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.

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.

Bonjour! Let’s Learn French-Visit New Places and Make New Friends by Judy Martialay

I usually don’t review children’s books, so I was a bit surprised when writer, illustrator and educator Judy Martialay sought me out to review her book Bonjour! Let’s Learn French. But being a bit of a Francophile and having a niece and nephew who are currently attending a French immersion school, Martialay’s request piqued my interest so I accepted her offer

Bonjour! Let’s Learn French follows the adventures of world traveler Pete the Pilot. Wherever he travels Pete learns the country’s language, so he can better communicate with a country’s citizens and make new friends. In this book Pete finds himself on a French beach where he meets several children and a certain snail named Louis l’escargot. This story is written in English with several key words within the story translated to French, including words like sand, beach, castle, children, which are in bold type. Though the story is quite short it packs in a lot of basic French translations children can recite as a parent reads to them or the child can read him or herself.

But Bonjour! Let’s Learn French offers a great deal more than a short story with English to French translations. It also offers quite a few activities that also help children learn French words and phrases. They include a skit which parents can play out with their children or can be done as a classroom activity. Another activity asks children to look at various people and objects within the book, their home and neighborhoods and translate them to French.

The musically inclined will enjoy a French song in the book and the artsy set will discover their inner Monet or Renoir have fun making their own impressionistic painting, both activities fully explained in the book.

And for convenience sake, Martialay provides a glossary of French to English translations at the end of the book just in case.

Interspersed throughout! Let’s Learn French are Martialay’s cute illustrations and various photographs of people, places and things one might find during a French holiday, including the buildings, art work, the French flag, cafes, and one of my personal favorites, French cuisine, including French onion soup and various French pastries like croissants.

Bonjour! Let’s Learn is for children ages six through 12. Though I think some older children might consider this book to be a bit babyish if they’ve been studying French since they were very little like my niece and nephew. However, I think it’s an ideal book for children learning French for the first time and it’s a way to bond with their parents, too. And, no parents, you don’t have to be fluent in French.

As for school teachers, I think a lot of them will welcome a book like Bonjour! Let’s Learn French in their classrooms, whether the French language is a part of their curriculum or not. We live in a very global world and a book that not only teaches children a foreign language but also about a foreign culture can only be an asset to their learning.

 

 

 

Taking One for the Team: Crippled America- How to Make America Great Again by Donald Trump

Crippled_America_-_How_to_Make_America_Great_AgainNow do you really think I could take one for the team without reviewing a book by the GOP’s presidential nominee Donald Trump? Of course not. Initially, I thought of reviewing Trump’s classic The Art of the Deal. But decided to check out Crippled America: How to Make Great Again because this idea of making America great again is Trump’s campaign slogan, and according to the bloviating Cheeto, only he is capable of making the good old US of A great again.

And boy, in Crippled America Trump never fails to remind you of this…

Now I’m not exactly naïve. I know damn well Donald did not write this book; he can barely handle writing a decent Tweet. Most likely he hired a ghost writer to write Crippled America basing this tome on Trump’s speeches, interviews, and yes, his Tweets.  Well, I can say one thing good thing about Trump; he’s keeping ghost writers in business. They can use the paycheck.

Okay, onto the book…

After a preface called “You Gotta Believe”, Crippled America is divided into 17 short chapters focusing on several key issues: 1) Winning Again 2) Our “Unbiased” Political Media (the quotes are in the text of the book) 3) Immigration: Good Walls Make Good Neighbors 4) Foreign Policy: Fighting for Peace 5) Education: A Failing Grade 6) The Energy Debate: A Lot of Hot Air 7) Healthcare is Making Us All Sick 8) It’s Still the Economy, Stupid 9) Nice Guys Can Finish First 10) Lucky to Be an American 11) The Right to Bear Arms 12) Our Infrastructure is Crumbling 13) Values 14) A New Game in Town 15) Teaching the Media Dollars and Sense 16) A Tax Code That Works 17) Making America Great Again

Now I have to give The Donald some credit. He is quite right on certain things that need attending to here is the good old USA, including our schools, our healthcare system, our infrastructure, our economy and our treatment of our returning veterans. However, these are mere talking points and he never gives us solid, key evidence of how he can solve this other than using the Trump Brand.

