Editor's Choice

Butterfly YellowClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Thanhha Lai, Daniel Suarez


In the final days of the Việt Nam War, Hằng takes her little brother, Linh, to the airport, determined to find a way to safety in America. In a split second, Linh is ripped from her arms—and Hằng is left behind in the war-torn country.

Six years later, Hằng has made the brutal journey from Việt Nam and is now in Texas as a refugee. She doesn't know how she will find the little brother who was taken from her until she meets LeeRoy, a city boy with big rodeo dreams, who decides to help her.

Hằng is overjoyed when she reunites with Linh. But when she realizes he doesn't remember her, their family, or Việt Nam, her heart is crushed. Though the distance between them feels greater than ever, Hằng has come so far that she will do anything to bridge the gap.

BookBrowse Review

Voted 2019 Best Young Adult Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

As readers, many of us hope for lasting images from books, for thoughts expressed by authors that might match what we've believed in our souls, but couldn't articulate ourselves. Encounters with books like these become deeply imprinted.

Butterfly Yellow, the young adult debut of Thanhhà Lại, author of two highly-acclaimed books for middle grade readers, offers all of that and more. Born from the ashes of the Vietnam War, it gently, poetically reminds us that the current national clamor and debate over immigrants and refugees arriving in the United States is nothing new. The book is not overtly political, though; Lai is more interested in exhibiting human kindness and understanding.

This poignant, heartfelt novel begins in the summer of 1981 from the perspective of 18-year-old LeeRoy (whose given name is Leslie Dwight Cooper), a longtime Texas resident with University of Texas professor parents. He started going by "Lee" in junior high after being teased on the playground, and added Roy, after his grandfather, on the very day the story begins. After graduating high school, LeeRoy sets out to follow and emulate his hero, rodeo bareback rider Bruce Ford. Nothing is going to stop him, not even his lack of experience with animals, which he tries to gloss over with a brand-new outfit and Ford F-350 truck.

Real life interferes in a convenience store parking lot when a Good Samaritan couple suddenly thrusts upon him the responsibility of driving a stranded Vietnamese refugee to Amarillo. Hằng was separated from her brother a little over six years earlier, and believes he ended up in Amarillo after being swept up in Operation Babylift (see Beyond the Book), a government program that sought to bring Vietnamese orphans to the United States (though these particular siblings were not actually orphans). Hằng's younger brother was taken, but at 12, she was rejected for being too old. After that came an escape from Vietnam on a small, overcrowded fishing boat, and a horrific experience on an island. Hằng made it to a refugee processing camp in the Philippines, and was eventually sent to the U.S. under Extreme Trauma status to stay with family who had gotten out of Vietnam long before; she was with them for only a day before going in search of her brother. This backstory is gracefully interwoven throughout the book.

Wisely, Lại divides Butterfly Yellow between LeeRoy and Hằng's perspectives in order to capture her reactions to the new, strange country and vast Texas land she encounters, and his gradual acclimation to the unorthodox situation he's found himself in. Soon enough, LeeRoy forgets his Bruce Ford dreams as he gets more deeply involved in Hằng's quest to find her brother.

Besides the languid stretch of summer that Lại portrays so well—even as family drama mounts— her fascination with the English language gives Butterfly Yellow its lasting power. Ordinary moments provide touching beauty, such as Hằng speaking English phonetically in Vietnamese as she learns it, and lingering over the Vietnamese words she teaches LeeRoy. Lại bottles these moments in such a way that we also linger over them, not moving on to the next paragraph or the next chapter until we note how interesting it is that the word "trái," for example, is "fruit," and that a word placed after it characterizes the type, i.e. "trái mit" means "jackfruit." There's also a wondrous section in a chapter midway through about Hằng trying to understand more English by using word trees to break up each sentence, and the process involved.

Above all, Butterfly Yellow seeks to remind us that a genuine and profound human connection can happen anywhere, at any time, with anyone. It doesn't matter who we are or where we've come from; we are all human and therefore we already know something of each other.

Book reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

Beyond the Book:
Operation Babylift

Vietnamese babies resting in Pan Am duffel bags on an airplaneIn April 1975, thousands of American troops, civilians and South Vietnamese refugees were frantically airlifted out of Saigon, representing the end of American military involvement in the Vietnam War. The images of the rescue were seared into the public consciousness.

