Educated, by Tara Westover

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As so often happens with books that have been hyped to the moon and back, I was underwhelmed by this memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Dysfunction comes in many guises. Here, it takes the form of a survivalist family in Idaho, Mormons so distrustful of the government that they hole up on their rural property, stockpiling food and guns for the expected “end times” and refusing medical help when injured.

It is Gene, a pseudonym for Westover’s father, whose paranoia drives this withdrawal from the world, taking the three older children out of school and not allowing the other four, of whom Tara is the youngest, to attend at all or even to have their births registered. Their mother is an obedient drone, who towards the end of the book finally begins to express other opinions when Gene isn’t looking, only to recant in his presence.

The thrust of the book is Westover emerging from her isolated and physically dangerous childhood, using education as her way out, getting all the way to a PhD from Cambridge. However, her journey away costs her not only her home but her family, who shun the worldly person she has become. Of course, by that time I couldn’t help but be baffled by how she kept going back to her appalling family, trying to make peace with them.

The overwhelming popularity of the book seems to be driven by the titillating details of their survivalist life. Having known some survivalists, I found that aspect of Westover’s family not as remarkable as the violence perpetrated by Gene and one of the older boys. The people I knew may have mistrusted the government but didn’t resort to machine guns and a cannon; they didn’t force their children into labor so unsafe they nearly lost limbs or their lives.

The descriptions of the injuries the children and Gene sustain, and treat only with herbal remedies—or, in the case of tonsillitis, sunlight—are so terrible that my suspension of disbelief wavered. I want to believe that Westover is telling the truth, and indeed she uses occasional footnotes with alternate versions of some incidents provided by others, yet it is had to believe that they could have survived such injuries without medical care.

I also struggled to accept that a girl who had never been schooled (at home or elsewhere), never read anything but the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and a child’s picture book on science could teach herself enough during one winter to score sufficiently high to win a place at Brigham Young University—and then do well in all her courses.

Also, some things didn’t quite add up to the portrait of Gene as a survivalist. When Westover is trying to get financial aid, she uses her parents’ tax returns. Gene won’t let his children go to school, but pays his taxes? Also, while the younger children are forced to work in Gene’s scrapyard at home, Gene himself goes out building barns and the older boys work as truckers and other jobs out in the world. They have drivers’ licenses then. It seems obvious to me that Gene is not so much a paranoid survivalist as a power-hungry bully, a narcissist who sees his wife and children as peons under his iron control.

My patience was tried by Westover’s continued attempts to reconcile with the family who had shunned her and by her continued expression of love for the father who had inflicted so much damage on those he should have protected. As a friend of mine who endured an abusive childhood said, “Some parents don’t deserve to be forgiven. Just because they had you doesn’t mean you have to keep them in your life.” Yet even in the final pages Westover still seems to feel guilty about the breach between her and her family, especially her father, as though it were her fault.

While the prose flows smoothly, I never felt Westover emerge as a person in this book. From a distance I see her being tortured physically and emotionally. I see her sudden leap into extraordinary achievements. But that’s all. One of my book clubs agreed that they now knew what happened to her but didn’t feel that they knew her. They said that the descriptions of the shocking injuries and abuse were the most powerful and memorable parts of the book. That’s a shame. I’d hate to think that the book’s popularity is due to its gruesome descriptions of young people being hurt. I wish the excitement and joy of learning could have outshone the torture.

Have you read this hugely popular book? All three of my book clubs read it this year. What did you think of it?

New and Selected Poems, by Gary Soto

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I’m grateful to poet Lynn Martin for introducing me to Soto’s work. Born in the U.S. to Mexican-American parents, Soto grew up hard after his father died when he was only five. Many of the poems in this collection speak of that life, work in the fields and factories, encounters on the street.

He tells stories of collecting copper and dancing in Kearney Park. He tells of his grandma who “Pounded chiles / With a stone / Brought from Guadalajara” burying a cigar box of money. He tells of a couple getting ready to leave a cantina and a widow “slumped down in the closet / Among a pile of dirty clothes”.

Many of the poems are like paintings, landscapes—urban and wild—that he conjures for us so clearly. The first poem, the title poem of his first collection, “The Elements of San Joaquin” is a perfect example. In sections with titles like field, wind, sun, fog, he seduces us with images:

A dry wind over the valley
Peeled mountains, grain by grain,
To small slopes, loose dirt
Where red ants tunnel.

The wind strokes
The skulls and spines of cattle
To white dust, to nothing,

Covers the spiked tracks of beetles,
Of tumbleweed, of sparrows
That pecked the ground for insects.

Yet, the way he shows us the reality of a migrant worker’s life, without rancor, is persuasive. There’s no need for political slogans or outraged cries.

When autumn rains flatten sycamore leaves,
The tiny volcanos of dirt
Ants raised around their holes,
I should be out of work.

. . .

The skin of my belly will tighten like a belt
And there will be no reason for pockets.

