Educated

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.

Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.

Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

It’s rare for me to hear about a book and then actually get to read it right away. In this case, a friend was raving about it and when I said it sounded good, she brought me the book to read right away. And then I managed to convince my book club to read it a few days later.

This book was hard to put down. I read it on my vacation to Colorado so that means I finished in just a few days…which is a miracle for me right now. But Tara’s life is so interesting and the writing so beautifully done, it was impossible to quit turning the pages.

The story is disorienting at times as Tara herself is not quite clear on all the facts. And some of those facts have been deliberately obscured over the years. But even more disorienting than Tara’s memories are the truths she recounts in Educated. The truth that some people today are living this way in the United States. That there are children out there, growing up completely shielded from the truths of the world by their parents.

I deeply admire and respect Tara’s resilience in triumphing over her circumstances. Brigham Young University is not an easy school to get into, much less stay in. I think about my own college experiences and I cannot imagine college being my first formal educational experience, showing up to lecture not knowing what the Holocaust was or what a textbook is for. I surely would have failed miserably.

But Tara didn’t. And she not only succeeded, she did well enough to earn herself the opportunity to study at Cambridge and from there, her career and her destiny really took off.

The ending of Educated was really moving and heart-wrenching. I was reading it on the flight back and I was hurrying to finish it before the plane landed, otherwise I knew I’d have to park myself somewhere in the airport to finish the last handful of pages.

Educated was a really “Wow!” read and Tara is obviously incredibly intelligent and a gifted writer…I will definitely be looking for more writing from her in the years to come!

 

S.H.E: Share Heal Empower Review and Interview With Author Shannon Hogan Cohen

S.H.E. Share Heal Empower by Shannon Hogan Cohen

S.H.E. Share Heal Empower unveils the stories of twenty-four women from around the globe and across all ages and cultures, who courageously reached within to overcome extraordinary obstacles. Author Shannon Hogan Cohen has carefully crafted each story into mini literary masterpieces and paired each with art from a female artist.

thumbnail_E859C03A-B584-419E-94D1-209DDAC92BE7

Wow. Just wow.

That’s what I have to say about S.H.E. Share Heal Empower. For not being the type of book I typically pick up, it grabbed my attention and didn’t let me go.

Though maybe I shouldn’t say this isn’t my type of book because every single memoir I’ve ever read I’ve absolutely loved. From The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls to Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart to Playing With Dynamite by Sharon Harrigan to Educated by Tara Westover (just read, review forthcoming), I’ve found memoirs to be beautifully touching and affecting.

So rather than saying this isn’t the type of book I typically pick up, I should say that I avoid picking up these types of books unless prompted because I don’t like feeling my feelings lol. I feel enough feelings in an average day to last me a lifetime.

You could say my hang up about memoir is similar to the hang up I have about reading World War II fiction, which is well-documented on this blog. Almost always end up enjoying the book (or straight up love it and call it the best book ever), but boy do I have a certain amount of resistance about it.

S.H.E. Share Heal Empower contains twenty-four stories from real women, recounting some of the hardest and darkest troubles of their lives. Each memoir was powerfully moving and inspiring. Reading through some of these stories truly made me grateful for my own life and everything I have.

I sometimes grow fearful that my own struggles have thus far been relatively small – meaning that the hardest times of my life surely still lie in front of me. Sure, I have had some dark moments and days, but compared to what some people have gone through, it’s really nothing. So I try not to think about the fact that law of averages should dictate that there’s trouble somewhere over the horizon.

But for me, reading S.H.E. was inspiring because reading through some of these stories, of these women who have gone through the most terrible hurts and the darkest times, gives me courage that when trouble does come from me, I’ll know that I’m strong enough to withstand it.

Out of the twenty-four stories in S.H.E. I connected most with the stories of Barbara Jean, Desiree, and Sonia Marie.

Barbara Jean because hers is a story of a life lived among horses and animals. She also recounted some heartbreaking experiences that hit me like a stab in the heart and made me tear up.

Desiree because I cannot imagine what I would do if I experienced what she had experienced losing her child in such a horrific way. But her courage to continue on and fight through her grief to a place where she gives back to others is truly inspiring.

Sonia Marie because it’s clear she is a fighter. Not only did she fight through her own terrifying health crises, she fought to be a strong single mother for her two sons, one of whom has his own health problems. And not only did she fight, but she’s another woman who had taken her darkest moments and used them as seeds to inspire others.