The U.S. government felt that something good had to come out of all those years of conflict—a public relations nightmare—or at least, it had to look like something good had come. There were plenty of orphans in potential peril once South Vietnam was overtaken by the Viet Cong, and wouldn't their lives be better if they had a chance to start anew in the United States?

President Gerald Ford, acting on a plea from New York's Cardinal Terrence Cooke for federal support, ordered Operation Babylift, a plan to evacuate more than 4,000 children from Catholic orphanages in South Vietnam via military aircraft. (Ultimately, about 2,500 children actually made the journey.)

The logistics were daunting. Inside the aircraft commissioned for the operation, floors would be lined with blankets for the babies, and some were even secured by cargo netting. A Pan Am flight attendant remembers checking on babies in cardboard bassinets with a flashlight to make sure they were still breathing. The crews were determined to succeed, even after an early tragedy.

The first Operation Babylift flight used a C-5A Galaxy aircraft. Its cargo doors blew out not long after takeoff, ripping off a chunk of the tail and causing rapid decompression. The pilot, Col. Bud Traynor, found that control cables to the tail were cut off, and his efforts to pull on the stick to try to gain altitude did not help, as the plane continued to dive. He managed to stabilize it and turn back to Vietnam, but a crash landing was the only option. 170 survived, 128 died (78 children and 50 adults). After the crash, C-5A aircraft were temporarily grounded, and C-130, C-141, and DC-8 planes were pressed into service, all flying out of Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

Once the flights arrived in the United States, medical teams met them to examine the children for severe dehydration, skin infections, chicken pox, pneumonia and other maladies. The most serious cases were rushed by ambulance to hospitals. About half of the children were processed through San Francisco's Presidio military base, which had converted Harmon Hall, one of its larger buildings, into a care facility. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle from April 6, 1975 listed the supplies required by the facility, including 7,886 bottles of formula, 1,440 aspirin tablets, "at least" 10,000 disposable diapers, gallons of baby powder, and so much more.

Some controversies erupted from Operation Babylift, and a class-action lawsuit was filed in California against former President Ford, Henry Kissinger and others, alleging that many children were not orphans, and had been taken from South Vietnam against their parents' wishes. The lawsuit caused delays in processing citizenship for the children, who had entered the United States on temporary visas signed by Ford. The lawsuit passed through San Francisco's federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals, stretching on for four years as documentation was checked for all of the children to determine if they were actually orphans. The class-action suit was eventually dismissed, though some parents later sued on an individual basis.

Overall, Operation Babylift lasted nearly a month, with the final flight out of Saigon taking place on April 25th, three days before the evacuation of all remaining American personnel from Vietnam.

Operation Babylift flight, courtesy of the National Archives

Olive, AgainClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Elizabeth Strout


The New Yorker has said that Elizabeth Strout "animates the ordinary with an astonishing force," and she has never done so more clearly than in these pages, where the iconic Olive struggles to understand not only herself and her own life but the lives of those around her in the town of Crosby, Maine. Whether with a teenager coming to terms with the loss of her father, a young woman about to give birth during a hilariously inopportune moment, a nurse who confesses a secret high school crush, or a lawyer who struggles with an inheritance she does not want to accept, the unforgettable Olive will continue to startle us, to move us, and to inspire moments of transcendent grace.

BookBrowse Review

Voted 2019 Best Fiction Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

It's been a big year for literary sequels, with the publications of Find Me by André Aciman, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout. In all three cases, readers have had to wait more than a decade to return to a familiar setting and set of characters—but in the meantime there has been a film or television adaptation to tide them over. It was 11 years ago that we first met Olive Kitteridge, a grumpy retired math teacher in the fictional town of Crosby, Maine, through the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008).

Like several of Strout's novels, this sequel is a collection of linked short stories. The stories are connected by the Maine setting and by references to Olive, who is often the main character but sometimes only mentioned in passing, such as through a piece of advice she gave her math students several decades ago, or a brief encounter with a local acquaintance. All is not cozy in this small town; Crosby's residents are struggling with illness, addiction, dementia, domestic violence, poverty and ailing marriages. Yet Strout balances out tragedy with humor, as in "The End of the Civil War Days," a story about a husband and wife who have barely spoken in 35 years—they even divided their house down the middle with yellow duct tape—but are reunited by their mutual dismay about their daughter's unconventional career choice.

If it's been years since you've read Olive Kitteridge, you may want to reread its final story, "River," as the sequel picks up immediately where this one left off. (That said, Strout provides enough background information that familiarity with the first book is not an absolute requirement.) After her pharmacist husband Henry dies in a nursing home following a stroke, Olive entertains the prospect of a romance with widower Jack Kennison. The challenge of adjusting to a second marriage with someone who exasperates you is a major theme of Olive, Again. For starters, Jack is a Republican, while Olive is an outspoken Democrat. "God, Olive, you're a difficult woman," Jack exclaims just before he proposes. Although he wishes she "could be a little less Olive," he is sure they should get married—"Because I love you," he says, "and we don't have much time."

As Olive drifts from her 70s into her 80s, the ravages of old age become inescapable. She faces the return of widowhood—along with infirmity and the specter of death—with her usual mixture of stoicism and bad temper. You may hear more about her bowels than you'd like, but Strout, it seems, is determined to be realistic about the indignities of aging. Crucially, Olive has started, very late in life, to have compassion for others, including her daughter-in-law and the caregivers she meets after her heart attack. "Tell me what it's like to be you," she requests of her Somali nurse; "You're having a hell of a time," she says to a former student with cancer. Comparing other people's lives with her own, she realizes how lucky she's been. Yet somehow that doesn't make preparing for death any easier.

Besides Olive Kitteridge, there are references to a couple of other Strout novels. In the story "Exiles," Bob and Jim Burgess of The Burgess Boys (2013) are reunited in Maine, while in the final piece, "Friend," Olive befriends a new fellow nursing home resident, who turns out to be Isabelle Daignault of Amy and Isabelle (1998). The connections, not just between the Olive stories, but also across Strout's various novels, are satisfying; readers who are reasonably new to Strout will undoubtedly be compelled to seek out her other work.

Older characters are still fairly rare in literature (see Beyond the Book), so it's refreshing to encounter a protagonist in her 80s. Crosby feels like a microcosm of modern society, with Olive as our Everywoman guide. She hasn't lost her faculties or her spirit, but the approach of death lends added poignancy to her story. "I am scared to death to die, is the truth," she tells a former student. Nor has she figured it all out by the end of the book: "I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing," she thinks. Haven't we all felt the same at some point? Strout is a master of psychological acuity and mixing hope with the darkness. Those who are wary of sequels need not fear: Olive, Again is even better than Olive Kitteridge, and one of the most profound and worthwhile books of the year.

Book reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Beyond the Book:
Older Characters in Fiction

Covers of novels featuring older charactersThe elderly are often underrepresented in popular culture, and where these characters do exist, they are often one-dimensional. The most effective depictions of elderly people demonstrate that age does not limit one's ability to have an interesting inner life, new adventures, and/or the chance for romance. In short, they resist the notion that life is over when one retires or becomes a widow/widower.

One way to combat the stereotypical characterization of blank or confused elderly people is to give them a rich intellectual life. Penelope Lively's Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger (1987) explores the layers of 76-year-old Claudia Hampton's personal history. To all appearances, there's not much going on in this old woman's head as she lies on her deathbed. Readers know better: Claudia's brain is hosting a sumptuous tour of her experiences, from meeting the love of her life as a World War II correspondent in Egypt, to participating in a film shoot in Mexico. Like Claudia, Morayo Da Silva, the protagonist of Sarah Ladipo Manyika's Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016), has a past full of travel and romance, the memories of which sustain her through her physical struggles in a nursing home.

Sometimes, though, adventure isn't all in the past for older characters. In Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), a retired man goes for a walk and ends up trekking 627 miles in honor of an ailing coworker who once did him a kindness. In Jonas Jonasson's The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2012), centenarian Allan Karlsson escapes his nursing home and is pursued by criminals after he inadvertently steals a suitcase full of cash.

Allan has a female counterpart in 79-year-old Martha Anderson, the heroine of a series written by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg that begins with The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules (2012). Martha and her "League of Pensioners" rebel against their care home regulations and plot an escape. In The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old (2014) and its sequel, On the Bright Side, Hendrik and five friends form an "Old But Not Dead" club and plan exciting weekly outings from their Amsterdam nursing home. Janina Dusezjko, the protagonist of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2019) by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is dismissed as a hysterical old crone in her Polish village when she uses her astrology skills to try to solve the murders of four local men. Richard Osman's forthcoming series, The Thursday Murder Club, will star octogenarian amateur detectives. From these examples, it seems European authors are well ahead of Americans in terms of creating sprightly elderly characters.

