What I Read: October 2018

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Oh, October. You were so cruel. You gave me very limited time to read. And when I did find the time and energy, I didn’t love most of what I read. That often happens to me when I’m too busy to really savor books, so please accept all of my opinions with the knowledge that I’m a tired and cranky old crone.

How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price–The perfect book for anyone who has found herself spending upward of an hour a day mindlessly watching a fashion blogger try on clothes from Target. (I mean, just for example.) If you had any doubt that your phone (and your tablet) is ruining your mind, this book will be the final nail. We all have to put the devices down more often. We are messing up our brains.

The Fact of a Body by Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich–A beautifully written braided narrative that balances the author’s memoir of her own abuse with the details of a tragic murder case. I found myself wanted more on the murder case–and a stronger take on the justice system–but that might reflect my preference for nonfiction (especially about crime) over memoir in general. I did watch Season 2 of Making a Murderer after this, and the pair make good companion pieces. 

This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff–This is a comedy-drama set in a dysfunctional workplace that I thought would be fun, but it turned out to be a lot like working in an office: not that exciting. Ultimately, the whole thing just didn’t come together for me. I became unnecessarily (and weirdly) hung up on how much information one character’s doctor openly provided to a co-worker. (Maybe what I wanted was a comedy-drama about HIPAA.) The characters felt two-dimensional at times, especially Rosa whose boss-character swung from Michael Scott to Leslie Knope to Montgomery Burns and back again. If you work in HR, read it. I suspect it might hit closer to home.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay–A horror story about a family (Eric, Andrew, and daughter Wen) who just want a quiet vacation on the lake. When some post-apocalyptic nutbags show up claiming that one of the family members has to kill the other to stop the world from ending, the family is understandably freaked out. I loved the suspense of not knowing how (and why) someone in the family murdering another could possibly save the world. I also liked the tension the author creates by never letting readers forget the invaders might be right or they might be totally insane. The ending didn’t pay off for me, but if you like your horror thoughtful and creepy, then this might be for you.

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler–Here’s another beautiful book by Anne Tyler. This one is about Willa Drake, a woman who has spent her whole life doing what men tell her to do. When a woman she barely knows calls on her for help, Willa leaves her home and husband in Arizona to go to Anne Tyler’s beloved Baltimore to play devoted grandmother to a child she’s never met. I loved how skillfully (and very subtly) Tyler shows all the ways that what we do in our early lives seeps out into our later lives. Willa’s triumph feels like the triumph of all women who have never been allowed to assert their independence. This book was my favorite of the month.

His Favorites by Kate Walbert–This one is about a teenage girl who makes a really stupid mistake, one that has life-altering consequences. Away at boarding school, she becomes the victim of a manipulative male teacher who targets her and a number of other “broken” girls who are too shattered and unsure of themselves to realize he is grooming them. I’ve read a lot of books lately about male predators, and this book is a fine addition to that sub-genre, but I didn’t feel like it brought anything new to the table. That said, I think it packs a huge punch in under two hundred pages. And it exactly pins down the structure that allows rape culture to thrive. (Hint: We’re living in it.)

Happy reading in November!

Some Thoughts: Education by Tara Westover

I usually don’t read memoirs–mostly because they feel self-absorbed to me. There are few things more self-involved than writing an entire book about yourself. I suppose I gravitate toward fiction because the author’s voice can be couched in characters’ voices.

But occasionally I find a memoir that’s every bit as good as fiction: Education is one of them. Not only is the writing excellent, the story itself is bonkers. Tara Westover grew up in rural Idaho to a mentally ill father with delusions of grandeur and a mother whose primary household function was enabling physical, verbal, and emotional abuse.

In spite of a childhood with no formal education–and very little informal education–Westover finds a way to go to Brigham Young University. After graduation, she studies at Cambridge and Harvard, eventually earning a PhD. She does all of this in spite of her family who are determined to keep her from learning and growing as a person.

I do think the end is weaker than the beginning. The last few chapters feel a bit empty as Westover navigates a bizarre and neverending family fight. I felt like something must have been missing because I couldn’t figure out the motivations of her parents or siblings. It was like a big piece was missing that would explain how they all ended up where they were. I also wondered a lot about money. How does one afford that kind of formal education? I barely manged to penny-pinch my way through state universities, even with fellowships, scholarships, and assistantships. (I also suspect I have an eighth of her brilliance, so there’s that.)

What I liked most about the book–aside from the extraordinary writing–was Westover’s ideas about education. I wanted to read more about how she evolved from a kid who had never read much of anything besides The Book of Mormon to a graduate student studying some of the greatest Western philosophers of all time. I would love to know if she thinks anyone can become educated as she did or if she recognizes how singular she is. And I’d love to know exactly which ideas really paved the way for her to break out of her family’s narrow world.

Westover is a significantly more forgiving and understanding person than I am. I know her father had a mental illness, but the entire family suffered from his paranoid illusions. Between the father’s obsession with the end times, her brother’s physical abuse, and a total lack of intervention from every other adult in her life, it’s a wonder that Westover can paint such a fair picture of her family members. My version would be a lot angrier.

Pick up the book for the beautiful writing. Stay for the incredible triumph.