All three of these woman (and the twenty-one others in this book) have exhibited great courage in sharing their stories with the world. I have always believed that the best way to heal is to share with others. I think of it this way: when you are burdened with a terrible pain or hurt, every time you tell the story, you break off a small piece of your pain and give it to someone else to hold onto for you. And the people around you that love you are glad to do this for you because your tiny piece of hurt does not hurt them in the same way it hurts you. So they are able to help you shoulder your burden and over time, your own pain diminishes through this process of retelling and giving away a piece of the hurt.

If you’re looking for a moving, inspiring book to read with your book club or share with all the women in your life, don’t miss S.H.E. Share Heal Empower!

I was able to interview author Shannon Hogan Cohen shortly after the release of the S.H.E. audiobook and at the time of this publication, she is giving away a free copy of the audiobook to one lucky winner. Head on over to the S.H.E. Facebook and Instagram accounts to enter. Good luck!

prolific-preambles-2

What Inspired You to Create the S.H.E. Book?

Growing up, I experienced tension between my mother and father and knew my mother was silently suffering but unaware of the extent. As she slowly revealed her untold stories in my late twenties, I began to understand that this woman was not weak, which is how I always perceived her, but primarily a victim of social circumstance. She had done everything she could to conceal her struggles with my alcoholic father, his death at age thirty and her strained second marriage. My probing became healing for her. Her sharing became empowering. This book became an opportunity for other women to feel safe and do the same. I have learned, we are all wounded, we all worry and we are all weighed down by feelings of unworthiness. For me, the bedrock of love, friendship and community is vulnerability. These heartfelt exchanges provided me with connection and consolation, which is my hope for the reader.

Whose Story Did You Relate to the Most Out of the Twenty-Four Women You Interviewed?

Chapter Twenty-Four, Joni…my mother and who I dedicated the S.H.E. book to. Her rock solid resilience and unimaginable human spirit is inspiring. Nevertheless, each of the women who honored me with their profound stories gave me both a sense of courage and camaraderie that I had never known before. It has taken me years to put the jagged puzzle pieces of my life together. Life offered me clues to help solve my puzzle, but I ignore them at times. It was refreshing recognizing parts of myself in each of these women, who courageously reached within themselves to overcome extraordinary obstacles. These women and their stories together with the many others who have come into my life have created a circle of sisterhood. S.H.E. was born in the spirit of this.

How Did You Come to Include Art in the Book Alongside the Stories?

Once the chapters began to take shape it felt that a simple snapshot image of each woman was not enough. In addition to that, several of the women in the book chose not to have their actual likeness portrayed. I spoke with my sister Shelby, who is an amazing artist and she liked my idea.  In short, it felt right to invite twenty-four different women artists to create a unique portrait of each remarkable woman based on her storyline. I mindfully paired the artists who were able to read their woman’s chapter and were asked to fashion a specific stylistic piece. I continue to marvel at the insight and perception of each altruistic artist. Their representations came from all types of visual expression: pen and ink, fused glass sculpture, to traditional acrylic painting, and more. All the artists in the book are of different ages and abilities, which match the women they were interpreting.

What Was Your Writing (and Rewriting) Process Like?

I describe myself as an amateur scribbler. My writing process is very raw and rewrites only come after I have my husband read through the initial rough draft (of which he calls “homework”- but politely obliges). An author friend once told me years ago to read my pieces out loud and include inflection. This is extremely helpful during my writing and rewriting process, as I have the ability to be very verbose. I am very fortunate to have a wonderful editor, who understands my messy mind and has the ability to make my words pop off the page. Without her, these stories would not be architecturally solid.

Do You Use a Computer or Write By Hand Before Transcribing?

I am old-school; ink on paper. After each interview with a woman, I will listen to our conversation again and begin crafting the chapter in a black composition notebook. I am a tactile person. It is difficult for me to create from scratch on my computer with a blank screen staring at me. For some odd reason, a blank piece of white, lined paper is more inviting. Uni-bal Air rollerball gel pens are my preference. A cup of steamy coffee is mandatory.

What Were Your Biggest Takeaways From the Journey to Become a Self-Published Author?

The journey was extremely frustrating at times, but the end result was very rewarding. I spoke with several publishing houses, who wanted to tweak or modify my manuscript. This irritated me. I understand the need to “sell” books, but I was not willing to compromise certain women’s stories to appease them. Not knowing which direction to go at times was challenging at times, as I flailed forward not knowing if the decisions I was making were accurate. In the end, it all worked out. People came into my life at the right moments and were great mentors guiding me along the way. It feels fantastic to say, “I produced this masterpiece from start to finish.”

Will There Be a S.H.E. Volume 2?

