Sunday, September 30, 2018

Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover

Random House     2018
335 pages     Memoir

I finished Tara Westover’s powerful memoir, Educated, completely stunned—encouraged and heartbroken all at the same time. This morning the NY Times bestseller list has it listed at #2, and it has been on the bestseller list for 30 weeks. Obviously, it has struck a chord with the book-reading parts of the country. Perhaps it is the writing; perhaps the narrative; perhaps it is because of the controversy it has engendered. I waited to post my feelings about the book until after I had the conversation with my book group on Thursday evening. I wanted to hear what they had to say—women whose opinions I trust implicitly.

Much has been written about this memoir. It is, in brief, the story of a young woman’s understanding of her upbringing in a survivalist Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho. Her mother is a midwife and herbalist; her father runs a scrap yard and builds barns and sheds in the community. Other than church, the seven children in the family had little access or understanding of the outside world, because they were homeschooled. Yet, Tara and two of her brothers were so intellectually motivated that they went on to higher education. Tara, herself, gained a PhD from Cambridge University.
In part, the memoir is a horror story of a child’s memories of all the terrible things that happened—car accidents and work accidents, all of which were treated by herbal therapies and home remedies, and never with a trip to the doctor. Chief among the memories are those of a mentally unstable older brother who physically abused Tara and the other younger siblings.

Yet, Tara persisted. She had (and has) a beautiful singing voice, and had the opportunity to work with the local community theater, something that made her father really proud. She taught herself enough math to pass the college admissions exam, and graduated from Brigham Young University. After time at Cambridge and Harvard, she finished a PhD in history in 2014.

One of my book club members pointed out that Tara continued to return home to her family—over and over—until she realized that the relationship was so very toxic with her parents and her siblings that she could no longer survive if she continued. So, other than keeping in contact with her two PhD brothers and their families, she remains estranged from her family.

Here are some takeaways from the book. One is that a person can be so cloistered within a family and community that she thinks this is what the world is. As an example, it wasn’t until Tara went to college that she had any notion of the holocaust, or basic geography. Additionally, her father’s authoritarianism was so all-consuming and narcissistic, it took a basic class in psychology for Tara to realize that her father might be suffering from schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder. When all you read is the Bible or the Book of Mormon, your view of the world is so very limited.

Then, it is apparent that each family member has a selective version of what actually happened within their family dynamic. The fact that Tara’s parents were not able to see her brother’s mental illness and the earnestness by which they defended him and how they couldn’t see how debilitating it was for Tara just made the reader want to scream, “Please help him! Please help her!” Yet, when the book came out, Tara’s other siblings expressed views about their childhood that were quite different from hers. Of course, this is quite common—certainly my siblings have totally different memories about our childhood than I do. The editors very wisely did a great deal of fact checking before the book was released.

A great blog posting on the Sylvan Sanctuary blog summarizes Educated in great depth, but the author also has found the other sibling’s negative comments about the book, and the family’s lawyer has even gotten into the act disputing the way she remembers her life on the mountain. Nothing, however, can take away from the riveting narration and the very skilled writing. It is a book you just can’t put down.

Earlier this summer, I read and wrote about The Gospel of Trees, the memoir of a girl who grew up in a missionary family in Haiti. The two books make great companion pieces about the psychological damage that too much religious fervor can make on a young woman’s soul.

Educated was the PBS book club book for the month of May. Here Tara is singing a favorite hymn on the PBS Newshour. Also the review in New York Times.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


By Andy Weir

Broadway Books 2017
320 pages     Science Fiction

Ever wondered what life will be like on the moon after it is settled and developed? Andy Weir explores this intriguing notion with his futuristic novel, Artemis—his follow-up the highly successful The Martian. My husband and I watched The Martian, and I suggested that we read Artemis as our morning read aloud. It was more fun for me than I anticipated, being that I am no big fan of science fiction, and the main reason is because I enjoyed getting acquainted with the protagonist and heroine, Jasmine Bashara--Jazz. My husband enjoyed it for the science.