You might ask yourself, “Okay, Donald. Just what is crippling America?” And unless you’ve been taking a very long nap, what’s crippling America are the very things Donald has been spewing about ever since he threw his hat into the political ring last year. And pretty much what he says are the same things political pundits spew about on everything from FOX News to AM radio to various Sarah Palin’s word salads vented via her social media. They include:

President Obama, Hillary Clinton, most Democrats and other assorted liberals, Congress, Muslims, immigrants, unions, the media, public schools, science and scientists concerned with climate change, and big government (well, any form of government actually)

Not surprising President Obama isn’t Trump’s favorite person. After all, Trump was a total birther who doubted the validity of the President’s birth here in the United States even after Obama presented his long-form birth certificate. He pretty much hates Obama, blaming him for everything from our relations to foreign countries to our healthcare woes to our piss poor public schools.

Other conservative talking points Trump pukes up within the confines of Crippled America is the threat of China’s booming economy and American companies outsourcing jobs to China (like Apple) without taking responsibility for outsourcing many Trump-related products to China. He just says they are good practices for him because they help him save money.

His take on energy is pretty much the same as Sarah Palin’s, “drill baby, drill,” while dismissing various green technologies like solar panels and wind turbines. He is also a denier of climate change and doesn’t seem to give a rip about anything environmentally-sound.

His only solution when it comes to our troubled healthcare system is to completely repeal and dismantle the Affordable Care Act while not offering any valid concepts and ideas on how we can offer good healthcare options that serve the public’s best interests.

At blame for our educational systems is mostly teachers and teacher unions. He blames government interference for our troubled economy, and doesn’t even brooch the issues of Wall Street greed, big business malfeasance and stagnant wages hindering the average American’s spending power. He talks about religious freedom but only how it affects good Christians like himself. As for Muslims? Well, you don’t have to read Crippled America to know how feels about Muslims. And his take on immigration is pretty much “Mexicans suck. Close the borders.” He is a huge fan of the second amendment and brags about having guns and doesn’t even want to discuss the most benign arguments for gun control.

Now how would Trump solve these problems that cripple our Nation? Well, he doesn’t exactly offer any salient policy, thoughtful ideas and solid evidence other than the various buildings and golf courses he has built around the world as if that is the same thing as running the United States. Though he does offer some ideas on making our tax code simpler, you’ve probably heard or read of these ideas elsewhere. Trump hardly breaks new ground.

Trump’s ego is all over Crippled America. He brags about his business acumen, never bringing up the failures of Trump University, Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka and other Trump-related beverages, Trump magazine, Trump’s line at Macy’s, various casinos and not to mention, his bankruptcies. He also brags of his family values, which is rather rich coming from a man on his third marriage and a known adulterer.

Crippled America is pretty much one big brag fest for Trump. As I mentioned offers no policies, ideas, evidence and careful research on how he would truly act if he was President. Furthermore, Crippled America is devoid of any endnotes or footnotes pointing out solid proof of what plagues America and why these issues plague America. If I handed in an essay in college written is such a flimsy manner I would have received a much deserved grade F.

You know, if Trump wasn’t running for the most important job in the world, I would just laugh over this book. But Trump is running for president and this chills me to my tailbone. The President of United States is not the same as being at the helm of a cheesy reality show. It is a job that requires wisdom, an open-mind to differences in race, gender, sexual identity, ethnicity, religious affiliation and differing ideas and opinions, diplomacy and empathy, the ability to see several sides to an issue, the aptitude to handle a crisis, excellent communication skills (especially listening), and other skills Donald just doesn’t seem to have or is willing to develop. Oh, being the President also requires a full understanding of the Constitution and its amendments, the Bill of Rights and how the three branches of government work. Wait, does Trump even know we have three branches of government?

When you think about, running for President is a job interview, the most important job interview I can imagine. Do you think you’d get a job if you spent your entire interview saying horrible things about women, Muslims, immigrants, your competition, or made fun of a disabled person?

I didn’t think so.

Trump sums up Crippled America, not with his tax returns, but with his so-called personal financials, and offers an “about the author” page that goes on for 17 pages. Yes, 17 pages. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount wasn’t 17 pages long.

In the end I can sum up Crippled America in 17 words: I survived reading Donald Trump’s Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again. No liquor was involved.

Book Review: Under the Affluence-Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America by Tim Wise

under the affluenceEvery once in while there comes a book that makes me want to shout from the roof tops, “Everybody, please read this book if you truly care about humanity and society!” Tim Wise’s book Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America, is one such book. And though it may sound melodramatic, I truly think Mr. Wise’s book is an excellent primer on exactly why our nation seems so skewed, confused and messed-up, especially during one of our most scary, yet important presidential election years ever.

