Taproot, by Kathy Mangan

Taproot-COVER-web

I immersed myself in my friend Kathy Mangan’s poetry this week. In this new collection, each poem reaches deep into our common experience to bring out the bitter herbs and sweet blooms that crowd our lives. Reading them while watching my late sunflowers finally unfurling their fragile gold petals makes me consider the ground they have sprung from. I try to imagine what this patch of earth takes from the vast mantle of living soil that surrounds it, that we walk on every day, heedless, and what it gives back.

Mangan deftly welcomes us into each poem, ensuring that we find ourselves in that particular time and place. For example, “After Morning Visiting Hours in the ICU” begins:

The suck of the hospital’s revolving door thrusts
you into the stun of noon sun, and you stop at the corner,
squinting down Lombard Street —

You don’t have to have experienced Baltimore’s roasting summers to feel the heat here. Mangan’s strong verbs and vivid gerunds—suck, stun—surprise us even as the music of stresses and internal rhyme lulls us into a daze.

The title of “Portrait in a Foreign Flat” begins our orientation, while the first lines make it specific:

Before I knew anything;
she was simply the sweet blond
girl in the gilt-framed portrait
over the piano in the living room.

We know because of the first line and the “simply” in the second that we are in for a story, and Mangan does not disappoint. I could not help being stirred by the story that unfolds before returning to the portrait over the piano.

Each poem is like a miniature novel, an entire life in a single moment, each scene an emotional experience. These are the sort of poems that I delight in, poems where the personal becomes universal and the everyday opens to new revelations.

I especially enjoyed the marvelously titled “Instead of Preparing Your Morning Composition Class on MLA Documentation, You Want to Write This Poem.” The narrator’s reactions—sometimes warm, often hilarious—to specific things and people encountered on her walk to work, bounced against footnote rules, delighted me.

Whether she’s writing about little things like a grandchild’s fantasy game or watching a son take the ice for a hockey game, or big things like illness and death, Mangan finds a new way into them, a way to bring them directly to our consciousness. We grieve with her; we celebrate with her.

Most of all, we remember our own joys and losses with sudden clarity. These poems give us our lives back.

What poets have you read who have opened your eyes to the world around you?

Meet Me in Monaco, by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

MeetMeInMonacoFINAL

What a delightful summer read! Whether you’re at the beach, on a plane, or—like me—glued to a fan, weathering a heat wave in town, this Novel of Grace Kelly’s Royal Wedding, as the subtitle says, is the perfect read.

The story opens in May of 1955 as Grace Kelly arrives in Cannes for the film festival, trailed by a horde of paparazzi. Among them is James Henderson—“Jim to my friends”—an English photographer more interested in landscapes than celebrities, but needing to make a living to help support his divorced wife and beloved daughter Emily.

Despite her sunglasses and headscarf, Grace is spotted by Jim and takes refuge in a small perfume boutique. The shop and the perfumerie in Grasse where the perfumes are produced are owned by Sophie Duval. Her home in Grasse, “a stone farmhouse surrounded by sunflower and lavender fields”, is where Sophie prefers to spend her time, creating new scents and experimenting with different blends, but she needs to maintain the shop in Cannes. Luckily she has her and her father’s longterm employee Natalie to run it, but Sophie must be present during the festival.

With Sophie and Natalie’s help, Grace avoids Jim, but he’s not disappointed. He tries out his terrible French on Sophie and snaps a parting shot of her, capturing her angry response. Even in the scrum of the film festival, the two will run into each other again, as Jim struggles for the perfect photo of the film star while Sophie attends events with her wealthy fiancé Lucien.

I loved this story. (Full disclosure: I’m acquainted with one of the authors.) The time period is beautifully evoked, pulling the curtain to reveal more of the reality behind the glamour. The characters, including Grace herself, come fully alive, even minor characters like Natalie, Jim’s daughter Emily and his friend Teddy. They linger long after the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, like the ghost of a scent.

