Becoming: A Memoir by Michelle Obama


Becoming, a memoir by Michelle Obama has become one of the bestselling books not just of the past year but possibly of the decade. Before reading the book, I looked up the reviews online and I mostly saw extreme reactions- either the book got five stars or just one star. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the reviews were partisan reflecting the deep divide within our country right now. It’s unfortunate that we can’t read a book objectively without thinking about political allegiance. It’s hard to keep politics completely out of the equation when analyzing a book by a First lady but it’s still disheartening to see the unhinged hatred in the reviews.

I enjoyed reading this riveting memoir about the respective trajectories of the careers of the former President and the First Lady, how they came together as a couple and lived a remarkable life in the White House in spite of the haters and the naysayers. The book is divided into three sections reflecting the three important phases in Michelle Obama’s life.

Becoming Me–  This section describes how Michelle Obama worked her way up from the humble beginnings of her childhood to a stellar education that paved her way to a successful career as a lawyer. She was from a working class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago but from a stable and loving family. The public school she attended deteriorated over time and eventually white people started fleeing the neighborhood. Luckily for her she was put in a class for overachievers and went to a magnet high school where she excelled.

I was struck by her drive and ambition to succeed even before starting elementary school. When she was in kindergarten, she got one word wrong on a quiz and the next day she insisted on a do-over in order to get a gold star along with the two other top students in the class. From childhood days itself she comes across as an assertive and confident person determined to succeed. And succeed she did! She got into Princeton despite the school guidance counselor discouraging her from applying as according to her she wasn’t Princeton material.

At Princeton racism reared its ugly head in both covert and overt ways. She met with the scorn of those who thought she was there only through affirmative action. She was put in a room with two other white girls one of whom left their suite midway through the semester. It was only years later that she found out that the mother of the roommate didn’t want her daughter rooming with a black girl and had requested the university authorities for a room change. From Princeton she went to Harvard and eventually became a lawyer working in a prestigious law firm in a skyscraper- the same building she used to pass on her ride to school in a school bus, a world so removed from her own at the time but which she eventually made hers through sheer grit, hard work and perseverance.

She is very frank and reveals that she got accepted from the waitlist at Harvard and that she even failed the bar exam on her first attempt. In spite of her academic accomplishments, there was always this question niggling in the back of her mind: “ Am I good enough? ” There is something charming about her candor which we see more of in the next two parts of the memoir. It was while she was living her dream in this law office that she met Barack Obama who worked there as an intern for the summer.

Becoming Us-  Barack Obama made a dazzling entrance into her office and her life. He was a charismatic, cerebal and calm individual with an exotic background who charmed everyone around him. They were friends for a while before they became romantically involved.  She did marry the love of her life but marriage was far from a bed of roses. Two people fiercely devoted to their respective careers would inevitably meet with challenges. A few weeks into the marriage, Barack Obama left for Indonesia to write a book in solitude. On his return, they grapple with miscarriage and infertility and eventually start IVF treatments before giving birth to their beautiful daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Barack Obama had a lot of commitments which kept him away from the family Monday through Thursday prompting them to seek marriage counseling. She had a full time demanding job herself but the onus fell on her to take care of the kids. She doesn’t gloss over any of the unpleasant moments in their relationship. They are like any other regular couple who juggle bills, debts, careers and parenting responsibilities. As his political ambitions become grander- from a community organizer to being involved with politics along with practicing law, teaching and writing books, she even speaks of a dent in her soul and a dent in her marriage. I was struck by a passage where she describes her frustration with her husband’s unpunctuality and how she and the girls would wait past their bedtime for him to join them for dinner until one day she decides that enough is enough and that they wouldn’t mess with their ironclad routine:

For me, this made so much more sense than holding off dinner or having the girls wait up sleepily for a hug. It went back to my wishes for them to grow up strong and centered and also unaccommodating to any form of old-school patriarchy: I didn’t want them to ever believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.”

But the Obamas survive the stresses as they love and respect each other a lot. She realizes that her own career would be swallowed up whole by his and she is an extremely intelligent, accomplished and ambitious woman in her own right. By then she has realized that she is not cut out for law and pursues a career in public service instead. Eventually as Barack Obama’s political ambitions grow and as he meets with success and popularity and announces his presidential bid, she has no choice but to scale back on her work and ambitions and starts campaigning for him and puts her heart and soul into it. She understands that it is his calling and that he has a vision to fight inequities and bring about change and she doesn’t want to hold him back although she was initially reluctant about his entry into politics.

Like countless other people, I looked up to the Obamas as a model couple I wished to emulate. Yes, they have a wonderful and strong marriage but they have to work on it. Michelle Obama’s candor in this regard is refreshing especially since every word she utters is dissected to the core. To make herself so vulnerable to the public reveals a lot of courage on her part. It also gives permission to other couples to acknowledge that there is no shame in experiencing infertility or marital problems and to seek help when needed. This section of the memoir also captures the excitement of the days leading to the election, the victory and the inauguration day. It was a pivotal moment in American history representing hope, optimism and change when a country with a brutal history of slavery elected its first black President. And there definitely was a supportive wife who was instrumental in making this happen.

