Educated, by Tara Westover*****

educatedTara Westover’s memoir has created a lot of buzz, and all of it is justified. It’s the story of one woman’s journey from a fundamentally loving yet untenable home life, to the civilized world she has been raised to fear. Each chapter focuses on one meaningful event in the author’s life, and it’s told with sensitivity, grace, and yes, also a sprinkling of rage, because how can she not? But all told, Westover permits the balm of time and distance to balance her perspective.  This book is for sale now, and it’s going to be read for a very long time.

I received my copy of Educated free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley. That said, if you have to pay full jacket price for this book, your money will be well spent.

Westover grows up in a large family that is nominally Mormon (Latter Day Saints, or LDS), but she and her siblings are denied the tight-knit communal bond that most members of that faith experience.  Their father is deeply suspicious of the outside world including other church members, and as his pathology grows, they are increasingly isolated. Basic social expectations such as personal hygiene and clean clothing; inoculations against deadly diseases; a birth certificate; and an understanding of how to navigate within the greater society are denied her, as Dad’s survivalist views kick into gear. She is told the story of Ruby Ridge from the time she is tiny, but grows up believing this is an event that has happened to her own family, and that Federal agents might break into her own home at any time.

Veteran teachers like me are fascinated by the differences in how students process traumatic events, and Westover is a strong case in point. Some students experience the death of a beloved grandparent or divorcing parents, and they come undone and aren’t able to function normally for several years. Then there are remarkable young people like Westover that experience horror after horror exponentially and yet somehow, with little external assistance, they are able to claw themselves free of the rubble and become high achievers.

As Westover leaves home against the strident objections of her father, she struggles to reconcile the wider world with everything that she has been taught from the cradle, and she also struggles to win her family’s forgiveness and acceptance. As she is battered, sometimes physically, by one cruel rejection after another, a friend asks her, “Have you ever thought maybe you should just let them go?” And yet, for Tara, this is unthinkable.

There’s a lot of gritty material here, along with a number of experiences that are just weird, such as Tara’s brain-damaged mother becoming a local folk hero with her own brand of witch-doctor medicine.  There are also moments of dark humor that break up the misery and terror, along with an occasional kind or enlightening act on the part of a family member or member of the public that is able to wink through for a brief time in Tara’s life. But ultimately the thing that makes it possible to wade through the nightmare that constitutes much of Tara’s childhood is our knowledge, set within the book’s title and author description, that she will emerge triumphant.

Westover tells us that the bizarre system of beliefs and taboos practiced by her family are not typical of Mormon families, and in fact a bishop that counsels her once she arrives at Brigham Young University tries to help her separate herself, to some degree, from the madness that awaits her at home during school breaks.  This reviewer grew up alongside a number of Mormon classmates, and I have to agree that none of the things Westover’s parents brought down on her and her siblings is attributable to that church. That’s not how they work.

I highlighted dozens of passages that range from the wry, to the stupefying, to the outrageous, but when all is said and done, each is better when read within context. Go out and get this book. You won’t be sorry, and at the end of it, you’re almost guaranteed to look at your own family in a gentler light.


Interview with Westover:

The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah****

ThegreataloneI wanted to see what all of the buzz was about, and now I know. Kristin Hannah has a fresh, authentic  voice that transports her readers to a completely different time and place. The Great Alone, set in Alaska in 1974, made a believer of me. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the ARC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Leni Allbright is our protagonist, and she and her mother are inseparable during the early years of her childhood. But when her father, a man she doesn’t know, is released from the POW camp and then sent home, he is volatile, not the man Cora remembers. He has trouble keeping a job; he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. He’s paranoid and sometimes delusional, too.

He likes firearms.

Then word comes that a friend, a soldier he served with, has died and left him a plot of land in Alaska. They’ll be away from the stimulation of the city, which seems to trigger Ernt’s anxiety and panic attacks. Cora tells Leni it’s perfect, because once Ernt is happy, everybody can be happy. And so, clueless hippies that they are, they head north in a VW van with little more than the shirts on their backs and of course, Ernt’s weapon collection.

