Audiobook Review: Educated by Tara Westover

Title: Educated: A Memoir
Author: Tara Westover
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: February 20, 2018
Print length: 334 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 10 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.

Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.

Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.

Educated was all the rage in 2018 when it was released, and for the longest time, I didn’t think I’d be interested. A story about someone going to college? Okay… And then I heard that there was a lot of abuse described, and I thought, who needs it?

Well, I’m so glad I finally gave this book a chance!

Educated is a powerful, startling story — and so strange that you probably would find it too far-fetched if it were presented as fiction. In Educated, Tara Westover takes us through the painful, turbulent years of her upbringing in an isolationist, survivalist, fundamentalist family, and then shows how she found a way out, through education and the support of those who believed in her.

Tara and her siblings were nominally home-schooled, but in reality, they were simply unschooled. Her father’s radical beliefs included the notion that public schools were tools of an evil government that wanted to brainwash children, all part of a conspiracy by the Illuminati.

The medical establishment was seen as just as evil, full of poisons and deceit. Tara’s mother believed that even one dose of antibiotics could poison a person’s system for life, and that only her special tinctures and herbal remedies, along with faith healing, could actually purify the body.

Meanwhile, Tara from early childhood worked in the family junkyard alongside her brothers, exposed to horrifyingly dangerous working conditions, forced by her father to use machinery that could easily have left her maimed or dead.

I was constantly shocked by this book, and by what Tara and her siblings lived through. It almost doesn’t make sense that they all survived — through multiple accidents, including two instances of family members being severely burned and several occasions of head injuries — the family steadfastly refused to go to hospitals or see doctors, instead relying on Tara’s mother’s ability to heal at home. I mean, really, the fact that they didn’t all die of tetanus or infections is pretty incredible.

Tara lives through years of abuse at the hands of her volatile older brother, and these sections are particularly hard to read/listen to. She’s called a whore repeatedly, physically punished, and made to feel that she has to play along and not act as if anything serious has happened in order to retain her parents’ love.

Eventually, Tara enrolls at Brigham Young University, never having attended a single day of school before then. Her journey through higher education is fascinating, particularly as she describes waking up to how much she absolutely didn’t know about the world or life away from her family’s mountain in Idaho. (One small example: She was very confused in a freshman history class until she finally figured out that Europe was a continent, not a country.)

The fact that Tara Westover not only graduated college, but continued her education through graduate school, finally earning a Ph.D. at Cambridge seems nothing short of miraculous. Of the seven siblings in her family, three earned doctorates — and the others never graduated from high school.

Educated is an incredibly immersive and engaging book, even though it’s also quite difficult to take, particularly hearing about the ongoing emotional and physical trauma Tara suffered, as well as the continuing psychological torment inflicted by her fundamentalist parents in their determined denial of her reports of abuse.

I listened to the audiobook, and found it powerful and moving. Narrator Julia Whelan conveys so much through her delivery, and made the story feel personal and urgent.

Educated is highly recommended. My husband read it right before I did, and I’m so glad — I can’t imagine reading this book and having no one to talk about it with! This book is completely engrossing, often painful, but ultimately hopeful and uplifting too. Don’t miss it.

Shelf Control #212: Bleaker House by Nell Stevens

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTitle: Bleaker House
Author: Nell Stevens
Published: 2017
Length: 256 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

On a frozen island in the Falklands, with only penguins for company, a young would-be writer struggles to craft a debut novel…and instead writes a funny, clever, moving memoir that heralds the arrival of a fresh new literary talent.

Twenty-seven-year-old Nell Stevens was determined to write a novel, but somehow life kept getting in the way. Then came an irresistible opportunity: she won a fellowship to spend three months, all expenses paid, anywhere in the world to research and write a book. Did she choose a glittering metropolis, a romantic village, an exotic paradise? Um, no. Nell chose Bleaker Island, a snowy, windswept pile of rock off the Falklands. There, in a guesthouse where she would be the only guest, she imagined she could finally rid herself of distractions and write her 2,500 words a day. In three months, surely she’d have a novel, right?

