What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

April 2018

 - Tuesday, April 03, 2018
Louise: When I read highly revealing memoirs about people’s childhoods I normally have a twinge of sympathy for their parents—after all, most of us are not consistently fabulous at parenting. However it’s really hard to feel even a bat’s squeak of empathy for Tara Westover’s parents, they are truly extraordinary! As one of the younger siblings in a large Mormon family, brought up in the wilds of Idaho, Tara’s very existence was defined by the incredible credo of her survivalist parents—particularly her zealous father. The children were home-schooled up to a point, a very low point, and expected to work in the family scrap yard—as well as preparing for the Reckoning, by preserving peaches and hoarding fuel, in bulk. The scrap yard was a dangerous place, and many serious injuries befell nearly the whole family who were then treated by their mother, a self-taught herbalist. A child’s leg caught on fire, they were often impaled by metal objects and the family had several really bad car accidents, but nothing was ever bad enough to seek mainstream medical attention. The father, Gene, described herbs as ‘God’s Pharmacy’, an optimistically poetic description, and indeed when he was almost burned alive by an exploding vehicle, his wife treated him at home, with said pharmacy.
Unlikely as parts of Educated may seem, it resonates with a chilling ring of truth, and ultimately Tara really is a survivalist, or a survivor at least. She manages against all odds to pass entrance tests, go to college, and eventually win scholarships to far flung places. Her complete unpreparedness to live with other girls at college makes excruciating reading, and her lack of general knowledge is startling—after all this is not a story about a girl born in the 19th century, but in 1986! However, despite all odds—the isolation and the family she was born into—Tara becomes educated, and has written a really compelling book, with a clear and unwavering voice. There are scenes of extreme domestic violence described in the book, so be warned.

Andrew: I admit to ignoring The Sparsholt Affair by Andrew Hollinghurst when it was published last year. The novel is set (initially) in Oxford during the forties, and I had a knee-jerk response that it was going to be all a bit too too much. Too many terribly effete, terribly intellectual, terribly homosexual Oxbridge types, in a too dry comedy of class and manners. What I failed to remember is what a superlative prose stylist Hollinghurst is. Sentence after sentence impeccably phrased; and so staggeringly well-observed that for the first time since my undergraduate days I felt the constant urge to circle or highlight phrases for their gob smacking aptness. The writing has the almost giddy effect of wearing prescription glasses for the first time, it is so consummate in its descriptions. At its heart it is many things, but for me becomes almost an elegy for the lost relationship between a father and his son; a book of pathos rather than of social satire. A couple of the central characters are painters, and Hollinghurst’s descriptions of their talent and its role in their lives, is also brilliant.

John: In a continuation of the holiday reading theme from last month, I have just finished  The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter. Two sisters’—both lawyers—lives have taken very different paths after their mother was murdered and they were both brutally assaulted. One of the sisters has moved far away emotionally and geographically while the other has stayed in their home town and close to her defence attorney father, Rusty. He will take on the cases that the other lawyers in town won’t touch, and the town doesn’t understand why Rusty would defend a shooter who is so obviously guilty. He is attacked and hospitalised which brings the sisters together to defend the shooter and their family. Bloody and a bit graphic in parts, but a rollicking read with enough twists to keep it interesting.