Category: Friday Reads

Thoughts on This Tender Land

Last year when I read ORDINARY GRACE by William Kent Krueger, a book club pick by a good friend, I knew I had stumbled upon an author whose writing would perpetually resonate with me; just as Kate Morton does, and Geraldine Brooks and Diane Setterfield, and Khaled Hosseini. WKK’s storytelling skills are mad with talent, his prose delicious and evocative and his characters unforgettable. So when THIS TENDER LAND came out this year, I knew I would be snapping it up.

It’s funny, though that I waited to read it until just recently. I guess it’s because I knew I was going to relish and cherish it, so it was as if I was saving it, something I don’t usually do with a book I’ve been waiting for.

This newest by him does not disappoint. It’s surprising to me that I so easily fell into this book when it’s narrated by an adolescent boy; so very different from the adult female voiced novels that I usually read.

I suppose it’s because the story is about children who are having to make adult choices that they should not have to make. Stories of children in harm’s way always seem to grab at me; it’s why I think I loved ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline so much, and THE GOLDFINCH and SARAH’S KEY and DEAR EDWARD. In our hearts we know children should get to be children when they are children – if you know what I mean – and when they are put into situations that could so easily break their spirit we ache to see that somehow they will find a way to survive and thrive. We want to believe that despite the worst that a messed-up adult world can foist onto a child, he or she will find a way to rise above it.

In a nutshell THIS TENDER LAND is about three young people on a journey to safety and the odds are against them. It’s during the Great Depression, they don’t have the security of a normal home to shelter them and they face hurdles that would stymie the strongest of adults. But William Kent Krueger escorts the reader on a beautiful ride nonetheless. Every chapter is golden. The ending is exquisite.

The construction, which you can miss if you’re not looking for it, is reminiscent of Ulysses on his epic Odyssey – so clever and so masterfully done.

The Denver Post says this book is “rich with graceful writing and endearing characters…a book for the ages.” I would agree.

I’ve started to shed books from my house that I’ve already read, to trim the bulging shelves, live a simpler life, and give books I loved but won’t read again (because THERE ARE SO MANY BOOKS) another shot at pleasing another reader. But some I am keeping. Some I will read again.

This is one of them.

Loving The Book of Lost Friends

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a difficult time reading for pleasure lately. I’m okay to read for research for the book I’m writing and I’m happy to read stories to my grandchildren, but at the end of the day when I curl up in bed to read for me, I’ve been struggling to lose myself in the pages of a novel. It’s a strange and terrible feeling. I don’t recognize it and I don’t like it. There is some comfort in knowing other people feel this way too. These are very strange times we’re living in, and we’re being affected by this virus-that-shall-not-be-named in ways we would not have expected. I saw a meme on Facebook today that defines our current situation as the Coronacoaster: “One day you’re loving your bubble, doing workouts, baking banana bread, and going for long walks and the next you’re crying, drinking gin for breakfast, and missing people you don’t even like.” Kinda funny and kinda not, right?

Thankfully though, I’ve come upon some books during these last few months that have been able to transport me into the world the storyteller has created, and out of ours! Yay! Lisa Wingate’s newest, THE BOOK OF LOST FRIENDS, is that kind of book.

Lisa is a not only a good friend and one of the kindest people I know, she is a masterful weaver of stories. This new book of hers has her signature style all over it. It is a dual time-periods tale about a formerly enslaved young woman named Hannie ten years after the end of the Civil War and a young schoolteacher named Benedetta needing to discover her own self-worth and purpose, and who happens be living in a cottage on the same expanse of land that had been the Louisiana plantation Hannie had been taken to after being ripped from her mother’s arms when just a child. In alternating chapters, Lisa takes us from the dangerous post-war journey Hannie is on in 1875 to Bennie’s complex world in 1987.  The two women, separated by a century, never meet physically but their paths cross in other ways.

The story is inspired by actual “Lost Friends” advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, when newly emancipated men and women began to search for loved ones they’d long been parted from. The excerpts from the actual newspapers are the most haunting and emotionally-gripping detail of the book.  It’s gut-wrenching to imagine mothers and fathers being separated from their young children and each other, and those children then being separated from their siblings.

