Dazzled By Ground-Breaking Memoir of A First Lady

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Of the million or so photographs featuring Michelle Obama, two will be forever etched in my memory.

One shows the First Lady of the United States jumping about and getting sweaty with a bunch of kids on the front lawn of the White House.

The other image dates from her first visit to the United Kingdom. During an official reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, Michelle Obama put her arm around the monarch.

To say the resulting photographs astonished royal watchers is putting it mildly because touching the Queen is strictly forbidden. It’s not treason as such (an offence that could see you carted off to the Tower of London) but it’s definitely one of the most heinous transgressions of royal protocol.

What was astonishing about both these images was that they turned on their head everything we’d ever seen from previous holders of the role of First Lady.

There’s no position description for the First Lady. But we got used to the idea over the decades that they’re in a supportive role to the star turn of The President. Always gracious, always immaculately dressed; a walking advert for American fashion designers. They can engage in charitable endeavours but rarely speak out about issues.

Michelle Obama broke that mould. Never before had we seen a First Lady dress so casually in sneakers, leggings and t shirts; Never before had we seen her get down and dirty while digging and planting a vegetable patch. And never before had we seen someone so touchy-feely.

Becoming  by Michelle Obama

Her memoir Becoming was similarly ground breaking. It’s the first completely honest account from a First Lady of the experiences that shaped her personality and influenced her attitudes.

It’s a work of stellar storytelling taking us from her modest background in Chicago, through academic success to an unfulfilling career in corporate law. The life she envisaged was “a predictable, control-freak existence – the one with the steady salary, a house to life in forever, a routine to my days.”

But then came the event that changed her life entirely – she was asked to take a young, mega talented law student under her wing during a summer placement. Barak Obama put her life on a completely new trajectory, catapulting her into the uncomfortable world of politics and to the highest office in her country.

Confronting Challenges

It’s a career progression that in some eyes would be considered a fairytale. What I loved most about Becoming is that she is so candid about her struggles and disappointments.

Most of the issues she describes are those that ordinary people can relate to easily. The struggle to balance work with family commitments; the heartbreak of miscarriages and the challenge of maintaining a relationship with a partner who is away from home for much of the week.

Taking up residence in the White House presents a whole new set of difficulties. She can’t open a window because it’s a security risk. She can’t go out with her husband without entire streets being closed down. She can’t even go to a shop to buy him an anniversary card. Being in the public eye means every thing she says or wears is subjected to public scrutiny; even a change of hairstyle has to be agreed in advance by the Presidents’s staff.

Chief of her concerns however is the well-being of her daughters. The constant question for Michelle Obama is how to make sure the girls enjoy a normal childhood experience when they have to be accompanied everywhere by protection offers. Not much fun when you want to go out on your first date.

Dealing With Criticism

And of course, there is the constant threat to her projects from detractors who see her as a threat.

I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.

What comes through strongly is that Michelle Obama is a woman with an exceptionally strong streak of determination. She learned at an early age to never give up and that the best way to deal with people who wanted to thwart her ambition, was to ignore them. It’s an attitude she saw exhibited by many of the highly talented people she met later in life.

All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise, doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.

Self -belief is one of the lessons she wants to pass on through the book, as she did with the groups of young women she met throughout her time as First Lady.

Becoming A Role Model

Becoming has been one of my best reading experiences of 2019. It’s an account of extraordinary life told with intelligence, humour, warmth and oodles of self-awareness. 

This is a woman who had a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring about changes. While her husband focused on changing attitudes to healthcare and gun control, she focused on child obesity and job and education opportunities for ex servicemen.

In doing so she became a role model for young women around the world. But Michelle Obama is emphatic at the end of the book that she has no intention of going into politics herself.

I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten
years has done little to change that.

That doesn’t mean she is going to disappear – the initiatives that she lead while First Lady are so close to her heart that she is continuing to work on them. But what lies ahead is an interesting question. The title of her book refers to the idea that each of us is perpetually changing, evolving, not stopping at some set point — with the implication that we can always become better.  It’s a clue that we can expect to see more of her in the future. A clear case of Watch This Space.

