Book Review: Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Book Review: Educated : A Memoir by Tara Westover (2018) 5 Stars *****

Told from a heart broken by wretched memories, the story begins with seven year old Tara and takes us through adulthood. Born and raised in the remote mountains of Idaho in an extreme Mormon fundamentalist/survivalist family, Tara learns to hate herself as she and her family wait for the End of Days. Even after all of her successes, it takes her many years until she can accept herself as deserving of the opportunities and accomplishments afforded her. Carrying emotional and physical scars throughout her life, we see once again that when a child is abused by a loved one, they do not grow up to hate that person, they grown up to hate themselves. The truth is: We never truly escape our upbringing, no matter how far or how fast we run.

The family does not believe in birth certificates, hospitals, doctors, insurance, public education, western medicines, supermarkets, cleaning, organizing, or questioning patriarchal authority. The children are primarily home-schooled to a point, but the education stops before they are reading, writing and doing basic math problems at a level of literacy. Tara is seventeen years old until she attends a school full time. The siblings are divided in their desire to be educated. Three of them, including Tara, desire higher education and life’s work outside of their parents’ closed world. Tara’s father is more accepting of this decision for his sons, but believes Tara’s aspirations are the work of the devil and an abomination against the Mormon religion. Tara is called a whore by her father whenever she expresses a desire to attend school. He does not understand or accept her desire for more than marriage and motherhood.

Tara and her six siblings are expected to work in the family businesses. Living under the thumb and in the shadow of their father’s junkyard/scrap metal and gasoline siphoning businesses occupies their existence. The main problem with Tara’s father? He is bi-polar and unconcerned about the unsafe conditions under which he forces even his young children to work. He refuses to allow protective helmets, heavy gloves, proven-safe equipment, or methodical procedures. He forces them to work with flammables as he unconcernedly uses acetylene torches and other igniters nearby. He even forces ten year old Tara to ride on top of a pile of junk as he dumps it and Tara into a container, impaling her leg with a metal spike. As a result, his children suffer broken bones, burned bodies, brain damage, scarred and disfigured faces and body parts, and loss of limbs and fingers. Name calling destroys self-esteem. Threats of physical violence, not only from Tara’s father but also from one of her bi-polar further brain- damaged- from- accidents brothers, destroys aspirations.

Tara’s father’s stubborn decisions resulted in two serious car accidents while returning to Idaho from a family visit to Arizona. He decided twice to make the long journey by driving through the night. Tara’s father forced one of his sons to drive despite protestations of fatigue. Tara’s mother was seriously brain damaged during this first accident. Even after the tragic events of this first time decision, Tara’s father demanded the same departure from their second trip even though they would be driving into dangerous white-out blizzard conditions. Their car went off the road and the family received serious injuries once again. His reaction? Not his fault. Not a bad decision at all. Things happen.

The main problem with Tara’s mother? Tara’s mother is a celebrated mid-wife and herbalist/healer which serves to bring in most of the family income. Self-centered. No backbone. Untrustworthy. Manipulative. Although she sees the cruel exploitation her husband imposes on her children, she does little to stop him. To add insult to injury, she has a different story for each person she speaks with. She promises her children to back them up, then recants and plays a bait and switch and presents the opposite of the truth to extended family members. She backs up her husband, no matter what.

Somehow, Tara works her way to success by part-time jobs, independent study, self-teaching, attending classes and schools of higher education. Tara receives a lot of help from college professors—guidance, advice, scholarships, grants, and other financial aid, opportunities to study abroad and eventually is graduated from Cambridge in England as a brilliant scholar, and goes on to Harvard for a PH.D. Tara also has an exceptionally beautiful singing voice which she recognizes as a gift. You would think a highly acclaimed scholar with an angelic singing voice would be able to shed her past for a sense of pride. and happiness. But, no. On paper, Tara notes her accomplishments and talents, but this intellectual assessment never makes it to her heart.

Tara is a loner and does not make friends easily. She is unsophisticated in social graces. She wears black pants and a black blouse at a black tie dinner at Cambridge, having no idea how a woman should dress for such an occasion. For many years, she bathed once or twice a week, never using soap. She became a pariah for openly not washing her hands after using the restroom. She never cleaned up after herself, threw out rotted food, washed her dishes, wore anything other than men’s oversized jeans and shirts. She smelled bad. Her home smelled bad. Although Tara knew she did not fit in, she hardly asked for guidance and persisted in being herself, believing that it was her prerogative.

