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: The View from Flyover Country-Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kedzior

When not being ignored by the two coasts, flyover country is being celebrated as where the “real Americans” live, usually by conservative pundits. And to these pundits, real Americans are defined as white and for the most part living in the suburbs or rural areas who define themselves as conservative Christians.

But not so fast, living in flyover country, I know we are a much more diverse bunch and so does Sarah Kedzior, which she sums up in her collection of essays The View from Flyover Country-Dispatches from the Forgotten America.

A reporter for Al Jazeera America and residing in St. Louis, Missouri, Kedzior’s essays focus on such thorny topics as race, income inequality, the friction among generations, education, foreign policy, the media, women’s issues and so much more.

Kedzior starts off The View from Flyover Country with an introduction rolling out what her collection of essays is all about, giving the reader a clear idea on what to expect among its six parts.

In Part One, Flyover Country, Kedzior defines flyover country and topics such as how expensive cities are killing creatives and hipster economics.

Part Two, Post-Employments, explains issues of survival, how workers are paying a steep price, zilch opportunities and how sometimes these issues make people do extreme things like lighting themselves on fire.

Race and religion define Part Three, where Kedzior writes about the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s murder, Black Lives Matter, and what happened in Ferguson in the wake of Mike Brown being gunned down by police.

In Part Four Kedzior examines the broken promise of a higher education, and how school debt has crippled countless smart, hard-working and talented graduates. She also decries the deplorable pay of adjunct professors who work tirelessly to educate our students.

Part Five is a careful examination of our media and how gaining access seems to be only available to the well-connected elite (don’t I know it!) and the problem of fringe media in the Internet age.

Foreign policy makes up Part Six when it comes to gender, Edward Snowden, the situation in Iraq and basic human rights.

Finally, Kedzior sums things up with a standout essay on the importance of complaining. If people didn’t complain, women wouldn’t have the right to vote, black people would still be at the back of the bus, and gay people wouldn’t be able to marry those they love.

While reading The View Flyover Country, I marked several pages with post-it notes and wrote down some key quotes and passages in my well-worn notebook. Kedzior writes in a down-to-earth way with smarts and clarity. She truly cares about these issues and implores us to also care about them.

The View from Flyover Country is a treasure of a book and is ideal for both the college classroom and book discussion groups everywhere.

Book Review: Voices From the Rust Belt – Edited by Anne Trubek

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Just what is the Rust Belt? In simple terms it stretches from Milwaukee to Buffalo with cities like Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh inbetween, cities that were once known as vibrant communities of manufacturing that have fallen on hard times but are trying to recapture their former glory. The Rust Belt is also a place I call home.

Sometimes romanticized,sometimes looked down upon, and often ignored, the Rust Belt is a place rich in history and tales so I was only to happy to find Voices from the Rust Belt, a collection of essays by people of all kinds who deftly write about what it is like to live in the Rust Belt.

After a brief introduction, which describes what is the Rust Belt and why it matters, Voices from the Rust Belt is divided into four parts.

1. Growing Up
2. Day to Day in the Rust Belt
3. Geography of the Heartland
4. Leaving and Staying

I pretty much loved all the essays written by talented women and men of all kinds. Some stories I could relate and others opened my eyes to experiences completely foreign to me. These stories are written by journalists, immigrants, students, artists, business owners, activists and working stiffs of all kinds who call the Rust Belt home. Nearly every one of theses writers impressed me and I was thrilled to find brief bios of the writers, which gave me further insight to these people beyond their written words. I also pondered what it would be like to see a well-made documentary on the Rust Belt – Ken Burns, I’m looking in your direction.

If I have any quibbles with Voices from the Rust Belt it is there is no voice from Milwaukee. Hmm, maybe in the sequel.

Book Review: The Common Good by Robert B. Reich

Considering I gave Robert B. Reich’s Saving Capitalism a rave review, it’s no secret I’m a huge fan of the former secretary of Labor under President Clinton. So I am thrilled to give Reich’s latest book, The Common Good, another rave review.

The Common Good is a call to arms to anyone who cares about the state of our country and all of its citizens.

And when I mention a call to arms I don’t mean guns and ammunition. This book is a call for us to bring a sense of empathy, sensibility and basic human decency when it comes to politics, business, religion, education, media, activism, and our communities as a whole. And The Common Good is written in an enthusiastic and perceptive manner that will connect with a wide audience.

The Common Good is divided into three distinct parts:

1. What Is the Common Good?

2. What Happened to the Common Good?

3. Can the Common Good By Restored?

Part one is a primer on the common good. It starts out using the sheer awfulness of Martin Shrekeli and how he fully encompasses what is not the common good.

As part one moves on Reich explains both the common good most of us share and origins of the common good.

In part two Reich examines what exactly happened to our nation’s common good through a 3-prong dismantling of the common good’s structure. Believe me, it’s not pretty.

