Book Review: Educated by Tara Westover

A fan of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls I was looking forward to reading Tara Westover’s book Educated, another memoir about rising above and beyond a hardscrabble childhood.

And let me state this: I read The Glass Castle. I know The Glass Castle. I even met Jeannette Walls at an author event. And believe me Educated is no The Glass Castle.

Born and raised in Buck’s Peak, Idaho, Tara Westover was the youngest of her mother and father’s seven children.

To say Westover’s childhood was less than typical is an understatement. Her parents, Gene and Faye (pseudonyms), strived to live off the grid, isolated from society. They shunned the government, doctors, and public schools. Instead, they treated ailments with homemade cures often using essential oils and tincture. And Faye homeschooled her brood in a very haphazard manner.

Still, as a child, Westover desired a more normal life. She wanted to go to school and get involved in activities other kids her age were involved in. Her father forbid her going to school to get some “book learning.” Yet, somehow Westover was allowed music lessons and ended up playing lead in a local production of the musical ” Annie.”

Getting involved in local theater and hanging out with kids from more “normal” backgrounds opened up new worlds for Westover. Yet, her family, for the most part, weren’t very impressed with Westover’s theatrical pursuits. Especially her father who put the kibosh on his daughter going to school.

Fortunately, Westover had an older brother, Tyler, who encouraged his little sister to envision a life beyond Buck’s Peak. Incidentally, Tyler escaped Buck’s Peak and achieved an education, including a Ph.D.

Sadly, Westover had another brother Shawn who was very abusive both physically and emotionally. He even shoved her head in a toilet!

Because of her lack of formal schooling (and needing to escape her dysfunctional family), Westover chose to educate herself. She scored very high on the ACT and was admitted into Brigham Young University.

BYU was like going to another planet for the sheltered Westover. Until then she never had heard of the Holocaust among other historical moments.

Westover also had a hard time adjusting to her peers and their different ways. And at times she was quite judgemental towards them.

Yet, she did bond with a few of her classmates and professors. Many of them supported and mentored her, often getting her out of a sticky situation.

Westover excels as an undergrad, which gives her a chance to study at England’s prestigious Cambridge University and Harvard later achieving her very own Ph.D.

Still, Buck’s Peak beckoned, and Westover found herself going back despite her family’s extreme dysfunction. Her brother Shawn had become even more abusive, especially towards his wife and children. And Westover’s parents were busy with their successful essential oils business.

Educated started out strong with a powerful narrative of Westover’s troubled upbringing.

But once she got to BYU, her story began to fall flat and sparked my cynicism. At times there were plot holes so big you could drive a semi through them.

Westover claims her family lived as survivalist yet they had modern convienences like TVs, computers, Internet access, and cell phones.

The family has horrific accidents and injuries, yet never receive proper medical care.

Westover gets away with things in college most students would not. And professors, classmates, boyfriends, and roommates bend over backwards for her. Not too mention a lot of her success seems to fall in her lap. She isn’t that brilliant.

And though she did get scholarships, I wondered where she got the money to pay for rent, bills, food, travel, and other assorted amenities.

I was also bothered by her refusing to report Shawn to the authorities. She definitely had the power to do so.

Though Educated is a compelling read, I found Westover to be humorless and cold. And I didn’t appreciate her lack of gratitude or her lack of paying it forward.

Thank goodness there are vastly superior memoirs I’ve enjoyed over the years, many I’ve reviews at this very blog.

Book Review: Home Again by Mariah Stewart

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Summer is the perfect season for a light beach read, especially in the awful year of 2020. Needing a break from all the doom and gloom I borrowed Home Again by Mariah Stewart from my mother.

Dallas MacGregot seems to have it all. She’s an award-winning movie star married to a successful film producer named Emilio Baird and the mother of a delightful little boy named Cody.

But soon Dallas’s world comes apart when her husband is caught with two women in a scandalous sex tape. Dallas decides to divorce her scummy husband and escapes the tabloid scrutiny by returning to St. Dennis, Maryland where she spent her youth in the comfort of her family and close community.

Dallas is not alone in this time of upheaval. While in St. Dennis Dallas reunites with her fun-loving great aunt Beryl “Berry” Eberle. Berry was once a movie star herself during Hollywood’s golden age.

And there is also another resident of St. Dennis that has Dallas’s heart, local veterinarian Grant Wyler. Grant was Dallas’s first love. Is the spark still there after so many years apart? Maybe so.

Dallas finds solace and support in St. Dennis as she goes through her divorce and faces tabloid trash. She connects with other St. Dennis residents, even her rival for Grant’s affection. She fuels her creativity by working on an adapted screenplay of a popular book and getting the chance to make into a film.