Imagine their surprise upon discovering their new home is at the end of a long unpaved driveway and isn’t really in habitable condition. However, Mad Earl, the father of the deceased soldier that left the place to Ernt, introduces him around, and their new Alaskan friends teach them the ropes. Cora and Leni are accustomed to a passive role, but Ginny “the generator” and Large Marge assure them that if they don’t learn to pull their own weight, they will die before the end of the first winter. Soon Cora and Leni know how to fell trees, use tools, and kill their own meat.

Ernt wants his wife and daughter to be survivors; he wants them to be ready when “the shit hits the fan.”  He wakes them from a sound sleep at odd intervals and forces them, bleary eyed and bewildered, to assemble and load weapons in the dark. He assures them that it’s possible the enemy may attack in the small hours; it’s an old ruse. But over time it becomes clear that the most dangerous person they will ever encounter is Ernt.

Hannah is a feminist badass and an evocative, memorable writer. One of the finest things about this story is the recognition that domestic abuse often arrives hand-in-glove with some other challenge that muddies the water. Ernt is abusive, but he can’t help himself; something happened to his mind when he was a POW. Then of course, there’s addiction and straight-up mental illness. Who could just leave a guy that has been through so much and that loves them so hard?

Ernt says he is sorry, and it won’t happen again. Like so many abusers, he says it every damn time. But even when it has become crystal clear to Leni that she and her mother must put their own safety first, Cora won’t leave, and Leni won’t leave her mother.

By the halfway point, it becomes clear that someone is going to die; the three of them cannot continue together indefinitely through the dark Alaskan winters, and yet there they are, and he’s getting worse, not better. But then Large Marge injects new life into their domestic situation with an ingenious plan. It doesn’t last forever, but it buys them some time.

My only disappointment is with the ending. In many ways it is cleverly turned, but it’s a letdown to see such a magnificent young woman warrior take such a well-worn, traditional path. It’s a small quibble though, and it shouldn’t keep you from grabbing the nearest copy of this excellent novel at whatever price you have to pay to get it. It’s for sale now, and I recommend it to you.

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson****

furiouslyhappyJenny Lawson is well known as The Blogess (the blogger that came up with Beyonce, the metal chicken). She won awards for her previous memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.  The only DRC I saw for this title was for readers in UK and Australia, so I waited till I could scoop it cheaply and bought it digitally. Those that read my reviews often know I almost never do this. For the $3 it cost on an Amazon Prime daily deal, it was worth it to me.

Lawson is one of a handful of authors that talks candidly and often very humorously about her own struggle with mental illness and autoimmune disorders. Her capacity to create imaginary scenarios totally out of left field is her greatest strength, second only to the ability—sometimes—to find a way to laugh at the nest of spiders that occasionally takes over her brain. And sometimes she is painfully candid. Try this one on:


“Sometimes being crazy is a demon. And sometimes the demon is me…And some of us just carry around our tiny demon as he wreaks havoc in our mind, tearing open old dusty trunks of bad memories and leaving the remnants spread everywhere. Wearing the skins of people we’ve hurt. Wearing the skins of people we’ve loved. And sometimes, when it’s worst, wearing our own skins.”


She rants about the well intentioned but ignorant advice she’s received from clueless amateurs. At various times she’s been told to shake it off, to stop eating gluten, and to let Jesus into her heart in order to experience a full and immediate cure.


Her musings about flying, which her fame requires her to do a great deal of, though she is afraid both of flying and of leaving home, are brilliant. This reviewer crowed out loud from glee at Lawson’s suggestion that flight attendants be permitted “to whack one person per flight with a piñata stick for being the stupidest damn person on the plane.”

My favorite section is the one in which she details the horrors of remodeling in a way that makes me howl. And goodness knows we all need to do that.

Lawson inserts women’s reproductive anatomy into almost any sort of discussion, and whereas I applaud the feminist spirit that demands the word “vagina” no longer be treated like a dirty word, I confess it was a bit much for me. But then, I am probably older than you are; this may be a generational thing. And there may also be plenty of women from the Boomer generation that think her use of the word is great.

Now and then there’s an odd moment in which I stop reading and stare at the text. What? Did she proof read this, and did her editors? There are occasional remarks that strike me as racially insensitive. She spins a thread about the wild things in the out of doors, and cautions us that since bears don’t play, we should shoot one first and ask questions later. Assuming said bear is in one’s back yard or trying to fit through a window of one’s home, I can see the point, but it came out of left field and made me wonder. Really? Just shoot bears? And the thread further spins itself into a bison-and-Native-Americans discussion in which she assures us that it’s not great to have bison in one’s yard, but it would be awesome to keep a lot of Native Americans out there. My e-reader says, “?!?”

But then she drops and is off onto another stream-of-consciousness spiel before I can fully digest what’s been said. She does it a couple of other times also. And it occurs to me that she has perhaps the ultimate excuse, having said up front that she has known for most of her life that she is “not right” in the head, but I still wonder that her editors didn’t look at that and say, “Umm…Jenny? This part right here…?” There are no overt racial slams or this review would have a lot of empty stars, but there are small moments where I wonder if she understands how others may read what she’s said.

Many of her entries if not all of them are drawn from her blog, and it’s possible that if you’ve read her blog faithfully, you won’t want to pay for this book. As for me, I found it worth the three bucks to be able to get everything at once in a well organized format—known as a book—that I could read comfortably. I confess I would not have paid full jacket price for it now that I get most books free and also have less money to spend on them than when I was working, but for others it may well be worth it.

On the whole, this is a courageous and often eloquent, fall-down-funny memoir, and with the small reservations mentioned above, I recommend it to you.

A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard *****

AthousandnakedstrangersTake a former journalist; make him a paramedic in a high-poverty, high-danger area for a decade; then turn him loose again to write about it, and he will play his readers like violins and make us like it. A Thousand Naked Strangers is a high octane, gloriously visceral ride in an ambulance and out of one, through Southeast Atlanta, Georgia. Thank you to Net Galley and to Scribner for the DRC. Since I read multiple galleys at a time and I loved this one best, I tried to feed it to myself in small nibbles, like Mary Ingalls hoarding her Christmas candy, but it was just too riveting and I could not stay away.

At the memoir’s beginning, our guy is just looking for work. With just a few months of training, he can become an EMT. His journalistic career wasn’t working out as he had expected, and he found himself working as a paperboy instead, delivering the newspaper for which he had written. That’s about as rock bottom as it gets.

He becomes an EMT; then he sets out to discover whether he wants to commit to the extra year and a half of schooling required become a medic. Once in, he’s hooked, not so much in spite of the risk and unpredictability of the job, but because of it.

And when you think about it, what other job pays so very little, involves so much danger, and gets so little respect? Teaching comes to mind, but being a rescue worker trumps even that, particularly for the low pay and insane hours–holidays missed–to do it, a person needs to be young, and to be an adrenaline junkie. And for a decade, Hazzard fits that description.

When he starts out, he is callous, as youth often are, speculating with his partner about what constitutes the perfect call. The perfect call, to their way of thinking, has requirements that are measured in the number of dead and wounded, the amount of danger. Does the patient have to survive in order for it to be a perfect call? Nah.

Over the years he matures, and he becomes more respectful of the patients with whom he deals. He talks to addicts, hookers, and children in a way that is forthright and kind. The job takes a lot out of him, but it also gives him a lot. He grows up. He deals with the dead; the nearly dead; those that are feigning death; and those that are just looking for a free ride somewhere. He delivers babies in record numbers, and he transports a guy on a roof down to the ambulance. He sees just about everything, from suicides to homicides, from the domestically abused, to the kid with a roach in her ear. He plays the wildest imaginable pranks, and once in awhile he gets called on the carpet for it.

Some of the incidents described in this memoir are just drop-dead funny, if you’ll pardon the pun, and I laughed out loud more than once. Some are incredibly dark. Some just left me with a feeling of awe. But although the tone changes many times, the pacing is absolutely consistent. Hazzard’s journalistic background shows; every single word is there for a reason. It is tight, taut, and urgently compelling, all the way through.