But before readers gnash their teeth in despair, Reich wraps things up with a manifesto on how we can restore the common good, which includes leadership we can trust, the use of honor and shame, resurrecting truth and finally but most importantly reviving civic education for all citizens starting in grade school and high school.

Some of ideas may be a bit difficult to implement and others will be quite simple. But all are vital.

The Common Good is written in an audience-friendly style that instructs and inspires and will hold your interest long after you are done reading it.  I can’t recommend it enough. The Common Good is both timely and timeless.

Book Review: My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

I think one of the first reasons why I became a feminist is because of Gloria Steinem. To be honest, it wasn’t due to her tireless work on behalf of women’s rights, committed activism towards other causes, and her exceptional writing. It was because I thought she was so pretty with her long streaked hair, her mini-skirts and her trendy aviator sunglasses.

You’ll have to forgive me…I was around seven years old at the time.

Of course, I’m now a grown woman and my love and admiration for Steinem goes beyond her looks. She is so much more than a fashionable feminist (yes, we do exist). So I was overjoyed when my friend Nora gave me a copy of Steinem’s latest book My Life on the Road. I thoroughly adore Steinem’s past books like Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions and Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. And I’ve been reading Ms. Magazine since middle school. To this day my nickname for Steinem is “Cool Auntie.”

Living a life on the road as an activist, speaker and writer came naturally to Steinem. Her father was a traveling salesman so it’s in her DNA. As a young woman Steinem spent time studying in India. Her career as a journalist had her traveling all over interviewing and covering all kinds of topics whether it be going undercover as a Playboy Bunny or interviewing the likes of Cesar Chavez. Always an activist Steinem was drawn to feminism, acting tirelessly for the rights for women whether it be access to their reproductive rights or issues they may face in the workplace. She helped create Ms. Magazine and has been a dominating force of feminism for decades, not only inspiring women around her own age but also inspiring women young enough to be her daughters and granddaughters.

“Wandering Organizer” is just one way Steinem defines herself and to me this book proves just that. Her life on the road has influenced her in a multitude of ways, especially in the world of politics. She also admits how being a wandering organizer has influenced her physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. And her travels makes for one hell of a read.

Steinem was at the 1963 March on Washington when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” She worked on the behalf of farm workers. She campaigned for Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.She was also a big supporter of Hillary Clinton in both 2008 and 2016.

She’s worked along with activists Florynce Kennedy, Dolores Heurta, and Wilma Mankiller. She admits her relationship with Betty Friedan was less than cordial. She joined forces with Generation X feminists like Amy Richards. And now millennial feminists are discovering Steinem and her work. Now in her 80s, Gloria is still traveling, writing and speaking.

Every essay is written in a down-to-earth, yet moving way. She is a powerful voice but one that never seems intimidating. She fully admits things weren’t always rosy on her travels. She dealt with a lot of backlash, especially from the radical right, but kept on fighting on the behalf of not just women, but society as a whole.

I found all her essays fascinating, turning each page as Steinem went on her amazing journey. Her life on the road would make for one hell of a movie. One chapter of My Life on The Road would make for one hell of the movie.

This novel is an impressive and mind blowing account of the people, places and things Steinem encountered on her travels. At times I felt like I needed an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of it all. I feel fortunate to have learned more about this brave and inspirational woman. As with Steinem’s other books My Life on the Road is a must-read for all feminists, one to be visited again and again.

Book Review: Whatever Happened to Interracial Love by Kathleen Collins

In the mood to read a collection of short stories rather than read a full-length novel, book of essays or work of non-fiction, I chanced upon Kathleen Collins’ small volume of stories Whatever Happened to Interracial Love at my local library. The book I held my hand was small and I figured it wouldn’t take much time to read it and therefore, I could quickly churn out another review in a short amount of time.

And yes, it didn’t take me long to read Collins work, only a few days given my personal and professional schedule. However, it did take me time to digest each and every story, which is probably why it took me some time to write this review. I found each of the stories invading my bloodstream and taking up space in my brain, heart and soul. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love made me look at some very thorny topics regarding race, gender, class, education, sex, money, and artistic expression. Sometimes reading is there just as entertainment, nothing wrong at that. But often reading is about learning and questioning the very society and culture we live in.

While reading Whatever Happened to Interracial Love I asked myself, “Just who is this Kathleen Collins? How come I never heard of her until I picked up her book?”

Kathleen Collins was born in 1942. She was educated at Skidmore and worked as a film maker and artist. Her film “Losing Ground” came out in 1982 focusing on the life of a black female professor navigating the shifty waters of academia and her marriage to a volatile, passionate artist who has his own demons to contend with. This forces the female protagonist to question her own choices and inspires her go on a journey to find her own version of ecstasy. This sounds like my kind of film and I can probably find it via the Internet for a nominal price.

However, it is Whatever Happened to Interracial Love that I must concentrate on, a book that was discovered recently and published last year, nearly 30 years Collins died of cancer.