Be the Expert: An Introduction to 21st Century Feminism

I have spent my entire academic life focusing on gender history: any essay that I could manipulate to have a sex and gender angle, I most definitely would. It’s the area of study in which I’m most well read on, the idea of feminism (and particularly the world of academic feminism), can be intimidating to many people.

I’m not going to try and define modern feminism here (that would require a thesis word count), but the books I’ve detailed below provide an initial way entry point in exploring different aspects of feminism in the twenty-first century

Now, I admit that all of these books are targeted at a younger audience – particularly towards millennials and Gen-Z in the case of Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Everything I Know About Love. And I know that I am a millennial myself, but I do feel that there is a universality and inclusivity to each work, that hopefully makes them accessible to a wide audience.

Each is flawed in its own way – these are not academic texts, and I’m not claiming that any of these are a bible which provides all of the answers, or is even representative of all types of feminism or all women.

But they’re a good jumping off point.

How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran

Ah, old reliable. Caitlin Moran’s memoir seeks to make feminism more approachable for every woman by telling stories from her own life, and this is the book which first ignited the strident feminist in me.

Mr O’Neill, my Government and Politics A Level teacher, declared to his class of nine seventeen-year-old girls that before we could start studying feminism as a political ideology, we all had to read How to Be a Woman.

By the time we reconvened a few days later, all of our outlooks had changed, and none of us have looked back since that point over six years ago. (I do see the irony in being introduced to the topic by a male teacher!)

The entire book has Moran’s signature style, using humour to tackle serious topics, to make issues such as abortion less intimidating. It’s a riot from start to finish, and is still as relevant as it was when published in 2011.

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and Other Lies), curated by Scarlett Curtis

Feminists Dont wear Pink

Considering I have just written an MA dissertation with this book as a case study, there are many things I could say (and have said) on the topic of Scarlett Curtis’ curated collection of essays.

Published in 2018 to an enormous amount of fanfare, the collection Feminists Don’t Wear Pink sees contributions from fifty-two different authors, from many walks of life. Some authors give their verdict on 21st century feminism, others muse on the female body, or offer insight into their own journey to feminism.

So we have Keira Knightley discussing the interpretation of women as the weaker sex. Activist Amika George considers the power of the menstrual cycle while academic Claire Horn provides a ‘short history of feminist theory’.

I do have quite a few issues with this publication which could warrant a blog post of their own (or a dissertation!). Overall however, the contents are inclusive and wide-ranging, and thus provide a more varied introduction to feminism than you would normally get in a singular book.

Everything I Know About Love, Dolly Alderton

Potentially a slightly odd choice, as it is not a book explicitly about feminism. Dolly Alderton’s intimate memoir recounts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of growing up and navigating a multitude of different types of love along the way.

In its entirety, Everything I Know About Love is truly a testament to female friendship, and the power that comes with realising that you alone are enough. Personal stories, satirical observations and even recipes all weave together to strike a note of recognition with women of all ages – whilst genuinely making you laugh.

To be honest, I also had a series of little cries along the way.

This is just a shortlist of books on this vast topic. If anyone wants some further reading suggestions, particularly on the academic side, I would only be too happy to oblige! I have many bibliographies to call on…

Please comment below if you have any additional suggestions for a jumping off point – it’s a topic I will truly never be tired of, and I would encourage some healthy debate!

Non fiction november

This is the second of two posts for week 4 of Non Fiction November 2019. You can find the first post which is a request for recommendations of top notch memoirs here

Review Roundup: Miller, Ho Davies and West

I admit defeat. No amount of wishful thinking is going to get me through the backlog of books I’ve read but haven’t yet reviewed (10 at the last count).

It’s time for a dose of reality. No amount of bashing my head against the wall is going to get me to a point where I have the time to write the usual full reviews on all those books. Which means that mini reviews are going to the order of the day.

The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

The welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

The Welsh Girl, Peter Ho Davies’s first novel ,is set in 1944 in a remote village in Snowdonia, North Wales. Until now this is a community untouched by the war. All that changes in the wake of D-Day when a site near the village is selected as the base of a new German POW camp.

First to arrive are the English sappers charged with constructing the camp. Then come the prisoners. The strangers are a huge source of curiosity among the locals including seventeen-year-old Esther, daughter of a fiercely Welsh nationalist sheep farmer.

