EDUCATED by Tara Westover

Educated, the juggernaut memoir by Tara Westover, needs no introduction, but for those who may have just returned from time travel or a few years of hibernation, it’s the story of the author’s life growing up in a extreme, survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. At 17, Westover managed to separate herself from her family and go to college at BYU and graduate school at Cambridge. The book is about how education – she never attended school until college – opened her mind to understand her family and how her upbringing had affected her, often negatively.

Educated is a harrowing read, as there are many times when Westover and her parents and siblings were in grave physical danger, whether from a car accident or a gruesome accident at her father’s junkyard. Her parents did not believe in doctors or medicine and were deeply distrustful of government institutions like schools or hospitals. When her brother Luke suffered a horrendous burn when a fuel tank exploded, he was treated with natural remedies and painkillers. When her mother suffered severe head trauma in a car accident, she recovered at home, treating her frequent migraines with herbs.

Westover also experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father and one of her brothers, leading to a near-constant atmosphere of fear and tension at home. She is honest about the impact this abuse had on her as a young woman: she tried not to feel anything at all so that she wouldn’t have to face the pain that they caused.

I admire Westover’s remarkable resilience, as well as her clear, unflinching writing. Her ability to teach herself all that she missed growing up without schooling is astonishing. And her loyalty to her parents, despite their repeated failure to protect her from dangers at home or to take responsibility for the pain suffered by her and her siblings, is a testament to the power of family and upbringing.

I am glad I read Educated, but I can’t say that I loved it. It’s not an enjoyable read, for sure, given the nature of her upbringing. But even beyond that, there is a coldness there, a distanced retelling of her family’s stories that makes it hard to appreciate their full impact. Westover is probably still processing all that happened to her, and the book is clearly part of that process of coming to terms. I am not sure that she is fully on the other side yet. I wonder whether the book would feel more complete if she had waited a few more years to write it, when everything was a little less raw.

I listened to Educated on audio, and it was narrated by acclaimed performer Julia Whelan (aka the author of My Oxford Year and Grace Manning on “Once And Again”). Whelan won an Audie for Best Female Narrator for this performance earlier this year. Her narration was measured and unemotional, almost bordering on angry. I wonder how much her performance contributed to my sense of remove from the book, and whether reading it in print would have made for a different experience.

BABY TEETH by Zoje Stage

I have been reading a spate of stressful books lately, for no apparent reason, and unsurprisingly, they are stressing me out! The latest was Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage. It’s about a 7 year-old girl named Hanna who is terrible to her mother Suzette and angelic to her father Alex. When Baby Teeth opens, Suzette is at the end of her rope: she is homeschooling Hanna, who has been asked to leave two different schools due to extreme misbehavior, so she’s with her all day long. Hanna does not speak – to anyone – so trying to parent her is especially challenging for Suzette.

Baby Teeth is told in alternating chapters between Suzette and Hanna. We hear, from Suzette’s perspective, about her feelings of failure as a mother, her intense love for Alex, her frustration with his unwillingness to see Hanna as she does, and the cycle of guilt-anger-fear she goes through whenever she interacts with her daughter. Hanna, meanwhile, is shown to be intelligent, observant, manipulative and… deeply attached to her father. Suzette, of course, is the enemy – the one who keeps her from having her father to herself.

Things go from bad to worse as Hanna becomes more and more menacing and starts threatening her mother’s physical safety. Suzette and Alex reach out for professional help, trying to get to the bottom of their daughter’s behavior and find a solution for her to go to school.

You may be thinking, “Why would anyone read this book?”

Baby Teeth is a thriller, and it’s fun (?), or at least interesting, to see what Hanna will do next and whether Suzette will get the better of her. Stage is a good writer, observant about motherhood and how it can affect a marriage – although I did find this marriage really unrealistic. So I read on, eager to hear what would happen and just a bit scared to turn the page. (Of course, you put yourself in Suzette’s shows and wonder how you would react if you had a diabolical daughter). In the end, however, I didn’t really see the point of the book beyond scaring people. I’ve heard Baby Teeth compared to We Need To Talk About Kevin, and I can kind of see that, but Kevin is the far superior book. Baby Teeth is thrilling and creepy and anxiety-inducing, but I can’t say I’m better in any way for having read it.