It is 1963 in the title story and about two roommates living in New York City, one black, one white. The white roommate is a Sarah Lawrence graduate and works as a community organizer in Harlem. Her lover is a black poet. The other roommate is black and madly in love with a white Freedom Rider. She also spent time in jail while protesting down south.

Both roommates have to deal with the backlash of not quite fitting into the firm ideals of how they should conduct themselves as women and how their behavior might be unbecoming towards their separate race, and much of this comes from family members. They also find themselves questioning their choices both personally and politically.

Interracial love is also beautifully conveyed in “The Happy Family.” In this story a white man becomes acquainted with a loving black family while attending a civil rights rally while attending a church. He can’t help but be drawn to this particular family. His own family was severely dysfunctional and his new friends are kind, warm and inviting, everything his family is not. Plus, he is drawn to their intellectual ways and their commitment to social justice. He ends up falling in love one of the daughters and romance blooms between the young lovers. You can only hope that this romance will deepen and grow during a time of racial injustice and intricate family dynamics.

Getting below the surface and finding out the uncomfortable truth is the narrative of “The Uncle.” In this story a young girl is absolutely besotted with her handsome uncle and beautiful aunt. They seem to have the perfect marriage, one this young girl hopes to have herself. But as she gets to know them more and more, she soon learns of something isn’t quite right about the marriage, which makes them teeter on the pedestal she placed them upon.

So many stories in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love are linked by the themes of love, learning, questioning one’s choices and the choices of others during the rich tapestry of the civil rights movement.

Collins stories are more character-driven than plot-driven, and each character is written so full of richness and depth that I felt I knew these characters. At times their experiences resonated with me and sometimes they were very foreign, but no matter what, they were always compelling. Often I wondered about them after I finished a chapter. What did the future hold for these people?

Whatever Happened to Interracial love shows rather than tells. Collins delivers these short stories in visual elements that are quite striking, which must be due to her experience as a film maker.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love is another book that stayed with long after I finished it. And it saddens me Collins died long before her book was published and before she could bless us with more of her work both on celluloid and on the written page.

Retro Review: The Ways of Folks by Langston Hughes White

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born James Mercer Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri. He was a prolific writer, poet, playwright, author and activist. As a young man, Langston led a complex and adventurous life both in the United State and abroad, which undoubtedly influenced his writing style and his outpouring of work.  He was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance, a collective of African-American writers, artists, performers, and activists, which included Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Alan Locke, Claude Toomer, Josephine Baker, and Louis Armstrong.

Intrigued by both the Harlem Renaissance and its key players, I found myself drawn to Hughes collection of short stories The Way of White Folks. And though it was published in 1934, I find it immensely timely in 2017.

Langston’s stories fully express the lives of black people, especially when dealing with white people, during the 1920s and ‘30s, even those so-called good liberal white people who only seemed to be on the side of “colored people.” These stories are at turns sad and humorous, and not one of them rings a false note.

The Way of White Folks consists of 14 powerful short stories. It opens with “Cora Unashamed.” Cora of the title is Cora Jenkins who lives in small town called Melton. She is considered a “Negress,” that is a polite, unassuming, and quiet colored lady. She works for the Studevants, who sadly to say, don’t treat her in a favorable manner. And Cora accepts this because due to her race and her sex, she doesn’t have much power.

Cora does everything for the Studevants. She cleans cooks, runs errands and takes care of the children. But to the Studevants, Cora is just a servant, nothing more. She should be grateful for the job.

But she is so much more than a servant. She is quietly strong. She once had a passionate love affair. And as the “Cora Unashamed” unfolds proves to be far more bold and passionate than she lets on unleashing a very surprising and interesting dénouement.

In “Home,” the protagonist, Roy Williams  goes back to his home in the United States after many years of making a living as a jazz musician, traveling all over Europe. Roy contemplates how his experiences in both cultures as a black man are similar and different.

The Colony, a collective of black artists and intellectuals, is splendidly examined in the chapter called, “Rejuvenation of Joy.” These talented people convey both the good and bad of The Colony and what they face when not in their protective and inspiring community of shared experiences.

The final chapter “Father and Son” tells the tale of Colonel Thomas Norwood’s relationship with his black mistress Coralee Lewis and their biracial children. Colonel Norward takes advantage but doesn’t offer advantage to these children. And his attitude is best summed up in the dejected and heartbreaking words of his son, Bert.

“Oh, but I’m not a nigger, Colonel Norwood. I’m your son.”

Although I finished this book several days ago, I still feel them greatly. I have very little in common with Langston Hughes. I am a privileged white woman born and raised after the age of Jim Crow. Yet, I’d like to think it’s my deep well of empathy that made me love this book, but I also grew up in a small town where people still harbor the racist ideas of the white folks in this collection. When it comes to works of culture and art, we don’t only see them as they are; we also see them as we are.

But for the most part, the reason why The Way of White Folks cuts so deep is due to the book itself, and Langston’s gifted, soulful way with the English language. It is a book that will take a figurative spot within my soul, and one I can truly say is placed on my book self.