Absolutely, in fact, I have twenty women already in my queue, who are ready to share their stories. It was prudent for me to take some time off and recharge. My goal is to begin interviewing and traveling to meet the women in late September of this year. My favorite part of the process is listening to the women share their life experiences, take those concentrated nuggets of wisdom and develop a storyline to celebrate their personal victories. I remind myself and the women I interview “We cannot choose what happens to us, but we can chose how we respond.”

S.H.E. book Volume One and the woman I am, and continue to become is the result of S.H.E. Sharing, Healing and Empowering.

 

Where Can People Find Out More About You, S.H.E, and Submit Their Own Stories?

On the S.H.E. website which is www.ShareHealEmpower.com. There is a tab called “Suggest a S.H.E.” which you can use to submit a story. And please connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Youtube (as ShareHealEmpower) to see what we’re up to!

 

 

Playing With Dynamite

Playing With Dynamite by Sharon Harrigan

Sharon Harrigan’s father was larger than life, a brilliant but troubled man who blew off his hand with dynamite before she was born and died in a mysterious and bizarre accident when she was seven. The story of his death never made sense. How did he really die? And why was she so sure that asking would be dangerous? A series of events compel her to find the answers, collecting other people’s memories and uncovering her own. Her two-year odyssey takes her from Virginia to Detroit to Paris and finally to the wilds of northern Michigan where her father died. There, she discovers the real danger and has to confront her fear.

Playing with Dynamite is about the family secrets that can distance us from each other and the honesty that can bring us closer. It’s about a daughter who goes looking for her father but finds her mother instead. It’s about memory and truth, grieving and growing, and what it means to go home again.

(A copy of this novel was provided in exchange for an honest review)

It’s always interesting for me to read memoir because I never really know what to expect. The execution is so widely varying, it’s hard to know what kind of story you’re in for before you read it. Whenever someone recommends a work of memoir to me or gives me one to read, I’m always a little hesitant. There’s this feeling that if you didn’t like the memoir for some reason, it’s kind of like you’re invalidating someone’s life experiences. I know it’s not exactly like that, but it feels that way to me.

Playing With Dynamite is one of the lovely ones. Sharon Harrigan’s style is so engrossing, it’s hard to extricate yourself from it and put the book down. I started the book with the intention that I would at least start it so I could judge how long I would need to finish it, but before I knew it, I had read half of it and hadn’t touched either of the books for my upcoming bookclubs.

In the acknowledgements, Sharon Harrigan mentions that parts of the book were published as individual essays. I can feel that. Sections of the book hang together really, really well. Which doesn’t mean the whole thing doesn’t work together. Quite the contrary. Somehow Playing With Dynamite seems to straddle a rare line in writing. Whether you have time for just a small section, a part, or the whole book, Playing With Dynamite manages to engage and delight at every reading experience, leaving you feeling satisfied no matter where you had to leave off.

Beautifully written, engrossing, and artfully structured, it reminded me a lot of The Glass Castle. Both stories feature dysfunctional families, so if you liked The Glass Castle, you will probably enjoy Playing With Dynamite, though Harrigan’s family is a lot less dysfunctional that Walls’.

This is Harrigan’s first book and I am looking forward to her future titles!

Summer at Tiffany

Summer of Tiffany by Marjorie Hart

Do you remember the best summer of your life?

New York City, 1945. Marjorie Jacobson and her best friend, Marty Garrett, arrive fresh from the Kappa house at the University of Iowa hoping to find summer positions as shopgirls. Turned away from the top department stores, they miraculously find jobs as pages at Tiffany & Co., becoming the first women to ever work on the sales floor–a diamond-filled day job replete with Tiffany blue shirtwaist dresses from Bonwit Teller’s–and the envy of all their friends.

Hart takes us back to the magical time when she and Marty rubbed elbows with the rich and famous; pinched pennies to eat at the Automat; experienced nightlife at La Martinique; and danced away their weekends with dashing midshipmen. Between being dazzled by Judy Garland’s honeymoon visit to Tiffany, celebrating VJ Day in Times Square, and mingling with Cafe society, she fell in love, learned unforgettable lessons, made important decisions that would change her future, and created the remarkable memories she now shares with all of us.

492883

I first heard about this book when I went to the SDSU Writer’s Conference in January. Marjorie Hart was one of the speakers, talking about how her book was discovered at the conference. She read a little section from the book and I couldn’t wait to pick it up and read the rest. I was excited when my bookclub chose Summer at Tiffany for our April read.

This was a lovely little memoir, a window into a different era. It really does seem like it was a simpler time, full of innocence and magic. This isn’t meant to be a deep, instructive memoir like The Glass Castle.

I enjoyed that the book came with a section of Marjorie and Marty’s pictures and illustrations of New York. I also found myself googling the famous people they met and learning their stories as well. Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Wallis Simpson…names I knew, but stories I knew precious little about. And the history they witnessed! Marjorie and Marty arrive in New York at the tail end of World War II…what a time to be alive!

This is an easy read that was over much too soon! It’s sweet, it’s fun, and it would make an awesome beach or summer afternoon read!

 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

By Maya Angelou

Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings back in my freshman year of high school. I remember that, at the time, it was a somewhat of a scandalous choice because of it’s depiction of young Maya’s molestation and rape by an older man. That maybe fourteen-year-olds weren’t mature enough for its content. A look over a handful of my blog posts will reveal my thoughts on that. tl;dr the reading of children and young adults shouldn’t be censored.

I re-read it again for my book club recently.

I remember being really impressed by this book and liking it a lot the first time I read it. I didn’t feel that as much this time, but perhaps that’s because some of the magic has worn off. Re-reading it did remind me that I wanted to read the rest of Angelou’s memoirs at some point.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a quick and engrossing read. I wish it were longer though. It covers about sixteen years of Angelou’s life in only a few hundred pages. I especially would have liked to have seen even more of the Southern town and the store where she grew up.

One thing that was different for me about this reading experience, is that I lingered more on the last passages where she questions her sexuality because she thinks she “looks” like a lesbian and a more or less has sex to prove to herself that she’s heterosexual. This is quite a crazy line of thinking, but after all, teenagers have done worse. I don’t remember that section of the book and I don’t think I paid much attention to it the first time I read it. It seems gratifying in a way that Maya, such a revered and well-known author, could admit to acting so foolish. This felt like one of the most humanizing passages in the whole book.

One Writer’s Beginnings

By Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi. In a “continuous thread of revelation” she sketches her autobiography and tells us how her family and her surroundings contributed to the shaping not only of her personality but of her writing. Homely and commonplace sights, sounds, and objects resonate with the emotions of recollection: the striking clocks, the Victrola, her orphaned father’s coverless little book saved since boyhood, the tall mountains of the West Virginia back country that become a metaphor for her mother’s sturdy independence, Eudora’s earliest box camera that suspended a moment forever and taught her that every feeling awaits a gesture. She has recreated this vanished world with the same subtlety and insight that mark her fiction.

I’m not a huge fan of non-fiction, particularly autobiographies. I would not have picked out this book to read for myself if it wasn’t required.

It was well-written certainly, and the language was good. But I find my books like this really irritating where the author tries to retro-actively ascribe certain events to their development as an individual and writer. It just comes off as super-pretentious at best. This was one of those books where you want to wave your little “I call bullshit” flag.

This book really would have been much better as a straight autobiography, rather than this autobiography/writing memoir hybrid. The bits about her family and childhood and how everyone ended up doing what they did, was interesting. Unfortunately the reflections on her life as a writer took away from the book in my opinion.

It is a pretty short book, which made suffering through it a little more bearable. I do feel bad on some level being so negative about a book written by a Pulitzer winner, but then again, I’m pretty vocal about my dislike of Hemingway, so I suppose it’s all right. They might have lots of esteem and awards, but they’re just people, too, right?

Have you read this book? What was your opinion of it?

The Woman Warrior

By Maxine Hong Kingston

A Chinese American woman tells of the Chinese myths, family stories and events of her California childhood that have shaped her identity.

I’ve always felt like books from certain cultures have certain flavors, that seem to be a product of the culture and language itself, rather than individual authors. Spanish and Chinese stories I’ve noticed exhibit this the most.

This novel, though non-fiction, felt very similar to Amy Tan’s fiction novels. Beautiful, lyrical, haunting, but also raw and a bit messy in what they describe. I’ve long thought of Chinese culture as being reserved and unwilling to really talk about the more personal aspects of human nature e.g. sex, childbirth, death, etc. But their literature is certainly unafraid to deal with these things, in a no-nonsense, get-your-hands-dirty way.

This seems to be a memoir of sorts, but it weaves in fictional stories and myths of ancestors and others in the telling of its author’s identity.

The book is divided into five sections that deal with different women: the author’s dead aunt on her father’s side, Mulan, the author’s mother, the author’s mother and her sister, and finally the author herself.

I found all of the stories very engaging and very beautifully written. The structure might seem odd to some readers, but if you just roll with it, it flows and fits together nicely. I read this all in one sitting on the plane ride back from California, which I felt was such a great way to experience this book, especially since it isn’t very long.