Monthly Archives: December 2018

EDUCATED


Tara Westover was born sometime in September of 1986, the youngest of seven children. She’s not exactly sure of the date as she was born at home in a remote mountainous area of Idaho; an area popular with other off-the-grid folks living in the western US area known as the Mormon Corridor. There is no formal record of her birth; no birth certificate was issued until she was nine years old. Like most of their remote neighbors, the Westover family were, in name, Mormons.

Now in her early 30s, Tara shares her moving story. She begins with her apocalyptic childhood leading to her adult life off the Idaho mountain and alienated from most of her family. Her journey is harsh and painful but offered to the world openly and honestly. She exposes a side of life most people have no idea exists and tells us how difficult it is to question your parent’s authority and concern for your well-being. She expresses the contradictions she finds herself facing; rebel against her parent’s way of life thus alienating herself from those she loves and freeing herself to discover the past, present and future available to her through education.

I have floundered with this review. I really enjoyed the book but find it hard to tag it. It’s not the usual “woe is me” memoir. Tara openly expresses love and affection for her family; something I am not sure I would feel under the circumstances. It is my opinion that the author had more than the general public in mind when she wrote the book; she wanted to educate the world about the fundamentalist culture, the bizarre and dangerous life she faced with eccentric parents and she needed to justify leaving her loved ones behind to allow herself the freedom to control her own life as she saw fit.

By the time she was born, her mother, overwhelmed with the number of children and the hard work of a subsistence lifestyle had given up on home schooling. She felt her job was done if she taught the children to read. To be fair, there was never a restriction on the children’s reading interests, but any child with an itch to read did so discretely after a full day’s chores. Tara had access to her older siblings aged text books and rabidly self-educated herself.

Tara Westover was not raised in a traditional Mormon family. Her father demanded total obedience in all matters and maintained control over his family’s daily routine. The slightest action could turn him into a demonic authority pontificating his own version of Mormon fundamentals. In this markedly patriarchal environment, male siblings held power over the girls; one particular brother was a cruel bully. Another brother was helpful in encouraging Tara to find her true north.

Imagine a world where your parents told you that everything outside their front door was corrupt. That something called the Deep State had eliminated personal freedoms and the “Medical Establishment” could not be trusted. The family would avoid hospitals and doctors regardless of the severity of the illness or injury.

Her father consumed with an “End of the World” theory, built massive supplies of food, weaponry, and ammunition to protect his family from renegades unprepared for survival in an apocalyptic world. He worked his children like indentured servants in a dangerous junkyard to pay for the supplies. Horrific physical injuries befall several family members; treatment restricted to mother’s self-created herbal medicines. If a sick or injured person failed to survive on their own at home, it was just God’s will.

Over time, Tara’s older siblings peeled away from the family home, escaping their father’s control leaving a very young Tara to fill their shoes in the junkyard. By the time she was fifteen-years-old, she began planning her own escape. She found odd jobs in a nearby town, made friendships outside the survivalist culture and devoured any and all sources of literature to prepare to take the college ACT test. At seventeen-years-old she enrolled at Brigham Young University, and discovered how much of life she knew nothing about.

One of first lectures, I raised my hand and asked
what the Holocaust was because I had never heard of it.

Encouraged by “outsiders” who recognized her potential, Tara Westover has achieved a first-class education. It was a struggle at first to fill in the blank slate but she graduated from Brigham Young University with honors in 2008. Following graduation she was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and earned a Masters in Philosophy from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009. In 2010 she became a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge University where she was award a PhD in history in 2014.

Well done, Tara.

Recommended reading. An excellent book club selection.

An in-depth interview with the author can be found on NPR.

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THE DEAL OF A LIFETIME

EXCERPT FROM PREFACE

The last several years, my husband and I have hunkered down in our log cabin and let Christmas pass rather uneventfully. Our kids are far away and have their own lives. But something triggered my need for Christmas spirit this year.

Maybe it was the current political distemper infecting our lives, the loss of several good friends, and the rapidly declining health of my siblings. What ever. I found myself reflecting on my blessings to have a warm roof over my head, plenty to eat, wonderful friends, and reasonably good health for a woman of 70.

My husband, paddling around the discount book sites came across The Deal of A Lifetime by Fredrik Backman.

Isn’t this author one of your favorites? Have you read this book? No, I replied. It is a novella. Actually more a short story so I have passed on buying it.

Not long after, while poking around for something Christmas themed to read and considering revisiting Ebenezer Scrooge and The Christmas Carol, I bumped into The Deal of A Lifetime once more – and bought the discounted Kindle version.

