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.

 

 

When We Collided – Emery Lord

Vivi and Jonah, the narrators of Emery Lord’s YA novel When We Collided, are damaged collidedseventeen-year-olds, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on living. Their singular voices will likely strike a nerve with many young readers.

Jonah lives in Verona Cove, a small coastal town in California. He’s smack in the middle of six kids and is often tasked with looking after his younger siblings because his older sister has been away at college and his brother is working. His father recently died and his mother can’t seem to get out of bed.

Vivi and her mother are summering in Verona Cove. They needed an escape and Vivi has already decided that she loves Verona Cove, but she “waited until the seventh day to commit.” When she meets Jonah and his youngest sister, Leah, 5, she’s immediately smitten. Vivi falls fast and hard for a lot of things. Listening to her is sort of like watching the ball in a pinball machine bing off all the obstacles. It’s tiring to try to keep up, but she is utterly charming and Jonah has never met anyone like her.

The girl looking down at us has white-blond hair, and her lips are the color of maraschino cherries. She doesn’t look like any girl in my school. She doesn’t look like any girl I’ve ever seen in real life.

Vivi and Jonah hit it off and before you can say “summer romance”, the two are inseparable. For Jonah, Vivi is like a breath of fresh air. She makes him feel special. She listens to him as he tries to navigate the loss of his father and his new situation at home. He doesn’t understand what is happening with his mother and he doesn’t know how to help her. Like his older siblings, he’s just trying to keep his head above water and keep “the littles” (the family name for the younger kids) healthy and whole.

Things seem to be going fine between the two, until they’re not…and they’re not because Vivi starts to act increasingly more bizarre. I think Lord does an exceptional job of tracking the course of Vivi’s mental illness – the erratic and increasingly manic behaviour that finally comes to a head.

Teenage romance has the potential to be a messy business, no question, and the stakes are high for Vivi and Jonah who realize they need each other and also realize that their relationship is problematic (for a variety of reasons.) I appreciate that Lord didn’t try to tidy things up for these two extremely likable characters. You’ll root for them. Your heart will break for them. Your life will be better for having known them.

 

Turtles All the Way Down – John Green

turtlesI have a deep and abiding love for John Green. He’s a passionate advocate for reading and learning. He makes nerdish pursuits cool and I think he’s a terrific writer. Lord knows, I was a sobbing, snotty mess at 2 a.m. finishing The Fault in Our Stars. I was pretty excited, then, to get my hands on Green’s latest book, Turtles All the Way Down.

Aza is sixteen and suffers from almost debilitating mental illness. She has no control of her thoughts and her thoughts take her to some pretty unusual and scary places. Even the simple act of eating is problematic for Aza who finds “the whole process of masticating plants and animals and then shoving them down my esophagus kind of disgusting, so I was trying not to think about the fact that I was eating, which is a form of thinking about it.”

Still, she finds ways of coping. Daisy, for example, “played the role of my Best and Most Fearless Friend.” And then there’s Davis Pickett, a childhood friend with whom Aza reconnects after she reads in the paper that his billionaire father, Russell, has disappeared.

There’s not really a plot, but that’s not to say that nothing happens in the novel. Aza and Daisy decide they are going to play detective and figure out what happened to Russell. That leads to Aza and Davis picking up their friendship and discovering that they might have feelings for each other, which is complicated by the fact that Aza has spiraling thoughts. She fixates on things and can’t seem to stop, which leads her down a rabbit hole of worry. I suspect that anyone who suffers from anxiety or mental health issues will totally get Aza’s erratic thoughts. I didn’t, especially, but I thought Green did a tremendous job of illustrating how Aza gets trapped in her own head.

The sting of the hand sanitizer was gone now, which meant the bacteria were back to breeding, spreading though my finger into the bloodstream. Why did I ever crack open the callus anyway? Why couldn’t I just leave it alone? Why did I have to give myself a constant, gaping open wound on, of all places, my finger. The hands are the dirtiest parts of the body. Why couldn’t I pinch my earlobe or my belly or my ankle? I’d probably killed myself with sepsis because of some stupid childhood ritual that didn’t even prove what I wanted it to prove, because what I wanted to know was unknowable, because there was no way to be sure about anything.

Green has spoken quite openly about his own struggles with mental health. In an article with Time he said: “I still can’t really talk directly about my own obsessions. The word triggering has become so broadly used in popular culture, but anyone who has experienced an anxiety attack knows how badly they want to avoid it. It was really hard, especially at first, to write about this thing that’s been such a big part of my life. But in another way, it was really empowering because I felt like if I could give it form or expression I could look at it and I could talk about it directly rather than being scared of it. And one of the main things I wanted to do in the book was to get at how isolating it can be to live with mental illness and also how difficult it can be for the people who are around you because you’re so isolated.”

Turtles All the Way Down does not simplify Aza’s problems and there are no happy endings here, but I do believe this is a hopeful novel. And while it didn’t leave me a sobbing mess like The Fault in Our Stars there is much to admire here. Green remains one of my favourite YA writers.