Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners

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Thank you to Harlequin- Hanover Square Press for providing me with a copy of Gretchen Anthony’s novel, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Cerise Baumgartner is pregnant with her first child and her parents are thrilled. Thrilled and very involved, especially Cerise’s over-bearing mother, Violet. Violet likes Cerise’s girlfriend, Barb, but is left feeling concerned and nosy over how the child was conceived, a personal issue that neither Barb nor Cerise is willing to disclose.

As Violet tries to interfere with her daughter’s life, she has other concerns to contend with, such as her recently retired husband, Ed, who doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. Her best friend, Eldris is also going through a crisis. Eldris’ husband, Richard, has lost his job and is acting very secretive. Their son, Kyle, who is also Cerise’s best-friend and the would be godfather to her baby, is being investigated for domestic terrorism. To top it all off, Violet is desperate to please Barb’s parents, who, at least on paper, seem to be the perfect family.

LIKEEvergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is a delightful novel. It’s funny and has a lot of heart. I appreciated the complexity of Violet and how the truth of her character unfolds. She is quite a lot to handle early in the story, but Anthony does a fine job of teasing out the details of her inner-life and I finished the story with a very different impression of Violet. One of the overriding themes of the story is love and despite the many flaws that the characters have, there is a lot of love to be found.

I think most people have a Violet Baumgartner in their life. She is a force of nature, but also someone who is very sensitive and hides it behind her controlling behavior. She loves fiercely, but also drives people away with her take-charge attitude. I have relatives that are so similar to Violet, that it was very relatable. I could easily understand Cerise’s reaction to her mother and I’ve been in her position.

I’m a big fan of the Christmas card letter. I even save my favorites that are sent to me, certain families have a way with words. I enjoyed the way that Anthony used Violet’s Christmas card letters to give us backstory about the Baumgartner’s life. It really works well with the story. Although I finished reading Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, in February ( on a snowy afternoon), it is definitely an ideal book to read during the Christmas season. It will put you in a holiday mood.

The disastrous dinner party scene at the end really made me laugh. I also found that Anthony had some great plot twists that I did not anticipate.

DISLIKE- Nothing to dislike. Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is not a life-changing read, but it is a very cozy, charming story.

RECOMMEND – Yes! If you are looking for a family drama with a strong dose of comedy, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is a great pick. I throughly enjoyed it. It’s a feel-good story that will give you the warm fuzzies!

Lake Success

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Gary Shteyngart’s novel, Lake Success, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Barry Cohen is a wealthy, NYC hedge-fund manger who is having a super-sized mid-life crisis. His career is about to implode and he is likely facing jail time due to an SEC investigation. He hides his troubles from his younger, beautiful wife, Seema. Seema hides an affair that she is having with a married writer who lives in their building, a man whom her husband despises. They both battle with their emotions over their severely autistic son. Barry’s crisis makes him flee the city, catching a Greyhound bus and traveling cross-country to reconnect with his first love, who has no idea that he is coming. The adventures on his trip will take him as far away from his luxury lifestyle as he could have ever imagined.

LIKELake Success is completely unpredictable, hilarious, and quirky. Barry and Seema are both unlikeable, narcissistic characters, that Shteyngart manages to humanize and make relatable. I started out disgusted with them and slowly began to care for both of them.

Barry’s misadventures on the road are a great blend of being outrageous and uproariously funny, with affecting. As Barry comes out of his shell, meeting people that he would have never interacted with in his NYC life, he begins to change.

In one scene, he wanders into a rough neighborhood and has a conversation with a crack dealer. The wacky part of this scene is Barry is asked to leave, so the dealer can ramp up his act for a tour group of “Urban Tourists” who are interested in seeing a poor, ethnic neighborhood. The drug dealer puts on an act for the tourists, becoming the character that they imagine him to be based on their stereotypes. Barry is like the dealer, in his NYC life he plays the part of an upperclass, financial guy with the perfect wife. His son is hidden most of the time, as is anything that breaks the facade of perfection. A huge part of Barry’s crisis is the burden of trying to maintain this facade.