I was moved by the author’s emotional preface. Christmas is nigh, his family is asleep nearby while he sits, poised with pen in hand, to work out the kinks in his mind. In my opinion, the underlying emotions revealed in the preface are reflected in themes of the story. It is not hard to see that he is contemplating the possibility that if he had taken a different direction at one of life’s intersections things might have been better for his family. He comes to the conclusion that “we discover we need someone one to sweep us off our feet to realize what time really is.”

The story opens with a shocking letter from a famously successful and wealthy father to his son. It is intended to shock the reader into attention. As we will learn, the estranged father has made contact with his son, now an adult. He realizes he doesn’t know anything about him.

“Hi. It’s your dad. You’ll be waking up soon, it’s Christmas Eve morning in Helsingborg, and I’ve killed a person. That’s not how fairy tales usually begin, I know. But I took a life. Does it make a difference if you know whose it was?”

Without revealing too much of the story, a self-righteous man bumps up against life’s final hurdle – death. Much like Scrooge, this unnamed man finds himself wealthy beyond measure and lonely. His greedy nature had shielded his heart from his humanity.

While hospitalized for chemotherapy, he over hears a little girl telling her stuffed rabbit that she is going to die soon but she hopes it isn’t going to be tomorrow. He is startled when she runs away suddenly after spotting someone in the hallway. He is surprised to see the same someone he has meet before throughout his life when he had been in a life-threatening situation.

A woman in a thick, grey, knitted jumper… She carries a folder. She has all our names written inside.

Without revealing names or spending time in character development, The Deal of a Lifetime, in 65 pages, exposes our human weaknesses and our ability to atone for callous behaviors that had stifled or alienated us from those we love. It is a story offering the chance at redemption – with a twist ending I didn’t see coming. As an added bonus, the simple illustrations are charming.

Pick up a copy at the book store or check-out a copy from your local library.

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TRAVELING CAT CHRONICLES

★★★★★

Did you know that cats possess the widest range of vocalizations of any domestic pet? Hiro Arikawa’s wildly popular Japanese novel adds a twist by giving a human voice to a sassy stray cat that let’s us know he has kept himself alive for one full year, without a name and human help, thank you very much. 

The simple story has a deep meaning that becomes clearer and clearer before tenderly breaking your heart in the last forty pages. The two main characters, the sassy cat and his master, Satoru Miyawaki, a gentle man with a quiet nature, remain with me long after I finished this fictional gem.  

The hood of that silver van was my favorite place to sleep. Why there? Because no one would ever shoo me away. Even in winter, the sun made it all warm and toasty, the perfect spot for a daytime nap. One day I suddenly sensed a warm, intense gaze upon me…A tall, lanky young man, staring down at me…

And so began the perfect life from the cat’s point of view. The man would place a little food under the van and the cat would allow the man to stroke him in exchange. This worked right up until the day the cat had a run-in with a hit-and-run driver. 

Satoru rescued the injured cat and the two soon developed a deeply satisfying five-year relationship. Their conversations are charming and will warm your heart. It reminded me of the old tv show, The Odd Couple and the snappy repartee between Oscar and Felix. Satoru, named him Nana, as his tail resembled the Japanese character for the number seven. 

Now wait just a second, Isn’t Nana a girl’s name? I’m a fully fledged, hot-blooded male. In what universe does that make sense?

In a move that surprises the readers as much as Nana, Satoru, now about 30 years-old, tells him they are going to take a road trip together –  to find Nana a new home. 

“Nana, I’m sorry. I ‘m really sorry it’s come to this. I never intended to let you go.”

No need to explain. I’m quick on the uptake… so don’t look so glum, chum.

As they travel from one childhood friend’s home to the next along their journey, Satoru’s earlier story unfolds like an onion; an apt metaphor. Each layer revealing another sad chapter, that somehow, Satoru overcomes keeping his remarkably upbeat attitude. The odd duo crisscross Japan in the hopes of finding a new home for Nana. Each old friend seems willing to accept Nana, often with conditions and a promise to feed but not pamper. At each stop along the way, Satoru manages to avoid revealing the reason he needs to leave Nana. Just when it looks like Nana will have a new home, the cat, fiercely loyal to his master, sabotages the transfer.

In the end, Satoru realizes he just can’t part with Nana. The lonely man and the loyal sidekick take a long tour of the highs and lows of Japan together; traveling from Mount Fuji to the beautiful sandy beaches. Along the miles, the reader begins to understand Satoru’s secrets. As the sun sets on their journey, Satoru will find peace and the reader will have a good cry. 

Highly recommended reading for everyone; not just cat lovers.

 

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LITTLE: a novel

Fictionalized Life
little and quote

What comes to mind when you hear the name – Madame Tussaud? The answer most likely will be wax museum. How did a tiny six-year-old orphan, born in the turbulent atmosphere of 18th century France, become so renowned that we know of her accomplishments today?

