#33 Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)

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In rural Utah, a nine year old girl and her family are driving back to Idaho on a dark night. The girl’s brother falls asleep at the wheel, loses control of the car, and crashes into a utility pole. All members of the family suffer injuries, including her mother who sustains major head trauma. None of them go to the hospital because of their father’s belief that doctors are evil figures put in place by the Illuminati. They will instead rely on herbal remedies and the power of their Mormon faith to heal their injuries. The girl’s mother suffers significant brain damage and is never the same again.

This event happens early on in Educated, a memoir by a girl who is raised by religiously fanatic family isolated in the mountains of southern Idaho. Tara Westover was seventeen years old before she ever entered a classroom. Her lack of formal education left her vulnerable to the manipulations and abuse of her mentally ill father and elder brother. What follows is an account of the struggle between one person’s desire to fulfill themselves and their duty to their family. It is also about the price that sometimes must be paid to extract oneself from a potentially destructive situation.

Tara Westover’s Educated will inevitably draw comparison to The Glass Castle, the  memoir by Jeannette Walls that I reviewed earlier this year. Both feature young women with highly unconventional childhoods who fight to rise above the circumstances of their birth. Both feature the importance of education and family solidarity. And both deal with the idea of having to sever the bonds of that same family in order to survive.

Compared the The Glass Castle, Educated tells the more bitter story. Some of this may have to do with the immediacy of the events detailed in Westover’s memoir. While Jeannette Walls was writing about her childhood through the tempered and nostalgic lens of decades, the events that Westover is describing bring us to the right up to the present day. Time has not been allowed to heal her suffering and create scars. The pain and grief that is still being felt by Westover is palpable. Because of this, we feel the catharsis present in every page, as if the writer is attempting to draw poison from a wound. While reading The Glass Castle, I found myself chuckling every once in awhile. There is not a single moment of joy present in Educated, and I felt my own bitterness rising as I continued reading.

Your opinion on Educated will be strongly connected to your feelings on homeopathic and alternative medicines. My personal feeling is that the creation of antibiotics and vaccinations are the most important advancements in human history since the printing press. The idea that people are resisting vaccinations and antibiotics is utterly baffling. However, if you are one of those people who believe that the government is holding the cure for cancer hostage in an underground bunker so that they can continue to exploit profits from sick people, you will probably be more likely to sympathize with Tara’s father. If so, make sure to get your tinfoil hat on nice and snug before picking up this memoir.

See what I meant about the bitterness?

My rating: 4/5

You can find Educated here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!


#32 Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017)

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“We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.”

Most of us have looked up at the night sky at one time or another and asked ourselves about the nature of the universe. What is the relationship between time and space? What fills up the empty spaces of the cosmos? And what is our place in the scheme of it all? Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson boils these burning questions down to their essence, and explains them in a way that the average person is capable of understanding.

“In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy in the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period on the end of this sentence.”

Together with Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson is on a short and esteemed list of scientists that are easily recognized by most adults. Part of this is because when you see him on television, his enthusiasm is purely and utterly infectious. Tyson never lost that wonder that so many children feel when they first learn of the universe spinning and burning outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. He combines this sense of excitement with an staggering intellect in his most recent book. Every line of Astrophysics is teeming with exhilaration. While reading, I sometimes got a mental image of an energetic five-year old, dragging me around by the hand to show me all of his favorite toys. That is, of course, if the five-year old then rattled off complex mathematical formulas to explain how those toys worked.

As a theoretical physicist, Tyson’s mission in life is to poke at the universe with a stick, trying to see what might pop out to say hello. He manages to sound colloquial even when he’s talking about immensely complicated topics such as dark matter and the theory of relativity. One of my favorite chapters was where Tyson lists half the elements in the periodic table and explains which ones have always been around and which one are more recent discoveries. As someone who barely passed high school chemistry, I was surprised how interesting the subject matter can become when you have a teacher who knows how to break a subject down to its core.

I will not lie to you and say that I understood all of what Neil deGrasse Tyson was trying to communicate. I’m an English teacher. I can rattle off big “literary” sounding words all day, but I struggle to comprehend the language of science. At a mere one hundred and ten pages, this should have been a reasonably quick read. However, I felt myself having to read each paragraph two or even three times to puzzle out the meaning. I think the most important thing that I took away from Astrophysics was a greater sense of wonder and curiosity. I still have no real idea what a quasar is. But I have a better understanding and respect for those who do. Some of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s delight in the mysteries of the universe has rubbed off on me. I’m looking forward to the next time I am out in the country, where I can just look up at the night sky and try to puzzle out the magnitude of what I am seeing.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Astrophysics for People in a Hurry here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

P.S. It was while in the midst of this book that I heard about the death of Stephen Hawking. This post, meager and unworthy though it is, is dedicated to his wondrous lifetime of progress and achievement in the world of science.

#25 Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (2004)

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On July 24, 1984 fundamentalist Mormon brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty broke into the home of their sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty. They proceeded to slit the throat of Brenda’s fifteen-month old daughter before beating and murdering Brenda. When the brothers were eventually caught by the police, they claimed that they were following direct orders from God.

Whenever I think of Mormons, or Latter Day Saints (LDS), a strange dichotomy that comes to mind. On one hand, Mormons are the polite, well-dressed young men who occasionally showed up at my doorstep when I was younger. They abstain from almost all vices and raise their children to have a strong sense of family values. One the other hand, Mormons have been on the wrong side of almost every civil rights issue for the past two hundred years. The church elders only accepted that non-whites were capable of going to heaven in 1978. They fought hard against interracial marriage and are still on the forefront against gay rights. Even today, women of the LDS are banned from making any decisions regarding the direction of their church. Modern Mormons present themselves as upstanding and respectable Americans, but the history of Mormonism is bloody and secretive. In his novel. Jon Krakauer explores this duality of pacifism and violence as it pertains to the Lafferty brothers and the murders they committed.

Under the Banner of Heaven bounces back and forth between the early days of Mormonism, their exodus to Utah, and their eventual rise to a mainstream religion. This is juxtaposed with descriptions of the Lafferty family, their excommunication from the LDS, and the events that culminated in a double murder. The story of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s journey is a fascinating and unsettling story of the persecuted becoming the persecutors.

It’s important to note that the Lafferty brothers were members of the FLDS (Fundamental Latter Day Saints). This is the group that has become well-known with TV shows such as Big Love and Sister Wives. Those shows often depict plural marriage as a kooky, almost sitcom-esque situation. The reality of it is much more insidious. Child-marriage, rape, and incest are rampant within the FLDS, with girls as young as twelve years old regularly being married off to men in their seventies. Education is lacking and many members of the FLDS die unnecessarily due to a deep-rooted mistrust of modern medicine.

While the mainstream LDS church has widely condemned the actions of Dan and Ron Lafferty, Krakauer makes it clear that their hands are far from clean. Their history of violent actions towards the Native Americans and non-Mormon travelers in Utah are still hotly denied by the LDS Church, who has chosen to hide any documents related to the various massacres and scapegoating that took place in the late nineteenth century. Mormonism is openly acknowledged as the first “American” religion, and it cannot be denied that it carries with it a particularly American brand of religious extremism.

This was my first novel by Jon Krakauer, who is widely acknowledged as one of today’s most powerful journalists. I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for more of his novels, as I found Under the Banner of Heaven to be equal parts entertaining and informative.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!


#21 The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston (2017)

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The jungles of Honduras remain one of the few untouched environments left to us on Earth. Deep within this dark and dangerous rainforest, there is rumored to be a lost city, abandoned by a civilization that has remained undiscovered by modern society. In 2012, a group of scientists, archaeologists, filmmakers, and one journalist ventured into the jungles of Mosquitia in hopes of finding the lost White City.

The Lost City of the Monkey God opens with a very dramatic speech given by one of the team leaders. He details all the dangers that await the researchers as they begin the process of entering the untouched jungles of Honduras. The horrible diseases that are spread by insect bites. The fire ants and the spiders. Jaguars that could be waiting in low tree limbs. And the fer-de-lance, which is a snake I had never heard of and hope never to encounter. At one point, the narrator asks his readers not to Google the results of a fer-de-lance bite. I didn’t listen. I pass the warning on to you. Do not Google the results of a fer-de-lance bite if you hope to keep your lunch down.

After this promising introduction, The Lost City of the Monkey God spends the next one hundred pages slogging through the build-up that eventually brings the narrator into the jungles. The reader is given the history of the region and the legend of the lost city. The thick rainforest and high mountains have been a beacon for explorers for hundreds of years, and numerous expeditions have ventured into the area to search for cities to loot and pillage from the native tribes. The way that this modern team uses highly advanced lidar technology is really impressive, but other than that I was tempted to skim past the numerous descriptions of various failed expeditions.

The second part deals with the modern-day exploration of the region, and is easily the most interesting. The third part of the book deals with the aftermath. The fact that none of the team members escaped the journey without some kind of injury was a bit unsettling. I’ve always wanted to visit the jungles of South and Central America, but I might have to rethink that idea.

I’m going to be very honest and say that I’m having trouble writing this review because this book didn’t really leave much of an impression on me. Despite the scary descriptions of creepy-crawlies and drug cartels, I was never transported into Mosquitia. I never felt as if I were breathing the humid air of a thousand-year old jungle. It felt more like I was reading about it over someone else’s shoulder.

This book might have a very good future in an anthropology or archaeology classroom. It’s just not a book that I would want to curl up on my couch and read with a nice cup of tea.

Note: The city itself is rarely referred to as “The city of the monkey god”. It is more popularly known by locals as “Cuidad Blanca” or “White City”. My guess is that writer Douglas Preston correctly realized that titling his book “The Lost White City” sounded like white-nationalist propaganda.

My rating: 3/5

You can find this book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!


#16 Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (2013)

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In January of 1959, nine experienced Russian hikers lead by twenty-three old Igor Dyatlov began a hiking expedition deep into the Ural Mountains. Weeks later, all nine hikers were found dead under mysterious circumstances, scattered throughout the snow without proper clothing, bearing strange injuries, and with traces of radiation on their clothing. Known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, this occurrence has become a popular unsolved mystery. Everything from an avalanche to the KGB to the yeti to UFOs has been suggested to try and figure out what happened to the nine hikers. When documentary maker Donnie Eichar’s imagination is sparked by this story, he delves into the case files, flies to Russia, and even attempts to recreate the Dyatlov group’s journey in order to find a definitive explanation for the incident.

I first learned about the Dyatlov Pass Incident through a 2013 found-footage horror film called Devil’s Pass. The film is actually pretty good if you are a fan of found-footage horror films, and I was immediately intrigued by the unsolved mystery of the Russian hikers. I fell down a Wikipedia hole and tried to learn everything I could about it. I am a junkie for unsolved mysteries, so this was a delightful new find. When I heard about Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain, I immediately put myself on a wait list at my local library for the chance to learn more about this strange occurence.

Eichar’s book reads like a written version of an Unsolved Mysteries episode. He sets roughly half of the chapters in 1959, recreating the last few days of the doomed hikers. He manages to put a human face on the young Russian students, and uses diary entries and photographs to paint a picture of a group of young people who are passionate about nature and enthusiastic about life in general. This easily answers the most obvious question, which is why in the world nine people would go hiking in northern Russia in the middle of winter. Eichar also gives us a broad stroke lesson on the historical context of the time. Stalin has recently died, and while Russia is still under the heavy hand of Communism, the country is slowly healing from the cultural and military wars of the previous decade. These chapters are interspersed with others set in 1959, and told from the perspective of the rescue team workers who are utterly baffled by strange deaths of the nine young hikers.

The rest of the book takes places in 2012. We follow Eichar as he chases down lead after lead. He manages to track down Yuri Kuntsevich, the president of the Dyatlov Foundation. He flies to Russia and somehow secures an interview with Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the original Dyatlov team who had to turn back on the first day due to illness and therefore managed to escape the fate of his friends.

