Educated by Tara Westover

EDUCATED

For me, as I am in the planning stages of writing a story (fiction) based on my experience in a religious, cult-like group during college, I found this book riveting.

On a craft level, Westover makes two very interesting choices. First, she structures each chapter as a short story with its own narrative arc and a strong fermata. In interviews, she describes doing this intentionally—knowing nothing about constructing narrative and having read very little fiction, she gave herself a crash course in it by reading short stories. It was a pragmatic move because she knew she could read many of them in the same time it would take to read only a few novels. But the result is rather too many fermatas that left the ending a little anticlimactic. However, that’s a minor quibble with a book I otherwise devoured.

Second, she is completely unafraid of herself and her past. To write with this level of honesty and awareness about my own past, even fictionalized, would require a lot of self-comfort. I’d have to put my hand over my heart a hundred times every day and say “You did the best you could with how you understood the world,” and I still don’t know if I’d make it through. But Westover is fearless, systematically interrogating herself, her motives, her worldview. The Atlantic review described her as “ tenaciously patient with her ignorance,” and I both agree with that assessment and am in awe of it.

Finally, as a memoirist and a professional historian, Westover chose to use her own memories as well as those of other people. Several times in the course of her book, she relates her own story and then says, “Tyler remembers it differently…” or “My brothers say it happened another way…” and includes their accounts. Time and time again, she interrogates her memories with precision, while still honoring the story she lived, a life she’s learned to understand through years of counseling.

Interestingly, it’s as if her family didn’t read the same book that I did; their reviews of this book mystify me. They say she’s made it all up. They say it’s wildly exaggerated and she’s wrong about most things. Given the narrative we do have from Westover, the denial isn’t the surprising part; the denial is more like the proof in the pudding. What is surprising is this:

(1)On the one hand, they skip over her explanations about variances in family stories and memories. The inclusion of that careful work, along with emails and diaries, all described in-depth, makes their denials sound kind of silly.

(2) But on the other hand, they also relate alternate narratives that would be easy to corroborate with other evidence, and they do not provide that evidence. For example, Westover’s assertion that her father’s burns are a major disfigurement is at odds with her mother’s online (and commercial) account of his recovery with just some normal scarring, yet there are no clear “after” pictures of the man available anywhere.

If my essential oil concoctions had worked that level of miracle, I’d plaster the internet with before and after photos. And these are not people with no media savvy! They run a business that employs nearly everyone in their family and lots of people in their community, a business worth millions of dollars with an extensive online presence.

Something does not add up, and it’s not Tara Westover’s account.

Personal footnote: The story she tells is believable to me as a former evangelical. The physical mangling of bodies isn’t something I’ve ever known—I was never that poor, never worked manual labor, and I’ve never been in a physically abusive situation. But I’ve known these people, eaten at their dining room tables, considered them a little fringe, but good people who love God.

What is recognizable to me is the way her family talks about what’s happening, how they interpret the events around them. For example, when her dad comes to confront her and call her back to the fold, he says “Remember when Luke burned his leg?…That was the Lord’s plan. It was a curriculum. For your mother. So she would be ready for what would happen to me” (303). The notion of suffering as a curriculum to prepare us for the future is painfully familiar and widespread in devout evangelical communities. Flashes of recognition like this example happen throughout the novel so that as I listened to the audio book, I thought, “I’ve heard this before” again and again.

“Genre-defying?” YA Writers–and Women– Already On It

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 5.42.45 AM

It’s book award season, and I’m thrilled. National Book Awards and Man Booker Prizes are good for books and so good for the world. Yay authors! For 2018, I’ve missed several of the book award nominees in the Young People’s Literature category, which surprises me. I’m usually ahead on those. I haven’t read even one on the Man Booker list (yet), but that’s not as unusual. I often wait for the shortlist before I dive into those titles.

Still. This year, I can’t help wondering if the Man Booker folks have missed something themselves. I mean, like aside from Gertrude Stein.1 Something more recent. The Times writes:

The Long Take, by the poet Robin Robertson, mixes verse, prose and even photographs to follow the story of a World War II veteran across the United States in the golden era of Hollywood.