The perfume business is what most intrigued me in this novel. Sophie’s father taught her that “A parfumeur is to be a keeper of memories.” The scents she creates conjure up memories of people and places. It’s what she thinks of when she meets someone for the first time: what combination of ingredients capture this person’s essence? The descriptions of these blends are enchanting: verbena, vanilla and ginger for young women; violet, oakmoss and cinnamon for an older woman; lime and jasmine for someone who sparkles. Caught up as I was in the story, I still was happy to absorb some information about how perfumes are produced and the way the scents are layered.

It can be risky to write historical fiction set in a time that is still within living memory of many readers, disconcerting as it is to realise that what seems to vivid to some is considered history by younger generations. It can also be risky to include real people as characters. But Gaynor and Webb meet both these challenges effortlessly. Or so it seems; it is only in retrospect that I can appreciate the amount of research that must have gone into this novel and the care taken to keep it from intruding on the story.

If you’re looking for a read that will carry you off to destinations such as Provence and the French Riviera, a story that will fill your senses and your heart, you can’t go wrong with this novel.

Have you been surprised by a novel that appeared to be pure entertainment, but turned out to be something much more substantial?

True North, by Jill Ker Conway

True North

This sequel to The Road from Coorain begins in September of 1960, as Conway travels from Australia to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she will be a graduate student. She says:

The future of a woman alone in the world and the 1950s was a blank page, because no one I knew had lived that way, and the rules of the culture were clear that they shouldn’t. So I experienced my leave-taking as a farewell to the known, a jump off the edge of the world into an unknowable future.

From the weather to the customs—such as dinner being served at 5:30 pm, the time for nursery tea back home—she has to find her bearings in this new world. I love her descriptions of Cambridge, such as:

It was old, by any standard, and sparer, in a fashion I could not quite comprehend, than any urban landscape I’d yet seen.

and

I’d never thought there could be beauty in a pallet of gray and white, but suddenly I could see in the low slanting light, the bare branches, and the gleaming snow of an early winter afternoon images I’d seen before in a Rembrandt drawing but never properly understood.

She is buoyed up by the “easy good manners and cordiality” of the people she meets. She quickly finds herself in a group of like-minded women, most of them a year ahead of her. Best of all are the courses she plunges into for this next phase of her scholarly career. She adeptly describes the excitement of the ideas in her seminars and the individuals teaching them.

As a teaching fellow in her second year, she finds herself working for John Conway, a war veteran from Canada. Although she comes to their first meeting “prepared to be very businesslike,” they quickly veer into discussing their “shared experience of a first encounter with the United States.”

Reader, she marries him. Then he gets an irresistible offer to be on the faculty and a master at one of the colleges at York University in Toronto. They agree to take turns: ten years for his career, ten for hers, and they move to Canada. It is a good move for her as well. She becomes involved in college administration and, at the end of this book, is invited to become president of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

I loved her descriptions of Toronto as well, where she has to adjust to a longer winter. Her insights into the Canadian view of the U.S. also intrigued me.

Unfortunately, she encounters some of the same prejudices she’d left behind in Australia. In fact, this last aspect became one of my greatest rewards in rereading this book. As she details her strategy for getting equal pay for herself; then all women faculty at the university, and then the other women working there—secretaries, lab technicians, cleaning women, career counselors—I remembered all those hard-fought battles, the ones we seem to be having to fight all over again.

She also talks about her work as a historian, writing about women’s roles, how they changed, and how the women themselves perceived their roles. Fascinating.

I’m eager to move on to A Woman’s Education, Conway’s third memoir, this one about her time at Smith College and one I’ve not read before. These books not only bring to life specific times and places, they chronicle the inspiring life of one woman on the cusp of major changes in our culture. Even better, they encourage the reader to consider and reconsider ideas and, perhaps, memories that speak to the issues we are struggling with today.

Have you read a memoir or biography that seems extraordinarily relevant today?

The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

Coorain

Rereading this bestselling 1989 memoir reminds me of why I enjoyed it so much back then. Conway gives us the opportunity to experience a childhood on a ranch in the Australian outback. She describes the austere beauty of the landscape, the desperate need for rain, the solitude for herself and her parents.

