Book review: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama

This book has certainly captured headlines since it was published in November. It was abridged and serialised on Radio 4 the week it came out. I caught a couple of the episodes, but this was merely a taster since, having now finished reading it, at over 400 pages, they gave only the very edited highlights. I do not normally go in for celebrity memoirs, and one could be quite cynical about the enormous deal that has been struck by the Obamas and their publishers (though I gather they are donating royalties to charity). However, very early on in the book any cynicism I might have had melted away.  I have no idea what help Michelle had in writing this book, but it does not ‘feel’ ghost-written. Her narrative voice is very authentic – warm and compassionate, the same way that she comes across when she speaks.

becoming imgMy book club chose this for our pre-Christmas read (I’ve only just finished it!) and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s long, and perhaps could have been edited somewhat, but I imagine the main buyers of this book will be Michelle-fans who want as much detail as possible. The first part of the book was, for me, the least engaging. My fellow readers and I were a little surprised to learn that Michelle Robinson did not in fact come from an affluent background. She was a ‘Southsider’ – from a part of Chicago that was fairly blue-collar and largely African-American, and became more so as she grew older and some of the white residents moved out. A picture is painted of a family with strong values around hard work, doing the right thing, caring for others and loyalty to family. Michelle excelled in school through hard work, determination and the support of her parents and attended both Princeton and Harvard Law School. She has never forgotten her humble beginnings, however, and this underpins her commitment to equality and social justice. However, I did feel this part of the book was most descriptive; in the context of the book as a whole I can see why it would have been important to her to put her politics in perspective, but it was a tiny bit…pedestrian?

Michelle met her husband, Barack Obama, while she was working at a law firm in Chicago, and the development of their relationship forms the basis of the second part of the book. It’s a lovely romantic story, and they are clearly deeply committed to one another. However, it did not come without some pain. Much has been made of their difficulties conceiving a child (both daughters were born after IVF treatment) and of their seeking relationship counselling. What I found most interesting, however, was how Michelle has wrestled with and had to reconcile herself to, the role that being the spouse of a high-profile politician, then a Senator, then a President, has meant for her own career ambitions and her life as a parent.

The challenges of this dilemma are thrown into sharpest relief in the later chapters of Part Two where Barack Obama makes his bid for the US Presidency in 2007/8. The way that Michelle was treated is both fascinating and appalling. How she coped is beyond me, and it is to her enormous credit that she was able to rise above the racist and misogynist vitriol that came her way. I suspect those things ultimately made her stronger. Since Barack Obama left office in 2016, there have been calls from many quarters for Michelle to consider running at some point in the future, to which she has repeatedly said she never would (she states this explicitly in the final pages of the book). When you read her personal reflections in the 2008 campaign you can see fully why she is not made for that particular political bear-pit. She is a much better person than that and working towards a bigger picture than the short-termism associated with political elections.

As my visibility as Barack Obama’s wife rose, the other parts of me were dissolving from view. When I spoke to reporters, they rarely asked about my work. They inserted “Harvard-educated” in their description of me, but generally left it at that. A couple of news outlets had published stories speculating that I’d been promoted at the hospital not due to my own hard work and merit but because of my husband’s  growing political stature, which was painful to read. 

The final part of the book looks at her life in the White House. As she writes in the opening lines:

There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States.

As with most things in her life, Michelle Obama had to find her own way. In some ways that must be a liberating position to be in – having the freedom to write your own job description (the present First Lady has taken a somewhat different approach) – but for Michelle Obama there was the deep hostility she had to contend with, not just the political opposition, but the more personal, racist, misogynist and body-shaming tone she also endured.

I understood…that I’d be measured by a different yardstick. As the only African American First Lady to set foot in the White House, I was “other” almost by default. If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me. 

When the book was published, commentators pounced upon her comments about the present incumbent of the White House, looking for something juicy. Yes, there are some criticisms, as you might expect, and sadly the echo chamber rather defines the politics of the age – most of us prefer to read or listen to people who reflect the views we already hold. But what struck me in fact was the restraint, and the most chilling comment was that Michelle Obama will never forgive Trump and his team for placing the life of her husband and her daughters in danger. This sums up the book, and the woman, for me; it’s family, loved ones, values first, politics second.