Seema is also dealing with a similar issue and through her affair she begins to shed her facade of perfection. Trying to maintain this facade has actually destroyed their marriage. They cannot communicate and see it as a failing to not only their son, but to their life in general, if they admit that anything is less than perfect. But the problem actually seems to have existed before their marriage, when they first began to date. Seema had a focus on a type of guy that she wanted to marry and Barry fit the profile. Barry was attracted to Seema’s youth and beauty. They seem to be attracted to the idea of each other, rather than actually to each other. Although Seema’s crisis didn’t take her on a road trip, she experiences a dramatic change in perspective. Her character growth is equal to Barry’s change.

DISLIKE– This is minor, but it did take me about 3-4 chapters to really be gripped by the story. After the slow start, I was hooked. Lake Success has both strong story and character arcs, with a very satisfying pay-off at the end.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! I finished Lake Success in late 2018, but life got in the way, so I am writing this review very late. That said, I cannot stop thinking about Lake Success. It made a huge impression on me. Shteyngart is a fabulous writer who has created a multi-layered story with heart and a lot of wicked humor. I look forward to reading his other works. He’s brilliant!

Once Upon a Farm

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Thank you to Thomas Nelson- W Publishing for providing me with a copy of Rory Feek’s memoir, Once Upon a Farm, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-Rory Feek reflects on his life after losing his wife and singing partner, Joey.

LIKE– Nearly a decade ago, I had the most amazing concert experience and actually met Rory and Joey Feek. They opened for the Zak Brown Band during a sold-out concert at the Universal Amphitheatre in California. The show was amazing and at the end of the concert, with a crowd of over six thousand, it was announced that the performers would head to the lobby to sign autographs for anyone who wanted to stick around. I’ve never seen something like that happen at a concert, especially one with so many people. Prior to that night, I had not heard of Rory and Joey, but I did recognize their songs. I waited about an hour in line to meet the performers and when I got to Rory and Joey, I was given the warmest handshake and smiles. They both were kind and humble, just happy to meet with fans. I was immediately smitten.

A few years ago, just weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Indiana, Joey was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Rory shared their journey through her illness and eventually death, on social media. I followed Rory’s posts and was heartbroken. Truly, I was surprised by how the life of these strangers impacted me. I feel that it is a testament to the way that they opened up their lives through their art.

I was thrilled to come across Once Upon a Farm on Netgalley. Feek’s memoir is a constant affirmation of his love towards Joey and his three daughters. He does not shy away from discussing his grief or speaking about difficult times that he has had in his past.

A chapter that hit home was one in which Feek discusses love languages. Joey experienced difficulties as a stepmom and when they gave it more thought, they realized that it certainly wasn’t for lack of love, but that Joey and Feek’s daughters spoke different love languages. They had a communication problem. I read this book as we were in the middle of our summer visit with my step-kids, a visit where I was feeling very overwhelmed. Reading Feek’s words made me consider that perhaps I needed to figure out a better way to communicate. It gave me perspective.

Once Upon a Farm is a Christian memoir. I did not know this prior to reading it and although many of my family members are Christian, I am not religious. Although I did not always agree with Feek’s perspective, I did appreciate hearing a different view point. He is certainly a man with strong convictions and even had a local church move into the barn on his property. Feek’s entire lifestyle is polar opposite to mine, which is part of the charm of his memoir. I love hearing about different lifestyles and views. The Feek farm does sound like an idyllic slice of heaven.

DISLIKE– A majority of the book is a polished memoir, but a few chapters rambled and were repetitive with regard to content already mentioned in previous chapters.

RECOMMEND-Yes! If you’re a fan of Rory and Joey this is a must-read. I can imagine that some readers may find the Christian aspect to be off-putting ( and some will find it right up their alley!), either way, I encourage you to give Once Upon a Farm a read.

