Tag: RandomHouse

Review: Educated by Tara Westover

Review: Educated by Tara Westover

I received a digital ARC of this book from Random House on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Random House for their generosity and, because I was fascinated by this book, was happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

I started Educated as part of a buddy-read with Rachel of Reading Brings Joy, thinking I was behind because everyone else had already started. And then I finished the book approximately thirty-six hours later, pausing only to sleep and fulfill my dog-walking duties at the Humane Society. Had I been reading this during the week, I might have called in sick to finish.

Synopsis
Tara Westover grew up off the grid in Idaho, raised by survivalist parents whose distrust of the establishment extended to traditional schooling and medical care, relying instead on an extreme version of Mormonism and faith-healing. In her formative years, Westover endured extreme neglect at the hands of her parents and physical abuse at the hands of an elder brother who was never held to account for his assaults. When Westover was sixteen, she was admitted to Brigham Young University where the world expanded in ways that would leave her irrevocably changed. For Westover these changes were ultimately incompatible with the person her family expected her to be. Educated is the story of how Westover, now a Ph.D. in history, was formed by her childhood experiences, survived them, and even thrived in spite of them.

Every Trigger Warning for Everything, Ever
The story featured in Educated needs every trigger warning. Westover and her siblings suffered pretty severe physical abuse, extreme neglect, and shocking child endangerment. There is some of the most triggering gas-lighting I have ever read and, if memory served, just about the only trigger warning this book doesn’t need is rape—though misogyny and gender-based verbal and physical abuse occurs. For people leaving oppressive faith subcultures, portions of this book may also be triggering as much of the abuse within Westover’s family was cloaked in religious language to excuse the oppressors and justify their actions. While I found this book absolutely fascinating and was able to push past some of these triggers for me, this is not a book to read if you are in a place where you need to be gentle with yourself or are particularly triggered by child abuse, gas-lighting, or spiritual toxicity.

Controversy
The Amazon reviews for this book are a bit different than most since mixed in with the general reviews are reviews submitted by family members and family friends. Several of the family members who are still within the fold gave the book one star and claim it’s all fiction (This is probably half of the current one-star reviews). The boy Westover dated in college, Drew, posted a review and indicates that the sections that are within his knowledge are presented accurately.

Her brother Tyler at one point also posted a review, though his was slightly less congratulatory. He questioned Tara’s recollections of some of the events, though he admitted within the review that he wasn’t there for some of the events she described. He seems to have taken his review down since I can’t find it anymore—if I recall it was a three or four-star review, so overall positive and supportive for her.

Stranger than Fiction
Some of the other negative reviews question the overall veracity of the story. Westover’s memoir is fascinating in a terrifying way—it’s one of those truth-is-stranger than fiction and if this weren’t her real life, her editor would have been telling her to tone it down. I am hoping/assuming that after the Frey debacle many years ago, memoirs like this are more thoroughly fact-checked than they used to be. I’m not bothered by family members still toeing the party line in the Amazon comments, but the book is so fantastic that it screams for a fact-checker to confirm at least the scaffolding of the story—Westover’s absence of a birth certificate, absence in school, lack of a documented medical history, and other things that woud be independently verifiable.

I would also assume (dangerous, I know) that Westover as an academic would understand what it would do to her reputation and career if she were caught fabricating this kind of memoir. It isn’t meant to be an academic exercise but I can’t imagine many prestigious universities want to give tenure to professors or otherwise employ historians caught fabricating New York Times Bestsellers. With this in mind, I’m left with believing Westover’s story as the truth. She’s the victim, she has no real reason to lie, and the consequences of this being fabricated are far too damaging to make it worth the risk to her professionally.

Delivery
Westover’s delivery is matter-of-fact—so matter of fact some reviewers have commented on it sounding almost rote. For a less eventful story, this delivery would have definite drawbacks, chief among them putting the reader to sleep. For Westover’s story, however, it worked. She doesn’t have to use lyrical language or drip adjectives over her sentences to gain attention and doing so would have been overkill here. The action here very much speaks for itself.

With all of the craziness of Westover’s childhood events, the story moves at a pretty quick pace. There are no idylls in the wildflowers, save for the occasional sentence about the woman in the mountain who watched over Westover as she grew up at the foot of the mountain. There aren’t really “slow” parts so much as there are slightly less-shocking moments in between the shocking ones.

