The Yuletide season saw me eclipsing Educated, Tara Westover’s biography. Recursion (Blake Crouch) followed. Another nonfiction title (Emmanuel Acho) rounds out the trio of reads. In all, I have read six more books than 2019. Most of them were crime novels, seven books apiece for Jo Nesbo and Karin Slaughter. However, I also managed to double my nonfiction haul. I read a classic (Lord of the Flies) and devoured some new releases. From Connelly to Mary Trump, John Grisham to Michael Robotham, I’ve broadened my horizons. Aside from encountering new works, I’ve also topped up my growing vocabulary. This year was also more balanced. During the height of the pandemic, I withdrew more books from my own shelf.
- Educated (Tara Westover). Praise for the author’s debut effort has reached far and wide. Her writing represents a new voice, and she does so with aplomb. On the surface, this looks like a pastoral biography from a Mormon. Growing up in Buck’s Peak in rural Idaho (US), Tara never went to school. Instead of perking up in class with kids her age, she listened to her dad’s rants about the end of days. Her father never believed in the medical establishment. Instead, he subscribed to Y2K. Her dad’s controlling attitude endangered their lives. Her mother followed her dad’s will.
Tara had five brothers and an older sister. She barely had any friends and assisted her mother, who was an unlicensed midwife. Even as a teenager, she worked in her dad’s junkshop. Though she was home-schooled, she got her GED and entered Brigham Young University (BYU) aged seventeen. She is a multi-talented lass and acted in stage productions though she did not attend school. As a uni student, she refused medical treatment, believing that her mother’s tinctures and oils could cure her. However, she would realise that science and reason are more dependable than her parents’ medieval beliefs.
She was a victim of abuse. She details the hurt she suffered at the hands of Shawn, an older brother. She was in denial since she did not know better. Shawn and her father often berated her even as her clothes were moderate. As a college student, she would return home during the summer and still was roughhoused. She would learn that her other siblings got the same treatment. She finally brought this up to her parents, who should’ve helped them. They made her look like the perp. Aside from BYU she read history at Cambridge and was awarded a doctorate at Harvard. In spite of these accolades, she lost her family. Since she refused to follow their exacting demands, she was for all extents a persona non grata. While she remained in touch with three siblings, the others had cut her out.
This is a chronicle of Tara’s education, from her childhood to her teenage years, from her time at BYU to excellence abroad. Westover is an enchanting storyteller. Every one of the forty chapters hook you in. She canvasses the perils of ignorance and the troubles of being brainwashed. More importantly, her story is ecumenical. All earthlings could identify with her travails. First published in 2018, the book became a number one New York Times bestseller and remains popular to this day.
- Recursion (Blake Crouch). I believe I’ve perused too much crime, so the time had come to read other genres. Enter Recursion, an award-winning time-travel effort from the writer of Wayward Pines. The book involves a few main players, among them Detective Barry Sutton and scientist Helena Smith. At first, they live in separate storylines. The officer is forced to relive his past, where he will save his daughter Meghan – and his marriage. However, manipulating the space-time continuum would bring catastrophic effects to the world. He realises that he could not save his family without destroying the planet. Meanwhile, Helena works at an offshore facility where she gets disillusioned. The distance – both physical and metaphorical – makes her feel empty. She feels trapped when her boss, Marcus Slade, admits that they need to kill people to meet their objectives. She would then realise that the chair was her invention.
The manuscript is divided into five books, the last two dedicated to Helena and Barry, respectively. As expected, the paths of the two protagonists intersect. They are together for seven lifetimes in different continents, trying to solve the conundrum of our memories. Through various timelines, they hopscotch from San Fran to the Arizona desert, Scotland to Antarctica. When one lifetime is over, they use the machine to get another chance. The problem is that the chair’s world-changing potential attracts other organisations and countries. They cannot hide the machine, no matter what precautions they take. At various points, it falls into the hands of Sutton, John Shaw, and even other nations. They refuse to listen to Helena’s warnings and use it for their vested interests. They have ears only for her expertise.
Being a time-travel book, this is reminiscent of Back to the Future and even 12 Monkeys, with an embarrassment of timelines and the ubiquity of deja vu. Recursion is also like those choose-your-own-adventure reads. The title likewise functions as a cautionary tale, about the dangers of technological progress, and the snag of being human. The book allegorises the dark recesses of human nature, being willing to wage war to control humanity’s fate. In the final pages, Barry proffers ‘Life with a cheat code isn’t life…. That’s what it is to be human – the beauty and the pain – each meaningless without the other’.
- Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man (Emmanuel Acho). This title had been doing well when I borrowed it. The work is an exploration of black culture, unpacking key issues and terms such as white privilege, cultural appropriation, and systemic racism. Acho draws on various sources, including his personal accounts, observations, and thorough research. The result is a polished piece that is informative and insightful. Acho, of course, is the former NFL line-backer who has his own online show. The book title takes its name from his series. Acho admits that he grew up in a well-to-do background and has even been accused of not being ‘black enough’. However, his parents are both Nigerian immigrants and his tenure in college and the pros have made him more aware as a black man in America.
Uncomfortable is divided into three parts. The first part is called ‘You and Me’ and focuses on the individual racism. The second, ‘Us and Them’, is systemic, where policies and institutions are unfavourable to blacks. The third is ‘We’, less obvious but is intrinsic or internalised racism. There are fifteen chapters and they follow the same format. Each instalment opens with some general background, before a subsection on ‘Let’s rewind’, which has some historical context. ‘Let’s Get Uncomfortable’ synthesises this information while ‘Talk It. Walk It’ gives pointers for the reader. In between, Acho makes sure to recommend useful media on the subject.
He begins by problematising the correct terminology. From person of colour (POC) to African American, Acho latches onto black as the most inclusive term. As mentioned, he probes such concepts as white privilege. Acho points out that the whites have had at least a 200-year head start over black Americans. Racism has been institutionalised, as the hegemonic whites control the system. This is apparent in the voting process, in jury selection, and in the much-higher incarceration rate among blacks than whites. Therefore, reverse racism is a myth. Blacks simply do not wield enough power in the US to discriminate against whites on a wholescale level. They have always been a minority. Thus, some people mistake individual racism with reverse racism. Acho also delves into the Black Lives Matter movement, which started in 2013. If worldwide protests would be accounted for, these make this the largest demonstration in human history. This is a loveable, breezy read from a perceptive asset on the ground.