“The Long Take offers a wholly unique literary voice and form,” the judge Jacqueline Rose, a feminist critic and writer, said at the event. “This is a genre-defying novel.”

Calling  a novel “genre-defying” for being told in a mix of prose and verse “and even photographs” suggests the committee members never read YA.

YA writers have been all up in this genre-defying business for a long time. Consider two 2011 titles: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, told in prose and photographs or Why We Broke Up, told through documents, images, and artifacts.

But this year, YA writers nailed it on genre-defying titles. Take these three for example —

1. Recently long-listed for the National Book Award, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough (2018) mixes verse and prose–and even implied paintings–into a breathtaking historical novel about the life of artist Artemisia Gentileschi.

2. Lita Judge combines verse, image and meticulous nonfiction research into her historical novel, Mary’s Monster (2018).

3. And while not at all “literary” in their scope, if we’re talking about genre-defying, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff use document/image/artifact to narrate their very popular thriller series, which started with Illuminae (2015), continues with Gemina (2016) and this year added Obsidio (2018).

All three of these titles, written for young adults and written predominantly by women, do exactly what Man Booker folks describe as “wholly unique.”

I’m not saying The Long Take isn’t great fiction. I’m sure it is, and I plan to read it soon. I hope other folks do too. Like I said: awards are good for books, good for authors, good for the world.

But The Long Take is not unique. Or new. Or really “defying” anything. It’s more defining–as in defining the blind spots of a literary establishment that considers work written for children and young adults as separate–or completely beneath its notice.


1. Gertrude Stein being the mother and patron saint of genre-defying.

IMG_8536

Yesterday, I skipped writing.

For nearly five years, I’ve been rising between 4:30 and 5 to write for two hours every workday morning.

Don’t get me wrong: I still got up that early. I still opened my computer. But I worked on syllabi and plans for the school year instead of writing.

By the end of the day, I was sobbing. When I recovered, I lay on the couch, eating jelly bellies and scrolling through Twitter like a zombie. Then I went to bed and cried myself to sleep.

It’s true that things at school are bad right now.

But I think it’s also true that I needed to write. When I write in the morning before teaching, I make a declaration of who I am before anyone else gets to decide. When things go badly in the day, I have built a space, an inner space, in which I am still my own self.

Shakespeare says that love is a star “whose worth’s unknown, although his height” may be measured. It’s true. Stars have–or once had–infinite worth in navigating the ocean. Stars are how we find our way, how we remember land when we are at sea, how we wish. Writing is that star for me.

And this morning? I wrote.

 

 

 

April Reads

 

Click on the links below for my reviews

Looking for a Middle Grade graphic novel that’s big on charm AND heart? Try The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang.

Want some YA fluff? Check out The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You by Lily Anderson [and … if you’re a fan of ACOTAR series, try the new novella: A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J. Maas].

For those who seek literary YA with a side of gut wrenching and a heavy dose of gorgeous writing, read We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

A YA novel-in-verse that I felt lucky to read, and am sure will feature heavily during awards season: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

My “most surprising and sweet YA” award goes to: Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan

And though it’s written for adults, Exit West by Moshin Hamid is a must read both as a heartbreaking novel and as compelling allegory for globalization.

 

“What are you reading?”

People ask me this a lot. It’s my favorite question. But I decided I’d like to have a much better pathway to share that. So I’m popping this up. I can’t guarantee I’ll do it all the time, but here it is.

This month I read mostly books that have a few years on them–some more than others–but none of them are especially new titles. Still, it was a great month, and I’d recommend any of these. My number one pick from this month would be the Anna  Hibisucus series, a set of first chapter books for early readers.

*Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, books 1-4 (early readers) These chapter books are a treasure–and I’m so glad that Uma spoke about them in her lecture or I’d never have known to pick them up. This annotation refers to the first four books of the series, all included on this bibliography.

