Book Review: Becoming Michelle Obama by Michelle Obama

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Even my cat, Pokey Jones, liked this book!

Once upon a time, in land called the south side of Chicago, lived a girl named Michelle Robinson. Instead of living in a huge castle, she lived in a modest house on a street called Euclid Avenue. And instead of having to deal with an evil stepmother, she had two loving parents and a protective older brother. Like a lot of girls, Michelle Robinson dreamed of adventures that would take her beyond her humble roots and finding her own Prince Charming. She did that and so much more, thus becoming the history-making first lady Michelle Obama, not only the first black first lady (not to mention one of the most educated and admired, and if I may dip my toes into the shallow end of the pool, one of the most stylish first ladies, in the history of the United States).

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or are so “unwoke” you might as well be in a coma, you are fully aware of Michelle Obama’s years of living in the White House – her “Let’s Move” campaign to alleviate childhood obesity, her work with second lady Dr. Jill Biden on veterans’ issues, her loving marriage to President Barack Obama, and her challenges of raising two children in the White House under the glare of the media. This is a very compelling part of Becoming, and Mrs. Obama is fully honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly she dealt with during the White House years.

However, most of Becoming focuses on Mrs. Obama’s life before her time as First Lady, and it is both extraordinary and ordinary, which I’m sure a lot of readers with relate to.

Mrs. Obama describes these years in rich detail that had me riveted. Her family was firm and loving, inspiring her to be a striver and excel in whatever she pursued. She writes about teachers who supported her from grade school through law school. She lovingly mentions the girlfriends who inspired her, and are still with her today (even if one standout friend is only with her in spirit). Mrs. Obama discusses the various mentors she was blessed with while navigating the difficulties in the workplace. And she’s brutally honest about these privileges and her gratitude seems truly sincere.

However, she also had to deal with the thorny issues of both racism and sexism, and plenty of naysayers who claimed she’d never make it. For instance, one person tried to convince Mrs. Obama that she wasn’t Ivy League material. Ha, she showed this person, didn’t she?

And yes, Mrs. Obama also dishes on a certain fellow named Barack Obama, from her initial meeting when she was his mentor to her twenty-five plus years of their marriage.

But just as Mrs. Obama is grateful for her blessings, she is also honest about the trials and tribulations she faced personally. Prince Charming was sometimes a bit of a challenge and often their marriage was less than ideal. Mrs. Obama also faced issues with having children, finally reverting to using fertility treatments and later giving birth to her cherished daughters Malia and Sasha. In other words, her life is at turn both typical and atypical, one that inspires and one that a lot of us can relate to.

Now, it’s no secret I’m a huge fan of Michelle Obama. However, as a book reviewer I realize I must be truthful of my assessment of Becoming. Not to be gross, but you can’t crap on a cone and expect me to call it ice cream. Thank goodness, Becoming is a sundae of a read and truly exceeded my expectation. It’s both down to earth and out of this world, one that takes a treasured place on my book shelf. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Book Review: A Boy Named Shel by Lisa Rogak

As a child I adored Shel Silverstein’s books, The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, among others having a special place in my heart. In fact, I think I treasure them now more than I did when I was a little girl. I always had an inkling Silverstein did more than write children’s books and my inkling proved true when I read Lisa Rogak’s biography A Boy Named Shel.

To call Silverstein a Renaissance man is putting it mildly. Not only was he a prolific children’s author, he was also a cartoonist, singer/songwriter, screenwriter and playwright. He also led a rather interesting personal life.

Born to a Jewish family and raised in Chicago, Silverstein attended Chicago School of the Fine Arts but was soon drafted into the Army. While in the Army Silverstein began to draw cartoons and later, once he returned to Chicago, he drew and published cartoons for several magazines.

But it is after he began to get his cartoons in Playboy when Silverstein’s multi-layered career really began to shine and lead to greater success. He also began to write songs, mostly of a folk variety and formed his own folk group. But one of his most famous songs is the country/novelty song “A Boy Named Sue,” which became a huge hit for the late Johnny Cash. Silverstein’s songs were also sung by Judy Collins, Dr. Hook, Marianne Faithfull and Emmylou Harris. Silverstein co-wrote many songs with Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, both remained lifelong friends with Silverstein.

Silverstein also wrote a great deal of scripts for the stage, film and television at times co-writing scripts with others, including David Mamet. One of the most popular television programs Silverstein wrote for is the Generation X classic “Free to Be…You and Me.”

Professional success led to personal success, especially when it came to the ladies. To put it bluntly, Silverstein was a playa, and many of his experiences as a playa were due not only to his success, but to him hanging out a great deal at the Playboy Mansion. Despite being a bit of a man ho, many of his carnal conquests remember him fondly for when he was with a woman he really made her feel special and he was often honest with them, claiming he was not the type to settle down.

Still, Silverstein did have children, a daughter and a son, and though he loved them he wasn’t exactly the ideal father. And as I read A Boy Named Shel, I learned as much as Silverstein was revered by the children who read his books, his relationship with children (both is own and those of his friends) could be described as complicated.

In fact, complicated pretty much sums up Silverstein as a human being and a creative individual. At times he was a total bon vivant, the life of the party. At times, he was very reticent and private. He was meticulous when it came to his writing and drawing, but often dressed like a homeless person. When it came to his children he experienced both tragedy and triumph. He could be both kind and cruel.

And other tidbits I learned about Silverstein included eschewing driving after being in a bad car accident. He was nominated for an Oscar. He wrote travelogues and was quite the globetrotter. And he lived all over the country.

All of this living in one life should have made A Boy Named Shel a scintillating read; but as I kept reading this book, especially as I neared the end, I found myself bored. Rogak writing style is dull and lacks a certain punch that keeps you wanting to learn more and more. She is way too repetitive and dry, which I soon found rather insulting to Silverstein’s legendary legacy and his output as a truly original artist that entertained audiences for decades and continues to entertain nearly twenty years after Silverstein’s death. Perhaps, this book would have served better as an article. In the end I just mourned that Silverstein never wrote his own memoir.  Now that would have been a book.

Still, I am grateful I learned more about Shel Silverstein. I will never stop loving those children’s books that delighted me as a bookish little girl, and am now inspired by Silverstein’s creative output to sharpen myself as a Renaissance woman. Perhaps, if you read A Boy Named Shel and connect with his work
, you, too will feel inspired.

Book Review: You Gotta Be Dirty-The Outlaws Motorcycle Club In & Around Wisconsin by Michael Grogan

31827805As someone who is more “born to be mild” than “born to be wild,” and who is more likely to watch a rerun of My Three Sons on a retro TV channel than an episode of Sons of Anarchy, I have to admit the biker culture is one I am not at all familiar with even though I live in Milwaukee, the home of the iconic Harley-Davidson. The motorcycling enthusiast I’m most likely to come across is probably a well-heeled baby boomer whose biggest act of rebellion is not having granite kitchen counter tops.

So needless to say reading You Gotta Be Dirty: The Outlaws Motorcycle Club In & Around Wisconsin by Michael Grogan was a total culture shock. For the longest time, I thought “outlaw” biker culture consisted of some rebellious rabble rousers who drank, smoked weed, did a line of coke every now and then, got involved in bar brawls and petty crimes, and had a thing for strippers and hookers. But reading Grogan’s well-researched book was a complete eye-opener.

You Gotta Be Dirty focuses mostly on the Outlaws Motorcycle Club (OMC) from its inception to the modern day. The Outlaws Motorcycle Club was based mostly in Wisconsin with some activity in bordering Midwestern states, mostly Illinois.

In the first couple of chapters, Grogan tells us the formation of the OMC and biker culture in general. It’s very extensive. Grogan clearly did his research, and I was happy to get some of the nuts and bolts of this unfamiliar lifestyle before I proceeded with my reading.

Formed sometime in the mid-1960s, the OMC initially just seemed like a rag tag bunch of somewhat disheveled rebellious young men (and their “old ladies”) who had a mad fetish for motorcycles and motorcycle culture. But by the 1970s, the OMC was feared and notorious for their extreme violence and acts of terror, especially towards people of color and women, even their old ladies. To say, members of the OMC were both racist and sexist is putting it mildly. But among the OMC’s victims included people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Men, women and children often met tragic ends due to OMC’s actions.

Among these actions including shootings, stabbings, rape, assault, torture and bombings, which educated me while also upsetting me greatly.

Several of these actions continue to haunt my thoughts; one story was about the brutal torture of one young woman whose palms were impaled with nails and later she was nailed to a tree. Then there is the horrifying death of a teenage paperboy named Larry Anstett, who while delivering the Milwaukee Sentinel, died when he picked a package left on a customer’s car. The package contained an explosive device. It went off and Anstett died from his injuries, just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

And in 1994, the Chicago chapter of the Outlaws detonated a car bomb. This bomb was the third largest of its kind, just after the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and later, the 1995 of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168, including 19 children; and over 800 other people were injured.

