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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Books to look out for this Spring

The freaky February weather is behind us, those treacherous early Spring storms seem to have passed, and there are signs of Spring – things are sprouting in my garden (apart from all those snowdrops I planted last Autumn – hmm!) and it is warm enough to take the thick down lining out of my winter coat. The London Book Fair has been taking place this week, with all those publishers deciding what we are going to be reading in the coming months, and there are some fantastic new books to look out for. With the Easter holidays coming up in the next month or so, you may be looking for something to read yourself. Here are some of the newly published or soon to be published books that have caught my eye

The FiveThe Five by Hallie Rubenhold

This book has been getting a lot of coverage and tells the stories of the women raped and murdered in Victorian London by Jack the Ripper. Reclaiming a space for these women, the author seeks to make them more than just victims.

 

 

 

 

BookwormBookworm: a memoir of childhood reading by Lucy Mangan

I have been reading Lucy Mangan’s columns in The Guardian for years and have always loved her writing style. I have also always identified with the passion for reading she found she had as an introverted child. This looks like a nice read and one that will take you back to characters and places you may also have loved as a child.

 

 

SpringSpring by Ali Smith

The third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. Autumn was published in 2016 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker in that year. Winter was published in 2017 (still on my TBR list) and here we now have Spring, due for publication on 28 March. It concerns the lives of three people living in a time of war in a country facing a crisis of identity. Remind you of anywhere?

 

 

 

girl balancingGirl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore

Having just completed Birdcage Walk, I’m really keen to get into some more Helen Dunmore and this collection of short stories looks like a perfect one to take on holiday. I don’t read very many short stories so this will be a bit of a departure for me.

 

 

 

LannyLanny by Max Porter

Just read a review of this and it sounds so intriguing that I can’t wait to get hold of it. Set in a small village not far from London, this book is about the many residents past and present who have lived there, and about the culture, history and folklore of the place, embodied by the slumbering woodland spirit Dead Papa Toothwort.

 

 

 

That should keep me going for a while!

What books are you looking forward to reading this Spring?

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Kids books for Christmas – non-fiction

As promised, the first of three blogs this week on book recommendations. Even though my children are now teenagers, they still get a book or two in their stocking – I live in hope! In my experience younger kids are easy – you can just buy them a story or picture in some subject they’re vaguely interested in and they will love it. Older children are not so easy, especially if you don’t know them that well. Having said that, I don’t always get it right for the kids that live with me either! Oh well, it’s ALWAYS worth giving a book, in my view, and you never know, you might even spark a new interest – kids are notorious for sticking with what they know.

So, if you are looking for some ideas for the young people in your life, here are some fab non-fiction titles that I have spotted.

Primary School

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There Are Fish Everywhere – Britte Teckentrup and Katie Haworth

Stunning illustrations, informative, weird and wonderful facts about sea creatures. Beautiful.

 

 

 

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Young, Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present  – Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins

Short biographies of towering figures in Black history, some you will have heard of and some less well-known, but equally important. Boldly illustrated.

 

 

xmas 18 3

 

The Human Body: A Pop up guide to anatomy – Richard Walker and Rachel Caldwell

Anatomical books make very popular gifts and the pop-ups in this one are wonderful. Has the added twist of presenting it from the perspective of a 19th century medical student, so something for those with an interest in history too.

 

Late primary/early secondary

xmas 18 4

 

Code Like a Girl: Rad Tech Projects and Practical Tips  – Miriam Peskowitz

I’m all for a book that busts a gender stereotype – boys can like fashion, girls can like coding.

 

 

 

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Unlock Your Imagination: 250 boredom busters – published by Dorling Kindersley

When you try to peel your children off their devices, how often do you hear them cry “But, I’m bored!”? There is an argument that our kids should be more bored, as this can stimulate creativity. This book may help and many of the activities are short and straightforward, so could be done whilst travelling. Suitable for younger kids too, so good if you have children of different ages to please.

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An Anthology of Intriguing Animals – Ben Hoare

This is a beautiful book, taking a close-up look at 100 animals and their special talents and characteristics. Lovely short chapters with some off the wall facts, and a mix of stunning photographs and illustrations.

