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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

 

 

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town—and the family—Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”

If that first line doesn’t make you sit down and take notice, nothing will. From the very beginning of the book, it is clear that this is an unconventional story. Made all the more unconventional by the fact that hers is a true story.

I wouldn’t recommend reading this book if you’re also working on/trying to write your own book: you might just feel like giving up. Walls’s writing is rich and powerful, sophisticated and tender. She tells a difficult story with a beautiful brush. As she moves from innocent child, for whom her parents are God, to independent adult, who almost pities them, her narrative style never wavers. Her story is generous and harsh in all the right places. While her parents were far from perfect and her childhood years even less so, we are never given the sense that Walls particularly regrets the past. Rather, she almost looks on it as a sad and distant adventure.

There is no question that it irrevocably shaped who she is. But perhaps, it was for the better. To triumph over such deep adversity, truly, that makes a person.

I loved the idea of “The Glass Castle”, what it represents, how it keeps coming back in the story, and ultimately, that Walls chose to title her memoir The Glass Castle.

Between that first line and this last line, lies an extraordinary book.

“A wind picked up, rattling the windows, and the candle flames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border between turbulence and order.”

Marbles

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney

Shortly before her thirtieth birthday, Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Flagrantly manic and terrified that medications would cause her to lose creativity, she began a years-long struggle to find mental stability while retaining her passions and creativity.

Searching to make sense of the popular concept of the crazy artist, she finds inspiration from the lives and work of other artists and writers who suffered from mood disorders, including Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Styron, and Sylvia Plath. She also researches the clinical aspects of bipolar disorder, including the strengths and limitations of various treatments and medications, and what studies tell us about the conundrum of attempting to “cure” an otherwise brilliant mind.

Darkly funny and intensely personal, Forney’s memoir provides a visceral glimpse into the effects of a mood disorder on an artist’s work, as she shares her own story through bold black-and-white images and evocative prose.

One of the things I really love about graphic novels is that it’s entirely possible to read them in one sitting, inside the space of an hour or two. I started this before bed and definitely finished it all that night.

If you’ve ever been curious as to what being bipolar feels like, read this book. Forney does a great job of conveying the highs and the lows, with text, images, and spatial representations. In a weird way, I think the bipolar disorder is uniquely fit to be depicted in graphic novel form. I don’t Forney could have communicated the vast difference between the two if this were just a novel.

This is the fourth graphic novel I’ve read, the others being Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (highly recommended), Maus by Art Spiegelman, and The Watchmen by Alan Moore. I enjoyed and loved all of them. Graphic novels are very interesting, especially studying in the context of art-as-literature and literature-as-art. While I say that you can read these novels pretty quickly, you can also read them very slowly. There’s so much to take in on each page, particularly in the case of Watchmen which is just intense. No wonder it’s held up as one of the greatest examples of the genre. It really is exceptional, especially on the level of detail.

I picked up this book after seeing a review of it in a magazine (Entertainment Weekly, I think it was). I was attracted to it because I, too, have long contemplated the associations between artists and mental illness. After being part of a pretty close-knit writing department at a large university, by the end, it almost felt like if you didn’t have something “wrong” with you, you didn’t belong. Mental illnesses were worn as badges of honor, in a way. Which is not to belittle people’s struggles. I also count myself into the above category. (Generalized anxiety, depression, and a spot squarely on the obsessive spectrum of OCD, if you’re wondering what my merit badges are). A couple sections in Marbles particularly resonated with me because of this. One, the author’s struggle to decide if treating her bipolar disorder was equal to killing her creativity. In other words, whether her creativity stemmed from the “crazy”. Two, there’s a particular section where she discusses how among the community of bipolar sufferers, the numbers of meds you’ve tried are clung to like hard-fought medals of honor.

There are a lot of facts in this book, both about bipolar disorder as a disease and about the relationship between artists in history and mental illness. It’s definitely not a coincidence. I don’t think there’s a person in the modern age who’s decided to devote themselves to some type of art that hasn’t thought about whether, one day, they might become another Sylvia Plath or Virgina Woolf.

One of my favorite passages in the book, is the section where she finally tells people about her illness. None of her friends ran away screaming. All were accepting, in their own way. The interesting thing is, I think this is pretty typical of people’s experiences. Maybe it’s still taboo, maybe not, but people who really love you probably already knew you had (insert mental illness).

A diagnosis doesn’t make you a different person.

Maus

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

I first stumbled across this graphic novel while doing research for my paper on The Hobbit graphic novel. Mauswas the first “comic book” to win a Pultizer Prize. It is also credited as one of the first graphic novels. Maus is particularly hard to classify, sometimes called memoir, history, autobiography, fiction, or any mix of genres.

Maus recounts a history of the Holocaust in animal form. The Jews are depicted as mice, the Germans as cats, the Polish as pigs, and the Americans as dogs. As in Watchmen, Spielgelman makes full use of what you can do in a graphic novel that you can’t in a book. In one scene, Vladek and his wife Anja are trying to pass themselves off as Polish: Spielgelman depicts them as mice with pig masks on.

What I particularly liked about Maus was the way it dealt with the place of the Holocaust in today’s history. Spielgelman is himself a character in the novel. At one point, he goes on a tv show to talk about the first part of Maus (Maus was serialized between 1980 and 1991, and the novel is itself commonly divided into Part 1 and Part 2). In it, Spielgelman is asked the question, “Many younger Germans have had it up to here with Holocaust stories. These things happened before they were even born. Why shouldthey feel guilty?” Though this question is explicitly directed at Germans, I think it applies to much of the young generations. I’m not going to lie and say that I, as an American, don’t feel the same way. Often, the Holocaust is taught so much, but repetitively, without introducing anything new. I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t sick to death of it, reading the same books and watching the same films over and over. I wrestled with myself for awhile, feeling completely guilty and selfish for even daring to think such a thing. But it’s true.

Last year, I took a graduate film studies seminar on World War II, but more specifically the Holocaust. I was initially apprehensive, as I wasn’t particularly interested in studying it anymore. But I’m glad I took the class. Not only did we read things like Schindler’s List and Primo Levi, we watched films I’d never seen before (Schindler’s List, Inglorious Basterds, Valkyrie, The Reader). We also watched the documentary by Alain Resnais, Night and Fog. For years, I’d wondered if something was wrong with me that watching those made for tv movies and reading The Diary of Anne Frank didn’t make me cry. But this affected me in the way that nothing else had. And then I began to see what the real problem was.

The public education system delivers a very watered-down form of the Holocaust and World War II. You’re taught about it in a way that invites an excess of emotion on the part of the teacher, but there are no materials provided that evoke the same response in the student. What you’re left with is this great gap between people who are trying their best to try and get you to feel something with PG materials and students who haven’t got a clue and are annoyed that people keep harping on and on. It wasn’t until I took my college course that I finally got it. Spiegelman provides this answer to the above-mentioned question: “Maybe everyone has to feel guilty. Everyone! Forever!” I liked that Spiegelman approached this question head-on, in the text.

The other thing I greatly enjoyed about Maus, is that I think there’s a tendency to over-romanticize World War II, the Allied victory, and the survivors of the camps. What I mean by this is, like many other things, if some person comes through a great trauma, they are often later excused from other bad behaviors. Spiegelman relates a scene in which his father, Vladek, expresses blatant racism against an African-American man. Spiegelman attempts to point out that what Vladek is doing is no different than what the Nazis did to the Jews, but Vladek refuses to see it. I like that Spiegelman had this courage to approach his relationship with his father in a way that doesn’t paint him in a romantic light.

Maus is as much a history of the Holocaust as it is a chronicle of Spiegelman’s relationship with his father. In this, he is honest. He portrays Vladek as a stingy, crotchety old man who makes everyone around him miserable. This is quite different from many of the other treatments we get of Holocaust survivors. In Maus we get a human, rather than romanticized, idealized portrait of an ethnic group. The thing that is so often forgotten is that people are people. Even people who have had great atrocity delivered upon them, do not always transfer that into absolute goodwill toward their fellow man. We are all flawed and faulty, every last one of us.