A candid memoir that unwraps quite a few surprises

JU News Desk
Published: March 2019

Michelle Obama, the former first lady, generated news effortlessly throughout her husband Barrack Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office. Whether it was her signature kitten heels or strong political views, she left a mark with her poise. Becoming, her memoir exhibits the same sang-froid with added elements of candour and humour. It is divided into three parts, ‘Becoming Me’, ‘Becoming More’ and ‘Becoming Us’.

Her growing up years at the South Side Chicago is the first intimate glimpse into the woman we have all come to see in the public sphere. In her words, she spent much of her childhood, “listening to the sound of striving.” It was the 1960s and young Michelle lived with her parents and younger brother in a rented apartment. Through the floorboards of her home, she could hear her Aunt Robbie’s piano lessons to the children from the racially mixed neighbourhood. She lived right above, “…plinking in the afternoon and plinking in the evening,” as the students strived to learn with little success. Accompanying the “persistent” music in her life was a happy childhood with a mother who took her to the public library to read and a father who discussed baseball swings with her.

Much of the first part of the book is devoted to her formative years, her friendships and her aspirations. She emerges as a lively, sharp and ambitious woman who chased her dreams despite the odds.

From Euclid Avenue in Chicago to the White House, the story of her journey inspires and humbles. Her time at Princeton, one of the Ivy League law schools also features in the book. It is clear that she took her minority status as a woman of colour at Princeton a tad too seriously and gave 200 per cent to all that she did.

Michelle Obama’s anecdotes in all the three parts are underscored by frank admissions and she pulls it off without ever once indulging in a pity-party. Her early encounter with a bully at school and her trials with the “not enough” syndrome at a later period are related in a simple, matter of fact voice.

Her African-American ancestry is a strong presence in the narrative. She contrasts her own positive experiences with those of her grandfather’s shattered dreams leading to a “residual resentment” that he carried throughout life.
The lively account of her relationship with Barrack Obama comes as a surprise. She met him at the law firm where they worked and her first impression of him and even a second one was far from favourable. The most interesting parts are where she attempts to explain how a “gregarious” person like her and a more “cerebral” Barrack Obama partnered.

Barrack Obama’s political ambitions often weighed heavy on their relationship. She talks about the couples’ therapy that saved their marriage and her experience with IVF as the couple tried to conceive. His Presidency came as another challenge for the family. She believed in her husband but the pragmatic Michelle also knew that the Presidency meant incessant public scrutiny, political rivalries and blows from opponents that would often be below the belt.

In her account, Michelle finds living at the White House a study in contradictions. “There were days when I felt suffocated by the fact that I couldn’t get some fresh air without causing a fuss. There were other times when I’d be awestruck by the white magnolias blooming outside, the everyday bustle of government business, and the majesty of a military welcome.”

Though much of the book is devoted to her encounters with life and experiences that have shaped her, she has also made space for her perspective on America. “When you are the first lady, America shows itself to you in extremes.” She recounts how at times she would be invited to mansions where people had jewel encrusted bathtubs, and at others had visited run-down houses where families would be grateful if they had a decent meal at night.

For those who are wondering, she does take a shot at the current President and calls him a “bully”. She points out that the ongoing discrimination will prove detrimental to the African-Americans. While at it, she resists breaking into a diatribe against the current government, maintaining the same balance that people have come to expect from her. Her political ambitions seem non-existent. She confesses that politics does not interest her.

Becoming as a memoir is bold, lively, frank and evocative. It tells a story worth listening to. Michelle Obama succeeds in charming the readers as she shares her hopes, indignations, delights and an undying zest for life.

Becoming by Michelle Obama from Crown Publishing Group is available as a Kindle edition (Rs 500), hardcover (Rs 999) and paperback (Rs 1993).

Don’t Tell the Governor by Ravi Subramanian

The stir that the demonetisation created in 2018 had to inspire a fiction. Ravi Subramanian takes great pleasure in spinning stories with financial plots and has taken it upon himself to bell the cat. Don’t tell the Governor plays on the constant tussle between the Finance Ministry and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). It features Aditya Kesavan, a newly appointed Governor of the RBI who is raring to go when one of the biggest announcements made in the history of modern India would topple the apple cart. The announcement derails a hard won economic stability and time is of the essence if Kesavan intends to put things right.

The book also has sub-plots running in the background – A car with passengers and a trunk full of cash has an accident at the Indo-Nepal border while a starlet from Bollywood wins a popular reality show in England.

Don’t Tell the Governor by Ravi Subramanian from Harper Collins India Ltd. is available as a paperback (Rs 173) and a Kindle edition (Rs 164).

Fire and Blood- A Targaryen History by George R.R. Martin

Battles, dragons and kingdoms gained a whole new context with the Game of Thrones series. The latest fare from the franchise travels to the era before the Game of Thrones, providing fans with a history of Westeros’ major ruling houses. All the familiar houses from Game of Thrones- Lannister, Baratheon and of course Targaryen find a place in Martin’s epic historical account.

As the subtitle, ‘300 Years Before A Game of Thrones (A Targaryen History)’ suggests, Targaryens and their pet dragon Aegon occupy the centre stage. In this book, we find Targaryens ruling Valyria. They are forced to flee to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros as Valyria is about to cease to exist. Like all of Martin’s books, Fire and Blood is full of warring kingdoms and political factions but the style of prose differs from the others. It is more academic and historical, probably meant for hardcore fans clamouring to know about the origin of the dragons.

Fire and Blood- A Targaryen History by George R.R. Martin from Bantam Books is available as a hardcover (Rs 2115).

The Great War: Indian Writings on the First World War by Rakshanda Jalil

Accounts of the First World War remain largely negligent of the Indians who participated in it. India was under the colonial rule during the war and the views of Indians on the war finds a home in Rakshanda Jalil’s latest book. Commemorating 100 years of the end of the First World War, this book brings together views and attitudes of people such as Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and many more.

The Great War pays homage to the 1.3 million Indians who took part in the war and several thousands of them who never returned. The book also features Rakshanda Jalil’s original translations of Hindi, Urdu and Bengali poems that pay homage to Indian soldiers who perished in the First World War.

The Great War: Indian Writings on the First World War by Rakshanda Jalil from Bloomsbury is available as a hardcover (Rs 227) and a Kindle edition (Rs 296).