Educated – Tara Westover

educatedOur first book club pick for 2019 was Tara Westover’s compelling memoir Educated.  Born and raised in southern Idaho, Westover tells the remarkable story of living in the shadow of  Buck’s Peak, the youngest of seven children. Like virtually everyone else in the nearby town, Tara was raised as a Mormon, but as she says in the author’s notes “This is not a book about Mormonism.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Tara’s father is beyond the pale in terms of his beliefs and how they impact his children.  Not only is he a devout Mormon, he’s a survivalist. He preaches that the government is evil. Tara and her siblings don’t go to school, or to the hospital when they are sick. Tara didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was nine. When his mother suggests that Tara (and her sisters and brothers) should be attending school, he tells her that “public school was a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God. “I may as well surrender my kids to the devil himself…as send them down the road to that school.””

Instead of school, Tara helps with a variety of jobs around their property. Her three oldest brothers had helped their father build barns or hay sheds, but her two oldest brothers had recently left and then her brother Tyler announces that he wants to go to college. Tara is perhaps ten when Tyler makes this announcement and she has to ask what college is. Her father tells her that it’s “extra school for people too dumb to lean the first time around.”

The fact that Tyler leaves the mountain to attend school has a profound impact on Tara. He’s not like her oldest brothers, Tony (whom we learn very little about) and Shawn (the story’s villain). Tyler “liked books, he liked quiet.” He introduces Tara to classical music and it becomes their secret language. To understand the huge impact Tyler has on Tara’s life, one only has to note that her book is dedicated to him.

Eventually, Tara makes the decision that she, too, wants an education. This is remarkable because she’s had no formal schooling. Instead, she has to study on her own and pass ACT, a standardized test that will allow her to attend college without a high school diploma. She is motivated, not only by her desire to learn, but also by the increasingly violent and erratic behaviour of her brother, Shawn.

Educated is a riveting family drama and also the story of how an education (and I’m not even really talking about a formal education here, although Tara certainly has one of those, including a PhD from Cambridge) can change a person’s life. Despite the fact that Tara might describe her childhood as happy, there is no doubt that her father suffered from mental illness and her mother is complicit in the abuse she suffers at the hands of her brother, Shawn. Tara’s attempt to honestly portray her family and the things that happened to her makes for compelling reading.

Listen to Tara answer questions about her story here.

Highly recommended.

 

 

Stories I Only Tell My Friends – Rob Lowe

I was more of a Robby Benson than a Rob Lowe fan back in the day. I guess they were sort of popular around the same time, give or take a few years. 0D9E8612-E728-46F5-8D69-9E382FBC38EFRob Lowe’s autobiography Stories I Only Tell My Friends, however, made for riveting reading, and the same can not be said for Robby Benson’s novel Who Stole the Funny.

Lowe was born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1964. He moved with his mother and father to Dayton, Ohio when he was still an infant. His parents chose Dayton because it was “a bustling, growing city,”  home to many national companies. Lowe’s father was a lawyer; his mother gave up her job as a high school English teacher to stay home and raise her son. Four years later, Lowe’s brother, Chad, was born.

Lowe got an early start in the acting business in Dayton. A trip to see a production of Oliver!  turned out to be a “a transformational experience” for ten-year-old Lowe. A few weeks later,  he participated in a community theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. Lowe notes that his parents (well, his mom and step-father because by then his parents were divorced) would have had “no way of knowing how deeply affected I’d been, how electrified I was by the age-old connection of actors, material and audience…that was a club I wanted to belong to.”

Flash forward a few years and the family has moved to Malibu, California.

An entire book could (and should) be written about Malibu in 1976. In the bicentennial sunlight of that year, it was a place of rural beauty where people still rode to the local market on horseback and tied up to a hitching post in the parking lot. Long before every agent and studio president knocked down the beach shacks to build their mega mansions, Malibu was populated by a wonderful mix of normal working-class families, hippies, asshole surfers, drugged-out reclusive rock stars, and the odd actor or two.

It is during this period that Lowe begins to pursue acting in earnest, and also lands the role that will turn him into a household name.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends is an honest, self-deprecating look at fame and its rewards and consequences. It’s a who’s who of the times, which makes it especially fun to read if you are of the same vintage as Lowe…which I am. I loved reading about Lowe’s participation in The Outsiders. He’s candid about his career highs and lows, and about his prodigious romantic interludes (some clearly less to do with romance and more to do with sex – but look at the guy.) Lowe is aware that he’s a good-looking (great looking, really) man, but he never comes across as full of himself. He’s also honest about how he abused alcohol, a hard-earned perspective that comes from being twenty plus years sober.

