Books on Tap met virtually to discuss Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover. Unlike the memoir we read last month, this one was beautifully written and engendered much discussion. Westover grew up in Idaho as the youngest child in a family under the thumb of a dictatorial father. Her birth wasn’t registered and her homeschooling was ignored when her labor was required in her father’s scrap yard. She recounts the numerous times she was physically and psychologically wounded by her father’s decisions and a brother’s abuse. With the encouragement of another brother, she taught herself math, took the ACT and enrolled at Brigham Young University. From there she finds academic mentors and studies at Cambridge University. Writing this memoir in her 30s, she explores the ways her education uncovers her talents but separates her from her parents and most of her siblings.
Westover draws on the journals she kept as a child but acknowledges that her memories are hers alone. When a brother is badly burned in an accident in the family scrap yard, each of her brothers who were there to witness it remember it differently.We are inclined to believe her versions because her recollections are visually vivid. In order to create a hook to sell the book, she has to include the trauma (which may distort her memories) and focus on her own perspective but she allows that her family has their own memories and interpretations. It’s her interpretation that she uses to inform the direction of her life as she moves from an isolated family cult to the wider world.
Education is the key to this transformation. Westover grows up more isolated than her older siblings who had birth certificates and at least some classroom education. The family lives near a town, attends a mainstream Mormon church and has grandparents who offer her brief refuge from the chaos at home. However, her father’s mental illness seizes on the worst patriarchal aspects of religion to limit the family’s choices and consistently puts them at physical risk that results in permanent injury. Westover’s first words are that this is not a Mormon story, and it is certainly not the definitive story of growing up Mormon but she misses the opportunity to explain how religion and survivalism was perverted in her father’s mind and how her mother was primed to follow him. Many of our readers were shocked that her mother did nothing to protect her children or herself, even shielding the sons that abuse their siblings. Westover generously forgives her parents and keeps inviting them into her new life but ultimately cannot be herself in the family. It was her big heart and excellent, clear writing that made this a group favorite.
Books on Tap will meet again on October 1 via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org). We’ll be reading Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. JMRL owns this book in many formats. Please contact Sarah Hamfeldt (shamfeldt at jmrl dot org) for help accessing these titles for curbside pickup or by download.
About the Author
PBS interview with reader’s questions
Psychology Today article
Review in The Guardian
Butterfly Express (Westover’s mother’s business)
Books and Authors Mentioned in the Meeting:
Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits (novel)
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Orthodox Roots by Deborah Feldman
Books like Unorthodox
A List of Fake Memoirs
October 1: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson November 5: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Books on Tap read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See at Champion Brewery on March 7. Throughout the month of March, JMRL encourages everyone to read this title and then meet the author at our free event at Northside library on March 20th at 6pm as part of the Same Page.
See frequently writes on Chinese-American themes, having spent much of her youth in L.A.’s Chinatown with paternal relatives. In this novel, she traces a young Akah women growing up in a rural tea growing region of China near the Thai border in the 1980s. Li-yan is raised according to traditional Akah customs, shadowing her mother the midwife. The local teacher singles her out for education in the nearest city, where her life is upended by her boyfriend. She gives birth to a daughter who is put in an orphanage and ultimately raised in California by a white couple. Li-yan packs a lot of living into her first 27 years while the daughter explores the clues (dark skin, a uniquely decorated tea cake) that hint at her biological parents. Li-yan and that daughter, Haley, work to find each other by the end of the novel.
The majority of our book club members liked the book. See packs in tons of information about the tea industry and the Akha people which we enjoyed as a window into lives we would not normally read about. Some readers thought that she could have done a better job weaving those details into the story instead of dropping in blocks of exposition. We were surprised to encounter the matrilineal and sex-positive Akah traditions. Coincidences abound but most of us thought they were within the bounds of reason. The ending wasn’t a surprise, and while a happy ending is satisfying, we speculated on the type of relationship Li-yan and Hayley would maintain back in California.
If this story inspires you to look into your own family history, check out JMRL’s online genealogy resources or set up an appointment to digitize your personal VHS tapes, slides, photos, negatives and cassette tapes.
About the author
About the book
About the Akha
About the tea plantations
Books on Tap Information:
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Posted in Books on Tap
The Brown Baggers met on December 20 to select books for the upcoming months. Many new and classic titles were suggested by members, but after only one exciting round of voting there were some clear winners. Upcoming titles that the group will read include both fiction and nonfiction books.
Here are the upcoming titles for July 2019- May 2020:
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan
Educated by Tara Westover
There There by Tommy Orange
The Soul of America by Jon Meacham
If you’re interested in joining the Brown Baggers Book Group, you’re welcome to come to the Central Library on the third Thursday of the month from 12-1pm and participate in our lively discussion. You can call 434.979.7151 ext. 4 for more information or send an email. Also, check out JMRL’s wiki for the book club picks from previous years.
The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, January 17 at 12pm to discuss Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood.