Monday, August 20, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

As I'm getting ready to kick off a new semester and to meet three classes of college freshmen tomorrow, I remind myself what I probably didn't consider when I was in their place: access to a good education is such a privilege.

I'm used to reading about girls in other countries deprived of the right to go to school, either because of politics or economics; I forget how many girls and boys, young men and women here in the United States also face obstacles.

Tara Westover's memoir Educated gives a surprising look at one family's experience. Westover was raised, along with several siblings, in an extreme fundamentalist Mormon family. Her father, whom readers learn as his daughter does, is evidently bipolar, has such extreme anti-government views that he avoids any interaction with the government, always fearing plots to control their lives.  The family refuses medical care, neither routine checkups or emergency treatment.  Tara's mother trains as a midwife and then builds on her knowledge of herbs, eventually providing the family's financial support. Westover's father spends most of his life in the junk business, resulting in severe burn injuries for Tara's brother and for himself. All the children are pressed into the junk business as well, and Tara has to learn to anticipate her father's moves to avoid death or maiming.

The children aren't sent to school, but homeschooling is more of a theory than a reality in their home.
Only when Tara's older brother decides he wants to go to college and begins a self-study program to pass entrance exams does she recognize the limits of her own education. Her understanding of math, a big part of the testing, is severely limited. Through hard work, she ends up in college in Salt Lake City, finding that her knowledge of history and current events is even more lacking. Asked to read aloud in class, her professor interprets as sarcasm her unfamiliarity with the word "Holocaust." She is also shocked to find that even among other Mormons, her family's attitudes are extremely conservative.

She also has to deal with one brother's physical and emotional abuse and her parents' silence or complicity.

Spoiler alert: the way Westover overcomes her background and goes on to achieve not just a college education, but degrees from Cambridge and even a Ph.D. from Harvard is inspirational, to say the least. Over the course of the book, readers see her growing awareness of the manipulation of truth in which she has been steeped. She sees her family members choose to reject the obvious in order to stay in the family circle. Only through sacrificing her family ties is she able to come to terms with the outside world.

When I face my new freshmen this week, I hope to encourage them to ask questions, to test what they are taught as truth. I'll repeat my mantra:  The truth will stand up to questioning. Maybe I can even encourage them to be grateful for the education before them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan: Why I Still Read YA Novels

I keep a running list of reading suggestions from friends, often forgetting exactly from whom the recommendation first arrived. Such is the case with Echo, the Newbery Award-winning novel by Pam Munoz Ryan (author of Esperanza Rising.)

The narrative structure brings to mind books such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which traced a Vermeer painting from the most recent owner, back through its numerous owners to the painter himself.

This book, which opens with a fairy tale style of narrative, follows a harmonica from one owner to the next--Frederich, a young boy in Nazi Germany; Mike, trapped in an orphanage with his younger brother; Ivy, the daughter of a migrant worker in California; and Kenneth, a young Japanese-American soldier whose parents are in an internment camp. Each narrative stops at a suspenseful point, with a suggestion of tragedy or disaster; the resolution ties the threads together, explaining the path taken by the harmonica.

Much of the story can be considered a historical novel, exploring the way World War II affected people in a variety of situations and setting. One surprise detail was the existence of harmonica orchestras in America during this time period (perhaps rivaled by ukulele bands today). A real bonus of the audio recording of this novel is the inclusion of a number of lovely songs throughout the story. A major theme of the story is the transformative power of music to heal and to unite. Relationships between parents, children, siblings, and neighbors are also explored through the story.

Ryan follows the tried and true narrative method: get your characters into trouble and see how they get out of it. The young adolescent characters are realistically naive at times. They jump to conclusions and try to take action themselves, often without considering the consequences.

I realize that I read plenty of novels set during World War II, but this one is particularly accessible to younger readers and gives a number of varying viewpoints to these pivotal years in world history. I wish I could remember whom to thank for the recommendation.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Another from Sara Gruen: Not Elephants or Apes but Monsters

Sara Gruen's novel Water for Elephants was a big enough success to have drawn me to read two more of her books. I'm tempted to give her a rest. Ape House was just silly and improbably (in my not-exactly-humble opinion). I was encouraged to read At the Water's Edge, and the Loch Ness monster angle intrigued me. The problem: I didn't like the characters.

