Educated

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Tara Westover
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Nov. 2019 on Audible)

Educated was our book club pick for November and I really wanted to listen to it on audiobook, but it took me forever to finish my previous audiobook (The Amber Spyglass), so I was a bit late in starting it and had to really rush through it.

Fortunately it had a good narrator and it was a compelling story, so it wasn’t too hard to listen to and push through. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book since it came out, but I’m not a big non-fiction reader and it sounded a lot like The Glass Castle to me, so I never bothered to pick it up. I was excited to finally read it, but I do have to say that after finishing it, despite some differences, it did still remind me a lot of The Glass Castle.

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked The Glass Castle and I really liked Educated, but it was really hard not to compare the two and at times I definitely got some serious deju-vu from Westover’s story. While Tara Westover and Jeannette Walls did have different stories, there were still a lot of similarities. They both grew up in families with fathers suffering from mental health issues who are very much paranoid about the government and as a result, decide to mostly live off the grid – taking advantage of their families by keeping them isolated and somewhat in the dark to what the outside world is really like.

However, Mormonism plays a very large role in Westover’s story and was one of the more fascinating parts of the book for me. I haven’t had much exposure to the Mormon religion and it was really interesting to learn about Mormon beliefs, how they were interpreted by Tara’s father, and how those beliefs oppressed and impacted Tara throughout her childhood, formative years, and even into adulthood.

Despite the title, Westover’s story was about so much more than just education. In retrospect, her education was probably the part that interested me the least. I like how she examines at the end of the book the role her education played in opening up her eyes and allowing her to escape the cycle of violence in her family, but overall I don’t think most people read this book to learn about her education.

That said, how Tara managed to get into college and obtain a PhD from Cambridge with no formal childhood education is still a mystery to me and something that seemed to be glossed over in the book. I really struggled to believe she would be so successful with so little support (emotional and financial) and I did wonder if we were really getting the full story at times. She says she was bad at math and that she really only ever read the book of Mormon, so its a bit mystifying to me how she managed to get through multiple degrees, much less excel at them. But obviously their family life taught the children something because 3 of the 7 Westover’s went on to earn doctorates.

So while I did like this book and Westover’s writing, I was neither shocked by the content, nor totally convinced of the story. What I do admire though, is that Westover actually wrote and published this account of her family. The entire book really is about her struggle to both emancipate herself from her family, but still be loved and accepted by them. She sacrifices a lot in order to gain an education and even though she recognizes the harmful and destructive tendencies of her family members, she still yearns to be one of them.

It was really interesting to read about the long term impacts that Mormonism had on her life and how long it took her to recognize the ways in which she has been oppressed and ignorant. I say her book is admirable because the very act of committing to paper this story of her family and then sharing it with the world pretty much guarantees her continued exile from her family. The ending is very nebulous because her story really is not over yet and her family story is still unresolved. But I admire her for recognizing the harmful parts of her family’s behaviour and deciding to expose them when her family refused to listen to her or to change. Her father has obvious issues, but her recount of her brother Shawn was much more chilling. Good for her for finally saying, enough is enough, if you won’t change, I will expose you.

I still gave it 4 stars, but I wasn’t quite as enamoured with it as the rest of the world seems to be. It’s well written and thought provoking and it works well as a memoir, I just found it a bit of a challenge to suspend my disbelief when it actually came to her education. That said, Tara was gaslighted by her family for years and as a result her memories have been tampered with and are likely unreliable. But I guess it just makes her story all the more inspirational and like I said, at its heart, I don’t really think this was a book about education. Still a 4 star read for me despite some of these criticisms.

Queenie

Rating:
Author: Candice Carty-Williams
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Apr. 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Shvorne Marks

I completely sped through this audiobook! Queenie wasn’t really on my radar at all and then suddenly, it was everywhere! It’s been compared to Bridget Jones and it featured a Jamaican-British, 25 year old, so I was definitely intrigued. Plus the audiobook narrator sounded great in the sample and had me laughing out loud in her 5 minute clip.

The reviews are a bit mixed on the book though and after reading it, I can definitely understand why. Queenie works for a newspaper and has just split up with her boyfriend of 3 years, Tom. They’ve been struggling as a couple, so they decide to go on a break for 3 months. but Queenie really struggles with the separation and turns to casual sex to fill the void in her life. She’s lonely and her break with Tom is really the start of a pretty brutal downward spiral and a ongoing fight with anxiety and depression.

