Florence Adler Swims Forever

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for providing me with a copy of Rachel Beanland’s Novel, Florence Adler Swims Forever, in exchange for an honest review.

Nineteen-year-old Florence Adler dreams of being among a handful of women to successfully swim the English Channel. It is 1934 and she is spending the summer practicing in the oceans of Atlantic City, coached by Stuart, a handsome life guard and son of a wealthier hotelier.

Tragedy strikes when during an afternoon swim, without Stuart’s watchful eye, Florence drowns. Her grief stricken parents, Joseph and Esther, make the choice to hide Florence’s death from their older daughter, Fannie, who is on bedrest in a local hospital during a high-risk pregnancy. Previously, Fannie lost a child after a premature delivery, and her family is fearful that the news of Florence’s death could lead to another loss. They cannot bear another loss. They keep the news quiet and even ask Fannie’s doctors and nurses to hide the information from her, removing the radio from her room and keeping her away from newspapers. Can they keep this charade for two months and how will the lie impact the people Florence loved?

Florence Adler Swims Forever has been one of my favorite reads of 2020. It’s emotional, surprising, and inspirational. I absolutely fell in love with the characters, in particular, Florence’s niece, Gussie, who is seven. The story alternates between different perspectives and when we get to Gussie’s chapters, we really see through the eyes of a child who is trying to understand complex adult decisions. Gussie is staying with her grandparents, while her mother is in the hospital. Her father, Issac, is a peripheral figure, visiting his in-laws for the occasional dinner and seeing his wife a few times a week. We quickly learn that although Issac loves his daughter, he is a man with goals that do not align with having a family.

Gussie spends most of her time with Anna, a young woman from Germany who is spending the summer with the Adler family. Gussie doesn’t know exactly what to make of Anna, who isn’t a relative. Prior to immigrating to the United States, Joseph was engaged to Anna’s mother, and even though Anna is not his child, he felt the need to help her escape from the increasingly dangerous Nazi Germany. Joseph also hopes to help Anna’s parent’s immigrate, something that he can’t quite articulate to his wife, who does not realize that he was more than childhood friends with Anna’s mother. She doesn’t understand why her husband is drawn to helping this foreign family, when their own family is struggling.

While I was reading, I did not realize that Florence Adler Swims Forever is based on the true story of Beanland’s great aunts. It is fictionalized, but just knowing that Florence Adler existed made me connect with the story even more. Also the idea that a family kept their grief hidden to protect their other daughter’s pregnancy is heartbreaking. I had chills when I read that it is based on a true story.

Beanland is a fabulous writer. Florence Adler Swims Forever has a satisfying ending with all of the loose-ends tied, however, this is my plea to Beanland to continue with the Adler family in another novel. I need to know what happens to Fannie, and if Anna’s family escapes Germany. I want to see Gussie grow up and meet Ruby. I love these characters and I want more!!! Please Beanland!!!

Also, I wouldn’t mind a movie or mini-series. Imagine the fabulous costumes and sets! It’s all so wonderful.

I cannot say enough lovely things about Florence Adler Swims Forever. Read it now and have the Kleenex handy.

Florida Man

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Tom Cooper’s novel Florida Man, in exchange for an honest review.

Spanning several decades, Florida Man is the story Reed Crowe and Henry Yahchilane, who form an unlikely friendship while living on a small island. Struggling from the loss of his child, affectionately nicknamed Otter, Crowe finds himself divorced and the proprietor of a struggling roadside attraction. Yahchilane, a Seminole native, and the older of the two men is a mystery. He is quiet with a tough exterior and rumors fly regarding his criminal inclinations. A skeleton and a sink hole bring Crowe and Yahchilane together, sealing their connection and changing the course of their lives.

Florida Man is a quirky and delightful ride. I read it over two separate trips to central Florida during the summer of 2020, which included an airboat swamp tour, putting me in the mood. The twists in Florida Man are impossible to anticipate, but even more impossible to predict was the emotional impact of the story. I was sobbing while reading the last chapters. I was caught off-guard by how much I grew to care about both Crowe and Yahchilane and even more, how much I related to them. On the surface, it would seem that I shouldn’t be able to relate to these men; I am a forty-three year old white woman living in the suburbs, yet I definitely connected with Crowe and Yahchilane’s lone-wolf, living their lives by their own terms attitude.

I understood how they felt connected to their island, Crowe even refusing to leave it to be with his ex-wife Heidi. Crowe has relationships with other women, but he will always love Heidi. When their daughter dies, Crowe becomes planted on the island, as Heidi leaves to travel the world, dealing with their grief in separate ways.

The first two-thirds of the story are primarily a tension-filled, roller coaster ride. When Crowe becomes involved with helping a Cuban refugee family, he discovers that his childhood friend is a pedophile, putting a young girl from the family he is helping, in danger. Crowe struggles with figuring out the best way to deal with his former friend, a man who shows no signs of remorse.