I hadn’t heard of the Lost Friends project prior to reading Lisa’s book, and I was glad she offered some resources in the end pages for future study. One of those is https://www.hnoc.org/database/lost-friends/index.html, which is a searchable database of more than 2,500 Lost Friends advertisements that appeared in the Southern Christian Advocate between November 1879 and December 1900.

Lisa writes about difficult subjects but she always finds a way to leave you feeling hopeful at the end of her books. I appreciate that about her novels as it’s something I strive to do in mine.

I highly recommend this one friends. And I would love to hear what you’ve been reading and loving, despite the pan-well, you know what I mean….

This ‘n’ That book news…

I don’t know about you but Covid-19 and its stay-at-home orders, the monotony of every day feeling like we’re Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the specter of empty parking lots, the police tape around playground equipment, the spider webs lacing the hubcabs on my car, has me a little brain-fogged. I know I owe you a blog post but I’ve noticed it’s hard to concentrate on things that aren’t a big part of this NEW ROUTINE, this blog being one of them. But I am here today – confetti toss to me – and I am dropping in with some fun stuff that I’ve been collecting, albeit quite by accident. Here, in no particular order is a bunch of fun stuff.

My good friend and fellow Berkley sister, Chanel Cleeton, has a new book coming out next month – pandemic or no pandemic – and to help pave the way for the release of THE LAST TRAIN TO KEY WEST, Berkley is having a super fun giveaway sweepstakes that includes two additional (and wonderful) books by Chanel, plus a pretty special edition tote bag. As you can see from the photo above, I loved her newest, but they are all great books! Truly. This giveaway is open to U.S. entries only (sorry about that!). You can enter for a chance to win here: https://sweeps.penguinrandomhouse.com/enter/last-train-and-tote-bag-sweeps.

Have you noticed that World War II books just keep coming our way and no one seems to be tiring of them? I’ve only come across a couple people who say they’re ready to move on to another historical fiction backdrop; the rest of us just can’t seem to get enough of them. I know I am not tired of WW2 books. Not tired reading them and not tired writing them. There are still untold, undiscovered stories of WW2 and the time to tell them and find them is now, while we still have some of its living witnesses here with us. To align two of my older titles with THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR, which is my most recent WW2 novel, my publisher has redesigned the covers of SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE and A BRIDGE ACROSS THE OCEAN – both of which are WW2 tales – so that they will easily be recognizable as from that era. And there’s better symmetry between the covers.

This may last just for now or for a long while. I still love the original covers (remember those beautiful dresses and the women wearing them with just part of their face showing?) We will see what people are drawn to? What do you think? I am happy to gain new readers who might not have picked up the two books before, but now will. Fingers crossed anyway!

These will show up mainly on ebook readers but also at some retailers. Let me know if you spot either one in physical form. Extra love from me if you nab a photo!

In more WW2 book news, I just finished Ariel Lawhon’s  CODE NAME HELENE, which I loved, and which I will share about next Friday. So do come back for that!

And now for some fun stuff just because. I loved this video, shot by a UK sports commentator who is obviously not commenting on any sports, because COVID. So he’s been finding little things in pandemic life to comment on in sports-commentator-like fashion. This is one is the absolute best to date:

And last for now, this just floors me. I am amazed by the amazing music coming out of the quarantined world, by yes, talented people, but recorded in their homes via their smart phone and laptops, all while in separate places!! Not in sound studios. This one just makes you want to dance a little:

So there you go! Happy Friday, friends. Hopefully I won’t let you down next Friday and I will be here with more FUN STUFF!

 

How to bring more joy to your life!

Hello, reading friends. I hope you are able to find a place of tranquility on this Friday afternoon but if you’re feeling stretched in too many directions while at the same time feeling isolated and kerfuffled, I have an interview here for you – and a book – that might help. My dear friend Anne Bogel, who you might also know as the amazing Modern Mrs. Darcy, has a brand new book out – and yes, it released into a weary world in the middle of this pandemic – and it is so timely. DON’T OVERTHINK IT is Anne’s third book and in its pages, she wants to help you not only overcome negative thought patterns that rob you of joy and peace but replace them with positive ones. More than a book about good decision-making, the back cover says, DON’T OVERTHINK IT “offers you a framework for making choices you’ll be comfortable with, allowing you to use an appropriate amount of energy and freeing you to focus on all the other stuff that matters in life.”

