Educated (CBR11 #23)

A couple of months ago I read American Like Me and focused my review on how the various contributors wrote and reflected on the way their lives hopped boundaries or existed on the edge of multiple cultures. In Educated Tara Westover is doing a deep dive of her own, very personal, journey of leaving one culture (that of her father) and exploring the cultures of more mainstream Mormonism and mainstream America. It is not a perfect book, and to my mind Westover chose an interesting time in her life to reckon with her lived experience to this degree and this publicly, our early thirties are an interesting time to take stock of life so far but Westover’s is far from typical. It was a beautifully crafted, captivating read that is having a very needed conversation about self-invention and the importance of actual truth and how we see it, even if the author sometimes backs away from her own arguments.

Westover’s experiences growing up were very tightly controlled, and it left her with enormous gaps and misunderstandings of how the rest of the world works which she explores in her memoir. Sometimes these differences in our lived experiences made it difficult for me to relate, but battling with guilt, expectation, and hope did ring very true to me. Her parents are strict survivalists in Idaho and Westover’s father believed (and likely continues to believe) that the coming of the end times was imminent which was very likely fed by an undiagnosed mental illness (I’m not a professional, I can’t weigh in definitively) as well as being  conspiracy theorist. These things directly impacted the kind of childhood Tara had: the children were kept out of school, members of the family rarely sought professional medical care, and virtually no measures were taken to protect anyone from the physical dangers surrounding the way they live their lives and earn their livings.

Educated is Westover’s account of how she went from growing up in that environment with little education and none of it formal, to being a PhD student at Cambridge and how it all comes together to form her life as it is now. But it is also more than a travelogue of joining academia – if it had stayed on that level I probably would only be rating it 3 or 4 stars because it wouldn’t be uncovering universal insights. Instead, Westover weaves her various narratives together to tell the larger story of how she discovered herself and began to trust her own interior voice. At the heart of her story is just what we mean when we say “an education”.

As she moved ever more away from her life in Idaho and her family’s compound on Buck’s Peak and into the world of mainstream Mormonism and the larger American mainstream Westover accumulates several “educations”, that of traditional schooling but also the informal educations we pick up along the way that helps us see ourselves and others. That is what her educations got Westover –  the ability to see her own life through new eyes and the will to change it in ways that honor her newly trusted inner-voice.

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American Like Me (CBR11 #17)

Badkittyuno reviewed this one and I immediately put it on my to read, and then picked it up at my first chance from Audible. American Like Me is a collection of 32 stories about what being American, whether they call themselves American enthusiastically, reluctantly, or not at all. Some of the authors have written previously, others have not, but America Ferrera gathered a wide variety of voices to capture a breadth of experiences. This book is full of the stories about life between cultures. The authors are actors, athletes, politicians, and artists. They are also immigrants themselves or the children and grandchildren of immigrants, indigenous people, regardless they are people who grew up with personal connections to more than one culture.

I listened to this quickly, and then reviewed it slowly – I suggest you do the opposite. There is a lot of similarity amongst the stories, not in tone or delivery but in their hearts, and for me some stories blurred together because of it. There were a few stand-outs, that I remember now a month later: Issa Rae and Randall Park especially. They bring both a personal warmth and their natural comedic natures to their chapters, but they also dig deeply into their personal stories even if it doesn’t necessarily feel that way at first glance. Park in particular approaches his in such a light-hearted manner that its more serious undertones take time develop.

The most important part for me in this was that each story had some component that rang true to my own lived experience, my own times along the boundaries of what make me American, and it is always going to come back to the variety of components that make up this life.  

This book was read and (eventually) reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Scrappy Little Nobody (CBR10 #34)

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I went away this weekend with one of my favorite people and we spent our time looking at gorgeous scenery, visiting museums and historic sites, and eating and drinking local. In doing so we spent a lot of time in the car going from place to place, so my travel buddy suggested we listen to Anna Kendrick’s autobiography because he was sure I would really enjoy it. This is why he’s one of my favorites, perfectly lovely weekend away and happy to re-listen to an audiobook because I would want to read it.

