Book Review - Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover’s Educated was one of the biggest books of 2018, topping awards and bestsellers lists across the world. It’s a memoir in which Westover - who, by the way, is still only 32 - recalls her upbringing in rural Idaho as part of a Mormon survivalist family. Her father, Gene, deals in scrap metal and has a whole litany of extreme beliefs, primary amongst them being his distrust of all conventional medical treatment and the public school system. Her mother, Faye, is a subservient figure, although as the narrative continues she develops a reputation for midwifery and faith healing, as well as her catalogue of natural ointments and potions. There are seven Westover siblings, with Tara the youngest. Today, Westover is estranged from her parents, two of her brothers and her sister.

tara-westover-educated_66a58970e3c6cfdcda31d7f9f8a25f61.png

This is no rose-tinted view of simple, country living. The family might live a superficially idyllic wild and free existence, but dig a little deeper and Tara’s childhood is revealed as deeply dysfunctional: no birth certificate, no health checks, no school, a very narrow home education and huge portions of the day devoted to working on the scrap heap and bottling and storing food supplies for the End of Days. The Westover siblings suffer an astonishing array of injuries and near-death experiences at the mountainside home, from horrific burns to terrifying falls and concussions.

This is, in part, a coming-of-age story. As Tara grows, her family - and particularly her father and older brother, Shawn - struggle to cope with the reality of her becoming her own person. Her father attempts to stop her from taking part in a local drama show, eventually relenting but insisting that her costume is appropriately ‘modest’, i.e. floor-length and oversized. She loves music, is a talented singer and credits music with providing her with her first view of a world beyond the mountain. Shawn, who becomes increasingly aggressive and violent over time, calls Tara vile names, hits her, even attempts to throttle her.

When Tara becomes friends with a local boy and applies to the Mormon University, Brigham Young, tensions increase. Moving to Provo, Utah, to study, she encounters a whole new urban existence; away from the mountain, Tara is shocked to discover that the world is never quiet and “the chirrup of crosswalk signals, the shrieking of sirens, the hissing of air breaks, even the hushed chatter of people strolling on the sidewalk” combined feel like an assault. She shares a home with Mormon girls completely unlike herself: they wear nail polish and branded clothing, shop on Sundays and drink Diet Coke. And academically, Tara struggles. Although unquestionably bright, her patchy, uber-religious ‘schooling’ at home means she’s missed huge chunks of general knowledge and world history. In one lecture she raises her hand to ask what the Holocaust was, to the utter disbelief of her peers and teacher.

Some might have expected Westover to give up, head home, marry a local, especially after one of the church elders at university takes her to task over not accepting dates from several would-be suitors: “Marriage is part of God’s plan,” he chides. But her upbringing seems to have been useful in one key respect, i.e. in developing resilience. She works, listens, pores over books until the early hours, soaks up her academic surroundings like a sponge. She wins scholarships, awards and a place to study at Cambridge after she graduates.

Still in touch (just), Westover’s relationship with her family is almost at breaking point. Now educated, Tara can see the gaping holes in her father’s extreme view of the world. There’s an excruciating scene where he regales Tara and her mother with his anti-Semitic views and Martin Luther King’s “ties to communism” over a restaurant dinner. “But the world is about to end!” he shouts, oblivious to the other diners in his booming mountainside voice.

When the tie with her parents is finally severed, it’s a culmination of many factors - Tara’s time away from the mountain, new friendships and loves as well as countless old grievances. At the end of the book she reflects that “I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.” She closes with the powerful words, “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”

Unsettling and thought-provoking but ultimately inspiring, Educated was one of my favourite books of 2018. If you missed it, get it on your ‘to read’ pile for 2019.

 
image1-4_62b9d0aa581d2802b7439713362adfe3.jpeg

Laura McDonagh

Laura is a writer based in a village outside York. After four years living and working in Brussels, she recently returned to the UK with husband and two small boys in tow. She now lives an altogether more rural existence, complete with wellies, open fire and a permanently filthy car. She runs her own digital copywriting business, Strike the Match, and lives for perfect bright and breezy running weather, mid-century interior design and anything with peanut butter in it.

Book Review - All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

It’s time for something a little more contemporary here at The Hills: today’s book review is on All Among The Barley by Melissa Harrison, a book I was desperate to get my hands on as soon as it was published at the end of August this year.

Book Review - All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

I say contemporary, but in terms of when the book is set, we’re going back to the 1930s; 1934, specifically, to a Suffolk farm and a young female narrator, Edith (or Edie/Ed). And indeed, time and everything it encompasses - rhythms, routines, change - is a significant factor in this story. Edith is facing changes personally - on the cusp between girlhood and womanhood, she’s watched her sister, Mary, move from young lady to wife and mother with a mixture of fascination and horror. The community in which she lives was decimated by WW1, and the changes wreaked by that seismic event are still felt daily on the farm and in the village, where the church pews bear the names of the dead in gold lettering.