Through her charming protagonist (& family), Atinuke develops a picture of life in “amazing Africa” that effectively squashes many western notions about the continent while also taking western perspectives on family and clothing and vacationing and pets to task for their myopia. The other books in the series do not have as much of an axe to grind as the first, however, and as a result read a little more like story/a little less like essay. But the activist in me loved the essay edge of the first volume and rejoiced in parts of the later books that emphasized it, especially “Anna Hibiscus and the New Generator,” and “The Other Side of the City” (Hooray for Anna Hibiscus) and “Anna Hibscus’s New Clothes” (Good Luck, Anna Hibiscus).

The author’s note at the end of each book says that Atinuke’s “stories are a medley of traditional folklore and contemporary urban life,” and that description is so apt. While they do build on each other from beginning to end, each chapter also functions as a stand-alone story that examines some aspect of culture and arrives at a conclusion that supports Anna’s way of  life. The conclusion is not moralistic, necessarily, nor is it simplistic–but it does seek to reinforce the status quo of Anna’s family as normal and good. The language is repetitive and rhythmic, mimicking the sound of the oral tradition and childhood fables–while also including details like offices and cell phones and text messages. And female presidents of other countries.

Heck Superhero by Martine Leavitt (middle grade) – I still don’t know what to think about this book. It’s sad. It’s oddly positioned between middle grade and YA in terms of content. It reminded me a little bit of the Cynthia Voigt books back in the 80’s in terms of how Heck views his homelessness pragmatically and protectively.

The comics gimmick doesn’t really work here–it doesn’t read as genuine
from neither Heck nor Leavitt. There’s a lot of telling about comics
rather than a sense of that coming from inside the character. But I forgive it as a reader because Heck’s belief in the magic rule of the universe (do good and nothing bad will happen to you) is utterly realistic–it makes it possible for to read his sweet, willful naiveté on the page. It raises the emotional stakes for him and makes his situation even more distressing for the reader.

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (YA) – No wonder this book is often hailed as Blume’s masterpiece–and no wonder I wasn’t much engaged by it as a teen reader myself. First, the prose is so spare in this book. It works on a craft level because the simple, repetitive syntax at key points in the book underscores the grief and disconnectedness that Davey after her father is murdered. It also gives the text a lyrical, straightforward cadence.

Second, like her other work, Blume’s adults are as carefully and complexly developed as her kids. However, here, the adult/kid interactions form the heart of the story. While Davey does make friends, and her friendship with Wolf is part of what helps Davey begin processing her grief, he is tangential to her daily life. Instead, it’s her interactions with her mother, her uncle, her aunt, and her therapist that form the majority of the scenes on the page.

Third, the book doesn’t resolve with Davey making heart eyes at Wolf and getting over her loss. Instead, it ends with Davey and her family facing the ocean and recognizing that “some changes happen deep down inside of  you.”

Reading this book (especially after reading her middle grade Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret recently) helped me realize that Blume works her style to her advantage–no better way to tackle controversial subjects than by underscoring them with straightforward, unadorned language and family relationships. If that makes Blume sound like Mr. Rogers for the YA crowd, well, there’s something to that.

A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas (a YA reread) – In this third installation of the Court of Thorns and Roses series Feyre’s pain and suffering and her first love are over. Her recovery and training in the Court of Night are complete and she has become their High Lady. With her new love, Rhysand, at her side, she leads her people into war against Hybern and the forces of evil.

Look, it’s a fantasy series. It has to have a war book. As war books go, it’s well done. War is rendered to both literal and emotional scale. Maas also creates enough legitimate opportunities for Feyre to leave the battle–in aid of the war–that the gore and size of the front line never overwhelms the narrative as it often does in the worst of the genre. More importantly, Maas keeps a firm eye on the relationships in the novel: not just the wholly satisfying romance between Feyre and Rhysand, but all the relationships. Nesta’s concern for Cassian, Feyre’s relationships with her recuperating sisters, Rhys’s tentative friendships with other high lords. The web of personal connectedness ultimately sustains the weight and complexity of the novel.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner (YA) – Zenter’s novel is magic that explores class as carefully as it evokes characters that breathe. The three protagonists, Dill, Travis, and Lydia are best friends in a small southern community. Lydia’s family is comfortably well off, Travis’s family solidly blue collar, and Dill’s family nearly falling off the map into poverty after his preacher father has been sent to jail for child pornography. Each of the three are wholly alive, individualized characters who interact with each other and the world around them, but the one I want to focus on is Travis.