The Outlaws didn’t become famous; they became notorious and feared. Their violence went far beyond Wisconsin, causing fear among their enemies, innocent civilians, the media and law enforcement at local, state and national levels. Even their own members weren’t safe, and several of them met atrocious fates at the hands of their “brothers.”

While reading You Gotta Be Dirty I had to put it down a few times because I was so overwhelmed by the senseless violence and hateful activities of the OMC. And I must admit, I sometimes thought of keeping an Excel spreadsheet of various people involved with the OMC, some innocent, some guilty, because it was so overwhelming, yet informative. I am truly in awe of Grogan’s research ability and fortitude and at the end of each chapter, he properly provides his resources. His willingness to get the “story behind the story” is a true testament to solid journalistic standards and reporting fortitude.

You Gotta Be Dirty is a very interesting book for anyone who is interested in fugitive biker culture as whole, a total history buff or anyone interested in a world beyond their wildest nightmares. I know I certainly got an education.

Why Read? by Guest Reviewer NoraTallTree (A Book Review of Sorts)

barbara's+bookstore-01This isn’t a book review. However, it is a review of how a Japanese-American girl raised by a single father in a gritty, pre-gentrified Chicago discovered a love for reading through a small, somewhat anarchic independent book shop called Barbara’s Bookstore. To learn more about NoraTallTree, read her bio below.*

So let me tell you about myself. I’ve officially become “middle-aged” this year. I’m not too sad about it – just stating the facts. I’m accepting of it because 1. I don’t really have a choice, do I? and 2. I don’t want to be any other age. I mean that I don’t want to go back or forward in time or age. I think younger people have it way worse than I do (i.e. look at their bleak future!) and the older generations always seem befuddled and mournful for their lost youth. I’m at the perfect age that I can do both: I can be woeful and relate along with younger people in “real time” and I can wish for the “good ole days” with older folk.

I can do this, especially the latter, because I sort of remember the “olden days” or at least I remember the wanting for the old days to come back. It seems like ever since Reagan was in office, there has been a standardized American cultural yearning for “olden days” or perceived “simpler times.” I don’t really know if say, the 1950’s, was really a simpler time – in my opinion, no time is simpler if women frequently had to wear girdles and had to defrost meat without a microwave, but so be it! Who am I to argue? There is a definite and palpable perceived impression that these times were the “Golden Age” and the best days of America.

Since I am too young to have really lived through the girdle years and the turbulent 1960’s, I can go right along with my elders missing those years. I don’t have any real memories or regrets because I wasn’t there, so my yearning for simpler times is just a mental entertaining exercise for me. It’s like remembering the best scenes from an episode of your favorite childhood TV show: You remember the best stuff, which describes about 5 minutes’ worth, at the most, and you edit or erase the drivel that represents the majority or the rest of the program!

But what is real and nostalgic for me is my love for books. Love, love, love books and its motherlode flagship – the bricks-and-mortar bookstore! There is no other out-of-body experience for me or as intoxicating as walking those first few steps into a bookstore – the smell of strong coffee (thanks to the modern bookstore with its Starbucks Cafés for wiring this into my sensory brain), bound paper and the smell of, “Is that glue or sugar, paint maybe?”, all mixed in with cold canned air! WOW! Isn’t that the best?!! It my “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” nirvana/heaven, slightly orgasmic moment – POP! It instantly calms me and presses my “happy” button. No one is truly alone or can be unhappy at a bookstore – it’s just not possible!

The love for the bricks-and-mortar bookstore goes back to my childhood. I have memories of growing up in 1970’s urban Chicago’s Lake View area. Instead of going to a proper after-school sports program at the nearest field house like my 10 year old contemporaries did, I would walk a mile or two through an interesting, sketchy neighborhood (considered downright “red light” by today’s standards) to the alternative/gay/radical Barbara’s Bookstore. (Obviously helicopter parenting wasn’t invented just yet).

Lake View, back then was the hosting neighborhood for a wide range of diverse group elements – Latin street gangs, aging hippies (that time’s “hipsters” – the owners of the crafts/ethnic/back-to-the-earth, think lots of macramé); pockets of Jewish-ness, anchored down by their temple; gay forefathers and newly out gay singles and the chase for the latest young hot trade (obviously pre-AIDS); seedy SROs (why are all the tenants missing teeth?) and pay by the half-hour hotels. The random Japanese-American businesse,. leftover from post-WWII Chicago neighborhood segregation made of Japanese-internment-camp- refugees” who weren’t welcomed in any other neighborhood except Lake View where the rents were cheap and they could work at restaurants near Cubs’ ballpark. And no one would rent to the “untrustworthy” Japanese, only except neighborhoods like Lake View. Lake View, in the 1970’s, seemed to be the landing neighborhood that gave respite for all those either going up or down Chicago’s social and economic ladder.