It’s true that there aren’t many distractions on Bleaker, other than sheep, penguins, paranoia and the weather. But as Nell gets to work on her novel–a delightful Dickensian fiction she calls Bleaker House–she discovers that an excruciatingly erratic Internet connection and 1100 calories a day (as much food as she could carry in her suitcase, budgeted to the raisin) are far from ideal conditions for literary production. With deft humour, this memoir traces Nell’s island days and slowly reveals details of the life and people she has left behind in pursuit of her art. They pop up in her novel, as well, as memoir and novel start to reflect one another. It seems that there is nowhere Nell can run–neither a remote island nor the pages of her notebook–to escape herself.

A whimsical, entertaining, thought-provoking blend of memoir and travelogue, laced with tongue-in-cheek writing advice, Bleaker House brilliantly captures the hopes, fears, self-torture and humour of being young and yearning to make a creative life. With winning honesty and wit, Nell’s race to finish her book emerges as a fascinating narrative in its own right.
 

How and when I got it:

I bought it a year or so ago.

Why I want to read it:

I really don’t remember how I stumbled across this book, but it sounded so quirky and charming that I just had to have it. I’m not necessarily a fan of reading about the writing process, but the idea of being so isolated in such a strange location really piqued my interest.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Audiobook Review: Becoming by Michelle Obama

Title: Becoming
Author: Michelle Obama
Narrator: Michelle Obama
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: November 13, 2018
Print length: 426 pages
Audio length: 19 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.

In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same. 

I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.

Michelle Obama tells it all beautifully. In this powerful memoir, our former First Lady narrates her life with grace, dignity, and intelligence, from her childhood in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago to her life in the White House. It’s quite a journey, and by listening to the audiobook, I was able to hear the author’s own voice, and it was amazing.

There’s so much to love about this book. Michelle Obama is plain spoken as she shares her love for her family, talking about her parents, brother, and extended family, their challenges and their optimism, their dedication to making sure that no doors would be closed to them.

I really didn’t know much about her background prior to reading Becoming, and found myself impressed over and over again while hearing about her early education, her determination, and her hard work, as well as her devotion to the friends she met along the way.

The early stages of her romance with Barack Obama are simply charming, and I appreciated her no-nonsense approach to their story, getting across their mutual love and respect while also giving a sense of their challenges and where they differ as people.

Hearing more about the campaign trail and life in the White House was also fascinating, and I couldn’t help but admire the Obama’s commitment to raising their daughters with as normal a life as possible despite living in the ultimate fishbowl.

Becoming is a wonderful book, a moving memoir and an inspiring depiction of what two people dedicated to improving the world around them can accomplish. It also made me a little sad, missing the grace and intellect that the Obamas brought to the presidency, and made me wish for a time when doing good would mean more than political power.

Highly, highly recommended — and the audiobook experience is a treat.

Book Review: Shrill by Lindy West

Title: Shrill
Author: Lindy West
Publisher: Hachette
Publication date: May 17, 2016
Length: 260 pages
Genre: Essays
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Coming of age in a culture that demands women be as small, quiet, and compliant as possible–like a porcelain dove that will also have sex with you–writer and humorist Lindy West quickly discovered that she was anything but.

From a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body and even bigger opinions; to her public war with stand-up comedians over rape jokes; to her struggle to convince herself, and then the world, that fat people have value; to her accidental activism and never-ending battle royale with Internet trolls, Lindy narrates her life with a blend of humor and pathos that manages to make a trip to the abortion clinic funny and wring tears out of a story about diarrhea.

With inimitable good humor, vulnerability, and boundless charm, Lindy boldly shares how to survive in a world where not all stories are created equal and not all bodies are treated with equal respect, and how to weather hatred, loneliness, harassment, and loss–and walk away laughing. Shrill provocatively dissects what it means to become self-aware the hard way, to go from wanting to be silent and invisible to earning a living defending the silenced in all caps.

I’d never read anything by Lindy West before picking up this book, although I’d certainly heard of her. And now? Consider me a fan.

To be shrill is to reach above your station; to abandon your duty to soothe and please; in short, to be heard.

