A review of Three Women and Educated

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction recently and both Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and Educated by Tara Westover are interesting. (Very different books that I’m only squishing together because I’ve been meaning to pop reviews of them up for ages.)

Three Women is a book I guzzled down. This is a non-fiction exploration of three women’s very different sex lives. Taddeo followed each of them (and others, I believe, although only these three made the final book) for 8 years and crafted their stories into a gloriously readable narrative. Lina is in a sexless marriage and still in love with her high school sweetheart. She begins an affair with him (although affair seems to suggest more than the few quick encounters they have) and the way she romanticises the relationship is heartbreaking. Maggie had sex with her school teacher and thought they were in love. Sloane is married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men. Taddeo has a novelistic approach, for instance, describing Lina revealing the affair to some women friends,

“The women are pitched forward, like soup tureens in an earthquake. Their chins are on the heels of their hands, and they are eating mixed nuts nervously.
Oh my, says Cathy. That sounds like quite a man, and a real love affair.
How did it end? someone asks, because women are often better at handling the endings than the beginnings. Lina understands that some women, like her mother and her sisters, truly care for another woman only when that woman is in pain, especially in a kind of pain that they have already felt, and then overcome.”


While the writing is the book’s strength it’s also curiously distancing; it sounds like truth but I’m not sure it is. I felt very much that what I was reading were stories and as such when the end came it was somewhat unsatisfying in its true-to-life inconclusiveness. There are no neat endings here. These are three women who have all had disturbing sex lives in different ways. And I wonder, where is the woman who has a joyous sex life? The woman who has sex with a woman? The woman who is not white? Taddeo never meant for these three women to speak for all women and perhaps the main thing they have in common is they have not been heard before and Taddeo gives them a voice to speak for themselves, albeit filtered through her. It’s certainly a compelling read.

I was late to Educated, the memoir of Tara Westover which has long featured on bestseller lists. She was brought up in Idaho by her Mormon fundamentalist family. Her parents said she and her brothers were homeschooled but in truth, they received no education beyond scripture. Tara watched as her mother was persuaded into being an unlicensed midwife’s assistant, and later the midwife herself, using homemade potions and something called “muscle testing” to heal people. Her father, Gene, expected his children to work alongside him in his scrap business where there was no health and safety, it being God’s will if accidents occurred, as they repeatedly did. It’s an extraordinary story of a life lived off-grid. Gene endlessly prepped for the end of the world and his family lived in fear. Tara was bullied, oppressed, assaulted and uneducated. When she glimpsed the outside world it seemed an immoral place, nonetheless, she taught herself to read and yearned for school, eventually going to college. She is astonishingly bright and despite her lack of basic knowledge her intelligence shone through and she went on to achieve incredible academic results. The book is slightly repetitious and I did find myself thinking, oh no, don’t go back to the bloody mountain again at several points, but it’s a fascinating insight into a hidden world.

The Heartland – finding and losing schizophrenia by Nathan Filer

Nathan Filer’s debut novel The Shock of the Fall was hugely successful so inevitably there is a weight of expectation around The Heartland. This is a nonfiction exploration of schizophrenia, but the similarities are clear as Filer employs the same knowledge, sensitivity and engaging language that was present in his novel to open up a conversation about so-called-schizophrenia and tell the stories of some people whose lives have been impacted by it.

It’s a fascinating book: Filer is our reporter from the frontline of medical practice as he was previously a psychiatric nurse but he is also an eloquent and careful reporter of personal stories. He tells us about a soldier who thought his stay in a psychiatric ward was a secret mission, a journalist who thought she was a criminal and drank a mug of bleach to kill herself, a daughter whose mother went undiagnosed for years, and a mother who spoke about her son, which moved me to tears possibly because hers was the story which felt most relatable to me.

From the very beginning it’s clear this is a subject with no concrete answers. Should people seeking help with mental health issues be called patients or service users? To call them patients suggests they have an illness, however, if you instead believe that the behaviours and feelings are not symptomatic of illness but are instead a natural response to trauma then it is problematic to be labelled as a patient. And if there is no consensus on this, what hope is there of reaching any definitive conclusions in mental health practices?

Mental health issues are spoken about far more widely these days and yet it seems to me that whilst the public are more tolerant, maybe even supportive, of someone who has anxiety or depression than used to be the case, there is a feeling that people with schizophrenia are scary and dangerously unpredictable. This book offers beautifully clear explanations such as “… it might be best understood as a kind of psychological adaptation, a coping strategy gone awry or a form of storytelling carried out within the mind as a response to unbearably painful life events.”

There’s a lot of food for thought. For instance, anosognosia means “…having as a symptom of a disorder the belief that you do not have the disorder.” I mean, crikey! Homosexuality was only removed from the official list of diagnosable mental disorders in 1974! There’s a lot of alarming information here. We like to think that people smarter than us with their knowledge beyond our understanding are capable of healing us. To learn that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is perhaps more woolly than we would want is not great.