A final way of giving older characters agency is to allow them to fall in love again. In Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (2010) by Helen Simonson, the retired major scandalizes the village of Edgecombe St. Mary in Sussex, England by courting Mrs. Ali, a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper. Our Souls at Night (2015) by Kent Haruf is a sweet, celibate love story about Colorado neighbors who were widowed years ago and simply long for someone to talk to at night. By contrast, in Blossoms in Autumn (2019), a graphic novel by Zidrou, the aging characters have a sexual relationship, but the impressionistic drawing style portrays it tastefully. Lastly, Howard Jacobson's Live a Little (2019) is a comic romance between two Londoners in their 90s.

Particularly over the last ten years, fiction has seen a flourishing of interest in older characters. It can be inspirational to engage with protagonists who, like Olive Kitteridge in Olive, Again, know their own minds and aren't passively drifting towards infirmity and death. They're living each day of their lives, and seizing the adventures and chances at love that come their way.

SolitaryClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Albert Woodfox


Solitary is the unforgettable life story of a man who served more than four decades in solitary confinement - in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell, 23 hours a day, in notorious Angola prison in Louisiana - all for a crime he did not commit. That Albert Woodfox survived was, in itself, a feat of extraordinary endurance against the violence and deprivation he faced daily. That he was able to emerge whole from his odyssey within America's prison and judicial systems is a triumph of the human spirit, and makes his book a clarion call to reform the inhumanity of solitary confinement in the U.S. and around the world.

Arrested often as a teenager in New Orleans, inspired behind bars in his early twenties to join the Black Panther Party because of its social commitment and code of living, Albert was serving a 50-year sentence in Angola for armed robbery when on April 17, 1972, a white guard was killed. Albert and another member of the Panthers were accused of the crime and immediately put in solitary confinement by the warden. Without a shred of actual evidence against them, their trial was a sham of justice that gave them life sentences in solitary. Decades passed before Albert gained a lawyer of consequence; even so, sixteen more years and multiple appeals were needed before he was finally released in February 2016.

Remarkably self-aware that anger or bitterness would have destroyed him in solitary confinement, sustained by the shared solidarity of two fellow Panthers, Albert turned his anger into activism and resistance. The Angola 3, as they became known, resolved never to be broken by the grinding inhumanity and corruption that effectively held them for decades as political prisoners.

BookBrowse Review

Voted 2019 Best Debut Author Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

According to statistics from the United States Bureau of Labor, between 80,000 and 100,000 people are held in solitary confinement per year, a condition critics claim is specifically designed to break the human spirit through extreme isolation and restriction. Albert Woodfox spent 43 years in solitary, but he endured, and now shares his powerful story in this insightful memoir.

Born in 1947, Woodfox grew up in a time of openly state-sanctioned segregation and discrimination. When his family moved to a poor and working-class black ward in New Orleans, Woodfox began to see and feel these realities for the first time. He witnessed black men and boys harassed, assaulted and charged by police without cause (see "Black Incarceration and Sentencing" for more on this topic). Yet he would not learn the depth of these social issues for years. As an adolescent and young adult, he shoplifted food as a means of survival, but he quickly degenerated to more serious crimes, causing harm to a community already contending with poverty and police scrutiny/violence.

In and out of juvenile centers and prisons, Woodfox developed a criminal reputation, eventually entering Angola—the Louisiana State Penitentiary—in 1965, and returning in 1969. Angola was once a slave plantation. In 1869, a slave trader's widow leased the land to a former confederate major, who worked leased inmates under slave conditions to farm the land (see "The Legacy of Slavery and Prison Labor" for more on this topic). Hundreds died each year. In 1901, the state of Louisiana bought the land and turned it into a penitentiary, retaining the name "Angola," the country where the plantation's original slaves were born. When Woodfox arrived in the mid-60s, the prison was run by the "freemen"— white security guards who descended from generations of Angola workers. Inmates were regularly subjected to violence and brutality, gassed, beaten, harassed and raped.