She works as a barmaid in the local pub while yearning for a taste of more excitement. For a time this is offered by one of the soldiers but the relationship goes horribly wrong. She is more suited to one of the prisoners, a German naval infantryman who is haunted because he’d ordered his men to surrender. The pair are drawn into a romance that calls into question issues of loyalty and belonging.

The Welsh Girl deals extensively with national identity, particularly that of the Welsh. The village’s strong sense of identity comes through in their pride in the Welsh language and their culture. Nationalism is, Ho Davies, says ” what holds the place together, like a cracked and glued china teapot.”

It’s a perfectly good story with some subtly drawn characters. It treads similar ground to Owen Sheers’ Resistance in its themes of love of land and country, love and hate of nations, love and suspicion among people, fear and war and common decency. But Ho Davies’s version is more convincing.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller

I was not enthused to hear this had been chosen by my fellow members at the book club. Partly because I feared my minuscule knowledge of Greek myths would be a barrier to understanding the narrative. But more significantly, I struggle to engage with magical realism and books whose characters are not human or real.

But within one chapter all my fears were set aside. I was hooked on this tale of Circe, unloved and under-valued daughter of the sun god Helios, who finds through witchcraft the power to combat her unhappy childhood. Miller gives her a voice, showing her as a multi-faceted, complex person who experiences both joy and loneliness in a life independent of her famous father.

This is a book that has everything: jealousy and revenge; struggles of conscience; love and betrayal within a tale of adventure and romance. The descriptions – such as that of of Helios’ glittering ‘court’ – are spectacularly sumptuous. And if you want breathtaking adventure, you just need to read the scene where sailors do battle with one of Circe’s creations, the hideous sea monster Scylla.

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Return of the Soldier

I’m in awe of the fact The Return of the Soldier was written when Rebecca West was just 24 years old. The depth of understanding of human nature and relationships it displays suggests an author with many more years of experience of life.

The eponymous soldier is 36-year-old Chris Baldry who has returned from the first world war physically intact but shell-shocked. He’s forgotten the past 15 years of his life. He’s forgotten that he’s married to Kitty and they once had a son who died. All he remembers is a time when he was 21 and deeply in love with a woman called Margaret.

There are three women in his life who all want to see him restored to health. His wife Kitty, an attractive, stylish woman but with a detached, reserved nature; Margaret, his lost love who is no longer the beautiful girl he remembers but a worn out frump. And Jenny, his devoted cousin who is the book’s narrator,

The women have a choice – to accept him as he is now, happy though deluded or to try and shock him out of his amnesia. But if they succeed and ‘cure’ him, he will be fit enough to return to the front (and potentially to his death). It is Margaret, the quiet, resourceful woman, who reveals a hidden depth and greatest love.

Although the novel is set during World War 1, it isn’t about the war. In fact it’s not until very close to the end that there is any significant detail about conditions at the front for example. The focus is entirely on the emotional and psychological effect of battle and conflict.

But it also deals with issues of class. Both Kitty and Jenny are horribly dismissive of Margaret who they see “repulsively furred with neglect and poverty”). They find it difficult to conceive that Chris would reject the wealth and status of a life with them, in favour of poverty and plainness with Margaret. To her credit however Jenny does come to recognise that Margaret outshines them in putting Chris’s needs above her own.

This is aa short but intense piece of fiction that had me going in search of what else Rebecca West had written.

Reading horizons: Episode 24

Reading Horizons: November 2019

What I’m reading now

I’ve been digging into my stack of “owned but unread” books in an attempt to  bring some order to the chaos of the bookshelves. 

A Change of Climate was published in 1994 and is nothing like any of the other books by Hilary Mantel that I’ve read. She never seems to write the same kind of book twice.

This one is focused on a couple living in Norfolk who run a charitable trust for homeless people; drug addicts and problem teenagers. In their early married life they worked as missionaries in South Africa at a time when restrictions are tightening towards the non white population. The couple’s liberal attitudes land them in trouble and they are arrested.

I’m half way through and while I’m enjoying Mantel’s descriptive style I think the book needs to move up a gear now.

By contrast I’m reading The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, owner of the second largest second hand bookshop in Scotland.

