I never would have imagined that she was burned out by school. That she trained to get a prestigious degree in a career that she quickly discovered she had no love for. To feel burdened down by school debt, expectations, and difficulty conceiving. I was extremely emotional listening to her talk about her Dad’s death. And incredibly impressed over her career trajectory, and professional self-confidence.

One thing I learned about her husband is that President Obama always had to have something to attain and reach for. I couldn’t help but wonder, when you have held the highest office in the country for 8 years, what else is left to do afterwards?

On a more technical note, I did find that the recording of the book dragged. The narrative itself was great, but I sped up the playback to 1.5x, very unusual for me. Most of the word count is devoted to Michelle aged 5-30, with less than I expected devoted to the Obama Family’s time in the White House.

I particularly loved the stories related to her experiences with Queen E.

One lingering question I still have, silly though it may be, is how much freedom does the first family have to redecorate the private residence? Like, did Sasha have a pretty pink bedroom when they first moved in and she was still a young girl? If I ever had a chance to meet Mrs Obama, that would definitely be a question I asked!

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xx

 

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The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

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They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle.

Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.

The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados

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I listened to this audiobook on the advice of my friend, Ewa, who has been talking about it since Christmas. And I am using it as one of the categories on my 2018 Reading Challenge 🙂

The Romanov Sisters is a clearly written and detailed account of the lives of the four sisters and the little Tsesarevich from the time of their births until their deaths during the Russian Revolution.

Listening to their story changed many of the perceptions that I had – and clued me in to how many of those stemmed from the Disney film Anastasia – but also created duelling portrayals of Tsar Nicholas II in my mind.

Nicholas II and Alexandra lived rather modest lives in terms of possessions. Their daughters shared bedrooms with single size beds, and were not over-run with presents, although what they did have was of very high quality. Alexandra was much more heavily involved in her children’s upbringing than was common among the aristocracy of Europe at the time, even breastfeeding her children which was unheard of. The main theme throughout the entire book is the deep love shared between these seven people, and it is tragic that it eventually led to their deaths.

The Imperial Family was not well suited to governing the country. Nicholas and Alexandra would have been far more content to remain minor royalty and retreat into a quiet, idyllic life with their children than to be on the international stage. Their love for each other and their family led them to make many decisions that sacrificed image, popularity and power in Russia, further destabilizing an already tumultuous autocracy. Their ends certainly indicate the necessity of Royalty to remain visible and (at least somewhat) accessible to the masses, even at the sacrifice of privacy at times.

The last Tsar of Russia was pious, deeply religious and professed a deep and unfaltering love for his wife and children. Many accounts point to his being a moral man who was just unsuited to ruling. And yet, he showed little understanding of, or compassion for, his suffering peasantry and is the man behind mass jailing of political dissidents, pogroms and Bloody Sunday.

Whatever decision Empress Alexandra made, it was the wrong one. She was either too formal and withdrawn from the Russian people; too heavily involved in raising her children; too pious; too unwilling to open herself up to the innate mysticism of Russian orthodoxy and everyday life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian culture, yet too willing to accept the mystical and mistrusted Rasputin into her inner circle. During WWI, when she and her eldest daughters became nurses and worked daily in hospital with wounded soldiers, many considered it sacrilegious and a betrayal of Russian Imperialism for the Tsarina and Grand Duchesses to be working so closely with those of lower stations in improper circumstances.

The environment was poisonous and it is hard to imagine whether there could have been any other outcome for Russian Imperialism, even if Nicholas and Alexandra did everything differently.

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xx