In urging me to read *An Education*, folks suggested I’d like it for a few reasons: the celebration of the university as the epicentre of ideas and learning (which I don’t hold to be true, but people must think I hold to be true); the fascination of the memoir genre in self-consciously commenting on what can be remembered and what must be fabricated (and the blurring of both) that recalls my enjoyment of historical fiction; and the irresistible lure of a cascading catalogue of trauma and violence, that predictably pulls the reader in wondering what new horror might be visited upon our protagonist.
I did like the book. And for the reasons predicted by my friends and book-recommenders. Though I’d say the first suggestion – and one blatantly made by the title (and certainly in the marketing of the book) – that this book is about the educational transformation wrought by the university, is misleading. Very little of the book is spent at the physical space of the university, and Tara, our protagonist (I suppose in a memoir we don’t call them protagonist so much as author?), seems ambivalent about what the university itself offered her in terms of education or transformation. Rather, and I appreciated this, her ‘education’ takes place in the shift from home to university, the conceptual journey as much as the physical. Sure she learns facts and explores ideas in ways never open or offered to her before, but the book focuses much more on how the space and culture of the university transforms her sense of self and what might be possible for her self, rather than what facts she accumulates.
To step back – by her account, Tara is raised in the Idaho mountains by parents who neither send her to school nor offer formal education at home. Instead she spends her childhood working in the family junkyard and navigating the twin dangers of a physically abusive brother and an emotionally abusive father, and the effects of this abuse on her sense of self and worth. Much is made in the press coverage of the fact that her parents are ‘survivalists’ preparing for the end of days, but I’d caution that the book doesn’t make as much of this aspect of her childhood as the marketers might have you believe, so if you’re hoping for a catalogue of food and fuel stockpiling, you’ll get some of that, but the narrative recognizes the gratuity of these moments of her life and rather than emphasize her difference from the reader, seems intent on demonstrating that while the particulars of her experience may be extreme, the experience ad effect of living in abuse is altogether common.
Anyway. It’s not a perfect book and I have some complaints. It fits well with the other books in this genre in that it…
And that’s where I left this post when I started writing it two weeks ago. So I’ll have to trust past Erin that the novel fits well in the genre. And that I have complaints. I bet you have complaints! What didn’t you like about the book? Let’s share responsibility for finishing this post…
Reading Seven Fallen Feathers was tough. Not only because it engages with the history and present of colonialism and genocide, or because of its methodical attention to the ways the Canadian state continues to underfund education on reserves in ways that replicate structures of residential schools (isolation from family and community), but because it drove home for me how completely I’ve been avoiding doing any of the work of reconciliation I need to be doing.
I’ve long thought “oh I should read the compete text of the TRC report” or “I should find out more about rates of I incarceration of indigenous people,” or or and or. And I haven’t. Not for a good reason and certainly for bad reasons: I’ve thought it wasn’t my responsibility. Or not my priority. Or that I’d missed an earlier opportunity and now it was too late and – and I’m ashamed to say this – that I was too proud to admit how very much I don’t know. Like I wanted people to think I was suitably progressive and to say all the right things and be a good lefty social justice human without doing any of the work to actually live those ideals out.
Reading this book hasn’t changed much of this feeling. It does offer an impressively comprehensive and synthesized consideration of the intersections of many threads: missing and murdered indigenous women, the Indian Act, residential schools, treaty rights and intergenerational trauma. And I have some greater understanding as a consequence, but for me what it did best was to call me in to the living present of colonialism and my contribuatory role. Of not letting me get away with shifting responsibility or pretending not to know (or care).
So yeah. I have some work to do. And if you’re reading this with any resonance with my feelings pre-reading, I can’t urge you with enough pep to read this one.
It took my book club people expressing total surprise that I liked Bridges of Madison County for me to reflect on why I liked it. I kept saying ‘but it’s good writing’ and they were like… no. They read a few passages out loud. They reminded me of the repeated references to peregrines and the representation of men as total wood-smoke masculinity. And I blushed. They were right. The writing is excessive. The representation of masculinity is problematic. The commitment to soul-mate-love is unbelievable.
I liked it. I liked the frame narrative and its efficacy in trapping me into believing the reality of the fiction. I liked the romance of the relationship with its intensity and improbability and sacrifice. I recognized the limitations of this romance – of course any relationship that lasts for a week can be idealized for the rest of your life, you never have to deal with mortgage payments or diapers or redistributing emotional labour – but still found it compelling and heartbreaking.
So yeah. It’s problematic and not brilliant writing. And I still liked it. Plus it took like ten minutes to read, so there’s that.
Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is great. It follows Celestial and Roy and the dissolution of their marriage after Roy is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. They’ve been married for a year at the point, and the book explores what the obligations are for each individual in marriage/committed relationships when the circumstances of the initial arrangement change. To what do we owe one another in perpetuity? When do we get to change our minds? What must we sacrifice for the institution, or for the other person, and when do we get to privilege our own happiness? What rights do we have (to be selfish) (to expect steadfast commitment)?
Celestial and Roy’s marriage is constrasted with that of their respective parents. Each set of parents offering up a different vision of the same questions of commitment. I was moved by the scene of Roy’s father (name escapes me) burying his mother and wondered at that kind of grief.
As much as it is a book about the institution of marriage, it is also about manhood. If both (marriage and manhood) are imagined in our current moment to be under threat, or flailing, or failing, this book harkens back to a vision of each that is, if not idealized, than at least coherent. Roy puts forward visions and versions of what it means to be a man, as if to test the hypothesis or to have them rejected. In so doing the reader can also examine whether there is any value to be had in a constellations of qualities we might call ‘manhood,’ or whether this institution, too, has served its function and can be dispensed with like so many fast divorces.
It’s also a book about race and the state. Much of Celestial’s concern about how to respond to Roy’s experience of incarceration is to know that he is a black man in America and that his experience of the criminal justice system is visited upon him and his family in ways that are at once extrordinary in their injustice and perfectly ordinary in their frequency. Celestial must weigh whether she has particular obligations, in addition to those of being a wife, because she is the wife of a black man falsely accused and imprisoned.
Taken together the book explores resonant questions and does so with beautiful, captivating writing. It’s well worth a read before the end of the summer.