I highlighted so many passages in this terrific book because it’s something I will refer back to. I think everyone should read it. Despite the subject matter, it’s not a heavy academic read, instead, it feels pretty essential and Filer’s great skill is giving information to us in an interesting and accessible way. My very favourite note is this:

“It’s not always possible to find the right words but we can still be part of the conversation. We can walk with people for a bit, sit with them, hear them.”

*klaxon* I have a new story up at Pithead Chapel

I have a new story, Looking Back, up at Pithead Chapel. Please do read if you are so inclined. And massive thanks to those of you who have already read and tweeted and shared. Writing often feels like screaming into a void to me, so it was pretty intoxicating to get such a good response to this one. It’s a stonking issue featuring brilliant words from Megan Pillow Davis, Bradford Philen and Tara Isabel Zambrano, so even if you don’t like my piece I guarantee there’s something you will enjoy.

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

“You’d think it wouldn’t bother me now. The Burneses moved away long ago. Two years have passed.” 

It’s always a pleasurable feeling to begin a novel when the writer is as sure footed and smart as Messud – a whole story lays promisingly ahead. 

Julie and Cassie are unlikely best friends. (Unlikely because of their differing backgrounds — where Julia is from an economically and emotionally stable family, mum a journalist, dad a dentist, both encouraging and nurturing, Cassie’s father died before she knew him and her mum is an overweight, overworked hospice nurse with a religious bent.)  Messud does a wonderful job of conjuring the intensity of female adolescent friendships. The girls are inseparable, Julie somewhat in thrall to Cassie whose white blonde hair and spirit of adventure entrance her. They spend time together on the cusp of teen changes, exploring the countryside, drinking hot chocolate, painting each other’s nails and dreaming of leaving town. As is so often the way, there is a cooling of affections; Cassie befriending a new girl, Julie hurt and bitter, and although both girls pretend their relationship is just as friendly, it never recovers. Julie tells us, “My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point. Not in the ‘she moved to Tucson’ sense, but in the sense that ‘we grew apart’” 

I remember it happened to me, more than once, and can still recall the crushing loss of who I was as part of that friendship. How accurate this seems, “I had other friends, but I’d lost the friend I loved best, and had loved without thinking for as long as I could remember, and it seemed absolutely essential not to appear to care.” Oh the times I appeared not to care!

Cassie dates Peter, the boy that Julie likes, and further distances herself, but it’s when her mum starts unexpectedly dating Dr Anders Shute, a man who has “… pale, pale skin and protruding cheekbones like a death’s head” — a man who moves into Cassie’s home and uses his new found religious zeal to reprimand her for everything and anything, that Cassie begins to disappear from Julie’s life.

Messud plays with reader expectations, after all we are well versed in tropes about religious stepdads and rebellious girls, about pretty teens from disadvantaged backgrounds who sneak out to drink with boys. Unlike Julie, nobody is expecting Cassie to achieve. Her story isn’t told directly but is reflected to us through Julie’s imagination, her assumption of knowledge, filling in gaps with information from Peter and snippets of gossip her dad has heard. It may feel a little unsatisfactory to not be dealing with definite’s but it certainly seems organic, in the way the neighbourhood stories we hear are. 

“Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theatre or the fire escape in a hotel. You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified. On TV, in the papers, in books and movies, it isn’t ever the men being raped or kidnapped or bludgeoned or dismembered or burned with acid. But in stories and crime shows and TV series and movies, and in life too, it’s going on all around you. So you learn, in your mind, that your body needs protecting. It’s both precious and totally dispensable depending on whom you encounter. You don’t want to end up at a party not knowing how to get home. You don’t want to end up walking down a street—especially a quiet street—by yourself at night. You don’t want to open your door to a strange man at all, really, ever, if you’re alone, even if he’s wearing a uniform. Because his uniform could be a disguise. It happens. I’ve seen it on TV.

You start to grow up and you learn from all the stories around you what the world is like, and you start to lose freedoms. Not because anybody tells you that you’ve lost them, but because you know you need to take care.”

While the voice may sound more like that of an adult than the still young Julie, it’s sad and depressing and rings with truth – it feels like the heart of the book.

Messud’s novel may not have set the literary world alight, but it’s a thoughtful, quiet and typically intelligent story which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I can’t think of a title for this post so I’m going with – shit, how can it be eleven years since Matt died?