So it’s entertaining, but it’s also educational. I didn’t know the distinction between an EMT and a paramedic before I read this memoir. I also didn’t know that not a holiday goes by without someone having a heart attack. I didn’t know that just about everyone, regardless of their level of intoxication, says they’ve had two drinks. And I didn’t know about the tension between paramedics and firefighters, between paramedics and cops.

There’s more, but you can’t have it all in this nifty review; I’ve given you enough to move forward. If you want your own job to look easier, get this memoir. If you’re retired and have a little more time to read now, get this memoir. If you are staying home with little kids and wonder when you should call an ambulance and when you should deal with your own mess, get this memoir. And if you are considering going into the field yourself? Get this memoir!

It’s for sale January 5, 2016, but you can order it right this minute.

Mot, by Sarah Einstein*****

Einstein_Mot.inddSarah is forty, and she’s floundering. Her life’s work, like her mother’s, has been to try to make the world a better place, and so she works at a homeless shelter as its director. But things are falling apart there; whereas once upon a time most of the mentally ill homeless were passive, now meth and other addictions have created so much anger and violence that she isn’t even safe there. She’s been physically attacked three times, one of which was sexual, and her life has been threatened on an ongoing basis. Too often she is the only staff member present, and it’s getting scary out there.

Many thanks to Net Galley and University of Georgia Press for the DRC. This title goes up for sale September 15.

In addition, her marriage, which was predicated upon a mutual dedication to social justice issues and the understanding that neither she nor her new husband would be around much because of the time and attention their work demanded, is coming undone as well. Her husband Scotti has at times sided with the population she is supposed to be managing at the shelter against her.

Think of it!

So maybe it isn’t so very strange that she has decided to load herself into her vehicle and drive 1400 miles to Texas to visit a homeless friend who has moved there. “Mot”, who used to be “Thomas”, is living in a beat-up car in a Walmart parking lot. And whereas most of us would regard her mission as either an immense personal sacrifice or even a little bit bizarre, the fact is that she needed to get away from West Virginia, that shelter (where she has given notice and is using up every possible minute of vacation time), and Scotti. She has rented a little cabin—the closest thing Mot will accept even temporarily in terms of living indoors—with two beds, one for herself, and one for him. And as the book opens, she is reflecting that even if he never shows up, a whole week in this primitive little yurt, all by herself, sounds positively wonderful.

Right away her spouse is ringing her cell to complain of how much inconvenience he is experiencing while she is gone. He sends unhappy e-mails constantly, but he also doesn’t want her to use her smart phone because that data costs money. So although she hasn’t explained to us yet about the state of her marriage, which should still be in its honeymoon phase but really, really isn’t, we start to get the picture.

Mot is a complicated fellow. Immediately, when she quotes him, I start asking myself whether this is schizophrenia, a dissociative disorder, both or neither? I’m not a professional by a long shot, but when a guy routinely refers to the other folks with whom he is sharing a body and that control his behavior, it’s pretty clear all is not well. And my jaw dropped on the floor later in the book when he commented, in a moment of total lucidity, that it was probably the latter.

Mot is a veteran, and Sarah’s documentation of the unconscionable way the USA treats its veterans is noteworthy. Advocates for veterans’ health care should be plugging this book all the time, everywhere.

Sarah’s time with Mot mixes with some odd bits of philosophy, most of them his, and so although plot wise there aren’t a lot of parallels, the overall flavor to this book is similar to that of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (I have never compared any other book to that book before, and don’t expect to!)

I should also add that I came to this galley after having read a couple of Pulitzer winners and some books by my favorite bestselling authors. I dove into Mot not because I thought it would be my favorite of the remaining DRC’s I had to review, but because I had snagged it right before it was due to be archived, and I felt an obligation to the author and the publisher. In other words, although it looked interesting, I didn’t expect to give it five stars. But the sum of the book is so much more than its parts, and to get it, you really just have to read it.

Highly recommended to anyone and everyone.

Sweet Holy Motherfucking Everloving Delusional Bastard, by Jerome Segundo****

sweetholyWow. What do I do with this story? It is clear to me that it’s most likely only nominally fictional. This is the saddest funny memoir I have ever read in my life.