Becoming More: Politics is a dirty business and your life is like an xray where every action is transparent and scrutinized endlessly. Not only do you have to adjust to the fame and the admiration but also the criticism that comes along in its wake. It didn’t take long for the image of Michelle Obama as an angry woman to take root when a speech she made was taken out of context. And of course this vitriol made her angry but she would have to curb her anger for if she didn’t, wouldn’t she be fulfilling the prophecy of her haters?

When she declared that her main role was to be mom-in -chief in the White House, she was castigated for not being a strident feminist. You can’t please everyone and you are constantly in the spotlight being analyzed to pieces even for superficial details like the size of your arms or the length of your dress. The White house is a gilded cage as privacy becomes a thing of the past.  The Obamas venture out for a dinner date one evening and that outing becomes a big production as they have to be accompanied by motorcades and secret service agents disrupting traffic and inconveniencing the public. It’s the same for attending school events of the girls. There is a protocol to be followed for every move and the Secret Service has to be even alerted for them to step out on the Truman Balcony.

Among Michelle Obama’s accomplishments as a First lady was the cultivation of a patch of vegetables which grew in size and symbolically to become a cause dear to her- combating childhood obesity and encouraging good nutrition. She worked for the empowerment of girls and implemented programs around the world to help them have access to education and she championed to persuade businesses to hire or train military veterans and their spouses.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the Presidency was the sheer bigotry and repugnant vitriol targeted against them which had nothing to do with policies. Obama’s opponents blocked bills only because they wanted him to fail. It all started with Trump’s hateful birther campaign and revealed a side of the country that most people thought was outmoded as they had visions of a post racial America. Yet the President got elected for a second term and was able to implement a few of the policies important to him some of which are being revoked by the current administration. It’s a testament to the fine character of the Obamas that they comported themselves with utmost grace and dignity for two terms in office without a major scandal and in spite of the vicious mud-slinging, lies and hatred waged against them. As Michelle Obama wisely said : “ When they go low, we go high.”

Michelle Obama believes that she is “ …an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey.” The word ‘becoming’ means developing or blossoming into the best version of something and that’s what she intended the title of the memoir to mean. But ‘becoming’ can also mean suitable, appropriate or something that gives a pleasing effect. And all those meanings too apply to this compelling memoir of brave revelations.  It is a book inspiring women and especially women of color to pursue their dreams in spite of weaknesses, doubts and struggles and especially in spite of the question, “Am I good enough?”





Femme Lisant: My Year In Reading!

Femme Lisant ( Woman Reading)-1869   Painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot

As the year comes to a close, it’s time to take stock of my reading habits and achievements. My goal for 2018 was to read a book a week which would add up to 52 books a year. I’m pleased to say that I managed to stick to this resolution but unfortunately I have not kept track of the exact number. I would venture to guess that I read somewhere between 60 and 70 books. For next year, I vow to track my progress on Good Reads to help me better accomplish my goals. But even without keeping a log, it’s been a fruitful year of reading. I tend to gravitate towards fiction and I’m pleased to note that this year I included more non-fiction in my reading.

So here, in no particular order, are 12 books I read this year that had an impact on me :


The Handmaid’s Tale- Sometimes even the most voracious reader overlooks a popular book. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985 was one of those books that would stare at me for years from bookstore displays and which for some inexplicable reason and much to my embarrassment, I hadn’t read. I finally got my hands on it and I just couldn’t put it down. It’s a dystopian tale which transports us to the fictitious Republic of Gilead, an oppressive regime characterized by religious extremism and misogyny. It’s a strictly hierarchical world where a woman’s main function is to bear children. The most chilling aspect of the story to me was is that it could be considered prescient given the political climate we are living in and may just not remain speculative fiction.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a sprawling family saga of the Korean diaspora in Japan spanning four generations and almost a century in time. I had enjoyed reading The Calligrapher’s Daughter, a story based in early twentieth century Korea during the Japanese occupation. Pachinko, too, transports us to that time but it is mainly an eye-opening account of the discrimination of Koreans living in Japan and their struggles to survive in that hostile environment where they were essentially stateless. The game of pachinko is an apt metaphor for the lives and fates of the characters. The novel is not without its flaws. There are far too many characters and those we connect with in the beginning fade into the background as the plot thickens. Yet, it resonated with me on a personal level as this is an immigrant story about learning to adapt in an adopted country.