Well back to Barbara’s Bookstore. I would walk past, but more like slink past, the tall cashier’s counter at the front of the store. The male bookstore attendants would ignore me, probably too busy reading their latest socialist/commie/radical rant to look up at me, but there was a woman, I childishly thought she was the actual “Barbara,” who became aware of me and thought I needed adult supervision.

This new bookstore clerk supervision forced me to “slink”. I would wait and go in with other customers, so as to not be seen so much, and go straight to the back. The back-of-the-store is where the magazine section lived, along with its right and left henchmen bookshelves, the self-help/sociology/psychology section and gay/straight/alternative sexuality section. In this little trifecta of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, away from view from the front of the store, I would basically spend about 2-3 hours every school day for years reading the latest periodicals and books.

Let me tell you about how books were arranged back then. First of all, there was no ordained, real order to shelving and “facing” incoming books. I mean after a while the bookstore owners would get lazy and not want to move sections around – at this particular store, there was very heavy art and photography books in the front. You know the kind – the heavy book that costs a lot of money and if it fell off of its high shelf it could kill someone. Plus there were naked people on its cover, seen by giggling kids from the street view. No marketing/sales consultant/child advocate around to tell bookstore owners how to pander to the general public’s taste. No marketer or sales space consultant to shudder in revulsion or gasp at the lack of consideration for big sales. No big box bookstore list to tell you a strategic schema as to where to put which books.

Anyways, for the customers, though, once you were in the store, you were basically left on your own to explore. Even book covers didn’t call out to you with any eye catching or visually stimulating designs, only the titles and authors’ names. (That’s what made romance novels back then really stand apart from real literature, the outlandishly colored covers. They were cheap-looking and garish.) Real literature was bookish and library-ish, not just meant for entertainment like romance novels, but prized for its true meanings and love for words. The “truth” behind its simple cover – that was what was going to sell the book.

(A sidenote: There was also no advertising or posters for any events or books or anything. That was considered “gauche” and commercial…)

So in this maze and forestry of book discovery and word luxuriousness, I flourished and grew up. Books filled in all my missing childhood gaps and taught me how to live in and deal with the general world. Having no mother since I was almost 2 years old, being a latch-key kid (kids ask your moms and dads what that is), and having older siblings who were busy doing their own extracurricular activities, I had no real direction or guidance (maybe “Barbara” at the front was right to worry about me!).

My siblings were extremely smart; I was too, and I had an immense curiosity. After the mags and periodicals became stale, since the sellers would change them only monthly (yes, monthly! and that’s if they felt like it), I would venture to the henchmen bookshelves and end up reading self-help books, religion books, and spiritual books. New Age books before they were deemed “New Age” and sociology and psychology books (yes, folks, there are sections in a bookstore called “sociology and psychology” and they weren’t just all about aberrant crime or anything catastrophic). These books would explain why regular folks are “who they are” and “why they do things” – either as individuals or as groups.

Books gave me the vocabulary and some semblance of social awareness that was lacking in my lonely and singular sphere. I mean what’s a “woman, living in the post-feminist movement” should be thinking or feeling about her world? (Granted I was 10 years old but I wanted to know about “my body, myself”). Who would teach me how to be woman? My old-fashioned Japanese father? The one who grew up in post-WWI Japan? The one indoctrinated and marinated in “bushido code”? (What is bushido code, by the way? A book in the sociology section would know and be available to read!).

A free-roaming, disorganized bookstore would have something on any subject and topic. Since the bookstore is kind of organically random, I had to learn to use word association and thought siphoning to help me field my way through. Exploring all kinds of books gave me some pretty good highly educated guesses and theories that were tailor-made for me by me. I learned how to find out how to “find out” answers, ask questions, explore feelings, describe emotions, learned what was normal, what wasn’t, what works, what doesn’t and why it doesn’t, and most of all – the beauty of words and its power when it clicks and resonates with you. Reading books allow you to test your theories without having to risk living them out, experience cultures you’ll never meet in real life (like an African tribe who shuns all technology and outsiders) and learn about events you’ll never know anyone personally who was involved, like reading a book about Tibetan Monks who were deposed from their homeland in the 1950’s. Reading novels can put the words in your mouth and help you clearly define your thoughts, even if the stories are from a couple of centuries ago and from the other side of the world!

