#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.

#31 The Call by Peadar O’Guilin (2016)

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The country of Ireland has dropped off the map. All planes in Irish airspace suddenly crashed, and all the boats sank. A thick fog obscured the views of nearby Scotland, and all television, radio, and internet signals were lost. Then the children begin disappearing, returning exactly three minutes later, horribly mutilated. The Sidh, otherwise known as the fairy folk, have found a way back into our world after being banished centuries ago. Now, they are out for revenge.  Twenty-five years later, survival schools have popped up all over Ireland, where the dwindling population of children learn the skills they will need to survive once they too are Called.

Fifteen year old Tessa is one of the students at one of these colleges, but neither her classmates nor her professors have high hopes for her survival. Tessa’s legs are twisted and useless after a childhood encounter with polio, and the Sidh have little sympathy for a crippled child. This makes Tessa even more determined to buck the odds and live to see her eighteenth birthday. She maintains a stony distance from the other students, except for Anto, a determined pacifist who has also been given slim odds for staying alive against the Sidh.

This novel by author Peadar O’Guilin pulls you in from the first chapter and refuses to let go. This is one of those books where you find yourself debating how much sleep you actually need per night. Thankfully it’s also relatively short, so only one or two sleepless, page-turning nights will be required.

The menace of the fairies known as the Sidh comes from their implacability. They cannot be bargained with. They feel neither pity nor sympathy for the bewildered children who find themselves transported into their realm. They take a sinister kind of glee in finding new and inventive tortures for their helpless victims. And even those who do end up surviving the Grey Land are changed forever in one way or another. The lingering effects of constant fear permeate the pages of The Call, until we understand the hopelessness  that creeps into a person’s soul once they realize the true cost of survival.

Ireland is a country that continues to have respect for its own ancient legends. When I visited Ireland a few years ago there were several mentions of fairy rings and fairy roads. This could have been all a shtick put on for gullible tourists, but at the same time you can still find articles blaming the fairies for all manner of things. If there were ever a place where the veil between the fairy realm and our own is the thinnest, it could be argued that this place would be Ireland.

This was a suspenseful and tightly written novel that kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. It was disturbing without being overly gory, so would be appropriate for an older teen audience as well as being spooky fun for adults. Extra points for the amazingly creepy cover art.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Call here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#30 The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (2017)

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In 13th century Russia, the world is ruled by icy grip of winter. Into this cold and unforgiving world, a young girl named Vasilisa Petrovna is born utterly at home in the forests and snowdrifts around her village. She lives her days roaming the forests against the wishes of her father and her nights curled up listening to the fairy tales spun by her nursemaid. But her life changes forever when two new people show up in her village. The first, her new stepmother Anna, fears and hates the wild streak that runs in her young stepdaughter. The second, a priest named Konstantin, is determined to turn his new flock away from the worship of the old spirits and towards the teachings of the Orthodox Church. He too is threatened by the defiance and spirit shown by the young Vasilisa. She has also captured the attention of one far more dangerous, a dark figure with piercing blue eyes who becomes bolder as midwinter approaches.

Everyone knows the old platitude. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Well I love judging books by their covers. Especially when the cover is as mysterious and beautiful as Katherine Arden’s debut, The Bear and the Nightingale. When I decide to judge a book by its cover, I generally refuse to read even a short synopsis, so I went into this novel with absolutely zero expectations. Within the first chapter I felt myself entwined and entranced in this dark and romantic fairy tale, so much that I could almost feel the howling winds of Russian winter outside my window.

At its heart, The Bear and the Nightingale is about the struggle between the old ways and the new. In the Middle Ages, as Catholicism slowly but thoroughly steamrollered its way across Europe, how many of the ancient spirits were left to wither in its wake? In this way I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s amazing novel, American Gods. But while Gaiman deals in the bitterness of those abandoned gods, Arden’s novel instead focusing on their sadness and confusion as they find themselves rejected by those who had left them offerings for generations.

Arden’s prose is dark and lyrical and completely mesmerizing. Her heroine, Vasilisa, is strong and independent while still maintaining a sense of vulnerability. She behaves in the only manner she knows how, and is utterly bewildered when people begin to whisper that she is dabbling in witchcraft by continuing to practice the old ways. How can it be witchcraft to hold to the same traditions that her people had held to only years before? I also loved the descriptions of the numerous little sprites and spirits that inhabit Vasilisa’s world. There are spirits that tend the oven, spirits that protect the horses, and so on, all of which have their roots in Russian folklore. Because Vasilisa is the only one who can see these entities (at first) it comes as no surprise that she seeks to aid them when they begin suffering from lack of care.

I would highly recommend this book for any audience. I am greatly anticipating the sequel.

My rating; 5/5

You can find The Bear and the Nightingale here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#29 Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)

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In post-apocalyptic Africa, there is an ongoing struggle between the light-skinned Nuru tribe and the darker-skinned Okeke tribe. The Nuru have taken many Okeke as slaves, and systematically go into the desert to rape Okeke women in the hopes of impregnating them. These children of rape are known as Ewu, and are despised as outcasts by both groups of people. One of these children is Onyesonwu, whose name means “Who Fears Death”. Early in life, Onyesonwu realizes that she is special. She has the powers of the Eshu, or the shapeshifter. With this knowledge, she seeks the training needed to hone her magic in the hopes of one day hunting down the man who raped her mother.

