Book Review of Educated by Tara Westover
Tara Westover's Educated is brutal, compelling and tragic. It is not an easy read and her experiences have clearly left more than physical scars behind. It is clear that Westover is still coming to terms with the abuse she has been subjected to and and is still, at least to some extent, escaping it and its effect. I suppose she always will be.
Westover is being compared to the likes of Jeanette Winterson and Lorna Sage, Without wishing to sound too flippant, or undermine these excellent books and the experiences of their authors, I would argue that in comparison, therir lives are are presented as being a 'stroll in the park on a Sunday afternoon.' Harrowing beyond belief and painful to read, Tara Westover's Educated will surely become a classic memoir.
Educated is an account of Tara Westover's life as part of a Mormon funadmentalist family living in Idaho. Her father becomes increasingly radical, her brother Shawn grows to be increasingly abusive, and her mother is either unable or chooses not to protect her. It is essential to her survival, both emotional and quite possibly actual, that she escapes the confinements of her childhood and moves away. She achieves this through the path education.
Westover is keen to point out, in the author's note that Educated is not criticizing any religion. She is scrupulous in the book in the use of footnotes to show when she has paraphrased; she always acknowledges when her memory may not be completely accurate The need to present absolute truth demonstrates how difficult it has been to leave behind the world she grew up in where she has constantly been expected and forced to accept twisted and manipulated 'truths' of her reality. She is cut, beaten and abused, yet the abuser's behaviour occurs, or so she is told, in order for her to enact the 'power of atonement'.
There is a chasm between her educated Cambridge and Harvard life, and her childhood spent preparing for the 'End of Days'. She leaves behind the mountain which she so beautifully describes in the opening page of the book, but finds the transition to belonging in the world of academia almost an insurmountable challenge. Westwood grew up without any schooling often in fear. and squalor. The contradictions of her life were enormous. She needed to constantly dress modestly yet was accused of being a whore; Westwood needed to accept the doctrines of a woman's place being in the home, whilst working in hard and dangerous conditions in the scrapyard and she needed to accept unquestionably her bi-polar's father's version of truth as fact when it so clearly wasn't.
Book Discussion Questions for Educated
Why has Westover called the book Educated?
It is not until Tara reaches 'adulthood' that she realises that Shawn has abused her sister Audrey prior to his abuse of her. Audrey ultimately chooses not to escape the life she has had and instead condones what has happened. Explore how Audrey and Tara are both similar and different.
The university professors in the book are represented as 'saintly' and one of them even descirbes Tara's situation metaphorically as being like 'Pygmalion'. Explore why it either can or cannot be seen in this manner.
After Tara's father suffers horrific burns his wife and children nurse him back to something aproaching health. Tara's father uses his recovery as further evidence that hospitals are the work of the devil. What other ways does he use religion to 'prove' his own beliefs are correct? What does this reveal about him
Towards the end of the book the Westover family becomes relatively rich due to the success of the home remedies and tinctures that Tara's mother makes? Explore the various ironies in this turn of events?
How is the mountain used as a metaphor within the book?
Whilst not for a minute disputing the events that occured in this memoir, all narratives are inevitably biased (as Westover acutally points out).. Is it possible to put a more 'positive spin' on any of the events in this book? Could Tara have stay in Idaho and had a happy life? Why or why not?
In the memoir Tara's family are afraid of the 'Feds' and are quite isolated. Should the state have been more involved in what was happening on Bucks Peak?
Why do you think Tara's mother chooses to not believe that Shawn abused her?
Some books really resonate with the reader and stay with them for weeks, months and years. Do you think this memoir might be one such book? Why or why not?
If this was a work of fiction do you think it would be less or more convincing a read? Why or why not?
Book Discussion Questions for Educated (If you haven't read the book!)
The accounts of Shawn's fall from the pallet and Luke's burn are seen differently by different characters in the book. (Readers, quickly explain to the non-readers what happened.) Have you had incidents in your own lives where your memory of the truth is completely different to that held by other family members?
When Tara studied at Cambridge she comments how photographs taken at the time show her looking very similar to other students. This perhaps illustrates a desperate need to fit in and seem 'normal'? To what extent do we all need to 'fit in' to our chosen worlds? Look around the room - how does the need to fit in show itself in this bookclub environment?
As a memoir Educated will surely become a modern classic. What other memoirs have you enjoyed reading and why?
Towards the end of the memoir Tara makes tentative steps towards developing a relationship with her mother's family. Would you like to share any personal stories about family dynamics, and perhaps getting to know estranged family members later in life?
Tara states that her father would probably like to reinstate polygamy as part of Mormonism. Disuss polygamy a a concept.
When Tara Westover went to University she had never heard of the holocaust. Have you ever found yourself feeling very ignorant about something? Discuss how this made you feel.
Tara Westover's father felt that you can teach yourself something better than anyone else can teach you it. Do you agree?
Tara Westover used her journals as a source for her writing. Do you keep a journal? Why or why not? What are the benefits of diary writing?
Summing up of Tara Westover's Educated
Tara Westover states in the clip above that she doesn't know what is next for her. She seems sympathetic to Mormonism as a religion, yet doesn't practise it herself. In writing the book she has shown enormous courage, empathy and compassion for that which she has rejected and takes pain to never mock or undermine the people living around her. She is still a young woman finding her place in the world and. having finished the book. I am left intrigued to know what she will do and write next. I highly recommend this memoir as a leveller and inspirational, thought provoking text. I thin it even surpasses Girl, Woman, Other as a new favourite!
Are you Emotionally Mature?
Yesterday a good friend of mine recommended Marian Keyes new book ‘Grown Ups’ to me. I don’t really know much about Marian Keyes or her books, but I was immediately thrilled that I’d listened to the Fortunately Podcast on which Marian Keyes had been the guest, actually discussing her new book. The reason for my delight was that I could casually mention this to my friend and thus look, or so I thought, semi-intelligent and knowledgeable! Perhaps this was just a little bit emotionally immature and not the behaviour of a grown up! I was though very keen to join the Marian Keyes party and read the book, so I made one of my, (not infrequent), visits to the Waterstones’ online store and ordered the book. I was childishly delighted to happen upon on a signed first edition of ‘Grown Ups’ and couldn’t wait to tell my friend. Such showing off truly wasn’t at all grown up at all!
Things a Grown Up Would Not Do!
You would not be so childish as to have a strong desire to write naughty and cheeky words on an 82-year-old father’s plaster cast. Neither would you risk getting into trouble at his temporary respite care home by repeatedly messing about with the bed remote, sneaking in Baileys, beer and a Nintendo Wii game.
You would not be so irresponsible to have frequent crazy 2.00 a.m. online shopping sprees.
You would not be so shallow as to wait until fifty-one to become addicted to reality TV shows such as Dancing on Ice. Rather you would have far loftier pursuits.
You would not be so greedy and unhealthy as to eat Chinese Spare ribs for four days in a row because you were too lazy to cook for yourself.
You would not be so selfish as to have your own daughter tuck you up in bed with a cup of tea and a biscuit, leaving her to lock up the house, switch off the lights and empty the dishwasher.
You would not be so lazy as to fake clean the house by spraying Mr Sheen around.
You would not be so vacuous as to bewail the fact that you didn’t fit in a manicure and pedicure when your trip to Bangkok was shortened.
You would not be so ageist and closed minded that you felt the need to mock and self-parody your own increasing love of tea and scones in garden centre coffee shops!
You would not watch Cold Feet and be envious of the characters setting off travelling in their camper van and living their best lives!
Are we Ever Fully Fledged Grown Ups?