I’ve been thinking about Matt a lot recently and I feel so lucky that I have a whole bunch of his words to read. His writing was as precise, smart and funny as he was in person, so it’s a conjuring trick of sorts – I can magic him back for a while. I have the worst memory, so to read through our joint LiveJournal (I had forgotten we ever did that – what a curious thing that we did) is to visit a place in time where for a couple of years Matt and I entertained each other online. His posts were a mixture of words and pictures, someone cancelled his Photobucket account so the drawings are lost forever, but the words remain. His replies to me were witty and wise. His advice still feels relevant today and it’s a bittersweet pleasure to revisit a world where he was very much alive.


i see everyone as holding a sealed envelope with a date on it…….the good thing is to see the inevitable conclusion as a call to be as much alive as possible, which i think is the best possible use of death phobia. It would be, and is, so easy to give up and see it as the ultimate in wet blanket and never bother doing anything else again…. but surely then every minute and every second should be made to count and have the fullest meaning wrung out of it………. Not everyone can handle an awareness of death, and actually gravitating towards it as a disposition, as perhaps i do, is wholly off the menu for most people..too scary…too debilitating….too deathy. All the work is being done one way or another..Some think of death, some of beer, still others of pupae and fauna..and what stories we’ll have to tell on the other side…
I was greatly struck by this conversation with my dentist:
DENTIST: “You might well die of cancer……..and you know why that will be?”
ME: “No.”
DENTIST: “Because you didn’t die of something else.”

Matt Kinnison 7/12/2005

The older I become the more I feel like there’s this clatter of dead people in my heart/mind and sometimes it’s fine and sometimes it’s distracting and sometimes it makes me feel lonely. Perhaps not lonely, maybe nostalgic for lost relationships. I imagine there’s a word for that feeling, but I don’t know what it is. True connections in life are rare and I’m so pissed that I don’t get to speak with Matt any more but remain truly grateful for the words we had, the words I still have.

I send love to all who knew Matt and all who navigate lives with loss.

(Picture of Matt by Matt – on the front on an envelope containing a letter that he delivered to me “by hand”.)

Writing a novel (cos, yeah, so easy *insert eye roll emoji here*)

I am a flash fiction writer, a short story writer, a lover of concise, neat, clear prose, and I am trying to write a novel. I want to complete a first draft by the end of the year; it’s a challenge I have issued myself — can you actually do this? Nobody else cares whether or not I can, my friends and family will love me just the same. My job remains satisfying. My life rolls on, nothing changes. For me, though, I care deeply that I do this. I have been telling stories since before I could read and I don’t want to only tell the short ones. There’s nothing comparable to the pleasure of immersing myself in an engaging, layered novel and I want to see if I can create one of those. I have read lots of advice from successful novelists and they all tell of the crappy first draft — it’s essential, it’s necessary. For the first time ever I am ignoring my bad writing and resisting the urge to edit endlessly  — that way I get stuck and I must keep moving forward. I am taking part in #100DayofWriting and am grateful for the camaraderie around that. It’s comforting seeing other writers posting woes similar to mine.  

One giant issue is procrastination. I don’t understand why knowing I want to write I then spend ways filling my time so I can’t do it. The floor needs washing, there’s endless laundry, I’ll reply to this email and read subs for FLM and constantly chase this mythical FREE TIME when the conditions will be perfect for writing. Of course, we all know there are no perfect conditions. We have to make time. I tried free writing, handwriting (ouch), taking time off work, lighting a beautifully scented candle to trigger creative memory (which smells great and I did write when I lit it and dutifully extinguished it at the end of my sessions, but I don’t want to need a candle). Anyway, as my Day 42 of 100 Days post, I thought I’d share the very ordinary solution I have found. I used to be a late night writer. I would stay up and write and write in the solitude, darkness and quiet of the night, but now I am middle-aged and I get so damn tired. I have nothing much to offer in the evening creatively, so I have flipped everything around. Instead of spending the day racing through chores to get to the time I can write only to find I am exhausted, I write first thing. I don’t open the curtains – I keep the cosy darkness. I try to avoid the morning gubbins that goes on in my house with three adult males getting ready for work, but even if I do get sucked in, it’s ok. When they leave I head back to bed with my laptop and sit in the dark and write. I don’t get a huge word count down, 500 words or so, but it’s something. I am inching forwards. It takes the pressure off the day too. I have done my words, it’s all fine. Today I am not a failure. Tick. If I have time later and I want to write more I can. If I don’t, I have still succeeded. It feels like I trick myself into writing before I have a chance to worry about it. I go to sleep wondering what happens next and if I wake in the night I chase my night terrors away by thinking of where I’m going with the novel. None of this is groundbreaking, everyone has to find their own groove, but for now, I feel like I can get this first draft done. This fits with my work shifts as I work afternoons/evenings most times. The day I start first thing I struggle to get any words done, but hey, that’s ok if the rest of the week I do. I know where my characters are heading, I’m not entirely sure how they will get there. I’m not a planner, hey, I’m making this up as I go along, which, y’know, is what it’s about, right?