This is a really dishy memoir – not a tell-all, exactly, but a Hollywood story about a decent guy who came-of-age in the public eye, and managed to keep his wits about him. He wrote it himself and it’s funny and witty and at times it almost seems as though Lowe can’t believe the ride he’s had either.

Great book.

Tiger, Tiger – Margaux Fragoso

Margaux Fragoso’s memoir Tiger, Tiger will probably make most readers 44A45046-AC95-4857-AB12-A10A60BD3D53uncomfortable. It’s the story of her sexual relationship with Peter, a man she met when she was seven and he was – wait for it – fifty-one.  In the preface, Fragoso tells readers

I started writing this book the summer after the death of Peter Curran, whom I met when I was seven and had a relationship with for fifteen years, right up until he committed suicide at the age of sixty-six.

Fragoso’s relationship with Peter began at a neighbourhood pool, in Union City, New Jersey. She is the only child of Louie, an immigrant from Puerto Rico, and Cassandra, her mentally ill mother. Life at home is volatile, and Fragoso, despite her youth, longs for a sense of family. When she sees one at the local pool, she is immediately drawn to them.

Their father had bowl-cut sandy-silver hair with sixties bangs like a Beatle. He had full lips, a long, pointy nose that might have looked unattractive on someone else, but not on him, and a strong pert chin. When he looked in my direction, I saw that his eyes were vigorously aquamarine.

It isn’t just Peter that Fragoso is drawn to. There are a couple young boys with him and a woman named Ines. When Peter calls to invite Fragoso and her mother over the visit, it’s the beginning of a time that seems magical at first (Peter’s house is filled with birds and turtles and iguanas), but soon morphs into something else entirely.

It’s hard to read Tiger, Tiger without wanting to scream. Like – where are the adults in this scenario. Even though we understand that Fragoso’s mother is unwell, it is still difficult to comprehend how she so willingly hands over the care of her daughter to a virtual stranger. The other adults in Fragoso’s life seem equally inattentive. Cassandra calls Ines “a dreamer.” Louie is angry most of the time and even when he questions the closeness he sees between Peter and his daughter, he doesn’t really act on it.

Peter is a master manipulator. At first he introduces Fragoso to games like “Danger Tiger”, Mad Scientist and Mad Gardener, but it doesn’t take long before he’s rewarding her with a “quick kiss on the lips” for finding jigsaw puzzle pieces or telling her that she’d make “a perfect wife.” Of course, he’s grooming her, but she doesn’t know it.

One of the fascinating things about Fragoso’s story is that this ‘relationship’ carried on for so long. At some points, it almost seems as though Fragoso is manipulating Peter, until you remember that he has had a hand in creating the person she’s become.

In her prologue, Fragoso writes:

…spending time with pedophile can be like a drug high…and when it’s over, for people who’ve been through this, it’s like coming off heroin, and for years, they can’t stop chasing the ghost of how it felt

Tiger, Tiger is not an enjoyable read. It is, however, a brave book. I would like to think the experience of writing it was cathartic for Fragoso and that when she was done, she was able to turn a new, fresh page in her life. Somehow, though, I doubt that this is the case.

I Will Always Write Back – Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda w/ Liz Welch

I will alwaysWhen I was a kid, I had pen pals. Lots of them. I think I started writing letters when I was about seven. We moved away from Winnipeg  where we had been living for a couple years. I had to leave my best friend, Lynne, behind and we kept exchanging letters for many years – up until recently when my Christmas card to her was returned ‘address unknown.’

I came of age in the 70s, way before Facebook or email. The only way to maintain a relationship with someone who lived far away was to write a letter. Long distance phone calls were pretty expensive, but stamps were cheap. By the time I was sixteen I had at least two dozen pen pals from all over the world. I loved getting their letters and learning about their lives. I still have one of those pen pals, and although we tend to catch up via the Internet now, we have shared dozens of letters over our 40+ year correspondence.

So I was ready to love I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda (with help from Liz Welch). I’ll spare you the suspense: I LOVED this book.  It’s the true story of how Caitlin, a thirteen-year-old from Hatfield, Pennsylvania writes (via a school project) a letter to thirteen-year-old Martin who lives in Mutare, Zimbabwe. That letter  – as generic as it must have been – is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Caitlin chose Zimbabwe from a long list of countries because it sounded exotic. She really knew nothing about the country.