The reason I say I can understand why some people would dislike this book is because Queenie is often a frustrating and sometimes unlikable character. She has very little self esteem or self respect and she struggles to stay motivated at work, making a lot of bad choices, both in her personal and professional life. She’s also black and struggles with institutionalized racism at work, casual racism in her relationship with Tom, and fetishism in her romantic life.

The book is hard to read at times because Queenie is so rough on herself and you just want her to come to terms with reality and start to make her life better. But I loved it because she felt like such a real character. Despite her bad choices, I really empathized with her and her friends. She knows she’s not okay and she just keeps pushing ahead toward the end of her “break” with Tom with the idea that if she can just return to her relationship, everything else will sort itself out. But she eventually has to come to terms with the fact that she is the only person who can sort out her problems and that getting back with Tom won’t fix the other things she’s struggling with.

This is ultimately a book about mental health and the additional struggles that black people and immigrants face in achieving success and finding support. Queenie is up against additional hurdles because she is black and even though her family loves her very much, there’s a real cultural disconnect in the way that they think about mental illness. Her family has suffered so much physical and emotional trauma in immigrating, that they are very dismissive of mental health and the value of therapy. I loved when Queenie was finally able to recognize that counselling might actually be able to help her and that she pursued it despite what her family thought. She is adverse to medicating for her panic attacks though, which I thought was a too bad because it probably would have helped her a lot.

Because of the depth of Queenie’s struggles, I’ve read a lot of reviews that the comparison to Bridget Jones isn’t accurate. I knew that going into the book and I was fine with it because I always prefer a little more depth to my characters, but I would actually agree with the assessment that this is like Bridget Jones. It’s definitely darker and not a fun rom-com like Bridget Jones, but I did notice a lot of parallels, which I thought made the book even more enjoyable.

Queenie has a similar sense of humour to Bridget, which I equate with British humour. She’s self deprecating and unflinchingly honest – to the point of oversharing. Like Bridget, she’s someone who is ready to settle down with a man, but continually finds herself making poor decisions. She works in publishing, makes the mistake of acting on an ill-informed work romance, and has a small group of friends that she turns to for support. Her group of friends consists of Darcy, Cassandra, and Cheska (sorry, I listened to audio so I genuinely have NO idea how to spell her name, so I’m going with the phonetic spelling). I loved that she called her friends “the corgis” and I loved all the interactions she had with them. I thought each of these women were fully realized as secondary characters and I found them all extremely relatable. Everyone has women like this in their lives, even snooty, annoying friends like Cassandra. Cheska was my favourite because her and Queenie understood each other better, both being black, but I also really liked Darcy, who supported Queenie in her own way as well.

Even though I couldn’t personally relate with most of Queenie’s problems, overall I still thought she was so relatable! Her character was so honest and I thought the author did a wonderful job in taking us on Queenie’s journey to self discovery. The book explores how everyone has baggage and that everyone deals with those issues in different ways. You don’t need to apologize for falling apart, and you don’t have to put yourself back together alone. I thought this book also did a great job at shining a light on all of the little microaggressions that black people have to put up with day after day and how people repeatedly dismiss their existence and see them as less than human in some circumstances. Men fetishized Queenie’s black skin and curves and they treated her with less respect than I think they would a white woman. In most cases, Queenie deserved the criticisms she received, but there were definitely other cases where she was discriminated against and treated unfairly as a black woman.

I also liked that this was ultimately a story about self-discovery and self-love and that Queenie never solved her problems by finding romantic love. Stories like this often follow the troupe where the woman has no luck with love but then eventually finds it in the least likely place and everything ends happily ever after. Queenie tries to fill the void in her life with sex, but ultimately realizes that her happiness in not contingent on a man and that her familial and friend relationships are ultimately the most important relationships in her life.

I also liked that when Queenie started looking after her mental health, she found more clarity in where she was at fault in her relationships and where other people were at fault. It’s clear from the beginning that Tom and Queenie had relationship issues. She initially blames Tom for all their issues, and while he is definitely still at fault for a lot of their problems (namely not sticking up for her against his family’s casual racism), Queenie realizes that she is also at fault for some of their problems. She is better able to recognize her own harmful habits and identify the habits others have that are harmful to her, but that she has let slide in the past.