Crowe’s life is in danger, when an old enemy comes back to haunt him. Hector Morales, nicknamed “Catface” for his disfiguring scars, was left in the swamp when many years earlier, Crowe found his body near a plane crash. Crowe thought he was dead and left Morales, but not before taking a fortune’s worth of marijuana from the downed plane. Morales survived and never forgot Crowe’s face, vowing to track him down.

Morales is a first-rate villain, reminding me of the character Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men. Similar to Chigurh, Morales is terrifying due to his calm demeanor and unpredictable violence. We stay with Morales as he is on the hunt for Crowe and watch as he interacts with many side characters while on his mission. The reader never knows if Morales will brutally kill someone that crosses his path or simply wish him a good day. The tension is high.

Florida, with its sandy beaches, muggy weather, and thick swamps is a character in Florida Man. Beyond Cooper’s novel, the term “Florida Man” is often used to describe dumb criminals and drug addicts who make the news in the sunshine state for a variety of outrageous antics. Florida is often mocked and taken less seriously than other states. I’m a Los Angeles native, and we are also often dismissed as “La La Land” or a place where “Fake” people live. In some ways, Crowe and Yahchilane embrace their “Florida Man” reputations, but in just as many ways, they defy it. They are simply ordinary men who love their land. I relate. I often bristle when I hear Los Angeles stereotypes. I can see the nuggets of truth in the stereotypes, but I also see so much more that only someone who loves their city, loves their state, can truly understand. Yahchilane and Crowe are insiders and their Florida is different from the Florida people mock. Their version of a “Florida Man” has much more depth than haters could ever realize.

Cooper’s Florida Man is a wild ride and some of the most beautiful, affecting writing that I have ever read. It’s truly a unique literary experience that I highly recommend.

The Wolf Wants In

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Laura McHugh’s novel, The Wolf Wants In, in exchange for an honest review.

Sadie Keller’s brother has died and although the case has been closed, she is convinced that her former sister-in-law, a member of the infamous Pettit clan, is hiding the truth. The Pettit’s are well known in rural Kansas for drug running and other criminal behavior. The situation escalates when the body of a local child is found in the woods. Sadie is an old friend of the child’s mother and she fears that the Pettit’s could be involved. Eighteen-year-old Henley Pettit is caught in the crosshairs of the family business. Henley desperately wants to get out of town and live a normal life, but she is also compelled to guard the Pettit’s secrets.

McHugh is a great suspense and mystery writer. I throughly enjoyed The Wolf Wants In. It’s a tension filled novel with strong characters and compelling twists. My favorite aspect of the work is the setting. Although a work of fiction, it isn’t difficult to imagine that this story could have taken place in many rural towns in America. The story speaks to the opioid epidemic and the way addiction fall-out impacts so many lives. This is a timely subject and one that McHugh tackles with care.

The characters have heavy dilemmas, especially Henley who has to make some irrevocable and dangerous decisions at a young age. The tension is thick throughout, making The Wolf Wants In, a page-turner.

 

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s novel, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, in exchange for an honest review.

Cambridge economics professor, Dr. Chandrasekhar aka “Charles,” is having a mid-life crisis. He has, once again, been forced to face the crushing disappointment and indignity of having been passed over for a Nobel Prize. This wouldn’t be so terrible, if in pursuit of his career, he hadn’t sacrificed personal happiness and developing relationships with his family. He is divorced from his wife Jean, who has remarried and moved from England to Colorado with their teenage daughter, Jasmine. Jasmine is acting out and getting into major trouble, including experimenting with drugs. Charles cannot relate to his older children. His son, Sunny, is a successful entrepreneur and is so consumed with his business, that he has little time for his family. After a major ideological disagreement, Charles has not spoken to his eldest daughter, Radha, in years and doesn’t even know where she is living.

After experiencing a major health scare, Charles takes a break from teaching at Cambridge and travels to the United States. He begins to reconnect with Jasmine, Jean, and Jean’s new husband. It’s an odd family dynamic, but not without love and concern. Charles begins to realize that he needs to change his outlook and to begin to focus on deepening his relationships, both to help himself and his children.

Balasubramanyam has a strong writer’s voice, which he uses effectively to set the tone of both the story and especially Charles. The opening chapters introduce us to Charles, who is quite a difficult person, someone who delights in both being a curmudgeon and destroying others. It’s humorous, even though the reader is keenly aware that Charles is a very unhappy person. It also sets us up for his transformation. Charles makes a lot of mistakes, but he is the perfect character to undergo a massive transformation and we root for him to succeed.

I really loved the relationship between Jasmine and Charles. Jasmine’s troubles are generally those of a confused and angry teenager, but we soon see that her acting out and experimentation is taking her down a dark path. Drug addition or perhaps consequences of spending time with unsavory people, are looming on her horizon. Charles is devastated that this is happening to his daughter and initially he feels quite helpless. However, he is struck with the idea that Jasmine can be sent to a monastery to live with a woman that he met at his yoga retreat. Charles shifts from being a very self-involved character, to someone who begins to think of others, starting with his beloved youngest daughter. Previous to his experience at the yoga retreat, Charles would never have suggested this for his daughter, but through his personal enlightenment, he can now help her. I was taken with the novel’s themes of balancing self-reliance with building relationships. You can’t help others without fixing yourself, but fixing yourself means little, if you can’t experience deep relationships with other people.

