Review 1392: A Very Private Eye

I am not much for reading letters and diaries, because I like story telling, even in nonfiction, rather than glimpses of a life. So, A Very Private Eye, a collection of Barbara Pym’s diary entries and letters, was probably not the best choice for me. Still, a good friend gave me the book, so I decided to read it.

The book was both worse and better than I expected. It begins with Pym’s diary entries as she starts Oxford. In no time, she has embroiled herself with Henry Harvey, who treats her shamefully. Unfortunately, instead of telling him to bugger off like he deserves, she records her heart-rendings, which continue for years.

Next comes a series of letters to Harvey and his wife, and to other friends. I found the letters to the Harveys excruciating. She gives herself the identity of the spinster, Miss Pym, and writes about herself in the third person in a false, jokey tone with constant reminders of her single status. Very obvious. I would think the wife would have been wary.

I was just about to give up on her at around 100 pages in, when the book gets into the war and becomes much more interesting. Similarly, it gets more interesting as she ages, although she refers to a lot of people whose role in her life is not explained. (That would have been helpful, although each section begins with an explanatory introduction by the editors.)

She went through about ten years when no one would publish her books because they were no longer thought to be marketable. Then two prominent literary figures independently listed her as one of Britain’s most underrated authors. Her next books were published, and she was eventually shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I felt it was sad that this happened for her just a few years before she died.

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Review 1383: Educated

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir about being raised by a bipolar, survivalist fundamentalist Mormon father and his subservient wife in the depths of rural Idaho. Westover and her younger siblings were home-schooled after her father’s paranoia led him to withdraw his children from school. This home schooling was something I have feared for many home-schooled children when their education is not supervised. Their mother began by trying to have school each day, but their father insisted on dragging the kids out to his junkyard to work. Finally, their mother settled for teaching them to read, and the only educated children in the family became so by their own efforts.

Westover’s father did not observe any work safety practices in the junkyard. Since he didn’t believe in medical care except for his wife’s herbal remedies, some accidents resulted in severe injuries for his children and himself.

Aside from Westover’s difficulties in getting a formal education, this book is more about the toll it took for her to go against her family’s teachings enough to do it—a woman’s place being in the home. Even more so, it is about her struggle with her own view of herself, especially after her sister asks her to support her when she tells the family that her brother Shawn is abusive. Westover must figure out who she is in the absence of her family. She must re-examine her own past to learn the lessons about her family—that her mother put her subservience to her father before the safety of their children; that their father would rather disown one child than face the reality of another’s abusive nature, and that some of her siblings will turn against her, too; even that most of her father’s ideas are actually not true.

This is an amazing and enthralling book. Westover’s journey from a college student who never heard of the Holocaust to a doctorate in history and a commensurate growth in self-awareness is inspiring.

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Review 1342: The Garden of the Gods

Cover for Garden of the GodsThe Garden of the Gods is a fitting conclusion to Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy. In the book, we meet a few more eccentric characters and are treated to funny events and lush descriptions of the island of Corfu.

The centerpiece of this book is a visit to Corfu by the King of Greece. This event brings about a multitude of opportunities for incompetently executed patriotic displays.

One of the most entrancing new characters is Jeejee, a visitor from India whom Mrs. Durrell takes for royalty because of his first name, Prince. (That is, Larry sends her a letter saying that Prince Jeejee is arriving for a visit.) He is a charming person who entertains us with his attempts at levitation.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyThe final chapters of the book deal with a typically over-the-top party that the Durrells throw for Jeejee’s birthday. All goes well until Margo’s cabaret, in which the various characters entertain the other guests with acts that include an interminable saucy sea chanty by Captain Creech and an escape act by Mr. Kralefsky and Theodore that goes badly wrong.

The trilogy is funny and entertaining. Although the first book is the source of the original Masterpiece series, the newer series is suggested by characters and events in the last two books. I think most people would enjoy these memoirs.

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