After the sad little prologue in which a woman loses a baby and gets (false) news that her husband has been killed in the war, so she pulls a Virginia Woolf, the main characters are introduced--Maddie, a young bride married to Ellis, the son of a wealthy family, but with no money, skills, or job of his own. They are constantly in the company of Ellis' best friend Hank who (spoiler alert) lost Maddie to his friend in a coin toss.

Set in 1944, the characters barely register the effect of World War II on others. Shaming the family by their drunken revelry at a high profile party, the two men convince Maddie to come with them to Scotland to disprove charges that Ellis' father pulled a Loch Ness hoax years before.  The three take incredible risks traveling in waters where German submarines lurk. Once they arrive at the inn where they lodge, the young men behaving boorishly. Gruen allows poor neglected Maddie to evolve as she sees her husband and his friend through the eyes of the locals they scorn and treat as servants.

The plot developments seemed just too contrived for my liking. Even the justice meted out to poor foolish Ellis was far too convenient. At least there were no apes.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

I've enjoyed Anna Quindlen's writing, both fiction and nonfiction, for years.  Some of her turns of phrase have found their way into my file of favorite quotes, particularly those related to reading and memories. Her latest novel Alternate Side deals on the surface with parking issues most particular  to New York City, though an increasing challenge in any growing city. Nora Nolan, the protagonist, loves living in the city, even though her husband Charlie wants her to consider relocating somewhere else. He even takes her to Asheville, NC, as part of his project.

They live on a cul-de-sac, where Charlie finally lands a prized parking space in the lot on their block.  While Nora lives among the more affluent local New Yorkers, working at a surprisingly successful jewelry museum, a vanity project of the woman who established it with her own collection, she also interacts with the residents of a single residency building; Charity, the housekeeper who helped raise her now grown twins; Ricky, on whom they depend for odd jobs on their street; and even Phil, the panhandler near her work who only pretends to be homeless.

When a neighbor attacks Ricky for blocking the parking lot entrance with his work van, sending him to the hospital, neighbors and family members draw lines and take sides. Everything about the neighborhood dynamic is affected.

At the heart of the story, though, is the examination of Nora and Charlie's marriage. In fact, throughout the novel, Quindlen through Nora has so much to say about marriage. When Nora considers her father and step mother's marriage, Quindlen writes:

      She thought that people sought marriage because it meant they could put aside the mascara, the  
      bravado, the good clothes, the company manners, and be themselves, whatever that was, not try
      so hard. But what that seemed to mean was that they didn't try at all. In the beginning they all
      spent so much time trying to know the other person, asking questions, telling stories, wanting to
      burrow beneath the skin. But then you  married and naturally were supposed to know one another
      down to the ground, and so stopped asking, answering, listening. It seemed foolish, fifteen years
      in, to lean across the breakfast table and say, By the way, are you happy? Do you like this life?
      Familiarity bred contempt, she'd read somewhere, or at least inattention, but sometimes it seemed
      more like a truce without a war first: these are the terms of engagement, this is what is, let's not
      dwell on what's not.

As I read, I remembered a book I started (and abandoned) recently in which the couple, marking their tenth anniversary together, are told by their primary care physician that with changing longevity expectations, they might have 63 more years together. What was meant to be good news was not received as such.

Over the course of this novel, Nora takes a look at the trajectory of her life, considers her options and those any changes will affect. What results is an evenhanded narrative of adult life after the empty nest and a subtle suggestion that one should consider that those around us live much more complicated, layered lives than we can ever observe.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Elizabeth Berg's The Story of Arthur Truluv: The Case for Intergenerations

I have certain reading friends whose book recommendations I jump on without question. They know (and love) books--and me. Recently, I got a short text recommending Elizabeth Berg's novel The Story of Arthur Truluv. I hadn't read anything by Berg in awhile, but I was just between books and reading for a road trip when I'd be reading and riding, not driving. It was short and sweet. Perfect.

Much of the story is set in a cemetery. The main character, whose name is actually Arthur Moses, visits the grave of his late wife Nola, carrying on conversations with her  and vividly imagining the lives of people buried around her. During his visits, he strikes up a friendship with Maddy, a high school outcast who sneaks out of school to spend her lunch hour in the cemetery. She lives with her father, who holds her at least partially responsible for her mother's death shortly after her birth and keeps her at an emotional distance. Maddy gives Arthur the nickname Arthur Truluv after witnessing his devotion to his late wife.

