Audiobook Review: Beyond the Wand: The Magic & Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard by Tom Felton

Title: Beyond the Wand: The Magic & Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard
Author: Tom Felton
Narrator: Tom Felton
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Print length: 286 pages
Audio length: 6 hours, 36 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

They called for a break, and Gambon magicked up a cigarette from out of his beard. He and I were often to be found outside the stage door, having ‘a breath of fresh air’, as we referred to it. There would be painters and plasterers and chippies and sparks, and among them all would be me and Dumbledore having a crafty cigarette.

From Borrower to wizard, Tom Felton’s adolescence was anything but ordinary. His early rise to fame saw him catapulted into the limelight aged just twelve when he landed the iconic role of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films.

Speaking with candour and his own trademark humour, Tom shares his experience of growing up on screen and as part of the wizarding world for the very first time. He tells all about his big break, what filming was really like and the lasting friendships he made during ten years as part of the franchise, as well as the highs and lows of fame and the reality of navigating adult life after filming finished.

Prepare to meet a real-life wizard.

Draco speaks!

In Beyond the Wand, actor Tom Felton shares stories from his early childhood, the Potter years, and beyond. Unlike some of the seriously dire and disturbing celebrity memoirs of the past year, Beyond the Wand is a mostly upbeat, light-hearted romp through the life of an actor whose professional work will forever be defined by the sneering Slytherin he portrayed so well.

Significantly younger than his three older brothers, Tom grew up with a healthy dose of love and fun, but also humility — his brothers were always happy to cut him down to size before celebrity could go to his head. After roles in two smaller films, Tom’s life changed forever when he was cast as Draco Malfoy… without ever having read the Harry Potter books. (His description of the audition scene, where he had to fake knowledge of the story — and failed — is very funny).

His descriptions of the early years of filming are sweet, humorous, and eye-opening. There’s nothing scandalous here, don’t worry! Tom shares stories of on-set experiences, filming challenges, and lots of fun little stories — for example, his grandfather, acting as Tom’s required on-set chaperone, had such an impressive white beard that director Chris Columbus ended up casting him as a Hogwarts professor!

Because Draco was a lower-profile character than the big three of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, Tom’s profile as a star was somewhat lower-key as well. And because he had fewer scenes over all, he was able to continue attending his Muggle school in between filming, which he credits with enabling him to have a semi-normal childhood. Yes, he had a lead role in one of the biggest movie franchises ever, but he also had regular school, friends, and older brothers to keep him grounded (and occasionally get him into trouble as well).

The tone of Beyond the Wand is light and funny. Listening to the audiobook is a pleasure — he narrates his own story, and speaks it all as if he were hanging out with you and telling stories. It feels accessible and personal, and he injects a sense of fun into it all.

One of the elements I really appreciated in Beyond the Wand was Tom’s depiction of the older cast of Harry Potter and their influence on him and his child co-stars. As he describes, walking onto set as a 12-year-old, he had no idea of the stature of the adult cast members. And yet, over time, he came to realize just how fortunate he was to act alongside actors such as Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman. He shares plenty of lovely anecdotes about their interactions with the children, their influence, and their generosity, and he also pays loving tribute to the cast members no longer with us, which is quite touching.

It’s only in the last couple of chapters that we get to anything darker, as he describes his post-Potter Hollywood years, his sense of loss of direction, a brief period of alcohol abuse, and struggles with mental health. The focus is mostly on the positive, though — on the importance of being able to get help without shame, and the value he’s found in seeking treatment when needed.

Other than those chapters, the tone is very fun and full of larks, and overall, Beyond the Wand is a really enjoyable listen. Even for huge Potter fans, there are plenty of behind-the-scenes tidbits shared here that will be new and fresh. (Nothing scandalous — it’s all good fun, with a sense of Tom’s enjoyment at being a bit of a rascal.)