And just as Dallas thrives in St. Dennis so does her son Cody. However, Dallas’s dastardly ex, Emilio arrives in St. Dennis. Is he going to cause havoc or try to make amends with Dallas and Cody? And what about Grant? Is he going to be a brief fling or a lasting love? Heck, even Aunt Berry might face a few changes in her life both professionally and in the department of romance.

Home Again kept my interest from the very first page. Though I felt that Dallas was written too good to be true and Emilio was too much of a cad,  I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Stewart writes in a very vivid and descriptive way that fills all five senses. I especially liked how the ice cream sold at the local shop Scoop was described. My mouth watered over the unique flavors.

And another interesting element of Home Again are the diary entries of Grace the editor of the local paper St. Dennis Gazette. These diary entries focus on Dallas and Berry’s lives. Hey, Grace is a journalist. She’s always interested in getting the “scoop” on St Dennis’s most famous residents.

And though Home Again was a bit predictable once it came to its closure, I found it a satisfying read as summer winds down.

Incandescent Visions by Lee Hudspeth

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To call Lee Hudspeth a renaissance man is an understatement. He is an accomplished writer, musician, publisher, tech guru, and so much more. Now Hudspeth can add poet to his list of accomplishments with his first book of poetry Incandescent Visions.

I have to admit I used to be hesitant about poetry. Perhaps because it’s not a writing genre I’m used to. I usually read novels, short stories, and works of non-fiction. But poetry is something I’m more drawn to these days, which is why I’m happy to review Hudspeth’s work.

Hudspeth is a man very curious about creativity and how it inspires himself and others. And he is someone who finds creativity in all that surrounds him, which is reflected in Incandescent Visions.

Incandescent Visions is divided into several distinct chapters reflecting upon the human condition seen from Hudspeth’s individualistic mindset.

In the first chapter called “Dear Reader, Hello,” Hudspeth introduces himself and welcomes us to his world of travel.

In chapter two, “Reflections,” Hudspeth muses about the different experiences we go through as we traverse from childhood to being an adult (and all the thorny ages in between).

In the third chapter called “It’s Getting Dark in Here,” Hudspeth’s poetry reflects on our agonizing days of fear and uncertainty. Though very personal, these poems pierce the heart with their timeliness.

Chapter four is about “Motion.” The poems focus on how we move in the world going in different directions and the landscapes we observe.

In the fifth chapter Hudspeth encourages us to have a “Celebration.” We must look for the good things in life that elevate our spirits.

Incandescent Visions ends in an afterward in which Hudspeth provides more details on what inspired him to write these poems.

I found Hudspeth’s poetry to be nostalgic and heartfelt. They show depth without being pretentious. His writing voice is very visual whether he writes an ode to his late mother or says farewell to Italy. I enjoyed both his free verse and haikus. But it was the last stanza in the poem “Where Before There Were Incandescent Visions” that truly lifted my spirits.

“Tear it all down/Undo the damage done/Restart the core/Rekindle the light and heat/That is you”

The perfect words in an imperfect time.

 

GenderQueer: A Story From a Different Closet by Allan D. Hunter

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In gender activist Allan D. Hunter’s debut novel GenderQueer we meet protagonist Derek Turner. Derek is one of the boys who is also one of the girls. And GenderQueer tells the journey Derek travels from an awkward and confused teenager to hard won maturity as a self-accepting adult. And believe me, Derek’s journey isn’t always a fun ride.

GenderQueer is divided into four distinctive parts. Part one focuses on Derek’s younger years, navigating the difficult landscape of junior high and high school while growing up in 1970s era New Mexico. Derek deals with the usual teen angst. He’s bullied for being different and struggles with dating. But he also finds an escape through music.

Part two is about Derek’s facing adulthood and the challenges of college, work, drinking, relationships and his not easy to define sexuality. His first foray in college doesn’t go well. He drops out and enrolls in the local Vo-Tech. All the while he’s wondering if he’s gay or straight. He doesn’t feel right in his skin.

In part three Derek is starting over, going back to college. He decides to major in music, his true passion, and focuses on original music composition. Once again he questions his sexuality and gets into therapy and self-help book. It is then Derek realizes he may have been born in the wrong body. Could he possibly be a woman in a man’s body?

And in part four, after years of struggle and strife, our protagonist reaches hard-won maturity. Derek accepts being genderqueer and stakes a claim in society. Is Derek a man, a woman? You’ll have to find out.

Though I found Derek to be an interesting character with an important story to tell, I found Hunter’s writing to be a bit unpolished at times. There are several spelling errors and quite a few run on sentences. However, this could be due to a lack of writing experience and GenderQueer could be made better with a good copy editor to give it more finesse.

Still, I’m impressed that Hunter believed this story should be written. GenderQueer is a book that will resonate within the LGBTQ community and the people who support them.