GOLDEN CHILD by Claire Adam

At the beginning of Golden Child by Claire Adam, Clyde, the father in a family of four in Trinidad, returns home from his job at an oil refinery. He learns that one of his twin boys – Paul – has disappeared, leaving his wife Joy and his other son Peter at home. Peter is an exceptionally smart boy who tested into a private school and is on track to go to college in America, while Paul, who had complications at birth, has been labeled “retarded” and struggles to keep up in school. Paul’s disappearance, coming on the heels of a recent burglary at their modest home, sets events in motion that will test the family’s love for and commitment to their two sons.

Golden Child is a tough read. I enjoyed the foreign setting of rural Trinidad and reading about the challenges the family faced in trying to move up. Clyde is a hard worker and doesn’t want assistance – financial or otherwise – from family members, even those who offered to help his sons with their education. His commitment to independence and self-reliance is tested when it becomes clear that Peter is unique and deserving of opportunities that Clyde cannot provide without help. Yet his acceptance of that help turns out to be the family’s downfall, as it brings with it menace and danger.

The decisions faced by Clyde and Joy are beyond painful, and Golden Child is a pretty stressful and sad book. It’s kind of a hard book to describe – it felt almost like a fable to me, written in a simple but literary style. I found it to be memorable, propulsive and ultimately, devastating.

Golden Child is the second book from Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint, SJP for Hogarth. Her first, A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (reviewed here) also explores complex family relationships and sibling dynamics in a non-American culture. I am impressed with SJP’s picks and eager to see what she releases next.

ADELE by Leila Slimani

I don’t remember where I read about Adele by Leila Slimani (I should be using Sarah’s Bookshelves’ recommendation source tracker!), but I found it somewhere and added it to my TBR a few weeks ago. It’s about a mid-thirties woman named Adele who lives in Paris. She’s a wife and mother who is deeply dissatisfied with her life and seeks out affairs and sexual liaisons wherever she can. These interludes are unemotional and leave her numb, yet she can’t stop herself from pursuing them and putting her marriage, health and comfortable life at risk.

While there are aspects of Adele that are relatable, such as the myopic world of motherhood and the loss of identity many women feel as they approach middle age, ultimately Adele herself as a character was hard to connect with. She is selfish and self-centered, yet also fearful and anxious. She doesn’t care at all about her job as a journalist, and uses her friends solely as coverups and alibis to facilitate her double life. While I kept reading because I wanted to see how things resolved for Adele – would her husband discover her life and would he kick her out?? – the book has a coldness to it that makes it hard to connect with.

I enjoyed Slimani’s writing (the book is translated from French) but in the end, Adele didn’t leave much of a mark. Goodreads reviews are all over the place – some people loved it and found Adele’s search for identity and purpose fascinating, while others found it dull. In the end, I just found it kind of depressing.

INHERITANCE by Dani Shapiro

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro is a memoir about the author’s discovery that the man she had always considered her father was not, in fact, her biological father. An Ancestry.com DNA test she did on a whim – her husband was doing one, so she decided to do it too – revealed that Shapiro and her half-sister were not, in fact, related, setting into motion an intense quest for truth and answers surrounding Shapiro’s conception. When Shapiro made this discovery, both her parents were already dead, forcing her to piece together the circumstances of her birth with little help from others.

I’ve read a few of Shapiro’s novels, but she is best known for her memoirs. And I can see why – her writing is clear and precise, honest and compelling. She takes her readers through each step of her path to understanding how she was conceived via a sperm donor – and whether her parents knew. She flashes back in time to instances during her childhood where she felt she somehow didn’t belong with her Orthodox Jewish family. Shapiro adored her father, and Jewish culture and custom were something she shared with him (even though she doesn’t really consider herself a religious person). Despite her fair complexion and blonde hair, Shapiro identified as a Jew growing up and resented when people pointed out that she “didn’t look Jewish”. Yet learning that her father was not her biological father explained confusion and distance she felt growing up, but also left her feeling rootless and without an identity.

I think I would enjoy reading about Shapiro’s trips to the supermarket – that’s how much I enjoy her writing – but this story of secrets and discovery was engrossing. You might be tempted to ask whether, at age 54, this news should really have had this much of an impact on the author, who is, after all, a successful, married author and writer. Yet whenever I had those thoughts, I kept reading, and really came to understand just how disorienting the discovery was for her, and why it was important for her to find her biological father. Good writing will do that.