After years of breaking laws, serving sentences and enduring police abuse, Woodfox fled to Harlem to escape another bid at Angola for armed robbery. It was here that he was introduced to the Black Panther Party. They unified the city by engaging in community work, from free school breakfast programs to literacy, education and outreach efforts. He marveled at their confidence and lack of fear. Woodfox soon found himself back in prison in New York when the authorities caught up with him, and there he met more Black Panthers, many of whom would later be released, proven innocent of charges against them. Instead of engaging in the often violent, inhumane inmate culture, the imprisoned Black Panthers acted with respect and kindness. To Woodfox, "they acted like they weren't even in prison." The Black Panthers asked fellow inmates what they needed, sharing food and clothes; they asked who could not read and began educating and sharing books with those around them, including Woodfox. This was his turning point. He read, related, analyzed and debated the words of Mao Zedung, Ho Chi Minh, Chou En-lai, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, George Jackson, Frantz Fanon and Kwame Nkrumah. In connecting to their words and learning from their teachings, Woodfox transformed: "We knew from experience that by changing, we gained more than we lost. We got more awareness. We got more compassion. We talked about how the entire human race needed to raise its consciousness, not as individual races or groups, but as humans, as a species."

Woodfox was transferred back to Angola for his third bid there, but this time he was armed with new morals, values and principles. He was radically different. Upon arrival, he connected with imprisoned Black Panthers and officially joined the Party. Together, they worked within the prison—through hunger strikes, protests, litigation, defiance and media outreach—to bring humanity back to Angola.

The unrest and solidarity of inmates was viewed as a threat to the prison system. When corrections sergeant Brent Miller was murdered in 1972, officials seized the opportunity to pin the crime on the Black Panthers. Woodfox was sent to solitary confinement, alongside two other Panthers, Herman Wallace and Robert King. These political prisoners became known as the Angola 3. One of the wardens would later describe Woodfox as a "hardcore Black Panther racist" in court.

Woodfox was convicted, despite there being no physical evidence and no reliable eyewitness testimony connecting him to Brent Miller's murder. In fact, the primary testimony used against him was given by a serial rapist who was proven to have been paid off and released by Angola officials. Solitary describes how this injustice happened: delays in gaining a lawyer of consequence; lack of random, unbiased jury selection; misconduct and false accusations from prison officials; failure to properly document, record and store evidence; negligence of proper conduct in the attempt to gain statements; and general prosecutorial misconduct. By the 2000s, countless human rights activists and organizations stood behind the Angola 3, including Critical Resistance, Amnesty International, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Solitary Watch, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 2016, Woodfox was finally released, the result of decades of appeals to the courts. He plead no contest to reduced charges, meaning he did not admit guilt, but accepted he could not prove innocence, due largely to a number of people involved in the original trials being deceased and unavailable for questioning. This was Woodfox's final round of appeals, and he chose freedom over justice. Today, he is still adjusting to life outside of solitary confinement. Despite the decades spent in Angola, he maintains hope.

Relatively few people will ever experience the horrors of solitary confinement, but in this narrative reflection, readers will see themselves. This is what makes Solitary such a weighty and worthwhile read. Running parallel to Woodfox's experience with the judicial system is his trek into social activism. This subplot creates something of a redemption story, a moving testament to our potential for growth, regardless of circumstances and past decisions. It is proof that a strong belief system paired with a like-minded community can catalyze change. Woodfox's unwillingness to break—his strength and determination—is a lesson bestowed to those who are just entering the world of social struggle, as well as a reminder to those who have been fighting these battles for decades. Whether it's prison reform, racism, classism, or other ideologies and causes, the message is the same: Do what can be done, wherever it can be done, to better the world.

Readers curious to learn more about Albert Woodfox may wish to listen to his 2005 interview about activism with Prison Radio or read his recent interview about Solitary with NPR.

Book reviewed by Jamie Chornoby

Beyond the Book:
The Black Panther Party

Black Panther Party founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton In October of 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale of Oakland California founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which later became the Black Panther Party. Although the Party disbanded in 1982 only 16 years after its creation, it remains one of the largest and most controversial black revolutionary organizations in history. Known for encouraging militant self-defense of minority communities against the United States government, the Black Panther Party worked to establish economic, social and political equality through international socialist ideals, mass organizing and community-based programs.

The Black Panther Party had a ten-point platform and program based on members' desires and beliefs. Newton said that they strove "to serve the needs of the oppressed people in our communities and defend them against their oppressors." In the words of the Party, here is an outline of the points:

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black Community.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
  5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.
  6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.
  7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.
  8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
  9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in a court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.

