Autobiography, Memoir

Beyond the Wand, by Tom Felton

It’s so satisfying when a popular book lives up to the hype because then it isn’t hype anymore, it’s a consensus. Such is the case with Beyond the Wand by Tom Felton, an absolute delight to read! You may know Tom better as the evil Draco Malfoy of the Harry Potter film franchise, representing bullies everywhere with that classic combination of arrogance and cowardice.

Happily, the man behind the bleached hair (yes, man, he’s 35 now,) is much more down-to-earth than his sinister alter ego. But it came at a price, as is the age-old story of many child stars. The youngest of four boys in a loving family, Tom started acting early in life. But it wasn’t until the Harry Potter films when he became recognizable, a fame that steadily increased with the popularity of the books and movies. A heady thing for a young man trying to figure out who he is off the movie set, and one he still has to navigate with caution.

There are some drastic ups and downs, but the majority of the book is ideally paced for the modern attention span. Many celebrity memoirs are filled with superfluous, uninteresting details. This one is not. Tom Felton gives the people what they want, which is a behind-the-scenes look at what it was like to grow up among a core cast of actors, many of whom are British screen royalty. The chapters are anecdotal, insightful, interesting, and fun. There are Potter plot spoilers, however, so you might want to be familiar with the series before reading.

My favorite parts are when he writes about antics on set and what it was like to work with so many heavyweights like Dame Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Isaacs, Sir Richard Harris, and Sir Michael Gambon. His gratitude towards these respected actors is genuine and palpable, as is his love for his acting peers, the other young people who bore the enormous responsibility of breathing life into characters beloved throughout the world.

I cannot say enough good things about Beyond the Wand. If you love the Potter film series, this memoir is better than any special features you’ll see on a DVD. It’s a fast read that shows the growth of a young man striving for normality in a very abnormal world. I highly recommend it.

9.5/10 Stars

Memoir, Nonfiction

Theme: Embracing Our Differences

This week I’m participating in an online nonfiction read-a-thon, so I will be getting out of my comfort zone a bit. Not that I don’t like nonfiction, but I’ve enjoyed creatively told stories a lot lately.

Which brings me to two books that I read today. Both address differences–dealing with them, owning them, and embracing them.

Visual Thinking, by Temple Grandin, has been on my radar for quite a while. Temple Grandin is a fascinating woman with a unique story. Born with Autism, she has used her differences in the way she absorbs and processes information to become a pioneer in animal behavior. Her work is mainly with the meat industry, making sure that animals raised for slaughter are humanely treated. Because she is a visual thinker, which she explains in the book, she notices details that others might miss.

The part that I thought was most profound is the way she describes the “screening out” of visual thinkers in the American education system. Thanks to different government movements in the name of “progress,” teachers are now forced to teach in such a linear way that students with diverse learning can easily get left behind. Speaking as a former teacher, I wholeheartedly agree. However, the book itself was a cumbersome read. There is a lot of repetition and spiraling in the way information is presented. It is broken up into chapters, but their content doesn’t seem as individual as you’d expect. Instead, it is more of the same over and over again. For that reason I can only give it a lukewarm 8/10 Stars.

Ugly, by Robert Hoge. The youngest of five children, Robert was born in Australia in 1972. The reasons are still unclear, but he came into this world with a large tumor above his nose and misshapen legs and feet. The tumor pushed his eyes far to each side, like a fish, making depth perception and balance difficult. His crooked legs and feet made walking impossible. Intellectually, though, Robert was born a bright and inquisitive child.

This memoir is marketed to readers of all ages and, because this world and the media are so unforgiving of people who look different, Ugly is an important book. After dozens of surgeries on his face, amputations of both feet, and adjusting to prosthetic legs, Robert lives a fairly “normal” life. His journey, one with pain and humor, is an inspiring one. His unusual appearance is the first thing you notice about him, but his attitude and sensitive nature are what you remember. This is a wonderfully well-written autobiography that I highly recommend. 9/10 Stars

***Both Temple Grandin and Robert Hoge are popular speakers on the TED Talk circuit and in other public speaking settings. You can easily find them on YouTube to hear more about their lives and experiences.

Fiction, Historical Fiction, Memoir

December Reading Wrap Up, Monthly Favorites, 2023 Recommendations

OK! The new year is upon us! Time for some wrap ups, favorites, and recommendations for the new year!

Let’s start off with the books I read in December. It was fun to read winter and holiday-themed books. I’ve never done that before. But I’m open to anything that gets me out of my comfort zone a bit. It seems like that is when I discover authors who become favorites. Melanie Jacobson and Jane Porter were two great author discoveries in December. Jennifer Peel and Becky Monson continued their streak of fun books. Denise Hunter is quickly rising to the top of my list of authors whose works I want to revisit. And Brigid Kemmerer…I could read her books over and over again. They are that good. Ratings are based on the Goodreads 5-Star rating system.

Next, I’m posting my 2022 favorites by month. This was a tough one! There were many months when I read several that stayed with me. In the end, though, I thought about which ones really got under my skin. They are the ones I find myself constantly recommending. They made me laugh or cry. They opened up a whole new arena of thought. They are, in my opinion, extra special. These are the final 12. The Ogress and the Orphans is middle grade (ages 8-12.) What I Carry, Letters to the Lost, and Call It What You Want are considered Young Adult. (16+)

Lastly, I’m posting fifteen recommendations. I’ve seen lots of people in my online book groups asking for book recommendations for the new year. Believe me, I have MANY more than just fifteen that are worth suggesting, but in the interest of time, space, and not picking the same ones as everyone else, here they are. All of them are stand-alones (not part of a series.) All of them are fiction or historical fiction with the exception of Deaf Utopia, which everyone should read. Everyone.

I hope to post some more favorites by topic and genre in the near future. I’ve discovered some incredible books and amazingly talented authors in 2022, many of whom I’ve had the honor of communicating with through different means. One who even recruited me to join his beta reading team. (More on that in the future.) 😉

As always, these are my recommendations based on my taste, experience, filters, and tolerances. Be sure to do your own research about adult scenes, language, and age-appropriate content.

Autobiography, Memoir, Nonfiction

Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, by Matthew Perry

It’s 1995, FRIENDS has been on the air for a year. (As soon as I saw a promo for it in 1994, I knew I wanted to watch this series. And I did–every episode of every season for ten seasons. I still kick myself that I never attended a taping.) Now I’m at Disneyland with my mom, aunt, and cousin, Laura. My aunt had recently been hired at Disney Imagineering and was able to get us into the park for free. It was a blast.

Halfway through the day we’re in New Orleans Square (my favorite section) and Laura says to me, “Hey, isn’t that Matthew Perry?” Yes, it was. Celebrity sightings–one of the perks of growing up in Southern California. There was Matthew Perry, aka Chandler Bing, wearing (I’ll never forget) a white leather letterman’s-style jacket, holding court in the middle of an entourage of 6-8 friends, with a glow and a swagger that showed he was on top of the world. The guy oozed charisma.

We headed over to the Haunted Mansion. Matthew and group probably entered through some VIP back door without waiting in line because suddenly, we were all in the “stretching room”–our group, his group, and a few other people who probably didn’t love the show FRIENDS as much as I did. I can only assume.

Yes, I stared. This was a big deal. I have a faint memory of catching his eye and a hopeful, selective memory that there was a small grin returned only for me, but it could just be my imagination. I don’t care. It was dang cool. After the ride we only saw the backs of him and his group. Moment over, but not forgotten.

Some shows are just a part of us. FRIENDS is one of those shows for me. It started right as I earned my college degree, saw me through getting my first apartment, my first “real job,” and all of those milestones that make you feel grown up (except getting married, that came later.)

Of course we knew that, of all the cast members, Matthew Perry was the one struggling the most. We just didn’t know how much. Fast forward 20+ years to last Monday, when my husband and I watched his interview with Diane Sawyer. He’s uber famous, uber wealthy, starred in one of the most beloved shows of all time, and my first thought was, “He seems like a really lonely guy.” The swagger and smirk I saw in 1995 was replaced with a man slightly older than me, but wearing decades of trauma on his face.