The truth is I’ve never really felt like I’ve been a fully fledged adult! In fact Betsy said to me the other day that it must have been a nightmare for me to desist from swearing whilst she and Annie were little! I explained that whilst they were still establishing their own moral codes and boundaries and were still susceptible to parental influence I had faked all manner of sensible behaviour. Thank goodness that part of my life is complete and I don’t need to fake it anymore!
I used to think that in order to be a proper ‘grown up’ you needed to have life sussed out! If that really is the case then it can be argued that I’ve missed my window of ‘grown-up-ness’ altogether and I am now regressing backwards. To be emotionally mature it certainly helps to be wise and selfless, accepting and balanced, open-minded and non-judgemental, but it isn’t always easy! I wonder if we ever leave our ‘school playground’ versions of ourselves fully behind? If we are to be fully engaged in caring relationships with family and friends there will be inevitable jealousies and miscommunications and immature responses to difficult to situations. I think that is ok. I believe sensible behaviour is over-rated and not an indication of being grown up at all. It is fun (even in your fifties) to be childish!
Kindness is the Secret of Being Grown Up
There’s been a lot in the media recently, with the coming out of Philip Schofield and the tragic death of Caroline Flack, about being kind. The importance of kindness is something we constantly teach in schools and whilst I know I’m always wittering on about the importance of reading, but I do truly believe that reading fiction helps us develop the skills of empathy and kindness. If we can master the art of ‘being kind’ and make it the basis from which we try to act both towards ourselves and others, then whatever age we are, we are, in fact, well on our ways to being ‘grown up’. Being Kind is a good value to live by.. Do you agree?
Book Review of Middle England by Jonathan Coe
I resisted reading this book for quite a while. I haven't read The Rotters' Club or The Closed Circle, so I thought I would be adrift with this title. I'm also not good at reading comedy and I often miss the humour. There are, however, some very funny passages in Middle England, that even I couldn't fail to notice. (For me, audio is a better medium for listening to humorous books, but this book is quite substantial so unless I moved the speed to 1.5 I'd be listening for hours!!) In the end, I felt somehow duty bound, partly due to the prominent displays in Waterstones, to see what all the fuss was about and give Middle England a read!
Set largely in London and Birmingham the story follows the lives of six or seven key players (some of whom, I believe, featured in The Rotters' Club), with writer Benjamin and niece Sophie being the central characters. The book can be viewed, at least in part, as an extended political opinion piece largely about the middle class, left-leaning, Brexit remainers, with plenty of self mockery, satire and exploration of relationships thrown in.
Middle England explores how Brexit came to pass, why Brexit came to pass, and what the future is likely to hold for our generation. It is demonstrating that discerning who the heroes and villains in society are, why people act as they do and what the future holds for us is hard to pin down. As such, it reflects the confusion that Brexit itself created and its satire is insightful. As a left-leaning political commentary, it largely represents the views of a character called Doug - a middle class lefty journalist who happens to be sleeping with a conservative MP, but whilst Doug might have political clarity he doubts (rightly) his parenting skills and questions the extent to which he is responsible for the state of Middle England - all from a wealthy middle class stance of course!
For me, the extensive political satire and commentary in Middle England was didactic. It is an overly covert journey of a writer, Jonathan Coe, trying to make sense of a mess that Britain has found itself in and whilst the whole piece is an effective metaphor showing the problems of trying to fathom the unfathomable there is too much explanation and too much telling, We are invited to join in the analysis, but this step by step evaluation detracts from the literariness of the novel. Rather like the trimmed down book that Benjamin gets published in the story, the novel Middle England could do with a little trimming itself.
The best parts of the book are the insights into the people who feature in it. I am encouraged to care about Sophie. I understand how Brexit brought her to the brink of divorce with Ian, but I find her 'almost' relationship with Adam a more interesting way of understanding the divide between her and Ian.. Despite being poor at picking up humour, I can see and enjoy the bleak irony that Sophie, as the most politically correct person in the book, is almost fired for telling a transgender person that they are a bit 'indecisive' (this comment being about a completely different issue). I can empathise with her hope for something better around the corner and understand her inner-wrangling regarding the extent at which she feels she needs to settle for 'second best' in life.