 

 

Teens

Many teenagers are happy with adult books, but we all know that they can also have some very unique and specific needs and interests. Thankfully, the book market in recent years has evolved to cater to this very special group, when interest in books can really fall off a cliff.

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Zen Teen: 40 ways to stay calm when life gets stressful – Tanya Carroll Richardson

This book will be published on 6 December and I’ve already got one on pre-order! Many teens are interested in mindfulness now as a way of managing the pressures in their life, and this can only be a good thing. This title looks as if it will be a worth addition to any teenager’s library.

 

xmas 18 8Cooking Up a Storm: The teen survival cookbook – Sam Stern & Susan Stern

Teenagers love independence and at some point that is going to mean cooking for themselves, so you may as well get them started sooner rather than later. This book dates back to 2014, but is a good one, with real food, and not just the sugary bakes that are often marketed at this age group, and particularly females. Boys need to know how to cook too!

xmas 18 9

 

Would You Rather Randoms: A collection of hilarious hypothetical questions – Clint Hammerstrike

My kids’ favourite dinner table conversation seems to revolve around such questions as would you rather eat the same thing for the rest of your life or never eat the same thing twice???? Hmm. They love it though. This little book could spark some similarly edifying conversation in your household.

 

I hope there is something here that is useful to you. I’d love to hear your suggestions too.

Look out for my fiction recommendations later in the week.

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The NHS at 70: 9 books with medical themes

There is a great deal of debate and attention on the UK National Health Service at the moment as it celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. If you live in Britain, you can’t move for television, radio and newspaper commentaries at the moment. But the talk is not just about celebration, but about what we want and expect public services to provide in the way of healthcare, and, just as important, how the immense costs of it all should be met. The challenges are mind-boggling: we have an ageing population, advanced medicines come at a high price, the long-term nature of public health investment, not to mention dealing with developed world problems such as obesity, addiction and mental illness. The issues are massive.

The NHS was described by politician Nigel Lawson as “the closest thing the English people have to a religion” and it is indeed dear to the hearts of many. Observe the profile it enjoyed at the opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics and the influence the promise of extra cash for the NHS most likely had on the Brexit debate.

I have no intention of starting a political debate here, but if health is on your mind, you might want to dip into some books with a medical theme. Here are some of my suggestions (not all of which I have read, I should add):

  1. Still Alice by Lisa Genova – a moving account of a 50 year-old woman’s development of early onset Alzheimers. Made into a film starring Julianne Moore.
  2. Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon – a YA book about a young woman suffering from a rare condition which means her immune system is dangerously impaired.
  3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby – a harrowing true story where the author developed locked-in syndrome after a car accident. He was initially thought to be in a coma, but was in fact fully conscious. He was eventually able to communicate through blinking, and wrote this book using only this tool. Incredible and reminds you of the fragility of life.
  4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – another YA novel, both my daughters love this book, about teenage terminal illness. Also made into a tear-jerker of a film.
  5. This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay – award-winning non-fiction writing from a junior doctor telling it like it is on the NHS front-line.
  6. Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth – love the TV show, currently reading the follow-up Farewell to the East End, Worth was a young midwife in East London in the 1950s so for a taste of the early days of the NHS look no further.
  7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a young Scottish woman’s mental illness, compounded by loneliness, detachment and the harshness of modern life.
  8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon – challenging life events, seen through the eyes of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. A must-read.
  9. Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill – I have recommended this book so many times. It’s an intense novel about eating disorders, mental health and sexuality.

 

If you have suggestions for any other books with a medical theme that you have enjoyed, I would love to hear them.

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Science writing: “Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis” by Kathryn Lougheed

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been working on my first book for just under a year now. It’s a long process! I finished my first draft just before Easter, but even though it was gratifying to reach that milestone, to be able to type “The End” I was aware that, in many ways it was just that – a milestone, not the end. It was the end of the beginning.

In the last few weeks of writing I had begun to build up a list of gaps, things I still needed to research, passages or chapters that I knew would not read the way I wanted and tweaks that may be necessary with the structure. I conducted my first full read through a couple of weeks ago and found it reassuring that I was indeed right – there were gaps, bits that did not flow and the non-linear structure I was so excited about, well, perhaps that did not work as well as I thought. I wasn’t down about it though. I have a long list of tasks again, but feel generally positive.