I had to read the book. What a life. What an exhausting, sad, tortured, lonely life. I’ve never really understood addiction, but this is probably the closest I’ll ever get. His memoir is that raw. And it is heartbreaking. As a highly sensitive empath, I absorb other people’s pain more than most, and I felt like I was right there with every relapse of drinking and pills and their accompanying horrific consequences. This book is both fascinating and painful. Never once does he play the victim.

If you’ve been on the FRIENDS journey at all since its inception, read about Matthew’s journey and see what he went through. It’s a miracle he’s even still alive. And it’s a lesson of where fulfillment can truly be found. Hint: it isn’t fame and fortune. 9/10 Stars

Autobiography, Memoir

Deaf Utopia, by Nyle DiMarco

“As a Deaf person, I came from a beautiful and unique heritage that included a multilayered culture, a visual language, and a wealth of stories.”

I cannot remember the last time, if ever, that I learned so much from a memoir. Nyle DiMarco’s Deaf Utopia should be required reading for everyone.

Nyle DiMarco won hearts by winning both America’s Next Top Model and Dancing With the Stars, breaking barriers and bringing awareness to a beautiful silent world that many of us, myself included, don’t think about much. Part of a multi-generational Deaf family, this love letter to Deaf culture is sometimes joyful and, at other times, heart-breaking.

The writing is exquisite. I learned about the frustratingly slow evolution of allowing Deaf students to use American Sign Language, as opposed to forcing speech and oral education, in schools for the Deaf. I learned about the Milan Conference, a group of decision makers in the 1800s who made crucial choices about educating Deaf children when only one of the members was Deaf himself. I learned about Alexander Graham Bell, who has always been heralded as a pioneer, and his belief that if Deaf couples didn’t marry and procreate, the “deaf gene” would eventually be “bred out” of the human race.

As an elementary school teacher, I firmly agree with DiMarco’s statement “Kids need a language rich environment for their brains to acquire the rhythm and pattern of language.” It seems so basic, and this is why we sing a lot of songs in kindergarten about numbers, the days of the week, the months of the year, etc. It is why, even when I taught fifth grade, I still set aside at least half an hour a day for “story time,” where I read to my students and tried to exemplify a love of words and language.

In a school for the Deaf, this love is best conveyed through their native language, ASL, which DiMarco describes as “…something uniquely ours, a beautiful creation made with Deaf minds, hands, and bodies. When we use it, we feel truly content, truly ourselves.” Which makes the decades of systemic resistance to using it even more shocking. The more Deaf children have access to ASL-rich classrooms, the more they thrive and learn a variety of subjects. When the emphasis is all about speech and lip-reading, gaps can form in the child’s education. His family has members across the spectrum with all these experiences. The consequences, both good and bad, last a lifetime.

Discussing the book would not be complete without mentioning Nyle DiMarco’s amazing mother, Donna, who is also Deaf, and raised her three Deaf sons pretty much single-handedly. The way she fought for them, advocated for their education, nurtured them, and supported them is nothing short of heroic. If there was a school that was better, they moved there. If there was unfairness in the system, she challenged it. All of her sons are graduates of the prestigious Gallaudet University. Seriously, this lady deserves her own biography.

This book is revelatory. It is also fun and anecdotal. There’s mischief, love, setbacks, and creative solutions on nearly every page. I recommend it highly. Like with any culture, the only way to understand it better is to learn about it. I was honored to learn about Deaf culture, which is larger than we realize and has much to teach us.

10/10 Stars

May 8, 2022 video addition: There are lots of videos of Nyle DiMarco modeling, dancing, and being interviewed. But if you read this book you’ll learn that the foundation for all of his success was early language acquisition. (Not speech, but LANGUAGE. There’s a difference.) He’s very passionate about it. (I agree!) In that respect, I think these two videos are the best ones to post here.

