Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book Review: Educated

Educated: A MemoirEducated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Phew. What a memoir!

First, let me say that I read this book with a bit of trepidation because I am a homeschooling parent, and this book is widely described as being about a girl who was homeschooled by survivalist parents. As most reviews emphasize, however, Tara was certainly not offered a "normal" homeschooling experience. In an interview with NPR, she says "there was not a lot of school taking place. We had books, and occasionally we would be kind of sent to read them. But for example, I was the youngest child, and I never took an exam, or I never wrote an essay for my mother that she read or nothing like kind of getting everyone together and having anything like a lecture. So it was a lot more kind of if you wanted to read a book, you could, but you certainly weren't going to be made to do that."

I quickly realized, however, that this book has little to do with academic education, with whether Tara should have been sent to public school or not. This book is about Tara's education as a human being, as a part of the world outside of her family.

Tara's parents were paranoid survivalists who completely manipulated and controlled her world (and that of her siblings). She had no access to reading material other than Mormon texts and the Bible. No newspapers, no history books, no television. Whatever her parents told her, was her reality. She believed entirely that the government was coming for them, that the world was close to ending, that everyone besides her family was hellbound. She believed that she was dirty, dumb, and a whore. She believed that the medical community was a pit of vipers. She believed it was her duty to cater to her father's every whim and, later, to her brother's. She believed she was worthless.

And yet she had something inside of her, a spark of brilliance and determination that even her father's cruelty, her mother's denial, and her brother's brutality could not keep down. Tara is not just a survivor but a victor. She overcame a horrific childhood full of danger, of physical, and emotional abuse (though she does contend that she had happy moments) to earn a PhD from Harvard. Her real education, though, comes as she begins to see the world through a different lens than her father's. Her real education comes when she sheds her former self, piece by painful piece, to discover not just who Tara is, but who this world is, and who Tara is in the world.

In some ways this memoir reminded me of The Glass Castle, but it is not as beautifully written as Walls' memoir. Walls was more than a decade older than Westover when she wrote her amazing memoir, and I suspect Westover's memoir has more of a raw, open wound feeling because of her proximity to her childhood.

I left this novel feeling sad and disheartened because I know there are so many children in our country who are raised on hate and fear, and so many of them don't have the willpower that Tara had to separate herself from them. And the cycle continues.

Happy for Tara that she climbed out of the pit, and hopeful that she may inspire others to do the same.



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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Book Review: Good as Gone

Good as GoneGood as Gone by Amy Gentry

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


This book is basically every parent's nightmare: their 13-year-old daughter is kidnapped from their house in the middle of the night. I mean, why did I keep reading? I certainly would not have if I still had a 13-year-old daughter at home!

So Julie is kidnapped, and her younger sister, Jane, sees the whole thing happen. She's too terrified to scream or even move until three hours later, and her mother holds this against her. (The mother. Ugh, how I despised this mother!) Anyway, Julie disappears without a trace, and then eight years later, she shows up at their front door.

Did I mention how much I despised the mother? Unfortunately, the chapters alternate between her and, well, Julie. Sort of. The mother, Anna, is just cold.

Regardless of the horror of a 13-year-old being kidnapped and a cold-hearted mother, I kept reading. I mean, it is a novel of suspense, after all, and frankly, I needed to find out what happened. I kinda wish I hadn't finished it. It got kind of ridiculous at the end, and it also devolved into stuff I don't want to read about in such detail, even if this horribly does happen to real 13-year-olds. Just ugh.

So, yeah. II could have done without this book. Did I learn anything from it? Was I enlightened in any way? Was I entertained? Was I wowed by the writer's craft? Was I made a more sensitive person? Nah, nah, nah. It was just kind of horrifying.



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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Book Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Two men, two stories, one great World’s Fair. It’s the 1890s, and the city of Chicago has just been given the honor of hosting the next World’s Fair.

Daniel Burnham was the lead architect of the Chicago World’s Fair, and H.H. Holmes was a serial killer who lived in Chicago at that time. Larson narrates these two stories in alternating chapters. Like most readers, I assumed the two stories would connect at some point, but they never do. Nonetheless, I found both stories intriguing and incredibly well researched.

The story Daniel Burnham of the creation of the “White City”—the World’s Fair Park—was interesting but not exactly riveting. While the minutia of all the ups and downs of building the fair got tiresome, I did get a fantastic history lesson. Also, I loved the appearances of famous people like Buffalo Billy, Annie Oakley, Theodore Dreiser, and Helen Keller at the fair.

Of course, the serial killer is always going to be the more compelling story. H.H. Holmes was known as a handsome, outgoing man— literally a ladykiller. While construction of the fair was going on at an incredible pace, Holmes was also working at a fast pace: collecting women, loving them, and then killing them in his specially constructed death building right in the center of town.

Again, the stories really have little to do with each other, but Burnham and Holmes might be consider polar opposites representing man’s capacity for good and his potential for evil. On one side, Burnham is creating this perfect, white Heaven-like city, yet nearby, Holmes has created his own hellish torture chamber. What lies beneath the veneer of whitewash?

All in all, this was a fascinating book, although I was, frankly, bored in some of the Burnham chapters. Photographs or drawings would have greatly enhanced these chapters. Sometimes I skimmed through the Burnham chapters just to get to the serial killer chapters—I’m not sure what that says about me as a reader or as a person, although I suspect that’s not uncommon.



