Sunday, February 10, 2019


Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018), narrated by Michelle Obama

Former First Lady Michelle Obama's memoir is currently the most requested book in my library system. It seems like everyone is reading it. I was considering it and kept waffling on whether or not I wanted to read it, but then a friend mentioned how much she was enjoying the audiobook so I decided to try that version.

Obama begins with her childhood, describing her family and her life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, before moving on to college, law school, and her early career. It was then that she met Barack Obama, at the time a law student who came to work at her firm as an intern. It didn't take long for them to begin a relationship. She takes us through major changes in her life, from getting married and having children to becoming First Lady of the United States, and straight through until they left the White House.

Reading about her family and early career was interesting, but what I found most fascinating was how she fit her life around Barack being President. For one thing, she had to give up her job. Her career had taken some turns anyway, but she was really going from one great job opportunity to another. At one point she talked about the huge pay cut she had to take to leave the law firm she was working for to go to another job that she thought would be more fulfilling. She said her salary was going from 120k to 60k. (That was in the 90s, when I was making around 24k. These numbers were kind of staggering to me.) At any rate, this is an ambitious successful woman who at one point had to choose to give it up for a life she definitely didn't expect.

Life in the White House was a tightly-controlled situation, and nobody in the family could really live a normal life. She mentions how she liked to sometimes drink her tea out on the balcony on a nice day, but it meant the crowds had to be cleared from that whole side of the house, and she didn't want to do that to tourists who came all the way to D.C. to see the White House. A few months after they moved on, Michelle and Barack decided to spend some time together and made a trip to NY for dinner and a show. They got to the restaurant and everyone who arrived after them had to go through security, and then the show they went to see started 40 minutes late because of all the extra security precautions that had to be taken. It felt like a huge nuisance and the media criticized them for the cost, so they didn't do that again. But really, they just wanted to spend some time together outside of the White House! She said that it was so difficult to go outside of the family quarters in the White House that they weren't even walking very much and they both started spending a ton of time in their gym to make up for it.

Things were difficult for the kids too. Malia had to attend her prom with the secret service in tow, and when it was time to visit colleges Michelle wasn't able to go with her because having the whole First Lady motorcade there was such a huge inconvenience for everybody. Michelle ended up sending her assistant instead. And one time the girls just wanted to go out for ice cream with some friends, but they couldn't because it was impossible to arrange spur-of-the-moment plans to go out. It was a bummer to hear how many normal things they couldn't do because of all the security requirements.

Michelle says that Barack was treated like some sort of precious gem. She understood why, of course, but said it felt like a throwback to a time when households revolved around the man, which was the opposite of what she was trying to teach her daughters. That was such an interesting perspective that I hadn't thought of, but of course Sasha and Malia were so young when they moved to the White House that probably a lot of the weird things about their lives seemed normal.

There were so many interesting little stories throughout the book. For instance, when Barack first won the presidency, the Bush family made a huge effort to make the transition as seamless as possible. They made sure there were binders of information regarding the household, including social calendars and that sort of thing, and apparently went beyond what was usually done for these transitions. They were also very gracious hosts when the Obamas first visited. The Bush daughters gave Sasha and Malia their own tour, showing them the fun parts of the White House. It was really very touching.

Also, did you know that the President's family gets billed for food, toilet paper, and expenses from when they have guests visit? I had no idea. I really had very little knowledge of how things worked behind the scenes at the White House so it was pretty eye-opening in that way.

The audiobook was 19 hours long (!) which concerned me because I generally stick to books that are around 8-9 hours if I can help it. The only other audiobooks I've listened to that were so long were in the Harry Potter series. But it wasn't a slog to get through, as I had feared. It was an interesting story that was very well narrated by Michelle Obama, who could probably do this as a career if she wanted to. (I've also listened to Barack narrate his own memoir and as much as I hate to say anything negative about him, it's a good thing he had another career to fall back on.) All in all I'm glad I read this and, more than anything, it made me really miss the Obamas. They were a pretty cool First Family!

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