“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

educatedThe Brown Baggers gathered virtually on May 21 to discuss Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated. Westover describes her childhood growing up in the Idaho mountains as the youngest of seven in a survivalist family. Her charismatic but mentally unstable father mistrusts the government and Western medicine and Tara’s mother is a midwife with no formal training and healer who uses natural remedies to combat even the most severe injuries. Several of their children, including Tara, don’t have birth certificates, and while some of her older brothers and sisters attended school for brief periods of time, Tara never stepped foot into a classroom. While technically homeschooled, Tara writes that instead of learning mathematics or world history, she spent her days helping her mother prepare herbal remedies or performing dangerous work in her father’s junkyard.

When one of Tara’s older brothers leaves for college, she begins to recognize there is a world beyond the foothills of her mountain and soon longs for her own escape. She teaches herself enough to pass the ACT and secure admission to Brigham Young University with a scholarship. In fact, Tara is so bright she goes on to study at Cambridge and Harvard, eventually obtaining a PhD in History at Cambridge. However, as Tara’s education expands, she struggles to reconcile her family’s beliefs with the knowledge she has gained. As a result, her family ties begin to fray and ultimately reach a breaking point.

The Brown Baggers found Tara’s story fascinating but also upsetting. Her writing was, as one described it, cinematic and visually gripping. They were amazed that someone who grew up in such a harsh and controlling environment could not only escape, but excel academically, though some questioned her own mental stability as evidenced by her erratic behavior later in her memoir. One member pointed out that Tara’s story highlights the importance of having a mentor. At BYU and Cambridge, Tara’s professors recognized her talents when she didn’t think she was capable and gave her the support she needed when she found herself overwhelmed and alone. While most of Tara’s education, especially in her teenage years, was a solitary endeavor and devoted to learning from books, her mentors taught Tara something about her own self. 

The book raised a lot of questions about objectivity and truth, particularly in regards to memory. While some of the stories seemed too outlandish to be true, Westover acknowledges that her family members may remember events differently. Rather than take a dogmatic approach to truth, Westover openly acknowledges in the footnotes where accounts have differed. A lot of us could relate to having different recollections from, say, a sibling about something that happened decades ago and many of the Brown Baggers admired her commitment to objectivity. 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on June 18 to discuss The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Liars Club by Mary Karr

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Links:

PBS NewsHour:Tara Westover, author of “Educated,” sings a Mormon hymn

“At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought.”

convenience store womanThe Brown Baggers met virtually on April 16th to discuss Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. A short but strange novel, Convenience Store Woman follows a thirty-something woman named Keiko Furukura who works at, you guessed it, a convenience store. Keiko’s family and friends believe she is stuck in a dead-end job, and because she hasn’t married yet, she must be terribly lonely. They wonder aloud, sometimes even to her face, why she doesn’t strive for more in life beyond her menial job. For Keiko, however, the store is her sanctuary. In the “real world,” Keiko is a misfit who struggles to communicate with those around her–a few members wondered if her inability to relate to and communicate with other humans was a sign of autism–but as a convenience store worker she can hide her eccentricities. Staff must wear uniforms without any jewelry, watches, or other accessories to identify them as individuals, and they are given “scripts” for interacting with customers. When her job is jeopardized, Keiko discovers she has no purpose in society outside of her convenience store.

Murata’s novel is short but packs a punch with its oddball characters and social commentary. Although Keiko is an oddball,  she isn’t necessarily a lovable oddball or innocent victim of her circumstances, as the Brown Baggers discussed. Some of her inner thoughts were disturbing, sometimes violent, and made her difficult to relate to or sympathize as a reader. She was, however, a lot more likable than her misogynistic coworker Shiraha who also struggles to fit in with society. 

Convenience Store Woman critiques modern Japanese culture, specifically post-capitalism Japan where marriage rates are falling and young men are hiding away in their parents’ homes playing video games. Some interpreted the novel as a warning against finding one’s identity in work above all else. In the novel, Keiko finds solace in the store because she is seen as “normal” for the first time. But is it better to be a cog in the machine of society or to embrace one’s uniqueness and stand out in the crowd? Many Brown Baggers pointed out these philosophical questions were raised in another book club title also written by a Japanese author,  Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes

Murata is an award-winning Japanese novelist who has published at least ten novels. Convenience Store Woman is the first of her novels to be translated into English and the Brown Baggers are eager to see her other works translated in the future.