Despite the emotional pain and physical threats she endures during her visits, Tara continues to visit her family periodically, attending funerals and family holiday dinners. Her parents sometimes visit her at school but it always ends badly. She often gives up hope and vacillates between achieving her goals and giving in to her father’s demands of mediocrity and conformity within his extreme belief system. Eventually, Tara walks away and does not look back until she has achieved her highest honors. The price she pays is high. She gains herself but loses her family. In time, Tara reconnects with her two education-minded brothers and an aunt. Her parents have spread the rumor that Tara is demonically possessed and that they fear for their safety. Many of the relatives accept this, so she is permanently ostracized from that group.

This is an amazing story. Hard to imagine that someone in this situation can accomplish so much. It demonstrates how outside help from powerful, well-placed people can turn a person’s life around and put them on a path to success and accomplishment. The sad thing is that Tara tells her story as a robot, lacking emotional connection to her diary entries. It reads like a newspaper account, devoid of feelings. The words are there, but the pain is buried so deep, that Tara must disassociate herself from the events. Although Tara is aware of her amazing accomplishments, she is not happy inside. The book ends as it begins with facts, not feelings. What of Tara’s personal life? It would seem she does not have one.

What was the result of Tara’s education? She now knows that discovery and knowledge do not lead to brainwashing. It’s possible to read and learn, then analyze and dismiss. Exposure does not mean acceptance. This is something Tara wishes her father could accept.

 

Please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at

I wish you all a life inspired by the wonder of the world around us. May you find and live your truth, in harmony with people, nature and the environment. May you be a force for good and a source of love and comfort. May the world be a better place for you having lived and loved here.

All rights reserved 2020

Book Review: The Deserter by Nelson DeMille & Alex DeMille

Book Review: The Deserter by Nelson DeMille and Alex DeMille (2019) 4 Stars ****

Nelson DeMille is back in the game with a wonderful new book co-authored with his son, Alex. Remember Private Robert (Bowe) Bergdahl, the army deserter who captured our attention in 2009? Bergdahl deserted his army post in Afghanistan, where, according to Bergdahl, he was held captive, tortured and horribly mistreated by the Taliban for five years. This book uses Bergdahl’s story as a springboard to the desertion of the fictional Delta Force Army elite Captain Kyle Mercer, whose apprehension is entrusted to CID (Criminal Investigation Division) investigators Scott Brodie and Maggie Taylor. Clues to Mercer’s whereabouts lead the duo to Caracas, Venezuela, a hell hole of corruption, chaos, drug-trafficking, starvation, kidnappings, torture, executions, prostitution, and sexual enslavement of women and children alike. All I can say is this: The authors painstakingly researched their facts and spoke extensively with expats and other people who are in the know. As any fan of Nelson DeMille knows, if it’s in the book, it’s real. Period.

Why did Bergdahl desert in 2009? He says he was disgusted by his commanding officer’s inappropriate conduct. Why did the fictional Mercer desert his post in Afghanistan? He says he and other soldiers were forced to participate in campaigns to slaughter innocent civilians in attempts at pacification. Captain Mercer’s intention was to leave his post in order to report the atrocities to the higher ups. Things did not play out as he had hoped. Army investigators Brodie and Taylor, decorated veterans, experienced in the way things work in the real world, found evidence of these assertions and the subsequent cover-ups, independent of their conversations with Captain Mercer. They sympathize and identify with Mercer’s plight, but as dedicated CID officers, they are intent upon bringing him and other guilty parties to justice. Justice is served in the end, but not how the reader might expect. In real life, Pvt. Bergdahl received a dishonorable discharge from the US Army, but no jail time. Fictional Captain Mercer’s story ends with justice served in a way that makes sense for him and the other characters. The reader might ponder the question: Is there a right and wrong that can be judged when a soldier is bombarded from all sides— physically, mentally, emotionally— beyond the endurance of even the strongest among us?

Why four stars instead of five? The first one hundred pages are written in a tightly restricted style. The roughly middle third of the book starts to let loose. The last third reflects the style and characterizations we are used to seeing from Nelson DeMille. Scott Brodie increasingly becomes the wise-cracking macho man we’ve seen before in the guise of John Corey, DeMille’s most popular character. Maggie Taylor is not convincing as an army investigator. Much too quiet, submissive, fearful until the end, and not enough take charge attitude. My feeling was that these book sections were written by different people. Sure enough! After finishing the book, wanting to know how much of Mercer’s story was also Bergdahl’s story, I watched some You-Tube videos where the DeMilles discussed their collaboration. Nelson admitted he had started off with a different co-author, then switched to his son. They kept the beginning of the book as it was. It was not authentic to Nelson DeMille’s style. Sorry, Nelson, but I have been a fan for many, many years, and I knew it wasn’t you. Next time, re-write from the beginning!