Most of you won’t have the benefit of reading the cover letter that first-readers receive, which made me laugh out loud. This man has a gift for writing, and has the potential to be really hilarious. In places, his book is funny, in a dark way. But life has taken the spring out of his step.

He’s been to prison, and he emerged broke, without a license or a home. He had earned a college degree before being incarcerated, but now because his name was tarnished, it is virtually worthless, since he has to get a job under an assumed name. And he has to register as a sex-offender.

I got this from the giveaway, and it initially gave me serious pause–and gentlemen out there, this is almost reflexive for most women–to see the man say that he was a convicted rapist who had pleaded nole contendre…and I had given him my address. Yes, that’s irrational. But “rape” is a really electrifying term to most of us.

Once I had read the book (and it’s a quick read, partly because I couldn’t put it down till I had the whole story, especially once I had peeked at the ending and come to believe in the guy’s innocence after all) I just wanted to cry for the man. He isn’t a rapist. He was clueless and in a relationship with a really unstable woman, unless he’s made parts of his story up wholesale…and I don’t think he has.

The fact is, the U.S. “justice” system isn’t much of one. More and more often, it serves to isolate and undercut a layer of young men and make them lesser citizens when they emerge, assuming they ever do. And whereas Segundo should have fought the charges against him, he was so physically ill,alienated and demoralized that he didn’t. Where was his family? Did they turn their backs on him, or did he slink away, afraid that they would be ashamed of him?

And I need to say this, too. This business of registering one’s whereabouts for life after having done the time for a crime (which is, as is always the case in capitalist society, unevenly enforced and penalized according to one’s wealth), is absolute bullshit. I say this as an old-school, card-carrying feminist warrior who has marched on the Capitol multiple times for women’s rights. We cannot isolate one group of “offenders” and make them permanent pariahs and then say that we have a rehabilitative system. What’s that about?

There is a lot of really graphic sexual content here. On the one hand, I am an old lady and it embarrassed me, but on the other hand, I have never seen a story where the sexual content was more essential to the telling of the story.

I wish this guy well, and I hope he can rebound and regain some joy in living. If he has become cynical, one can hardly blame him. This is not a light read, but a Lenny-Bruce-like attempt to restore some dignity to his own life and that of others who may find themselves wrongly accused and convicted of one of society’s most heinous crimes.

Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson *****

Jackson’s folksy, humorous love story is more complex than it appears at first glimpse; its entertainment value is instantly obvious. She has taken the town of Between, Georgia, which exists midway twixt Athens and Atlanta, and used it to create a fictional haven for a plethora of characters drawn so deftly that they all but materialize in front of the reader.

Nonny, our protagonist, is between many things. In fact, the deeper one looks at this supposedly light romance, the more “betweens” there are in the story, in setting, in plot, and above all, in character. The teacher in me wants to assign an essay question about it. You are excused from the essay, but you ought to read the book, even if, like me, you generally pass on romances. And for goodness sake, pay attention!

In some ways, this is a story that could have been set in just about any Between in just about any English-speaking setting as long as it was in a small town (and anyone who sniffs at the story as failing to accurately represent Georgia and Georgians completely misses the fact that this is not really a story about Georgia at all). How many of us have dealt with the question of nature versus nurture? How many of us have alcoholics, anxious individuals who are prone to harming themselves, yet keeping “four baby steps” out of the psych ward, neat freaks, slobs, and feuding relatives in our lives? Are you nodding yet? And how many of us have a small person in the family we suspect is being raised by the wrong relative? Then there are those of us who are between relationships, and the world that exists between the hearing and the deaf, the blind and those whose visual acuity is dandy. I am only scratching the surface here. There is so much of life jammed into this one work of fiction that it leaves me breathless.

It is the commonness and humanity in this tale that ultimately makes it so empathetic and readable, but the writing is brilliant. The prose are so fresh and original that they make me question several of the five star ratings I have given to other writers.

Jackson has written a real gem. Sometimes I conclude my reviews by saying that a book is worth reading if you can get it free or cheap. Not this story, not this time. Open a window and order it, or get in the car and go get it. You have to read this book. Whether for depth of literary analysis or pure fuzzy joy, you’ll be richer for doing so!