Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Jennifer Mathieu's Moxie is the book I wish I had when I was in high school - but of course, that would be anachronistic, so makes no sense, but just roll with me here. Viv, the book's protagonist, lives in rural Texas, where sexism is still seen as the natural order and football rules the day. Quietly seething over the injustices, Viv becomes emboldened with a little assistance from her Gen-X mom, a former Riot Grrrl turned single parent healthcare worker, and her "My Misspent Youth" memory box.
The actions of Viv and her schoolmates feel believable; Mathieu has constructed the world of East Rockport, Texas with such assiduous and loving care that there's no reason to doubt the actions or the ideas of the people living there at all. I love Viv and her mom and even the grandparents. I know that's simplistic but they're utterly real and make it so easy to understand how injustices and terrible traditions continue to perpetuate themselves despite people's personal beliefs or views. Their very existence helps readers understand inertia can be just as damaging as any other social
force, and that's a difficult concept to share.
Written for a YA audience but bound to be loved by today's Gen X parents, too, Mathieu's Moxie is a must read for any kid ready to fight back, even if their voice is shaking. Fun and interesting read.
...And then we come to the book that may have gone and done it already: nabbed the top spot for the whole year. Educated by Tara Westover. It's a memoir, and utterly unlike anything else I've ever read. I'm still turning it over and over in my mind, and I'm sure I will be for weeks and months to come. Don't come to this one expecting ponies and butterflies. It's intense and it's horrifying and it's full of hope, too. Prepare yourself, and then clear your calendar:
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Whoa. Scoot down to your local bookstore and get your hands on a copy of Tara Westover's memoir tout de suite, because this is a barnburner of a memoir and sure to dominate the best books lists of 2018. And for good damn reason!
In measured and unflinching fashion, Westover shares the story of growing up as the youngest member of a family led by an antigovernment Mormon survivalist father. In the mountains of rural Idaho, she never attends school and also is not homeschooled; everything she learns, from reading to math and science, she does on her own, with very few resources aside from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Instead, she learns how to live off the grid and without government assistance or modern medicine of any kind. With little fanfare, she describes her childhood as one of packing "go" bags, helping her mother create essential oils and act as midwife for others in their tiny community, and sifting through the detritus of her father's metal scrapyard. We watch alongside her as her father builds an impressive arsensal and buries thousands of gallons of gasoline in their field in preparation for Y2K. We hear the story, over and over, of how Randy Weaver and his family were murdered by the government for not sending their children to school and how easily it could have been them. We see Tara grow old enough to begin helping at the junkyard and at various construction sites in earnest, lugging scraps, clambering across roofs without harness or hard hat (it would slow them down, so her father forbade it), knocking together sheet metal, and so on. The work this child is required to perform takes your breath away - but that's barely the beginning.
As Tara takes us deeper into her experiences, she reveals the dangers of living under the leadership of a paranoid and energetic man. He takes risks with his life and with the lives of his family that I cannot understand, and the results at times are truly catastrophic. Rather than recognizing the need for limits of any kind, however, her father doubles down on his behavior and continues to act with complete disregard for the physical and mental safety of himself and his family members. The calamities and callousness continues. And soon there are new kinds of challenges Tara must face...
Eventually, assisted by one of her brothers, Tara decides to try and go to college. This is no big spoiler, since it's on the back cover and included in every blurb I've seen. But the sheer difficulties she faces in getting to college are heartbreaking, and once she arrives, the world is a completely exotic place to her (it reminded me so much of A Stone of Hope in this section). She not only earns a BA, but an MPhil and a PhD as well - from Cambridge, no less. This portion of the story is not as well developed as the earlier experiences, but that only makes sense, since Westover only finished her studies a few years ago. I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that we hear a literary update from her in the years to come. I wonder how much more difficult the road will be for her, as she finds she must confront so much trauma and betrayal in order to heal. It won't be easy. But if there's ever a person willing to tackle the most daunting of tasks, it is Professor Westover.
The real wonder of this work isn't that she has survived and even managed to thrive despite the catastrophes and hardships she experienced. It's that the book is written with such extraordinary nuance and skill. As it opens, you realize that her life is unusual, but she has a way of telling her story that beguiles you into thinking that it's not as horrible as you might think should you merely read a list of what she lived with - and without. And as she matures, so too (very slowly) does her awareness of the strangeness of her life. As her own blinders are removed, so too are the readers - and she does it in such a subtle, unsentimental fashion that it floored me time and again. Moreover, she manages to draw portraits of the portraits of the people responsible for her experiences with amazing grace and power. She neither makes apologies for them nor does she brand them as the abusive and sociopathic people they undoubtedly are, even as she tries to grapple with the harm they have inflicted on her identity, her outlook, her very life. And she manages to do all this within the mental framework of someone who didn't experience any kind of organized learning until she wound up at BYU. Who had never written a journal or an essay; who had never taken notes. Someone who didn't grow up reading great authors - or any authors at all, really. It's just a remarkable achievement, and one I deeply admire.
Westover's story is unforgettable. Her writing, unparalleled. Her book? Read by far too few thus far (but then again, it just dropped a week or so ago). Pick it up and you won't be able to put it down, I promise.
View all my reviews
I just stumbled across this list because I read one of its recommendations this year (Moxie!). The organization pulls together a list of annotated new works for the 18 and under set that have "significant feminist content."
In the Bookbag Now:
Oh, heck. I don't know. Here's what I have read significant portions of in the last four days: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers, I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell, and Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. What actually winds up making it to the finish line is a carefully kept secret...or just whatever my mood demands.
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