It’s a journal which details the day to day events including the number of books ordered, the number of customers and total sales for the day (horrifyingly low!) Shaun’s comments on his often eccentric customers and his eccentric shop assistant Nicky are wonderful because he has a great eye for the absurd. This should be required reading for anyone thinking of buying a bookshop because while it sounds like great fun, the economic reality is sobering.

What I just finished reading

After a run of three books so disappointing that I abandoned them (one of them after just 5 pages) it was a delight to read Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. From start to finish it gave a fascinating insight into the character of a woman that stamped her mark on the White House. I loved her honesty and her humility – even with everything she achieved, she constantly asked herself “Will I be good enough.”

The Bowery Slugger was an experimental toe in the water of crime noir. Set in one of the most notorious neighbourhoods in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century, it traces the downward spiral into violence of a Jewish immigrant boy. The level of violence was disturbing but the book was redeemed by its depiction of New York gang culture and the Jewish community.

What I’ll read next

A friend keeps raving about the Australian author Jane Harper. I have two of her novels, The Lost Man and Force of Nature, both of which are appealing. But I’m also in the mood for some Trollope so might delve into the next in the Barchester Chronicles – Framley Parsonage.

That should keep me busy for a while.

Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.

This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Dynamic Action In Notorious New York

The Bowery Slugger by Leopold Borstinski

The Bowery Slugger by Leopold Borstinski

The Bowery was a dangerous place to live in New York in the early 1900s. Gangs ruled the streets and controlled the unions. They also exerted their influence over their elected representatives and government officials.

It was the roughest neighbourhood in Manhatten.

Along certain sections of the road in the Lower East side, each building was occupied by either a gambling den, whorehouse or bar. Sometimes they combined to meet the needs of a man who had many vices to fulfill at the same time.

It was also a place of opportunity for a young man with a sharp brain and a willingness to use his fists . Such a man is the key figure in The Bowery Slugger; Alex Cohen, a Jewish immigrant boy who muscles his way into the gangs and become the notorious “Slugger”.

Alex is one of thousands of European immigrants drawn to New York “not speaking the language but hoping, beyond hope, this land of opportunity would deliver plenty to them.” The Cohens had been driven from their small wooden home in the Ukraine because of religious persecution by the Russians.

The promised land they expect to find in New York doesn’t deliver. The Cohens end up in small, run down apartment in a tall tenement building in The Bowery. Alex’s father fails to find work as a tailor so it’s down to their son to help them pay for food and accommodation.

He’s a resourceful boy who in the Ukraine had already learned “how to read people and to persuade them to bend to his will.” It’s fortunate that on his first night in the city he finds a way into a trickster operation. From there he progresses to the loan shark ‘business’ and then extortion, becoming a heavy man for one of the big gangs.

The Bowery Slugger traces his life over the course of three years. It’s an episodic novel full of incidents in which Alex becomes a force to be reckoned with in the neighbourhood. He’s never far from violence. Anyone who displeases him is liable to get their nose smashed, their jaw broken or their neck slashed.

This kind of narrative could easily become very tedious especially since I’m not a fan of violence. But Leopold Borstinski’s novel has two significant redeeming features that kept me reading.

First up was the detail of life in this area of New York in the first decade of the twentieth century. You really get the sense of how difficult it was for immigrants to find a footing in the city.

There’s a suggestion right at the beginning of the book of an anti Jewish feeling with landlords unwilling to rent to those families. Naturally the Cohens feel more comfortable amid people of their own kind, particularly since they have little command of English. The Bowery Slugger is full of Yiddish expressions which I thought brought a level of authenticity to the dialogue.

The other element of The Bowery Slugger that I enjoyed was the character of Alex. What Borstinski gives us is a young man with a dilemma. He needs to keep in with the gang leaders to support his family but as the violence escalates he gets increasingly worried about what he is getting into. He also finds himself in love with the young girl who lives in the same apartment block. But she won’t marry him unless he gives up his gangster life. It’s the conflict between these different aspects of his life that make the book interesting but I think it could have been developed even further.

Even though Alex was a thoroughly nasty character, I was invested enough in him to what to know how this conflict would be resolved. We don’t get to find out because, right at the end, Borstinski engineers a plot development that leaves Alex’s future open for the next book in the series. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away the details. I’ll say only that Alex might think this is a way out of his problems but actually he is about to get himself involved in a whole new heap of trouble.

