Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Rating:                              4.5

General Rating: Pertinent. Could not be better timed. A great, thought-provoking read addressing racism, both blatant and subliminal. The author perfectly portrays a twenty-something African American and a thirty-something white woman. Kudos to Reese Witherspoon for selecting for her book club.

Skip factor:  2%. I skipped a minimal amount. There were times I couldn’t wait to see what happened and hopped text to read dialogue—strictly the fault of the reader not the author.

Who should read:  Any socially conscious woman. Umm. And maybe every frivolous suburban or career-driven mother.

Summary: Emira is a twenty-something African American Temple University graduate who, like most twenty-year-olds, is unsure where she is headed. She has a good set of friends charting their own courses, some a bit lost like her and others on track. Emira works two part-time jobs, one as a typist for the Green Party and the other as a babysitter three days a week for Peter and Alix Chamberlain.

Alix Chamberlain is a driven, self-made influencer who is struggling to juggle career, motherhood, and her move from New York City to Philadelphia. Peter is a rising newscaster who, quite out of character, makes a racist remark and finds himself at odds with the public. When his house is egged one evening (they exaggerate the action to stoned for merit,) his wife, Alix, calls their babysitter, African American Emira Tucker, begging her to come get their toddler, Briar, out of the house. Alix admits she has had a few drinks at a party, but the Chamberlains don’t care. Emira is the only person they trust Briar with. So Emira, and her friend, Zara, show up to take Briar to a neighborhood grocery store to pass time. There, a white woman insinuates something is fishy about the relationship between Briar, Emira, and Zara to a security guard and accusations quickly escalate.

Enter thirty-something male, Kelly, with his iPhone camera, recording. He calls the incident an injustice, defends Emira, and films all despite not knowing Emira and Zara. Emira calls Peter Chamberlain. Peter rushes there and confirms Emira, indeed, is Briar’s babysitter.

The story is told from two perspectives. Emira, who loves babysitting Briar, is content with her life but knows she must eventually secure “adult” employment; and Alix, who is content with nothing and constantly yearns for approval and respect. The reader becomes immersed in each of their lives and finds a myriad of racial inequities and inuendos, some harder than others to spot.

Without spoiling the story, Kelly and Emira begin dating only to find out, later, that Kelly was Alix’s high-school boyfriend who broke her heart.

Characters:  Reid balances Emira’s calm and collected personality marvelously with Alix’s driven and anxious behavior. There were traits I enjoyed in each. Surprises, too. Here are the characters in my favorite order.

Briar captured my heart from the moment she entered the picture. Clearly, Reid sees the beautiful innocence and wonder of children. She creates a marvelous, chatty toddler who has a heart-warming curiosity and longs to capture her mother’s affection. You can’t help but love her.

Emira is not jumping full force into adulthood. She’s shuffling. There were times when she didn’t defend herself and moments she seemed not to care about her future that perplexed me. Yet, her contentment with her simple life was part of what I loved about her, too. Add her showering of unconditional love onto Briar, with whom she practiced patience and understanding, she exemplified the perfect babysitter and I fell in love with her.

Zara – I loved Zara best of all Emira’s friends because she was entertaining, witty, fun, and added flair to Emira’s sometimes plain personality.

Peter surprised me. He was not the type of person to make a racial slur so I thought more about him than any other character, wondering if the author wanted us to understand racism exists far more than we realize—in all of us.

Alix is an exhausting character. Her background predisposes her to a fixation on Emira. Alix had been accused of racism in the past and wants to prove she is not racist, which inevitably, propels her racism. Despite her flaws, I liked her. She was too driven, too worried about what people thought of her, but the writer somehow inspired my compassion toward her. I’m not completely sure how. (Maybe her own compassion bled into the story?)

Kelly, Emira’s boyfriend, is transfixed with helping African Americans. He befriends, dates, and stands up for African Americans—too much. In my book club, someone referred to him as having a white-savior syndrome. My surprise of him was once while he is at Emira’s apartment, he moves to the other room to call his parents. This totally confused me. Was he hiding that he was dating an African American? Book-club friends made less of this. They chalked it up to a new relationship. (I’d love to know why Reid wrote this into the story.)

All other minor characters added to the story. Emira and Alix both had other friends wander in and out of chapters, all with reason. I liked them but didn’t love them. They existed to augment Emira’s and Alix’s stories. The author did well with these secondaries who were discreetly necessary.

Storyline:  This story intrigued me, reminding me of a modern-day The Help. I was not alone in this thought. Book-club buddies made the same comparison: an African American raising a white child, teaching her better life lessons than her mother, and a white suburban woman consumed with status and attempting to prove she was helping African Americans. (Suggesting Emira wear a t-shirt while babysitting WAS NOT requiring her to wear a uniform—oh no, definitely not a uniform. She simply wanted Emira to protect her clothes while painting, playing, etc with Briar.)

