Educated

by Tara Westover
First sentence: “I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 20, 2018
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some harrowing scenes of abuse and some mild swearing (no f-bombs). It will be in the biography section of the bookstore, but I think any junior or senior in high school may be interested in it.

I was handed this book because I’m the Mormon on staff, and because Westover grew up Mormon, in Idaho, everyone just assumed I needed to read it. Having finished it, I’m here to say that it’s not for those of us who are Mormon (though I think we’ll see some inherent criticisms of our culture, that others might miss), but it’s for everyone, in the way The Glass Castle is for everyone. Westover’s story is remarkable.

The basics are these: she grew up on a mountain in Idaho, the child of a fundamentalist/survivalist father who used religion as the reason to spurn the government. She was a wild child, helping out in the junkyard, avoiding books, until her older brother, Tyler, left and went to college. That spurred something in her, and she tried to go to school (they were all nominally “homeschooled”, which is code for “there are scriptures lying around the house if you choose to read them”) but consistently fell back into old habits. It wasn’t until she began being physically abused by her older brother that she felt a need to leave. She got into BYU (she studied for the ACT, and managed to get a good enough score), and once there learned just how far from “normal” her family was.

It’s a remarkable journey, not just because Westover got “out” of the situation she was in (though there really isn’t a resolution with her abusive brother, in the end, which while disappointing in a narrative setting, makes sense), but because of her reflections on education, class, money, religion, and the government. It’s an interesting line she walked, between her family and the education she received, first at BYU and then at Cambridge, but it is made so by her writing, her open, honest (sometimes brutally so) reflections on not just her family (she points no fingers) but also herself. This book feels like a work of therapy; like Westover needed to write it to understand herself, and by sharing it with the rest of us, we may understand not just her family, but ourselves as well.

I’m not sure remarkable is the best word for it. I was caught up in the story, my breath taken away (as a mother I was shocked and appalled: how COULD they let these things happen to their daughter!) and I was in awe that she found a way for herself.

Excellent.

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The Bishop’s Wife

by Mette Ivie Harrison
First sentence: “Mormon bishop’s wife isn’t an official calling.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a few instances of mild swearing, but it is a murder mystery, and there are some pretty adult situations at the end of the book. It’s in the mystery section of the bookstore.

When this one came into the store, I knew I needed to read it. First, because I have enjoyed Harrison’s fantasies in the past, but mostly because, as the bookstore’s resident Mormon, I was interested in seeing what this one was about.

It’s published by Soho Crime, a division of Penguin/Random House, and it’s being touted as a mystery. Which, on one level, it is.

Our main character is Linda Wallheim, the wife of a bishop of a small Draper, Utah, ward. Her children are mostly grown and gone; her last boy is a senior in high school. She still hasn’t gone back to work, and so one of the tasks her husband gives her is to go visit people he feels need extra help and care. That’s how Linda gets mixed up in not one, but two tricky situations in the ward. One is the disappearance of a woman who left behind a husband and a 5-year-old girl. This is the really messy one, that doesn’t end well at all. The other is support to a woman whose husband is dying, and whose first wife died in what turns out to be a long-hidde murder. Linda is over her head, true, but she perseveres, and manages to solve both.

That’s the simple explanation. But, as mysteries go, this one is pretty pedestrian. I went through a couple of suspects before I settled in on who eventually committed the murder. And so, at the end, I wasn’t surprised, but that’s okay. See, for me, this book was a lot less about the murder and a lot more about Harrison’s portrayal of Mormon women.

Perhaps it’s because I’m the right age, the right target audience, the right sensibilities, but I was thoroughly drawn in by Harrison’s portrait of all the varying opinions, ideas, thoughts, and beliefs of members of the church. She shows that there are good people who are doing good things there are crazy people doing crazy things, there are dangerous people doing evil things. There are people who believe strongly, there are people who are questioning but still want to believe, there are people who don’t believe any more. Harrison also does a fantastic job of putting our religion (she’s LDS too, obviously) out there in a way that’s accessible to people who aren’t familiar with our faith. She’s most interested in the roles women play in the church, and in each other’s lives, and that’s what spoke the most to me.

I’m not quite sure who else would enjoy the book, though,. I tweeted Harrison when I finished, and she admitted she’s been getting a lot of flack for the book, which (unfortunately) doesn’t surprise me. But, I do hope this book finds readers and creates discussion.

Because it’s worth thinking about.

The World’s Strongest Librarian

by Josh Hanagarne
First sentence: “Today the library was hot, humid, and smelly.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some mild swearing, including a half-dozen (or so) f-bombs. I think older teenagers — especially ones that are struggling with education — would really like this one. It’s in the biography section at the bookstore.

