Becoming by Michelle Obama – Book

“For eight years, I lived in the White House, a place with more stairs than I can count – plus elevators, a bowling alley, and an in-house florist. I slept on a bed that was made-up with Italian linens. Our meals were cooked by a team of world class chefs and delivered by professionals more highly trained than those at any five-star restaurant or hotel. Secret Service agents, with their earpieces and guns, deliberately flat expressions, stood outside our doors, doing their best to stay out of our family’s private life. We got used to it eventually, sort of – the strange grandeur of our new home and also the constant, quiet presence of others.

 The White House is where our two girls played ball in the hallways and climbed trees on the South Lawn. It’s where Barack sat up late at night poring over briefings and drafts of speeches in the Treaty Room, and where Sunny, one of our dogs, sometimes pooped on the rug. I could stand on the Truman Balcony and watch tourists posing with their selfie sticks and peering through the iron fence, trying to guess at what went on inside. There were days when I felt suffocated by the fact that our windows had to be kept shut for security, 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, the majesty of a military welcome. There were days, weeks, and months, when I hated politics. And there were moments when the beauty of this country and its people so overwhelmed me that I couldn’t speak.

 Then it was done.”

This is the voice of Michelle Obama in her biography/memoir, Becoming. Her story would be a great American story if she and Barack had never occupied the White House as President and First Lady, but it becomes a public rather than a private story because that happened. It happened to these two quintessentially American people while they were still quite young. Michelle spent her childhood on Chicago’s South side which was calmer and safer than it is today. She had a childhood that rivals that of any middle class American. She had two steady, loving parents. She had a father with MS who downplayed his physical challenges and went off to his job every day. Her extended family kept in touch with each other because her father had a beloved car (the deuce and a half) and he loved to go visit family members near and far. She knew racism but her parents kept it at a distance.

Michelle’s life was so much like the life I lived with my family that it evoked times that offered more stability than many children find today. She was good in school, she learned to play piano from her stern aunt who lived downstairs. As she grew her confidence in herself grew until it took her all the way to Princeton and a prestigious downtown Chicago law firm, where a young man named Barack Obama became a summer intern, then Michelle’s beau, and eventually her husband. Michelle had no calling for politics. While Barack finished a delayed college stint, she quit her fancy firm to do things that would lift up the people who grew up around her on Chicago’s South Side, and other, even poorer, Chicago neighborhoods, by running two very successful community programs. But Barack believed that the way to help even more people led through politics and, once he began, his career path took off like a rocket aimed right at Washington, DC and the Presidency.

Barack’s childhood was not as conventional as Michelle’s. He was the product of an unlikely union between a white woman from Kansas and a man from Kenya. His parents were estranged but his mother liked to travel. He spent several childhood years in Indonesia, but his real home was in Hawaii with his grandparents. He obviously also received enough loving support to grow into a very calm and confident person who ended up at Harvard, the Senate, and the White House.

This is a book that I enjoyed cover to cover. It uses no literary devices, no fiction-writing skills. It is what it is and that perfectly represents Michelle Obama; at least it seems she must be as she presents herself or she could not have written this memoir. If this were not her authentic self then she could not have written such a sweet book, and I mean sweet in the sense of offering a true taste of a good life, an American sweet spot, so far well-lived. The gracious way the Obamas lived in the White House makes them one of the great American Presidential families. I liked Michelle Robinson Obama before I read her story, and I like her even better now. The amenities of the White House, and the duties of state did not overwhelm her, but she did not take the privileges for granted either. Leaving the White House was a bittersweet experience because of the people who made their lives there so comfortable, not because she would miss the trappings of power. Barack and Michelle may be the first couple who did not arrive in the President’s house through an aristocratic American family.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover – Book

Educated is a memoir by Tara Westover. There were seven children in the Westover family and they loved their father and their mother as children do. He, the father, had a powerful charisma, although his entire world view, shared passionately with his children bordered on insanity. He was ostensibly a strict Mormon, but so paranoid that his religious beliefs were completely twisted by his absolute distrust of the government and of socialism, which he saw as synonymous with government; and of what he called “the Illuminati” (all prevalent fears stoked in current conspiracy theories). In addition he was a survivalist who hoarded food, guns, fuel and who did not allow his children to go to school. The family lived on rural land at the foot of a mountain in Idaho.

