In this real life memoir, Tara Westover describes beautifully the difficult journey from primitive existence to the elite world of academia. Born to survivalists in Idaho, she spent her childhood stockpiling food for a disaster that never comes, helping her mother prepare herbal potions used in lieu of traditional medicine, and salvaging metal for money in her father’s dangerous junkyard. There is no healthcare, no education and she must cope with a father bent on destruction, an abusive older brother and a mother who turns a blind eye. When a sibling rebels and goes to college, Tara gets a glimpse of the outside world. With mixed emotion, she teaches herself enough to get admitted to Brigham Young. There, she takes her first steps away from dysfunction, doing so well she is ultimately admitted to both Cambridge and Harvard. But she struggles with relationships, bedeviled by religious restrictions and family abnormality reinforced every time she goes home. This biography is an intense look into the struggle of one woman to overcome impossible odds on the road to self reinvention. It’s a story of loyalty and the grief which ensues from severing our most basic of human ties.
Circe, known in mythology only for her brief encounter with Odysseus, is fully realized in this inventive lush novel. A daughter of the Sun God and his alluring nymph bride, Circe is lonely as a child, too compassionate for the world of Gods. She’s also late to discover her power which is awakened only when another nymph steals her first love. Banished to an uninhabited island ostensibly for using magic to turn her rival into a monster, the reality is her witchcraft scares the mightiest Gods who fear her power might rival their own. On the island, she hones her ability taming wild beasts and crossing paths with famous figures in mythology like Hermes, the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, murderous Media and, of course, sly Odysseus. Far from a footnote, this fierce Circe turns men into pigs because they deserve it. In all honesty, I thought the premise of this book iffy, but I’m so glad I took the risk. The writing and creativity are beyond exception. The only good thing about finishing was finding she has another book titled, Song of Achilles. Yay.
Leni has it hard. Her dad, Ernt, a Vietnam POW, and her mom, Cora, who gave birth way too young, have a tie as intense as it is toxic. Ernt can’t hold a job and is always moving the family as he chases the next big idea. The one enduring constant in Leni’s life is the love she shares with her mom. When Ernt finds he’s been left an Alaskan homestead he thinks their problems are solved. Cora and Leni are less certain given the remoteness. Unprepared for Alaska’s long cold, isolating winters, they learn to adapt with the help of locals, including Matthew-Leni’s first real friend. Unfortunately, the harsh conditions bring out the worst in Ernt whose paranoia dominates their lives. The book follows Leni from teen years into early adulthood as she copes with her father’s increasing violence and her mom’s refusal to leave. It’s both a love song to Alaska, and the bond between mothers and daughters. A shorter beginning would have improved pacing, and the end is too neatly resolved, but like every Hannah book it sucks you in and leaves you wanting more when done.
David Sedaris is a humorist who writes about his life, making unique observations which resonate. I picked up one of his books a few years ago and wasn’t impressed. I found him arrogant and the laughs sparse. However, a review of Calypso said it focused primarily on aging and mortality so I decided to give him another go. I’m glad I did. This is a funny book. I laughed out loud more than once. Make no mistake, Sedaris has a strange offensive brand of humor so he’s definitely not for everyone. For me, I was happy to find someone who’s ideas are quirkier than my own. For instance, Sedaris has a benign tumor which needs removing. He asks the doctor if he can keep it, with the idea of feeding it to a snapping turtle near his North Carolina vacation home, but the doctor says no it’s against federal law. So he allows a Hispanic woman he meets at one of his book lectures do it in less than ideal conditions. Weird, I know, but oddly satisfying. If you like funny; you’ll love Calypso.