Scholar, activist and writer, the aptly named Tim Wise, has focused on societal issues since college and one of his first jobs was working against former KKK grand wizard, David Duke’s presidential bid. Since then Wise has worked on behalf of many progressive causes and has written several books, Under the Affluence being his latest.

In 2016 Wise wonders why do we (as a nation and a society) shame the poor (and let’s face it, anyone who isn’t mega wealthy) while praising the super-rich? And what does that say about us and what impact is this having on society?

Wise calls this detestable movement “Scroogism,” and, yes, based on Ebenezer Scrooge from the Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. And it is a theme that has shaped our thinking about the haves vs. the have-nots and have-lessers, much of it encouraged by big business, Wall Street, billionaires and millionaires, CEOs, the radical right political pundits, the current state of the GOP, conservative Christianity, mainstream media and often, ourselves. And yes, that includes the have-nots and have-lessers. And Wise offers evidence through nearly 40 pages of end notes to give gravitas to Under the Affluence.

Under the Affluence and its theme of Scroogism is divided into three well-researched, scholarly, yet audience friendly, maddening, heartbreaking and in the end, cautiously hopeful chapters. These chapters include:

  1. Pulling Apart-The State of Disunited America
  2. Resurrecting Scrooge-Rhetoric and Policy in a Culture of Cruelty
  3. Redeeming Scrooge-Fostering a Culture of CompassionIn Resurrecting Scrooge,

Wise carefully researches how in the 21st century the United States is a society that bashes the poor, blames victims, the unemployed and underemployed, embraces a serious lack of compassion and celebrates cruelty while putting the wealthy and the powerful on a pedestal. And Wise examines the origins of class and cruelty in the United States, the ideas of the Social Gospel and FDR’s New Deal, the myths and realities of the War on Poverty from its inception to Reaganism (and how liberals responded), and the concept how culture of cruelty affects who receives justice and who receives nothing at all except horrifically de-humanizing insults, both in rhetoric and reality. It is probably these two chapters that truly stirred my rage, and at times, I had to put Under the Affluence down and take a few deep breaths.But just as I was about to chuck Under the Affluence across the room and spend a week in the corner rocking back and forth, I read the final chapter, and felt a bit of hope. Perhaps, as nation things aren’t as bleak as they seem. In this chapter, Wise reminds us to look for possible roadblocks on the way of redemption. He also mentions that besides facts, use storytelling because behind every fact there is a very human face with a story that must be heard. He behooves us to create “a vision of a culture of a compassion” and how we can help communities to control their destiny.

Now, I am a realist. I know for the most part Under the Affluence is a book that preaches to the choir, especially in 2016. But maybe, just maybe, Under the Affluence will open minds, soften hearts and act an agent for, as Elvis Costello so aptly put it, “peace, love and understanding.” Under the Affluence is not only one of the most important books to come out in 2016; it is one of the most important books to come out in the 21st century.

Wise also takes a look at the world of the working poor and the non-working rich, the myth of meritocracy, horribly mean-spirited remarks, much of it coming from the radical right, including pundits and politicians, excessive CEO and big business pay, the devaluing of work that truly benefits all of society-nursing, teaching social work, protecting the public, improving our infrastructure, creating art, taking care of the elderly and disabled, and so on. And let’s not forget the very valuable work that doesn’t pay-parenting, eldercare, volunteering, etc.

In Pulling Apart, Wise takes a hardcore look at our current state of joblessness, wage stagnation, underemployment and how they affect us in this stage of “post-recession recovering” America. He investigates today’s realities and the long-term effects of income and wealth inequality. Wise contemplates who and what caused these problems and how race, class and economics are involved.

Book Review: The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs by Matthew Dicks

the perfect comebackIn Matthew DicksCaroline Jacobs is not the type of woman anyone would call feisty and assertive. She is an admitted wimp who stands on the sidelines and doesn’t stand up for herself, let alone for anyone else.

But then Mary Kate Denali, the twin-set wearing queen bee, alpha bitch of the local PTO goes off on a condescending verbal smackdown towards another member. Not liking how this member is being harassed, Caroline defies Mary Kate and her rude remarks using the rather colorful word-yes, that one-the King Kahuna of cuss words.

Mary Kate, not used to be called out on her middle-aged mean girl schtick, clutches her pearls in shock. How dare anyone defy the grande doyenne of the PTO with such crude language. But instead of backing down and apologizing, Caroline gets fired up. Her daughter, Polly, defends her mother by getting physical with Mary Kate’s daughter. Polly is called into the principal’s office and threatened with suspension.