Anne, aka MODERN MRS. DARCY, is the author of READING PEOPLE and I’D RATHER BE READING and creator of the excellent podcast WHAT SHOULD I READ NEXT? She makes her home with her family in Louisville, Kentucky and is a pure joy to know. Read on to see how to get in on a drawing for a copy of her book and to check out her terrific Stay-at-Home-Book-Tour videos for both her book (all your many questions are answered!) and one for mine, THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR, which released in paperback into this strange, new world on Tuesday.  But first, let’s chat with Anne:

SUSAN: Tell us about your new book. Did you ever dream you were writing a book that people might need in the midst of a pandemic?

ANNE: I certainly didn’t! The new book is about making easier decisions, stopping second-guessing, and bringing more joy to your life. Studies show nearly all of us engage in overthinking—that means repetitive, unhealthy, unhelpful thoughts. Overthinking is exhausting, and it makes us miserable. But with new strategies and some practice, we can learn to stop thinking our way out of happiness and think our way into it instead.

For many people, overthinking is a deeply entrenched habit, so overcoming it requires new strategies and plenty of practice. I imagine that’s why people are finding the book so helpful right now: we’re all dealing with circumstances we haven’t seen in our lifetimes. Our routines have been disrupted, and we’re having to make lots of decisions we never anticipated. Not only that, the news is a major overthinking trigger. People need resources; they need help.

SUSAN: So true. Was there anything in the writing and research for this book that surprised you?

ANNE: Before I began this project, I was oblivious to the connection between overthinking and perfectionism. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and those tendencies still trip me up sometimes. Once I understood how much of my own overthinking was driven by perfectionism it became much easier to overcome those particular negative thought patterns.

SUSAN: That is so interesting. I think I might be a wannabe perfectionist! That’s either not quite as bad or far worse! What are some tips from the book that all of us can use in these uncertain times?

ANNE: First, when you take care of your body, you take care of your brain, so focusing on the basics is crucial to set yourself up for success in this area: don’t forget to eat breakfast, get some exercise, drink your water, get enough sleep.

We all have moments where we catch ourselves stuck on the overthinking treadmill, and when that happens it’s good to have some strategies handy so we can pull ourselves out of that thought spiral. Try scheduling time to overthink each day: this may sound counterintuitive, but if you tell yourself you’ll indulge that overthinking at the designated hour, it’s easier to put those thoughts aside for the rest of the day. Try distracting yourself: this works because the brain can only focus on so many things at once. Give your mind something else to occupy it: read a book, pay a bill, play a game of Tetris, follow a new recipe. Finally, when your brain is stuck, move your body: take a walk, go for a run, do a set of plans or some jumping jacks. When you move your body, you move your mind.

Susan here again. Such good words. Anne spoke more about this book and answered questions from a packed Zoom room where a virtual book stop took place. A great listen if you want to hear more from Anne. Mine is also available to watch on this same replay page.

You can get a copy of Anne’s book and at the same time support local independent bookstores by shopping for it right here.

If you’d like to get in on a drawing for a copy of Anne’s book, just drop a comment below and tell us one way you are coping with the difficult circumstances we are all presently bound up in. It can be a fun way, serious way, easy or complex. We want to hear them all. A winner (and it can be an international winner if bookdepository is still shipping to your country) will be randomly drawn at noon Pacific on Monday. Happy Easter weekend all!

Thoughts on The Dutch House

Since reading Bel Canto years ago, I have said I will read anything Ann Patchett writes. I missed a few of hers pre-Bel Canto and while I haven’t yet gotten to them, it comforts me to know that they’re waiting for me for when life slows down (I’ve heard that happens; one day you wake up and you’re older and retired and you can read all the time). When I heard The Dutch House was coming out and saw its distinctive cover (Who IS that girl? I wondered) I put it on my TBDWIR (To Be Devoured When It Releases) list pronto.