This is so powerful.
Autobiography, Faith, Memoir, Nonfiction

Hope Unseen, by Captain Scotty Smiley and Doug Crandall

“I’m not sure what God is going to do with my life, but I know that there are good things in store and that He has a purpose for me.”

I first heard about Scott Smiley a few weeks ago. He was a guest speaker at an event hosted by a state congressional candidate I follow on Facebook. I had no idea who he was and what made him so inspiring. As I learned more about him and his story, I was reminded how backwards this world is, in that so many famous people have done very little for others, basking in the light of their own glory, while those who truly deserve our attention are often relegated to smaller venues.

One of seven children, a West Point graduate who married his high school sweetheart, Tiffany, Scotty Smiley’s life dramatically changed on April 6, 2005. While leading a 40-man platoon in Iraq charged with finding car bombs stationed throughout a residential area, Smiley confronted a suicide bomber at the moment of detonation. At that instant his world went black. He was blinded and partially paralyzed.

This book tells of Captain Smiley’s journey from that day to recovery, rehabilitation, and finding a new purpose in life. Make no mistake, this man had his gloomy days–lots of them–despite being blessed with an incredible support system of family and friends. Going from an independent, highly motivated Army officer to a man who could get lost walking in a parking lot was a huge blow. It challenged his sense of self and his lifelong faith down to their very cores.

Certainly, his story is one like many veterans who return home with physical and emotional scars that can last a lifetime. Living in a country that hasn’t seen war on its own soil for such a long time can make us feel distanced from the sacrifices made on a daily basis by people who dedicate their lives to preserving freedom for ourselves and others. No doubt, his story, faith, and determination are worthy of 10 stars. As a piece of writing I do wish it was more linear with less detours. There were several, although it may be the style of his coauthor. But overall, Scotty Smiley does make you want to try harder and be better, remembering that through God, all things are possible.

8.5/10 Stars

Autobiography, Memoir, Nonfiction

Val Kilmer: I’m Your Huckleberry, by Val Kilmer

Do you ever finish a book and sit in awe at the beauty you’ve just witnessed? That is how I feel having just completed Val Kilmer’s autobiography. It is, hands down, the best memoir I’ve ever read.

If you’ve ever seen him as Doc Holliday in Tombstone (the greatest modern western EVER) or his embodiment of Jim Morrison in The Doors, you know that Val Kilmer is a dynamic force onscreen, able to morph into a character while he, himself, disappears. Like his idol and mentor, Marlon Brando, he purposefully chose parts that were difficult. If you’re not constantly challenging yourself, what’s the point?

Then his greatest tool, his voice, was cruelly taken away by throat cancer and its subsequent treatments. The swagger is gone too, replaced by introspection and humility. Why do the great ones lose what’s most important to their work? It seems so unfair. I was reminded of Beethoven losing his hearing and Renoir’s hands crippled by arthritis. Except a true artist will carry on, as exemplified here.

This is a brilliant man who peppers his book with words like equanimity, quixotic, autodidact, and digestif. Thank goodness for the Kindle dictionary link. But not once do you feel you are being talked down to, instead, you’re being elevated and forced to challenge yourself as well. And the profanity that often slithers into celebrity autobiographies? There is none. A wordsmith like Val has no use for curse words in telling his story. They are for the lazy.

Connections to people, nature, and art in all its forms constantly propel him. I loved learning about his devotion to Mark Twain’s writings, his Christian Science faith, and his adoration for his children, Mercedes and Jack. I’ve seen them interviewed and the feeling is clearly mutual. He’s worked hard not to repeat the tenuous relationship he had with his own father.

I can understand why this book was a bestseller. It isn’t just because he starred in several blockbusters. People may buy it for that reason, but they will read it and recommend it for another. It is masterful. Just because his voice is gone, does not mean Kilmer will be silenced. Stay strong, Val. We can still hear you.

10/10 Stars

P.S. I’m going to do something I’ve never done, and that is to provide a link to my highlights. Visit it. You’ll see what I mean.