As soon as this came out, I knew I wanted to read it. It’s about a Mormon, a librarian, and a man who has Tourette Syndrome. Granted, it’s been out for a while and it took my book group to get me to read it (too many other things to read; no excuse!), but I’m very (very!) glad I did.

It’s a straight-up memoir of Hanagarne’s experiences growing up. He was raised LDS (I loved his family; he’s got great parents), and struggled with tics as a result of Tourette’s throughout growing up. He wasn’t officially diagnosed until he was a teenager, but it was a part of his life. He found books though (yay, books!) and that helped give him a sense of purpose and direction. Though his life wasn’t easy: it took him 10 years to graduate from college; he kept dropping out because his Tourette’s made it difficult for him to focus.

It was a fascinating tale, not only of his faith journey — he has had some good leaders in his life — but of his personal journey trying to figure out how to handle his increasingly worsening Tourette’s. And it’s a very hopeful book: Hanagarne has managed to create a life for himself that works, in spite of (maybe because of) the obstacles in his way. He did an incredible job helping me picture what life with Tourette’s is like (not fun).

In addition — and perhaps this was my favorite part — Haragarne splices his personal story with ones from working at the Salt Lake City library, which helped break up the stories from the past and were highly interesting and entertaining.

It’s an odd book, probably not for everyone. But I found it be thought-provoking and fascinating.

The Actor and the Housewife

by Shannon Hale
ages: adult
First sentence: “Becky was seven months pregnant when she met Felix Callahan.”
Release date: June 9, 2009
ARC sent to me by the publisher.

Becky is your normal, average, run-of-the mill, Mormon mother of (almost) four (she’s pregnant with her fourth when the book opens). She doesn’t work, instead focusing most of her energies on running her house and taking care of her kids and husband. She does dabble in screenwriting, and sends one off to a publishing house on a whim, not expecting much of anything. To her surprise, an agent asks to meet with her; she flies out to LA, and it’s at this meeting that her future changes: she meets, accidentally, Hollywood heart-throb Felix Callahan. When she and Felix discover they’re staying at the same hotel, and he offers to buy her dinner, Becky figures it’s a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated experience (and will make a great story); besides, what do a Mormon mom and a British actor have in common, anyway?

Turns out that they the have formed a bond — purely platonic, of course — that keeps them connected through thick and thin. Over the course of eleven years, through good times as well as bad, Becky and Felix keep their friendship strong, and find the rewards that come from having a best friend.
Only in Hale’s adept storytelling hands can something this far-fetched become a poignant story of a Mormon woman, who in the face of a fairly prohibitive religious community (where men and women don’t usually form friendships outside of marriage) happens to have an unconventional friendship, with not only a man, but someone who is outside of the community and faith. The story becomes not one about friendship — there’s really not much given as a basis for Felix and Becky’s friendship; it’s just stipulated by Hale that they are — as it is a story about Becky, and how her friendship with Felix affects her life. There’s laughs (at least for me; Hale happens to have a sense of humor that I appreciate), there’s tears (lots and lots), there’s uncomfortable moments (especially for me, as a Mormon) as well as moments of true joy. Hale has a fascinating story here, and she knows how to milk it for all that it’s worth.
That said, I’m not sure that this book will be for everyone. It’s a very Mormon book, in the way Chaiam Potok’s are Jewish: Becky is Mormon, it permeates her life, her thinking, her being. It’s who she is. And while Hale does explain elements of the religion and culture, someone who is not familiar with it has the potential to be hanging at loose ends, wondering why this character would even begin to think this way. On the other hand, it’s not a conventional Mormon book; she doesn’t pander to traditional Mormon literature conventions, something which I greatly apprecaited. I liked Hale’s portrayal of Mormonism; she treats the religion and culture with love and good-humored ribbing. But, for a Mormon reader, who’s expecting the story to go in particular ways (it’s a book by a Mormon author with a Mormon main character, after all), they might be sorely disappointed.
Then again, it’s not a conventional chick-lit book, even though that’s the way Bloomsbury is marketing it. For one, it’s a very married book; more important than her relationship with Felix is her relationship with her husband, Mike. I liked her portrayal of them as a married couple: it’s a healthy, giving, committed relationship, one in which both partners feel loved, respected and valued. There’s very little romance, in the traditional chick-lit sense. And the ending, for better or for worse, is not a conventional ending (in any sense). I was surprised with the direction Hale took the story, but, in the end, very gratified.
I have to say, overall I adored it. I laughed, I cried, I fantasized, and it touched a place within me that I don’t often like to look at. I wondered… what if? But, then I put the book down, and looked out at my four girls playing outside with my dear husband, and was grateful for what I’ve got. And, perhaps, that’s all that Hale really wanted to do with this story.