Much of the happenings of the novel are measured against the routines of agricultural life, and the harvest, tilling and sowing takes on an additional resonance as we learn more about this family and their lives. The choice of 1933 is poignant, set as it is at the fulcrum between traditional rural life and full mechanisation, and feels incredibly timely as Britain prepares to leave Europe and we face another enormous change to rural life.

And then there’s the arrival of Constance FitzAllen to the farm - a loud, sometimes brash, opinionated woman determined to discover more about the ‘old ways’ of farming life, and record them for posterity. Edith is fascinated by her energy and strange ways, not least the way she speaks to her formidable grandfather as an equal and declares herself an atheist at the dinner table…!

Constance definitely disrupts the steady routines of life for the family, and particularly for Edith who - with Mary gone and her mother, shall we say, distracted - is ripe for some glamour. But Constance isn’t simply the London career girl of Edith’s naive imagining, and slowly the sense of menace present from the outset builds to something more tangible. Suddenly Constance’s early professions of love for the countryside - “I just feel we’re in danger of losing touch with the soil, and with all the lovely old traditions…” - becomes more nationalistic in tone - “We need a strong government to set us free from our dependence on the international finance system - one that will act in the best interests of the British people, that will favour British manufacturing and farming…” - and then becomes altogether more sinister and chilling.

If you love descriptions of rural and especially agricultural life, then you’ll certainly enjoy All Among The Barley. Be warned, though - this moves from innocent pastoral to political work pretty quickly, and you won’t be able to stop yourself drawing parallels between Harrison’s fictional world and pre-Brexit contemporary Britain.

 
image1-4_62b9d0aa581d2802b7439713362adfe3.jpeg

Laura McDonagh

Laura is a writer based in a village outside York. After four years living and working in Brussels, she recently returned to the UK with husband and two small boys in tow. She now lives an altogether more rural existence, complete with wellies, open fire and a permanently filthy car. She runs her own digital copywriting business, Strike the Match, and lives for perfect bright and breezy running weather, mid-century interior design and anything with peanut butter in it.

Book Review - Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

Often, when we pick up a book about the countryside, it’s because we want to read reverent descriptions of beautiful landscapes; to revel in the glory of the land we love. We want to read about things that stir something deep within us; “finches’ wings;/Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough”, as Manley Hopkins wrote. We want the pretty.

1_y-4hbQTio9bqZ9185yEpEw_66a58970e3c6cfdcda31d7f9f8a25f61.jpeg

Even Ted Hughes, who we looked at last month, and his fascination with “nature red in tooth and claw” depicted the natural world as sometimes savage, sometimes senseless, but ultimately astonishing, powerful and worthy of respect - and he frequently found himself compelled to write about nature’s beauty as well as its darkness and capacity for destruction.

However, this month’s literary choice - the short story Brokeback Mountain by American writer Annie Proulx - resists beauty in a manner that’s rare for a writer who writes predominantly about the natural world. I’ve never been to Wyoming, but I feel as if I’ve seen it - the sour yellow light; the dry, dusty grass; nests of weeds; the unforgiving life of a farmhand or a cowboy - through Proulx’s words. I don’t think the state tourism board will be using her descriptions on their website any time soon, though.

Brokeback Mountain - a short story from her collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories and adapted to film by Ang Lee in 2005, winning him the Oscar for Best Director in 2006 - catapulted Proulx into the mainstream, following on from the huge literary success of her Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Shipping News. Her style is clear, hypnotic and lulls the reader into a eerie sense of security. Then something - a description of violence so graphic it feels physical; a casual revelation of incest or rape as found in some of her other short stories - arrives like a punch in the gut and we’re completely blindsided. This is no ordinary rural writer.

Brokeback Mountain is the story of a forbidden relationship between two gay cowboys made into the haunting film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams. Although consciously dealing with a taboo, Proulx avoids any kind of overt agenda and steers clear of sentimentality. Instead, she focuses attentions on Ennis and Jack’s frank, uncouth dialogue (“This is a goddamn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation” and “I wish I knew how to quit you” are two examples faithfully reproduced from the book in the film), their frustrations and disappointments (“I used a want a boy for a kid...but all I got was little girls”), the wind and the cold and the desolate countryside - and the story is all the more real and moving for it.