My knowledge of Africa consisted of what I had seen in the National Geographic magazines my mother subscribed to for our family. I loved looking at the colorful photos of tribal people who wore face paint, loincloths and beads. I didn’t think my pen pal would dress like that, but I had no idea what kids in Africa wore. Jeans, like me?

Caitlin has no idea of Martin’s circumstances, but the reader does. Martin lives with his parents and siblings in Chisamba Singles “a housing development built in the 1960s as a place for men from the rural areas to stay during the week while they worked in different factories.” Martin and his family share a room with another family, upwards of twelve people crammed into a space designed to hold two.

The story toggles back and forth between Caitlin and Martin. Caitlin’s life is mostly concerned with friends and shopping, while Martin’s life is focused on doing well at school. Education in Zimbabwe is a privilege, not a right. Martin understands that to be successful at school is a (potential) ticket out of abject poverty.

While most of Caitlin’s classmates give up their pen pals after only a couple letters, Caitlin and Martin maintain their correspondence and  Caitlin comes to understand the truth of Martin’s circumstances. If only she could have known the anxiety her asking for a photograph caused Martin. Or what he had to give up to send her some cheap earrings. It was truly heartbreaking.

And also amazing. Because once Caitlin and her family are aware of just how dire things are for Martin and his family, they do everything in their power to help. It’s pretty awesome.

In 2015, Caitlin addressed students at a high school. She said “One small act of kindness…You have no idea how powerful that can be, whose lives it can change, including your own.”

Be the change, people.

Highly recommended.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing – Jen Waite

a-beautiful-terrible-thingEven though my marriage ended seven plus years ago – well, it actually ended way before that, although not formally – I am still drawn to books about broken marriages and I just finished Jen Waite’s memoir  A Beautiful, Terrible Thing. It was an impulse buy and I read it in three sittings.

Waite is a struggling New York actress when she starts training as a waitress at a trendy new restaurant and meets Marco, the head bartender, who is “tall and Latin with black, slicked-back hair and mocha skin [and] a quick, easy smile.” Despite the fact that she has a boyfriend back home in Maine, she is smitten and before you can say Argentina (which is where Marco is from), she is head-over-heels in love. It’s easy to see why, too. Marco is self-deprecating, sensitive and Waite believes that he really sees her for who she is. Throw in the chemistry and it’s an intoxicating and irresistible combination.

But, of course, it’s all fake. Five years into the relationship, shortly after Waite gives birth to their daughter, Louisa, she discovers a suspicious e-mail. It’s like a house of cards: the email is one card and when Waite removes it, the whole structure of her life starts to crumble.

Marriages break down, everyone knows this. It’s a devastating thing that happens to many couples. But there is an extra layer of horror in the dissolution of Waite’s marriage to Marco because he goes from being suave and loving to a blank stranger almost overnight. When Marco tells her that “For around a year now, I haven’t been happy. I lost all my feelings….Like right now, I’m looking at you, and I feel nothing. I feel numb,”  Waite’s reaction is one of disbelief. She thinks “There is something very, very wrong  with my husband. He is sitting across from me, it is his body, but he is not my husband.”

Waite tries to explain away Marco’s admission: they’ve just had a baby, he’s over-worked, tired.  But no amount of rationalizing explains Marco’s increasingly disconcerting behavior. Although Marco adamantly denies having an affair, and even though her parents are inclined to believe that he’s telling the truth, Waite finds it almost impossible to stop obsessing over Marco’s email and social media accounts. When she finally leaves him, he begins a campaign of emotional abuse towards her, employing every trick up his sociopathic sleeve.

Because – as it turns out – that’s exactly what Marco is.

Waite hits Google and starts researching.

I did the same thing. I wasn’t exactly blind-sided when my husband of 17 years told me in a parked car, in the pouring rain, that he didn’t love me. Things had been rocky for a while, although I’d kept telling myself that we’d weather the storm, that it was just a rough period, that despite the problems we were having he still loved me.  But from that moment on, the guy I’d known for 25 plus years, the father of my two children, became a complete stranger. I knew exactly what Waite was talking about.

Her research is a desperate attempt to explain behavior that makes no sense to her. Reading about pathological lying leads her to an article about sociopaths and suddenly the alarm bells start to go off in her head.