 

Please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at elainewrites@earthlink.net

I wish you all a life inspired by the wonder of the world around us. May you find and live your truth, in harmony with people, nature and the environment. May you be a force for good and a source of love and comfort. May the world be a better place for you having lived and loved here.

All rights reserved 2020

Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (2020) 3 Stars***

Perhaps destined to be the most controversial book of 2020, this work of fiction, American Dirt, has the misfortune of being written by a non Latinx author, a middle class, educated, non-immigrant half White and half Puerto Rican (from a Puerto Rican grandmother) American who is accused of cultural appropriation, exaggerating racial stereotypes, misrepresenting real life in Mexico and Central America, and capitalizing on a story that is not her story or the story of her people. The author has experienced death threats, cancellations of interviews across the country, removal of American Dirt from book stores, yada, yada, yada.

Despite the myriad heart-wrenching sagas presented by Latinx and Hispanic authors, somehow Oprah, the publishing world, and the press have jumped on this non-authentic book as the one that truly presents the plight of today’s Latinx immigrant. So, why all the positive acclaim? It has always been my contention that too many of today’s books are rewarded for the timeliness of their subjects rather than than the excellence of their writing. This is one of those examples. But, still, can’t her opponents just ignore her, rather than hunting her down and killing her, so to speak?

Fleeing violence, murder, rape, trafficking, robbery, starvation, lack of educational opportunities, and loss of dignity—undertaking the dangerous journey to salvation in the United States of America—is a horrific experience.  What is lacking in this book is heart and soul. It does not capture my emotions. I did not feel any emotional connection to the characters. Yes, intellectually their plight is a sad one, but the author fails to present her book as an emotional appeal. More like a newspaper account or a documentary, the story is often told, rather than shown. Maybe this is the sad result of the author lacking first-hand experience. Her heart was not broken, only her mind was horrified.

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Cummins apologizes for considering herself American and a non-suffering member of the middle class, plays up the inherent racism directed at brown and black people and the misconceptions about their cultures held by the privileged whites. It’s a given that it’s going to come down on this chick from all sides.

Personally, I’m tired of people who pander to the current subversive, divisive propaganda for profit, then get rewarded for it. This book is preachy and what is presented as fact is most often a distorted emotional argument. Maybe researched, but not well-presented.

The author studied this subject for many years before writing her book. Cummins tells us two female cousins were brutally raped, beaten and thrown over a bridge while her brother was beaten and then thrown over the same bridge by four American thugs in St. Louis, Missouri. The author’s husband was an undocumented immigrant from Ireland. They lived in fear that he would be deported until they were finally married. These are the reasons the author feels entitled to tell the story she has written?!? What does one thing have to do with the other?

The author claims to abhor violence in all forms and is horrified by its prevalence in the country to our south. It is for these reasons that she researched and wrote this book: “As I traveled and researched, even the notion of the American dream began to feel proprietary. There’s a wonderful piece of graffiti on the border wall in Tijuana that became, for me, the engine of this whole endeavor. I photographed it and made it my computer wallpaper. Anytime I faltered or felt discouraged, I clicked back to my desktop and looked at it: También De Este Lado Hay Sueños—On this side, too, there are dreams.”

Let’s get to the plot. Attractive, self-absorbed, Acapulco book store owner Lydia and her eight year old son, Luca, are forced to flee for their lives after her politically and culturally critical journalist husband and fifteen family members are shot dead by the gang banger emissaries of the newest local drug lord with whom Lydia has been having flirtatious, esoteric discussions about poetry and literature at her book store. Even though Lydia’s husband has  just published a controversial expository about La Lechuza, Lydia is convinced that his warm feelings for her will protect her husband, her family and her from any retribution on his part. How wrong she is!

The mother and son are joined by other asylum seekers and together they make the perilous journey. The author makes a point to make sure we know that there is good and bad along the way, and we shouldn’t dwell on negative stereotypes disseminated by American leaders, residents of states bordering Mexico, and reports by the American press and border guards.

In the Author’s Notes, Cummins states that we consider ourselves to be the only Americans and do not include citizens of Central America and South America in the term. This is how I see it: The name of our country is the United States of America, so citizens are Americans. Americans does not refer to the continent on which we live since the continent of North America includes the US, Canada and Mexico. The citizens of Canada and Mexico are called Canadians and Mexicans respectively. Central America is a region comprised of seven countries, so their citizens are referred to as citizens of such (ex. Guatemalans, Nicaraguans), not by the region in which they live. This is also true of the citizens of the thirteen countries that comprise the continent of South America. They are referred to as citizens of their country (ex. Agentinians, Colombians), not the continent on which they live. In conclusion, citizens of the United States of America have the right to exclusively be called Americans because it is the name of our country.

To those who portend that reports of violence in Mexico and Central American countries are greatly exaggerated, if this is true, why are people leaving those countries by the thousands with stories that would put goosebumps on the arms of anyone listening? Are you suggesting these stories are a ruse for admission to the US?

 

Please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at author@elainedonadio.com.

I wish you all a life inspired by the wonder of the world around us. May you find and live your truth, in harmony with people, nature and the environment. May you be a force for good and a source of love and comfort. May the world be a better place for you having lived and loved here.

All rights reserved 2020

Winner! Joan Laufer-National Art League-Small & Big Show

Congratulations!  Joan Laufer 1st Prize Winner
National Art League
Small & Big ShowPortraits… jlnewfi@aol.com

Book Review: The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames

Book Review: The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames (2019) 5 Stars *****

Every few years, we come across a book that we recognize as a work of art: a masterpiece for its writing, its story, and its truths. This is one of those books. Spanning a one hundred year period, this fictional story, based on the author’s familial experiences, captures the life, struggles, and emotional turmoil of Mariastella (Stella) Fortuna from her cursed beginnings in Ievoli, Calabria in Italy through her emigration to Hartford, Connecticut in the United States from the 1900s to the present.

The story is told in the third person by Stella’s granddaughter. The emotional anguish is so intense that the third person point of view thankfully protects the reader from a total immersion in Stella’s sorrow, frustrations, and disappointments. The book is so real and the character(s) so relatable, that I felt feisty Stella’s pain, and that of her mother, the sainted Assunta. So much emotion subtly revealed in the nearly 500 page revelation!

The often harsh patriarchal, male dominated society, the rapes, incest, psychological and physical abuses, the near starvation, the ravages and finality of disease, the injustice and absurdity of being ruled and overruled by men who operate without intelligence and with purely selfish motives both on the political front as well as in the home, the prejudices encountered within Italy and magnified one thousand times as experienced upon admission to the United States, paint a picture of suffering, despair, bias, suspicion and mistrust. With the traditions and laws of the land counter to the rights of women, their only recourse is to pray to God for deliverance, justice, and mercy for themselves and their young children since neither the male members of their families nor the government offer protection. The men? With everything stacked in their favor, they confiscate and squander any dowry or work savings from their wives and children with impunity. If women are lucky enough to marry a man with integrity and a brain, the family life can be blessed. If not, everyone is up the creek without a paddle. Many marriages are arranged, or since there is no dating, couples attracted to each other by beautiful, sparkling eyes across the village square are betrothed and married on their second and third meetings. Life for women is a crapshoot.

Where are the streets paved in gold rumored to abound in L’America? Disappointment and disbelief fill Stella’s heart as she views the street below her tenement building in Hartford. Instead, the streets are paved with desperate people, push carts, and shanty town shelters for the homeless.

Stella is ahead of her time. She fears the loss of her autonomy. She wants to live on her own as a single woman in charge of her own life, dependent on her earnings to cover the expenses of rent and daily life. Her father will not allow this. Stella fears marriage, sexual relations, pregnancy and childbirth. She eventually agrees to marry Carmelo, a kind, loving, patient suitor. Stella, being Stella, gives him a run for his money. I had to wonder what Carmelo saw in her to pursue her as his wife despite the cruel way she treated him. This handsome, loyal, solid citizen wanted only her and ignored the scores of eligible women who desired him as their husband. It seems that Stella got the better end of the deal.

As in most Italian families, Stella’s is a closely knit one. Her younger sister, Tina, and her mother, Assunta, are her best friends. Stella manages to live to one hundred years old despite the many scars that bear witness to the numerous near death experiences that would have killed a lesser person. How is Stella even still alive? She believes she is cursed by the ghost of the first Mariastella who died from the flu as a toddler because their miserable, neglectful, self-centered, perverted father refuses to leave his home in the bad weather to call for the doctor. Throughout most of the book, Stella believes her dead sister is jealous of her life, intelligence, and beauty and haunts her existence for living the life she should have had.

Nearer the end, Stella looks at another person as the source of the curse. A person who is always there in the nick of time to save her from certain death. A person who lives vicariously through Stella’s accomplishments and kindnesses. Are Stella’s conclusions misguided? Can negative energy create disaster in someone’s life? What happens when using protection against the evil eye doesn’t work because the culprit appears as an innocent, indispensable and loved, and is never suspected as a source of malevolence?