I listened to Inheritance on audio, narrated by the author, and it was excellent. I feel lucky to have heard such a highly personal story read by the person who experienced it. Shapiro’s narration is like her writing: consistent, clear and eloquent. The audio was easy to follow and I was always eager to return to it.

Inheritance was a very good memoir and a good read – well worth the time.

WHEN YOU READ THIS by Mary Adkins

When You Read This by Mary Adkins is a modern epistolary novel told through emails, texts and blog posts. Smith Simonyi is a PR executive who has recently lost his assistant, Iris, to cancer. Iris had written a blog for a community for dying people, and he discovers after her death that she wanted him to have her blog published. He reaches out to publishers to gauge interest in her blog, while also starting up a correspondence with her sister, Jade, who is still deeply grieving and unwilling to open her sister’s writing up to the public.

Most of When You Read This is made up of emails between Jade and Smith, blog posts by Iris, and correspondence between Smith and his clueless college student intern and his increasingly frustrated clients. As Jade and Smith get to know each other better and Smith confronts some of his own issues, including his relationship with his paralyzed mother and his gambling addiction, the reader also gets an appreciation of what Iris meant to both of them and the guilt they each feel about her death.

When You Read This is a pretty fast read. It’s a little quirky and at times pretty funny (I don’t usually laugh out loud when I read, but I did several times while reading it), but also quite poignant. Iris’ blog entries are honest and sad, as she comes to terms with the end of her life at age 39. There is also a voyeuristic element to the book, as you know you’re reading things you’re not supposed to be privy to.

When You Read This is a realistic look at grief and relationships, with a modern, updated feel, thanks to its format. I picked it up at the recommendation of a few bloggers and I am glad I did.

WOMAN 99 by Greer Macallister

Woman 99 by Greer Macallister is what I call “historical adventure fiction”. It’s about Charlotte Smith, a wealthy young woman growing up in 1880s San Francisco whose sister Phoebe has been sent to Goldengrove, a renowned insane asylum in Napa Valley, due to her erratic mental health. For a few reasons, Charlotte feels responsible for her sister’s being sent to Goldengrove and decides to rescue her by getting herself committed there too.

Woman 99 by Greer Macallister is what I call “historical adventure fiction”. It’s about Charlotte Smith, a wealthy young woman growing up in 1880s San Francisco whose sister Phoebe has been sent to Goldengrove, a renowned insane asylum in Napa Valley, due to her erratic mental health. For a few reasons, Charlotte feels responsible for her sister’s being sent to Goldengrove and decides to rescue her by getting herself committed there too.

This may not be a smart plan, but it allows Woman 99 readers to follow along as Charlotte ends up at Goldengrove, a place that turns out to be much more sinister than it’s purported to be. Not everyone at Goldengrove is insane, it turns out – many of the women there are simply inconvenient, and their husbands or families want them to disappear. Conditions at the asylum border on inhumane, and as Charlotte learns more about the doctors, nurses and “cures”, she becomes increasingly outraged at the ways the women are treated. She also has to locate her sister, which proves to be much more challenging than she’d hoped, and find a way to get them both out.

Woman 99 is a story about female resilience and the loyalty between sisters, as well as a sad statement about the treatment of women at the end of the 19th century. Goldengrove is fictional, but Macallister did her research into private asylums at that time and created a place that is sadly entirely conceivable. Charlotte’s character is inspired by Nellie Bly, a real American journalist in the 1880s who herself exposed brutality and neglect at asylums for women, and Bly’s writing clearly informed Macallister.

Woman 99 is a bit of a departure for me – I don’t usually read books heavy on adventure and twists, but I enjoyed this one a lot. Charlotte was forced to be resourceful in the face of very long odds and depended on help from the friends she makes within Goldengrove, women whom others have written off. There are many disturbing images throughout Woman 99, but is ultimately a hopeful story of empowerment and justice.

I was very luckily invited to moderate a panel with Greer Macallister and Lynda Cohen Loigman last night at Kramerbooks in DC to talk about Woman 99 and Lynda’s new book, The Wartime Sisters (reviewed here). It was a great time! Here’s a pic of us during the discussion.