Eichar manages to avoid the “conspiracy nut” path that I think could have been very easy to follow. He immediately discredits the idea that the mountain the hikers were found on (Holatchahl) is supposedly cursed by the local native groups and named “The Mountain of the Dead”. He argues that this is a mistranslation, and the mountain is in fact called “Dead Mountain” due to the fact that nothing grows on it. He discounts the theories of aliens and yetis without giving them much thought. Eichar is utterly practical and devoted to legitimate research and citable sources. He devotes a sizable chunk of the book to methodically listing out all of the possible things that could have caused the deaths of the Dyatlov party and systemically ruling them out. Afterwards, he presents his own theory which he believes can finally explain what happened on that February night. Whether or not you choose to believe him is left up to the reader.

Overall, I enjoyed this book because it appealed to the part of me that loves the inexplicable. I would definitely recommend it, but perhaps not on a ski trip.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Dead Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#8 The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005)

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Jeannette Walls is born to parents Rex and Rose Mary Walls somewhere in the desert in 1960. At the age of three, she is hospitalized for severe burns acquired from boiling water for hot dogs after her mother refused to make her lunch. Before she has had time to heal properly, her father snatches her out of the hospital, claiming that doctors cannot be trusted. Her family flees in the night. It is not the first nor the last time they will do a “skedaddle”.

So begins The Glass Castle, a powerful memoir of a nomadic childhood spent in the type of crushing poverty most of us cannot even begin to imagine. Jeannette is raised as the ultimate “free range” child, whose sporadic education and lack of stability are touted as a wonderful adventure by her parents. Rex Walls is a manipulative alcoholic who steals from his family while at the same time drawing them dreams of a “glass castle” that they will all live in once he’s struck gold. Literally. His plan is to strike gold in the deserts of Arizona. Rose Mary Walls is a monster of selfishness who feels smothered by the needs of motherhood and would rather watch her four children go for days without food than lift a finger from her “artistic ambitions” to help them.

The only thing I can say in support of Jeannette’s parents is that they ensured she was educated. Not in the conventional sense, but all of the Walls children are well read and are taught to think and understand science, history, and mathematics at an advanced level. Rex Walls, for all of his faults, seems to have been an extraordinarily intelligent man. Which begs the question, what’s more dangerous, a dumb drunk or a smart one?

“When the electricity was on, we ate a lot of beans. A big bag of pinto beans cost under a dollar and would feed us for days. They tasted especially good if you added a spoonful of mayonnaise. We also ate a lot of rice mixed with jack mackerel, which Mom said was excellent brain food. Jack mackerel was not as good as tuna, but was better than cat food, which we ate from time to time when things got really tight.”

This book left me drained. By the time I finished the last page and closed its covers, I felt like I had run an emotional marathon from anger to despair to wild hope and back to fury again. You could group this memoir into chapters labeled by the five stages of grief. We begin with a young Jeannette who loves her Daddy more than anything in the world and is his stalwart supporter even after he throws the family cat out of a moving car. We move with her through anger as she lashes out as her parents for their lack of support, to bargaining as she desperately tries to get her father to stop drinking. We then sink into depression when she realizes that her parents love themselves more than they could ever love any of their children. We finally reach acceptance, where Jeannette realizes that she needs to cut ties with her family if she is ever going to have any semblance of a normal life.

I don’t have children, but most of my peers do and I’ve heard countless stories about the amount of sacrifice required to become a parent. It is taken as a matter of course that a parent will have to put their own needs and ambitions on hold to ensure that the tiny humans they have created are well provided for. The Glass Castle is an example of two people who refuse to do that, and instead seem to view their children as small humans who just happen to live with them. It’s also the story of how Jeannette and her siblings refused to succumb to the cycle of poverty. The Glass Castle was equal parts depressing and uplifting. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can The Glass Castle here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. In 2017, it was also attempted into a film starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts.

Happy reading everyone!