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kottke.org posts about Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Reviewed

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2018

Michelle Obama College.jpg

Isabel Wilkerson, writing for The New York Times, has the definitive review of Michelle Obama’s juggernaut of a book:

One of the great gifts of Obama’s book is her loving and frank bearing-witness to the lived experiences of the black working class, the invisible people who don’t make the evening news and whom not enough of us choose to see. She recreates the dailiness of African-American life — the grass-mowing, bid-whist-playing, double-Dutch-jumping, choir-practicing, waiting-on-the-bus and clock-punching of the ordinary black people who surrounded her growing up. They are the bedrock of a political party that has all too often appeared to take their votes for granted in the party’s seeming wistfulness for their white equivalents (for whom the term “working class” has come to stand in public discourse).

Like many Americans, Obama’s parents made do with what they had and poured their energy into their children, who they hoped would fulfill the families’ as yet unrealized aspirations. The parents bought them a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and insisted on proper diction. They went on Sunday drives to a richer neighborhood known as Pill Hill (after the number of black doctors living there) in her father’s Buick Electra, looking at houses they could only dream of. Michelle’s father suffered from multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease, and his beloved Buick gave him mobility that his legs alone could not. He never complained and rarely spoke of his condition, she says, but it was a daily consideration. “Our family was not just punctual,” she writes. “We arrived early to everything.” This was in part to allow time for any contingency, given her father’s declining strength, a habit that instilled in her the value of planning and vigilance in one’s life. Her mother kept their cramped apartment in such good order that years later Obama would remember how it smelled: “It’s because of my mother that still to this day I catch the scent of Pine-Sol and automatically feel better about life”…

We see her father’s diminishing health and his uncompromising work ethic. At one point, he used a motorized scooter to get from boiler to boiler. “In 26 years, he hadn’t missed a single shift,” she writes. We feel her heartbreak as she loses her father to the disease he refused to let define him. By then, Obama was a grown woman, grieving and even more appreciative of her parents’ sacrifices for her sake. Her parents had never taken trips to the beach or gone out to dinner. They didn’t own a house until Aunt Robbie bequeathed them hers when Michelle was halfway through college. “We were their investment, me and Craig,” she writes. “Everything went into us.”

It also includes a tidy capsule of her and Barack’s unusual, unlikely-yet-inevitable courtship:

How their office relationship turned into a quick-moving romance that summer, how the box-checking pragmatist warmed to the loose-limbed free spirit, is a delight to read, even though, or perhaps because, we know the outcome. His cerebral intensity was clear from the start. One night, soon after they had become a couple, she woke to find him staring at the ceiling, apparently troubled. She wondered if their new relationship was on his mind, or perhaps the death of his father. “‘Hey, what are you thinking about over there?’ I whispered. He turned to look at me, his smile a little sheepish. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I was just thinking about income inequality.’”

He struck her as a visionary with no material interests. The first time she visited him in Cambridge during the long-distance phase of their young relationship, he picked her up in a “snub-nosed, banana-yellow Datsun” with a “four-inch hole in the floor” and a tendency to spasm “violently before settling into a loud, sustained juddering.” She knew then that “life with Barack would never be dull,” she writes. “It would be some version of banana yellow and slightly hair-raising.”

And her lack of interest in politics:

After a series of unlikely events, among them scandals forcing one opponent after another to drop out of the race, Barack won. Michelle, against the advice of a veteran Senate wife, chose not to move their family to Washington. “None of this had been my choice in the first place,” she writes of the stress of being a politician’s wife and managing a household while her husband commuted from the capital when he could. “I didn’t care about the politics per se, but I didn’t want to screw it up.” When Barack began mulling a run for the White House and consulting trusted advisers, “there was one conversation he avoided having,” she writes, “and that was with me. He knew, of course, how I felt.”