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This book, in turn, was really good for what we were looking for it to be: entertaining and an easy way to keep conversation going (10 hours in and out of a car is a long time, no matter how much you like the person you’re travelling with). Kendrick is a little younger than us, and even though her life has some very different aspects to it (Tony nominated teenager, Oscar nominated young 20 something) there was still plenty of reflections about growing into your adulthood when we did that hit a very truthful note and definitely gave us things to commiserate about, remember, and laugh about.

So if I enjoyed it so much why is it only three stars? Because it doesn’t really rise above what it is, it’s a pretty straightforward memoir that clocks in at about 6 hours of audio (probably more if anyone else narrated it, Kendrick speaks quickly). She’s honest about who she is, what her experiences are, but she’s not diving any deeper. If you like her Twitter presence, you will like this book though; her authorial voice is the same.

Born a Crime (CBR10 #4)

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Last year there were several glowing reviews of Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime at Cannonball Read. Based on positive word of mouth I had already picked up the audio version which Noah narrates himself. I was intrigued by Noah – we’re the same age (well, I’m almost exactly a year older) but our lives couldn’t be more different, and I love a good memoir.

For the many reasons life throws your way I did not manage to listen to Born a Crime in 2017. However, fast forward to New Year’s where I am terribly sick, it was ridiculously cold, and the friends I was staying with decided to stay in and do nothing but watch Netflix and read books (there are many reasons why these women are some of my favorite humans on the planet) and we ended up watching several of Trevor Noah’s specials, and a documentary called You Laugh But It’s True which features a baby-faced 25 year old Noah breaking into the comedy scene and putting on his first one man show, The Daywalker. I was immediately mesmerized by the trajectory of this man’s career. In less than 10 years he went from comedian to respected host of The Daily Show.  (Full Disclosure, I have never watched The Daily Show with either Jon Stewart or Trevor Noah as host outside clips here and there.)

The documentary hit on some of the same stories he revisited in the book, giving a careful overview of what is was like to grow up in South Africa. In Born a Crime Noah stops being careful and instead explains in detail the realities of his life, the lives of his friends, and his mother. Noah’s mom Patricia plays a large part of his life and it is reflected in the book. I feel as though I know as much about Patricia Noah as I do about Trevor at the end of the book. She is simply amazing. Read this book, go to Netflix and find You Laugh But It’s True so that you can but faces and voices to names and see the world that Noah so lovingly recreates in his writing. The book has some pacing issues, but this is a great memoir and a fascinating look at an interesting life.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (with a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (CBR9 #68)

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I read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist a few months ago and immediately put her next book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body on my library request list. I described the former as unpacking the racist, misogynistic, and otherwise flawed world we live in. This book is that, but turned inward. Gay reckons with the great violence which was a turning point in her life and how it created in her a need to protect herself by becoming ever larger. She also discusses candidly what it is to be aware of the judgments of your body while simultaneously giving into the various hungers you feel. Bad Feminist was complex, empathetic, and rational and if it is possible this book is even more so.

It is difficult to know how to review this book. In ways it was too much: Gay is practicing an emotional honesty in her writing that you do not often come across and it often stopped me dead. In other ways I felt too seen, I recognized the emotions and realities of Gay’s life experience in my own even though so much is different. She writes with such precision and clarity that the shared territory becomes what matters and you are able to immediately extrapolate the rest and find the empathy within.

Reading this book, with its short, crisp chapters, is like watching someone you care deeply for exorcise their demons, and if they cannot exorcise them they will name them and continue the fight. It is witnessing someone’s journey towards healing but more importantly just talking about the things that seemed too large to talk about. We heal by talking about our hurts, our hungers. This is Roxane Gay embarking on that path.

 

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (with a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Spectacles (CBR9 #23)

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I have a lady crush on Sue Perkins. I do not feel that this is an unheard of situation. I was introduced to her via my friend Ale, who was watching the series Supersizers Go from the BBC all about food history. We LOVE food history. This lead to my comfort television becoming watching Sue and Giles drink their way through terrible food.

