Non-fiction, Uncategorized, Writing
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Reading Notes: ‘Michelle Obama: A Life’ by Peter Slevin

A few thoughts after reading parts of Peter Slevin’s Michelle Obama: A Life.

By Jasmine Huang

Michelle Obama: A Life
Peter Slevin. Knopf, $27.95 (432p)


A strange thing happened to me in September 2016. An interesting education consulting firm had contacted me to see if I can write English recommendation letters for their young Chinese clients. Many of them were wealthy Chinese college graduates who were trying to realize the Chinese Dream by pursuing J.D. degrees in the States. I had never written recommendation letters as a ghostwriter before and thought it was one of the most interesting writer jobs I had ever had. I was thrilled to produce recommendations that sounded like serious law professors! Once I passed their writing test, I immediately started reading and writing a bunch of law education related books.

Peter Slevin’s Michelle Obama book was one of the books I read in order to write better,  highly unethical law school recommendation letters. I wanted to ghost-write good recommendations so badly that I had spent most of my spare time out of day job office reading books about law, lawyers, legal research, legal writing, law education and law career development.

One thing I learned from writing professional book reviews for an online news website is that  I do not need to read the entire book in order to produce a review. Sometimes reading 50 to 200 pages could be enough for me to write a 1,200 word book review. It was a fantastic realization. I had so many books that I wanted to talk about! Besides, I deeply believe that a writer has to feel compelled to write. And I felt compelled to write tonight. I felt an overwhelming urge to write when I got off from work earlier today. I took off abruptly. I took the bus, got off from the MRT train and ran home and in a haste, started a wordpress blog with my new English name.

I was excited about writing about books. I’m always, always excited about writing about books. I thought about Jack Kerouac’s little paperback fiction ‘On the Road’ in my bag. I wanted to type it all out like Jack when he was getting the words out. I wanted to write like mad Jack or mad Sal or mad Dean or one of their mad writer friends and let the electronic wordpress papers burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. I wanted to type so fast that it would be impossible to stop. Which is exactly what I am doing right now.

Since I had a very clear intention to shamelessly steal a few lines from the former Washington Post reporter, I had read pages of Mr. Slevin’s book with a ghost-writer’s eye. To me, the book was almost like a long, long piece of recommendation letter that filled with extravagant admiration toward the character that is now former first lady. I dog eared page 120 for an interesting passage that sounded just like an amazing recommendation:

“Other young lawyers had stronger records when they were hired, but Michelle’s personality and high standards stood out, another senior colleague recalled. ‘A lot of people come with great resumes, but without a lot of common sense and without the kind of personal strength that she had,’ said Nate Eimer, who joined the firm in 1973. ‘She was very poised, she was extremely articulate, she was very smart, she obviously was not intimidated by anything or anybody,’ Eimer said. ‘She was the perfect associate, the perfect lawyer for Sidley. She would have done extraordinarily well had she stayed here.'”

I thought “poised,” “extremely articulate,” and “was not intimidated by anything or anybody,” would be brilliant to put in my ghost writing pieces and so I stole the phrases and put them in the letters. I wonder what the admission committee would think when they read them. Or perhaps all recommendations that they received sounded the same.

It was apparent that Slevin, the former Washington Post reporter and professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism was fascinated by Michelle Obama’s story. He wrote about historical events, race and gender, and opportunity through writing about Michelle Obama. I think the book can also be read in a different light. The book author did not create a first lady’s book for the American fans. Instead, he created a bright law student who, just like every other law students in any American Law Schools, wanted to pursue a career as a lawyer. What makes the book unique is the way Slevin writes it. He wrote it with energy, grace, and vision, and the book was full of light. It was the kind of book which made you believe there is hope to achieve the impossible. The kind of book that wanted you to believe there was hope and the young Americans’ American Dream would eventually be realized. It echoed what former President Barack Obama had been preaching about— Yes, we can. Yet what the silent majority American believed was a different story.

The most interesting thing about the book is what and how would the young Chinese readers relate to the lawyer-turned-first lady success story. Would the young Chinese law students share similar visions and dreams with Michelle? Would the young Chinese college kids dare to dream like Americans used to dream? Do Chinese youngsters want to pursue the Chinese Dream, a dream once belonged to the young Americans? Do young Americans even believe in the American Dream noways? Or have Americans become frustrated at lack of opportunities? What do young people think about their personal dreams and life goals in today’s fast-changing world? What do I think about my goals and dreams, I wonder. What would be a relevant story to tell to myself? If F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby no longer resonates with today’s youth, what would be an alternative story to tell?

It would be a mistake to conclude a blog post with a bunch of uninteresting questions in the air. So I wanted to come up with a conclusion here: Reading, writing, re-reading, re-writing will enrich a person’s life with or without the Dream. The key is to read the books with a capacious mind. Because I read everything, including software products’ release notes and documentations and marketing brochure and online product reviews, I wanted to develop my independent, capacious mind. I wish to explore the world, and the truth and the lies and things in between by reading and writing and everything in between those activities. It is almost midnight now. Though I have other things I like to say but I sense that I will be too tired to produce another paragraph. And this is my last sentence for my very first blog post in a very long time: I look forward to tomorrow’s after work 2 hour rapid fire writing session for my next wordpress blog post.









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