Gene Westover used religious guilt, end-of-days conviction, and parental disappointment expressed in lengthy religiously-toned sermons to manipulate his children and his wife to perform dangerous work that was well beyond their strength and skills level. His children and his wife, and even he, the father sustained horrible injuries. But doctors and medicine were things he categorized as socialism and therefore “of the devil”. Tara’s mom was a herbalist, and when forced by her husband, a midwife. Everyone in the family, even if almost injured to the point of dying, was treated with externally applied herbal salves and tinctures designed to be taken internally. In a few cases family members were taken to a hospital. Still childhood in this family, even though they loved their parents, sounded like living in one of the rings in Dante’s Inferno. Even negative situations often offer some positive side effects, and, in this case, learning to deal with dangerous situations did give some of these children strength and ingenuity.

Tyler is one of the Westover children who refused to be a part of the insanity whenever he could escape his father’s notice, and he learned ways to do that fairly often. He loved books and music and cleanliness and order. He was the first of the children to go to, and finish, college.

Shawn and Luke, two of Tyler’s older brothers left home but they continued to do jobs that required physical stamina, like long distance trucking and they eventually returned home to work in the family junkyard and to build barns and silos with their dad and the other kids. Shawn had such anger in him, and he had a mean, violent streak, which could be almost lethal when mixed with skills in martial arts and a body made strong by hard work. He started out teasing his little sister Tara, but he eventually became judgmental with unpredictable outbursts of bullying, physical torture and mental abuse, frequently calling Tara, who was twelve and then thirteen, a whore. Her parents never intervened.

Fear that he would do her major harm or even kill her eventually drove Tara to listen to Tyler, who told her that even though her parents lied about the home schooling, if she can pass the ACT she can go to college. Tara had some experiences in the community outside the family domain. She’d been able to sing in the church choir and take part in some community theater. Her dad seems proud when she shines in public. She has taught herself to read and do math through algebra, but gets help from a friend to learn trigonometry. She passed the ACT on her second try and is accepted to Brigham Young University where she becomes an A student. Good fortune slowly pulls her out of the grasp of her delusional family. During her undergraduate days I continued to hold my breathe every time she used a college break to go home. Her professors helped her get into Cambridge in London, and then, for her doctoral studies, into Harvard. She did have to deal with some psychological fallout.

This is a powerful story that aroused my anger and left me at times in despair. Tara Westover makes the point that the lives of her college educated family members differ in quality to the lives of those who did not leave the family, even though Tara’s mother eventually made the family very wealthy with one of her herbal concoctions. Education opened Tara’s eyes to how little her father knew or chose to accept of actual history and how his powerful demeanor and limited world view hurt his family, who he wished to hold onto as virtual prisoners. Tara’s family disputes her version of events in the family. There are lawsuits pending.

Photo Credits: From a Google Image Search – Barnes and Noble

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya – Book

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communal Russia by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and translated by Anna Summers in 2017 caught my attention because I had read, not long ago, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which was also set in post-revolutionary Russia in the Metropol Hotel, located in the heart of Moscow. While I enjoyed the novel by Towles, I felt that the life Alexander, once a member of the aristocracy, lived in the Metropol Hotel might be a somewhat romanticized version of the fate a person would normally have suffered as an enemy of the people during those early days of the Communist (Bolshevik)Revolution. The new leaders were purging the nation of old bourgeois influences and the privileged classes. Petrushevskaya’s story is quite different from Alexander’s and conforms more nearly to my understanding of the complicated and unpredictable suspicions that often led to the arrests of Russians in the wake of the revolution.