There are some relationships where it is worth forgiving the person who has hurt you. It’s evident from the beginning that Queenie has a bad relationship with her mom, although it’s a while before we learn the extent of why. Her mother undeniably hurt her and some of the decisions she made were terrible, but sometimes it is worth acknowledging a person’s shortcomings, but still deciding to forgive them in the interest of safeguarding that relationship. Then there are other relationships where you really don’t owe the person who has hurt you anything. Just because they want your forgiveness, it doesn’t mean you have to grant it, and there are times when it is better to cut that harmful person out of your life, regardless of how they say they’ve been transformed.

Overall, a great read. Maybe not for everyone, especially if you struggle with frustrating or unlikable characters. Personally, I never disliked Queenie, I just lamented her bad choices. My favourite parts were the frank discussions around mental health and the examples of microaggressions that Black people face on a daily basis. I will miss reading about this character!

The Astonishing Color of After

Rating: .5
Author: Emily XR Pan
Genres: Young Adult, Fiction
Pub Date: Mar. 2018 (read May 2018)

I’m not a big lover of magical realism, so when I first read the synopsis for this book, I was not at all into it (despite the absolutely gorgeous cover). But I literally haven’t heard a bad review of this book so I decided to give it a try.

I’m not going to lie, it did take me a while to get into this book. It was definitely a slower read for me and I did even take a break in the first third of the book and read a complete other book before returning to this. There was no part of this book that I didn’t enjoy, it’s just one of those slower paced books that took me a little longer to get through, but not from lack of enjoyment.

The Astonishing Color of After is about American-Taiwanese teenager Leigh and her mother who has just committed suicide. Leigh is devastated by the death of her mother, but when she is repeatedly visited by a red bird she believes to be her mother, she is set on a path to discover the secrets of her family and Taiwanese roots. Leigh has never met her Taiwanese grandparents and the bird sets her on a trip to Taiwan to try and remember those things which her mother never shared with her.

While Leigh gets to know her grandparents and searches for her mother in Taiwan, we get flashbacks of the last 2 years. We learn about the decline of her mother’s mental health, the disappearance of her father within her everyday life, her great love and aptitude for art, and her lifelong friendship with Axel that has started to develop into something more.

First off, the writing in this book is fantastic. I loved Emily Pan’s style of writing and her descriptions of emotions turned to colour are gorgeous! As children, Leigh and Axel constantly describe their feelings and emotions to one another at any particular moment through different colours, such as the emerald green of jealousy, the burnt orange of desire, or the colourless absence of grief. Pan consistently uses colour throughout the novel to convey emotion and it made for the most breath-taking writing and journey.

This reminded me a little bit of Hour of the Bees, which is a middle grade book I read a few years ago and really liked (and one of the few magical realism books I’ve read). I actually didn’t have any problem with the whole ‘reincarnated as a bird’ idea (it played out a lot differently than I was expecting) and I really liked how the author used magical realism to transport us through memories. I also loved that this was mostly set in Taiwan and how the author integrated in several Taiwanese cultural elements to the story, such as Ghost Month.

This is primarily a story about mental health and grief. The author states in the afterward that she didn’t want to set out any one reason why Leigh’s mother may have killed herself and I really appreciated that. She wanted this to be more of a story that shows that depression can affect anyone and have no rhyme or reason. There’s generally not a specific cause to which you can attribute depression or a specific way in which people react or heal. Depression was something Leigh’s mom struggled with for many years and I thought Pan took us on a beautiful emotional journey, showing us both positive and negative memories that Leigh has of both of her parents.

I was in love with the flashbacks though. I loved Leigh and Axel’s relationship and their gradual transition from friends to something more. I thought it captured so well what it’s like being 15 and starting to develop feelings for someone – the embarrassment of being a teenager with changing hormones, the want for something more, the confusion of figuring out each other’s feelings, the fear of rejection – so accurate. I also really liked how she tied art and music into the story and the theme that liberal arts are still viable careers and that you shouldn’t be afraid to pursue things that bring you great joy.

Overall I think this book is super well written and strikes the perfect balance of sadness and sweetness. Like I said, it wasn’t the fastest read for me, but definitely worth it! 4.5 stars!