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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Book Review: Every Last Lie

Every Last LieEvery Last Lie by Mary Kubica

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The story: Clara, exhausted and overwhelmed with a 4-day-old baby and a preschooler, opens the door one evening to officers informing her that her husband has just been killed in a car accident. Maisie, their daughter, survived. Clara is devastated, naturally. She's in both a post-birth and a post-death haze, forgetting to shower and eat. She's barely in survival mode. Then one night, Maisie wakes up from a nightmare about the accident, and Clara suspects that someone, in fact, murdered Nick. The rest of the novel follows Clara as she searches for the truth, alternating with Nick's story leading up to the accident.

Me: I liked this okay. It was a fast-paced, read-in-a-couple-sittings kind of novel. But so many things about this drove me crazy. I heard way too much of Clara's inner thoughts —ramble, ramble, ramble as she suspected absolutely everyone as Nick's killer. Loose ends were left, well, loose. And what the heck? This woman has a newborn and she's out and about dragging herself and her kids all over town--and LEAVING THEM IN A HOT CAR! Who does that? Nick's inner thoughts were more interesting but his story was just so out there. Way too much going on. But that said, it was entertaining.



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Monday, February 12, 2018

Book Review: Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

This is Hannah Coulter’s story, an ordinary woman who loves, loses, loves again, and loses again, gathering moments and memories along the way. Now in her seventies, she sifts through her life, taking out scenes and examining them, caressing them, sometimes finding joy and sometimes sadness, and then piecing them together.

Wendell Berry understands connection—the connection people have with each other and with the land. He understands the yearnings of the soul; the tender, quiet, beautify, ordinarily moments; the depth of love and feeling. Hannah is connected to a place—to the village of Port William, Kentucky—and to her farm there. (This is one of several novels that take place in Port William.) And she’s connected to people, both living and dead.

Berry's simple, poetic prose brought me to streaming-down-my-face tears—and that rarely happens to me while reading. Or at all, really. I was actually sobbing at the simple beauty of his words and the depth of his understanding. I felt mournful and yet optimistic, and incredibly grateful.

Absolutely one of my favorite books ever for its sheer loveliness and poignancy. I feel better for having read it, more cognizant of the small beauties of an ordinary life.



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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Book Review: The Sleepwalker

The Sleepwalker (Sleepwalker, #1)The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The story: Beautiful Annalee Ahlberg is missing and presumed dead. She has a history of serious sleepwalking—sleepwalking during which she does bizarre and disturbing things of which she is unaware the next day. Her family assumes that she has walked off the bridge into the river while sleepwalking. Lianna stays home from college to care for her younger sister and their father. They are all lost, waiting for a body to turn up, waiting to find out what has really happened to Annalee. During the investigation, Lianna falls in love with the detective, and we begin to wonder if Gavin, who also suffers from sleepwalking, might know more about Annalee than he should.

Me: Chris Bohjalian is a masterful storyteller. There is absolutely no question, NONE, that he writes exquisitely. He is a wordsmith of the highest caliber. In fact, as I write this, I have to change my 3-star rating to a 4-star rating simply because Bohjalian deserves a minimum of 4 stars no matter what he writes. But the story itself is still just a 3-star for me. I liked the characters in this novel: the motherless sisters, the despondent widower, and the detective, Gavin. I was interested in learning the science behind sleepwalking. But, frankly, I just couldn't embrace the whole sleepwalking plot, which plays into the ending of the novel is a surprising way—and one that didn't feel satisfying to me. I love Bohjalian's writing, but I much prefer The Buffalo Soldier, Skeletons at the Feast, and The Double Bind. He's simply brilliant!



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Saturday, January 20, 2018

2017: The Year in Books

I set a goal of reading 50 books in 2017—and squeaked by at the end with exactly 50. I was terrible about doing book reviews this year, but I have been more active on Goodreads and have been publishing quick reviews there and linking them to my blog.

The Best
Here are my favorites of the year (not including rereads):
  1. 84 Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff)
  2. Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (Phaedra Patrick)
  3. Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  4. My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell)
  5. One-in-a-Million Boy (Monica Wood)
  6. Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Gabrielle Zevin)
  7. Winter Sea (Susanna Kearsley)
  8. Women of the Castle (Jessica Shattuck)

 Out of those, I would probably choose One-in-a-Million Boy as my absolute favorite—but these were all truly fabulous.

Book Club
Our book club choices this year were:
Where the Heart Is (Billie Letts
Shakespeare's Landlord (Charlaine Harris)
Same Kind of Different As Me (Ron Hall)
My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell)
Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (Phaedra Patrick)
Mink River (Brian Doyle)
War That Saved My Life (Kimberly Bradley) (I read this one last year and loved it)

My favorites out of this list were My Family and Other Animals and the Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper; however, at least a few book club members put down My Family after only a couple of chapters. I think the best discussion came from The War That Saved My Life. Everyone loved that one!


Here is the whole list. My star-ranking system is as follows: 5 stars--absolutely must read; 4 stars--highly recommended; 3 stars--enjoyable; 2 stars--ick; 1 star--no, no, no.