With moments of witness like these, I understand why his poems are often used in schools. I see that he is also author of 21 Young Adult and children’s books. In fact, I am astounded by his output: fifteen poetry collections, eight memoirs, a play and two films, while also editing four anthologies.

Sometimes a poem is a story; sometimes just a slice of life. One of my favorites is “Mission Tire Factory, 1969” which starts out:

All through lunch Peter pinched at his crotch,
And Jesús talked about his tattoos,
And I let the flies crawl my arm, undisturbed,
Thinking it was wrong, a buck sixty five,
The wash of rubber in our lungs,
The oven we would enter, squinting . . .

It then delves into an incident both tragic and funny, as well as sweet. I particularly appreciate this aspect of Soto’s work because I know how harmful and hurtful stereotypes can be, whether we’re talking about welfare mothers like me or immigrants or people of color or those with mental or physical handicaps. By taking us into the lives of Latinx workers, parents, and children, Soto gives us reason to respect them and—even more—see ourselves in them.

These poems show Soto walking a sometimes uneasy path between his early life working in the fields and his current life as college professor and award-winning poet. While “The Elements of San Joaquin” gives us an inside look into the life of a seasonal fieldworker, “Ars Poetica, or Mazatlan, on a Day When Bodies Wash to the Shore” holds the mixed emotions of how far he has come (or not come) since those days.

With vivid details, the narrator describes how he and Omar, presumably a friend, explored the town.

Earlier, we were at the mercado,
With its upside down chickens
Blinking blood from all holes.

Fat cats from the north, they left big tips in restaurants, happy to be able to help the poor of Mazatlan. Then he says, “Now we’re not so sure.” In even more vivid detail he describes the body of a man washed up on the beach. Again he says:

Now we’re not so sure.
. . .
The truth is, we want to go home,
Vanish in the train’s white smoke,
And miraculously find ourselves
In America.

It is death that finds us, unready, our work unfinished, and no amount of privilege will save us.

There is craft here, in the sounds and tastes, in the choice of details, in the music of the lines, but these poems are so accessible that you don’t need to know any craft to enjoy them. He welcomes us into his world and we find ourselves at home there.

Have you read Gary Soto’s poetry? Which of his poems would you recommend?

London Review of Books, Vol. 40, No. 21, 8 November 2018

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A recent vacation gave me the opportunity to catch up a bit on my backlog of LRBs. I’m a longtime subscriber to this review that comes out twice a month, enjoying not just the reviews themselves, but also the British perspective.

This issue has many articles that intrigued me. A review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s final volume by Frederic Jameson in which he analyses the fascination of Knausgaard’s massive My Struggle, placing it within the history of writing and philosophy, exploring questions of truth versus fiction, theorising about the identity of the “you” addressed in these books. I’m still not convinced I want to jump into these books, but I learned a lot from the review.

On the other hand, Michael Wood’s review of Graham Greene’s The Third Man & Other Stories, in which he delves into Greene’s process of working on the film and the story at the same time, made me watch the film again and sent me in search of the book.

When the LRB began including political essays some years ago, I was disappointed. Yet I’ve found the British point of view on U.S. and world events intriguing and the insight into British politics helpful. Of particular interest in this issue is a point-by-point analysis of the consequences of a no-deal Brexit by Swati Dhingra and Josh de Lyon. This should be required reading for every British voter, and news commentators from other countries.

I was also fascinated by Malcolm Gaskill’s “Plot 6, Row C, Grave 15”, his account of looking for the grave of Lieutenant Van Dyke Fernald, killed near Conegliano in July 1918. He gives us Fernald’s short life, especially taking us inside his experience as a fighter pilot in the ridiculously dangerous planes of the time. A U.S. citizen, Fernald became a British citizen at the age of 18 so he could join up. Most heartbreaking is Gaskill’s account of the reaction of Fernald’s mother to his death: devoting herself to spiritualism, certain that he was contacting her, ignoring her younger son Jack in the process.

Deeply moving, as well, is Jane Campbell’s account “The Year of My Father Dying” about Peter Campbell who, among other things, created all of the LRB’s cover art until his death. She captures the unreality, the chasm between past and present.

I understood how pampered and oblivious I had been before; perhaps the most shocking thing about the emotional torture of the year of my father’s dying was how ordinary I now realised it must be. I sat on buses and walked down high streets, wondering how many others like me there were.

She uses Christian Marclay’s art piece The Clock to explore time itself, its elasticity and ultimate inscrutability.

My one complaint about the LRB is illustrated by its appallingly low Vida Count: only 27% women in the latest count (though in fairness their count is up 5% from the previous year). This breaks down to women making up 28% of authors reviewed, 24% of book reviewers, and 28% of bylines. By comparison, The New York Times Book Review’s count is 46% women, Poetry Magazine’s a healthy 50%, and The Times Literary Supplement’s slightly better 36%. The New York Review of Books, however, clocks in at only 23% women.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this issue. Take a look at the LRB in your local library or use the three free articles a month available to nonsubscribers on their website. Let me know what you think.