With no children besides her two older brothers within a hundred miles, she relies on her imagination and books for company. Helping out with the ranch work, she learns self-sufficiency and a practical grasp of what’s needed in the world. It is this combination of imagination and practicality that sends her into the world in search of education and greater understanding, a journey that will make her president of Smith College one day.

On this reading, I found myself fascinated with her parents in a way I hadn’t been before. She describes them as risk-takers, purchasing the land in 1929, not knowing that the drought was not seasonal but would become “legendary”, not knowing that the Depression was about to start in a few months. The ranch was her father’s dream, but the places he’d worked after returning from the horrors of the Great War were in a part of the country with a more forgiving landscape.

Her mother had grown up in a lush country town and enjoyed her career as a nurse, actually running her own country hospital. Yet she gave all this up to go with her new husband to the new home they named Coorain, an aboriginal word meaning “windy place”.

My father, being a westerner, born into that profound peace and silence, felt the need for it like an addiction to a powerful drug. Here, pressed into the earth by the weight of that enormous sky, there is real peace. To those who know it, the annihilation of the self, subsumed into the vast emptiness of nature, is akin to a religious experience. We children grew up to know it and seek it as our father before us. What was social and sensory deprivation for the stranger was the earth and sky that made us what we were. For my mother, the emptiness was disorienting, and the loneliness and silence a daily torment of existential dread.

Had she known how to tell directions she would have walked her way to human voices.

Despite all that, her mother is a figure of strength in Conway’s childhood, facing each new setback with courage and action. Her mother encourages Conway to read by asking her to read aloud while her mother works at daily chores, made more onerous by the lack of electricity and running water. Cooking is done on a wood stove even in the brutal heat of summer. Her mother has to be ready to treat snakebite or help fight bushfires.

But three years after the death of Conway’s father, she and her mother move to Sydney, leaving a good manager to run the ranch. There, her mother’s drive has no outlet and she becomes more and more controlling. Weighed down by grief and anger—she sometimes rages at strange men for daring to be alive when her beloved husband is dead—she begins drinking and her moods become unpredictable. Conway takes refuge in her schooling.

No matter where she travels, Conway never loses her love of her native landscape, though as she learns more, she becomes more critical about the treatment of aboriginal peoples and the ambiguous morality of land ownership.

It’s a fascinating story of an earlier time, a place and a culture foreign to me, and yet Conway’s experience was like mine in so many ways. My book club all raved about the book, finding Conway’s prose beautiful to read and her life inspirational. We want more of this, they said.

Have you been inspired by a memoir about a woman overcoming obstacles, both internal and external, and going on to accomplish great things in the world?

Fruits of the Poisonous Tree, by Archer Mayor

Archer Mayor

I’m continuing to read Mayor’s mystery series featuring Vermont detective Joe Gunther. In this fifth book someone close to Joe is the victim of a terrible crime, and he quickly realises that the best thing he can do to help—indeed, the only thing—is to find the perpetrator as quickly as possible.

However, that’s not so easy when police protocol calls for him to stay out of the investigation. His boss strikes a deal with States Attorney James Dunn, involved in a tight reelection race, that allows Joe to participate while his second-in-command runs the investigation. Also, Joe must be babysat, i.e., accompanied by another cop wherever he goes.

This is one of the most exciting of the Mayor novels I’ve read so far, with several nail-biting chases and standoffs in surprising locations, phsyical danger for Joe and others, and plenty of personal conflict for Joe as he examines his own motives and capabilities.

But what I most enjoyed were the descriptions of the town of Brattleboro itself. Often what draws me to a mystery series is the use of location as a character: Boston for Robert B. Parker, Baltimore for Laura Lippman, Paris for Cara Black, Venice for Donna Leon. Even fictional locations work, such as Three Pines in Louise Penny’s series.

Mayor’s descriptions of Brattleboro are brief but capture its personality. Here, for example:

Brattleboro is an unusually mixed bag of a town. An icon of the previous century’s industrial might, it has an imposing downtown of stolid red-brick buildings, a few obligatory tree-lined neighborhoods of impressive Victorian showpieces, and a vast number of standard, modest, updated nineteenth-century homes—in good or poor shape depending on the locale. The whole thing rests on a broken-backed, topsy-turvy, creek- and river-creased patch of land . . .