Autobiography, Entertainment, Memoir, Nonfiction

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

If you grew up in the 1970s and 80s, you will remember a specific group of comedians that rose to fame during that time. There was the unparalleled original Saturday Night Live cast and there were those who worked from a different direction, like Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, and Steve Martin to name a few.

The older I get, the more I appreciate Steve Martin’s brand of comedy, which has also matured. His depth and brilliance is equally apparent when he takes on serious film roles. If you’ve never seen him in The Spanish Prisoner, see it. Recently I watched Shopgirl for the first time, with a screenplay written by Steve Martin based on his novella of the same name. These are worthwhile departures from his earlier films and he surrounds himself with cerebral, high quality actors in both.

I knew Steve Martin was originally from Waco, Texas. I knew he once worked in the magic shop at Disneyland. I knew he played the banjo with great proficiency. I knew it was a delight and an honor to see him perform live twice with the Steep Canyon Rangers (in Los Angeles and Eugene, Oregon.) But I knew nothing about his childhood and the years of paying his dues.

Like many comedians, Steve Martin’s humor was born out of pathos and melancholy, partly innate and partly inflicted upon him by others. His mother was his shining light while his father was critical, moody, and envious.
Success brought other demons, as it often does.

In a brief two hundred pages and with a deft, fluid style, we travel in that time machine called memory back to simpler decades when a young boy and then young man sought escapism and validation through performing. Never delving much into his personal life except when it intersected with his career, Martin confirms his status as one at the top of his profession. He is a student of the science of comedy, always working to refine, improve, and evolve his technique. In a time where modern celebrities are often famous because of their lifestyles, it was refreshing to read about someone whose success came because of tenacity and a doggedly determined work ethic. In this ever-increasingly serious world, we need people like this.

9/10 Stars

Autobiography, Faith, Memoir, Nonfiction

River of Fire, by Sister Helen Prejean

While exploring new podcasts I came across one called Everything Happens, with Kate Bowler, out of Duke University. She often focuses on Catholic themes, but not always, and she has an intelligent, soft-spoken style of interviewing that draws you in while making the interviewee feel comfortable.

One of my favorite episodes was the Helen Prejean interview. You may not think you know who Helen Prejean is, but you probably do if you’ve heard of the biographical film Dead Man Walking, with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Sister Prejean, a Catholic nun from the Deep South, has made it her life’s work to befriend and advocate for prisoners on death row.

However you may feel about the death penalty–hot button topic that it is–you will enjoy River of Fire, Sister Prejean’s autobiography. Her warm, Southern, conversational drawl permeates through the pages as you travel with her back to Louisiana in the early nineteen forties and fifties. You read about her childhood, her funny relationship with her sister, and her personal vocation to serve others as a nun. You’ll also learn about the dramatic shift brought on by Vatican II and the necessary adjustments required of those in the Catholic ministry.

I admire Sister Prejean’s tireless efforts to serve the poor, the disadvantaged, and the marginalized. The world needs more people with her compassion for others.

9/10 Stars

Listen to the podcast episode HERE. (25 minutes)

Memoir, Nonfiction

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty


Last year, after my mother-in-law passed away, I happened upon a YouTube video entitled “What happens when you’re cremated?” I wasn’t trying to be morbid, I promise. I just like learning new things and, hey, here was a new thing that was exactly what we were going through.

Aside from the information, the video’s hostess, Caitlin Doughty, was great. I started looking around her channel, called Ask a Mortician, and watched more of her videos. You know what I learned? A lot! (For instance, did you know that embalming is not required by law before burial? Did you know there is a “green” version of cremation that uses water instead of fire?)

But what I mostly learned, was that despite having planned 3 funerals/wakes/Celebrations of Lives in the last 12 years, I knew very little about what actually happens to a corpse from the time it arrives at the funeral home to the time it is interred or buried. The industry is designed that way–to sell you the embalming/cremation/burial packages and to shield you from your vast multitude of options. Many of these options are less expensive, more eco-friendly, simpler, and give the grieving family a way to intimately participate. That shielding is not doing us any favors.