If you’re a Michelle fan you’ll love this and have probably read it already anyway! If you’re objective there is still much to enjoy here and there’s no doubting the courage, integrity and sheer grit of the woman. She is undoubtedly a role model to us all.

What did you think of Michelle Obama’s memoir? 

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Book review: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

When Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86, she was one of the towering figures of American culture and politics. Poet, author, civil rights activist, speaker, friend and advisor to figures of national and international importance, her career was, by any standards, glittering. And yet, her start was a decidedly inauspicious one. In the late 1960s she was persuaded to begin writing an autobiography and she went on to publish it in seven volumes, the latest one appearing in 2013, just a year before her death. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume and covers her childhood and coming of age. Her early life in Arkansas featured parental abandonment, overt racism, sexual abuse, discrimination and poverty. It is a sobering tale, and a testament to her immense ability, that someone with that kind of background could become such a great and important figure, well-known not just in the United States, but throughout the world.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings imgI chose this book for my 2018 Facebook Reading Challenge. The June theme was an autobiography, a tricky category since enjoyment can often depend on your feelings about the author. I also wanted to avoid titles that would most likely have been ghost-written. After thinking about it for some time, I chose this, the first volume in Angelou’s memoir series, and the one which is often considered to be the best. It can be read as a stand-alone.

I had read it myself many years ago; I have written on here before that at some point in my teens, I resolved to work my way along my local library bookshelves starting at ‘A’! I read the first five volumes (the fifth was published in 1986 when I would have been 18, so I imagine I did not read them all consecutively). I remember I enjoyed the book at the time, and parts of it were familiar, coming back to it so many years later, not least the horrific scene where she is raped by her mother’s lover. This aspect of Maya’s story, like all the other terrible instances of injustice she experienced, is told without self-pity (apart, perhaps from the toothache!) or sentimentality, and this, I think, is the mark of her greatness as a writer.

I loved also, the evocation of the setting – 1930s Arkansas is set out vividly before us, particularly the evangelical Christianity of the black community, the tense relations with their white neighbours on the other side of town, and the poverty of the community, scraping a meagre living in the most challenging of circumstances, from cotton-picking, domestic service or, in the case of Maya’s grandmother “Momma”, from running a small business.

I also loved the language – the Deep South comes across so profoundly in the words and phrases used by the author, such as the wonderful term “powhitetrash” to refer to the prejudiced white townspeople of Stamps who blight the lives of the black community with their bullying, their cruelty and their vulgar behaviour. And I loved the characters, from the young Maya, to her elder brother Bailey, whom she adored, to Momma, the starched Christian woman of steadfast values and brilliant business acumen. The author brings them alive so skilfully that they walk the pages of this book.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a must-read. I trust that it is on academic reading lists throughout the United States, but it should also form part of the historical context for any student of American history. It is not an easy read and the nature of the language definitely slows the pace (it took me twice as long to read as any other book of this size), but you would do well to read it slowly as the pace draws you into the languid lifestyle of the setting. Someone on the Facebook group listened to the audiobook, narrated by Angelou, herself, which sounds like a must-listen. Coincidentally, the book was also abridged for Radio 4’s book of the week recently, and that should still be available online. It was very good.

Highly recommended, should probably even be on everyone’s books bucket list.

If you have read Maya Angelou’s memoirs what impact did they have on you?

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Audiobook review: “A Life of My Own” by Claire Tomalin

I first became aware of Claire Tomalin a few years ago when her biography of Samuel Pepys (Samuel Pepys: the unequalled self) won the Whitbread Book Award (predecessor to the Costa Book Award) in 2002. I remember the story was quite newsworthy because her husband, the novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, was also shortlisted the same year for his novel Spies. He won the prize for the novel. She won the biography prize plus the overall best book. Tomalin has written a number of well-received biographies, including of Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Hardy. Her most recent was Charles Dickens: A Life, published in 2011.

A life of my own imgBrowsing in the bookshop last year, I noticed that she had published her own autobiography, at the age of 83 – I note with some pleasure that her 84th birthday is in fact today! Many happy returns! Reading the blurb whetted my appetite – I was not aware of her life as a groundbreaking Literary Editor at the Sunday Times, or that she had five children, including one boy who died as a baby, and another son who was born with severe disabilities, nor that her first husband, fellow journalist Nicholas Tomalin, was killed in 1973, when her children were still very young. It sounded like a very interesting read.