Sprinkled throughout, however, just off the well-traveled thoroughfares, Brattleboro has a contrasting scattering of neighborhoods unique into themselves. They are poor or middle class or shyly redolent of old money, but they all share a separateness from the whole, as if, during the town’s early evolution, hidden genetic strains of other far-distant communities were subversively introduced.

Now that I’ve gotten to know the town a bit better, I can recognise some of the neighborhoods and follow Joe’s slippery race through falling snow to a street near where I live. As with Boston and Baltimore, my own knowledge of the place makes me nod with recognition at Mayor’s descriptions of the town’s character.

Ian Rankin once said he began writing his enormously successful Rebus series in order to get to know Edinburgh, his then-new home. As in reading Rankin’s books, Mayor’s series rewards the reader with a cornucopia of pleasures. You can read them for the puzzle or the excitement of the chase; you can read them to immerse yourself in a unique location; or you can read them for the satisfaction of watching a character like Joe Gunther grow and develop. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

What mystery series do you enjoy? What do you like best about it?

My House, by Nikki Giovanni

My house

This month my poetry discussion group read and discussed the work of Nikki Giovanni, one of my first favorite poets. It was a joy for me to reread her work, including this collection from 1975. We all were delighted by her sly sense of humor and her true-to-life portraits of people and places. We appreciated the way she sometimes uses these gifts to open up political and social issues in a down-to-earth way.

Some of the poems we particularly liked take an everyday occurrence, use vivid language to draw us in, and then at the end open up into something larger. An example is “Legacies” where a grandmother calls a girl in from the playground to teach her to make rolls. The girl can’t express her reasons, which have to do with foreseeing the old woman’s death, so she says:

“i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”
with her lips poked out
and the old woman wiped her hands on
her apron saying “lord
these children”
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and i guess nobody ever does

Giovanni captures family dynamics with subtle accuracy. In “Mothers” she describes going home to visit her mother and how they “kissed / exchanged pleasantries / and unpleasantries . . .” and the encounter calls up a memory from childhood:

i remember the first time
i consciously saw her
we were living in a three room
apartment on burns avenue

We were fascinated by this and talked at some length about consciously seeing your mother, about the moment when a child recognises and acknowledges another as a person, when, as Sartre describes, she realises that what she saw as another object (which he calls “being-in-itself”) in the world is actually a subject (or “being-for-itself”).

The poem goes on to describe her mother sitting in the darkened room.

she was very deliberately waiting
perhaps for my father to come home
from his night job or maybe for a dream
that had promised to come by

I couldn’t help but think of Faith Wilding’s amazing poem “Waiting”, first performed in 1973. But Giovanni goes in a different direction. Her mother calls her over and teaches her a little poem about the moon, and Giovanni ends with an intriguing and profound reversal:

i taught it to my son
who recited it for her
just to say we must learn
to bear the pleasures
as we have borne the pains

Giovanni has written many children’s and young adult books, so it’s not surprising that some of her poems speak in a child’s voice, capturing so well a child’s outlook. One in this collection is the short but lovely “Winter Poem”.

Once a snowflake fell
On my brow and I loved
It so much and I kissed
It and it was happy and called its cousins
And brothers and a web
Of snow engulfed me then
I reached to love them all
And I squeezed them and they became
A spring rain and I stood perfectly
Still and was a flower.

I’m reminded of this poem whenever the two-year-old I care for squeezes the cat because he loves her, not remembering that she is fragile and could melt like the snow.

Do you have a favorite poem by Nikki Giovanni?

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

Oprah Book Club

That this novel addresses one of the most important social issues of our time, one that has rarely been explored in fiction, is enough to make it a must-read book. Add to that a smooth prose style, lashings of tension, and well-rounded characters and it’s no wonder this book is a mega-hit.

At first it seems like a fairly mundane domestic drama. Rob and Celestial’s new marriage is already beginning to show some cracks. Their different backgrounds lead to disagreements about money and ambition, while Rob’s wandering eye creates even more tension between the two.

