Educated, Tara Westover

I’d seen this memoir around a lot; it’s one of those books that, wherever you look at the moment, it seems to be there, but, although I’d seen it everywhere, I knew nothing whatsoever about it, apart from it was about a girl who grew up with no formal education. I was intrigued enough to download it, but when I started reading it, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy it at all. I’ve never been a fan of the ‘misery memoir’ and have tended to steer clear of them (do you remember when Sue Townsend satirised them in the Adrian Mole books? If I recall correctly, his mum, Pauline Mole, was writing one entitled A Girl Called “Shit”? That used to make me howl with laughter…). I don’t want to be miserable; I don’t want to read about real-life misery, particularly if it’s relentless. So, I have avoided the genre. But, I’m supposed to be reading memoirs of all sorts and detailing all sorts of lives, and this book intrigued me enough to read on … even once I knew exactly how miserable the set up of Tara’s life was.

Tara Westover was raised in a Mormon family in Idaho – a family of, quite frankly, crazy survivalists, who were off grid, anti-government, anti-medical intervention (which considering how many accidents they had was particularly crazy) and (again, quite frankly) abusive (that brother…. bloody hell!) Tara is not allowed to go to school. She has no birth certificate. She is forced to work in the family’s highly dangerous junk yard. Her life is grim, dangerous, grubby, scary, bigoted, and devoid of any chance to thrive. Yet somehow, against the odds, Tara does just that (although the path to a meaningful life, free of her family, is very difficult indeed) and ends up with the very best education of all, studying at Cambridge University. The story of how she gets there is truly amazing.

This book made me angry and sad. I was appalled at times, flinching at others – sometimes I wanted to put the book down and flounce off, to go and eat cake, have a hot chocolate and read a rom com; to immerse myself in loveliness and walk away from Educated‘s gritty reality and unpleasantness. I wanted to wash my hands of it, like Tara did of the grime after another day in the junkyard. But still I read on. Partly, because this book is beautifully written… if Tara Westover writes any fiction, I’ll be first in line to read it. But mostly because of the hope threaded throughout this narrative, even though it is a hope that is dangled, at times, then whipped away again; a hope Tara often extinguishes herself by her sometimes exasperating drive to keep going back home even though it’s the worst possible place for her: that house, that family, that mountain…

This is a compelling story of triumph against adversity. The triumph and the hope in this book are hard won and eloquently detailed and they come at a price, for both the writer and the reader: Tara continues to be estranged from several members of her family; I’ll be haunted in a tender but bleak way by this book for quite a long time – it has given me the most complicated book hangover. But I loved it. It’s magnificent. Everyone should read it.

Right, I’m going to read something light now. I’m going to read The Tent, The Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy, about hilarious camping holidays in the 1970s. This may be accompanied by cake and hot chocolate…

Becoming, Michelle Obama

I’m just an oik from Essex, England, UK, and this admission may expose me as a complete oiky idiot, but here’s what I knew about Michelle Obama before reading Becoming:

  1. She was the first black First Lady. (…no prizes here, bozo…)
  2. She is very intelligent and a great feminist (I was sketchy on the actual details…).
  3. She likes clothes from a quite expensive shop called J Crew….and once wore a really nice black cardigan (from another shop) to meet the Queen.  
  4. She has great arms and once did some press ups on the Ellen show.
  5. She is admired by lots of people and many wanted her to run for president herself at the end of her husband’s time in office.  

That was it. A pitiful, rather embarrassing list. I should be ashamed, really. Thoroughly ashamed. But now I have rectified it. Now I have read Becoming, I know a lot more about Michelle Obama…

I know about her childhood growing up on the Southside of Chicago with two calm and stoic loving parents, who sacrificed much of their own lives to make sure Michelle and her older brother, Craig, would have great futures. I know about the wider and sometimes eccentric cast of characters in her family she spoke about with such respect and wit and love. I know about her education, how when she was struggling in an unruly second-grade class her mother had words and got her switched to a ‘bright an orderly’ third-grade class – ‘a small but life-changing move’. How she studied like crazy – but with an endearing neatness and methodical colour-coding – to get to Princeton. How she ended up working in a prestigious law firm but swerved to take roles in some amazing community-minded jobs, really making a difference. How she fell in love with ambling, slightly messy Barack Hussein Obama, setting her off on a wild ride that would lead her all the way to the door of the White House, and inside, where she would spend eight years also making a difference.

I was worried this book might be a ‘heavy’ read, that I would get bored by the politics, that – but for my attempting to read 50 women’s autobiographies in one year and giving myself a window of no more than 1.04 weeks to read it – I might pick it up and put it down a lot, dreaming of Bridget Jones or some other familiar rom com I’d rather be reading…

Not so! I was immediately engrossed in this book. I raced through it like a cat across a windy garden. I savoured every word and turn of events. I feel this is a book it would be easy to absolutely gush over, in fact, but that’s not my style. It’s not Michelle Obama’s either. Her writing is plain-speaking, honest and to the point. She is not over-inflated, grandiose or over-circumspect. She is not flowery or sentimental.

She is wonderful!!!!!!!

These are the things I took away from this book and will stay with me forever:

  • The vegetable garden in the White House Michelle planted with the help of local children.
  • Michelle’s love for Barack, her children and her parents. Her pride in all of them. Yes, I cried a couple of times.
  • Her extremely articulate examination of the age-old conflict of mother/working mother. How she wanted to do both effectively and with conviction.

 “I wanted to live with the hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest of Mary Tyler Moore, and at the same time I gravitated toward the stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland normalcy of being a wife and mother. I wanted to have a work life and a home life, but with some promise that one would never fully squelch the other. I hoped to be exactly like my own mother and at the same time nothing like her at all. It was an odd and confounding thing to ponder. Could I have everything? Would I have everything? I had no idea.”

  • Her soul-searching when Obama told her he wanted to run for president. What it would mean for her. Her own life. Her daughters.

“My job would be not just to give tacit support to the campaign but to participate in it. I’d be expected to make myself and our children available for viewing, to smile approvingly and shake a lot of hands. Everything would be about him now, I realized, in support of this larger cause.”

  • The day-to-do challenge of trying to instill a degree of normalcy into living in the White House:

How to navigate play dates when one of the participant’s dads is president of the United States and has about five secret service agents following her everywhere.

The respect and camaraderie with which the Obamas treated the staff.

How Michelle’s lovely mum didn’t change one bit after living in an upstairs suite in the White House for eight years (I love Michelle’s mum!)

I have taken a lot away from this book. I will carry the things I have read and the things I have learnt in a little pocket within myself to bring out now and again and consider. I will always be glad I read this book. ‘Inspirational’ is a term that is bandied around like watermelon-flavoured steam from a vape these days but yes, Michelle is hugely inspirational, but also very human and likeable and she has a great way with words in telling her exceptional story. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to know she has a new fan joining the millions of people who already knew all the good and really important stuff about her. 😉

*Next memoir: Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton.*