Book Review:The Self-Evolved Leader- by Dave McKweon

Written by leadership and speaker Dave McKeon The Self-Evolved Leader is a primer for any leader who wants to get the best of their staff fousing on various team directions, developments, and that end up in positive results.

McKeon has a 3 step process to help leaders of all & kinds of processes that include creating a shared vision and sharing by using 5 disciplines.

The Self-Evolved Leader is divided into 4 parts. They are:

1. Preparing for a Self-Evolved Leadership.

2. The key elements of Self-Evolved Leadership.

3. Mastering the Self-Evolved Leadership Disciplines.

4. Sustaining the Self-Evolved Leadership.

All of these parts contain huge amounts of advice on issues like mediocrity, accountability, change, creativity, developments, and responsibility. And to maintain your progress McKeon has some ” homework” for you to do.

This book has a lot for you to do and can be a quite overwhelming. I suggest you bring out a high lighter, Post-it Notes, and notebook to mark key passages as you read this book.

Hopefully, this will guide leaders become more effective and make their staff top notch. Believe me, as someone who dealt with pretty bad bosses this is a much needed book.

 

Book Review: The Final Weekend-A Stoned Weekend by Neal Cassidy

What do you get when you combine the movie St. Elmo’s Fire it it was directed by Quentin Tarantino, with a script written by David Mamet and influenced by the movie Reefer Madness? You’d probably get Neal Cassidy’s novel The Final Weekend: A Stoned Weekend.

First, meet six college pals, Clarence the soon to be cop, Trent the screw up, Justin the medical intern, and wannabe business owner Harry.

Rounding out are besties who couldn’t be more different, Courtney and Ling-Ling who lives in an apartment that Courtney’s grandmother pays for (who’s a hooker turned millionaire).

All of these friends are connected by their beloved professors Goodkat who lives in a life of debauchery.

During the weekend these friends party, hook up, have lots of sex, and smoke a lot pot.

Yet, all of them have goals and desires that will propel them into the world of “adulting.” Meanwhile, Goodkat lives in a world of arrested development despite being nearly middle-aged.

As for Grandma? Cassidy could write a novel on her. She’s quite a character with a certain flair with a certain cuss word.

As for the final weekend? You won’t see it coming and when you do you will be thoroughly shocked.

Cassidy is an excellent writer, each chapter is written from each character’s point of view as they explore unrequited love that may blossom into true love, moments utter idiocy, sex romps, secrets, and moments of regret.

This novel is not for those who despise excessive cuss words, drug use, sex scenes and I did notice a few grammar errors. However, I was able to look past them. I hope Cassidy has writes more novels. He’s a literary voice to keep an eye on.

Book Review: Stressed in the US-12 Tools to Tackle Anxiety, Loneliness, Tech Addiction and More by Meg Van Deusen, Ph.D

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How do you know when I find a book that informs, inspires, and Impacts me in a positive way? When I fill it with Post-its, highlight certain passages, and write notes in the.margins. And that’s exactly what I’ve done Dr. Van Deusen’s book Stressed In the US.

We live in a nation where people are stressed and stretched to the max. We don’t get enough sleep. We’re addicted to social media yet ache with loneliness.We mindlessly eat, don’t exercise, and are disconnected from nature. Both our physical and mental health are out of whack in a toxic world.

What’s a person to do just to feel a little less stressed?

Well, reading Van Deusen’s book is a good start.

As I’ve mentioned in past book reviews, I’m a bit wary when it comes to self-help books. Some are way too namby pamby and some are too self-righteous. But Van Deusen’s book is one of understanding, research, life experiences (including her own), and a great deal of compassion.

Stressed in the US focuses on defining stress and what stressed us out. Van Deusen goes into deep detail on our attachment to others, dealing with loneliness, overcoming our addictions to technology of all kinds, and how getting more sleep, exercise, and healthier diets can de-stress us and make us feel a whole lot better. And yes, we can have a few indulgences and luxuries every now and then.

And in the final chapter she sums up the 12 tools to living a less we can use to combat stress which include things like making eye contact with others to getting back to nature.

I, myself am slowly but surely, working these tools into my daily life. And I forgive myself when I mess up. I hope these tools will help me overcome the past few horrible years. Stressed in the US is a welcome addition to my book shelf and my journey to healing.

Book Review: Benevolent King by Joe Albanese

If gang member Travis has one goal it is to be the biggest and baddest gang leader on the gritty mean streets of Baltimore. And he’s got just the right hustling skills to make this happen, especially after he gets his hands on some Colombian Devils Breath, a particular desired brand of cocaine.IMG_20200209_155848

However, there is local drug dealer Isaac who just might thwart Travis’s “high” ambitions. Travis has a closely held secret and Isaac knows all about it. If this secret is revealed Travis could lose his life and livelihood.