Emily Bronte, John Keats and George Orwell are among the many artists who died young from TB, giving the disease a ‘romantic’ image

An area where I felt I needed more information was in understanding tuberculosis (TB). This disease was rife in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The numbers are astonishing: in England and Wales about four million people are thought to have died from TB between 1851 and 1910. TB-related deaths began to fall from this point onwards but were still shocking: in 1913, there were 36,500 deaths from TB in England and Wales (reaching a peak of 46,200 in 1918, at the time of the European Spanish ‘flu pandemic). By 2013, there were just 280, down from a rate of almost 100 per 100,000 population in 1913, to 0.5 per 100,000 a century later. (Source: Office for National Statistics)

The decline in the mortality rate for the disease can be put down to a number of factors: mainly improved living conditions and sanitation, but also better understanding of the disease (it was once thought to be hereditary, not contagious), the discovery of an effective antibiotic treatment in the late 1940s and, latterly, a nationwide vaccination programme (remember the BCG?). The virtual eradication of the disease in this country is a cause for celebration, but, worldwide, it remains a devastating killer: 1.4 million people a year die from TB.

Catching Breath imgOne of the books I consulted as part of my research into understanding more about the disease, its symptoms and its effects, was published very recently, in 2017. It’s called Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis by Kathryn Lougheed. The author is a former scientific researcher and is now a journalist and science writer. The book is excellent. It is fantastically well-written, even funny in parts (the author has an interesting sense of humour – her Twitter handle is @ilovebacteria!). She is out to make some serious points, however, about this, one of the oldest diseases known to humanity, which has so successfully mutated, crossed species and diversified and which just keeps on winning. Her main argument is that TB remains a disease of poverty and inequality. Globally, it affects the weakest – the young, the old, the poor or those who are already sick.  She argues that, although it is a complex disease, if there was sufficient political will, many more lives could be saved. If there was as much resource and international effort put into tackling TB as there has been, say, to addressing AIDS, there would have been far greater success to date. In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced its ‘End TB strategy‘, which set a goal to reduce worldwide deaths from the disease by 95% by 2035, although it would seem that nothing short of a heroic research effort will be required to meet this.

If you are at all interested in the politics of health and disease, inequality between the developed and the developing world, and about humanity’s ongoing battles with diseases old and new, this is a fascinating and engaging read. I had intended merely to dip into the bits that interested me for my own research, but I have ended up reading the whole book. In Kathryn Lougheed, science’s loss is the publishing world’s gain. I hope this book gets nominated for some non-fiction or science-writing prizes.

Have you read any good science or non-fiction books recently?

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Book Review: “Big Magic: creative living beyond fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t fully subscribe to the idea that the universe has a plan and we simply have to ask for what we want in order to achieve our goals. A friend lent me a copy of The Secret a year or so ago and I still haven’t completed it. I simply can’t believe in it. Do I believe in Karma? Yes, to the extent that if we do good in the world, we are probably more likely to see good and therefore experience it, but for me it is not some sort of divine zero-sum game.

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I feared that this book might be a little like that. Why did I read it then? Well, my September reading challenge was to read a self-help book and I chose this one because I am in the process of writing a book and I thought it might support me in what is proving a phenomenally difficult task! There are a thousand books I could have read about how to write my novel in a month, a week, or whatever, but I’m a bit cynical about those too! No, it was the subtitle that attracted me. I’ve been describing myself as a writer for over a year now, albeit rather quietly, but do not yet feel I have the legitimacy to call myself that on my tax return or my car insurance policy! Yes, I write, quite a lot, and did so for a long time before I ‘came out’ about it, but I don’t yet feel like a writer. I don’t feel like I own or deserve that title and I want to know when my sense of entitlement to that will commence.

Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert is probably best-known for her 2007 best-seller Eat Pray Love which was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. That was an autobiographical account of her journey towards happiness and balance in her life (I haven’t read it), whereas Big Magic is about incorporating creativity into your life. Her starting point is that it is part of our human nature to be creative, to make things, and to deny ourselves that is to impoverish our soul.