And then it released and people were talking about it, and it was popping up on bestsellers lists all over the place and audio book lovers were swooning over this tale being read to them by the venerable Tom Hanks. I hurried through the other required reading I was working on, and made space in my life to enjoy The Dutch House. I had already bought it, it was just there on my cluttered nightstand awaiting me.

I hadn’t read much about the novel, which is my usual thing. I don’t read the back copy of books I know I am going to want to read. Sometimes there are mini spoilers there. So I didn’t know what The Dutch House was or who lived in it or what it meant to them. I didn’t know what the evocative painting on the front meant and I certainly couldn’t know how I would be affected when Patchett revealed the significance of that painting, and this at a time in the story when I had already fallen in love with these perfectly drawn characters. It was the kind of book that I couldn’t wait to get back to, not because I just had to know what happened next, but because I just had to know what happened to these characters next.  Here is just one of the beautifully composed thoughts penned in its pages.

“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”

I was going to use the back cover copy to tell you what the book is about but I’m not going to. I will just say it’s a book about a brother and sister, and their childhood home, and everything that the word “home” might and should conjure up in your mind when you hear that word spoken.  I loved it so much I am going to use one of my Audible credits and have Tom Hanks read it to me. I hardly ever read books twice because, you know, so many books, so little time. So you know it’s a good one when I tell you I’ll be “reading” this one again. Soon.

Highly recommend.

 

Coming in 2020!

I have mentioned this before, but one of the sweetest things about having the novel-writing gig is the opportunity to read advance review copies of novels-to-come with an eye to providing an endorsement. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve read two ARCs that I just loved and I know you will too; both are headed your way in mid 2020.

So here on this last Friday of 2019 I will tell you about both. These two novels will be coming your way from my own publishing house, Berkley, but I would’ve loved them no matter whose imprint is on the spine. Truly.

First up, THE PRISONER’S WIFE by Maggie Brookes. It’s a debut novel and inspired by a true events that are simply amazing. It’s a tale about a secret marriage between a British soldier in occupied Czechoslovakia and a Czech farm girl. On the run after their elopement, the soldier evades capture for as long as he can but Nazi soldiers eventually find him – and his new wife. But the farm girl, Izabel, has disguised herself as a young British soldier made mute by shell shock. The couple are believed to be two escaped British soldiers and are sent to a men’s POW camp. The rest of the story is about Bill and Izzy’s bravery, cunning, and care for the other POWs in their block (and their care for her), and of course the remarkable resiliency of the human spirit which so often shows up in World War 2 novels. But this is a story you have not heard before and the way in which it is told will have you thinking you are there, facing every obstacle large and small that Izzy and the others face. Devastatingly rich in sensorial detail, it is described by Berkley as a story of “love and survival against the darkest odds.” The fact that the premise is based on a real woman who disguised herself as a man to not only be with her husband but to escape the executioner – as such was the punishment for aiding a POW in an escape – makes it a compelling read to the last page. Look for this one in May 2020. (Note: There’s currently a giveaway of 100 ARCs on Goodreads! Enter before Jan 9)

Maggie Brookes is a British ex-journalist and BBC television producer turned poet and novelist. The Prisoner’s Wife is based on an extraordinary true story of love and courage,  that was told to her by an ex-WW2 prisoner of war. Maggie visited the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany during the research for the book, where she learned largely forgotten aspects of the war. I hope our IRL paths cross someday soon.

Secondly, I was so glad to be invited to read my good friend Chanel Cleeton’s upcoming THE LAST TRAIN TO KEY WEST, after loving WHEN WE LEFT CUBA and NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA. I knew Chanel would be taking the reader on a different journey with a trio of unrelated POV characters and I couldn’t wait to see how the separate stories of these three different women would collide. I was thoroughly satisfied with the weave of three story threads!  As a backdrop, Chanel chose Henry Flagler’s legendary Overseas Railroad and one of the worst hurricanes in history which pummeled the Keys on Labor Day weekend in 1935. Helen is a Key West native trapped in an abusive marriage; Elizabeth, who is engaged to marry a man she does not love, is looking for her emotionally wounded WW1 veteran brother hiding out somewhere on the Keys; and Mirta, a newlywed in an arranged, post-Cuban-revolution marriage to benefit her Havana family, is on Key West for her honeymoon. The three female characters are compelling figures, each in her own way, and the setting details are engrossing to say the least. The impact on humanity from this 1935 hurricane is astounding, and it’s always fitting for a great story to be told to remember a time such as this. Chanel does it masterfully. Her new book will be in bookstores in June 2020. (There’s a Goodreads ARC giveaway for this one right now, too!)