Then the police knock at the door. Oh, by the way, Rob and Celestial are African-American.

A woman whom Rob helped earlier in the day has been raped and identified Rob as the perpetrator. Unexpectedly, the author speeds through the details of the trial and Rob’s subsequent imprisonment; this is no polemic, even though it’s obvious that Rob is not guilty.

Instead, Jones explores the effect of this violent and unjust separation on the couple. Our expectations continue to be upended, as the narrative shifts from Rob to Celestial and back again before moving to include letters exchanged between the two. We are brought into their marriage and the marriages of their parents in a surprisingly intimate way. I found my sympathies wavering between Rob and Celestial without ever settling on one or the other.

I have been thinking about sacrifice a lot lately, in particular the sacrifices women make as daughters, wives, and mothers. Here, tension swirls around the issue of how much Celestial should be willing to sacrifice to support her husband who has been sentenced to 12 years in prison. The question of what loyalty or duty she owes him is complicated by their being part of a minority that has in certain ways pulled together to survive the discrimination and abuse they suffer.

As one of my friends pointed out in a discussion of this book, one of the strengths of this novel is that it does not take bother to give the white view of the story. For example, we don’t learn much about the woman who falsely accused Rob. My friend compared this book to To Kill a Mockingbird with its similar story, but told almost entirely from a white point of view.

Another friend nailed an aspect of the novel that I both liked and disliked. The author’s voice seemed to come through nearly all of the characters, making them sound much the same. While that made the book read more easily and one character’s point of view transition to another more smoothly, it also made it more difficult to distinguish the characters, to feel I’d really gotten to know them.

In fact, when I came to the discussion three weeks after I finished the book, I had trouble remembering much about it beyond the initial premise of the effect of Rob’s unjust imprisonment on their marriage. I think part of my slight disengagement came from the use of the letters that by their nature relate events that happened in the past. Much of the narrative, too, tells of things that have already happened.

But this is a minor concern. The story quickly came back to me as we discussed it, and my appreciation for it deepened as I began to understand better Jones’s subtle interweaving of theme and story. An American Marriage deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it.

What bestseller have you read that was even better than you expected?

You Kiss by th’Book, by Gary Soto

Soto Shakespeare

In this collection by Gary Soto, whose work I have been enjoying, he takes a line from Shakespeare and uses it as the first line of a new poem. This is similar to an exercise that poets sometimes use where you take a line from one of your own poems and use it in a new poem. It’s always fascinating to see what different directions you find yourself taking. Soto read not just Shakespeare’s poetry but also his plays, always on the lookout for lines that pique his imagination. Some of the lines he uses are well-known; others obscure.

One of the things that surprised me in these poems is that he sets them in the time of Shakespeare. While Soto’s language is, as always, straightforward and accessible, it hints at the syntax of the time period, even sometimes using words now considered archaic. His poems are also effective because he uses specific images to create the world of the poem. Interestingly, many of these images are from life in the mid-16th century, as in this excerpt from a poem based on a line from Measure for Measure.

We must not make a scarecrow of the law.
Citizens, let the law rise naturally strong,
And be fed mutton, fowl, and stern mead.
Gloved or ungloved, laws hand should be mighty,
His jaw square, his eye fiery, his arm veined,
Not like the scarecrow who gives up
His innards when a paltry wind doth blow . . .

Yet even with such images, we connect with these poems because the ideas are timeless. How relevant to today’s issues is the need to protect the power of the law, the calling out of cowards who throw out their principles when the wind changes direction. Another poem, based on a line from Venus and Adonis, strikes me hard during this week when we are so outraged and pained by the terrible abuse of children taken from their parents and other family members trying to emigrate to the U.S.

The colt that’s backed and burdened being young
goes not far, for he has no spirit.
He has but a routine of grinding corn.

He eats little, drinks even less.
Flies scrub his eyelids when he doth cry.

The emotions are also timeless, whether pity or outrage, grief or—as in this poem based on a line from The Merchant of Venice—love.

One half of me is yours, the other half yours,
My thirteen cows reduced by one are still yours,
The chickens reduced by three are yours,
The candles and spoons,
The windows,
The very roof troubled in wind and rain,
The fire I build for you,
All yours.