 

 

Gilbert is a writer, and uses examples and anecdotes from her personal journey to illustrate her points, but she is adamant that creativity takes many forms, from painting to poetry, from gardening to decorating, it is all legitimate.

“A creative life is an amplified life.”

The book is divided into six parts, each dealing with a different aspect of the creator’s dilemma: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity. The messages that resonated particularly for me were that:

  • It takes courage to accept your fears, but that most fears are irrational and a waste of valuable time – we simply do not have enough time on this earth to be paralysed by our apprehensions
  • Talent and inspiration alone are not enough – creativity requires work to be realised and you will get good at anything that you practice
  • The magic of creativity is in the journey not the result – do not fear the reactions of others, they are not your problem
  • The path to success always involves some failures and these are also important lessons
  • Do not burden your creativity with the need for it to make your living – that will certainly kill inspiration
  • Do not strive to be perfect – “Done is better than good”

“Perfectionism is just a high-end haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough’.”

She goes on:

“Perfectionism is a particularly evil lure for women.”

Creativity gives us the opportunity to liberate ourselves from the self-limiting roles that society has allotted to us. This gets to the heart of my own angst about my writing. I don’t know if I deserve to be called a writer yet, but I #amwriting (regular Twitter hashtag), I am creating. A few years ago I made soft furnishings for a (modest) living, but I called myself a cushion-maker; just because I cannot yet claim any authenticated ‘success’ as a writer, doesn’t make me less of one. After reading this book, I feel emboldened, but I might need to bookmark a few pages and re-read them from time to time to stir my courage!

An easy engaging read, that you will find inspiring at some level. Recommended.

Do you have difficulties with perfectionism or with claiming a title for yourself? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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September reading challenge: a self-help book

I swished through my August reading challenge very quickly (a book whose cover title reminded me of summer) having selected a fairly slim volume (On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan) that was absolutely compelling. I couldn’t put it down and since I was away visiting family at the time I decided to read it, I had plenty of opportunities to not put it down.  It’s a fabulous book, so look out for my review next week.

This month, the challenge is also related very much to the time of year. I have written on here before about how I find Autumn very energising. It is probably related to the fact that I have had children at school for twelve years now (by the way, allow me a proud parent moment – we are celebrating the eldest one’s excellent GCSE results!) My year is very much determined by and planned around the ebb and flow of school term times and holidays. After a period of repose stepping off the treadmill of the daily school routine, usually a family holiday and bit of sun, the change of pace again when school returns, and the sense of new beginnings seems to give me a sense of optimism and vitality.

There is also something about the climate and the light in England in the Autumn that makes my mood reflective: the days are getting shorter so I am reminded that time is precious. The weather is usually cooler but because I don’t have kids to entertain or days out planned, my expectations are lower, so I appreciate the rain (it waters the garden), I don’t mind the wind (it dries the laundry) and I am thankful when the sun appears, not cross when it doesn’t. It’s as if my mental goalposts have moved.

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For me, September is a great time to make plans, think about where I am and where I’m going. I also know that I will have more energy and fewer commitments in the next two to three months than at any other time of the year, so it’s an oppportunity to take some big steps forward. This month’s challenge is to read a self-help book.

I went browsing in my local bookshop as I did not have a very clear idea about what I wanted to read this month. The self-help section seemed to have a different sort of feel to it compared to the last time I was buying there. After years of exhortation to do better, be better, have more, look better (ideals that few of us can sustain in real life, leading to inevitable anti-climax, disappointment and feelings of failure) the general tone of most of the titles seemed to be more about acceptance, gratitude, and enjoying the smaller things in life. That has to be a good thing.

I spotted three irresistible books, and can’t decide which one to read this month. My biggest goal this season is to complete the first draft of the book I’m working on. I made some strides with NaNoWriMo in July, but I’m still only about a quarter of the way in and and I’m finding it incredibly challenging. So Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear seems appropriate, a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I also like the look of Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain, and Women Who Run with the Wolves: contacting the power of the wild woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I am an introvert, and I’m also a feminist who believes all of us women have special inner resources that benefit the world, so both of these appeal.

 

Hmm. Decisions, decisions. What would you pick?

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