Anna Summers offers a preface which provides some background. She begins by describing a May 9th parade that took place in every town and village since the end of WWII with rows of ragged and neglected veterans marching proudly, and then she has us picture the day of May 9th in 2015 (Petrushevskaya originally published her book in Russia in 2006) when there were no WWII vets left to parade through the towns and villages; there were only pictures carried by their grandchildren. She tells us, “Except sometimes the facts of a family’s connection with the war weren’t suited for proud retelling and were therefore often concealed from the little ones who would then be forced to hem and haw and finally come up with some lie. Sometimes our grandparents didn’t just die gruesomely, buried alive in a tank, like mine or return disfigured or even return at all. Sometimes they were arrested and sent to the Gulag…” (Her father and her grandfather were killed in a mass execution in the late 1930’s, even though her relations were prominent Bolsheviks elevated by the October Revolution, so she had no war stories to tell and this was a problem.) “The shared experiences of their childhoods – evacuation, hunger – were heightened in her case by the unbearable – and unshareable – extreme because of the social stigma that branded her an ‘enemy of the people’”

Ludmilla’s childhood with her aunt and her grandmother was hungrier and dirtier than that of most children because of the classification and execution of her grandfather and her father. The female survivors were ostracized and interned in a prison without walls. Ludmilla’s story may begin when she was born in the Metropol Hotel but her life is lived far from Moscow for the most part. Whatever Russia was like after the Revolution for those who found favor with the Communists, Ludmilla’s memoir of her childhood years shows what life was like for everyone in a family once a progenitor became an enemy of the people, even though the reasons were often obscure, petty, or even imagined.

Soon this famous Russian writer, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, will join the ranks of those no longer living veterans of WWII. Thankfully she got to publish this memoir of her early hardscrabble existence and outcast state. We should not ever forget that the Russian Revolution was often an ideological quagmire with many victims, both guilty and innocent. Sounds grim, but is very readable.

Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins – Book

Tom Robbins has written a new book with the title Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an
Adventurous Life
. I haven’t read a Tom Robbins book in years but he rated
high enough in my book memories for me to add his newest publication to my
list. Then someone else, a friend of mine, read it and seemed so happy about it
that I moved the book to the top of my list and downloaded it to my Kindle. It’s
not my usual fare because it is a memoir, but I have enjoyed a few other
memoirs recently.
Tom Robbins loves oddball titles like Another Roadside Attraction, Even
Cowgirls Get the Blues
, Still Life
with Woodpecker
, Jitterbug Perfume,
and Skinny Legs and All. That’s as
far as I got with his oeuvre because my life took me in different directions for
a while.
Robbins wrote with humor and a sort of cosmic sensibility that
allowed him to approach some of the issues of the day (60’s and 70’s) with wit
and imagination; a cross between down home common sense, jazz riff, and Eastern
philosophy. He seemed to be a “hippie” author, but in this memoir he places his
roots a bit earlier in the “beat” generation and the bohemian culture that
preceded the hippie/counterculture movements. He was a contemporary of some
pretty famous people like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and he knew
these poets personally from in his days living in Greenwich Village and San
Francisco.
He was born a North Carolina Appalachian boy during the
Great Depression but his parents moved up in the world quickly and Tom Robbins,
all on his own power, rose up in the world beyond even his own imaginings. Don’t
fall for his “aw shucks” disclaimers. He was very smart and he did not have
many limits on his adventurous spirit. He did not have a successful career as a
fiction writer right away but he paid his dues as a journalist and finally fell
into a successful stint as an art critic in Seattle. He learned on the job and
became a respected art critic before he wrote his first novel.

He went in and out of several relationships. He tried
hallucinogenics (LSD), he knew Timothy Leary, and he spent some time with the “flower
children” in Haight-Ashbury. Eventually he met his life partner and he found a
home in a small town in Washington State. I am a far more timid creature than
Tom Robbins and I can see that his lack of fear in tackling new situations made
his life journey more interesting than what most of us experience on this
earth. I came to understand that what Tom Robbins and I have had in common all
these years is that we both see life in terms of “the paradoxes”. Tom Robbins
earned his Tibetan Peach Pie. Given that I am not nearly as adventurous, my pie
would more than likely lack the Tibetan factor. But plain peach pie is pretty
darn good too and will suffice.
By Nancy Brisson