This was where their temperaments and upbringing were at odds. She wanted the kind of family stability she had grown up with. “Barack had always had his eyes on some far-off horizon, on his notion of the world as it should be,” she writes. “Just for once, I wanted him to be content with life as it was.” By then, they had been through five campaigns in 11 years. “Each one had put a little dent in my soul and also in our marriage,” she writes. Bottom line: She didn’t want him to run for president, especially not then. They talked about it over and over. She agreed to support him, she writes, because “I loved him and had faith in what he could do.” Speaking in London in early December, she was more candid, saying “deep down” she believed “there’s no way he’s going to win. And we can just sort of get this out of the way. … That was my whole plan.”

Funny story! Barack Obama won the nomination and then the Presidency, becoming the first black President of the United States and winning two terms, thrusting Michelle into a role she never wanted but seemed to be made for.

As a young girl, she had modest aspirations: a family, a dog and “a house that had stairs in it — two floors for one family.” She had grown up in a 900-square-foot attic apartment. Now, at the end of Inauguration Day, she was the first lady, moving into a home with “132 rooms, 35 bathrooms and 28 fireplaces spread out over six floors,” and a staff of ushers, florists, housekeepers, butlers and attendants for her every need. Three military valets oversaw the president’s closet. “You see how neat I am now?” he said to her one day. She had seen, she said, smiling back, “and you get no credit for any of it.”

It’s a shame that Michelle dislikes politics so much. I think if she chose, she could be an even better President than her husband. And I liked him a lot.

Forget Book Trailers: Book Playlists are the New Hotness

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 30, 2018

Book trailers are already such a thing that there’s whole weekly columns devoted to them, a whole slew of tips and tricks; a veritable ecosystem. People want multimedia with their books. But what if the new hotness wasn’t a trailer at all? What if it was something that lots of us already do anyways, with a much lower barrier for entry?

I’m talking about book playlists, music that reflects the theme or the time and place of the book, a non-audiobook soundtrack that enhances and embellishes the written word. I love this idea!

Now, there are, as I see it, two ways to go with playlists period, and book playlists in particular. First, you can go big. Spotify and other music services can support hundreds of songs in individual playlists, and there’s no reason why you have to have just one. You can literally drown your reader/listener in sweet tunes to listen to while they read, to get psyched up while they’re waiting for their books to arrive, or to have a way to interact with the world of a book they might not even read or by.

This is the approach Questlove took when making a playlist for Michelle Obama’s blockbuster Becoming. It’s over a thousand songs split into three playlists, covering 1964 (Michelle’s birth year) to the present. Amazingly, as far as I can tell, there’s not a dud in the bunch. These selections are ridiculously good.

The other approach, which is a little more feasible for most of us, is to make a playlist about the length of an old mix CD — about 80 minutes, for those who don’t remember (and 60, 90, and 120 for those who remember back to cassette tapes). This is best exemplified by Tressie McMillan Cottom’s outstanding book playlist for her new essay collection Thick (now available for preorder). Here, too, the selection is terrific — and if I can say, a touch more personal and intelligible than Questlove’s epic collection.

If I ever write a book (and that day seems farther away every year), I’m definitely doing this. Hmm — I wonder what a Kottke.org playlist would look like? [smiles mischievously]

Update: Brett Porter points out that Thomas Pynchon created a playlist for Inherent Vice that includes songs mentioned in the book. Kyle Johnson notes that largehearted boy’s Book Notes series consists of book playlists by various authors each week inspired by their books, including “Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.”

Becoming, an upcoming memoir by Michelle Obama

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2018

Becoming Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama is coming out with a memoir this fall. It’s called Becoming, it’s out on November 13, 2018, and you can preorder it here.

In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her — from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it — in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations-and whose story inspires us to do the same.

The image below is Amy Sherald’s portrait of the former First Lady and would make an amazing book cover, no?