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on June 18 to discuss Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. Email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate via computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

Ruth Ozeki

Kobo Abe – The Woman in the Dunes

 

Other Links:

Loitering in 7-11 with Convenience Store Woman Author Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata: ‘My parents don’t want to read my books’

For Japanese Novelist Sayaka Murata, Odd Is the New Normal

Catapult | A Cure to Feeling Like You Need to Be Cured: Talking to Sayaka Murata in Tokyo | Aja Gabel

“Normal”—What?: In Conversation with Sayaka Murata. Author of ‘Convenience Store Woman’ in Toronto

“The spider’s web is a home and a trap.”

there thereBooks on Tap met virtually to discuss There There by Tommy Orange. Using the perspective of twelve characters, Orange explores modern urban Indian life as they all converge at the Big Oakland Powwow. Together, their stories explore identity, generational trauma, expectations and survival. Specific life experiences are used to create a story that resonates universally. The title calls back to Radiohead’s song of the same title and Gertrude Stein’s quotation “there is no there there” in likely reference to Oakland, where she was raised. 

Orange confronts stereotypes of Indians and both dismantles them and examines their underlying basis. Orange uses his characters to prove that Indians don’t just belong to the past and that their stories extend past the history books. However, since he wrote the book for a Native audience, he refers to historical events that may be vivid for his intended reader but were unfamiliar to some of our readers.  He uses the example of the old television test pattern of an Indian man in a headdress to compare how the same image can be read differently. He likens it to a man targeted in a gun scope, constantly under threat. Some of our readers could barely remember the image from their youth and hadn’t given it any thought, reinforcing the idea that Indians are at best seen as historical stereotypes (a chief in a headdress) or are invisible, something to put on tv when everything else has been presented for the day. Locally, those threads converge in the Monacan tribe, just recently recognized federally, 400 years after whites came to Jamestown.  Orange does more delicate work with the stereotype of the drunk Indian. The characters are in the throes of addiction, in hard-won recovery, and harmed by addicts. We discussed how the author uses their stories to examine how generational trauma in the form of genocide and subjugation would make a population vulnerable  to all addiction not only to alcohol but to cocaine and opioids. We compared the uneven application of drug laws to whites and people of color in terms of cocaine and crack, opioids and alcohol. 

Non-Indian readers were expecting to learn of tribal traditions. Orange points out that continuing tradition is tricky. The young people in the novel frequently use the internet to explore their Indianness. Some don’t know their tribes because they aren’t in contact with their Indian parent. Others were adopted by white families. Still others are raised with and by Indians, but those caregivers chose to downplay their identity to shield their children from the racism that they themselves suffered while growing up. 

Story fills this void. We talked about the many ways that stories are used for survival. Dene is collecting stories from Oakland-area Indians, paying them to tell any story they want but almost always hearing painful stories. Jackie returns to AA meetings but is bored of the stories  repeated there. Orvil, Tony and Edgar quietly search the internet to learn about traditions that, had they been able to absorb them in a dominant culture that supported and celebrated them, would have insulated them from the identity cries they are in the  midst of.  As a book club member pointed out, we have an Own Voices author demonstrating the importance of stories told by and for a community. 

Everyone who attended found the novel moving and eye opening. We parted ways over the ending. Some found it frustrating, depressing and too violent while a few found hope in the ambiguity. The characters converge at the powwow, some reluctantly. A robbery turns violent and the chaos is rendered  realistically and arrestingly through multiple asynchronous viewpoints.  The scene is reminiscent of massacres mentioned earlier in the book and it isn’t at all clear who is still alive at the end. However, Orange is working on a sequel which many of us are eager to read. 

Books on Tap will meet again on June 4th via Zoom. For information, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org). 

More Information:

About the author 

About the book 

Upcoming sequel 

Interview with the author 

Similar Titles 

Sherman Alexie especially The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

Here by Richard McGuire 

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot 

 

Next Meeting:

  • Clock Dance by Anne Tyler (June 4)
  • Vote here  to choose titles for this summer’s virtual meetings.