Besides being a sweet friend and Berkley chum, Chanel is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick! (Next Year in Havana) Originally from Florida, Chanel grew up on stories of her family’s exodus from Cuba following the Cuban Revolution. She has a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a master’s degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics & Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. On top of all that, she is a fabulous writer.

I know it seems like a long way off, but you know how quickly time passes, my friend. Put these on your WANT TO READ Goodreads list and before you know it, the warmer months will be here and you’ll be able to read them!

Have a lovely weekend, full of relaxed reading…

 

What I’ve been reading…

I’ve been very remiss in feeding the blog of late. Sorry about that. I have a good excuse, one that I hope you will approve of; it’s because I’ve been writing a new book and closing in on the finish line and have been a bit distracted. I’ll be sharing more about that in the weeks to come!

I thought I’d pop in today and recap some of the books that I’ve been reading since the last time I was here. I have in fact been reading a lot of great books, just not reporting back to you (again, sorry!). So here in no particular order are five books I read in the last few months.

I bought Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward in an airport bookstore because I was traveling for book-related stuff and ran out of reading material – which is a nightmare to those of us who look forward to uninterrupted hours in an airplane as THE BEST READING TIME in the world. I had seen this novel on some lists and knew that it had been critically acclaimed and so I bought it on a whim and quickly became engrossed in the tale. The protagonist is a young teenage boy who is a member of a particularly interesting but nevertheless flawed family. He’s been forced to grow up too soon, taking on responsibility for absent and/or negligent parents. The writing is beautiful and evocative and there are hints of magic realism that really do make the book sing. If you don’t like magic realism at all, this might not be the book for you but I loved it.

I picked up The House of Broken Angels at the San Diego Festival of Books in August after hearing its author, Luis Alberto Urrea, speak the night before the Festival began. I was entranced with his story and storytelling ability. The book is set primarily in San Diego, where I was born and raised and have come back home to. It’s based on Urrea’s own life experience about growing up in a family living on the US | Mexico border.  It begins on the eve of the patriarch’s birthday celebration. Here’s just a snippet from the back cover: “Across two bittersweet days in their San Diego neighborhood, the revelers mingle among the palm trees and cacti, celebrating the lives of Big Angel and his mother, and recounting the many inspiring tales that have passed into family lore, the acts both ordinary and heroic that brought these citizens to a fraught and sublime country and allowed them to flourish in the land they have come to call home.” It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and beautifully written. I highly recommend.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is another book that I bought in an airport when I had run out of reading material – this seems to be a common thing with me – because it had been on the New York Times bestseller list for a year and I figured it was there for a reason. I did not know it was based on a true story, and of course once I did and once I had fallen into the pages I was completely captivated by it. Stories of the Holocaust are never easy reads but they are necessary ones if we are going to properly remember and honor the humanity of its victims. I was spellbound by this book. When I found out there was a new book by its author about one of the other characters in this book, Cilka, I put it on pre-order straight away. It’s now on my bedside table on my teetering TBR pile and I can’t wait to get to it.

The Gown by Jennifer Robson had been on my TBR stack since picking it up at the Tucson Book Festival in the spring and I’d been wanting to get to it since then. I loved the miniseries The Crown and have pretty much been a UK royalty-watcher since the early days of Princess Diana. (Side note: When we lived in England in the late 80s/early 90s I used to imagine that I’d be in London some afternoon and that I’d spy poor Di being hunted down by paparazzi and I would come to her aid and sneak her into my car and take her back to my house in Oxfordshire for a respite – like Hugh Grant does for Julia Roberts in Notting Hill – and we’d would laugh over American fig newtons I’d gotten at the commissary that we’d been able to dodge the wolves. That never happened of course). Jennifer’s book is so lovely, so well-researched and the writing is beautiful and oh, that cover! It’s a story about the wedding gown of Queen Elizabeth of course but it’s really a story about the women who embroidered it.  A great book.