 

My Dead Parents

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Thank you to Crown Publishingfor providing me with a copy of Anya Yurchyshyn’s memoir, My Dead Parents, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-In her memoir, My Dead Parents, Anya Yurchyshyn examines how life shaped her parents into the people that she knew; an alcoholic mother and a tempermental father. When Yurchyshyn was a teenager, her father George, died in a tragic and suspicious car accident in the Ukraine. Her mother, Anita, feeling that her husband had been murdered fell into a deeper despair and drank herself into an early grave. As Yurchyshyn sorted through her parent’s belongings, she discovered letters and pictures that sent her on a journey to discover the parents that she never met, the people that her parents were before she was born.

LIKEMy Dead Parentsis impossible to put down. It wasn’t short enough for me to read in a single sitting, but I plowed through it in less than two days. Yurchyshyn is a gifted writer and they way that she has presented her family story packs the biggest punch. She begins with the fact that her parents have both died, as is evident in the title, but then she quickly goes back to her childhood and starts painting her complicated relationship with both of them.

Her earliest memories are of parents who were glamorous and exciting. They would often travel to far-flung parts of the world and return with treasures, like rugs from the middle east and masks from Asia. These treasures filled Yurchyshyn’s home and imagination, making it seem like she lived in a museum. But this part of her parents was also mixed with her mother’s alcoholism and refusal to step-in to protect Yurchyshyn and Yurchyshyn’s older sister, Alexandra, from their father’s demanding behavior. Yurchyshyn rebels against her parents, especially when George temporarily relocates to his home country of the Ukraine, leaving his family in America.

When George dies in a car crash, Anita suspects that it was staged and that he had been murdered. Yurchyshyn feels guilty for feeling relieved that her father has died and that she is now out from under his controlling behavior. However, now as she transitions to adulthood, her mother’s alcoholism ramps up. Alexandra tries to take the brunt of care taking for their mother, in efforts to shelter her younger sister, but she cannot conceal everything. Anita’s alcoholism is out of control and up until her death, her addiction and behavior creates a lot of pain within the family. Echoing how she felt when her father died, Yurchyshyn feels relieved when her mother passes.

However, as she is going through her parent’s possessions, she falls down a rabbit hole of wondering about her parents, trying to figure out how such seemingly vivacious people could have turned into the parents she knew. She takes her discovery of letters further, to speak with family and close-friends of her parents, in efforts to understand the people that they were before she was born.

Who are our parents and can we ever really know them? This is the central question of My Dead Parentsand something that I found personally relevant, but that is a concept that I’d argue will be universal for all readers. Like Yurchyshyn, I’ve lost both of my parents and I have definitely look through all of the objects that are now in my possession and I’ve tried to cobble together “the truth” of their lives, especially for my father, who died when I was four. I have a hard time reconciling the mom that I knew, from what I knew of her as a person from before me. Life can dramatically alter people. Yurchyshyn writes about her parents with care and love, but she also does not spare the difficult parts of their relationship or her feelings. I felt heartbroken, but like I could fully relate to her memoir.

Yurchyshyn learned that she had an older brother who died as an infant, a pain that her parents never recovered from. She also learned of the cultural differences between her parents. Her father’s family fled the Ukraine when he was young, moving to America. Her mother was from a Polish-American family. There is a long history of distrust between Ukraine and Poland. Her parents union was not approved of by her father’s parents. Additionally, George’s strong ties to his Ukrainian heritage became more prevalent as years went on, including his disappointment that his daughters did not carry on the culture. As a teenager, Yurchyshyn didn’t understand why her father needed to return to Ukraine and felt that it was because her parent’s marriage was crumbling. In hindsight, she now realizes that it was a deep-seeded need to help repair his home country, rather than a failing in his marriage. The car accident cut short his efforts in the Ukraine and also his plan to return to living with his family.

The last part of the memoir turns to an investigation, as Yurchyshyn travels to the Ukraine to try to determine if her father’s death was an accident or murder. I’m not going to spoil it, but just know that this entire section is intense and unexpected.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing.