I loved this story. I’d like to re-read and find more on the author’s intent, to see what I missed.

Writing:  Don’t get me started. I loved Reid’s writing. I highlighted sentences for both simplicity and depth! To me, someone who enjoys dialogue, she mixed dialogue and description to perfection.

Read this author again? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.  

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

Educated by Tara Westover

Name:      Educated
Author:    Tara Westover
Rating:     4.5    This book challenged me. Yet, once I got past the Westover’s junkyard and herbal world, I was mesmerized by Tara’s journey.

Skip factor: 8%    At around 30% I called a friend and asked if the story improved. I did not like the junkyard or herbal lore at all. However, I hung in there and once I worked through that beginning section, I couldn’t put it down.

Who should read? Deep-thinkers, people inspired by education, hard-workers who themselves have risen out of poverty, and lovers of the English language—young and old.

Summary: This is the memoir of Tara Westover, the seventh and youngest child of Val and LaRee Westover. She was born in her childhood home which sat on the side of a mountain in Provo, Utah. The month of her birth was September of 1986, but the actual date is unknown. Her birth was unrecorded, as were most of her sibling’s births. She grew up in a Mormon family littered with racism and anti-Semitism. She worked in her father’s junkyard for much of her youth and often encountered dangerous, life-threatening tasks at his direction. She had no formal education until she was seventeen years old and received no home-schooling from her family. Her mother was well-versed in and revered for her herbal remedies and mid-wife expertise. Her father, along with her older brother Shawn, suffered mental illness and Tara and her siblings were often abused.

This is the story of a young girl’s metamorphosis, her rise from the ashes of her parent’s scrapheap despite all odds. Her father believed the end of the world was imminent and the government against him. His mental illness led to many hardships over the years, for not only him but his wife and children as well.

Inspired by a brother who left the family to attend college, she accepted a friend’s offer to teach her to read. She enrolled in college against all odds and was forced to choose between her family and her education. Despite her passion to learn and the education she eventually received, her mind sometimes led her back to the rudimentary fundamentalist viewpoint of her father, making her question much throughout her educational journey. She had never even heard of the holocaust until she was in college.

Characters: Lots of great books have unlikeable characters, and while I found myself rooting for Tara throughout the book, I wasn’t in love with any of the characters. I was shocked by many. Disgusted with others. Westover created very “real” people, but many confound me. I was baffled by them more than like them. Yet, they interested me. The characters that stood out the most to me were:

Tara: Of course, I rooted for her all the way, but I never felt close to her. She had an aloofness about her. Because of her upbringing, her personality held a protective emotional shield that prevented people from knowing her well—even, to some degree, her readers. Simply, I couldn’t get close.
Her mother: Simply put, I did not like her for the fact she sided with her husband, who had mental challenges, over her children. Period.
Her father: I couldn’t understand and felt no compassion for him whatsoever. Lots of people have a mental illness, but they are not as evil as this man. He hid his sins behind religion.
Shawn: The abusive brother I felt differently about. Although I adamantly disliked him at times for the pain he caused family members and women, every once in a while you’d see a spark of kindness. Confusing, as the results of mental illness can be.
Minor characters I liked: Brothers Richard and Tyler were compassionate. I was fond of both of them along with Tara’s Grandmother who offered to take her to Arizona and enroll her in school. I felt disappointed Tara didn’t leave with her. Just that she offered made me like her.
Other minor characters: I wasn’t drawn to any others, not one. (And especially not to her only sister, Audrey, who in the end hurt rather than helped her.) Because many of the minor characters were introduced to me through Tara’s eyes, they seemed impersonal. Toward the end of the novel, a softness seemed to develop in Westover. She looked at later roommates and people more compassionately, seemingly letting her guard down and consequently, I liked those characters a bit more.

Storyline: The story does come across as a bit unbelieve. I did read several online articles that stated fact-finding had been extensive. That the author herself included footnotes when her memory differed from one of her siblings, gave credibility to her story. That there is a Tara Westover, who was born without record, attended college, completed her master and doctorate degrees in England, further substantiates her story—at least in my mind it does. I’ll let the rest of you decide for yourselves.

Writing style: This woman’s writing is exquisite. Not much more to say. That she rose out of such poverty to champion the English language is remarkable.

Read this author again: Maybe. I’m not often fond of non-fiction, but Westover’s writing is superb, so I may attempt another.

Read on!
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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, and Dream Wide Awake and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a paranormal element. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.