A Remarkable Memoir: "Educated", by Tara Westover - Book Review

Having no expectation when I picked this book up based on a friend’s recommendation, I was surprised by this jarring true story and the austerity with which it was told. Author Tara Westover has written a memoir about her upbringing in Idaho, living under the iron fists of her father and brother, both abusive in different ways, yet all in the name of religion and family good.  

Westover begins her childhood largely in isolation from mainstream society helping with her father’s scrap business and watching her older siblings leave one by one. Her father, self-righteous, delusional, and paranoid, managed the family by fear. Her mother followed him regardless of his destructive path. The family did not believe in organized education nor modern medicine, and had a great distrust for the government. Tara and her siblings were “home schooled”. Except really, they were not academically educated at all unless they sought to teach themselves. Injuries, of which there were many, were treated by their mother with essential oils and energy healing.

Educated: A Memoir
By Tara Westover

Westover had the intelligence and fortitude to understand, even as a child, that hers was not a healthy environment. She’s built up defenses to survive, yet it was not enough, and she had the fortitude to pursue a formal education. In doing so, this small act of defiance created a riff with some in her family, yet it helped to grow her awareness of the world and her own place in it. And over time, she confronted her family’s abuse.

Educated is about a family in crisis that calls to mind Marry Karr’s Liar’s Club. These people are severely broken, yet the author finds her inner strength to break away and discover her own path, fraught with its own challenges. Westover’s narrative style is without melodrama - she soberly conveys her experiences and emotional struggles, sometimes including the perspectives of siblings. She is quite remarkable for not only surviving, but earning her doctorate at Oxford and creating a career and life for herself; although, I’m sure still deals with the aftermath of her family’s decisions and hers. 

Published: 2018
Publisher: Random House

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

The Travails of Friendship in "The Animators", by Kayla Rae Whitaker - Book Review

Short haired, loud mouthed lesbian Mel Vaught; weight conscious, big chested, introverted Sharon Kisses. Tentative friends early on in college, fierce duo upon graduation and after. Teaming up as animators, they turn what they love to do into full-time work. As their first major endeavor, they make a full-length feature animated film about Mel’s life to much acclaim. That acclaim sets them off and running both professionally and in their personal lives, sometimes in parallel lines; sometimes in almost opposite directions.

Major life events happen to these women in the pages of this story and, with each one, you think it’s the climax. It’s not. But this isn’t a criticism, more of a warning. This book is chock full of exhilarating highs, bone crushing lows, and sizzling emotion from deeply developed characters. The underpinning of the entire tale hinges on the personalities and evolution of characters Mel and Sharon, and Whitaker's masterful use of dialogue in such a unique style throughout the book aids in its character development.

The Animators: A Novel
By Kayla Rae Whitaker

Sharon is the hero on the journey here, and she’s forced to learn much about herself, her relationship with Mel, and how to be her own person. This book dives into friendships as life changing relationships. Ones that can be as significant, if not more, than spousal or familial ties and how they can be just as impactful and destructive if left unchecked.   

Whitaker writes in great detail about the art and business of animation, a topic about which I previously knew nothing. If Whitaker isn’t professionally trained as an animator, she’s certainly done her research. The book is an interesting and insightful look into a very nuanced world and, for me, a true education into new material.

In the first few pages of the book, I was hooked. On Mel and Sharon as people, on their travails together and apart, on their work life, on their stories, real and imagined. Gripping and vivid, The Animators struck major chords.  

Published: 2017
Publisher: Random House

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

Debut Novel, “The Girls”, by Emma Cline - Book Review

I’ll begin with a line from The Girls, when thirty-something year old main character Evie is thinking about a teenager in love she’s met and from whom she feels a familiar hunger: “Poor Sasha. Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.”