Anticipating some long drives, I got hold of the audiobook (the reserve list at the library was long and I knew it would be many weeks before I got it), and the fact that it was narrated by Dame Penelope Wilton was a bonus.

At first, I’m afraid to say, I did not enjoy it; I found it quite irritating. Claire was born in 1933. Her father was French and her mother from Liverpool, a talented composer. Her early life was troubled, not least because her parents divorced when she was still quite young. However, she still secured a very good education, first at Hitchin Girls Grammar School and then at the progressive Dartington boarding school in Devon, before going to Cambridge. Through her parents she came into contact with very many high-profile artists, writers and musicians, so though there may have been a shortage of material wealth (though I can only imagine this is relative) there was no shortage of cultural wealth. And I’m afraid this is what I found irritating. I don’t think the author wants us to feel sorry for her, but I found myself with the sense that she really had no idea what the lives of her working class contemporaries, many of whom would have no less ability,  were like compared to her own.

The book became less irritating. Once she had graduated, I found the young adult Claire more interesting, although there was still way too much name-dropping for my liking. I think I expect biographies, and in particular autobiographies, to provide insight, reflection and self-awareness; I have, for example, enjoyed Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Anjelica Huston’s A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland very much. However, for me this just did not happen with Claire Tomalin until the final quarter or so of the book. As we learn about the death of her husband Nick (he was hit by a shell whilst reporting on the Yom Kippur War in 1973) and how she had to cope with life as a widowed mother of four children, I found I became more sympathetic. She also faced challenges that most will never have to, thankfully, in relation to her children and these parts were both incredibly touching and immensely readable. She lived in a house in Gloucester Crescent, north London, and mentions neighbour Nina Stibbe, whose tales of nannying to the editor of the London Review of Books in the 1980s are recorded in another book I’ve reviewed here, Love, Nina. It was quite a bohemian lifestyle and engaging to read about.

There is much to enjoy in this book, and the last few chapters are poignant, but overall, I was disappointed. Although it was not smug or self-congratulatory, there were certainly parts which lacked a sense of the privileged life the author had led and that for me was a flaw. You will recognize many of the names mentioned, the anecdotes about Andrew Neil and Rupert Murdoch and the industrial disputes that beset The Times provide a fascinating perspective, and here is a life that has been long-lived, so it spans a vast range of time. For me, though, the book was little too much chronological account and not quite enough personal insight.

Recommended if you’re an admirer of the author or have an interest in the mid-20th century cultural life of London.

Which biographies or autobiographies have you enjoyed recently?

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Book Review: “The Life and Loves of a He-Devil” by Graham Norton

I love my little book club – it’s small and very exclusive and, besides books, we specialise in popcorn, gin and tonic and extra-curricular trips. All in the name of literature, of course!

We have been meeting every month for a couple of years now and have read a wide range of books: fiction, non-fiction, YA, thrillers, classics, to name but a few of our chosen genres. Some books we have loved, some we have loved less. Some generate an enormous amount of discussion, others less.

The Life and Loves of a He Devil imgWe decided for our March meeting we’d read Graham Norton’s 2014 memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil. We wanted to read an autobiography and felt that among the many “celebrity” memoirs out there, Graham’s might have more to offer than most. We all like him as a broadcaster and personality and thought it might be fun. We were not wrong! But when we came to meet and discuss it, we had very little to say. We’d exchanged a number of messages on our WhatsApp group in the preceding weeks, with many laughter emojis, asking each other if we’d come across the dog and condom anecdote yet, or the Dolly Parton story. Some sections of this book, which I read most of whilst on a train journey to London, were laugh-out-loud, or rather “try to suppress a laugh because I’m in public”, moments. It’s a romp and Graham writes the way he speaks, with wit, authenticity and complete honesty. His writing style is similar in his novel Holding, which I reviewed here last year, and really enjoyed. (His second novel, entitled A Keeper, is due out in the Autumn.)