Book Discussion Questions for Middle England
Which character in Middle England do you have most sympathy for and why?
In the story Charlie the clown ends up in jail for assault. How realistic do you think the portrayal of this character is? How much sympathy do you have for Charlie?
Benjamin is married to someone for thirty years, in order to largely fulfil a teenage fantasy. How does this influence your views of Benjamin? What is your view of him?
Benjamin's soul mate is ultimately his sister. Discuss.
Middle England is marketed primarily as a comedy. How accurate is this?
Why do you think this book has received so much media attention? Does your opinion in any way detract from your enjoyment of the story?
Benjamin's father, becomes in Benjamin's opinion, bitter and misguided towards the end of his life. It is only the thought of leaving Europe that animates him, yet going to post his vote perhaps leads to his fall and ultimate death. Explore Benjamin's relationship with his father.
Is Benjamin's sister to blame for her father's death? Why or why not?
Explore whether it is more difficult to enjoy Middle England if you are pro-Brexit.
Will this book have relevance in twenty years time?
Book Discussion Questions for Middle England (if you haven't read the book!)
Rather like Ali Smith's books, this story is completely based in contemporary society. Do you enjoy reading 'realistic' fiction or would you rather use fiction as a means of escapism?
The 'Wardrobe Scene' is one of the funniest parts of the book. (Readers, please quickly share with the non-readers what happens in it!) Have you got any amusing stories that you would like to share on this topic?!
Alcohol features quite prominently in the book. It helps conversation flow and enables a huge number of social and political topics to be explored, with aplomb and speed, by the characters within. Do you think the best dinner parties are ones with plenty of free-flowing wine? Why or why not?
One of the characters in the book makes a 'second go' of her marriage and finds herself pregnant? Do you think that babies can 'save' a marriage?
Is it possible to have a successful relationship or friendship with someone who holds completely different political opinions to yourself?
Two of the characters in the book seem to escape the 'mess' of post Brexit England by setting up a writing school/bed and breakfast in France? Would you consider retiring somewhere other than your home country?
Sophie has a 'tricky' relationship with her mother-in-law. Discuss mothers-in-law!
Summing Up of Middle England
Having read the book I am no clearer about how England has reached the place it is in. This isn't necessarily a negative reflection of the book, but rather a statement about our society. The pregnancy at the end didn't give me hope, but rather just made me think about how I half now expect Jonathan Coe to write a depressing angst-ridden sequel about bringing a child into a world where climate change has already created havoc. I did find Middle England wryly humorous and I was amused by the ability of the characters to chat and jump through topics at a rate of knots. (The most important issue being to clarify what the stake holders view of Trump is; before any meaningful relationship can be established, a shared dislike of Trump needed establishing!)
In fairness, Jonathan Coe's Middle England is much more than a political satire and large chunks of it are very good. It is about love, loss, and yearning for a brighter future and better relationships; it is an exploration of ageing and a reflection of our contribution to the world; it is an exploration of what success and failure is. The final summing up of Benjamin's own novel is bleaker than any of the characters had visualised it. This is both thoroughly depressing and laugh out loud funny. The book can be viewed as a love story, and an homage to England. All the best love stories though are ultimately tragic and this one is no different.
It's only now that I've read the book and written this review that I'm about to watch the video I've inserted. I hope it doesn't make what I've written seem too banal or even insidious. I feel that the whole book is aimed at a niche, left wing middle class readers, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Thinking back to my last read, I'd love to know what Maud in Old Baggage would make of Middle England! There is an argument I need to centre myself more in an actual reality!
Book Review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
A Man Called Ove was recommended to me by readers who enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I understand why the parallels are made as both are quirky books, which at the centre of them have a protagonist who doesn't fit in or conform to the expectations placed on them by society. Both books are asking the reader to be open-minded and take a moment to explore why people behave in the ways that they do. Both Eleanor and Ove are presented to us sympathetically and both have 'outsiders' who are prepared to take a chance on them. As such the books have a heart-warming feel good factor.
