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When I put out a call for what 2018 books I should read before the end of the year, one of the most popular suggestions people made was “Educated” by Tara Westover. This was listed on many people’s books of the year lists – not only book bloggers and booktubers, but everyone from Michelle Obama to Bill Gates. So expectations were high, but I wasn’t let down. This is an extraordinary story and an artfully composed memoir. Westover relates her tale of growing up in an extremely religious Mormon fundamentalist family with a domineering survivalist father in rural Idaho. Her childhood is so removed from the larger world she doesn’t go to school and her birth was never even registered. But in her teenage years she takes her first steps to starting formal education and integrating into society. The conflict of this break from her family and establishing her individuality is so heartrending, but it’s also inspiring in the way it shows how a person’s innate intelligence and resiliency can help them grow into the person they are meant to be.

I’ve previously read some impactful novels (notably Claire Fuller’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” and Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling”) about unstable fathers who try to live in a self sufficient way because they are convinced society is coming to an end and they force their daughters to live in a sheltered way with them. But reading a real account of someone who really grew up in an atmosphere of paranoia and fear was so striking. It really shows the danger both physically and mentally of tearing people away from larger society. For most of Tara’s childhood, her father scrapes a living together collecting and selling metal from a junkyard and he forces his children to work alongside him. He often actively dissuades his children from wearing protective gear which leads to many gruesome injuries. Just as shocking is her mother’s work as a midwife where she uses only natural, home-brewed medicine and faith practices.

Reading about the real physical danger that children born in these situations are exposed to is terrifying enough, but what’s worse is how badly Tara and other children are prepared for dealing with the outside world. It’s a form of abuse that can’t be measured because the debilitating effects aren’t always immediately apparent. Only when Tara goes to college does she understand how sheltered her life has been. Her father believes “College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around” but Tara quickly understands how having no schooling gives her no frame of reference for things which are obvious to other people. For instance, she naively asks in class what the Holocaust was when it comes up in a discussion.

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Tara and some of her siblings are naturally drawn to escaping the circumstances of their childhood to connect with the larger world while others stay in place. The defectors of the family not only discover more about society, but about how harmful some of the practices they lived under were. Tara and some of her siblings learned to live with the frequent physical abuse they suffered from an older brother. Consciously or not, her family built a narrative about his pattern of violent behaviour to normalise it and it’s only when Tara gets outside of it that she can see how abhorrent it really is. It’s harrowing reading about her journey towards being able to tell her own story: “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.” But this memoir is ultimately hopeful in testifying how individuals can rise above their circumstances and learn to speak for themselves – even if it means they must leave everything they’ve known and believed behind.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTara Westover
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I’ve always had very conflicted feelings about Truman Capote. This is the author who wrote the achingly beautiful autobiographical short story ‘A Christmas Memory’ which my cousin read to an enraptured audience every year at his annual Christmas party. And, of course, he penned the novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ whose whiff of glamour surrounding Holly Golightly’s tale of self-creation made the teenage me desperate to move to a city. But Capote was also the man who spat venom about countless figures I admire from my favourite author Joyce Carol Oates who he called “a joke monster who ought to be beheaded in a public auditorium” to Meryl Streep who he called “the Creep. Ooh, God, she looks like a chicken.” Many years later, Oates had the last word and proved who really succeeded and endured by tweeting on October 14th 2013: “Ironic that I am a judge for the Truman Capote award when Capote in a druggy interview said he hated me & that I should be executed. LOL.” So I’ve never made the effort to read some of Capote’s most enduring works like “In Cold Blood” and “Music for Chameleons” and certainly not his notorious unfinished novel “Answered Prayers”. But I was thrilled to better come to understand an interpretation and look at Capote’s complex, spirited and ultimately tragic life through reading Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel “Swan Song” about the high-society heroines Capote befriended and shockingly betrayed.

In 1975, Capote published excerpts from his unfinished novel “Answered Prayers” in Esquire which presented thinly veiled portraits of several wealthy, powerful trend-setters and their husbands. He spilled all the tea about their romantic trysts and dirty laundry. These women such as Babe Paley (a style icon), Slim Keith (a socialite credited with discovering Lauren Bacall), Gloria Guinness (a beauty rumoured to have once been a Nazi spy) and Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s younger sister) had confided in Capote over the years and made him a firm fixture of their elite circle. He had a charisma, wit and talent for giving people what they needed. Capote sought to immortalize their stories in literature and reveal the sordid truth about their husbands by writing his new novel which he envisioned as a 20th century version of “Remembrance of Things Past”. The women didn’t see it this way and expelled him from their group, turning him into a social outcast. Capote sought to turn these flesh and blood women who he referred to as his “swans” into characters, but Greenberg-Jephcott endeavours to give them their voices and identities back in her novel. It’s narrated from their collective perspective as they observe Capote’s downfall as well as devoting sections to their individual stories. Fascinatingly, the author also includes multiple versions of Capote’s life tailored to appeal to the different women’s personalities. It builds to a complex portrait that raises questions about the difference between fact and fiction, the boundaries between self-creation and self-delusion and the real meaning of love/friendship.

These are all themes threaded throughout Capote’s own work so it’s fascinating the way Greenberg-Jephcott posits how he grappled with these problems within his own life. It also asks what the difference is between drawing upon real life for the sake of art and the degree to which an author exploits those closest to him. Of course, decades after all the dust has settled, almost no one cares about the particulars of these women’s affairs which were once tabloid headlines. If Capote was able to capture something about universal concepts of ambition and betrayal while also describing the particulars of a bygone age of American history his writing would have lasting value. But what responsibility should he have had to respecting his friends’ privacy? And how much was he motivated to write these things as an elaborate revenge upon the high society which shunned his mother and drove her to suicide? Greenberg-Jephcott weaves ideas into her narrative about Capote’s lowly upbringing, the community and family who rejected him and his intense longing for his mother’s approval. It’s fascinating how the author shows Capote to be at once a fragile boy and a vindictive genius in one alcohol/drug-fuelled gluttonous man.