RECOMMEND– Yes!!! My Dead Parentsis a memoir that I will not soon forget and I’m certain that it will be on the bestseller’s list. A great pick for a book club too, so much to discuss.

The Gospel of Trees

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Thank you to Simon & Schusterfor providing me with a copy of Apricot Irving’s memoir, The Gospel of Trees, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-Apricot Irving was in elementary school during the 1980’s, when her parents accepted a missionary trip to the island of Haiti. She spent a majority of her childhood living in Haiti, with occasional trips back to the United States. Irving’s memoir is about finding a sense of belonging, both as an American being raised in Haiti, and of trying to connect with her father, who is temperamental and who often pushes aside the needs of his family in efforts to help his adopted country.

LIKE– The whole time I was reading The Gospel of Trees, I kept thinking about how Irving, who is just a few years older than me, was living such a dramatically different childhood than my own. Prior to moving to Haiti when Irving was six, her parents lived a simple life in the Coachella Valley, which is only a few hours from where I was raised in Glendale. Her mother dreamed of moving to a farm in Oregon, but was committed to raising a family with Irving’s father, who wanted to make a go at farming near his family in Southern California. The missionary opportunity in Haiti came due to her father’s agriculture expertise, as he was able to help the struggling island with farming and forestry.

Living in Haiti was a complex situation. It’s impossible to not have a place where you’ve made your home, especially one where Irving spent a majority of her childhood, not leave an imprint on your soul. Haiti is a very special place to Irving. It is a very special place to many of the missionary families who decided to move there, many making a life-long commitment. However, the missionaries are not always welcome. It’s very complicated.

Haiti is a poverty stricken country, that has a history of trauma. It was a former colony of both Spain and France, winning its independence through a bloody revolt. It was occupied by American forces during the WW1, who stayed for twenty years. Haiti has struggled for both its independence and to figure out its own government. It certainly doesn’t help that it has been ravished by natural disasters. With all of this, it is very contentious when missionary families, mostly white missionary families, try to help. Beyond race, there is also an obvious class issue. The missionary families may be giving up a lot of comforts while in Haiti and they may be considered poor (as was Irving’s family) back in America, but when compared to most of the Haitians, they are very well-off. Simply living in the missionary homes gives them comforts and safety that the Haitians do not have. Also, they can always leave. Irving does a solid job of explaining Haiti’s history and way it impacted the island.

Irving struggles with the poverty she witnesses and the realization that she is privileged. She feels an enormous sense of guilt, even from a young age, over this realization. Haiti is very much her home, but she also knows that she is an outsider. Her Haiti is not the same Haiti of the Haitians.

Irving’s father is a complex and difficult man. He has high expectations for his daughters that are difficult to meet and it seems that his expectations are amplified, when he is in Haiti, a place with so much need. They live in close proximity to an orphanage and her father takes a shine to an infant named Ti Marcel. Ti Marcel is a miracle baby, rebounding from near death. Ti Marcel becomes part of Irving’s household and the attention that her father gives to the infant creates a lot of jealousy in Irving. Ti Marcel will later be taken in by her own family members and moved far away. Irving’s father orchestrates visits to see Ti Marcel as she grows up, visits that are filled with tension and awkwardness. Even Irving’s mother felt jealous towards the attention her husband paid toward Ti Marcel. For her part, Ti Marcel does not remember the family that took care of her as an infant and the visits from this white missionary family are strange. Ti Marcel made a huge impact on the dynamics of Irving’s family, but she does not really understand it.

On a personal note, I visited Haiti in 2008, while on a Royal Caribbean cruise. RC has a private beach on the island, which they bring cruisers for day trips. It’s is the most pristine and gorgeous beach that I’ve ever visited. It’s paradise. It’s also mostly isolated from the rest of the island and the Haitians. Really, we could have been anywhere and it didn’t feel like we were on Haiti.

