Educated by Tara Westover

“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.”

Better late than never right? Thanks to all of my followers who have been patient with me and my posts while I grieve. I’ve still got a long way to go but it feels good to start to resume some of my normal routines and hobbies.

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 334 pages.
Read from September 22, 2019 to September 27, 2019.

There are many memoirs out there that are written by pretentious and self-important people that make for dull reads, which is generally why I don’t read too many. Then there are memoirs that detail the life of a seemingly ordinary person that has led the most remarkable life and has overcome challenges that many of us can’t even envision. This is one of those memoirs.

Tara grew up in a strict Mormon family plagued by fanatical religion, paranoia, and unaddressed mental health issues in rural Idaho. Her father believed that the government couldn’t be relied on for anything including medical care and education and was constantly preparing for the end of days. Tara’s mother was thrown into midwifery to help the family get by and relied strictly on herbs and essential oils to treat all medical ailments or injuries. Tara has six siblings most of which, like herself, have been unaware of what the outside world could teach them or what was available to them out of the reach of their father’s influence. Tara discusses the wildly unsafe work her father subjected her and siblings to in the junkyard as well as horrific injuries that some of the family members sustained during this work or travel.  Tara details the mental and physical abuse imbibed on her by her older brother Shawn and how her family allowed it to continue. How Tara and a few of her siblings managed to lift themselves out of this destructive family is nothing short of remarkable. Tara attended school for the first time at the age of seventeen. This book chronicles her choices, struggles, failures, and successes in learning to become her own person while stepping away, yet still loving her dysfunctional family.

“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”

Despite being subjected to years of gaslighting, brainwashing, and emotional abuse, Tara managed to get a PhD and still find peace with her family and her upbringing. Despite internalising much of the abuse, Tara came to realise that there were small blessings in her upbringing as it gave her a unique hunger to excel in her education that many of her peers didn’t have. Tara slowly learned to find confidence in her own abilities and intelligence in which she then learned that she could decide how to see the world for herself.

Tara’s writing is honest and mindful as she tries to be as accurate to her memories and as well as that of her family’s recollections of pinnacle events in their lives. She walks you through her thought process at the time by including diary entries and then reflects on them. There are moments in this memoir that will literally make your jaw drop. I know for me, without spoiling anything, it was the medical trauma her father and brother survived. I mean, I think I might put all my faith in God too if I overcame such trauma without medical intervention. Tara’s writing is concise, engaging, neutral, yet welcoming. You sort of feel like you’re a close of friend of Tara’s and once in a while over coffee, she details her past life.

If you’re not into memoirs, this one might convert you as it’s worthy of all the hype it’s received. I didn’t want to put this book down. This book would appeal to just about anyone and would make an excellent book club selection.

The Way Through the Woods by Long Litt Woon

“We live in a society that regards death as a defeat for medical science rather than a part of life. In a culture that allows little place for death in the public area, grief becomes a private affair, viewed as a luxury we cannot afford.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 182 pages.
Read from June 16, 2019 to June 20, 2019.

When I spotted this book off Netgalley I was interested in reading it due to its themes on grief, yet I found myself very intrigued with the information provided on mushrooms and enjoying these aspects much more than I thought I would. Woon’s journey through mushrooms is intertwined with the grief of her husband; her passion for mushrooms and the intimate details of her mourning make a unique relationship that intertwines and reads well.

“We are all amateurs at grief, although sooner or later every one of us will lose someone close to us.”

Woon discusses her grieving journey intimately and just how uncomfortable we are with death as a society despite it being a part of literally everyone’s life at one point or another. It’s so uncomfortable that many of those grieving feel utterly alone and abandoned in their mourning as no one knows what to do to provide support or relief.  In social interactions the death and memory of the person are often just avoided altogether, leaving the bereaved to heal on their own. It’s a tragedy in its own right, however, the grieved are still the ones that ultimately have to decide how to move on.

“Grief grinds slowly; it devours all the time it needs.”

This is when mushrooms became paramount in Woon’s grieving process. Woon and her husband had once discussed taking a mushroom course together before he died, something that they never got to do together. Woon found herself drawn to sign up for the class alone and quickly learned to lose herself in the world of mushrooms and the journey that comes in learning about them, picking them, and cooking with them. Woon provides some great facts on the different types of mushrooms in Norway and the mushroom culture. Did you know that not every country can agree on which mushrooms are considered toxic? The deadly ones are consistent but the what one country labels as toxic another considers harmless. The book is complete with drawn images of distinct mushrooms in Norway and even a few really yummy-sounding ways to prepare and cook mushrooms, a great addition to the book that I was not expecting.