Obama Portraits

Update: The actual cover has been released (pictured at the top of this post), and I hereby respectfully amend my former statement. Sherald’s portrait would still make a good book cover, but in this case simpler is better. The photo perfectly captures the personality & style of the former First Lady, and the text treatment is deceptively clever. You can read the title as “Becoming” or “Becoming Michelle Obama”, which is cool but also plays off the tension that designers have to deal with in deciding whether to emphasize the title or the author on the cover. (For instance, with an author like Stephen King, you emphasize the author’s name while with a sensational title and less well known author, you highlight the title.) In this case, the best decision was to balance them equally — same font, same size, same color — and get some wordplay out of it too. Sneaky great cover. (via @lauraolin)

The official painted portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2018

Obama Portraits

Obama Portraits

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery commissions paintings of each outgoing President and First Lady. The Obamas selected a pair of black artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, to paint their portraits, which were unveiled today. From Colossal:

Wiley’s depiction of President Obama features the artist’s signature style of richly-hued background patterns setting a vibrant symbolic environment for the portrait’s subject. President Obama is surrounded by a carefully selected variety of foliage: jasmine, which represents Hawaii; African blue lilies for his father’s Kenyan heritage; and Chicago’s official flower, the chrysanthemum. For Mrs. Obama’s portrait, Sherald engaged her distinctive combination of depicting skin tone in grayscale, offset by the sharply rendered full-color fabric of Mrs. Obama’s floor-length dress.

Even a cursory glance at other Presidential portraits shows how different the Obamas’ portraits are.

106-year-old Virginia McLaurin dances in the White House

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2016

What a completely delightful video of 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin visiting the White House and meeting President and Mrs. Obama. This is the Webster’s definition of pure joy.

I don’t know much about McLaurin’s life story — she’s originally from South Carolina, first married at 14 — but when she was 10, the Civil War had ended only 55 years earlier. As a child, she likely knew and talked with people who were former slaves. And now she’s dancing with a black President in the White House. The Great Span continues to work its magic.

Teach me how to dougie

posted by Tim Carmody   May 04, 2011

We’ve waited too long for a First Lady who can pull this off:

It’s not just that Michelle Obama is the first black First Lady. It’s also that she was born in 1964. She’s sixteen-seventeen years younger than Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush. She was in high school when hip-hop broke. Even Barack was already in college. She probably did a few of these dances in a South Shore parking lot when her husband was already thinking about getting into law school. In Joshua Glenn’s generational scheme, Barack is part of Original Generation X, while Michelle’s firmly in the next cohort, alternately titled Generation PC/the Reconstructionists.

Michelle is the first First Lady of the hip-hop generation. And not only does that explain a few things; it’s incredibly awesome.

PS: Here’s the Beyonce dance-as-teen-fitness video the First Lady and DC junior high kids were trying to imitate. (In the mid-late 80s, learning a few of these moves from my sister, I was not unlike the chubby kid in the white hat.)

Michelle Obama’s family tree

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 07, 2009

The NY Times traced Michelle Obama’s family tree back to Melvinia, a slave girl who lived in rural Georgia.

“[Michelle] is representative of how we have evolved and who we are,” said Edward Ball, a historian who discovered that he had black relatives — the descendants of his white slave-owning ancestors — when he researched his memoir, “Slaves in the Family.”

“We are not separate tribes of Latinos and whites and blacks in America,” Mr. Ball said. “We’ve all mingled, and we have done so for generations.”

I wonder how much of this Obama was aware of before being contacted by the Times for comment (she declined):

The findings — uncovered by Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist, and The New York Times — substantiate what Mrs. Obama has called longstanding family rumors about a white forbear.

1996 interview with the Obamas

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2009

The New Yorker has a too-short excerpt of an interview with Barack and Michelle Obama done in 1996 as part of a “photography project on couples in America”.

There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career, although it’s unclear. There is a little tension with that. I’m very wary of politics. I think he’s too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the skepticism.

Update: Le Monde ran a more extensive excerpt of this same interview in French…ABC News had it translated into English. (thx, marshall & stacy)

What should Michelle Obama wear?

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2008

Some sketches from various fashion designers of what Michelle Obama should wear for her husband’s inauguration festivities. These are fascinating to look at. (thx, david)