Lastly I read Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict – an early copy of it for endorsement, it’s coming in January – and was so enlightened and surprised by what I learned about Winston Churchill‘s wife. I’ve always known that behind a great man is usually a great woman, whether it be a wife, sister or mother or friend, and I loved hearing about the role Clementine played in Winston‘s life, especially at the most challenging moments, when the world was at war and Britain on the brink of occupation. If you like historical fiction that is based on biographical truth you will love this book as well.

So there you have it friends, a nice little recap long overdue and I hope to be able to return next week and regale you with more book recommendations for you. Have a wonderful weekend!

Once Upon A River…

In March, a new book of mine was released into the wild and I set off to introduce it to book lovers by traveling a bit, and then I returned home to the new book I’m writing and the unruly task of having to unwrite about 25,000 words of it (which I had discovered through the insightful eyes of my agent and editor had to go). So while I’ve been neglecting the blog, and while there have been no posts on Friday where I share what I have been reading, I have in fact been reading in between book travels and travails. And I’ve been looking forward to creating some margin in my week where I can at last get back to the conversation here. I apologize for the long hiatus, and I think I remember how to do this…

I finished Diane Setterfield’s latest, an amazing book entitled ONCE UPON A RIVER, while on book tour and have been looking at its spine on my To-Be-Talked-About pile for weeks now. It was such a good book; everything that I loved about Diane’s seminal work for me, THE THIRTEENTH TALE, I found in this book. What a delight it was to rediscover why I love her writing so.

ONCE UPON A RIVER is a story of love between parent and child, and the agony of loss and the absolute delight of hope and how we navigate our journeys through both. It is set in England and the river in the title refers to the Thames; that long winding rope of water that is more than just a frame for London postcard pictures of Parliament and Westminster Abby. Setterfield’s voice comes through rich and true in the prose; it is absolutely delicious. I fell in love with that voice with THE THIRTEENTH TALE, so much so that I read that book two more times, which I never do (because so many books, so little time). I continue to mention it as among my favorite reads all these years later. For whatever reason, I did not bond with Setterfield‘s novel that followed TTT – Bellman and Black – and I had been so looking forward to it too (probably too much) – but I know that not all books are going to impact us the same way, and not all writers will either, each time we read them. I love what M. L. Stedman, the author of THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS said about Setterfield’s newest: “Setterfield‘s masterful storytelling draws you in to a beguiling tale, full of twists and turns like the river at its heart, and just as rich and intriguing. It lowers you into its steps and carries you along in its vividly evoked world.“

Here’s the inside scoop from the publisher: “A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can it be explained by science? Replete with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.”

Reading a Diane Setterfield book makes me want to be a better writer, makes me want to spend more time on every page I write. Highly recommend, folks, and I promise I’ll be back more often…

 

 

Thoughts on Educated

I’ve been on the book tour trail and neglecting the blog a bit, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading, because the great thing about airplane travel is ALL THAT READING TIME! It’s the best. I can’t write on a plane (because someone will see what I’m writing as I’m writing it and I hate that) and I can’t sleep on a plane (I don’t know why, other folks do it famously, even resting their heads on their tray tables to do it, but not this girl) but I can read. And I do. I’ve got some good reads to tell you about but I’m going to spread out the love and do it one Friday at a time.

Today I want to share my thoughts on the runaway bestseller, EDUCATED, a work of non-fiction by Tara Westover. I remember seeing this book when it first came out and kind of loving that pencil drawing (could nearly smell that wood shaving/graphite combo that only an old-fashioned pencil can produce when I looked at it) and wondering what it was about. I didn’t realize it was a memoir of one woman’s growing up in a very unique, dare I say it, dysfunctional quasi-Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho. It’s a book about that kind of upbringing (ultra conservative, Ruby-Ridgish, oppressively survivalist) but more than that, it’s a book about this woman’s struggle to become her own person, which many of us do within the safe guard rails of home, but not her. (Here is a short PBS video in her own words…)

Tara Westover

The reading was compelling, partly because it’s a true story and partly because Tara Westover is a gifted wordsmith. Though she never stepped inside a formal classroom until she was seventeen, she nevertheless overcame every seemingly impossible hurdle to her education. She earned a Ph.D within a decade of that first moment in real school, all while navigating her journey to discovering her place in this world, sometimes with the help of her parents and siblings, but more often despite them.