This would be a great gift for any adult who grew up on Potter. Tom Felton presents his story with humor and modesty, as well as deep appreciation for the experiences he’s had and the people he’s worked with. He comes across as very human and not overly impressed with his own celebrity — it’s a friendly, chummy memoir about a boy who ended up following a very unusual path. Lots of fun — definitely recommended.

Shelf Control #347: The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn

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!

Title: The Wild Silence
Author: Raynor Winn
Published: 2020
Length: 280 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Nature holds the answers for Raynor and her husband Moth. After walking 630 homeless miles along The Salt Path, living on the windswept and wild English coastline; the cliffs, the sky and the chalky earth now feel like their home.

Moth has a terminal diagnosis, but against all medical odds, he seems revitalized in nature. Together on the wild coastal path, with their feet firmly rooted outdoors, they discover that anything is possible.

Now, life beyond The Salt Path awaits and they come back to four walls, but the sense of home is illusive and returning to normality is proving difficult – until an incredible gesture by someone who reads their story changes everything.

A chance to breathe life back into a beautiful farmhouse nestled deep in the Cornish hills; rewilding the land and returning nature to its hedgerows becomes their saving grace and their new path to follow.

The Wild Silence is a story of hope triumphing over despair, of lifelong love prevailing over everything. It is a luminous account of the human spirit’s instinctive connection to nature, and how vital it is for us all.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy about a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

The Wild Silence is the follow-up to The Salt Path, Raynor Winn’s memoir of the journey she and her ailing husband made along the 630-mile Coast Path of Cornwall. I absolutely loved The Salt Path, feeling both incredibly impressed and incredulous that they attempted this trek during the lowest period of their lives. It’s an astounding feat, and the book is powerful, honest, funny, and touching.

But, at the end of The Salt Path, we readers are left with questions. What happened to the couple next? Did they find peace and happiness? How did the next chapter of their lives unfold?

As soon as I heard that the author would be publishing a sequel, I knew I needed it! Since I listened to the audio version of the first book, my intention was to do the same with The Wild Silence, but I also wanted the paperback to be able to follow along. Unfortunately, my good intentions just haven’t panned out, and I still haven’t started either the print or audio of this book.

Still, this is a Shelf Control book that I’m certain I want to read. I tend to always choose fiction over non-fiction whenever it’s time to start a new book, but I do love a good memoir. I’m excited to read/listen to The Wild Silence in 2023.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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

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Have fun!

Audiobook Review: I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

Title: I’m Glad My Mom Died
Author: Jennette McCurdy
Narrator: Jennette McCurdy
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: August 9, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Audio length: 6 hours, 26 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A heartbreaking and hilarious memoir by Jennette McCurdy about her struggles as a former child actor—including eating disorders, addiction, and a complicated relationship with her overbearing mother—and how she retook control of her life.

Jennette McCurdy was six years old when she had her first acting audition. Her mother’s dream was for her only daughter to become a star, and Jennette would do anything to make her mother happy. So she went along with what Mom called “calorie restriction,” eating little and weighing herself five times a day. She endured extensive at-home makeovers while Mom chided, “Your eyelashes are invisible, okay? You think Dakota Fanning doesn’t tint hers?” She was even showered by Mom until age sixteen while sharing her diaries, email, and all her income.

In I’m Glad My Mom Died, Jennette recounts all this in unflinching detail—just as she chronicles what happens when the dream finally comes true. Cast in a new Nickelodeon series called iCarly, she is thrust into fame. Though Mom is ecstatic, emailing fan club moderators and getting on a first-name basis with the paparazzi (“Hi Gale!”), Jennette is riddled with anxiety, shame, and self-loathing, which manifest into eating disorders, addiction, and a series of unhealthy relationships. These issues only get worse when, soon after taking the lead in the iCarly spinoff Sam & Cat alongside Ariana Grande, her mother dies of cancer. Finally, after discovering therapy and quitting acting, Jennette embarks on recovery and decides for the first time in her life what she really wants.

