The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer demand relief from the news, and summer reading could be just the antidote. The following are some suggestions:
Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is one of the most gripping books I have read in a long time, possibly ever. Against all odds, Westover grew up in a Mormon family in Idaho, her paranoid father a narrow-minded believer in the imminent end of the world, fearful enemy of government, especially the government that had perpetrated the Ruby Ridge massacre, and a rigid despiser of doctors and hospitals. A survivalist, he denied his children both formal education and medical care, required them to work in the junkyard where he eked out a meager living, and abused them emotionally and physically. At the age of 16, Tara followed two of her six siblings in pursuing education, she to Brigham Young University, Cambridge University in England, a Harvard fellowship and back to Cambridge where she got a doctorate in history. Educated tells of her struggles to learn not just academics but who she was, rather than the distorted self her dysfunctional family would have her believe. Educated is like Hillbilly Elegy on steroids and indescribably powerful.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by award-winning writer Katherine Boo is a searing portrayal of the daily struggles and degradations of people living on the edge in the Annawadi slum of Mumbai, India. The slum, near a toxic lake of sewage, belongs to the adjacent international airport, and Annawadi children earn a few rupees here and there by scavenging for trash containing recyclables. Not only must they endure grinding poverty but also violence, inter-ethnic animosities, injustice of the courts, predatory police, corrupt government officials, constant hunger, filth and disease. Boo’s understanding of the residents’ hopes and dreams is so intimate it often reads like fiction, but the story and the characters are real, reflecting four years of research and hundreds of interviews. Behind the Beautiful Forevers opens our eyes to the dramatic inequities in the global economy and underlines the need not to turn our backs on the countless other Annawadis around the world. A masterpiece!
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe starts with the abduction and disappearance of a young widow and mother of ten in Northern Ireland, a real-life mystery thriller that threads through Say Nothing while revealing decades of information about The Troubles. That euphemism applied to a decades-long war between Catholics and Protestants, republicans and loyalists, those seeking political solutions and those driven to violence. It is about murders, bombings, prison and hunger strikes, and, more broadly, family abuse, despair, alcoholism and dysfunction driven by grinding poverty. Keefe reveals the people behind the events – Gerry Adams, Brendan Adams, Bobby Sands, Dolours Price and many others whose lives were defined by the war. What was particularly revealing was the violence visited by the Provisional IRA, the so-called Provos, upon those Northern Irish willing to work within the political process, the contempt of the Provos for Gerry Adams, the IRA strategist whose Sinn Fein political organization the Provos saw as selling out. Informers, or touts, intensified the chaos on all sides by betraying their mates and allies. Keefe worked from the Boston College Belfast Project, a collection of oral histories that went public before they were supposed to. Nearly four thousand died between the so-called Troubles of the 1960’s and the 1998 Good Friday peace accords. Tensions are still not far from the surface, with more “troubles” feared because of the threat that Brexit implies for the relationship between North and South.
Becoming by Michele Obama is a rather enjoyable memoir, clearly written and often evocative. The first half focuses on her growing up on the South Side of Chicago, in a neighborhood destabilized by white flight. Her extended family was hard-working and financially strapped. Her immediate family’s experiences were colored by her father’s ever-worsening health, due to MS. The strongest thread was her mother’s strength, emphasizing duty to one’s family, striving for educational accomplishment and belief in one’s ability to achieve, despite the odds. Obama goes beyond her dating years with Barack Obama, the occasional tensions between their different goals, aspirations and comfort levels, and the years of his community organizing. We learn about her fertility treatments, her total focus on family and their two daughters, her search for work/life balance, her longstanding public commitments, her frustrations with politics and the media. The most intriguing aspects of her memoir are the behind-the-scenes revelations underlying great public events of which we had contemporaneous knowledge. At all times, her performance had to exceed that of the First Ladies who came before her. It wasn’t easy, but Michele Obama succeeded, as does this book.
Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III tells the story of ex-con Daniel Ahearn, his daughter Susan and former mother-in-law, Lois. Ahearn has been released from prison for a passion killing of his wife, Linda. Having set up a furniture caning business and gotten his life turned around, he decides to find his daughter, just three years old when he killed Linda with a kitchen knife. Lois, Linda’s mother, 82, raised Susan. The narrative is driven by his road trip from Massachusetts’ North Shore, where he lives in a trailer, to Florida, where Linda moved with Susan after Ahearn’s conviction. He is dying of prostate cancer and wants to make amends. Susan, an adjunct professor, is writing a memoir that details the many effects of her mother’s murder on her life and relationships. Lois is outraged and incredulous that Susan would even consider meeting with the man who killed her daughter and vows to shoot him if he shows up. As Dubus peels the onions of their lives, the tension grows around the increasing inevitability of the father/daughter meeting. All three characters constantly explore their pasts, and readers learn to empathize with all of them. Well told, with Dubus’ painterly descriptions enriching the writing even while driving the narrative. Not quite as special as Dubus’ 2011 book Townie, but still a good read.
Washington Black by Canadian writer Esi Edugyan presents as the memoir of an 11-year-old slave named George Washington Black (aka Wash) on the Faith plantation in Barbados. The names are intentional and ironic. The master of the plantation is Erasmus Wilde, recalling the Renaissance scholar and humanist but resembling him in no way. Erasmus is unparalleled in his cruelty to all his human property. Wash’s terror is alleviated slightly with the arrival of Erasmus’ brother Christopher (Titch), a scientist and a man capable of kindness, who takes Wash on as his assistant in developing an experimental balloon. The two escape the plantation in the balloon and a series of adventures ensue over more than a decade from the Arctic Circle to London, Amsterdam and Morocco. Wash becomes a brilliant illustrator with skills invaluable to the world of science in the 19th century. Author Edugyan’s descriptive powers sometimes flirt with surrealism (or is that magical realism?) but not enough to deter my going forward. In all, a spell-binding piece of writing about freedom, servitude, violence, guilt, humanity and community.
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