Here’s why: Travis isn’t in any book I’ve ever read. He attended my high school. I’ve met him at nearly ever Renaissance festival I’ve ever visited. He’s been a student in every high school where I’ve taught for the last fifteen years. But he is never, ever, ever in books.

Travis loves one particular Game-of-Thrones style book series so much that he’s read and reread it a thousand times. He has a staff and he has a purple robe–like an actual Gandalf-sized staff and a wizard’s robe. He makes the Harry Potter fandom look as cute and as juvenile as it actually is (I’m a Ravenclaw). He’s built to play football, but he just works at the lumbermill so he has lots of time to read. When he poses for pictures, it’s as a warlock.There is literally nothing cool about him and Zenter has brought him perfectly, epically to life.

Only to kill him. As adulthood must. But still. It was so good to see him again.

Infandous by Elana Arnold (YA) – This book does for fairy tale and mythology what Arnold’s recent book, What Girls Are Made Of, does for Catholicism, using ancient stories as a lens through which to understand girlhood and coming of age. The plot in the novel really became discontinuous at points–if there is really a plot in a novel like this. Instead, each retelling of a fairy tale or myth became an interpretive lens for the work until the final story, which, if not wholly triumphant, hit the notes of resurrection and hope for a girl reborn after she’s undergone the unspeakable.

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran (ostensibly YA, but I wouldn’t give it to a teen) – Moran’s protagonist Johanna lives in blue collar Wolverhampton where her father is on disability benefits, her mother is struggling with postpartum depression, and her older brother is in the closet. She decides she wants to become a writer and wastes not even a second quitting school to write for London’s D&ME (Disc & Music Echo). On staff there, she invents herself as Dolly Wilde, a wild girl who’s perfectly willing to get drunk, have lots of casual sex, and write nasty music reviews of bands she doesn’t like (she learns early on not to write “fannish” reviews of music she adores).

This novel is so crass that it’s nearly unbearable, but the premise is compulsively readable. Moran’s lumpy character who has grown up in a house with no mirrors is free from a certain type of self-consciousness almost universally applied to female characters. At the same time, Johanna very consciously sets out to assemble “Dolly” based on what she’s learned from music magazines, rock lyrics, and male editors: a sort of man’s girl/fuck buddy/wild child. It’s almost a relief when she finds that construction wholly unsatisfying and begins again, though that’s also the end of the novel, so if it wasn’t satisfying, the novel wouldn’t work at all.

One of the major strengths of the novel is the working intimacy of the family portrait because Moran doesn’t conflate their poverty with dysfunction. Sure, they love each other fiercely as the trope goes, but they also love each other *well.* The parents are still in love. Her father blesses Johanna’s choice to become a music writer and her mother insists that Johanna open a savings account. Johanna’s older brother sets firm boundaries with her but also wears glitter with her to a favorite concert. The younger children snuggle and whine like younger children do. While Moran uses the novel to offer plenty of manifesto on poverty–a particularly compelling one is when the family benefits are cut by 11%–it’s actually the functional but utterly stymied every day life of Johanna’s family that speaks loudest and most poignantly.

The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat (adult nonfiction) – Danticat is brilliant and takes us on a tour of literary death that is nonpareil, examining death, suicide, and near-death with a lens both personal and extremely literary (heavy on Morrison and Hurston, and justifiably so). She tells us what great art does to bring death near and to keep it at bay, and her insight is some of the best craft advice I could have gotten writing a book whose protagonist lost her mom and is losing her dad.

But it is the final chapters of this book in which she begins to show us the art of death by writing the deaths of her parents in prayer, story, poem, and ritual. I wept openly as the book moved from theory and analysis into mastery of the form—not because it was artful, though it was, but because it did what all great writing about death does. It brought me closer to my deaths: both the losses I’ve survived and my own future expiration date.