I’m grateful to my friend Nichael for sharing this book with me. I love the idea of widening the relevance of Shakespeare’s work. Even more intriguing for me is the way Soto takes us into Shakespeare’s world and shows that however much the details have changed, our lives in many ways are the same.

What line from Shakespeare’s work sets your imagination on fire?

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

postmistress

We don’t often reflect on just how amazing it is that we can put a letter in the post and know that it will arrive at its destination in a timely way. Iris James is the sole employee of the post office in Franklin, Massachusetts, a small town on the tip of Cape Cod. It is the fall of 1940, and the U.S. is holding off from entering the war. Meanwhile, Iris and her neighbors listen to the news coming out of London where the Blitz is flattening buildings and posters urging Londoners to Keep Calm and Carry On abound.

Many of the newscasts come from Edward R. Murrow but some people in Franklin are being drawn in by the voice of Murrow’s protégé Frankie Bard. She talks about the little moments that bring to life the horrors happening in London for the inhabitants of Franklin.

One of those inhabitants is Emma, new wife of the town’s doctor, Will Fitch. Orphaned during the flu epidemic of 1918, Emma has grown up feeling invisible, untethered as she is by human bonds. Meeting Will has changed all that, but Will has his own demons.

Franklin seems far away from the war and the U.S., like Franklin’s mob of summer tourists, is too busy being entertained to pay much attention to what is happening in Europe. “How easily the face of the world turns away,” Frankie thinks at one point. Yet the war’s reach is long.

Blake’s evocation of wartime London is brilliant; equally vivid is her portrait of quiet Franklin, where Iris takes comfort in the routine and order and consistency she can bring to her work in the tiny post office, holding the secrets of the town in her hands, as one neighbor tells her. I found Iris fascinating, yet for once didn’t mind moving between protagonists as the story shifted between the three women, because Emma and Frankie are equally fascinating.

I didn’t expect to like this book, despite (or perhaps because of) the effusive praise on the cover. One Thanksgiving when I was eight or nine, my cousin Bobby piled a lot of sauerkraut on my plate, and my mother made me eat it all. I’ve never been able to eat sauerkraut since.

That’s how I feel about novels set in WWII. I find it hard to read yet another one. My perception of the outsized number of WWII novels may be a function of my age. As the central event in the lives of my parents’ generation (along with the Depression), it was obviously a subject that stirred many writers and readers during the decades when I was growing up. And then there’s the aftermath of the war that I experienced. After my mother’s sentimental stories of the boys she danced with before they shipped out, no tragic wartime romance could seem anything but old hat. After the Eichmann trial, no Holocaust novel could shock me.

Yet Blake has found what for me is a previously unexplored corner of that war—twelve months while London is being bombed and the U.S. is trying to stay neutral—and used it to pose important questions.

How do we cope with our world being destroyed? You don’t know where the next bomb is going to fall; if you put a loved one on a train or ship to safety it may itself be destroyed. Is it better to keep them near? What do you do when you lose your home? Your neighbor? Your mother?

More importantly, how do we live our ordinary lives knowing other people are suffering these horrors? Frankie’s colleague Harriet has been collecting the brief reports and hints coming out of Germany describing what is being done to the Jews, but no one wants to hear about it. Iris’s friend Harry keeps a lonely vigil every night, convinced that a German submarine may be headed for Cape Cod, but others in town make fun of him. As Frankie asks Murrow:

“What are we doing back home, Ed? What are people doing, for Christ’s sake?”

“Living their lives.”

“How can they be?”

Yet we do, even now.

Questions like these lurk in the background of this engrossing novel, while we follow the trajectories set in motion by the characters’ decisions and twisted by outside events, including an undelivered letter. Blake’s unsentimental yet compassionate tone makes us care about these characters even as she avoids the all-too-common pitfall of romaticising the war. I fell into the world of this novel and stayed there right to its satisfying conclusion.

Have you read a novel that you found both absorbing and thought-provoking?

Educated, by Tara Westover

educated

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?