Told with refreshing candor and dark humor, I’m Glad My Mom Died is an inspiring story of resilience, independence, and the joy of shampooing your own hair. 

My kids and I spent countless hours watching iCarly, and we always loved that crazy Sam character, with her wild antics and silly schemes and out-there sense of humor. But now, having read Jennette McCurdy’s painful, raw memoir, I don’t think I could ever watch iCarly in quite the same way again.

The Goodreads synopsis (above) doesn’t really do justice to this book — if anything, it goes light on the depths of abuse and trauma portrayed through Jennette’s story. There’s very little here I’d describe as “hilarious” — and the “joy of shampooing your own hair”? Please. As we find out in the book, she was not allowed to shower on her own until late in her teens. There’s nothing joyful about it.

From an absurdly young age, Jennette was conditioned to make her mother’s happiness the absolute focus of her life. From the annual family ritual of watching an old video of her mother’s dying message to her kids (from an earlier bout with cancer, which she survived for another 20 years or so) to her mother’s emotional meltdowns if Jennette voiced her desire to quit acting, the mother’s narcissism and need to be in control was the dominant influence in the family’s lives.

As she describes so meticulously and painfully, every aspect of her life and career was dictated by her mother’s wishes and need for the spotlight, even if only available vicariously through her daughter. Jennette’s preferences didn’t matter. She was forced into auditions, acting classes, hours of dance lessons per week, and the pursuit of any other skill that casting directors might want. In one anecdote, she relates that after not getting cast for a part that required bouncing on a pogo stick, her mother immediately bought a pogo stick and forced her to practice on it in their backyard until she could get to a bazillion bounces in a row. Anything in pursuit of fame and success.

Much more dire than the endless lessons and “beauty” treatments is the eating disorder. As she began developing breasts on the cusp of puberty, Jennette’s mother offered to help her stay childlike (and therefore, more castable) by teaching her about “calorie restriction”. Essentially, the mother taught her own child how to be anorexic.

In addition to the severely unhealthy mother-daughter relationship, further trauma was inflicted by the toxic working conditions on the Nickelodeon set, in particular in regard to the man referred to in the book as “The Creator”, whose behavior paints him as creepy, emotionally abusive, and invasive — as well as being the person who gave the very young actress her first taste of alcohol.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, and I have to be honest, it’s a very tough listen. Jennette McCurdy’s delivery is full of personality, and she certainly knows how to use her voice to evoke and portray emotion — but the story she tells is so gut-wrenching that it can be really hard to hear. Somehow, listening to her voice her own story makes it that much more painful — it feels very personal and real.

I’m Glad My Mom Died has a provocative and controversial title, but I think her point is very well articulated through her writing. She examines how there’s a whole culture built up around putting mothers on pedestals, and how incredibly difficult it can be for someone with an abusive mother to understand that she wasn’t perfect, and that she was in fact responsible for so much of the trauma in her child’s life.

As I’ve said, this book is not easy. While there are some funny moments, and the actress’s trademark deadpan delivery can be really offbeat and startle a laugh out of the listener, it’s overall quite serious and heartbreaking. As well as the emotional, mental, and physical abuse, there are very frank discussions of eating disorders and addiction, so readers for whom those topics are triggering may want to consider whether this is the right choice for them.

Overall, I’m Glad My Mom Died is a strong, deeply sad memoir, told with honestly and blistering forthrightness. It’s uplifting to learn how far the author has come in her personal growth and recovery, but that doesn’t change the harrowing truths about her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Jennette McCurdy bravely shares her truth in this book and makes a lasting impression.

Audiobook Review: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

Title: All Creatures Great and Small
Author: James Herriot
Narrator: Nicholas Ralph
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Publication date: Originally published 1972
Print length: 448 pages
Audio length: 15 hours 23 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The first volume in the multimillion copy bestselling series.