Crime noir is outside my normal reading fare but The Bowery Slugger was an engaging blend of dynamic action and period detail topped off with a morally questionable character.

The Bowery Slugger: Fast Facts

The Bowery Slugger is the first book in a series featuring the Jewish gangster, Alex Cohen. It was published in paperback and e-book format by Sobriety Press on 10th November 2019.

Leopold Borstinski

Leopold Borstinski turned to writing after a varied career in financial journalism, business management and teaching. He lives near London with his wife and child and no pets.

He is drawn to stories about the morally questionable and to characters who are morally suspect. His favourite fictional character is Winnie the Pooh.

His previous work includes the Lagotti Family series, six crime noir novels set in 1960s Baltimore.



J R R Tolkein’s Hobbit Home For Sale

If you’re a Tolkein fan and have £4.5M to spare, you can now buy a piece of literary history.

The house in which Tolkein lived and in which he is believed to have written The Hobbit and worked on The Lord of the Rings is up for sale.

It’s a six bedroom brick house built in 1924 in a quiet suburb of Oxford. The estate agents describe it as “largely unaltered” which means you’d be moving into a property substantially as it was when it was occupied by J. J R. Tolkein and his family.

This house was quite a step up from their previous home in a four bedroom terraced house in Warwickshire. Incidentally that house, built in 1906, went on sale for £285,000 in June 2017.

J R R Tolkein’s home: What’s On Offer

A rather pleasant house it would seem. it’s quite a spacious house of almost 4,000 sq feet in one of the most desirable suburbs of Oxford. Number 20 Northmoor Road comes with six bedrooms, two reception rooms, a kitchen/breakfast room and a walk-in pantry.

The agents describe the rooms as “Well-proprtioned and filled with natural light, enhanced by the high ceilings and large windows.”

But it’s the association with Tolkein that really makes the house special. The author lived next door at number 20 between 1926 and 1930. But in 1930 he and his wife Edith and at least three of their four children moved into the larger property at number 22.

The first two books in Lord Of The Rings are believed to have been written in this house. Tolkein apparently used the drawing room as his study, typing his manuscripts using only two fingers on an old manual typewriter.

I think this is how the drawing room looks today.

The house doesn’t have any particular architectural features but was nevertheless awarded Grade II listed status in 2004. simply on the basis of the association with Tolkein. A blue plaque on an outside wall commemorates the link.

In 1945, the family left Northmoor Road, two years before Tolkein left Pembroke College where he had been a Fellow and Professor of Anglo-Saxon. In 1945 he moved to Merton College, Oxford, becoming the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature.

The identity of the new owner of 20 Northmoor Road isn’t known but in 2004 it changed hands for more than £1.5m. Was the new owner just lucky and got in before the Grade 2 classification was announced which would have put the price up?

Nomadic Existence

Where did the Tolkein’s go after Northmoor? They moved around the Oxford area for a number of years, initially in the city centre near to the colleges. Perhaps this coincided with Tolkein’s new post as Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College. Perhaps the new residences were prompted by a desire to be nearer to the college or maybe the Tolkeins were looking for a smaller house perhaps because the children had grown up and moved away?

In 1949 they were living at 3 Manor Road. in central Oxford but in about May 1950 they moved 99 Holywell Street, a house built in the early seventeenth century. Both of these were close to the colleges.

99 Holywell Street., Oxford J R R Tolkein lived here in the 1950s

They were on he move again in 1953, this time to a house outside the city in the suburb of Headington. While living at number 76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Tolkein published three books in the Lord of the Ring cycle :The Fellowship of the Ring (1954); The Two Towers (1954) and The Return of the King (1955).

Sandfield Road, occupied by J R R Tolkein from 1953-1968. Tolkien worked in the garage on the left of this photograph,

The publication of these books brought literary fame and increased public interest in Tolkien. The attention of fans became so intense that the couple removed their phone number from the public directory. It also drove them out of Oxford – Tolkein and his wife moved to Bournemouth in search of a quieter life in 1968.

Tolkein’s final residence was back in Oxford. Edith his wife died in 1971 and Tolkein was offered accommodation in Merton College, Oxford, close to the High Street. It was here he died in September 1973.

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