The Accusation-The book from the Korean peninsula that moved me the most was this collection of poignant short stories by a dissident writer who goes by the pseudonym Bandi and still lives in North Korea. The short story is my favorite genre and one of my resolutions this year was to read more translations. This book translated by Deborah Smith fit the bill perfectly. The stories are set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim- Il Sung and Kim-Jong- Il. Each story is about an unjust accusation and delineates the plight of the citizens who are under the constant watchful eye of the state and of their fellow citizens. I have already written a blog post about this book with my detailed thoughts:

I enjoy reading classics and often reach out to the tried and tested. This year instead of re- reading Jane Eyre for the umpteenth time, I decided to read The Professor and Villette, two novels of Charlotte Brontë that I hadn’t read before. As both books are based upon Brontë’s own experiences as a teacher in Brussels, I read them as companion books. Villette is considered to be a more polished re-working of The Professor and enjoyed more critical acclaim. Despite the moralistic, judgmental and occasionally xenophobic narrators, I enjoyed reading both novels for depicting the challenges, disappointments and rewards in a teacher’s life. The Professor is written from the perspective of William Crimsworth, a male protagonist and is a very sweet and realistic love story which ends with a happily ever after. The fascinating aspect of this Victorian novel is the portrayal of a strong woman who is interested in being financially independent even after marriage. Villette, on the other hand, a love story written from the point of view of Lucy Snowe, a female teacher in the fictitious French town of Villette, ends on a depressing and ambiguous note. It is interesting for the passionate lyricism with which it lets us glimpse into the complex inner world of an unreliable narrator.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the story of Cora, a slave in a plantation in Georgia who attempts to escape with Caesar, a fellow slave who has a connection to the underground railroad.  The underground railroad was a network of safe houses and routes used by slaves to escape to free states with the help of abolitionists and other well-wishers but in this story the author makes it a literal train network with stations, tunnels and locomotives that transport slaves. The story depicts antebellum life on a plantation and the atrocities black people had to endure in a sad era in American history.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was another historical fiction that enlightened  me about a dark and relatively obscure part of US history.  Between 1854 and 1929, orphaned and homeless children were picked up from the streets of New York in an ostensibly humanitarian gesture and boarded on railroad trains headed for the farmlands of the American West to be adopted by families. Often the children ended up in worse circumstances as unpaid household or farm help. Vivian Daly was one such child who now is a 91 year old woman who lives a secluded life in coastal Maine. Molly is a 17 year old girl in the modern foster care system. Their stories intersect at a point and what follows is an emotional recollection of the past along with the blossoming of a new and tender friendship.

Elinor Oliphant Is Completely Fine- As someone who likes both Brit lit and chick lit, I enjoyed reading this heartbreaking but yet heartwarming debut novel by Gail Honeyman about Elinor Oliphant, a socially awkward and brutally frank loner who strikes up a friendship with a co-worker and gradually comes to terms with her distressing past and starts healing. The book reminded me a little of A Man called Ove. It was refreshing to have a quirky and out of the box character as the main protagonist.

Non Fiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot- A black woman’s cancerous cells were multiplied and distributed around the world enabling a new era of cellular research and resulting in incredible advances in medicine and technology including cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and finding a polio vaccine but raising ethical questions about using someone’s cells without informed consent. It is the story of Henrietta and her descendants who had no idea that their relative was being used for scientific research. People and companies and corporations made millions out of the Hela cells but her own family couldn’t afford health insurance. I just couldn’t put this book down! It is an illuminating account of racial injustice and unethical practices all in the name of science.

Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir of a girl raised in isolation in rural Idaho by a survivalist Mormon family. She and her six siblings are kept out of school, denied medical treatments and subjected to all kinds of abuse. She studies for the ACT exam on her own, teaching herself math, grammar and science and gets admitted to BYU and eventually gets a PhD from Cambridge University. She rises above her birth and childhood but yet her past and her family still have a hold on her. It is a moving story of grit and resilience in the face of extenuating but excruciating circumstances.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is the story of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library suspected to be caused by an arsonist which resulted in almost a million books being either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Ouch!. As someone who is an avid reader and who also loves frequenting libraries, I reveled in this paean to libraries. Libraries are not just repositories of knowledge but are living entities too as they also serve as important cultural institutions and community centers.

I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama and I have included it in the list. This is a compelling memoir in three parts entitled Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More which takes us from Michelle Obama’s childhood on the South side of Chicago in a working class family and her years at Princeton and Harvard to marriage and motherhood and life in the White House. It is written with candor and gives us a glimpse into the human side of the former First lady. Her struggles, whether it was balancing family and professional life, dealing with infertility, seeking marriage counseling or encountering racism and sexism are issues that strike a chord with most women.

Whether the books I read in 2017 have literary merit or not is subjective, but they did cater to my eclectic literary taste. As Francis Bacon famously said, “ Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” But I did savor them all in some way or the other as each and every one of them provided its own unique flavor to my varied palette.

I’m going to start the New Year with Middlemarch, the Victorian behemoth by George Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted by Matthew Desmond. I’m also looking forward to new publications in 2019 including The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism by Harold Bloom, The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison and The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

How was your year in reading and what are your most anticipated reads for 2019?

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!