The next great epoch in my Sue fandom was a late to the game discovery of the Great British Bake Off and Sue’s cohosting with her comedy partner Mel Giedroyc. I no longer watch many foodie television programs as I struggle with my weight and overeating and have learned over the years that watching someone cook/eat will inevitably lead to me cooking and eating an extra meal or an extra quantity of food that I do not need. Due to those reasons, I had initially avoided this incredibly popular juggernaut. And then someone sold it really hard, promised that it was more soothing than food porn and I gave in.

Just in time to get addicted before the hammer fell, as Sue and Mel announced they would not be following the series to its new home.

In solidarity with Sue, I tracked down her book and purchased it. Her standing up for what she believed in meant that I would absolutely throw a few dollars her way.

And then Ale read it first. Because I’m a slacker.

So, we’ve gotten over 200 words into this review and I haven’t said much about the book. Its really good friends, in the way that well written and thought out memoirs can be. I don’t know if its very Sue-ness would come across to the uninitiated, but if you are a Sue fan and are looking for more stories of her growing up in Croydon, or attending Cambridge, or breaking into the comedy/television presenter world then this is your book. She’s insightful and honest about her own strengths and weaknesses and you will absolutely fall in love with her parents. She uses her wit and comedic skills to unpack the world around her, and the way she sees it, and asks you to do the same with the world around you. Or just think of some really great double entendres.

Sue is very candid, and her emotions are allowed to shine through which I feel is the strength of the memoir genre. I nearly cried at the end of one of the chapters about her relationship with Mel. “But mainly we leave it alone, leave it all unsaid and carry on regardless in a thoroughly British fashion. What I do know is that this kinship will always remain. It is constant. It is a love that cannot be weathered, not by time, not by circumstance. Nothing can alter it.”

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, write about it, and raise money to support the American Cancer Society in the name of our fallen friend, Alabama Pink. 

The Princess Diarist (CBR9 #8)

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It is hard to know how to review this book. I had planned to read this before Ms. Fisher passed away, but following her death it seemed somehow imperative to read it as soon as I could muster my strength to do so. It was time to say goodbye to Carrie, and to the character that defined her career.

However, the very structure of this book limits its possible impact; it exists at all because Fisher discovered the journals she kept during the filming of the original Star Wars. The first third of the book is an introduction to the juggernaut that is Star Wars, the middle is excerpts from Fisher’s diary – specifically the portions about her relationship with Harrison Ford, and the final section is her reckoning with the 40 year effects of Star Wars on her life, and how she is forever linked to Princess Leia, a character who looks quite a bit like her.

The passion of youth is in here, but also the love of wordplay. Fisher was a talented writer, which is never up for debate, but somehow I was left wanting more from the book than she was willing to give us about Leia, and that seems to be by design. Fisher always kept more of herself to herself and most of what the book covers she discussed previously in the interviews leading up to The Force Awakens.

She shares some of her thoughts and memories about the auditions, filming and subsequent fame of the original Star Wars, and it was certainly enjoyable to spend some time with her reminiscing about the experience. However, I was left with the feeling that she was still very carefully curating what she shared of the experience, keeping some things (even after admitting to the Carrison affair) to herself. To which I say, good for her. But maybe not good for the book.

Fisher was also blunt about what she termed “lap dances” the autograph signing events, which she attended later in her career to help with some cash flow issues. On one hand, I grasped entirely her point and have always felt strangely about the expectation of fans that actors/musicians/artists should be put in that position and be expected to enjoy it (says the introvert), but I didn’t like at all how she formulated the chapters. Fisher was one of the all-time best script doctors, and these chapters read more like script treatments than book chapters, and that made it hard for me to focus on the beauty of her word choice and phrasings.

As ArchaeoKelly said “I am so very grateful to her for being my Princess Leia and my General Organa, and my grown-up Carrie Fisher, with all her issues.  She has been so brutally honest.  She is a warrior”. Thank you Carrie, for one more book before you left us.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We’ve got over 500 reviews in the first month of 2017, certainly there’s a book review for you over on the site?