And then there is Shannon who is involved with both Travis and Isaac, and a woman her own desires and ambitions.

The three main characters spend their days and nights filled with dealing and drugging. They are both violent and victims of violence. They spend their time at less than wholesome places, including a local strip club.

And every day, they wake up wondering if it will be their last.

The plot zigs, then zags. And it twists and turns like an overturned steaming plate of pasta. It’s not exactly for the faint of heart but it is compelling.

The three main characters could be cardboard cut outs but are richly detailed. Supporting characters are also multi-dimensional.

Albanese expresses his novels like a director. He’s a very visual writer. I think fans of the TV show “The Wire” would appreciate his work.

Book Review: Nina’s Memento Mori by Mathias B. Freese

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I have no doubt my much appreciated readers remember the name Mathias B. Freese. I reviewed his memoir When I’m Alone.

Mr.Freese is back with another memoir, this time about his relationship with his late second wife, Nina. This memoir is called Nina’s Memento Mori.

Two lovebirds in their.golden years, Mathias and Nina meet in a very modern way-e.harmony.com.  They bond over troubled childhoods, failedrelationships, heartbreak, shared interests, and so on. But they connected the way that knows no age-true blue love.

One way Mathias and Nina bonded was through a shared love of movies. Freese uses various film terms like fade-in, dissolve, close-up, and director’s cut. And Nina’s Memento Mori is divided into five parts:

  1. Ticket, please
  2. Four Takes
  3. Intermission: Tesserae
  4. Cutting Room
  5. Coda

As a movie fan-especially of the classics-I loved this clever touch.

Throughout Nina’s Memento Mori are photographs. Some are of Nina as a little girl with blonde curls, wearing pinafores and smiling in a way that belies here problematic homelife. And then there are photos of Nina as young woman, slender and, gamine. Her face is both stoic and lovely, determined to overcome her past as only she can. She has a beauty no longer welcomed in an age of plastic Instagram models and reality show manneqins.

Freese writes in a style that is sensitive and compelling, but never maudlin and self-pitying. He writes so vividly of Nina and their marriage that I can’t help but see this book  in cinematic form. Who should play Nina? Then again perhaps Nina Memento Mori is best served not touched by celluloid. I am satisfied to see Nina in my mind’s eye.

Book Reviews: You Are Awesome-9 Secrets to Getting Stronger and Living an Intentional Life by Neil Pasricha

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In this day and age it’s difficult to feel somewhat mediocre let alone awesome. Our country is deeply divided, our global world is spinning out of control, and Mother Nature is a harsh mistress.

On personal level we are constantly bombarded with messages telling us we are never enough. We are told by advertisers and marketers, social media, reality TV, corporate owned news, and celebrity culture. We’re not rich enough, smart enough or just enough.

It’s all enough to make us feel awful. But Neil Pasticha begs to differ in his book You Are Awesome: 9 Secrets to Getting Stronger and Living an Intentional Life.

For the uninitiated Pasricha is a best-selling author, popular public speaker who has given speeches at TED Talks and SXSW, and award-winning podcaster at 3 Books.

I admit I have a love/hate relationship with self help books. Some have all the appetizing quality of a breath mint and others are a delicious feast.

After a brief introduction where Pasricha reminds us to be resilient, he gives us the 9 secrets to claiming his awesomeness.

  1. Add a Dot, Dot, Dot
  2. Shift the Spotlight
  3. See it as a Step
  4. Tell Yourself a Different Story
  5. Lose More to Win More
  6. Reveal to Heal
  7. Find Small Ponds
  8. Go Untouchable
  9. Never, Never Stop

Now my fully competent readers, you can probably figure out a few details of Pasricha’s secrets from the nine titles. But the titles are not sentimental greeting card verse. Pasricha goes very much in depth, using care and craft, the hard work, scientific facts, true stories (including his own) and various resources to achieve transformation. Believe me, you’re not awesome because you are breathing.

In the wise words of one of my favorite  philosophers, RuPaul:

“You better work!”

You’re going to have take an in-depth look at your life, past, present, and and possible future and do a full assessment of your missteps. It won’t be pretty.

But you will also be encouraged to revisit the times where you succeeded and found true joy, professionally and personally.

In the end You Awesome is both a regular book and workbook. While reading it I found myself writing down notes, highlighting passages, and applying Post-it notes to several pages.

Written in voice that is both honest and relatable, Pasricha’s You are Awesome is a good primer on gaining more resilience and living a life of purpose and meaning.

*Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for the advanced copy of You Are Awesome: 9 Secrets to Getting Stronger and Living an Intentional Life. This book will be released this Tuesday, November 5th.