Delve into the magical, unforgettable world of James Herriot, the world’s most beloved veterinarian, and his menagerie of heartwarming, funny, and tragic animal patients.

For fifty years, generations of readers have flocked to Herriot’s marvelous tales, deep love of life, and extraordinary storytelling abilities. For decades, Herriot roamed the remote, beautiful Yorkshire Dales, treating every patient that came his way from smallest to largest, and observing animals and humans alike with his keen, loving eye.

In All Creatures Great and Small, we meet the young Herriot as he takes up his calling and discovers that the realities of veterinary practice in rural Yorkshire are very different from the sterile setting of veterinary school.

James Herriot’s memoirs have sold 80 million copies wordwide, and continue to delight and entertain readers of all ages.

If you’re looking to let a little bit of sunlight and warmth into your soul, you couldn’t ask for more than this lovely classic (fictionalized) memoir.

All Creatures Great and Small, originally published in 1972, is the memoir of a country veterinarian, going back to the beginning of his career as a newly qualified vet in the late 1930s. James Herriot wrote a series of eight memoirs during his lifetime, which have been published and republished many times in the years since. All Creatures Great and Small consists of the first two of his books and a smidge of the third — and these stories have also been adapted for film and television (more on that later).

All Creatures starts with young James arriving in the Yorkshire Dales to become an apprentice at an established veterinary practice. James’s specialty is farm animals, and the practice’s clientele are largely the region’s farmer, although they do care for the assorted household pets of their village as well. James’s mentor is Siegfried Farnon, an oddball man who’s clearly very gifted at his work, but who has many personality quirks and a disturbing ability to disregard or forget anything that’s inconvenient to him.

Over the course of the book, James develops confidence in his veterinary skills, and slowly earns the grudging respect of the locals, who initially view him as an inexperienced outsider. James is gifted when it comes to the animals under his care, saving countless lives through his modern approaches and determination to see procedures through, no matter how hard.

One of the lovely aspects of the book is the description of the people themselves — from the curmudgeonly farmers to the eccentric mansion dwellers to the race horse owners, and more. The author describes them all with humor and kindness, and brings to life the oddities and personality traits that makes them all so unique.

Note: I mentioned above that this is a fictionalized memoir — a fact I didn’t actually realize until a book group friend provided some background. The author’s name is actually a pen name, the town where he sets the book is not a real place, but rather a made-up town based on the author’s experiences in the area of the Yorkshire Dales, and he’s altered/embroidered many of the chief characters in the book and/or based them on real people, but with different names and some different characteristics. Not that any of this truly matters to me. The book is so enjoyable that I don’t mind the blend of fact and fiction. For more on James Alfred “Alf” Wight, the man behind the James Herriot pen name, see articles here and here.

The audiobook edition that I listened to is a new version which has the star of the current PBS Masterpiece production as the narrator. Nicholas Ralph is terrific in the TV role, and he’s wonderful as the audiobook narrator too. His voice is so familiar at this point that it truly feels like sitting back and listening to James Herriot himself telling us his stories! The actor not only brings James’s character to life, but also delivers distinctive, enjoyable versions of all the various characters, and it’s a delight.

If you haven’t checked out the TV series yet, I highly recommend it! Two seasons have aired so far, and season 3 will be released in the US in January 2023.

I absolutely loved listening to the audiobook of All Creatures Great and Small (and once again, need to give a shout-out to my book group for picking it!). It’s a gentle, heart-warming, funny look at a bygone time, and James Herriot’s love for the community and his profession shine through on every page and with every story he tells.

Highly recommended… and as for me, I look forward to reading (or listening to) the next book in the series, All Things Bright and Beautiful.



Shelf Control #314: Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco by Alia Volz

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!