Another engaging character is Lucille, the next door neighbor who has tried to develop a relationship with Arthur, but who tends to annoy him. When she loses a second chance at love, she turns to Arthur and Maddy for surrogate family.

The turns of events that bring these three (and Arthur's aloof cat Gordon) together make for a genuine, heartwarming story. I've seen comparisons to Zindel's The Pigman and even to Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteredge. Unlike the protagonist of A Man Called Ove, Arthur is a lovable, sympathetic character from the beginning. His willingness to expand his home and his life to include others, despite the demands and life changes they bring, make him one of the favorite characters I've met on the pages of a book in a long while. Thanks, Jane, for the recommendation!

Monday, July 9, 2018

I don't know if I can ever write a student letter of recommendation with a straight face again. Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members has been on my to-read list a little while. Now it will be on my recommendation list--at least for my teaching colleagues. The epistolary novel consists solely of letters written by Jason Fitger, in the Engli_h Department (yes, the S is missing from the departmental sign, only one of the grievances he expresses about the department offices). A teacher of literature and creative writing, with three novels to his credit (all out of print), Fitger now seems to be writing primarily on behalf of students--former or current--or colleagues seeking job positions, admissions to writing seminars, scholarships, funding, promotions, and more.

The letters he writes should be a caution to anyone so desperate as to seek a recommendation from someone if unsure about the quality of the reference. Fitger adamantly refuses to complete online references that require box checking. (I'm going to borrow a page from him there. Who can honestly say if a student falls into the top 10% I've ever taught--over the course of 28 years?) He also points out grammar errors on the application site, giving gentle lecture on its and it's, and other misuses of apostrophes.

Woven through the letters, though, are Fitger's genuine attempts to help a promising student with a book in progress (a modern retelling of Bartleby the Scrivener set in a Nevada brothel). He tries to get the young man acceptance into the writing seminar program, a work-study with funding, anything that will help the increasingly desperate young writer.

The letters also reveal his ongoing often contentious relationship with his ex-wife and former lover (both on staff at Payne University, a name from which Fitger gets a lot of mileage.) The sacking and pillaging of the English Department (indeed, any of the departments not deemed prestigious) rings all too familiar now that STEM is king. Currently, Fitger and his English colleagues are living through construction in which hazmat suits might be advised, while he imagines gold leaf, hot tubs, and climbing walls being added to the economics department upstairs.

Schumacher manages to  develop Fitger fully into a character both clever and sympathetic, aware of his own foibles and the way others respond to him, while self-effacing enough to bury his own ego when trying to help those who deserve better a lifeline.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Old Filth: A Good Surprise off the Shelf

I don't know if there is a word similar to ambidextrous to describe one who navigates easily between eBooks, audiobooks, paperbacks, and hardbacks, but if there is, I an one. On a recent vacation, though, I knew I needed some paperbacks for beach reading, since sun and sand don't work well with screen reading. I scanned my bookshelves for titles I had put away for another day. All too often, my supply exceeds demand (or at least my ability to read them all) and some good books risk being lost. Maybe they are just waiting for the right time.

This time, I picked up Jane Gardem's novel Old Filth, a book that had been sent to me unsolicited. Subsequently, it was recommended by readers I trust. It ended up being such a great read. The title refers to an acronym coined by the protagonist: Failed In London Try Hong Kong.  A "raj orphan," Edward Feathers had been sent away from Malaysia by his father, who has shown no interest in the boy after the mother died from childbirth complications. He ends up first in Wales with a couple of female cousins, then private school and Cambridge, eventually becoming a very successful barrister. Only gradually does the narrative reveal some of the events of the past that continue to haunt him.

As the book opens, he is retired, his wife has just died suddenly, and he is wrestling with memories of childhood experiences. He ends up taking a road trip to find the cousins. In the narrative, Gardem  moves back and forth between the elderly Feathers and young Edward, with some poignant scenes at the home of his best schoolfriend, where he is treated like family until the war and illness disrupt their lives.

Old Filth--or young Feathers--evolves as an engaging, sympathetic, unforgettable character, a survivor. The author's description creates vivid settings which serve as anything but filler or fluff. The telling of the story provides enough dramatic irony to keep readers' wheels turning.

I may have to resume my junior reading habit--finding an author I like and then reading anything else she has written.