We did a jet ski excursion and in the middle of the excursion, while we were as far away from the beach as possible, our guide had us stop. An elderly Haitian man paddled out to us in a canoe. He was rake thin, missing both legs and nearly all of his teeth. Our guide, a local, waited as the man made the rounds to sell inexpensive jewelry and other small crafts. Everyone bought something and it was a very uncomfortable experience. I’m pretty sure that RC did not authorize this aspect of the excursion, as it seemed that they were making all efforts to keep us as isolated from Haiti as possible. The day at the beach was carefully orchestrated. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Haiti. This isn’t an excuse, but a fact. Now, I feel really uncomfortable knowing that I was enjoying an amazing, luxurious day at the beach, while extreme poverty was a stones throw away. I can’t think of my wonderful vacation memoirs, without wondering at what expense it was to the locals. I can’t get the elderly man in the canoe out of my mind. I’m sure that in some respects the tourism helps the local economy and is welcomed, but I’m more thinking that it’s wrong to visit a country in such a limited capacity. It’s  a facade to keep the tourists happy. Reading The Gospel of Treeshas started to breakdown that facade.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Irving’s memoir is heartfelt, compelling, and thought-provoking.

RECOMMEND– Yes! The Gospel of Treesis one of the best memoirs that I’ve read in recent memory. It’s a wonderful blend of Irving’s experiences with historical information regarding Haiti. I gained deeper insight into the long-term ramifications of colonialism and of the complex issues that Haiti continues to face.

American Housewife

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I was browsing in Powell’s City of Books, when Helen Ellis’ short story collection, American Housewife, leaped off of the shelf, demanding to be read. Just take a minute to admire the awesome cover. It looks just like a photograph of my mom from the 50’s. if my mom had cotton candy hair. Those glasses, that tangerine sweater-set, the enormous curlers = if a book can be judged by its cover ( and I like to judge), I know that Ellis’ stories are going to take me on a fun ride.

PLOT American Housewife is Helen Ellis’ collection of short stories, all involving the title subject. What defines an American housewife? Ellis’ housewives are smart, snarky, and occasionally highly disturbed.

LIKE– Ellis is a fabulous writer with a gift for crafting unique sentences. For example, here is a sentence regarding the discovery of a new independent bookstore, that absolutely delighted me: from How to Be a Patron of the Arts =

It’s like you’ve found a unicorn grazing next to the dry cleaner that a friend told you could get cat barf out of cashmere.

It made me laugh-out-loud-

For five minutes-

In an airport.

Ellis fills all of her stories with this type of humor. There wasn’t a single clunker in the collection, but there were standouts. Here are the ones that I thought were stellar.

What I Do All Day – A less than three page laundry list of the activities that the narrator does in her typical day as a housewife. It’s hilarious, but what I admired most is Ellis’ pacing, and the way her story builds to the climax of forced dinner party conversation. As an American housewife myself, I found the idea of justifying my day to be extremely relatable.

Dumpster Diving with the Stars – The narrator, a not-quite-famous writer, goes on a reality show that involves dumpster diving and challenges akin to Antiques Roadshow. I loved all of the pop-culture references, including John Lithgow as a contestant. The title rocks, and makes me wonder if a show like this has ever been pitched. Yes, is the likely answer.

The Fitter – The narrator’s husband is a famous bra fitter, with women angling to make him their next husband, while his wife is near death, after first having a mastectomy. Although there is humor in this story, it was very dark, and the emotional pain of the narrator was palpable. The ending was very much a surprise.

My Novel is Brought to you by the Good People at Tampax – A cautionary tale of an author who signs a contract with Tampax to endorse their products in her novel, and then faces a combination of writer’s block and procrastination. She learns that Tampax will not accept excuses, and that not just her writing, but basically her life, is theirs, until she fulfills her contractural obligation. This made me feel paranoid about my own writing schedule. Miley Cyrus and Paula Deen make appearances as poster-children for reinvention.

DISLIKE– Nothing. American Housewife is a highly-entertaining collection by a gifted writer.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! Helen Ellis is a treasure, and I will be on alert for more of her stories. I can’t recommend this author or American Housewife, enough. A fabulous story collection!