Nature lovers, be warned: the land moves Proulx and her characters, but it makes its presence felt “like a claw in the gut” rather than a gentle, stirring passion. She also doesn’t cater to delicate readers: her men are blunt, tough and talk dirty. Women feature less prominently - not surprising in this ultra-macho world - and her unflinching treatment of subjects such as murder and violence regularly draws a sharp intake of breath. But in Brokeback, it’s what’s left unsaid, what’s not there, that’s the real killer - the plaid shirt Ennis finds hanging in Jack’s wardrobe that had “no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.”

If you need converting to Annie Proulx, read Brokeback Mountain before you go anywhere else. Yes, it’s a story about gay cowboys, but it could be about any of us, and about any forbidden love.

 
image1-4_62b9d0aa581d2802b7439713362adfe3.jpeg

Laura McDonagh

Laura is a writer based in a village outside York. After four years living and working in Brussels, she recently returned to the UK with husband and two small boys in tow. She now lives an altogether more rural existence, complete with wellies, open fire and a permanently filthy car. She runs her own digital copywriting business, Strike the Match, and lives for perfect bright and breezy running weather, mid-century interior design and anything with peanut butter in it.

Book Review - The Poetry of Ted Hughes

I’ve got a confession to make.

I love poetry.

Book Review - The Poetry of Ted Hughes

I’m not a stuffy academic or a lovelorn teenager. I’m not strange, or pretentious - well, at least, I dont think I am. I’ve just always loved verse; how it distils vast landscapes of feelings down to a tiny number of carefully-chosen words. For me, it’s the literary form that provides the most flashes of brilliance; the most moments in reading where it’s as if “a hand has come out and taken yours”, to quote Alan Bennett.

If you love the countryside but are wary of poetry, approach Ted Hughes with an open mind. Macho, misogynistic, a wayward husband and neglectful father, his reputation precedes him. However, away from the macabre soap opera of his relationships (his wife, Sylvia Plath, killed herself, as did his lover, Assia Wevill), his poetry reveals a different side: a boy who loved the countryside who grew into a man who respected - even feared - it.

Hughes is undoubtedly drawn towards nature’s power, but it’s ultimately its capacity for cruelty and destruction that holds his attention: this is nature “red in tooth and claw”. Pike - loved and loathed in equal measure by GCSE students across the land - describes the ferocity of the fish he caught as a child in his native Yorkshire and kept in a tank, growing from “three inches long” to cannibalistic beasties who “spare nobody.” He lingers over the gruesome image of two specimens he found dead on a river bank, “one jammed past its gills down the others gullet”. The hawk of Hawk Roosting gives us a chilling first-person narrative of a predator with no dreams other than to “rehearse perfect kills.” It’s easy - perhaps too easy - to see this callous creature as a symbol for the far-right European dictators of the first half of the 20th century: “I kill where I please because it is all mine,” he says, brutally blasé. “My manners,” he declares with icy calm, “are tearing off heads.” Pastoral idyll this isn’t.

My favourite Hughes collection, Birthday Letters, is a book of poems released in 1998 only months before his death. For years, he’d refused to be drawn on the subject of Sylvia, but this publication revealed a raw, confessional tone completely alien to his fans. In it, he speaks directly to Sylvia with poems written for each of her birthdays, charting their relationship from its passionate beginning in Cambridge through to their bitter break-up and ensuing tragedy. Two of the most shattering poems in the collection, Daffodils and Robbing Myself, centre on the remote home and smallholding Hughes and Plath shared in Devon shortly before their split. In Daffodils he remembers picking a “treasure trove” of flowers with Sylvia and the children. But dispel any ideas you might have of Wordsworth’s sunny “host of golden daffodils” - in Hughes’ version, they wither and their “wedding-present scissors” are left stuck somewhere in the earth “blades wide open...a cross of rust.” It’s raw, reflective but, more importantly, it’s a lesson that poetry isn’t always about big fancy words. Describing Yorkshire, Hughes uses two words: “wet shops”. Could you write a better description of a Calderdale village in just two words, two syllables? I couldn’t.

Hughes touches on his tie to the land in his book ‘Poetry in the Making’ - a book about writing poetry rather than a book of poems. On wild beauty spots he has this to say: “The thing about [them]...is the state of mind they put us into...They carry us back to the surroundings our ancestors lived in for 150 million years - which is long enough to grow to feel quite at home even in a place as wild as the uncivilised earth. Civilization is comparatively new, it is still a bit of a strain on our nerves...it is almost as though these places [beauty spots] were generators where we can recharge our run-down batteries...Those prehistoric feelings, satisfaction we are hardly aware of except as a sensation of pleasure - these are like a blood transfusion to us, and in wild surroundings they rise to the surface and refresh us, renew us.” Janet posted something on the blog recently about Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and made a very similar point - you are, it would seem Mr Hughes, in good company.

 
image1-4_62b9d0aa581d2802b7439713362adfe3.jpeg

Laura McDonagh

Laura is a writer based in a village outside York. After four years living and working in Brussels, she recently returned to the UK with husband and two small boys in tow. She now lives an altogether more rural existence, complete with wellies, open fire and a permanently filthy car. She runs her own digital copywriting business, Strike the Match, and lives for perfect bright and breezy running weather, mid-century interior design and anything with peanut butter in it.