So, we the living, advocate for the deceased. But who advocates for the living? Enter Caitlin Doughty, who has made it her mission to pull back the curtain of the funeral industry and give us a look inside. As. It. Should. Be.

In her first book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, we see the author’s foray into the funeral industry as a lowly crematory operator in San Francisco. It’s far from glamorous, but she learns a lot in those few months and we learn right along with her. After that, it’s mortuary school and pretty much being on call 24/7 while driving the “body van” up and down I-5, boomeranging between San Diego and Santa Barbara.

As you probably guessed, this is not a subject for the squeamish, but it’s important. Death is something none of us will avoid. It discriminates against no one. And right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are probably thinking about death more than usual. So learn about it. Make a plan so that your family isn’t left guessing. Learn from the good and bad decisions of others. Reading this book is a very entertaining and informative way to start. You’ll be amazed at how much you don’t know, but you’ll also revel in Doughty’s writing style, which is witty, a bit sardonic, but respectful of her vocation.

Caitlin Doughty has written two more books, both of which I plan to read and review in the future. She also owns her own funeral home in Los Angeles, runs a website called The Order of the Good Death, and, of course, her YouTube channel, Ask a Mortician.

Here’s a little intro:

Ask a Mortician YouTube Channel

The Order of the Good Death website (designed to provide education and transparency about the funeral process.)

9/10 Stars

Memoir, Nonfiction

Small Fry, by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Small Fry cover

Once upon a time, before marrying and having two children, before Apple was the iconic company that it is today, Steve Jobs fathered a daughter. He briefly lived with her mother, Chrisann Brennan, then his eccentric restlessness took over. They broke up before the child was born and Jobs refused to acknowledge paternity for several years.

Lisa Brennan-Job is that daughter and this is her story. It is the story of a struggling single mother on state assistance whose child’s father was worth hundreds of millions. It is the story of a daughter searching for some normalcy, which was difficult with two highly volatile parents. It is a story of a constant roller coaster of love, hurt, redemption, and forgiveness.

I was riveted by Small Fry. Lisa’s position as Steve Jobs’ daughter may seem enviable, but your opinion will change after reading her story. She never plays the victim, nor the princess. Jobs was ridiculously controlling while Chrisann was often emotionally unstable. The only real closure Lisa received was a deathbed apology which, I suppose, is better than nothing.

9/10 Stars

Faith, Memoir, Nonfiction

Carried, by Michelle Schmidt & Angie Taylor


Most parents would agree that having a child predecease them is the worst possible thing they could imagine. While the majority will not have to experience this devastating trial, John and Michelle Schmidt were not so fortunate. In 2016 their daughter, Annie, an avid hiker, went missing and lost her life in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. Despite John’s fame as a member of The Piano Guys, the only thing that could immunize them from the excruciating pain of Annie’s death was their faith.

In Carried, How One Mother’s Trust in God Helped Her Through the Unthinkable, Michelle Schmidt chronicles the heartbreaking events of this difficult time.

The reader should be prepared that only about 30% of the book actually focuses on the search for Annie. The larger portion is a memoir of John and Michelle’s life leading up to the event, a life fraught with the ups and downs of marriage and a growing family while navigating decades of John’s music career. Clearly the purpose of this background information is to provide the reader with a foundation of the faith-building experiences the family endured that sustained them all during the hardest moments of their lives. That being said, Carried almost feels like two books in one and can be a bit misleading in what the story is truly about.

I appreciated the details of John and Michelle’s early life and have great admiration for their faith, but most readers gravitate towards the book for a different reason, which is to read about Annie’s disappearance and the events surrounding it. Still, it is comforting to see a family recover, albeit slowly, from such a loss and to use the experience to help others.

8/10 Stars

Bonus Link: John and Michelle Schmidt discuss the search for Annie in the ALL IN podcast. Click HERE.

Memoir, Nonfiction

The Girl With Seven Names: Escape from North Korea, by Hyeonseo Lee


The Girl With Seven Names is truly a fascinating read. With all of the news coverage about North Korea, there are thousands of little details which can only be learned from someone who grew up there. The first half of Ms. Lee’s story is her childhood. She describes the importance of “sonbung,” the caste system under which the culture operates. We learn about the way North Korean schools teach the children, indoctrinating them with a version of history and a filter through which to see the rest of world. Everyone lives in fear. No one knows who to trust. They are prisoners both physically and mentally.