Books also keep you company, distract you from your daily worries and anxieties, broaden your world in taste and beauty – self-discovery at your fingertips. It’s one of the greatest pleasures this world has to offer, having been made solely from and of this world, and helps you create your own world within the world.

Hi, I’m NoraTallTree. I’m a person stuck in the middle: In-between Baby Boom I and Baby Boom II, punk or hippie principles, both groups simultaneously exciting me and also get on my nerves; stuck between Christianity passion & Buddhist calmness; stuck between American boldness & Japanese subtlety; I’m even stuck in the Midwest, between both coasts. Sounds kind of mixed-up, doesn’t it?!! Oh, well, it’s just me.

Writer’s Block

Beautiful DayHello everyone. I hope everyone is having a good week, and I hope my fellow Americans had a fun and safe 4th of July.

Due to the holiday, I was fortunate to have a four-day week-end, which I kicked off the week-end by spending both Thursday and Friday in Chicago with my lovely friends Nora and Elaine. But I didn’t just go to Chicago to visit with my friends. Nora, Elaine and I went to see U2 at their final show at the United Center. We’ve been huge U2 fans for years now, and though we joke that U2 are total corporate rock, they are still the most amazing band to see live. I’m still kvelling.

Here is a link to U2 thanking Chicago and their fans. Awww, right back at ya, lads!

Instead of staying with my friends, we camped out at a hotel room. This is what greeted us. My fellow Criminal Minds fans will get the reference.

Rossi

What else? Well, I should have a guest review up tomorrow. I’m about to start writing review for book that is both a memoir and collection of essays. And I’m half-way through reading another book that I’m going to review once I’m done. Ah, yes, a blogger’s work is never done.

Guest Book Review: A Winsome Murder by James DeVita-Guest Review by Jen Locke

A winsome murderYes, it’s time for another guest review! This time by my wonderful friend Jen Locke (yes, another Jen). Learn more about Ms. Locke below.

A troubled young woman is found murdered in her hometown. It’s a small town in southern rural Wisconsin named Winsome Bay. She’s spent much of her time recently living in Chicago, so part of the mystery is how she ended up back in Winsome Bay.

When a murder with similar characteristics occurs in Chicago, big city cops James Mangan and Frank Cusumano (affectionately known as “Coose”) join Winsome Bay’s Police Chief Wesley Faber in analyzing the murderer’s origin and story.

The story is told through a 3rd person narrator, who moves seamlessly from scene to scene, following different characters at different times. But after a few dozen pages in, the individual stories take on their own feel and they don’t need to be separated by chapters. As a matter of fact, the absence of chapters seems to help propel the story faster and faster and faster until it seems to be running away and keeping up seems the only thing to do. It makes putting down the book harder and harder as the pages fly by.

Being a Wisconsinite, I felt a little offended that the characterization of many of the Wisconsin characters was a bit too “country-bumpkinish.” And the officers from Chicago felt a little stereotypical. In fact, many of the minor characters seemed more nuanced than the main ones. The potential exists for the Chicago and Winsome Bay police to move forward into new adventures, though, and through this to develop into very interesting and multifaceted characters.

The most unique thing about the book is a quirkiness of Mangan’s. He experiences sudden random literary outbursts in his head. He’s self-educated and the descriptions of his house include books on every horizontal surface and books piled on other piles of books. He’s been through these works so often the snips from Shakespeare and Melville (and others) arise spontaneously and relate to the crime to help nudge his thoughts in the right direction. The way the case begins and ends for Mangan with a quote from Titus Andronicus nicely bookends the story and draws parallels to enrich the reader’s experience. DeVita’s experience acting and directing in the American Players Theatre, a Shakespeare troupe located in Spring Green, Wisconsin (a town much like Winsome Bay itself) likely contributes much to this insertion of literary quotations, and definitely helps with writing accurately about the setting.

I wanted to love this book, but I only liked it a lot. And that’s okay. Maybe DeVita’s next book will explore the officers’ characters more deeply and give us another suspenseful murder-mystery to solve alongside them.

Meet Jen Locke: Jen works at a library and is trying to keep up with the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge and her book group while indulging her own interests as much as possible. In her spare time she likes to swim, enjoy the outdoors, play with her pets, and geek out with the newest tech gadgets she can get her hands on. She and Bookish Jen met when they both attended Milwaukee’s Alverno College.