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All this is such rich material that it’s almost easy to forget the admirable writing skills Greenberg-Jephcott deploys in bringing this complex story to life. The novel bursts with details about some of the most important figures of the age that these women mingled with – everyone from the Kennedys to Hollywood bigwigs to Diego Rivera to macho blowhards like Ernst Hemingway and Gore Vidal – as well as honouring the admirable accomplishments of the women themselves. There are such evocative descriptions of place from the rural landscape of Capote’s Louisiana upbringing to sun-bleached afternoons on the Italian Riviera to glitzy parties in New York City. The author captures inflections of speech from Southern drawls to society slang. It makes for vivid and mesmerising reading. I was particularly interested in the descriptions of Capote’s relationship to his childhood friend Harper Lee who mostly existed on the periphery of his life but played an important part. In a way, it seems a shame that he didn’t value and cultivate this continuous friendship over the course of his life rather than seek to gain favour with the high society he aspired to join. If he’d sought favour with his intellectual equals rather than needlessly trashing them out of what I can only suppose was jealousy he might have established more stable and enduring friendships. But his example shows how even a genius with great psychological insight can be toppled by the mechanisms of his own ego. He was also the product of a part of American culture that’s relentlessly aspirational and wealth-driven in a way that often leads to bloated excess and dissolution.

The wonderful thing is that “Swan Song” doesn’t read like a tragic tale, but a celebration of beauty and art and intimacy. There is peril, loss and a price to pay, but there’s also an infectious spirit to the many scintillating personalities the author brilliantly portrays that made me want to lean in and listen.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s easy to be drawn into the lives of the characters in Carys Bray’s novel “The Museum of You”. Twelve-year-old Clover is filled with joy as it’s the beginning of the summer holidays so she has time to work in an allotment garden. She lives in North West England with her single father Darren who is a bus driver and next door to Mrs Mackerel, a comical older woman who is a bit deaf: “She has two settings: loud, for normal words, and extra loud, for the words she wants to be certain have been heard.” They have endearing routines where time in front of the television watching a baking show or a movie (rather than isolating them as individuals) creates opportunities when these characters can connect in genuine and realistic ways. Clover herself has a unique perspective of the world as well as a nerdish interest in museums. But there is a striking absence in Clover’s house where her mother Becky’s former room is filled with objects from her life which are understood to be off limits. This is a woman Clover has never known so in secret she goes about collecting and curating an exhibit about her mother’s life as a form of dedication and an act of discovery to understand what happened to her. It’s difficult to find a strategy to write about absence and grief in a way which isn’t maudlin. Yet Bray has created a story which fills your imagination with simple objects that become laden with an enormous amount of emotional meaning. It leads the reader on a path of discovery as Darren must confront painful memories and adjust how he relates to his growing daughter.

It’s quite original to read a story whose story revolves so strongly around a father and daughter. Their relationship is really sensitively drawn. It is obviously very loving, but there are certain kinds of silence which have grown around the missing mother and it is understood between them that it’s a subject not to be broached: “When you grow up in the saddest chapter of someone else’s story, you’re forever skating on the thin ice of their memories.” This is a beautiful way of describing how children are affected by painful emotional issues in their parents’ lives. Because Clover is developing into a woman Becky’s absence is felt all the more crucially as Darren fumbles around trying to buy books about womanhood to fill the educational gap a mother could provide.

Clover and Darren particularly like watching The Great British Bakeoff: "This week, it's a 3D biscuit scene. He is gobsmacked by their creations: a train, a sea monster, even a bloody  carousel !"

Clover and Darren particularly like watching The Great British Bakeoff: "This week, it's a 3D biscuit scene. He is gobsmacked by their creations: a train, a sea monster, even a bloody carousel!"

There are also a group of other fascinating peripheral characters – some of whom played a part in the absent mother’s life and deal with their own forms of trauma. Becky’s brother Jim suffers from mental health problems and when he’s having a bad episode the characters tactfully say that he is “not himself.” Darren’s father is also dealing with the loss of his wife, but he has different strategies for coping with her absence. A Czech immigrant girl Dagmar who goes to Clover’s school is bullied because of her foreignness and she forms a bond with Clover partially as a way of escaping an abusive household. Darren’s closest friend Colin has been separated from his partner Mark because he works abroad making Colin fill his time working hard as a highly skilled self employed handyman. The story delicately weaves together different ways that these diverse individuals deal with feelings surrounding beloved people who have been lost through circumstances beyond their control.

By the end of this novel I felt really emotionally involved with the characters and strongly compelled to understand what happened to Becky. For this reason, this novel reminded me of James Hannah’s “The A to Z of You and Me” in the way it slowly builds a picture of tragic events that led to a central character’s absence. I was also reminded of Stella Duffy’s novel “The Room of Lost Things” for the way in which the novel fills your imagination with lists of objects which carry crucial personal significance to their former owners, but might be seen as worthless to others. “The Museum of You” makes you re-evaluate the sentimental value of the things which fill your home and contemplate how our relationships with others can only really grow and thrive when there is emotional honesty. This is a tenderly written novel filled with lots of comic and meaningful moments.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCarys Bray