Title: Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco
Author: Alia Volz
Published: 2020
Length: 436 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A blazingly funny, heartfelt memoir from the daughter of the larger-than-life woman who ran Sticky Fingers Brownies, an underground bakery that distributed thousands of marijuana brownies per month and helped provide medical marijuana to AIDS patients in San Francisco—for fans of Armistead Maupin and Patricia Lockwood

During the ’70s in San Francisco, Alia’s mother ran the underground Sticky Fingers Brownies, delivering upwards of 10,000 illegal marijuana edibles per month throughout the circus-like atmosphere of a city in the throes of major change. She exchanged psychic readings with Alia’s future father, and thereafter had a partner in business and life.

Decades before cannabusiness went mainstream, when marijuana was as illicit as heroin, they ingeniously hid themselves in plain sight, parading through town—and through the scenes and upheavals of the day, from Gay Liberation to the tragedy of the Peoples Temple—in bright and elaborate outfits, the goods wrapped in hand-designed packaging and tucked into Alia’s stroller. But the stars were not aligned forever and, after leaving the city and a shoulda-seen-it-coming divorce, Alia and her mom returned to San Francisco in the mid-80s, this time using Sticky Fingers’ distribution channels to provide medical marijuana to friends and former customers now suffering the depredations of AIDS.

Exhilarating, laugh-out-loud funny, and heartbreaking, Home Baked celebrates an eccentric and remarkable extended family, taking us through love, loss, and finding home.

How and when I got it:

I picked up the Kindle edition about a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

Just last week, I mentioned that I often add non-fiction books to my shelves, yet somehow never find myself motivated to read them. And yet here I go again, featuring a non-fiction book as this week’s Shelf Control book!

This book got a lot of buzz here in San Francisco when it came out in 2020. I remember seeing not just reviews in the arts section of the paper, but also profiles, interviews, etc. And honestly, doesn’t this just sound fascinating?

San Francisco is not my hometown, but I’ve lived here since the mid-90s. Since moving here, I’ve been eager to learn more about SF’s recent and more distant history — and what better and more exciting times to read about than the 70s and 80s? The blurb mentioning Armistead Maupin (author of Tales of the City) doesn’t hurt a bit, and I’m also eager to see how this edibles business transformed into a cause supporting AIDS patients needing medical marijuana.

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 or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
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Have fun!

Graphic Reaction: Good Talk by Mira Jacob

Title: Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations
Author: Mira Jacob
Publisher: One World
Publication date: March 26, 2019
Length: 349 pages
Genre: Graphic memoir
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Mira Jacob’s touching, often humorous, and utterly unique graphic memoir takes readers on her journey as a first-generation American. At an increasingly fraught time for immigrants and their families, Good Talk delves into the difficult conversations about race, sex, love, and family that seem to be unavoidable these days.

Inspired by her popular BuzzFeed piece “37 Difficult Questions from My Mixed-Raced Son,” here are Jacob’s responses to her six-year-old, Zakir, who asks if the new president hates brown boys like him; uncomfortable relationship advice from her parents, who came to the United States from India one month into their arranged marriage; and the imaginary therapy sessions she has with celebrities from Bill Murray to Madonna. Jacob also investigates her own past, from her memories of being the only non-white fifth grader to win a Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest to how it felt to be a brown-skinned New Yorker on 9/11. As earnest and moving as they are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, these are the stories that have formed one American life.

I can’t think of a more timely book to read this week — on the eve of a monumentally important election — than Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. In this graphic memoir, the author shares conversations between her and her six-year-old (and later, eight-year-old) son, her husband, her in-laws, her parents, her friends, and all sorts of other relatives and acquaintances. Through these conversations, she explores what it means to have brown skin in America, and how she hopes to help her mixed-race child navigate a world that still doesn’t know how to stop treating people as others.

From her son’s early obsession with Michael Jackson up through the 2016 election, she navigates the strange and treacherous landscape of race in America, using drawn characters against photographic backgrounds to highlight a variety of conversations that are funny while also sad, startling, and infuriating.

This is a quick read, but so lovely and warm and powerful. I will definitely want to read more by this author!

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!

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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!