The only criticism I have of Westover’s delivery is that it did feel at times like one horror after another. I wondered if there were good times Westover could have shown. I was left with the sense that a kind of Stockholm Syndrome kept her in place, which could certainly be accurate. But even the worst parents can have some redeeming moment—some snippet in time when they are capable of showing love.  I didn’t feel Westover showed the reader any of these times (or if she did, it made no impression and there could have been more). I believe it was hard for Westover to leave—but the hits-keep-coming feeling and the sense of why it was so hard to leave would have been better modulated with a few more moments of levity and love, if they were available for Westover to tell us.

Recommended
Though this is a work of nonfiction, Edcuated is so fast-paced, this work almost served like one of my palate-cleanser thrillers—I gobbled it up and it reset my reading after a string of more literary and slower works. The emotional rollercoaster in the book is work, but the reading of it isn’t. If you are in a place where this book won’t be triggering, this is one I highly recommend.

Notes
Published: February 20, 2018 by Random House (@randomhouse)
Author: Tara Westover
Date read: March 31, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Review: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall


rawpixel.com

Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of The Best Kind of People in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to LibraryThing, Ballantine Books, and Zoe Whittall for the advance copy.

The Best Kind of People

When someone is your husband or father, that’s simply who they are. You don’t stop to question too much about them unless you’re given reason to, and they’d never been given reason to.

Synopsis
George Woodbury, beloved teacher and literal school savior after stopping a would-be shooter several years before, has just been accused of sexually assaulting several high school students on a school ski trip. The Best Kind of People follows George’s family—his wife Joan, a local nurse; his son Andrew, who escaped the small town several years before; and his daughter Sadie, still a student at the high school. While delving into the victim-blaming and misogyny inherent in these cases, The Best Kind of People largely focuses on George’s family and the choices they make to survive.

One of Those Books
While it’s not the kind of thing anyone in their right mind daydreams about, having a close friend or spouse accused of this kind of crime is the kind of thing I think most people assume they know how they’d react to. I’d go so far as to say the comment threads on online news articles are proof of this—everyone has an opinion and everyone knows which side they’d be on if this were their life. In The Best Kind of People, Whittall takes that sense of reader righteousness and crumbles it all to pieces. There are no easy answers, characters waffle (understandably) on whether they should stand by their husband/father or not and make some bad choices. If the comment threads in news articles are black and white, The Best Kind of People is the spectrum of real-life grey in the middle.

Character Development
While his choices start the book, overall George is a minor character—Whittall makes it clear that he’s charming but doesn’t spend enough time on him to charm the reader. The main characters in the book are Joan and Sadie, with Andrew as a supporting character. With that said, though Whittall doesn’t come out and say one way or the other and the evidence is relatively sparse in the early chapters, my bent was to assume George did it. There are several girls who have nothing to gain from this kind of attention, combined with little things that Whittall includes that just feel…off. Whittall deliberately sets this up as the starting point—the reader is primed to assume George did, in fact, attempt to assault these girls. It is with this foundation that Whittall slowly reveals Joan and Sadie to us.

The easy way to go would be to encourage pity for Joan, to act like her sister Clara and tell her to leave George immediately. Yet, Joan struggles with leaving George. There are financial considerations on top of their twenty-plus years of life together. She has literally slept next to this man for more than twenty years and woke up to discover he was apparently never who she thought he was. The cheap score here would be for Joan to be simply two-dimensional—poor Joan still standing by her man or fiery Joan leaving scorched earth behind her in her attempt to leave. Instead, Whittall shows her struggle—she is alternately weak and strong, making choices that I don’t think I would make but that make sense in the moment (and maybe I would if I ever found myself in that horrifying place). The audience connects with Joan—cheers with Joan, cries with Joan. I would go so far as to say she has nearly universal appeal—the reader is invited to identify with Joan.

I couldn’t decide whether to hug or strangle Sadie at times, which probably means that Whittall did a fairly accurate job in rendering an American teenager. Sadie seems to have it all together, yet there are little indications, even before the accusations against her father, that Sadie isn’t entirely alright beneath the surface. While I identified more with Joan, I wanted the best for Sadie—she tugged at my heart. I knew Joan would be ok, but I was never sure about Sadie and held my breath for her until the end.

