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What I'm Reading (No. 60): the Obama edition
First, I'd like to share my latest Art of Manliness article, which published on Tuesday. I took January off of social media, and had some interesting insights to share. I'm rather proud of it, and I'd be honored if you gave that piece a read too: 4 Lessons From a 4-Week Social Media Fast.
Now, on to this week's Obama edition. Our book club chose Michelle Obama's mega-bestseller Becoming for our February read. I often like to read a little something extra for book club, and since I'm in the midst of reading a biography of each president, this was the perfect time to dig in to her husband's life as well.
Apologies in advance for the length; I can't help myself when writing about biographies. It's what happens when the two books span about 1,000 combined pages. Let's do it.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
My primary impression after reading Mrs. Obama's wonderful autobiography was that it's hard to imagine any other first lady — Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan — being as open and honest as Michelle.
This book starts right from her own beginning: her childhood in Chicago's south side. She grew up in a working class family, was a bright young girl, and ended up in a great high school. She proceeds to Princeton (following in her brother's footsteps), and then to a prestigious Chicago law firm where she meets summer intern Barack Obama.
From there, things move quickly as Barack becomes a politician and amazingly, surprisingly secures his spot in the Oval Office as the 44th president. And this is where Michelle's writing really shines. She opens up quite honestly about her reluctance of his campaigning for state office, then for Senator, and finally for POTUS. Michelle very begrudgingly went along with all of it, essentially becoming a single mom in the process. Plus, her own career was taking off — first as a lawyer, and then as a VP at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Her life was a crazy circus act of juggling being a politician's wife, mom, and independent professional in her own right.
And of course, her descriptions of life in the White House for 8 years were just really fun to read. As a black woman in a house built largely by black labor — slave and free alike — she had a really unique perspective on things. She did her best to support her husband of course, but also forge her own, decidedly unstuffy identity as First Lady.
I always read autobiographies with some trepidation, and Becoming was no different. The author of course brings a polished perspective that can hint at vulnerabilities, but doesn't always get to the truth of things. Readers often can't really know what was real and what was glossed over until many years later when books can be written about them without the inevitable tinge of partisanship.
That said, Becoming was a great, easy-reading book that painted an often unseen portrait of what life is like as a First Lady, and provided plenty of book club discussion points. (I also feel like I should mention that I know Republicans and Democrats alike who have enjoyed it; it's not just a read for a liberal's bookshelf.)
Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss
David Maraniss, longtime writer and reporter for the Washington Post, is as acclaimed as a journalist can come. He's written a bunch of very well-reviewed biographies as well, including one of Bill Clinton that I have on my shelf.
Obviously no biography of Barack Obama is complete — the man just finished his two terms as president and is just 57 years old. Beyond just the fact that he's still alive, it's hard to assess any presidency (or life) before some time has passed.
But, Maraniss's biography is not an ordinary one. Over the course of 570 pages, we only arrive to 1988 when Barack decided to go to law school. Even though it's another 20 years before he's president, Maraniss paints a picture in which it's easy to see both the man he eventually became and the seeds of politics that were planted well before most people probably realized (perhaps even including Michelle).
Interestingly, Barack doesn't even enter the picture until chapter 7 — some 150+ pages in. Before that, we get an in-depth treatment of his genealogy, from his Kenyan heritage to his Kansan heritage. As Maraniss writes, while geography and genealogy aren't everything, they are important in considering the course of one's life.
I know this sounds like a terrible bore, and I get it. I really do. But Maraniss writes with such journalistic fluidity that you feel like you're reading a really long, really well done newspaper article — in the best way possible.
From there, we enter Barry (the name Barack went by through his college years). He had a crazy childhood that spanned between Hawaii and Indonesia, and ended up as a smart, affable, and yet identity-confused kid who couldn't figure out his place in the world. He went to Occidental and then Columbia, reading a lot, thinking a lot, and trying to determine his course in life and construct an identity.
The depth of Maraniss's research is remarkable, and his storytelling is second-to-none. It's an easy-reading 570 pages. And like any good biography of a complex man, there's fodder for both admirers and detractors alike. I quickly came to realize that Barack Obama was and is as complex as any other man who has held the title of President of the United States.
I'm quite thankful that Maraniss has noted he'd like to do follow-up volumes, but only after an appropriate amount of time has passed from the end of his presidency. This first volume proves, if nothing else, that Barack Obama's presidency was likely the most improbable in our nation's history. Barack Obama: The Story is highly recommended for those interested in the story of POTUS 44.