Weirdly fascinating non-fiction book charting the history of psychedelic drug use by the 1960s counterculture, and the resulting backlash, to the recent resurgence of LSD as a tool to help with mental illness. Pollan explores how such drugs were invented as well as the more traditional use of plant-based psychedelics like mushrooms. It came as news to me but research into these substances is being conducted by many respected medical institutes like Johns Hopkins. Clinical trials suggest psychedelics help with depression, addiction and the terror that accompanies terminal illness. The author also looks at mystical aspects, with many test subjects reporting a better understand of God and collective consciousness. In the right circumstances, psychedelics can open the mind to experiences our brains shut down as we age and neural pathways become fixed. Authenticity is provided by Pollan having tried several of these substances himself. Fear would probably prevent me from volunteering for this kind of research, but I enjoyed reading about the possibilities. While the book stalls sometimes due to excessive detail, like the mind numbing discussion of mushroom species, it’s a unique, well-written read.
I resisted reading this book for a long time because the main character-cranky old Swedish guy-didn’t sound very appealing. I’m so glad I finally took the plunge. Ove is the angry old man next door. He’s a curmudgeon with sometimes strange principles set in stone. (Only people who drive Saabs are to be trusted.) He has a strict routine and a short fuse. He distrusts the modern world and isn’t afraid to say so. But Ove’s well-ordered yet stark world is upended one day when a young couple with two small children move into the neighborhood. Suddenly, he’s confronted with seemingly endless requests, a stray cat who looks like the devil but won’t go away, and an old enemy who can’t fight anymore and is in desperate need of help. This is a funny book, but one with tons of heart. Set in Sweden, it could really take place anywhere because we all have an Ove in our lives. At its core, the book’s about community and serves as a reminder life is only worth living when shared with others.
It’s awful to say this is one of the best YA books I’ve ever read, given the topic, but I went through it in one sitting unable to put it down. At 13, Lakshmi lives a hand-to-mouth existence in a small village in Nepal. She’s smart and enjoys simple pleasures courtesy of a hard-working mom. Unfortunately, she also has a step dad who drinks and gambles away what little they have. When a monsoon destroys their crops, he gets Lakshmi a job which she thinks involves working as a city maid. Upon reaching India, however, she learns she’s been sold into prostitution instead. A cruel woman named Mumtaz runs the brothel, trapping young girls with babies and unfair debts. Lakshmi’s intelligence helps her survive even in this harsh new world and is a factor when she must make a decision which is essentially a death trap or a life line. The writing in this novel is superb, bolstered by research the author did in India and Nepal. It’s short and terse but packs a powerful punch enabling readers to realize how difficult life remains for many millions of women worldwide.
Starr Carter, 16, has one persona in her poor black neighborhood and another in the predominantly white prep school she attends. But the uneasy balance is upset when she sees her best friend, Khalil, shot to death by police while unarmed. It’s complicated. Khalil is a drug dealer albeit an unwilling one. Her uncle is a cop and her boyfriend white. When the shooting makes national headlines, as the only witness, Starr is caught between a friend at school who thinks Khalil might have had it coming and her neighborhood which has seen one too many young black men killed. The dialogue in this well-written YA novel feels totally authentic. The writer manages to convey the complexity of the issue of racism and police violence through the protagonist’s life circumstance. Starr isn’t perhaps the typical victim, and her school friends at times seem somewhat two-dimensional in their political correctness, yet the book is still a compelling read lending insight into one of the most disturbing facets of modern American life.
Having read Katy Tur’s book about the tRump presidential campaign and Luke Harding’s book about tRump’s alleged dirty dealings, I wasn’t expecting much from Fire and Fury in terms of style. I was pleasantly surprised. Wolff is a smart writer and although he gets bogged down at times in observation, overall the book makes for a satisfying read as it covers the first year of the tRump presidency. The most explosive contents have already been spotlighted extensively on cable news. However, the book is a revelation as Wolff delves into the White House infighting between tRump’s closest aides. It reveals the ugly side of politics–that the presidency represents power and those closest to the president can wield it with impunity. It reveals the fight to control a man who is essentially a loose cannon and uncontrollable. It reveals how everyone had a personal agenda and how hard they fought to get it front and center. It’s an unflattering portrayal of an unpopular president who along with his aides aren’t worthy or qualified to hold positions affecting the lives of people worldwide.