In Shrill, the author presents both personal stories from her own life and sharp critiques of society and culture, and manages to insert humor and clever language into even the saddest moments.

There are asome particularly funny pieces, like an analysis of Disney’s fat female characters. Upshot: There aren’t many, and they certainly aren’t main characters, or presented as worthy of either desire or empathy. A realization related to the animated version of Robin Hood:

The most depressing thing I realized while making this list is that Baloo dressed as a sexy fortune-teller is the single-most positive role model of my youth.

More serious pieces deal with body image, fat shaming, and the awful, insidious nature of internet trolls.

One piece that brought me to tears was “The Day I Didn’t Fit”, which is all about flying while fat. It made me mad and also made me feel guilty. Haven’t we all glared at people coming down the plane aisle, praying for whatever reason — their weight, having a child with them, or just some introverted/anti-social instinct — that they won’t end up sitting next to us? This essay really made me think about being on the other end of the equation, and how soul-killing it must be to have to deal with this every single time you fly.

I love Lindy West’s forthright, blunt statements, as in this one from the essay “You’re So Brave for Wearing Clothes and Not Hating Yourself!”:

As a woman, my body is scrutinized, policed, and treated as a public commodity. As a fat woman, my body is also lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure. My body limits my job prospects, access to medical care and fair trials, and — the one thing Hollywood movies and Internet trolls most agree on — my ability to be loved. So the subtext, when a thin person asks a fat person, “Where do you get your confidence?” is, “you must be some sort of alien because if I loked like you, I would definitely throw myself into the sea.”

This book is entertaining and moving and inspirational. I will absolutely be seeking out more by Lindy West (including her newest book, The Witches Are Coming, which I just got a copy of).

I need to also mention that I came to the book Shrill after watching the Hulu series Shrill (adapted from the book, with Lindy West as an executive producer). The Hulu series is a fictional account of a woman based on the author, who starts off pretty downtrodden and mistreated, but over the course of the six half-hour episodes, finds her voice and grows into a proud, loud, shrill woman. Aidy Bryant is awesome and adorable and wonderful in the role. And the pool party scene is one of the best things ever, seriously.

I highly recommend the series, and can’t wait for season 2, coming January 24th, 2020.

SHRILL, season 2

And meanwhile, read the book!

Shelf Control #195: So, Anyway… by John Cleese

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: So, Anyway…
Author: John Cleese
Published: 2014
Length: 400 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Candid and brilliantly funny, this is the story of how a tall, shy youth from Weston-super-Mare went on to become a self-confessed legend. En route, John Cleese describes his nerve-racking first public appearance, at St Peter’s Preparatory School at the age of eight and five-sixths; his endlessly peripatetic home life with parents who seemed incapable of staying in any house for longer than six months; his first experiences in the world of work as a teacher who knew nothing about the subjects he was expected to teach; his hamster-owning days at Cambridge; and his first encounter with the man who would be his writing partner for over two decades, Graham Chapman. And so on to his dizzying ascent via scriptwriting for Peter Sellers, David Frost, Marty Feldman and others to the heights of Monty Python.

Punctuated from time to time with John Cleese’s thoughts on topics as diverse as the nature of comedy, the relative merits of cricket and waterskiing, and the importance of knowing the dates of all the kings and queens of England, this is a masterly performance by a former schoolmaster.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy soon after it came out, after seeing John Cleese and Eric Idle in a live performance (which was amazing!). 

Why I want to read it:

I don’t read a whole lot of non-fiction, but I do love a good memoir… and well, John Cleese makes me laugh just by existing basically, so I have no doubt I’m going to enjoy his book. I remember seeing him on one of the late night shows promoting the book when it was released — he’s just so smart and charming and funny *cue the giggling fits*. How could I not have read this book already?

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #175: SPACE!!

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngSwitching things up a bit this week, I thought I’d include THREE books on one theme: SPACE! I’ve always loved reading about space exploration and the development of the space program (and don’t even get me started on all the variety of fiction — historical, science fiction, contemporary fiction, even horror — set in the context of space). In terms of non-fiction space books, I’ve read a bunch, and I seem to keep accumulating them! Here are three from my shelves that I’ve picked up over the years, but still haven’t read.