My eyes quickly scan to find the criteria, or red flags, of a sociopath. As I read each trait, my hear beats faster, and the hair on my arms rises. Charming. Check. Impulsive. Check. No remorse, guilt, or shame. Check. Invents lies. Speaks poetically. Incapable of apologizing. Check. Check. Check.

I remember my brother calling me and saying, “I am going to read you these qualities of a sociopath and you tell me which of these apply to M.” It was both horrifying and hilarious to discover that I could ‘checkcheckcheck’ my way through the list. Before I even knew what a narcissist was, I’d been describing M. as a vampire. He had taken everything he could from me and then discarded me; overnight the person I had built a life with became a complete stranger.  As all sociopaths are narcissists it’s no wonder – upon reflection – that so much of what I was reading at the time was ticking all the boxes. All of them.

One piece of information that Waite discovers was particularly interesting: narcissistic supply.

If a target is providing a constant stream of supply, they may be overvalued and idealized by the sociopath for many years. However, when their supply eventually decreases, they will quickly be devalued and discarded.

Things started to go south – really south – when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her illness was brief – diagnosed in July, gone in November – but during that time, M. was carrying on an affair (probably one of many.) I remember when I found out, instead of an apology he said “You weren’t paying any attention to me.” And I remember thinking “My mother was fucking dying!” Then three short years later, I lost my dad and then M. was gone.

I did everything humanly possible to facilitate an amicable relationship for the sake of our kids (who were 13 and 11 at the time). I took a class in co-parenting. I tried to encourage a regular schedule for him to see his children, but the horrible truth of the matter is – he really wasn’t all that interested. Once he cut me out of his life, he began the process of detaching himself from his kids.  He always had an excuse as to why he couldn’t see them and when he did see them, the visits often ended abruptly with the kids calling me and telling me to come get them. Neither of them have had any contact with him in several years.

I struggled for a long time – a torturous time for which I give my dearest friends and immediate family lots of credit for not throttling me – to come to terms with what had happened to my marriage and to the person I thought I knew. Eventually, I began to suspect that I had been conned, but even still it hurt. And it hurt my kids. We live in a small city and it was almost impossible to avoid hearing about or seeing M. live his new life. A life which was bizarrely hipster and one we would have laughed at ten years prior. But of course, he was simply creating a new reality for himself, something he found exceedingly easy to do because like Marco he “lack[ed] empathy and  an inner moral compass.”

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing must have been a difficult story for Waite to tell.  I  always say now that M. leaving was the best thing that could have ever happened to me and my kids. He did us a favour. Truly. I have no doubt Waite will be feeling that way at some point, if she isn’t already.

 

 

Juliet’s Answer – Glenn Dixon

juliets-answer-9781501135484Glenn Dixon’s memoir Juliet’s Answer has a lot going for it especially if you a) love Italy b) teach high school English and are intimately familiar with Romeo and Juliet and c) have ever been unlucky in affairs of the heart.

Dixon started out to write a book about love – all different types, all over the world. He landed in Verona and became one of Juliet’s secretaries. These are the women of Club  di Giulietta, an organization founded by Giulio Tamassia. Tamassia, a baker  by trade, took over the task of responding to the hundreds of letters which arrive in Verona yearly. Beginning in 1937,  the letters were  answered  by the groundskeeper who tended the gravestones at the Monastery of San Francesco where Juliet is said to have been buried and where the letters were first left, propped against the gravestones, and then by a poet in the 50s and finally by Tamassia and his daughter, Giovanna. Dixon was on holiday from his day job as a high school English teacher when he volunteered to help answer the letters, the only man in the group of volunteers.

Dixon admits that he’d had his own problems with love and “part of the reason I’d come to Verona was to learn something more about this all-encompassing force in our lives. To learn something, anything, that would help me understand my own heartbreak and help me, maybe, trust in love once more.”

See – there’s this girl. She’s the one; at least that’s what Dixon thinks. They’ve known each other since university and “I guess you could say that I fell in love with her right from the start. She was pretty and smart, but it was more than that. She seemed to “get” me, just as I seemed to “get” her.” But in the 20 years since university,  Dixon has never managed to get past the friend-zone. He’s watched as the woman, he calls her Claire, falls in and out of love with other men and he doesn’t disagree when she says “you can’t choose who you fall in love with.” Ain’t that the truth. So he pines.