Jazz and her father, a welder, had come to live on the moon from Saudi Arabia when Jazz was a little girl, so she really had known no other home. The reader readily acknowledges that Jazz is really smart, but she has chosen a “career” as a smuggler and porter. In an attempt to make enough money to move to larger living quarters, she signs on to commit a huge crime that involves sabotaging the colony’s aluminum factory.

Jazz is a fun character, but she is really the only fully realized character. I rather enjoyed her crass take on life, but I also appreciated her brilliance and ingenuity. Jazz really knows her science and totally understands the ways in which science is at play in everything that happens on Artemis. She uses her innate knowledge to her advantage as she undertakes the crime at hand. The other characters are only important as far as they supplement what Jazz is doing. There is a lot of rough language, but we felt that it was appropriate and probably essential to the character development. I kept wondering what actress will play Jazz when they make the movie.

The backdrop for the adventure, the small bubble-town of Artemis, is very skillfully set. The details are so clear that the reader can visualize exactly where every event is taking place and can follow the plot explicitly. All the details that made The Martian such a big hit are readily present in Artemis. It makes the novel flow easily and the morning read alouds a lot of fun.

The major strength of the novel is how accessible the author makes the science. It was one of the things that made my husband keep reading. He wants to know the facts, and Weir delivers the real world facts that keep the plot moving. The NPR reviewer says, “In keeping with the book’s matter-of-fact storytelling, characters keep flatly telling Jazz she’s brilliant and talented. But that comes across more believably when she’s contriving a clever way to disable an aggressive remote-controlled rock harvester, or open a jammed valve from inside a sealed environmental bubble.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

French Exit

By Patrick deWitt

Ecco     2018
256 pages     Literary

Frances Price is a New York socialite with a adult son, Malcolm, who lives with her, and a family cat, Small Frank, who apparently is the spirit of Frances’ dead husband, Franklin. Frances is everything you could imagine a 65-year-old socialite to be: sharp-tongued, full of preconceptions, and mannerisms. She delights in “implied insults and needling insinuations.” As an example, Frances doesn’t like Malcolm’s fiancé because she once ordered gazpacho out of season.

A scandal has defined Frances through the years in New York society. She had returned home and found her husband Frank dead in bed. Instead of calling the police, Frances went skiing for the weekend—because there wasn’t anything to be done about it. Now, Frances has no one but her son and one friend, Joan. She also has just a limited amount of money and decides to sell her apartment and move to France to live in Joan’s Paris apartment.

A French exit, by the way, means to leave a social gathering without saying your farewells. And in the first, really funny scene, she does exactly that. However, for Frances, the meaning of French exit has a slightly sinister tone to it. She actually plans to exit herself once she gets to Paris. “Sometimes the world corrected itself, she knew this, for it had so many times in her past. She understood intuitively that it would not correct itself now, though.” In other words, Frances is bored with life and wants to make her own “French exit.”

Why Malcolm joins her in Paris is one of the unanswered questions in the book. Is he so spineless that he has to follow his mother around endlessly? And indeed he does, leaving behind a fiancée who is not sure why she loves him. Susan, Malcolm’s fiancée, wonders why she had “come to care for this lugubrious toddler of a man.”

Well, once they get to Paris, they collect a cadre of crazy people, including a psychic, who calls the presence of Frances’ husband from the cat, a private investigator, a doctor named Touche, and a great cook who feeds them souffles and cocktails. Friend Joan arrives at her apartment, and she is soon followed by Malcolm’s fiancée Susan and her new boyfriend. Chaos ensues. These scenes have been compared to a Noel Coward comedy of manners. French Exit may best be called a tragic comedy, because although there is always a comic turn to everything, we know from the very beginning tragedy is just around the corner. The NPR reviewer suggests that you can’t take anything too seriously, because if you do, the entire novel falls apart.