The second half is about her journey leaving the country and her efforts to adjust beyond its borders. It is un…be…lie…vable. (I’m trying very hard not to include any spoilers!)

The concept of “names” is revisited often. Names and identification.

This motivated me to start thinking a lot about the origin of our identities. (See? I’m a wannabe college student.) Where do our identities come from? Our name? Our family? Our social status? Our religious beliefs? Our country? Notice how I’m working from the inside out…. I’ve never read a book where someone was forced to change their name so many times, usually to conceal her identity and try to assimilate in her current surroundings. But not always.

Although I expected to be awestruck at the extreme level of control the Kim Dynasty has over its people, there was something I did not expect. I did not expect to feel the compassion for the culture as much as I did upon completing the book. It’s hard to describe, but there is SO much we take for granted, even as we complain about our own governments in democratic nations. The fact that we CAN complain is something many people cannot even comprehend.

I can’t even imagine living in a country where you have to look over your shoulder every second of every day. Any control of one’s life is through rebellion. What we consider to be illegal and taboo becomes a way of life for many as they try to make a little extra money and maintain a sense of control (and sanity) that the government will not allow. Unfortunately, the consequences of this are negative as well. Not only is everyone trying to outsmart everyone else, but basic concepts like charity and kindness are completely foreign when there’s usually a hidden agenda.

Hyeonseo Lee has an extraordinary amount of “close calls.” But she also experiences what can only be explained as miracles. Those events are hopeful and truly faith-inspiring.

I highly, highly recommend The Girl With Seven Names. It would make a fantastic book club selection. At its core, it will change you, making you more appreciative for the freedoms we enjoy, and it will put your own challenges in a new perspective.

10/10 Stars  (Really, a MUST-read.)

(Here’s my disclaimer for sensitive readers: Although violence is described, it is not disturbingly graphic. The hardest section for me was reading about the years of famine. It’s a short section, but a heart-breaking one.)


Some extra observations about Educated vs. The Girl With Seven Names:

As I read The Girl With Seven Names, bracing myself for the grit, I started to realize why the “tough” scenes didn’t upset me quite as much as when I read Educated. Perhaps I was already inoculated and this is purely my opinion but, based on these two books, I think that growing up in an oppressive family might actually be harder than growing up in an oppressive nation. Make no mistake, BOTH are incredibly difficult and will have life-long effects on their victims. But it’s my belief that you except safety and support from your family. It’s a given (usually). Therefore the pain inflicted is much more personal and wounding because it’s from those you love and want to trust. In Educated I was amazed at how many times the author forgave and boomeranged back to her abusers. It’s because they were her family and she loved them–it was inconceivable to feel anything else.

Patriotism and duty to one’s country is more abstract. The disillusionment Hyeonseo Lee feels in Seven Names as she gets older is more about logic and fear of the outside world than love and a sense of obligation. If you do happen to read both books, you will understand why I’m lumping them together.


Memoir, Nonfiction

Educated, by Tara Westover


Yesterday I did two things I’ve never done: (1) I bought a book because it looked so interesting and the library “hold” queue was longer than I could wait. (2) I read until after 4am because I absolutely could NOT put it down and HAD to finish it.

This unbelievably gripping memoir is called Educated, by Tara Westover. When I say “gripping,” I mean wraps-its-literary-fingers-around-your-throat-and-doesn’t-let-go-kind-of-gripping. Take that as a warning.

Warm and fuzzy, it is not.

