Tara Westover grew up in Bucks Peak, the daughter of a Mormon Survivalist father who frequently ranted about the imposition of “west coast socialism on the good people of Idaho.” She never went to school or to the doctor and didn’t have a birth certificate until she was eleven. Instead she read the Bible and the Book of Mormon, worked in her father’s scrap metal yard, and prepared for the End of the World or Y2K—whichever one came first. Westover thought she knew how her life would play out. She would marry at eighteen, learn about herbs and midwifery from her mother, and live in a house built by her husband on her father’s land. In the meantime, her brother would abuse her and call her a whore and even dance class would be considered one of Satan’s deceptions because it “claimed to teach dance but actually taught promiscuity. Against all odds, Westover turned her back on this world. With no knowledge of the Holocaust, thinking that Europe was a country, and only having vaguely heard the word “Shakespeare,” she attended Brigham Young University. Her thirst to learn “how the gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality” led her to study at Cambridge University and earn a PhD from Harvard—drawn to such “unwomanly” subjects as law, politics and Jewish History. Educated is a raw and fiercely brave memoir that goes further than Hillbilly Elegy in giving voice to hidden aspects of the American experience.
Like all Anne Tyler’s delicious novels, Clock Dance (Knopf, $26.95) is full of flawed and lovable characters who find new ways of being needed and who, in a blended family, make surprising and meaningful choices. The story focuses on Willa; raised by a mercurial and impetuous mother, Willa grows up determined to be exactly the opposite: she wants to be taken for granted and disappear—to the point where, held at gunpoint on a plane, she’s reluctant to make a scene and so does nothing. But life has a way of revisiting early missteps, and after living in Arizona Willa returns to her native Baltimore to care for the child of her son’s ex-girlfriend. This at first makes little sense—until you realize that Willa is retracing personal childhood traumas, and her actions are motivated by the need to rescue the little girl she once was. Then there’s that cactus on the book’s cover: “Just water it from time to time but not too much. It can stand a lot remember; it doesn’t need to be pampered.” No, a cactus doesn’t need pampering, but pampering others is what gives Tyler’s characters their purpose and their heart. We all need meaning in our lives—and meaning for Tyler comes from connection with others, however flawed or marginal they may be.
If you’ve read even one volume of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, you’ve probably wondered what drives the Norwegian writer’s shameless and exhaustive exploration of personal experience. In his slender Inadvertent (Yale $18), part of Yale’s Why I Write series, Knausgaard provides some thought-provoking and unexpected insights. He starts by talking about his love of reading—from comic books to Ursula Le Guin, Paul Celan, Malarmé, and Tolstoy. He reads to enter something unknown, “so that even without moving I was moving away from myself,” and this is also the impulse that drives him to write. But—“away” from himself? While delving so deeply inside his experience? How is that possible? In Inadvertent Knausgaard explores his search for meaning, his need to understand an overbearing father, and his humiliation at writing badly, yet continuing to write anyway (he recounts destroying an early manuscript when a poet he admired told him it wasn’t any good). This engaging little book will undoubtedly appeal to avid readers of Knausgaard but it will also introduce newcomers to his work, and will especially fascinate writers who want to understand the craft of one of the most important authors of our time.