Frankly, once I got into the premise of French Exit, I enjoyed all of it. The New Yorker calls the novel “stealth absurdism.” It took me a bit to realize that was what I was reading, but when I figured it out, I settled in and just went along for the ride. Patrick deWitt has written books in several genres, but this is his first comedy of manners. Out now,  movie The Sisters Brothers is a slapstick Western starring inept outlaws. The movie is based on another of deWitt's novels. I really wanted to see the movie before I wrote the review of French Exit, but the movie hasn’t come to Kalamazoo yet.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Liza Jane and the Dragon

By Laura Lippman

Illustrated by Kate Samworth
Akashic Books     2018
32 pages              Picture Book

Liza Jane is upset with her parents. Even though her life is excellent, with a canopy bed, pizza and a movie on Friday nights, and plenty of pretend dress-up clothes, Liza Jane feels put upon. She thinks her parents don’t listen to her or care about her feelings. So she fires them and hires a dragon who promises to do everything for her that her parents don’t do—like order pizza on nights other than Friday. However, the dragon doesn’t obey Liza Jane's commands perfectly, so she fires him and hires her parents back.

I read this book with 7-year-old Adela, my granddaughter, who is never hesitant to add her opinion to a discussion. We both felt that Liza Jane had to be 7-years-old. She thought Liza Jane sounded just like her, and I felt that Lippman got  7-year-old sassiness and sense of injustice down pat.  Adela and I were both only mildly intrigued by the plot line, and not at all sure why a dragon was who Liza Jane should have hired. The dragon is as sassy as Liza and absolutely as annoying as she is.

The illustrations are cute with Liza Jane and the dragon in bright colors and the background in sepia. Because of the sepia tones, I didn’t even notice the first time through that Liza Jane is biracial—her father is white, and mother is African American. This is definitely not a book about female empowerment, but basically about a bratty little girl and her bratty dragon.

In other words, I would not consider Liza Jane and the Dragon to be a necessary purchase. Cute but not essential.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Dead Cats and Other Reflections on Parenthood

By Jesse McKinnell

Shine Box Publishing     2018
215 pages     Fiction

I have spent several days trying to come to terms with what I want to say in this posting about Dead Cats. I can’t answer the question over whether I liked it or not—although I am not sure that the author Jesse McKinnell cares whether I “liked” it. Frankly, it is not a book one "likes."

Do you remember Orin Scrivello, the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors? Well, Joel Peterson, the protagonist in Dead Cats, reminded me a lot of Orin. He is sadistic, abusive, and drug addicted—and a dentist. One of the first scenes in Dead Cats concerns Dr. Peterson torturing patients while under the influence. He mentions: “Here’s a little-known fact: Dentists have all the good drugs. Here’s another one: It’s really easy for some of these delicious little vials to get lost.” Unlike Orin, however, Dr. Peterson doesn’t drive a motorcycle; he drives a Porsche, which he wrecks early in the novel.

Everything starts to go downhill with the death of the family cat, Friskers. In the silliest first scene in all of literature, Dr. Peterson drives over the cat with the aforementioned Porsche. Peterson has already been banished to the guest house behind the main house where his estranged wife and two young daughters live, but when the little girls see their father kill the cat, his wife Mary files for divorce.The divorce court scene with the dead cat in attendance is equally ridiculous.

Oh, and then there is Kurt Cobain, the dead rocker, who is a constant presence in Peterson’s life and seems to guide Peterson’s every downward movement. The reader can’t tell whether Cobain is trying to save Peterson or save himself. At the point Cobain enters, the plot moves from funny to pathetic. I really hoped that Peterson could come to his senses and try to put his life back together, and occasionally the reader glimpses a future. At one point, I thought that Peterson might be in a coma after his accident and the rest of the plot was just  a convoluted dream that Peterson might wake from to solve every problem. Finished the book still hoping for that conclusion.

The redeeming grace of the novel is the writing. It is strong—alternating between extremely funny and extremely grotesque. Couldn’t decide. This is McKinnell's first novel. McKinnell says that he dreamed the plot of Dead Cats. All I can say is that it must have been quite a dream!

Here is an interview with McKinnell by one of the book’s reviewers.