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 1325: Exit West

Cover for Exit WestIt’s difficult to describe Exit West. Part embedded in a slightly futurist reality, a small part speculative, part romantic, the novel is mostly a parable. Those of you who know me, know I don’t really like parables and I seldom appreciate magical realism, so this probably wasn’t the best choice for me, but I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.

Saeed meets Nadia in class as their unnamed city succumbs to war. They secretly see each other while a war goes on between religious fundamentalists and the government. As the situation deteriorates, Saeed’s mother is killed.

Saeed and Nadia hear rumors about doorways that can take refugees to other parts of the world, and we take a few side trips from their stories to witness people emerging in other countries. In some countries, the doors are guarded to keep the refugees safe. In others, the governments are trying to keep refugees out.

Saeed and Nadia decide to leave, but they cannot convince Saeed’s father to go with them. They eventually go, emerging first in Mykonos, where they live in a refugee camp, then in London, and finally in Marin County. Everywhere they go, they join swarms of refugees.

Hamid isn’t as interested in the grueling journeys of refugees as he is in the psychological effects of their journeys. Quiet, reflective Saeed has more difficulty adjusting than does the more adventurous Nadia.

Because this is more of a parable, though, the two main characters are mostly ciphers. We don’t really get to know them or care that much about them. Hamid’s lightning glimpses of other people’s lives open up the novel a little bit. It’s a technique similar to that used by David Mitchell, but in this novel it doesn’t work as well. Sometimes these glimpses seem to have little point, although most of them are linked to the doorways.

Aside from the timeliness of this novel (which I’m guessing is what has made it so popular especially with predictions about climate refugees to add to our current economic refugees and those fleeing violence), this novel was interesting but not altogether successful.

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Day 1293: Fourth of July Creek

Cover for Fourth of July CreekBest Book of Five!
Pete Snow is a social worker living in a remote region of Montana in the early 1980’s. His life is slowly falling apart. He has left his wife because of her infidelity, and she soon decides to move to Texas, taking their thirteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, with her.

Pete is called to school because a ragged boy is found there. The boy is Benjamin Pearl, the son of a religious fundamentalist who thinks the feds are after him. In trying to help the boy, Pete slowly begins to learn the forces that have made Jeremiah Pearl so distrustful.

The world Henderson depicts is a rough one and it seemed at times to be filled with lowlifes. Nevertheless, Henderson draws you into his universe and makes you understand these people. Although this novel is at times harrowing, it is also touching and compassionate. I read it for my James Tait Black project and really enjoyed it.

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Day 916: The Unraveling of Mercy Louis

Cover for The Unraveling of Mercy LouisAt the beginning of this novel, it is 1999 and the last day of Mercy Louis’s sophomore year in high school. The novel is set in the downtrodden refinery city of Port Sabine, Texas. Mercy¬†lives with Maw Maw, her grandmother, a woman who combines a background of Cajun superstition with strict fundamentalism. Maw Maw has visions and believes that the End of Days will arrive at the end of the year.

Mercy is focused on the thing she finds most important—basketball. She follows her coach’s rigid routines and diet, and she doesn’t drink or get involved with boys. Her best friend and teammate Annie isn’t so careful, though, about parties or boys.

Troubles for the town begin when an employee of a convenience store finds the body of a fetus in the dumpster. National attention falls on the town, fundamentalists demonstrate against the evils of baby killing, and attention soon turns on the town’s teenage girls. As one of them remarks, it’s as if suddenly it’s a sin to be a girl.

Mercy feels pressure from other sources, too. She has had a fit or a vision at church. She has received a letter from her mother, who left her when she was a baby. She also has a boyfriend for the first time, Travis, a boy from an artistic, liberal background. And she’s started having trouble controlling¬†one of her arms.

The other major character is Illa Stark, a misfit girl who has only one friend, Lennox, who works with her on the school paper. She has a crush on Lennox, but he is dating the formidable Annie. Illa also has a fascination with Mercy, the star of the girls’ basketball team.

Illa’s mother is wheelchair bound after a huge refinery accident several years ago. Now she hardly ever goes out. Illa doesn’t get out much either except as manager of the basketball team and in pursuit of her interest in photography.

Although this novel is a coming of age story, it is more about the pressures of religious fundamentalism on girls. Mercy tries to cope with the natural desires of teenage years to date and have fun, both of which she has been brought up to believe are evil.

I did care about these characters, but I felt that in some ways, although the novel doesn’t tie up all the threads, it comes to some easy solutions of the characters’ problems. I also found the writing—which is overloaded with similes and metaphors—to be irritating at times. So, I had a mixed reaction to this novel.

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