Mushrooms are something that I have very little experience in eating and tasting having only really come to enjoy them in my adult years. I have, however, always found them interesting and have been in awe of people who are knowledgable on them. Woon discusses how people usually perceive mushrooming as a dangerous ordeal as the little knowledge that people have when it comes to wild mushrooms is only on how poisonous some can be. Woon details the education process it takes to become an expert in mushrooming and explains that errors rarely happen. The wild mushrooms gathered in Norway are inspected by certified experts before they’re allowed to be taken home. With the right knowledge and by double-checking each other’s haul, wild mushrooming is a perfectly safe hobby to have but it’s still hard to convince the general public of it.

Through mushrooms, Woon managed to crawl out of the pit that grief had put her in and slowly put together a new life without her beloved husband. Loss, as Woon explains, means so much more than just the loss of that loved one’s life, it’s the loss of the life that will never be had again. Those that are left behind after someone dies will never be the same. Their lives as they know it, or knew it, will never be the same. The unwanted task then falls the mourning to find their way again and start anew with the perceived insurmountable task of doing it without the person they lost.

This book is a comforting and validating read for anyone grieving and while the glimpse into the mushroom culture and its accompanying facts are extremely interesting, most of the information is only valid only in Norway. Even with that, Woon’s writing is highly engaging, enjoyable and interesting, even if you’re only mildly interested in mushrooms.

The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong

This is a trainwreck of an upbringing that you can’t help but sympathize with, as you berate yourself for laughing at the strangeness of it all.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from March 3, 2019 to March 9, 2019.

Lindsay Wong describes the Woo-Woo as a Chinese superstition that ghosts are the cause of bad things in your life, which unfortunately for her and mental-health-ridden family, meant an array of irrational behaviour followed by never seeking treatment. This book is in the Canada Reads 2019 shortlist after a few near misses in previous years so no doubt this book will be a fan favourite for the debates.

canada-reads-2019-joe-zee-defends-the-woo-woo
Joe Zee defending The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong during the debates taking place on March 25-28, 2019.

Lindsay and her siblings are first generation Chinese-Canadians. Her family came over from Hong Kong and settled in Vancouver which has a large Chinese population giving the city the appropriate nickname of Hongcouver. She lives in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood with her mother father, brother and sister, and for a short time her grandmother. Lindsay basis of daily dealings with her family and her life included things like swearing, name-calling, bribes with money, escaping life decisions and people with makeshift camping trips, and smothering bad feelings and “ghosts” with junk-food. Shouting matches, arguments, grudges and personal hang-ups are what Lindsay thought being a family was all about.

Despite her family having a comfortable income Lindsay wore old, dated clothes and showered once a week. Lindsay lacked the social skills to make friends but her aggression made her an excellent hockey player, an endeavour her father bribed her into to achieve some sort of Canadian-dream status.  Her father insisted that she was extremely stupid and fat as some messed up means of motivating her to achieve more along with a sick sense of dark humour. While her mother fell prey to the mental illness that plagued her own mother resulting in her being obsessed with ghosts and trying to protect her family from them. Her protection came in the form of insisting that her family never show any emotion as to not invite the ghosts in, terrorizing midnight wakings, lighting Lindsay’s feet and bedding on fire, day-long walks in shopping malls, and more.

Lindsay grew up in fear the Woo-Woo as she saw it slowly wreck her grandmother, her mother and eventually even her Aunt, whom she thought was safe. Without the means to empathize and deal with normal human situations in a healthy manner, Lindsay was in constant worry about her own mental state. Despite all this Lindsay managed to get into a university far from home where she was relieved to finally escape her family, only to find that the Woo-Woo seemed to have followed her there.

Even with these enormous hurdles to overcome, Lindsay seems to have found peace and understanding with her upbringing. Despite the dark and sometimes traumatizing events that Lindsay endured she approaches her story with a stoic and entertaining sense of dark humour. This is a trainwreck of an upbringing that you can’t help but sympathize with, as you berate yourself for laughing at the strangeness of it all. It brings awareness to the stigmas around mental illness and the barriers we still have to overcome, especially culturally, which healthcare systems could benefit from learning more about.

If you live in Vancouver, I would absolutely say this is a must-read. This is also a relevant book for those looking from some reprieve from their own families and mental health struggles.

The most moving part of this story comes from Lindsay finding the courage to write such an intimate memoir about her family, especially since she is writing from a standpoint of success in battling her inner Woo-Woo and family troubles. It’s a testament to the power of healing yourself and finding faith in yourself against the odds.