The oldest child, Andrew, is featured far less than Joan and Sadie but his inclusion adds more layers to the crimes committed by his father. The reader discovers early that Andrew himself was in an inappropriate relationship at 17 with his 25 year old coach. It’s clear that George’s crimes are not even the slightest morally ambiguous…but what about Andrew’s relationship with his coach? I have my opinion, but here too, is another question Whittall builds into her book. George is clearly on the wrong side of the line…but where is the line?

“Liberal Bias”
Besides the subject matter—which might generally be too triggering for some—the only “turn off” I could identify in the book was a bit of bias. The Woodbury family from the beginning is fairly liberal—the family would seem to universally identify as feminist (though George’s membership card is being revoked immediately) and Andrew is gay, with no real issue with his parents on that point. The family fits the stereotype of moneyed New Englanders. This isn’t terribly obnoxious in and of itself—it adds a layer of conflict for this to be a family that would otherwise believe the victim in this scenario and I appreciated the nuance this choice gave to the book.

The only place this “bias” feels like more than simply a character-development choice is with the inclusion of the “Mens’ Rights” group and the talk about them. When the Woodbury case gains attention, the Mens’ Rights vermin come crawling from their little holes and basements to support George—a development Joan can’t stand. In discussing their ridiculous propaganda in favor of her husband (even as she stands by his side), Joan makes a comment about people in the ring wing having “low IQs.” The comment is in line with Joan’s character and it’s a comment made in the privacy of her home to her teenage daughter; however, I can see it being a touch too far for some readers since it is the only thing that feels like a personal attack on a belief a reader might identify with….Though conservative readers may not make it deep enough into the book to find this comment since the feminism and homosexuality might have turned them off well before this point.

Conclusion
The book does go through the result of the trial of the criminal charges as well as provide a resolution for Andrew, Sadie, and Joan. Each of the endings feels true—while this is not the only way for the book to have ended, these are realistic choices these characters would have made when faced with the totality of the circumstances.

Because of the moral ambiguity in some of the character’s choices (not George’s—that’s not morally ambiguous) and the quietly decisive but arguably controversial way the book ends, this book would make an excellent book club selection—I suspect people will have some opinions about the last few chapters. I also think it’s the kind of book that is going to be somewhat polarizing, giving the group a good mix of opinions on the family member’s choices—everything from Joan’s standing by/not standing by George, to Joan’s parenting choices, to Sadie’s lifestyle choices (literally—not using that as a euphemism), to Andrew’s youthful romance.

Overall, this was the kind of book I love—tightly written, politically/socially relevant, character-driven, complicated families, and morally ambiguous at times. I highly recommend for anyone who can handle these topics without being triggered.

Notes
Published September 19, 2017 by Ballantine Books
Author: Zoe Whittall (@zoe_whittall)
Date read: September 27, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


rawpixel.com

The boy’s eyes flew open.
-roger bevins iii

Strange here, he said.
Not strange, said Mr. Bevins. Not really.
One gets used to it, said the Reverend.
If one belongs here, said Mr. Bevins.
Which you don’t, said the Reverand.
-hans vollman

Synopsis
Lincoln in the Bardo unfolds over the course of the night in which President Lincoln buries his beloved son, Willie. As Lincoln traverses the graveyard in his grief, the reader comes to know a myriad of souls inhabiting a second layer of the graveyard—those buried there but not yet moved on to what is next. As Lincoln’s story is told by an overlap of historical sources, the voices of the Bardo rise and fall over one another, setting out a shadowy world of pain, fear, and longing. As the night passes, the Bardo’s inhabitants come together as one—for as much as they fear the matterlightblooming phenomenon that heralds a soul’s departure from the Bardo, they know Willie, sweet, innocent Willie, does not belong in this third place.

The danger of high expectations
As with many other books, I came to Lincoln in the Bardo with exceedingly high expectations. It had been hyped by all of the snooty places I find good books—NPR, Time, The Atlantic, and my coworker Peter. While I’ve never read them, Saunders’s success with short stories made everyone go mad for his first novel before it was ever published. The cover flap uses words like “literary master” and “most original, transcendent moving work yet.”

It would likely have been impossible for any book to live up to the hype created for this one. This expectation colored my initial reaction to the book—having expected the highest highs, something less made me feel that it was awful. Having had more breathing room from the book and having flipped through it again preparing for this review, it is an excellent book–particularly in the writing if not the structure. It’s not a book I’m likely to forget anytime soon.