Title: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Author: Chris Hadfield
Published: 2013
Length: 295 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Colonel Chris Hadfield has spent decades training as an astronaut and has logged nearly 4000 hours in space. During this time he has broken into a Space Station with a Swiss army knife, disposed of a live snake while piloting a plane, and been temporarily blinded while clinging to the exterior of an orbiting spacecraft. The secret to Col. Hadfield’s success-and survival-is an unconventional philosophy he learned at NASA: prepare for the worst-and enjoy every moment of it.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Col. Hadfield takes readers deep into his years of training and space exploration to show how to make the impossible possible. Through eye-opening, entertaining stories filled with the adrenaline of launch, the mesmerizing wonder of spacewalks, and the measured, calm responses mandated by crises, he explains how conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement-and happiness. His own extraordinary education in space has taught him some counterintuitive lessons: don’t visualize success, do care what others think, and always sweat the small stuff.

You might never be able to build a robot, pilot a spacecraft, make a music video or perform basic surgery in zero gravity like Col. Hadfield. But his vivid and refreshing insights will teach you how to think like an astronaut, and will change, completely, the way you view life on Earth-especially your own.

 

Title: Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
Author: Mike Mullane
Published: 2006
Length: 382 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

On February 1, 1978, the first group of space shuttle astronauts, twenty-nine men and six women, were introduced to the world. Among them would be history makers, including the first American woman and the first African American in space. This assembly of astronauts would carry NASA through the most tumultuous years of the space shuttle program. Four would die on Challenger.

USAF Colonel Mike Mullane was a member of this astronaut class, and Riding Rockets is his story — told with a candor never before seen in an astronaut’s memoir. Mullane strips the heroic veneer from the astronaut corps and paints them as they are — human. His tales of arrested development among military flyboys working with feminist pioneers and post-doc scientists are sometimes bawdy, often hilarious, and always entertaining.

Mullane vividly portrays every aspect of the astronaut experience — from telling a female technician which urine-collection condom size is a fit; to walking along a Florida beach in a last, tearful goodbye with a spouse; to a wild, intoxicating, terrifying ride into space; to hearing “Taps” played over a friend’s grave. Mullane is brutally honest in his criticism of a NASA leadership whose bungling would precipitate the Challenger disaster.

Riding Rockets is a story of life in all its fateful uncertainty, of the impact of a family tragedy on a nine-year-old boy, of the revelatory effect of a machine called Sputnik, and of the life-steering powers of lust, love, and marriage. It is a story of the human experience that will resonate long after the call of “Wheel stop.”

 

Title: Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon
Author: Craig Nelson
Published: 2009
Length: 404 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A richly detailed and dramatic account of one of the greatest achievements of humankind

At 9:32 A.M. on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 rocket launched in the presence of more than a million spectators who had gathered to witness a truly historic event. It carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins to the last frontier of human imagination: the moon.

Rocket Men is the thrilling story of the moon mission, and it restores the mystery and majesty to an event that may have become too familiar for most people to realize what a stunning achievement it represented in planning, technology, and execution.

Through interviews, twenty-three thousand pages of NASA oral histories, and declassified CIA documents on the space race, Craig Nelson re-creates a vivid and detailed account of the Apollo 11 mission. From the quotidian to the scientific to the magical, readers are taken right into the cockpit with Aldrin and Armstrong and behind the scenes at Mission Control.

Rocket Men is the story of a twentieth-century pilgrimage; a voyage into the unknown motivated by politics, faith, science, and wonder that changed the course of history.

Other great space reads:

Since I’m talking space, I thought I’d mention three terrific books I’ve read on the subject, one long ago and two others more recently:

  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe: A modern classic. If you want to know more, check out Barbara’s recent post at Book Club Mom!
  • Packing for Mars by Mary Roach: The science of space travel, presented in (sometimes) gross detail, with tons of hilarity.
  • Spaceman by Mike Massimino: A terrific memoir, both inspiring and moving.