Generally, I found the story to be fast-paced, although it lost a little steam in the middle. I think it’s because although it was very important to the character arc for Charles to discover himself at the yoga retreat, this aspect was less interesting than that of his repairing the relationship with his family. I thought it was interesting that Charles is not necessarily enlightened after the yoga retreat. It helps him on his way, but it is only a stepping stone towards the bliss he finds from connecting with his family. I like that the book wraps on a hopeful note, yet not unrealistic or completely perfect. Charles and his family members, still have a lot to learn, but they have made great strides.

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss is an uplifting redemption story that begs readers to reflection on their own lives. Balasubramanyam is a talented writer and I recommend Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss.

Pure Land

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One of my favorite travel souvenirs is to purchase a book in a local independent bookstore. While on our Arizona road trip, I visited the adorable Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff, where an awesome bookseller recommended local author Annette McGivney’s Pure Land.

In Pure Land, McGivney expands on her 2007 article that she wrote for Backpacker, that explored the brutal murder of a Japanese woman, Tomomi Hanamure, who was stabbed while hiking in the Grand Canyon. Pure Land is part memoir, part social commentary, and part true crime.

As McGivney was researching the story, she began to experience triggers from her own abusive childhood and this article took on a greater meaning. McGivney flew to Japan and became close to Hanamure’s family, learning that the woman had been abandoned by her mother at a young age and was raised by a single father. Hanamure always felt a pull towards the United States, specifically the National Parks of the South West and Native American culture. Hanamure was killed by Randy Wescogame, an eighteen year old meth addict living on the Havasupai reservation, who also had a history of childhood abandonment and abuse.

“Pure Land” refers to the Buddhist belief of the ultimate afterlife, the place where a person who has learned everything from earth, through multiple reincarnations, will finally go to rest. Hanamure comes from a Buddhist background and her family prays that she has made it to Pure Land to find peace. However, it also takes on a different meaning with McGivney’s book, as we can imagine that Hanamure and others find their own Pure Land when they are at peace in nature. Perhaps even Wescogame is on his way to Pure Land, while healing in prison, or maybe McGivney is finding it, as she moves forward from her childhood trauma.

Pure Land is a powerhouse. I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking, but McGivney explores it with compassion and care. I was fascinated with the way that Hanamure felt drawn to a foreign culture, so much so that she worked minimum wage jobs to just save enough to meet her travel expenses. Her entire focus was on her trips to the United States. Her passion for the United States was not shared with her family and friends, yet she was not deterred. By all accounts, she also came across as an unusual soul by those who encountered her during her travels, yet she seemed to own this aspect of her life. It’s crushing to think that someone could have so much love for a land and its people, yet it led to her violent and untimely death.

Pure Land also explores the devastating and complex history of Native Americans and their treatment by the United States government. Through centuries of systematic racism, many tribe members that maintain their autonomy of tribal lands are facing a crisis with poverty, violence, and addiction. McGivney looks at the history of how this has happened and specifically how this life has impacted the Havasupai. While she certainly doesn’t forgive Wescogame’s crime, she does explore his life within the context of living in a tribe that has experienced incredible hardships. I was most interested in reading about the founding of the National Parks. The National Parks are the treasures of the United States and I think most citizens ( and foreign visitors) hold them in the highest regard, but the dark side of the history of the parks includes the displacement of Native tribes, forcing them from their ancestral lands.

McGivney gets specific with regard to the Havasupai, who now have a deeply impoverished reservation on a small piece of land in the Grand Canyon. Crossing through their land is the only way to access one of the most stunning parts of the canyon, a place where Hanamure was headed when she was murdered. The Havasupai tribe has made efforts to attract tourists, including building a small, heavily fortified lodge and offering guides. However, the problems that exist on the reservation make this a very dangerous area and not everyone is welcoming or profiting off of the tourists.

Although we think of National Parks as a places that should be open to all, this particular section of the Canyon is controlled by the Havasupai. It is their land. They have little with regard to ways of making an income and whether they want to or not, allowing tourists brings in much needed revenue. Their willingness to allow tourists to pass through reeks of slum tourism, with the tourists not just passing through on their hike, but also gawking at the shocking poverty on the reservation. The Havasupai that are able to make a living off of the tourists are doing the best with what they have, however reading this made my stomach hurt. The only reason that they are in this situation is because they were forced to give up their lands and forced to accept a rotten deal, yet now they are again pressured into allowing tourists to traipse through their home. I imagine that if they did not allow the tourists to pass, that the government would find a way to intervene on the tourists behalf. It’s a terrible situation.

Pure land is an important read from a historical and societal perspective. McGivney’s writing is heart breaking and haunting. I can’t imagine that I will ever forget this book.

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.