Structure
As to the structure, when I was younger, I used to dream up fake histories to insert into daydreams, thinking up books that blended the history with the action of my characters. In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders has taken that structure that hasn’t worked in far less capable hands (including my own, chubby five year old hands) and somehow made it work.

To craft Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders takes excerpts from what a few quick Google searches appear to be actual historical sources and blends them together into a narrative. The narrative pieces themselves connect and read in some places like a conversation between historical sources. In the concept and on the written page, the effect is remarkable—I’m not sure Saunders tells any of his own narrative about Lincoln’s life outside of the graveyard with his own words (unless some of the sources aren’t real—admittedly, I didn’t check them all).

On audio, however, this format works significantly less well. The citations for the historical sources break up the flow of the audio so frequently but so quickly that they become confusing. After the first cite, the citation for an historical source simple becomes “Author, op. cit.” In the written book (as you can see to the right), it’s fine. The eye can skim past with little interruption. In the audio, a different voice reads the citations so that seemingly out of nowhere the voice of what sounds like a preternaturally calm flight attendant interrupts the story to say “Leech, op. cit” and before you can wrap you head around what she just said, the next reader is talking and reading the next quote. The voice is jarring enough that it can’t easily be ignored and, as a result, I’m sure I missed much of the first several chapters of the book.

And yet….the audio.
I would not, however, go so far as to say that this is a book that doesn’t work in audio. On the contrary, the alternating, non-historical sources—the voices Saunders actually wrote–make this one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. An impressive cast of voices including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Bradley Whitford, Bill Hader, Megan Mullally, Rainn Wilson, Keegan-Michael Key, Mary Karr, and Don Cheadle all voice various souls stuck in the Bardo with Willie Lincoln. It is in this conversation between these souls that the audiobook shines head and shoulders above the physical book. Almost ever voice seems perfectly chosen for its character, adding depth and dimension to the anguish and obsession experienced by those in the Bardo. Here too, where Saunders was able to stretch his creativity, the writing shines and there are moments like the quote above that made my exquisite-writing-loving-heart skip a beat.

Developing his cast of characters
Warning of a teeny, tiny spoiler that you find out fairly quickly in the book……
::look away now if you’re a spoiler-stickler::
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
One of the particularly creative choices Saunders made with the Bardo-ians, was to have the bodies of his Bardo inhabitants be reflective of what they were obsessed with at the moment of their deaths. Nick Offerman’s character, Hans Vollman, was a gentleman who married a woman much younger than he. Rather than force himself on her, he let her slowly, slowly come to love him…unfortunately for him he died before they ever consummated their marriage. As a result, Vollman is obsessed with sex with his wife so his physical body is naked with a penis several feet long. Roger Bevins III, another character, having committed suicide but regretted it at the last moment, is many-eyed, many-nosed, and many-handed, obsessed with the sights, smells, and touch of things he can no longer experience. This choice on the part of Saunders is unlike anything I’ve seen and adds a dimension to his characters that is unexpected and, on the whole, well done.

Edgy for the sake of edge
There are, however, some choices that it seems Saunders made for no other reason than to be edgy. Vollman’s character is an excellent example. If he were naked and simply erect, this would have conveyed the same idea without Saunders repeatedly mentioning that his gigantic member is swollen and wagging around, three feet long. Similarly, a pivotal moment in the book is told from an outside perspective of four characters who are midst orgy. Telling of the event from outside makes sense and is well-done…but the characters being midst orgy feels overdone. Like it was difficult to work sex into a book about an eleven-year old boy grieving his father but, gosh darn it, you can’t have a book without sex. These random, unnecessary, adult details that serve no purpose but to shock are the result.

Reading along
I’m not sure I’ve ever thought this about a book before now, but the best way to experience Lincoln in the Bardo, at least for the first several chapters, is to listen to the audiobook while following along with the physical book. The physical book alone loses the power the impressive cast puts behind Saunders’s characters while the audio alone is incredibly hard to follow until you’ve wrapped your head around Saunders’s structure of his historical quotes with citations. Because of the odd structure, this isn’t a book I would recommend for anyone that doesn’t like books that aren’t a little frustrating—for Lincoln in the Bardo shows its genius when you push past the confusion and surrender to experiencing Saudners’s mad world-between-worlds.

Notes
Published February 14, 2017 by Random House (@randomhouse)
Author: George Saunders
Date read: May 18, 2017
Rating: 3 Stars upon initial listen, 4 Stars as I sat with the book