Dixon teaches high school English. It’s probably not a coincidence that the time we spend with him in the classroom is shared with literature’s most famous lovers – Romeo and Juliet. I admit it: I am a card-carrying member of the club. It’s amazing how many of my colleagues don’t like Romeo and Juliet, but I love the play. I love teaching it. I never get sick of Shakespeare’s language or the gut-wrenching, sob-inducing, star-defying story of those two crazy kids. What can I say? I’m a romantic.

And Italy – that’s my place. I’ve only been twice, but I dream of spending an extended period of time there. I’m not sure what it is: the heat, the wine, the shuttered windows and amazing vistas, the pasta. Did I mention the wine?  I just know that I love it.

So it was a no-brainer that I was going to like Juliet’s Answer. I related to Dixon’s quest to understand the nature of love. He’s my people aka fellow English teacher. And, hey, love found him. How’s that for a happy ending?

 

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Dancing With Myself – Billy Idol

Back in the 80s, I had tickets to see Billy Idol at Madison Square Garden. A guy I was dating at the time had scored the tickets for my birthday and I was so excited because, hello, Billy freakin’ Idol. Alas, it was not to be. As I recall, there was some sort of issue with asbestos or something and the concert was cancelled.

“White Wedding” was one of the very first videos I ever remember watching. Canada’s version of MTV, MuchMusic launched in 1984 and Idol’s song came out in 1982. I think Idol was one of the first video stars ever because he’s so pretty. (And I don’t mean to imply that was the only reason he was a huge video hit – there’s no denying Idol’s charisma or talent.)  He made a lot of videos in the 80s and was a huge star, so I was really sad that I didn’t get a chance to see him live.

Of course, I didn’t really know much about Idol and although I am not in the habit of reading rock star memoirs, I kind of had to read Dancing With Myself. Idol wrote the book himself and his straight-ahead style serves his story well. billy_idol_dancing_with_myself_final_cover-1

Billy Idol was born William Broad in 1955 in North London. When he was four, he and his parents moved to Long Island, NY where he lived until he was eight and the Broads returned to the UK. At that point, Idol considered himself an American and so often felt like a fish out of water.

“Music always pulled me through,” he said, “voices laying out a tale of their lives, musicians riding the wave.” He was also a voracious reader, reading everything from Enid Blyton to every history book he could get his hands on. Like lots of other smart kids, school wasn’t his bag and although he did one year of college, he dropped out. Still, Idol and his younger sister, Jane, enjoyed a happy, middle-class life with parents who loved and supported him – even when they didn’t always understand him.

But the times, they were a changin’. In 1976, Idol saw The Sex Pistols play for the first time.

On that night, the Pistols onstage were unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Johnny Rotten, with orange, razor-cropped hair, was hunched over, holding a beer and staring bug-eyed out at the crowd through tiny, tinted square glasses….While hardly moving, John radiated a defiant intensity that demanded your attention….It made a strong impression on me.

The punk scene blossomed out of what was happening in England at the time. “In mid-’70s England, you couldn’t get a shit job, let alone have a career,” Idol recalls. The punk movement was part political statement and part fashion statement and Idol was in the right place at the right time. The punk scene was “a reaction to everyone who was telling people our age what we should do to succeed.”

I don’t think even I realized how connected to the British punk scene Idol was. His first band, Generation x actually experienced some success and launched Idol’s successful solo career.

When things began to disintegrate with Gen X, and Idol no longer felt there was a future in punk, he decided to go the States and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dancing With Myself is filled with the requisite name-dropping and behind-the-scenes stuff relating to the music business, but mostly it’s a straight up tale of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Idol is very candid about his drug use – which was copious and scary, really. He also had more than his fair share of sexual encounters. The love of his life, Perri Lister, a dancer he met during his punk days and the mother of his son, Willem, is clearly an important person in his life although they haven’t been together in years. Idol also has a daughter, Bonnie, from another relationship.

I enjoyed reading this book, actually. I am not a music aficionado by any stretch and so the music biz stuff would likely be more interesting to someone who is plugged into that. I was interested in Idol the man, though. The guy trying to make good choices for his kids; the son who cared for his dying father; the big brother and uncle; the friend. Idol probably shouldn’t have made it through all those crazy drug-filled days, or survived the horrific motorcycle accident he had in 1990. But he did. His memoir proves his resilience and his relevance and although not always a nice guy, he owns his mistakes and that makes him pretty awesome in my book.