All of this sounds like the making of a pretty good magic realism novel. With this description, together with the amazing cover art, I was really looking forward to reading this book. But for some reason, Who Fears Death failed to capture my imagination. Part of it may be because I felt as though I were coming into a movie midway through. We are given next to no backstory about why modern systems of government have fallen. What began the conflict between the Nurus and the Okeke? There are constant references to the “Great Book” but more details are needed to understand the connection between this religious book and the current upheaval.

Another reason why I had difficulty maintaining my interest in the novel may have been that the main character has what I like to think of as “Superman syndrome”. Superman is the most boring superhero in existence because he is just too perfect, and his weaknesses are too easily overcome. I felt that same way about Onyesonwu. When the heroine can transform into animals, heal wounds, travel outside of her body, heat rocks without fire, and strike her enemies blind with a thought, there isn’t a lot of suspense. Do we ever truly doubt that Onyesonwu will fulfill her goal? She’s set up as a Jesus-like martyr from the beginning, but the reader is cheated of even that by the muddled ending.

Early in Okorafor’s novel, there is a graphic depiction of female circumcision. All of the female children in the village undergo this procedure without anesthesia at the age of eleven. They are expected to do this willingly or risk social ostracism. One thing that I will praise about Who Fears Death is its handling of this delicate subject matter. Upon discovery of her powers, one of Onyesonwu’s first act as a healer is to restore her own sexual pleasure. This reclaiming of her own sexuality is a powerful act, and its effects create ripples that echo throughout the rest of the novel.

Overall, I was disappointed by this novel. It seemed to be a fantastic premise that relied too much on having an all-powerful protagonist. And although there were aspects that I did enjoy, ultimately I kept finding myself checking to see how many pages were left until the end.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Who Fears Death here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#28 Prince of Thorns (Broken Empire #1) by Mark Lawrence (2011)

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Jorg is the crown prince of Ancrath, but instead of preparing himself to inherit the throne, he is roaming the countryside with a band of murderous outlaws, searching for revenge. Four years ago, Jorg found himself trapped in a hookbriar brush, unable to move as his mother and brother were slaughtered before his eyes. Now, the Prince of Thorns prepares himself to return home and confront his father before enacting his final act of vengeance.

“You can only win the game when you understand that it is a game. Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.”

There are many examples of the “anti-hero” throughout science fiction and fantasy, but I can’t think of a more prominent instance than Jorg of Ancrath. Most proclaimed anti-heroes are similar to Celaena Sardothien in Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass novels. They are morally ambiguous, and sometimes snap and kill their enemies in a disturbing manner, but underneath we know that they are operating for the greater good. Well I can definitely say beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jorg would make Celaena run and hide under her covers. He is a morally repugnant psychopath who murders people for annoying him. He seems to have loyalty to nothing whatsoever, and at one point sacrifices a member of his team to a group of monsters in order to gain access to a military target. There is also a throwaway line which alludes to the fact that Jorg may be a rapist. All in all, author Mark Lawrence makes it difficult for us to root for his main character. The fact that we still find a way to identify with Jorg’s struggle is a testament to Lawrence’s writing abilities.

It may be the fact that at a mere thirteen years of age, Jorg is rather young to be written off as a hopeless case. We as a reader feel the need for him to see the error of his ways and atone for them in a state of repentance. It is suggested that Jorg may not be entirely responsible for his own actions, there being a group of sorcerers working to control his fate. I found myself hating this aspect of the plot because it felt like a cheat. If your main character is going to be a murderous tween, let it happen. Don’t try to pull the punches by using magical mesmerism.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Prince of Thorns is that we have no idea when the story is taking place. Jorg alludes to the writings of Plutarch, Plato, and Socrates so we know we are on Earth. He also mentions the ambiguous “Builders” who have no imagination but can build marvelous things using “melted rock and twisted metal”. Trying to figure out the setting of the novel was a fun and twisted mystery.

I picked up Prince of Thorns because I was in the mood for a fantasy novel. As distasteful as I often felt towards the “protagonist”, I cannot deny that Lawrence’s writing captivated me and I was truly interested to find out what was going to become of the wayward little prince. I’m looking forward to reading the next installment in this series.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Prince of Thorns here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

#27 The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)

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In a series of letters, sixteen year old “wallflower” Charlie writes about the slow, stumbling, and sometimes scary transition from adolescence to adulthood. His letters detail important milestones such as first dates, making friends, doing drugs, and attending screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Constantly second-guessing himself and filled with confusion and anxiety, Charlie observes the world around him with a perspective vastly different from the average teenage boy.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of those books that I’ve been hearing about for years, but never actually got around to reading. The first twenty pages or so were a bit confusing. I struggled a bit settling in to this novel because I was trying to hard to figure it out. The first question I had was, “Who is Charlie writing these letters to?” This question could have spoiled my enjoyment of the book, but thankfully I was able to put it out of my mind and allow myself to become emerged in Charlie’s adolescent world.

It is impossible to read this novel without drawing parallels to one’s own teenage years, and I think that is part of the brilliance of Chbosky’s story. There is something about Charlie’s desperate longing make friends and fit in that resonates with everyone. Even if you never had a teenage experience with drugs, or alcohol, or death, there is an underlying current running through this novel that resonates with the awkward teenager in all of us. In this way, Chbosky evokes empathy within his readers without ever resorting to emotional manipulation.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a simple story told in a complex and compelling manner. There is a timelessness to the novel, it deals with the same issues that have plagued adolescents for centuries. I felt by turns thrilled, depressed, manic, and confused as I took a journey with Charlie into the heart of darkness that is the teenage psyche.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Perks of Being a Wallflower here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.