Each death or near death experience coincides with the natural progression of Stella’s life. Chapter headings have two titles: one for the cause of the near death and one for the corresponding stage in Stella’s life. Cognitive Development, Growing Pains, Education, Immigration, Marriage, Motherhood, Change of Life, Dementia all bring terrible physical disfigurement. Somehow, each tribulation serves to strengthen Stella rather than diminish her. She openly becomes overwhelmed near the end of her life and resorts to wine and solitude as an escape. This complex character has not come through life unscathed. Is the saying wrong? Does God give some people more than they can bear?

 

Please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at author@elainedonadio.com.

I wish you all a life inspired by the wonder of the world around us. May you find and live your truth, in harmony with people, nature and the environment. May you be a force for good and a source of love and comfort. May the world be a better place for you having lived and loved here.

All rights reserved 2020

Please Borrow My Books From NY Public Libraries!

Great news! Printed copies of my books can now be borrowed from Queens, Nassau and Suffolk County Libraries in New York. Request an inter-library loan!

Queens Libraries—Bay Terrace, Central(Jamaica), and Whitestone 

Nassau Libraries—Manhasset, Port Washington, Syosset

Suffolk Libraries— East Hampton, Huntington

The digital copies are available in Queens Public Library and may be available in other library systems throughout the country. If your library cannot provide access to these books, please ask them to purchase in digital or paperback formats to add to their collection.

The Science Project
The Ocean’s Way
Who Do Voodoo?
The Ocean’s Way Poetry Companion
Sojourn Into The Night—A Memoir of the Peruvian Rainforest

Happy reading! If you do decide to borrow my books from the library, please remember to write a review on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble websites, or any other place you choose!

Thanks,

Elaine

Please let me know how you do. I’d love to hear from you at elainewrites@earthlink.net

All Rights Reserved 2020

Book Review: The Bitterroots by C.J. Box

Book Review: The Bitterroots by C.J. Box (2019) 3 Stars ***

The crime thriller of the year? Huh? This is the first time reading a book by this author, and it will be the last. Pleasant, easy to read but nothing special. I’m amazed by the number of 4 and 5 star ratings on Goodreads. You might like it more than I did. I can only share my reaction: Ho-hum.

Cassie Dewell, a former hero North Dakota cop who unjustly got the shaft, now runs her one woman private investigation agency in Bozeman, Montana. Cassie now works long, irregular hours and feels guilty about leaving her fourteen year old son in the care of her aging former hippie mother, who torments her grandson by wanting him to eat granola and care about something other than his cell phone. Cassie owes Rachel Mitchell, a family friend and criminal defense attorney, a big favor, so Cassie reluctantly goes to depressing Lochsa County in Bitteroots territory to confirm evidence in the rape case of forty-three year old family outcast Blake Kleinsasser, accused of assaulting and raping his fifteen year old niece. The Kleinsassers are a wealthy family of cold-hearted, arrogant, intimidating turds. Cassie has her work cut out for her when she arrives in this corrupt county run behind the scenes by the Kleinsassers through the puppet sheriff and his department flunkies.

A string of civil rights violations, threats of violence, virtual kidnapping, false imprionment, breaking and entering, confiscation of personal property, attempts at murder do not deter Cassie from her goal. Not only is she broke, but she doesn’t have much in the brains department as evidenced by how many times she refuses to go home while she is still alive, rather than in a body bag. Is Blake Kleinsasser really guilty or did his family fabricate a story and supply dubious proof of Blake’s guilt? Eldest son. Inheritance edicts. Cassie now has her doubts.

The Bitteroots are part of the mountain chain which make up the Rocky Mountains. I believe the title reinforces the idea of solid barriers to relationships, sibling rivalry and anti-social behavior as endemic to this family, right to its core, from the grandfather, to his sons, grandsons, granddaughter and great granddaughter. Oh, and the mother of this battling crew is an apt learner. Hint: The men are overt but the women are covert. That’s all I’m saying. No spoilers, please.

With all of this, the characters are flat and stereotypical. Relationships are sprung on us without any foreshadowing. Some bad guys are suddenly good and some good guys are suddenly bad. The story lacks suspense. The ending is like an epilogue although not entitled as such, leaving the reader wondering the fate of some endearing characters like Ben, the sweet lady in the jail, and Jody Haak. They were betrayed but their resolutions were not offered. And what about the wacky hippie grandma? Isn’t she entitled to a nodding goodbye?

 

Please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at author@elainedonadio.com.

I wish you all a life inspired by the wonder of the world around us. May you find and live your truth, in harmony with people, nature and the environment. May you be a force for good and a source of love and comfort. May the world be a better place for you having lived and loved here.

All rights reserved 2020

Saturday, March 14, 2020- Barnes & Noble, Massapequa, NY 12:00-4:00pm

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