It’s charming and funny, and there is such a lot of name-dropping that it’s a bit of escapism too. Reading it is a reminder of just how successful, Graham is; I lost count of the number of homes he owns and the list of people he calls friends is something to behold. I think it’s because he manages to make you feel that he is a regular guy, just like the rest of us, and just as in awe of all the celebs and their glitter. He also manages to convey a kind of naivety and innocence that make you feel he is very ordinary. He is not of course; he’s supremely talented and clearly unusually astute to have achieved what he has. That does not come from luck alone. Concealing all of that beneath a veneer of self-deprecation is a talent in itself and I admire him enormously.

Back to my book club, we had only one criticism, and that is that the opening chapter (the book is divided into chapters, each of which is about one of his ‘loves’), about the joys of being a dog-owner, was, we felt, by far the funniest, so everything that followed was not inferior exactly, but did not quite meet the same high bar.

Not much to say then, except that it’s hugely funny, and if you like Graham Norton, you’ll love this book!

Have you read this or any of Graham Norton’s other books?

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Book review: “Not My Father’s Son” by Alan Cumming

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It’s been a very busy few weeks, so my reading rate has been somewhat below par. Besides half term (which, actually, was relatively low-key and relaxing) I’ve been having some further work done in the house; it was a like an ’80s museum when we bought it three years ago and we are gradually working our way through it, room by room. We have been having the final two bedrooms refurbished which has entailed complete chaos, clothes and stuff everywhere, and two weeks on a sofabed. I love it that our builder is happy to work with us in our ‘organic’ (procrastinating!) way, but we are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting the job finished! When we decorate we do so for the long-haul so it has to be right. Consequently, it was the end of October before I got around to reading an autobiography for last month’s reading challenge.

Not My Fathers SonI was really torn between Claire Tomalin, Anjelica Huston and Alan Cumming. I left it in the hands of the local library and it was Alan Cumming that became available first! I’m still waiting for Claire Tomalin, and that is probably the one I was keenest to read. I was attracted to Alan Cumming’s book, however, because its premise is not dissimilar to the book I am writing, namely family research and the uncovering of a long-held secret. There the similarity ends, however, as Alan’s book is much more about his relationship with his father.

I know very little about Alan Cumming, having seen nothing of his work that I can remember (although apparently he is in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, a film I have seen a couple of times, though I don’t recall him in it). He now works mainly in the US and has done quite a bit of TV over there. He was born and grew up in rural Scotland, where his father managed a saw mill. Alan’s father was violent and abusive and the nature and frequency of the aggression Alan experienced is upsetting. What is clear from the outset, however, is that the young Alan can find no explanation for it.

In 2010, Alan was invited to appear on the BBC television programme Who Do You Think You Are?  where the family history of a celebrity is explored and hopefully something interesting and unusual emerges. In Alan’s case, the mystery to be solved was that of his maternal grandfather, who died in mysterious circumstances as a result of a firearms ‘accident’ whilst serving in the Malaysian police force. It was during the filming of the show that Alan was told by his then terminally ill father, with whom he had had no contact for many years, that he his not in fact his son, but the product of an affair his mother had with another man. This sets Alan off on a journey of self-discovery, forcing him to face up to many of his demons.

It is an engaging and at times very moving story. I’m not sure if there was a ghost-writer involved, but it is well put-together and flows nicely. It’s a decent read, and you’ll like it if you’re a fan of Alan’s work, or if you can relate to any of the themes. What I most admired was how he managed, after such an inauspicious start, to break out of the constraints of his background and upbringing, to become a successful, globe-trotting actor, living in New York, at peace with himself. To that extent it is inspiring.

 

2017-11-14 16.26.50For November, the challenge is to read a book set in or by a writer from the southern hemisphere – which is, broadly, South America, southern Africa and Australasia. As the nights draw in and it gets increasingly wintry I wanted to be reminded that in other parts of the world it is Summer! So, my choice this month is Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia, a book I picked up in my local Oxfam bookshop and which has been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for far too long. Allende is such a fine writer and I’ve read a number of her books over the years. It’s great to have an excuse to dive into this one and experience the sensuousness of her writing and the world she evokes, as the last leaves fall from the trees here and nature seems to go into hibernation.

What are you reading this month?

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October reading challenge

I am turning rather belatedly to October’s reading challenge book; I’ve had a few heavy reading weeks trying to work my way through the Man Booker shortlist. The winner was announced last week, and although I fell a little short of my target, managing only five out of the six, I feel I need a little break before tackling the monster that is Paul Auster’s 4321!  There is still a week to go before the end of October so completing this month’s challenge is still achievable. I’ll be posting my review of September’s reading challenge book, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, later in the week.