 

Turtles All the Way Down

tatwd.jpg

Look, I love John Green. As far as I can tell, he’s a great human and a decent writer. Plus, disclaimer: I’ve taught Looking for Alaska in sophomore honors English for almost 10 years.

And Turtles All the Way Down is a fine book in some regards. The portrayal of mental illness is top flight, right up there with Schusterman’s Challenger Deep. It puts readers who do not live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the mind and heart of someone who does. It’s real and terrifying. For that alone, Green deserves praise.

Plus, the relationships are both realistic and aspirational. The romance between Aza and Davis is handled sensitively and features consent. The best friend conflict is a little undercooked and over too quickly, but as a result, it’s actually one of the more realistic elements of the story–and one that ties directly to the portrayal of mental illness. Daisy interrogates Aza’s privilege to the point that she’s suggesting OCD is a luxury item. It’s not, and I appreciate that Green raises the spectre of that question, too often posed to those living with mental illness1.

However, the dialogue™ and the characters™ are a little too polished, like holding a handful of tumbled rocks.

The perfected form of a teenager.

And those perfected teenagers are far too familiar from his other work: they share the extensive philosophical concerns they always do, the relational tone of Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, and the rewriting-disease narrative of The Fault in Our Stars.

But does any of that matter? It was nice to be in Green’s universe again, where this one truth always prevails: We are the stories we tell about ourselves.

1 Another grace note worth mentioning is the short, quasi-elegaic flash forward at the end of the novel. Many readers–myself included–will wonder: is that Green or Aza? The book is dedicated to Green’s children, Henry and Alice, and it closes with a sort of apology to Aza’s (?) future children and an expression of gratitude to lifelong friends.

I Crawl Through It

23203744  
I Crawl Through it tackles education, rape culture, family trauma, and friendship with King’s matter-of-fact surrealism.

Stanzi’s parents leave her the same note every night, “Went to bed. TV dinner in freezer. Make sure to turn out the lights.”

Stanzi’s best fried, China, swallowed herself and is a walking stomach or anus on any given day.

Stanzi knows her friend Lansdale is a chronic liar with Pinocchio hair and four stepmothers.

Stanzi’s love, Gustav, is building an invisible helicopter. She can only see it on Tuesdays.

The bush man is a nudist and a sculptor of letters. He has all the answers.

Except he doesn’t. No one does. And the people who think they do live in an invisible place with no departures. Their answers don’t do anyone any good. Gustav and Stanzi run away to them, but escape with the bush man’s love, Patricia, in tow.

Meanwhile, China runs away to New York, and Lansdale tries to escape in a newscaster’s hotel room.

All of them return to their home town–and each other– to confront reality and find healing. But it’s not like their hometown is perfect. The adults at home are disengaged with their kids’ lives in every meaningful way. Stanzi and her friends go to a school where there is a bomb threat every day.  No one knows who is sending the threats, no one seems particularly fussed about it. School is one long series of interruptions. In fact, this book suggests school AS interruption to finding the answers, to living the answers.

Still.  [spoilers ahead] Home is where the healing begins. Lansdale cuts her hair and her lies, Gustav gets his Physics teacher to give him credit for building the invisible helicopter, Stanzi confronts her parents about the car accident that killed her baby sister, and China tells her mom what happened.

That scene–when China explains that her ex-boyfriend raped her and then posted pictures of it all over the internet–is one of the most utopian confession scenes ever written. In sum: King handled it tenderly but in a chapter titled “That Little Shit.” She puts China 100% in charge of telling her own story and then she evokes China’s mother’s emotions without muting China’s story. [Wow. Just wow.]

Another revelatory scene happens near the end of the novel when the principal suggests that they’ve found the man making the bomb threats and put him on public display on the football field. When Stanzi goes to investigate, she finds the dangerous bush man circled by her peers and teachers. Everyone is throwing things at him–all their trauma and anger and wrong answers. When she asks why, someone answers “Because he can take it.”

The bush man is a Girard-ian scapegoat if ever there was one. But even that doesn’t work. The only way out of any of this for any of them is to crawl through it.

As a post-script, I particularly enjoyed EW’s review, which you can find here.

 

Blog at WordPress.com.