Some background on the author: Tara Westover was born into a Mormon survivalist family in southern Idaho. She’s the youngest of 7 children. Her father, who probably suffers from bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia, abhors any and all agencies connected to the government. His family yields to the effects of his ever-growing paranoia. The children don’t go to school, they don’t see doctors, they have no birth certificates (they don’t even know their birthdays,) they have no friends, they’re cut off from most extended family, and they are made to think that preparation for the “End of Days” is top priority. There’s no TV, radio, or phone for years in their home. All they know is their father’s BIZARRE interpretation of life beyond Buck’s Peak, the mountain where they live. Over time, partly due to self-preservation but mostly due to an injury, their mother becomes mentally unhinged as well.

When I first started the book, the story seemed relatively “tame” compared to The Glass Castle, which many readers have used as an example of what to expect. Then I realized that the author was just “easing us in.” The chaos, the turmoil, and the emotional roller coaster her parents inflicted on their children is EXHAUSTING to read. But, I couldn’t stop reading.

We all know family relationships are complicated, but the relationships in this family are at a level most of us (thankfully) will never, ever experience. You’re left shaking your head that parents can so clearly love their children and still make the decisions they did about their physical safety and emotional welfare.

You read already knowing the ending, which is that Tara and two of her older brothers left that life and, with unbelievable tenacity and determination, attended prestigious universities and obtained PhDs. Everything between her birth and the present day is the journey about which she writes. That journey is a devastating one which became more and more difficult. She more she achieved, the more she realized how little she knew. She more she integrated within the university community, the less deserving she felt. Her memoir is only one part of what will probably be a lifelong healing process.

Still, her courage is inspiring. Her future is hopeful. Her story is unforgettable.

9.5/10 Stars

To learn more:

A final caution: Tara suffers years of physical and emotional abuse at the hand of  one particular brother. It’s random, always unexpected, and horrific. In one of his rages, he also brutally kills his dog. These are things I really have a tough time reading about, so this is a disclaimer for those who are extra sensitive like myself.

Lastly, as member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), let me emphasize that this is NOT a mainstream Mormon family, nor does the LDS Church sanction or teach behavior exhibited by the Westover parents. The father cloaks his “prophecies” and strange ideas in his religion, which just happens to be Mormon. The author does not vilify the LDS Church nor hold them responsible, which I appreciated.

Memoir, Nonfiction, Philosophy

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath COVER

I’m going to do something I’ve never done on this site, which is to reveal my rating for a book at the beginning of its review. When Breath Becomes Air has earned a solid 10, pure and simple. We’ll work backwards from there.

Let me also say that nothing keeps me away from reading a book or seeing a movie more than “hype” surrounding it. The little cynic in me says, “OK, prove it.” So often the material does not live up to the hype, and who wants that disappointment? There has been a lot of that with this book. Ergo my cautious avoidance and wary delayed approach.

When it became available as an audio book on the local online library site, I downloaded it, but with the condition that it was competing with two other books already on my iPhone. “We’ll see how good it is,” I thought.

A few days ago, with the audio version accompanying me on a 130 mile drive, my opinion changed completely. Suddenly, I was glued to the journey of Dr. Kalanithi, an accomplished neurosurgeon in California who was about to start his surgical residency and, almost simultaneously, was diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer.

Lung cancer for a non-smoker seems especially cruel, even more so for someone with such a promising future ahead. The second son of a family of doctors, Paul had received two Bachelor’s Degrees from Stanford, a Master’s from Cambridge, and his MD from Yale. His work was highly regarded and his medical papers were winning awards.  What of this spectacularly unfair turn of events?

One of the words Paul uses frequently is “trajectory.” In regards to his career, his marriage, the possibility (or not) of children, his faith (or lack thereof,) and his future, his trajectory would have to be reset. Not just once, but over and over again.

Now, about my rating. I do not give a “10” lightly. Only a handful of books have qualified. Like other “10” books I’ve read, When Breath Becomes Air never lost my attention. But, more importantly, it is exquisitely written. Not a word or sentence out of place, perfect word economy, and every thought expressed is done so with quality and depth. This is no accident. The author himself once considered writing as a full-time profession.

Instead, it is his legacy.

I highly, highly recommend When Breath Becomes Air. It is eye-opening, witty, fascinating, and majestic. You will not be disappointed.

With all my heart– 10/10 Stars!!