Continuing the theme of life-changing (it’s still Autumn and I’m still motivated!), my task this month is to read a biography or autobiography of someone I admire. Walk into any bookshop and there are dozens of course. They are particularly prevalent at this time of year as publishers turn their attention to Christmas sales. I tend to eschew those celebrity biographies which are so clearly ghost-written and which strike me as a cynical attempt to capitalise on someone’s popularity. But there are many other worthy books and authors out there.

Not My Fathers SonThere are a couple of titles that have been on my reading list for a while. The first is Scottish actor and comedian Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son, which was published in 2014. It is linked to his appearance in BBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are? in 2010 in which the result of his research caused him to reflect on his family, his upbringing and, in particular, his relationship with an abusive father. It has received glowing reviews and has also won prizes. The theme of secrets and family research is close to the book I am writing myself so it could be helpful. Or it may just make me feel like givng up now!!!

Watch Me

Option two is the second volume of Anjelica Huston’s authobiography Watch Me, published in 2015. I read the first volume A Story Lately Told, a couple of years ago and loved it. The first book gives an account of her childhood growing up in Ireland, and her relationship with her enigmatic father, the towering figure of John Huston. It moves on to London, her early adulthood and her first experiences in modelling and acting. Watch Me picks up when Huston is 22 years old and recounts her Hollywood years.

A life of my ownFinally, I saw in the bookshop recently that Claire Tomalin has written A Life of My Own, where, for a change, she is writing about herself. I admire Claire Tomalin hugely; she has written some of the finest biographies produced in recent years, covering subjects such as Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and Mary Wollstonecraft. She has led the most astonishing life: an unhappy childhood, four children, the death of her husband, the loss of a child, and the eternal struggle between motherhood and work. I think I would find this book truly inspiring.

 

How similar are these three covers!?

So, which is it to be? Grateful for views

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I have 14 books on my ‘to read’ pile – oops!

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And that’s just the living room pile! I have a few more beside my bed, and, ahem, a shelf or two full in bookcases here and there. If I sat down and worked out how long it would take me to get through them all I’d probably find I don’t need to buy another book for…some time! It’s a fairly harmless vice, compared to some, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something wrong with me – am I an eternal optimist (thinking I CAN read all these books) or do I have my head stuck in the sand (believing I WILL read all these books)? Is it wasteful? Of money and the earth’s resources? Or am I right to reward the many hard-working writers who have put so much time and effort into their books, by purchasing copies, even if I might never read them?

Who knows, but the piles do rather haunt me and get bigger in my mind, in true Dorian Gray fashion.

2017-03-01-13-21-23-hdrSo, the task for March on my 2017 reading challenge is to grip up this issue and tackle one of the books on my ‘to read’ pile that has been sitting there the longest. It’s Just Kids by Patti Smith. I came to Patti relatively late in life; I was a bit young to be into her in the ’70s when she was prominent. I’m not a big music fan and am relatively ignorant but I picked up her career-defining album Horses in one of those ‘2 for a tenner’ type sales in HMV, or somewhere similar, a few years ago, and it quickly became one of the soundtracks of my 30s, and my children loved it too! We all loved ‘Gloria’ particularly and that song would definitely be one of my Desert Island Discs, both because I love the power and energy of the song and because it brings back happy memories of us all singing in the car – “Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!”

2017-03-01-11-40-14Patti Smith is a fascinating woman who has led a fascinating life. I have been meaning to read this book for years (it was published in 2010), so when I came across it in the Strand Bookshop whilst on my trip to, where else, New York last summer, it had to be bought! (It’s a very New York book.)

I’m looking forward to starting it, especially as I have now at long last finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing, with which I rather struggled, as I wrote about here a couple of weeks ago (I’ll post my review of that book soon). Reading Just Kids will I hope transport me back to last summer as I await the proper arrival of spring; I see a few snowdrops sprouting in my garden, but I also saw snow yesterday so we’re not there yet.

So, if you fancy joining me on the challenge this month, and picking a book from your ‘to read’ pile, do let me know what you’ll be tackling and why. (I think I’ll also give up book-buying for Lent!)

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