The Girls is a new release from Emma Cline - her first novel. And it’s quite impressive. The story is loosely based on the Manson Family cult of the late 1960’s in California. It revolves around Evie Boyd, a 14-year old only child to divorced parents. Of some wealth and education, Evie is not particularly impressed with school, the other girls, nor with her mother’s boyfriends. She drifts into a friendship with Suzanne, who is wild, unencumbered, and has little care in the world. Suzanne is part of a “family” of sorts - a group of mostly teen girls, let by the enigmatic Russell. They live in poverty and filth, steal their food, and beg for anything else they need. They’re high most of the time - booze, pot, or any drug they can get their hands on. Capitalism is bad. Sharing and love is all that matters. And Evie is free to come and go as she pleases, but regardless of the environment, she prefers to be with Suzanne.

The Girls: A Novel
By Emma Cline

There is something about Suzanne that makes Evie feel as if she matters. She is self conscious, invisible, wanting, desperate for meaningful connection. With Suzanne, Evie becomes someone of significance - sweet Evie. So eager to please and belong. Finally, there is someone that truly knows her. Where they’ve come from and where they’re going doesn’t matter. And even as they lure her deeper into their deviant orbit, she feels it’s generally harmless, buying more and more into their distorted sense of justice.

The book is told from Evie as an adult, revealing the series of events in flashbacks to 1969. It movingly calls out the insecurities and insubstantial role many girls and women have borne. “I knew just by being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe in yourself.” But Cline does not at all present a feminist tome; simply a version of coming of age that crosses cultures, and doesn’t ignore the common threads we have, often continuing into adulthood.

Cline’s sensitivity and expression of girls and women is remarkable, considering she is a mere 25-years old. She provides a rare prescience along with a powerful writing style that had me paying attention to every word.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Random House

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars 

Intensely Intimate With “Thirteen Ways of Looking”, by Colum McCann - Book Review

Colum McCann is truly a master of his craft. This is my first read of McCann’s library of work, but his evocative nature begs further discovery. In the midst of writing Thirteen Ways of Looking, McCann himself was attacked while trying to help a woman who had been assaulted, after which he suffered a broken cheekbone and teeth. He writes in the book’s Author’s Note, “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only look back. In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical”. When you read the book, you’ll understand how poignant this statement is.

Thirteen Ways of Looking includes a novella and three short stories. The title is based upon the poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, by Wallace Stevens, of which McCann includes a stanza of the poem at the beginning of each section of the novella. The stories are quite different from one another, but the unifying theme is a strong sense of yearning and loneliness, vividly told.

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“Remember Me Like This”, by Bret Anthony Johnston - Book Review

Like a house of mirrors, only slowing revealing the truth, Remember Me Like This unhurriedly divulges the facts, shattering the assumptions we’ve made along the way.  Taking place in a small Texas town outside Corpus Christi, author Bret Anthony Johnston roots us into the Campbell family four years into the search for missing eldest son, Justin. 

Parents Eric and Laura, and youngest son Griff, are coping with Justin’s disappearance in very different ways, of course. This family is not particularly unique - they are middle America, unnoticed except for the those in the town of Southport around them, recognized only for their grieving faces as they plea for any information that lead to their son’s return. They post flyers, organize search parties, and retreat into themselves. The desperation includes Eric’s father, Cecil, and important part of the narrative. Cecil is steady on the surface, and remains a stabilizing guide for Eric. Cecil grieves too - both for Justin and his late wife.  He’s an important part of the family’s lives and an interesting character - strong, vulnerable, angry, and tender. 

Remember Me Like This: A Novel
By Bret Anthony Johnston

Justin’s disappearance is only part of the story. He’s found. And similar to the troubled emotions of his loss, equally unsettling is dealing with the aftermath - of responsibility of parents and brother alike, and even more disconcerting, his kidnapper. Again, each family member has a unique reasoning and way of coping. So deep does Johnston dive into each person’s psyche, we feel the ache of loss, pain, and the brief allowances of joy.

What truly makes this book special however is Johnston’s writing itself. He brings an authenticity and rawness to each character, especially Eric and Laura, that their weaknesses lay spread out before us, disconcerting in how obviously real they are; too real. More than we would ever really want to know about those in pain perhaps, but here it is. And the prose is seamless - from describing emotions to the crime itself, and about the supporting characters around them. The complex story is precisely woven together and presented to us in a way that both surprises and makes us yearn for more.

Published: 2014
Publisher: Random House

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars