Book review: “Educated” by Tara Westover

Educated imgThis book caused something of a sensation when it was published last year. It is the extraordinary memoir of a young woman who grew up in rural Idaho, as part of a large Mormon family. Nothing too outlandish there until the author begins telling you about the father’s survivalist beliefs (he hoards supplies of food and fuel in their bunker for when catastrophe strikes, as he believes it inevitably will), his Christian fundamentalism (quite extreme beliefs about, for example, what women should wear, that even their fellow Church members find uncomfortable) and the obsessive control he exerts over the rest of the family. The unconventional nature of the family would be enough to make this a fascinating read, but what makes it shocking is the level of violence, of almost sadistic cruelty. Some of is quite hard to read and at times I found myself gasping out loud.

Tara, the author, is the youngest of seven children. The family lives in an isolated area, below Buck’s Peak mountain in Idaho, far from town and the influence of ordinary society. Her father runs his own business making money from scrap metal. He is a powerful patriarchal figure whose word must be obeyed and who has strong conspiracy theory beliefs. He distrusts all figures of authority and all institutions, including the police, doctors and nurses, public officials, banks and school teachers. His children are “home-schooled” (in the loosest sense of the term, since he also believes there is little need for an academic education), have no official records (neither of her parents can be sure exactly how old Tara is or of her birthdate) and never attend a hospital. Tara’s mother becomes a “midwife”; more accurately she is self-educated and self-appointed to attend births in other families with similar distrust of conventional medicine. (Later in the book she begins to develop her own homeopathic remedies which will make the family’s fortune.)

The book is a largely chronological account of Tara’s growing up and her increasing scepticism about her family’s views. She is an intelligent and curious child and inevitably questions some of the beliefs and assumptions underpinning her parents’ beliefs. As she gets occasional glimpses into the lives of others she determines that what she desires most of all is an education in a proper school or college. When one of her brothers manages to achieve this, and encourages her to seek it out for herself also, she makes the necessary arrangements. What seems to me to fuel Tara’s gradual withdrawal from the family, however, is not the desire for an education but an increasing intolerance of the violence experienced by her brothers, at the hands of their father, and that meted out to Tara herself by her brother Shawn, a deeply disturbed individual. The terrible ‘accidents’ that they all endure (even Tara’s mother sustains a head injury in a car crash that leaves her with unspecified brain damage) are the direct result of wilful neglect of normal standards of safety (her father removes all the seatbelts from the family car). Make no mistake, this level of violence and cruelty is all about control and ruling through fear.

Slight spoiler alert: Tara does eventually break free from her family, though it is a difficult journey for her, and she finds herself torn many times between her attachment to her parents and siblings, in spite of everything she has had to endure from them, and her academic ambitions which see her winning scholarships to Cambridge and to Harvard. Her achievements are extraordinary given her background and her lack of formal education. She realises how sheltered her life has been when she stuns a lecture room into dumbstruck silence by asking the teacher what is meant by the term ‘Holocaust’. Adapting to life ‘in the outside world’ is extraordinarily difficult and she often wonders whether it might just have been easier to stay where she was.

I found this both a shocking and a moving read. There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the book; the family has closed ranks around itself and some members have contradicted Tara’s account of events. The author alludes to some of these differences in the notes section and also states at several points throughout that her memory of an event is vague and she is relying on others’ recollections. I felt at times uncomfortable reading the book, it felt voyeuristic. At other times I found myself disbelieving – how could Tara even think about going back to her family after all they had done. It was hard to imagine how she could not see through the lies and the control. But then, on the other hand, this is an account, you could say, of abuse, and of how the victim can be drawn back to the perpetrator. Especially where those perpetrators are her closest family. Without them she has no-one.

Recommended, but not the easiest of reads.

How do you rate Educated?

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Audiobook review: “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” by Elena Ferrante

I’ve just finished listening to this, the third book from Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There are four volumes in total and I’ve chosen to listen to all of them on audio, mainly because I love the languid narration by Hilary Huber; she has really brought the characters alive for me and has managed to execute distinctly both the male and the female characters, something which I think is rare in an audiobook.

This is an extraordinary series and if you have not come across them yet (if you’re interested in books you will have been hard-pressed to avoid them since they were published to great acclaim between 2012 and 2015) I would definitely urge you to seek them out. As with the first two volumes, it has taken me some time to get through this book, mainly because I listen to it in 10-15 minute snatches on walks to the shops, etc. My enjoyment is none the worse for that, however; I would say in fact that it has added to my appreciation since this series is truly an epic saga than a set of novels, so broad is the sweep of time that they cover, so the long duration of my listening has given me a strong feeling for that.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay imgThis third book picks up precisely where volume two left off, at a small book launch for Elena’s first book, a mildly sexual novel which has caused a stir, and where she is being questioned in a patronising way by an obnoxious critic. A familiar face from Naples walks into the room – Nino Sarratore – and Elena’s confidence is restored. Nino has been a friend since childhood, and there is a complicated triangular relationship between him, Elena and Lila, the main but elusive protagonist of all the books. Elena has been in love with Nino since they were young, but this has not been reciprocated. Like Elena, Nino proved to be a successful student, despite the disadvantages of background and upbringing, and would go on to achieve great things academically, though both know that neither is as brilliant as their mutual friend Lila, with whom Nino was once in a relationship, but who would never reach the academic heights of the other two.

In this volume we follow Elena’s blossoming career as a writer, her marriage to a young Professor, Pietro Airota, and therefore, finally, Elena’s apparent full admission to the bourgeois intellectual circles she has always craved. At the same time, Lila’s life is taking a very different turn – she has left her abusive husband, the vulgar shopkeeper Stefano Carracci, had a child, and leads a modest life. At times, Lila’s life seems extremely harsh, particularly the period when she is working for Bruno Saccavo at the sausage factory, exploited by him and disliked and abused by some of her fellow workers. As Elena’s fortunes are rising, so Lila’s seem to be at their lowest ebb.

As life events ebb, however, so must they also flow, and things reverse. After a period of ill-health, Lila finally manages to claw her way back when she gets a job working for IBM, alongside Enzo Scanno, where she quickly becomes indispensable and starts earning a high salary (the contrast here is that she has achieved this off her own bat, whereas for Elena, despite her academic achievements, her prosperity is largely due to her marriage). At the same time, Elena’s career as a writer stalls, coinciding with the births of her two daughters. She resents her husband for his lack of participation in the household, while she is deeply frustrated by the mediocrity of her daily life, and having to take a back seat while he focuses on his academic career.

The pace of the book becomes quite intense at the end as events spiral towards an inevitable conclusion, which I don’t want to spoil. The writing in this, as in the other two books in the series, is remarkable, and the acute observation of character detail is fascinating and deeply engaging. The dialogue is also some of the most authentic I have ever read. The books have been translated by Ann Goldstein who also deserves praise for her very fine work here.

I am looking forward to the fourth and final book in the series, and highly recommend these novels. Do start with the first one, My Brilliant Friend, and whilst the audio is fantastic, I have also found it useful to have a hard copy to hand to remind myself of the very wide cast of characters.

Have you read Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – how do you rate them?

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Fantastic television this Autumn

I posted earlier in the week about how much I love this time of the year and how I find it a very energising and creative time, but also a time of great beauty in the natural world. Well, it’s all looking pretty good indoors too, as television seems to take a step-up in quality at this time of the year. Frustrating really when you should be out and about making the most of these rapidly shortening days and precious sunshine, but surely one of the great inventions of modern life is ‘catch-up’!

There are so many shows on television to enjoy – I love watching the Great British Bake Off with my daughters, and it inspires a flurry of cake-making in our house. I’m coming round to watching it on Channel 4, though it’s not the same with ads, and without Mary, Mel and Sue. We also love Strictly, even if it does make me feel like it’s the countdown to Christmas.

It’s in the genre of television drama, however, that the schedules are very rich. I was glued to Bodyguard on the BBC, where the momentum in the media built up so much that catch-up was impossible – you had to be there. I wasn’t sure about the first episode, but then I was hooked and found the dramatic tension compelling. I really wanted it to be the Security Services, but perhaps that reflects my cynicism about UK politics at the moment.

I was also very excited about ITV’s new adaptation of Vanity Fair, but sadly, after two episodes, and the third still to watch, I’m not greatly moved. It’s great to look at and has the most amazing cast (Martin Clunes is a highlight), but I’m finding it very superficial and simplistic, and the Becky Sharp in the series is not the one I remember from the book, although it’s years since I read it.

I’m also looking forward to catching up with Killing Eve. I loved lead actor Jodie Comer in Doctor Foster and it looks as if she has really come into her own with this show. And Black Earth Rising is a must-see for me. I have been fascinated by the history of the Congo for years and have read a number of books on the subject. I only hope it is safe enough to go there one day. I was delighted to see this new drama and can’t wait to delve in. The Cry also starts this weekend.

All this at a time when I’m trying to work my way through the 2018 Man Booker shortlist (two books a week, yikes!), and as for radio, well, I can’t miss The Archers at the moment, wondering what is going to happen to Freddie and Lily!

How do you rate the television offerings this Autumn?

What are you doing when you’re not reading?

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Summer holidays

We arrived in France yesterday for our family summer holiday. We had a week in Ireland last week visiting family, travelling between Dublin and West Cork. It was wonderfully full-on so there was precious little reading time. However, now that it’s just the five of us I’m looking forward to a slower pace. My children are all well into the teen zone now so my husband and I find ourselves twiddling our thumbs in the mornings, waiting for them to get up. Perfect reading time!

We are staying in Cancale, a smallish coastal town in Northern Brittany, arriving here on the overnight ferry from Cork to Roscoff, which was very pleasant indeed – good, reasonably-priced food, decent cabins and plenty to do.

I’ve been unusually restrained with my holiday library this year, just the three books: Harvesting by Lisa Harding, a harrowing account of child prostitution, child trafficking, abuse and neglect, Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie, the August choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, one of my book club’s summer reading titles.

I’ve almost finished Harvesting in the first couple of days! It’s not for the faint-hearted, but is gripping. I’m told it has been thoroughly researched and is not an outlandish account. If this is the case, I have truly led a sheltered life. It’s tough stuff.

If I manage all three books there is always the Kindle back-up! I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

What are your holiday reading choices?

Kids book review: “Hamish and the Baby Boom” by Danny Wallace

Some kids don’t find it easy to read or don’t find books appealing. I find the 9-12 age group can be a real make or break time when it comes to books; parents often stop reading to their children around the age of eight or nine, reading can become a chore, associated with school and homework and the need to reach certain literacy targets, and it’s often when kids get mobile phones, tablets, gaming consoles, all of which compete for time and attention. Not only that, but some kids find it difficult to concentrate for longer periods and so the more substantial books that are often suitable subject matter for this age group may be just too boring for them.

Hamish and the baby boom imgI am a firm believer that all reading material is good, just keep them at it, and adults should not judge if their kids want to read comics and picture books when they might think they ‘should’ be reading something more mature. If this sounds like a child you know, I’ve found a great little series they might find interesting. Hamish and the Baby Boom by Danny Wallace and illustrated by Jamie Littler is the fourth book in a series. Hamish Ellerby is the central character, a 12 year-old boy and leader of the Pause Defence Force in the town of Starkley. Hamish’s father is some sort of secret agent, ever engaged in defending earth against the evil Scarmash. Hamish has inherited some of his father’s abilities and leads his small group of friends in the PDF against strange and hostile happenings in the town of Starkley.

In this book, Hamish and the PDF uncover a secret plot by Scarmash to create an army of superbabies, fuelled by ‘Formula One’, a powerful food that makes them grow at an extraordinary rate, and develop remarkable strength and skills to overpower their parents and carers. That’s about the sum of the plot! So, you see it’s not complex stuff.

It’s silly, it’s gross (the opening scene is set in the nursery of a hospital where all the babies start weeing simultaneously, traumatising the nurse on duty) and it’s action-packed. The characters in the PDF are diverse, so a wide range of readers should be able to identify with them, and they are at once ‘like us’ but also in a pure fantasy world. There are illustrations on nearly every page so although it’s quite a long book (over 300 pages, so acceptably thick-looking in the playground) it’s a quick and easy read with short chapters. There is a website to accompany the series (worldofhamish.com) so plenty of opportunity for extension activity and to get them hooked on other books in the series.

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Reading this book reminded me of both the Captain Underpants books (which my son and I loved) but also of Tin Tin (although the plots there are more complex I think). Both of those are quite masculine, though, whereas I think Hamish has a wider appeal.

Recommended for 9-11 year olds, especially reluctant readers.

Do you find it a challenge to keep your kids reading?

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What’s new in the children’s library

read-2841722_1920I am a passionate supporter of public libraries, it’s where my reading journey started as child and I have never lost my fascination with them. With so much pressure on local council budgets, our libraries are under constant threat of closure. Many have already succumbed. Those that have survived have had to innovate, and this is great to see, becoming information and community hubs, putting on more and more events even becoming tourist information centres as well, but for me, their role as first-line guardians of our reading lives is foremost.

I love going into my local library and just browsing the shelves; I almost never leave without borrowing another book. I have stacks of library books around the house and I confess I sometimes lose track of what’s due back when. Thankfully for me, Trafford libraries recently abolished library fines (well done Trafford!) – whilst I have always paid my dues, I wouldn’t say ‘happily’ but always with a sense of ‘it’s a fair cop’, a few hefty fines, inadvertently accrued, can certainly dull one’s borrowing appetite. And when you are a busy parent, it is inevitable that you are going to miss renewal dates from time to time. Sometimes, I have paid fines which have equalled the price of a book! There are online renewals of course, so there is really no defence, but….the dropping of fines is great news and takes the shame out of library borrowing.

Children’s libraries are great and even if the most up to date titles are not on the shelf when you visit you can usually go online to reserve them when they are returned or from another branch. What’s not to love? A library card costs nothing (my children all got theirs virtually from birth, not least because baby books can be repetitive so the more variety the better) and if you are on a budget, offer a much more economical way of feeding your kids’ reading habits, fines or not. A library visit is also a cheap half day out during school holidays, especially combined with a walk there and back and an ice cream thrown in (though not in the library of course!)

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Here’s some kids books I picked up from my local library last week, all newly published, and picked out from the ‘What’s New’ section of Trafford Libraries website and reserved online:

Hamish and the Baby Boom by Danny Wallace

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

Could not have been easier. I’ll look forward to reading and reviewing these over the coming weeks, so look out for my thoughts and recommendations.

Support your local library by taking your kids along this half term.

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Kids book review: “Tin” by Padraig Kenny

Tin is a debut children’s novel from Irish writer Padraig Kenny which is receiving a lot of publicity and has had some really good reviews. It’s set in pre-War Britain, and concerns the production of highly sophisticated robots (‘mechanicals’). Parts of the book take place in central London and the English home counties, other parts in the dreadful dystopian setting of Ironhaven, an ugly metallic landscape populated by  junk, by discarded and disfigured ‘mechanicals’ and by fearsome robots designed to terrorise. As such it is somewhat timeless and placeless. Reading it, I was struck by similarities to 1984, to Frankenstein (which strangely enough, I reviewed recently), to Oliver Twist, to dystopian fantasy as well as the Wizard of Oz! Most readers will be in the 9-12 age group, though, so may have little knowledge of these references.

Tin imgThe story begins near Aylesbury where the spivvy disgraced engineer Dr Absolom is trying to sell ‘mechanicals’. These are child robots which were initially created to perform tasks that society no longer wanted humans to do. We learn some vague details about how the experiment got out of hand when some rogue scientists tried to instil their creations with a soul. This was considered a step too far and laws were put in place to limit the capabilities of these creations, and, in particular, to forbid the building of adult-sized mechanicals. The environment we are observing, however, appears somewhat lawless, and it is clear that Absolom is operating on the margins and that there is a black market in mechanicals.

The main characters at this stage are the ‘child’ mechanicals Jack, Round Rob and Gripper, the slightly uncategorised Estelle (who works for Absolom as a specialist in making skin) and Christopher who believes himself a human orphan. Late one evening Christopher is involved in an accident which breaks his skin and reveals wires – he is not a human child, but a particularly sophisticated mechanical. He is later kidnapped by some rather shady officers from ‘The Agency’. They are merely masquerading as the authorities, however, and are in fact operating on behalf of Richard Blake, son of one of the rogue scientists, the egotistical bully Charles Blake, who was involved in illegal activity in the experiments he conducted. He is keen to get hold of Christopher who, it turns out, is the only remaining example of ‘Refined Propulsion’ – a mechanical with a soul – and to take over the world with his own giant robotic creations.

Meanwhile, Absolom’s small band of misfit mechanicals decide they must go in search of Christopher and rescue him. They seek out Richard Cormier, another one of the famous rogue scientists, for help. When they find him, however, he is hostile and uncooperative. He is an angry and disillusioned man who wants no part in society. We later learn that he lost his son in the Great War and then later his only grandson; it was in fact he who created Christopher out of grief, as a replacement for the lost child. He instilled him with memories that his grandson would have had.

The story takes the form of a quest – a group going in search of their lost friend – and the setbacks they face along the way. At the heart of it is their love for their friend, and this challenges the notion that the mechanicals do not have a ‘soul’ or feelings, because, clearly, it is their anger at his kidnap and their desire to rescue him that motivates their search. There is action and adventure, some mild peril (the sinister scientists reminded me of Dr Strangelove!) but nothing that should trouble the average ten year-old too much. Younger readers might need some guidance. The plot is quite complicated in parts and I did not always follow it easily, and some of the language of mechanics could be off-putting to some readers. It is ultimately a heart-warming story with a happy ending – good triumphs and evil is defeated.

It’s a wonderful achievement for a debut novel and I commend the author. I also like that it is not obviously a ‘boy’s book’ or a ‘girl’s book’, it will appeal to both genders and has strong male and female characters (as well as non-gender-specific mechanical characters). My only criticism would be that there are no adult females to counter the rather domineering male scientists!

Recommended for 9-12 year olds, a good and engaging read. There are some interesting references for the adults to enjoy too: Blake at times reminds us of a certain American President (he wants to “Make this nation great again”), and it raises issues around AI and the nature of warfare.

Do you find it more enjoyable to have references or jokes that are especially for the grown-ups when you read books with your kids?

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