Book Review - Tarry Flynn by Patrick Kavanagh

Tarry Flynn, a young man in his mid 20s in 1930s staunchly Catholic Ireland, spends his days arguing with his mother, tending his smallholding and talking about girls with his friend, Eusebius...

Book Review - Tarry Flynn, by Patrick Kavanagh


He considers himself a cut above the local men with their simple outlooks and base desires. Tarry, you see, fancies himself as a poet. He’s tortured by his mystical, poetic thoughts. But, in the spirit of full disclosure, he’s also consumed by lust. He might consider himself a writer frustrated by his lowly surroundings, but he can’t deny the flesh. His conversations with Eusebius centre on one topic and one topic alone:

“Be jabus! Did ye see her?”

“I did. She has no fella as far as I know.”

If it wasn’t for Tarry’s ridiculousness, this might be a difficult book for the post-#MeToo readers. For Tarry and his friends - indeed, every man in the County Cavan village - are obsessed with the local women. Tarry, perhaps led into unrealistic expectations by his poetry idols and their gushings about the Muse, is perpetually disappointed by the local women’s colourless faces and stocky figures, and yet also driven wild by sexual longing.

And he isn’t the only one. At the beginning of the novel it becomes apparent that ‘The Mission’ - a travelling evangelical group - has arrived in the village church to deliver lessons on virtue and chastity. Tarry drily observes Petey Meegan “the crooked old bachelor...hurrying off up Kerley’s hill on his way to hear more about sex.” As the Mission closes in a final Mass, Tarry is watching his neighbours again. Meegan “was thumping his breast and looking up towards the coloured window with an ecstatic gaze.” He then enquires about Mary, Tarry’s sister, to their mother. “The Missioners must have shook him up,” she says. Tarry is horrified at the 20 year age gap; his mother insists that “girls can’t be too stiff these days.” The hypocrisy of Tarry’s horror at Meegan’s desires, his mother’s matter-of-factness, the earthiness of Mary’s conversation with her friend (“Could you go to bed with an auld fella like that?”) is devastatingly funny. Like all good coming-of-age novels (although, at 27, Tarry is old enough to know better) the humour comes from the reader’s recognition of Tarry’s pitiful inadequacies.

But Tarry Flynn is more than a humorous portrayal of the insignificant trials and tribulations of a rural community. It’s also a sharp critique of the Catholic church and the power it wields over the lives of country people. And yes, it may be an unsentimental portrayal of rural life - Tarry’s fields are small and poor and don’t yield much other than reeds and stones - but it’s also a compelling ode to the beauty in the everyday. There are some lyrical passages of breathtaking loveliness amongst the colourful characters and Tarry’s vain, petty thoughts and plans. His imagination turns the neighbours’ dirty windows into “stained glass” and the weeds that choke the ditches into “rich beauty...life pouring out in uncritical abundance.”

Tarry Flynn is a book I go back to time and time again. It’s a modern classic, with a mastery of style that never fails to astonish. Kavanagh swings with apparent ease from hilarious to profound within the same paragraph; the sublime to the ridiculous sitting sentences apart. But I think what I really love about it is the way that it explores rural places being both our passions and our prisons. The writer John McGahern tells a story of Kavanagh saying to him, “I love that grass. I’ve known it since I was a child. I often wondered if I’d be different if I had been brought up to love better things.” But we love (tolerate? tolerate affectionately?) the places that we love, even though they can be hard, uncompromising, suffocating, even. It isn’t often an active choice. If you feel that way about the rural place you grew up or the place you live now, then Tarry Flynn will really resonate with you.

 
image1-4_62b9d0aa581d2802b7439713362adfe3.jpeg

Laura McDonagh

Laura is a writer based in a village outside York. After four years living and working in Brussels, she recently returned to the UK with husband and two small boys in tow. She now lives an altogether more rural existence, complete with wellies, open fire and a permanently filthy car. She runs her own digital copywriting business, Strike the Match, and lives for perfect bright and breezy running weather, mid-century interior design and anything with peanut butter in it.