I was reminded of Jeanette Walls’ THE GLASS CASTLE, which I loved, and though the stories are different, the two books evoke the same feelings, at least for me. I love what is written about the book in the inside front cover: “EDUCATED is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and of the grief that comes of severing one’s closest ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.”

All of us are in a classroom of some kind when we’re growing up. We are all learning to be the person we will be the rest of our adult life. It may not be a traditional room with rows of desks but learning is taking place within the environment provided to us, from the moment we take our first breath. We are born, we begin to grow, we begin to learn. I am sure there are plenty of untold sad stories out there where children raised in oppressive learning environments could not break out of them, but this is a powerful story of a young woman who did.

The problem with a book everyone loves…

A few years back, the book everyone was talking about was THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coelho. I saw the book everywhere; online, in bookstores, in peoples’ hands, and everyone was saying what a fantastic book it was. It was recommended to me by several people, and I was both loaned a copy (that I – gasp – still have) and gifted a copy, but for whatever reason I never got around to reading it. I always believed that someday I would, but meanwhile my reading life went on, and very busily so, with many other books.

So when one of the gals in my book club chose it for this month’s read I was actually pretty jazzed. I would no longer be able to put off reading it because I didn’t want to be a flunkatoid – that’s the title we give ourselves in my club when we fail to read the book that’s been chosen. And I had two copies to read already!  I only had to find one of them.

Perhaps the reason I’d previously put off reading it was that I had heard it was allegorical, and a bit mystical, and about a shepherd boy (who, by the way, is not really a boy at all actually, but a man.) I had heard that it was enlightening, inspiring and philosophical. I like all those things, but I usually read fiction for pleasure and nonfiction for research, and allegory for nothing. But I was ready at last to read the book everybody had been talking about and that has sold millions upon millions of copies.

Here’s the thing with a book that all the world loves; your expectations of it are extremely high. Stunningly high, at least for me. I was ready to be wowed, undone, amazed. And while I enjoyed it, I finished the book a bit underwhelmed and kind of sad. I wish now I had heard nothing about it. And I also think I should’ve kept looking for the new copy that I have somewhere here in this house and hadn’t settled for the friend’s copy which had been underlined already. I would see those underlines coming up and I would feel like I was stumbling upon someone else’s discovery. I wanted to have my own discoveries, and when you read a borrowed book with underlines already inside, you don’t get them. And I do believe this is the kind of book where you need to have them.

I came across this blog post on the author’s website (penned by a Huffington Post writer) as I was pondering why I didn’t adore the book, and I actually love what this person said about why THE ALCHEMIST resonated with so many millions of people. It offered people a blueprint for how to live a meaningful life. This writer came up with the book’s ten most powerful passages and what they teach us, and of those ten, there are six that I see now did in fact resonate with me:

Fear is a bigger obstacle than the obstacle itself
What is “true” will always endure
Embrace the present.
Make the decision
Keep getting back up
Focus on your own journey

Yes, yes, yes, I am a fan of all six of these pearls of wisdom. But in the reading I’ve discovered I don’t want to dive for pearls of wisdom by way of allegory. I did when I was a kid, but I don’t now.

I am fully of the persuasion that there are life lessons to be learned, but not all life lessons are learned the same way. My preferred learning style (I know this now) is to hear a lecture or read an essay rather than read a work of allegorical fiction. And I absolutely need to make my own highlights.

In my search to figure out why I didn’t adore the book everybody adored (I LIKED it friends. I did), I came across the article and was astounded that this book was written in only two weeks. You might also want to know that it was not a success until it was translated into English, and that it spent 300 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list. Click to read the rest of the article.

What this book’s phenomenal success tells me more than anything is that people are hungry to know their purpose in life. I find that wonderfully refreshing because it quietly speaks that at our core, we know we are more than former primordial ooze. We were made in the image of God, we absolutely do have a purpose, and our souls are restless until we discover it. I am glad this book encouraged so many to discover for themselves what it is.

And now, of course, I would love to hear your thoughts!