Do you have any great non-fiction books about space to recommend? Inquiring minds want to know!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #174: Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: Here If You Need Me
Author: Kate Braestrup
Published: 2007
Length: 211 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

When the oldest of Kate Braestrup’s four children was ten years old, her husband, a Maine state trooper, was killed in a car accident. Stunned and grieving, she decided to pursue her husband’s dream of becoming a Unitarian minister, and eventually began working with the Maine Game Warden Service, which conducts the state’s search and rescue operations when people go missing in the wilderness.

Whether she is with parents whose 6-year-old daughter has wandered into the woods, or wardens as they search for a snowmobile rider gone under ice, or a man whose sister left an infant seat and a suicide note in her car by the side of the road, Braestrup provides solace, comfort, and spiritual guidance when it’s needed most. And she comes to discover that giving comfort is both a high calling and a precious gift.

In her account of her own life and the events of her unusual job, sometimes joyful, sometimes heartbreaking, Braestrup is warm, unsentimental (“No one is immune to the Plucky Widow story!” she acknowledges), and generous. Here If You Need Me is a funny, frank, and deeply moving story of faith and hope.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy, ages and ages ago.

Why I want to read it:

I don’t read a ton of non-fiction, but I do find myself drawn from time to time to real-life stories of courageous women. I don’t remember exactly how I first heard about this book, but I do know that I read a blurb about it soon after it was released and felt really interested in learning more about the author’s experiences. It sounds like such an inspiring, lovely book. Once again, I’m happy that I went prowling my shelves for a Shelf Control book and stumbled across one that I’m really eager to finally read!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

The Monday Check-In ~ 6/10/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner: Powerful historical fiction. My review is here.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn: A truly beautiful and powerful memoir. My review is here.

Recursion by Blake Crouch: So much mind-f*ckery. Just finished reading this Sunday night; review to follow. (Loved it.)

Fresh Catch:

No new books — although I did pick up a paperback edition of The Salt Path to complement listening to the audiobook!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Bouncing around between different books right now:

A graphic novel, an ARC of a recent release, and a re-read of a book whose sequel comes out later this month — between these three, I should be able to keep myself busy for the next several days!

Now playing via audiobook:

Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery: Back to Anne! I read Anne of Green Gables for the first time earlier this year, and have been wanting to continue with the series. I’m only a little way into the book, but it’s charming so far.

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group reads at the moment:

  • A Fugitive Green by Diana Gabaldon, from the Seven Stones To Stand or Fall collection.
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection.

So many books, so little time…

boy1

Audiobook Review: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn


SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA BOOK AWARD 

The true story of a couple who lost everything and embarked on a transformative journey walking the South West Coast Path in England

Just days after Raynor Winn learns that Moth, her husband of thirty-two years, is terminally ill, their house and farm are taken away, along with their livelihood. With nothing left and little time, they make the brave and impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.

Carrying only the essentials for survival on their backs, they live wild in the ancient, weathered landscape of cliffs, sea, and sky. Yet through every step, every encounter, and every test along the way, their walk becomes a remarkable and life-affirming journey. Powerfully written and unflinchingly honest, The Salt Path is ultimately a portrayal of home–how it can be lost, rebuilt, and rediscovered in the most unexpected ways.

I feel like I could just make a list of relevant adjectives and leave my review at that:

Powerful.

Beautiful.

Moving.

Inspiring.

Courageous.

Not enough? Okay, here goes, with a bit more commentary.

I remember hearing something about The Salt Path when it was released, but didn’t really know what the book would focus on or whether it was really for me. Having just finished the audiobook, I can emphatically state that yes, this IS a book for me, and I suspect for many others too.

In The Salt Path, author Raynor Winn shares the painful story of how she and her husband Moth lost their family farm after a lengthy legal battle stemming from an investment with a friend. While not all that much detail is given about the case itself, it sounds as though this long-term friend was fairly shady and went after Ray and Moth to cover his expenses when the project tanked. Not able to afford counsel in the drawn-out court case, the couple had no choice but to represent themselves, and ultimately ended up losing everything on what seemed to be a technicality.

Given a week to vacate their home, Ray and Moth are thrown into despair, compounded by a visit that week to a doctor who confirms that Moth suffers from a degenerative neurological disease that will kill him after a painful decline at some point in the near future. If this were fiction, a reader might be tempted to protest the melodrama of having characters lose their homes and livelihood AND get a terminal diagnosis all in the same week, but this is real life, and it really happened this way.

The choices available to the couple are slim. They’re left with public benefts that amount to about $60 a week, and can go on the wait list for public housing — but because Moth’s illness isn’t in end stages just yet, they don’t have priority. They can stay with family and friends temporarily, but are afraid of becoming burdens and outstaying their welcomes. And then a strange whim occurs to them as they’re sorting through the remains of their old life — why not just walk? Now in their 50s, Moth and Ray haven’t done any serious outdoor adventuring in many, many years, but the idea of walking the South West Coast Path grabs hold of them as a way of being somewhere, with a purpose, rather than completely buckling under the weight of their bad luck and inauspicious prospects.

And so, they gather gear, put most of their belongings into storage with friends, and set out to walk the Coast Path. It’s not easy. Moth’s illness is painful, to the point that he can barely get out of bed some days. And yet, they’re determined to walk rather than sit still. As they move forward, they face ongoing shortages of food, scraping by on their meager weekly allowance (and eating lots of noodles), camping wild wherever they can find a spot to pitch the tent, and slowly, mile by mile, falling into a rhythm that has a beauty all its own.

Ray and Moth have a marriage that the rest of us can only envy. Together since their teens, the love between the couple is strong and unbreakable, shining through Ray’s writing on every single page. It’s heart-breaking to hear Ray’s thoughts on how much this man means to her, and what the future might hold for both of them as his disease progresses.

Meanwhile, each chapter brings fresh insights and wonders. Parts of the book read like an ode to the natural beauty of the landscapes and seascapes they see on their journey. It really sounds spectacular. There’s also sorrow and harsh realities — the author includes statistics and background information on homelessness in the UK, and shows how the official numbers are only a small representation of the true homeless population.

Homeless themselves, Ray and Moth again and again face the general dislike and fear that most people seem to feel toward the homeless. They meet many people along the path — fellow hikers, local residents, random strangers. When seen as older backpackers with presumably enough wealth to take weeks away from the world to walk the path, they’re applauded and warmly greeted. But when Moth explains to previously friendly people that they’re homeless, the others shrink away from them and can’t seem to distance themselves fast enough.

The writing is simply beautiful. Ray shares her pain and her sorrows, but also reveals the growing sense of belonging that she finds through the path:

The country towered above me, a blank empty space containing nothing for us. Only one thing was real, more real to me now than the past that we’d lost or the future we didn’t have: if I put one foot in front of the other, the path would move me forward and a strip of dirt, often no more than a foot wide, had become home. It wasn’t just the chill in the air, the lowering of the sun’s horizon, the heaviness of the dew or the lack of urgency in the birds’ calls, but something in me was changing season too. I was no longer striving, fighting to change the unchangeable, not clenching in anxiety at the life we’d been unable to hold on to, or angry at an authoritarian system too bureaucratic to see the truth. A new season had crept into me, a softer season of acceptance. Burned in by the sun, driven in by the storm. I could feel the sky, the earth, the water and revel in being part of the elements without a chasm of pain opening at the thought of the loss of our place within it all. I was a part of the whole. I didn’t need to own a patch of land to make that so. I could stand in the wind and I was the wind, the rain, the sea; it was all me, and I was nothing within it. The core of me wasn’t lost. Translucent, elusive, but there and grown stronger with every headland.

A note on the audiobook: Narrator Anne Reid is lovely, making the story feel alive and vibrant, capturing the emotion of Ray’s first-person narration in a way that makes it feel like a friend telling you a story. Really a treat to listen to.

There’s so much to love about The Salt Path. I found Ray and Moth’s journey and their devotion to one another so inspirational. And, this book really made me want to get out and walk a long path some day!

Don’t miss this book. It’s a beautiful work, and is worth taking the time to savor.

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The details:

Title: The Salt Path
Author: Raynor Winn
Narrated by: Anne Reid
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: March 22, 2018
Length (print): 288 pages
Length (audiobook): 11 hours, 2 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased

Audiobook Review: Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro


The acclaimed and beloved author of Hourglass now gives us a new memoir about identity, paternity, and family secrets—a real-time exploration of the staggering discovery she recently made about her father, and her struggle to piece together the hidden story of her own life.

What makes us who we are? What combination of memory, history, biology, experience, and that ineffable thing called the soul defines us?

In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her father was not her biological father. She woke up one morning and her entire history—the life she had lived—crumbled beneath her.

Inheritance is a book about secrets—secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman’s urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history. It is a book about the extraordinary moment we live in—a moment in which science and technology have outpaced not only medical ethics but also the capacities of the human heart to contend with the consequences of what we discover.

Timely and unforgettable, Dani Shapiro’s memoir is a gripping, gut-wrenching exploration of genealogy, paternity, and love.

I picked up Inheritance on a whim, after a book group friend mentioned plans to attend a talk by the author at an upcoming event. The little bit I heard sounded interesting enough to make me want to know more: The author, raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, discovers through DNA testing that the man who raised her wasn’t actually her biological father.

With the proliferation of inexpensive testing resources like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, anyone can learn a little bit about their genetic background. Author Dani Shapiro’s half-sister had done DNA testing, and Dani decided to do it as well. But when she got her results back, she was startled: According to the data, she was only 52% Ashkenazi Jewish, not the 100% she was certain was her correct heritage. She’d been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, and her father’s lineage in particular was practically a who’s who of important people in the Orthodox world. She and her half-sister shared a father, but when she compared their results, it turns out that the two women were not actually biologically related at all.

The author was in her mid-50’s at this point, and both her parents were already deceased. She began to follow the scanty available clues, among them memories of her mother stating that she’d been conceived thanks to a medical institute in Philadelphia, and within days, made the discovery that her parents had turned to a fertility center that relied on donor sperm to help infertile couples have children. With only the most preliminary attempts at sleuthing, the author was able to trace connections and find her biological father, a man who was a sperm donor for a period of time as a medical student in Philadelphia in the 1960s.

The book focuses on Dani Shapiro’s search for both the facts of her heritage and conception, and the bigger truth about her identity. Much of Inheritance is spend on understanding the essential question: Who am I? The author, in discovering that the facts of her entire life were false, found herself unmoored and in desperate need of answers. Did her parents truly understand the treatment they sought? Did they know that donor sperm would be used? If they truly knew, how could they hide the truth from her for her entire life? Does this truth change her history, her understanding of her parents’ marriage, her place in the family history?

The author narrates the audiobook, which lends it greater immediacy and emotion. When she describes her soul-searching and her moments of pain and shock, it feels genuine — as though the author was allowing us a peek inside herself, letting us see the turmoil she experienced.

I must admit that there were sections that made me feel very impatient. The degree of shock and dislocation experienced by the author was hard for me to fully understand. I mean, I get being shocked by learning in midlife that there’s a big family secret that was hidden all this time — but the extreme questioning about whether she was still herself and whether she still belonged to her family struck me as over the top. What about people who’ve been adopted? What about all the other people out there whose parents used assisted reproductive technologies involving donor sperm or donor eggs? Why should the use of donor sperm in conception mean that the father who raised her wasn’t really her father?

As a whole, Inheritance spends a great deal of time on introspection and the search for meaning. Which I guess is the point of a memoir, so maybe I’m just not a particularly good memoir reader? In any case, I was much more interested in the unraveling of clues, the discussion of the medical ethics, and the research into fertility approaches in the 1960s than in the contemplative sections on identity and belonging.

That being said, I did find Inheritance quite fascinating as a whole. It’s a relatively quick listen, with lots of food for thought, and elements focused on the author’s Jewish upbringing and how that carries through to her current life particularly resonated for me.

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The details:

Title: Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
Author: Dani Shapiro
Narrated by: Dani Shapiro
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: January 15, 2019
Length (print): 272 pages
Length (audiobook): 6 hours, 44 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased