Educated: a memoir (Tara Westover)

educated

An unforgettable memoir in the tradition of The Glass Castle about a young girl who, kept out of school, leaves her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University.

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 travelled 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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Educated: a memoir is making the rounds of bestseller lists right now. I saw an ad for it online and didn’t even realize that it was a new release. So the audiobook request in my library got scrapped, and I had to read it on my trusty old ipad.

I have to say, this is one book I could not put down. It is thoroughly engrossing and I read it in a day and a half. It is shocking that her story takes place in recent days. Ms. Westover was born in 1986. She grew up in the 90s and early 2000s. She was a child who watched Y2K madness on television, the same as me.

She also didn’t get a birth certificate until she was 9. She didn’t see a dentist or medical professional until she went to university. She had never heard of the Holocaust until she was a student at Brigham Young University. Her upraising, and that of her siblings, is so unique and atypical that it baffles the mind that whole networks of people still live like this, in the modern day, in the “first world”.

While reading Educated, I also streamed this interview she gave to The Economist on their youtube channel, which I highly recommend.

Learning about her survivalist prepper upbringing in an ultra-conservative family in the mountains of Idaho was super interesting. Especially given the juxtaposition between her childhood and the eloquent, thoughtful speaker she is today as a highly educated, well-travelled young woman.

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xx

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Instant Mom by Nia Vardalos

instant mom

Writer and star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Nia Vardalos firmly believed she was supposed to be a mom, but Mother Nature and modern medicine had put her in a headlock. So she made a choice that shocked friends, family, and even herself: with only fourteen hours’ notice, she adopted a preschooler.

Instant Mom is Vardalos’s poignant and hilarious true chronicle of trying to become a mother while fielding nosy “frenemies” and Hollywood reporters asking, “Any baby news?” With genuine and frank honesty, she describes how she and husband Ian Gomez eventually found their daughter . . . and what happened next. Vardalos explores innovative ways to conquer the challenges all new moms face, from sleep to personal grooming, and learns that whether via biology, relationship, or adoption—motherhood comes in many forms.

The book includes laugh-out-loud behind the scenes Hollywood anecdotes, plus an Appendix on how to adopt worldwide. Vardalos will donate proceeds from the book sales to charities.

Vardalos candidly shares her instant motherhood story that is relatable for all new moms (and dads!)

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I have been very interested in listening to adoption related true stories lately. Adoption is something that calls to my heart. One day, when I am ready to start a family I will adopt. Hopefully I will be able to have biological children as well.  But I know that I will become a Mum through adoption.

I had no idea before coming across this book that Nia Vardalos, of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame, had adopted and was the celebrity face of the national adoption campaign in the US. It seems natural now that she has written a book about the adoption process and her personal stories, even though she and her husband do not live the glam Hollywood lifestyle and seek to protect their daughter’s innocence and privacy.

Nia Vardalos is Canadian-born, which added a warm perspective for me. As a fellow Canadian, I could relate to a lot of her anecdotal stories, like wearing a snowsuit under her Halloween costume.

Instant Mom is a funny and poignant story of womanhood. I love Nia’s perspective on life. Her brand of feminism feels organic; it isn’t “ra-ra sisterhood” or anti-man. She doesn’t try to tell you what you should do. I found her story superbly easy to relate to and felt like she would be someone I could easily be friends with if she were to move in next door.

In a world where we all seem to take ourselves too seriously, we could use a little more light-hearted comedy and a few manners reminders from Nia!

This audiobook is read by the author.

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xx

The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls)

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A tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that, despite its profound flaws, gave the author the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

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.

What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story.

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I found this book very difficult to listen to at times, not just because of the subject matter, but because of the author’s approach to her story. Ms. Walls reflects upon her childhood with frankness and affection, seemingly content with her eccentric parents decisions for the family. She talks about growing up “wild” and how she appreciated the freedom her parents gave the four Walls kids to explore, make mistakes and

Walls comes across as very matter of fact regarding the many abuses she and her siblings faced growing up as a result of her parents decisions, and more often, as a result of their neglect. Her father’s drinking and mother’s distain for housekeeping or mothering made me ache for these children who often missed the barest of essentials, including food and warm clothes.

As the listener, I felt that Jeannette had been brainwashed by her father growing up, a mentality that exists today to some degree. She doesn’t seem to find fault with their poor decisions that put her and her siblings into danger, and at times brought the attention of medical personnel, and children’s aid employees. It was difficult to listen to her seemingly idolize her parents at times, even as an adult reflecting on the past, knowing how selfish, neglectful and at times abusive her parents were.

The mother’s whining that she didn’t want to get up and go to school to teach – knowing this paycheque was the only thing that was feeding her children at the time – was so bizarre and highlights the irresponsible and selfish nature both parents exhibited, as did hiding her chocolate snacks while her children are literally starving because neither parent is working and the family doesn’t receive food stamps.

Despite their actions, I cannot doubt Rex and Rose Mary Walls loved their children, particularly Rex. And as Jeannette muses, I think we make the lives we want in the end.

The Glass Castle is well-written and compelling. I didn’t love this book because I felt the author was overly sympathetic to her parents and her parents’ behaviour made me angry, but I am still giving this book four stars.

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xx

A Life in Parts – Bryan Cranston

This summer seems to have been the era of Hollywood biographies! I have gone through quite a few of these audiobooks this summer. Not my usual fare but it has been fun to break out a little, especially since I have been in a long romance rut in 2017.

The most recent memoir I listened to was Bryan Cranston’s A Life in Parts. It is funny, poignant, and well-paced. Per my usual fare, I picked a memoir that was read by the author himself. I have written many blog posts on the benefits of this and I loved Bryan’s voice performance so my preference is definitely still holding true.

a life in parts

A poignant, intimate, funny, inspiring memoir—both a coming-of-age story and a meditation on creativity, devotion, and craft—from Bryan Cranston, beloved and acclaimed star of one of history’s most successful TV shows, Breaking Bad.

Bryan Cranston landed his first role at seven, when his father cast him in a United Way commercial. Acting was clearly the boy’s destiny, until one day his father disappeared. Destiny suddenly took a backseat to survival.

Now, in his riveting memoir, Cranston maps his zigzag journey from abandoned son to beloved star by recalling the many odd parts he’s played in real life—paperboy, farmhand, security guard, dating consultant, murder suspect, dock loader, lover, husband, father. Cranston also chronicles his evolution on camera, from soap opera player trying to master the rules of show business to legendary character actor turning in classic performances as Seinfeld dentist Tim Whatley, “a sadist with newer magazines,” and Malcolm in the Middle dad Hal Wilkerson, a lovable bumbler in tighty-whities. He also gives an inspiring account of how he prepared, physically and mentally, for the challenging role of President Lyndon Johnson, a tour de force that won him a Tony to go along with his four Emmys.

Of course, Cranston dives deep into the grittiest details of his greatest role, explaining how he searched inward for the personal darkness that would help him create one of the most memorable performances ever captured on screen: Walter White, chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin.

Discussing his life as few men do, describing his art as few actors can, Cranston has much to say about creativity, devotion, and craft, as well as innate talent and its challenges and benefits and proper maintenance. But ultimately A Life in Parts is a story about the joy, the necessity, and the transformative power of simple hard work.

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Bryan is a few decades older than I am but I think one of the remarkable things about A Life in Parts is that I didn’t feel as though his stories of yesteryear were old-fashioned, or as belonging to a different generation. He talks about making movies at home with this father and brother as a young child, of his parents divorce and going to live with his grandparents on a farm for a while, of belonging to a police foundations organization for youth as a teen and then going on an extended motorcycle trip on the open road as a young man, crisscrossing America with his brother.

But at no point did I stop and think “that is something that only would have happened in my parents’ generation – or my grandparents'”. He could have been someone my own age talking about his upbringing.

I knew of Bryan as that goofy Dad on Malcom in the Middle growing up, and as the infamous Walter White of Breaking Bad more recently, but I was never a “fan” of his as an actor or a person. I didn’t follow his career, go see something just because he was in it, and quite frankly knew next to nothing about him. I doubt I could have named any other show that he had been in, but I had heard good things about A Life in Parts and I am glad I picked it up.

Bryan doesn’t sound like a celebrity. He’s just a normal guy, albeit one who has had some pretty memorable roles. Of course, he has been happily married to the same woman forever, doesn’t appear to live a flashy life, and is super close to his siblings who no doubt take great joy in keeping their brother down-to-earth.

I really enjoyed this audiobook and would definitely recommend it to my fellow readers, even (especially) ones who don’t normally read about celebrity lives.

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xx