A Man Called Ove, in essence, is about a grumpy curmudgeon who refuses to change with the times. He is judgemental of anyone who doesn't share his own narrow view of the world, and has a hatred for 'men in white shirts', whilst ironically vigorously upholding pointless red-tape and beaureacratic rules. On the surface he is not very likeable. Dig a little deeper and we learn where Ove's hatred of 'men in white shirts' and world cynicism stems from. We learn about his relationship with his disabled wife, his neigbours, his grief and his own emotional fragility. A Man Called Ove is a book full of social comment. In its exploration of loneliness; perhaps, what makes it stand out from the crowd is that the protagonist is a man.
Book Discussion Questions for A Man Called Ove
Ove is 59 years old. Do you think he seems like an older man? If so why?
Ove's grief is so overwhelming that he tries and fails to kill himself several times? Explore why he ultimately chooses life over death? What does this say about what we as humans need in life?
As a young man Ove was tricked and cheated out of his home and job? He has been overlooked and treated badly by 'men in white shirts' his whole life. How convincing do you find this as a reason for him developing a 'glass-half-empty' approach to life?
Ove and Rune have a friendship that has gone 'sour' and seems beyond rescuing once Rune buys a two seater BMW instead of a Volvo. Explore why this is so signficant.
When Ove dies there is a huge turnout at his funeral. Did you find this realistic? Why or why not?
Think of three adjectives to best sum up Ove. In turn discuss your adjective choices with the group.
Ove is probably mathematically gifted and quite obsessive about certain rites and habits. Is the writer suggesting that he has an undiagnosed condition such as autism or aspergers? If so does this affect how you view Ove?
Which other character/s in the book does Ove share similar personality traits with? What is the signficance of this?
Social and welfare care is presented as lacking in this story. Could Ove's story realistically occur in your own home country today?
Bookclub Questions for A Man Called Ove (If you haven't read the book!)
The narrator says in the book it is difficult to admit being wrong. Do you find it difficult to admit you are wrong or find it difficult to say sorry?
Look around your bookclub. Who is most like Ove and who is most like Parvaneh? Why?
Ove won over his wife Sonja by pretending to be training to be a soldier so that he might travel on the train with her day after day? She was wooed by this commitment and adoration. Ove didn't frequently show his love through 'romantic gestures' but was devoted to making Sonja's life as comfortable as possible. In many ways Sonja and Ove were opposites. Do you think opposites attract? Woul you prefer a partner who is traditionally romantic or one who shows their love in more practical ways?
Whilst love at first sight isn't actually mentioned by Ove, he does seem to fall in love with Sonja as soon as he set his eyes on her. Do you believe in or have you experienced love at first sight?
Ove uses politically incorrect language such as 'bender' and 'queer' yet demonstrates compassion towards Mirsad. Is it acceptable for older people to not be politically correct, or should they be corrected like anyone else?
The friendship beween Ove and Parvaneh is an unlikely one? Do you have stories of unlikely 'feel good' friendships that have occured in the lives of you or your friends?
If a seemingly grumpy old man was one of your neighbours would you take the time to get to know him? Has reading A Man Called Ove made you reconsider how you behave within your own community? If so how?
Summing up of A Man Called Ove
I did find some aspects of the book a little unrealistic. I found it hard to believe that Sonja would have married Ove and I found it quite hard to believe that Parvaneh would rescue him. Perhaps that is more a statement about my own level of cynicism than it is about the book. Putting that aside it is an enjoyable and emotional read. It creates meaning from seemingly insignificant acts, such as choosing to drive one car rather than another. In it's humour, perhaps exaggeration, and exploration of the ability the most flawed humans have to show compassion, it is infinitely readable. If you enjoyed Old Baggage by Lissa Evans then I think you would also enjoy A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.