Truth be known, even the author found contemporaneous clues hard to find; but it wasn’t for the lack of trying to piece it together. He spent fifteen years searching, including actually working in France at Madame Tussaud’s museum, where he gazed at will upon her original wax works that included the wax heads of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette molded from their freshly guillotined heads. The one original wax work that inspired him the most was the self-portrait Madame Tussaud made of herself in wax.

Madame Tussaud was born Anna Maria “Marie” Grosholtz in 1761. She became Madame Tussaud when she married a scumbag named Francois Tussaud and bore him two sons. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Marie Grosholtz became a servant at the tender age of six-years-old. That meant she didn’t have a life of her own; she was subject to the whims and orders of her employer. She was, in some ways, better off than the starving peasants living outside the towns who suffered indescribable living conditions. She remained controlled by her Master until she was incarcerated and sentenced to death during the revolt. She received a reprieve at the last minute and lived to the ripe old age of 89 years-old.

Marie Grosholtz was abnormally small at birth and unfortunately inherited her mother’s out-sized proboscis and her father’s cup hook chin. By adulthood, she was four feet and smidge tall. This small woman looked like a child with a “Punch and Judy” face.

Marie’s father died from a war injury when she was very young. Her mother, a destitute widow with a tiny child, became a reluctant housekeeper for an eccentric and reclusive doctor whose specialty was crafting anatomically accurate wax models from body parts for medical students. Marie’s mother, grieving and morbidly depressed by circumstances, committed suicide leaving six-year-old Marie, nicknamed Little, in the care of the unorthodox Doctor Philippe Curtius. Curtius would never have won “parent of the year”, but in his own way, he set up Marie for success in the future by training her in the art plaster casting and wax modeling. Together they expanded his trade from body parts to wax face masks, and later, full-head “portraits”.

Benjamin Franklin

The pair moved to Paris where Doctor Curtius hoped to fill his collection with the powerful and famous. Curtius rented space in the home of a seamstress, the Widow Picot, a repugnant character interested only in her own well- being. She was so repelled by the sight of Marie that she forced her to live in a barely habitable part of the kitchen. Not once in the ensuing years did the cowardly Curtius take his tiny protege’s side. The weak-kneed simp, played for a fool by Picot, was kowtowed into giving her control over his collection of disembodied wax heads. Undaunted, the curious and inquisitive, Little, managed to keep an upbeat attitude and found ways to stay useful and involved in the wax business and to be near Curtius.

The crafty Picot, seizing the opportunity to use her ingenuity, brought the wax models to life with clothing and staging them in an appropriate setting. The public lined up in droves to view the death masks of murderers and the provocative faces of  the famous. The income poured in enriching everyone… except Marie.

Marie’s life changed when Princess Elizabeth, sister of King Louis XVI, made an appearance in the museum. The spoiled princess, herself an ugly duckling, took a shine to Marie and invited her to Versailles. Widow Picot and Doctor Curtius were not in a position to refuse the Princess. Once at the palace, Marie was showered with endearments and soon found herself sharing secrets and private time with the Princess. When it is learned that Marie was skilled in the new technique of plaster casting and wax modeling, she had a steady line of the famous and rich interested in creating a likeness of themselves. Sadly, over the years, Marie made the mistake of interpreting attention for affection; she was still a servant, the change, just geography.

The years passed. As the atmosphere outside the palace became more heated, the Monarchy sensed their subjects were ready to revolt and feared for their lives. Marie was abruptly returned to Widow Picot’s home, where things there had changed as well. The Royals weren’t the only people fearful for their lives. The angry crowds were targeting anyone better off or successful.

The world in Paris turned bloody and brutal. Bodies lined the streets. Eager crowds gathered round the guillotine to watch the daily beheadings. The jails were filled with the guilty and innocent alike; Widow Picot and Marie among them. It was truly hell on earth. Imprisoned in a tower, Marie found the strength of character to look beyond her own needs to provide care and compassion for the sickly Widow; throwing aside any bad history between them. I found myself sad when the bewildered and failing Widow Picot’s name appeared on the list to be executed.

Marie was freed from jail through intersession of an old friend in exchange for the grisly task of making death  wax models of the newly executed that included people that she knew intimately from Versailles.

During this turbulent time, a dying Doctor Curtius, found his way home to unexpectedly find Marie there. She cared for him to his death, re-establishing the bond they had long before moving to Paris.

My master’s lawyer was the person who told me that there was a will, and the details written therein. “Everything to one person”, he said, “to you.”  

And with that news, Marie, once again, stoically, picked up the pieces and started over, becoming Madame Tussaud. This time she achieved her freedom and thrived. Raising that mighty chin, she was never to be under anyone’s control again.

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