In practice, the work of the Black Panther Party involved developing a Free Breakfast for Children program, reaffirming black beauty through positive art, words and imagery, and efforts to educate minority groups through literacy programs, informational texts and community discussion. It involved pooling community resources to meet the needs of others, from medical bills to legal fees. As told by Albert Woodfox in his book Solitary, it involved achieving humane prison reform, too, from dialing down unnecessary and invasive strip searches to freeing the falsely accused.

In addition to the black-focused work done by the Black Panther Party, the organization advocated for equity and advancement of all minority groups. In fact, women played an integral role in the Party. They took on leadership roles, organized in their communities and spoke out against sexism within the organization. Other intersectional efforts surfaced in alliances through the Black Panther Party's Rainbow Coalition movement, with groups including the Young Lords, Young Patriots and the Native American Housing Committee. The Young Lords were an international, Marxist, revolutionary human rights group founded by first generation Puerto Rican immigrants. The Young Patriots were impoverished white Southern migrants intent on alleviating racist, classist oppression through antifascist, revolutionary means. The Rainbow Coalition as a whole focused on common goals related to equal opportunity: the end of white supremacy, the end of housing discrimination, the end of police violence and the end of racism.

Many people know the Black Panther Party for their militant actions, including shocking displays of public protest. On May 2, 1967, the Party gained worldwide media attention in a protest against the Mulford Act, legislation developed to restrict the right to openly carry loaded weapons. Around two dozen armed members entered the California state capitol in Sacramento and read an executive mandate in response to the legislation before being disarmed.

In addition to growing public influence and acts of protest, the Black Panther Party's association with other radical movements, such as communist and socialist movements, instilled fear in the United States government. Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation's counterintelligence program designed to silence political dissidents—COINTELPRO—launched before the Black Panther Party was founded, the group became a primary focus after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. According to FBI documents, COINTELPRO was created to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalists." Tactics involved efforts to create factionalism, including harassment, raids, infiltration and specific efforts to encourage violence, both within the Black Panther Party and between the Party and the community. Other watched groups included the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Revolutionary Action Movement and Congress of Racial Equality.

The Black Panther Party collapsed under the weight of discrediting media portrayals, public fears, governmental actions and internal disagreements. However, their impact on the civil rights movement was fundamental and unequivocal. To learn about one man's experiences within the Black Panther Party and prison system, read Solitary by Albert Woodfox.

Co-founders of the Black Panther Party Bobby Seale (left) and Huey P. Newton (right)

BecomingClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Michelle Obama


In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America - the first African-American to serve in that role - she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.

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.

BookBrowse Review

Voted 2019 Best Nonfiction Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

BookBrowse hosted a Book Club discussion early in 2019 about Michelle Obama's memoir Becoming, and participants overwhelmingly expressed their appreciation for the book. Here are some highlights from that discussion.

What it's about:
In Becoming, former First Lady Michelle Obama narrates her life story, from her upbringing in South Side Chicago, to her education at Princeton and Harvard, to meeting and marrying President Barack Obama. She further narrates the Obamas' eight years in the White House, explaining how she managed to juggle raising children with affairs of state, while also keeping her trademark composure and positive attitude in the face of criticism.

Many Book Club participants admired Mrs. Obama's honesty and candor:
Her decision to take a different path was inspiring, and she made some difficult choices. It's not easy to walk away from expectations that others have for you. Her honesty throughout the book was very refreshing (Auntie Mame). I was surprised when I got insight into their personal life issues and problems, such as marital difficulties. I feel many normal couples go through these things and they are very relatable (theavidbookerfly). It surprised me when she admitted she disliked being a lawyer, and I admired her courage to switch her "horizons" to working with the people. Her involvement with Public Allies impressed me. She utilized her inherent talents and expanded those assets with future projects, always with the idea of 'uplifting' people to believe in themselves (kathrynb). I found her memoir astounding. She writes with such honesty, passion and love. She recalls her feelings about her miscarriage, the deaths of her father and her friend Suzanne, and the difficulties in her marriage. She is also very funny and clear-eyed about trying to find a balance between career and motherhood (barbarae).

Readers also thought the former First Lady was a remarkably good writer:
I guess it's no surprise that someone who excelled in academics and in life is so skilled with the written word. Becoming was informative without being stuffy, casual without being chatty and so well-crafted overall (paulak). Michelle has always been one of my favorite First Ladies and now I feel I know her even better. The book is very well written and I felt like I was right in the moment with her and her girls (RuthEh).

Many commenters felt like Becoming helped them get to know Mrs. Obama on a personal level:
By the time I finished the book I felt as if I had just had a wonderful conversation with a friend (PTK). I really enjoyed it. She writes very well. She is very honest about her life and her family. It was like having a chat with a friend (karenrn). I felt I really got to know what kind of person Michelle was/is beyond her public life and image, and I found a woman who, like all of us, has had her share of ups and downs in life. She has shown us that "becoming" is always a work in progress (pate). I thoroughly enjoyed her story and the way she expressed it. I feel like I have gotten a wonderful glimpse into her life and it left me wanting to know what she is planning to do next. After reading Becoming, there's one thing I do know—she is definitely someone I would love to hang out and share ideas with (jamiek).

Overall, readers were very enthusiastic:
I could not have loved this book more than I did. It was presented in such a way that when I was finished, I felt I had full knowledge of what made Michelle tick (Carol R).  It was like meeting a new friend and over time getting to know her through revelations of the stages of her life. It was easy and still thought-provoking (katherinep). I love Michelle Obama and I loved her book. She is a class act and it came through in her writing (djn). I found her memoir astounding. She writes with such honesty, passion, and love (barbarae). This is a fabulous, informative and uplifting book. I always had a good impression of Michelle Obama and this book enhanced it. I felt that Michelle really shared herself with her readers and offered an intimate look at her life (Lois I).

Book reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Beyond the Book:
Memoirs by First Ladies

Covers of memoirs by First LadiesMichelle Obama's memoir Becoming has been a huge success by all standards, and she joins a long and illustrious list of former First Ladies who have written memoirs. The appeal is obvious: who wouldn't want to know more about the women who've stood beside the President of the United States, acting as confidant, support system, and unofficial advisor? And in many cases, as with Mrs. Obama, First Ladies have been tremendously popular, bright, and accomplished in their own right. Since Betty Ford, each First Lady has written at least one memoir following her time in the White House, but the tradition goes back quite a bit further in history.

With the help of her son Frederick, Julia Grant, wife of Ulysses S. Grant, began penning her memoir shortly after the death of her husband in 1885. Writing became therapeutic for Grant as she processed her loss. She called it "a panacea for loneliness, a tonic for old age." Her memoir spans her childhood, courtship with Ulysses, and their life together through the Civil War and his presidency. However, it was not published until 1975 because Mrs. Grant was unable to agree to monetary terms with any publisher before she died. One historian has suggested that the "great profits from her husband's book created an unrealistic view of the value of her own." Or perhaps the world was simply not yet ready to give the First Lady's words the value they deserved.

Both Helen Taft and Edith Wilson published memoirs, in 1914 and 1939 respectively, followed by Eleanor Roosevelt who published four from 1937-1961. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt is the most commonly read account of her life read today, as it is a compilation of material from the other three books, with additional content from Mrs. Roosevelt's later years. Ladybird Johnson's A White House Diary was published in 1970, shortly after her husband left office, and Betty Ford published two memoirs, the second of which, called Betty – A Glad Awakening concerned her struggle with alcohol and drug addiction.

Rosalynn Carter wrote a memoir, First Lady from the Plains, and co-wrote a self-help book with her husband called Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life. Nancy Reagan published two memoirs; the second, My Turn, released in 1989, is the most widely read. In it, Reagan discusses life with her husband, motherhood, and her interest in astrology (which, incidentally, has been shared by several other First Ladies). Barbara Bush also published two memoirs; the first is a typical account of her life both before and during her husband's time in office, while the second, called Reflections: Life After the White House, covers the eight years between her husband leaving office and the election of her son, George W. Bush. Mrs. Bush's daughter-in-law, Laura Bush, published her memoir, Spoken from the Heart, in 2010. This book was a bestseller, though reviews were mixed, with some critics finding Mrs. Bush's account of her life rather restrained.

Hillary Clinton has published three books: Living History (2003), Hard Choices (2014), and What Happened (2017). Living History sold 600,000 copies in its first week on sale, one million in its first month; in it Clinton narrates her experience of her husband's two terms in office, including the impeachment scandal. Hard Choices covers Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State under President Obama, and What Happened is a postmortem account of her failed 2016 presidential campaign. It sold 300,000 copies in its first week and debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

It remains to be seen if Michelle Obama will publish a second book, but with the success of Becoming (which sold 725,000 copies on the first day of publication), the demand is certainly there if she chooses to.

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