When Caroline collects Polly from the principal’s office she makes a split decision that sets The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs in motion. Without stopping back home for even a change of clothes or a quick explanation to her husband on her scheme, Caroline decides to drive back to her hometown to confront old school chum turned high school tormentor, Emily.

While on this many mile road trip, Caroline tells Polly the tale of how she and Emily were as thick as thieves through most of their childhood until Emily became friends with one of the most popular girls at their high school and rejected Caroline in the most humiliating and public way-within the confines of their school’s cafeteria. Shudder.

Or as Obi-Wan Kenobi aptly put it in Star Wars:
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

Caroline and Polly can’t exactly be described as close, especially considering Polly is in her difficult teen years and Caroline is a self-described wuss. But during their journey to Caroline’s hometown, mother and daughter begin to bond as Caroline describes how this moment of teen betrayal affected her and continues to affect her. Polly is a bit troubled by her mom’s confession and at the same time wants her mother to grow a pair; in other words, Polly totally wants Caroline to confront that trifling bitch Emily.

Before Caroline confronts Emily she makes a pit stop at her mother’s house. To say Caroline’s mother is a character is putting it mildly. She runs a pet burial service and has a host of wacky friends, including a boyfriend named Spartacus.

But Caroline doesn’t have time to bond with her mom. She finds out Emily is still living in her hometown. Caroline picks herself up by her bra straps and confronts Emily and her teen-aged traitorous ways. But as much as Caroline despises Emily, she also feels some compassion for her as she learns why Emily conducted herself the way she did back in highschool and how she is coping with a family life that isn’t all what it may seem on the surface. Furthermore, Polly does something that sets the story in another direction and helps repair the frays of Caroline’s hurt past feelings.

To say I loved The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs is an understatement. Dicks is a masterful writer, fully empathizing with his characters, shading them with rich details that never come across as false. It probably helps that he worked in education and has some perspective on the high school experience. But I also think he is a very empathetic person, and having empathy is desperately needed when writing a novel. I can easily see The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs (someone call Tina Fey’s agent, stat!) but for now I will appreciate this treasure of a book as one of the best works of fiction I’ve read in a long time.

 

Book Review: Meet Me Halfway-Milwaukee Stories by Jennifer Morales

Meet-Me-Halfway-coverJennifer Morales is a former Milwaukee-based activist focused on education, and once acted as a board member for Milwaukee public schools. Now she can add published author to her list of accomplishments with the release of her interconnected collection of short stories in Meet Me Halfway-Milwaukee Stories.

Meet Me Halfway opens up with “Heavy Lifting.” In this story, Johnquell, an African-American teenage boy, is mortally wounded when helps his white neighbor, Mrs. Czernicki move a heavy piece of furniture in home. Feeling fully, responsible, Mrs. Czernicki feels compelled to connect further with Johnquell’s family that goes beyond attending his funeral. She becomes friendly towards Johnquell’s grieving mother and learns more about Johnquell from his siblings, learning though there are differences that divide us, there are also shared experiences that explain our shared humanity.

Thus, Meet Me Halfway, uses “Heavy Lifting” as a launching pad to share intermingling stories about various Milwaukee residents in one of America’s most segregated cities-Milwaukee.

In “Fragging,” a still alive Johnquell describes his experiences as a black student from a lower middle class family in a mostly white, wealthy suburban highschool.

In “Revision” Stu Reid’s limited ideas on young black men change when he feels compelled to attend Johnquell’s funeral after dealing with him in class as a substitute teacher. Perhaps Milwaukee’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, Clark “Psycho” Sykora, doesn’t have all the answers after all.

When flowers are “Misdirected” and accidentally sent to Johnquell’s mother Gloria that are meant for another woman, Gloria learns a long-kept secret of Donna Tillet, a white suburban matron, a secret that kept Donna estranged from her children for far too long.

And in the final chapter, “Pressing On,” Tarquan, Johnquell’s surviving brother navigate the difficult aftermath of his brother’s death, putting up with the questions from concerned adults, his siblings, and high school friends and peers. If adults can’t explain life and death, how can Tarquan? Perhaps, some day he’ll have the answers.

Morales’s empathetic and vivid writing is both thought-provoking and inspiring. In a city like Milwaukee, so segregated amongst all races,  Morales is able to fully evoke the multi-dimensional characters with wisdom and grace. She doesn’t just feel for these men, women and children; Morales’ feels with them as truly masterful writers should and do. Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories is a slim book that spoke to me in volumes. And I hope it is not the only book Jennifer Morales has within her. I want more books from such a talented writer.