The Rural Diaries: Love, Livestock, and Big Life Lessons Down on Mischief Farm

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Thank You to Harper Collins Publishers for providing me with a copy of Hilarie Burton Morgan’s memoir, The Rural Diaries: Love, Livestock, and Big Life Lessons Down on Mischief Farm, in exchange for an honest review.

Shortly after deciding to leave One Tree Hill, actress Hilarie Burton Morgan was introduced to her would-be husband, actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan. They began a whirlwind romance and a year later, they had a son named Gus.

Although they had zero farming experience, both Hilarie and Jeff dreamed of living a rural life. They found a small cabin in the Hudson Valley town of Rhinebeck, New York. Although they still maintained a house in Los Angeles, they found themselves spending more and more time in their little cabin. Eventually, they decided to make the transition and purchased a farm in the same community. They christened it “Mischief Farm,” after discovering a pair of graves on the property, for two cats: Mischief One and Mischief Two.

Hilarie recounts the highs and lows of the following decade, where they experienced relationship difficulties, multiple miscarriages, plenty of new experiences on the farm and the joy of belonging to a tight-knit community. They even became co-owners of a local candy shop, when the owner, their friend and believed member of the community, passed away. Actor Paul Rudd is also one of the owners.

I loved this memoir! I’m a Jeffrey Dean Burton fan, but I had never heard of Hilarie. I had no clue about their relationship or life on Mischief Farm. The city folk to farm, Green Acres aspect is appealing. Their love has many moments that feel ripped from a romance novel. Hilarie is fabulous. She has a strong spirit and a zest for life. She is very brave to share sensitive aspects of her life, such as her miscarriages and how they impacted her both personally and her relationship with Jeff.

She speaks about the sexual harassment that she experienced as an actress, including being groped by Ben Affleck while working as a host on MTV. She left One Tree Hill due to a toxic work environment. Although she continued to work as an actress, she made her choice to walk away from a popular television show because of harassment. No one should have to make that choice and unfortunately, it wasn’t until the “Me Too’“ movement that her story and the stories of so many other women got traction. In a fateful twist, her daughter was born right as the news was breaking, giving Hilarie even more strength to speak out.

Hilarie has the pioneering spirit. She is unafraid to get her hands dirty and to attempt new challenges relating to homesteading, farming, and home renovations. I wish I could say that I have the same amount of pluck. We just bought a new house and doing a small amount of yard work seems really adventurous for this Los Angeles girl! The Rural Diaries might have just been released at the right time. With the virus and many people stuck at home, there has been a boom in DIY projects. Hilarie provides ample inspiration to those who want to tackle projects and she even includes several recipes that look delicious.

As a personal bonus, I got a kick out of the location. I attended Bard College in the mid-90’s, which is located right in the area where the Morgan’s live. I recognized so many of the landmarks and even though I have not been to the area in decades, it was a trip down memory lane.

I can’t say enough positive things about The Rural Diaries. It is uplifting, honest, and inspiring. There is a fair bit of glamour and famous friends in the mix, but Hilarie never puts them above the people in her community or the experiences she has on the farm. This may sound like a cliche, but she is very down to earth. She’s relatable. I highly recommend The Rural Diaries as the perfect dose of reality that we need during this tough 2020.

 

Full Support: Lessons Learned in the Dressing Room

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Thank you to Amberjack Publishing for providing me with a copy of Natalee Woods’ memoir, Full Support: Lessons Learned in the Dressing Room, in exchange for an honest review.

During College, Natalee Woods applied for a summer job at a high-end department store and was placed in the lingerie department. This summer job turned into an off-and-on career, spanning over a decade, carrying through her move to Los Angeles and return to her native Seattle. During this time she navigated financial instability and the death of her parents. Woods becomes a certified bra fitter, which requires her to come in intimate contact with her customers. She learns that her job isn’t simply about selling underwear, but that often she must use discretion and empathy to serve woman who have a range of body issues, including breast cancer survivors.

Woods never mentions her employer, but it is clearly Nordstrom. As a former Nordstrom employee myself, I could immediately identify with the company culture, including her initial hiring for the anniversary sale, Nordstrom’s biggest annual event. Much like Woods, I was thrown into the fire of the anniversary sale and placed into a department (Men’s Furnishings) where I had to learn on the fly. It was utter chaos and Woods describes it, just as I experienced it.

Woods touches on the strange and rude customers that we find at Nordstrom, but that isn’t the focus of her memoir. Full Support is honest, but it is not a tell-all about being a Nordstrom employee. It’s a true reflection on what it is like to work for the retail giant, but Woods is not a disgruntled former employee. Her time with the company was not perfect, but she is not out to slag-off her former company or co-workers.

The focus is on the customers who made an impact on her perspective. For example, shortly after Woods’ lost both of her parents, a father brings his young teen daughter into the lingerie department. She needs a bra and her mother has just died. Woods has the father go off with his son, giving her time to help the daughter. The conversation transitions from bras to loss, with Woods carefully giving the young girl encouragement, as she tries not to break down herself.

During my short time at Nordstrom, I had a few customers who made a lasting impression. I helped a woman find an outfit for her mother’s memorial service and I helped a teenager find a suit for his first job interview. I’m not arguing that working in retail carries the same weight as other professions, but it is possible to make a positive impact on someone’s life and to be of service. The lingerie department is probably the most impactful department. Woods and her coworkers have the ability to help women love their bodies, including women recovering from cancer. Nordstrom has a service where they help with prothesis fits for breast cancer survivors. It is truly a wonderful thing.

Woods beautifully blends the stories of her customers with her own tumultuous life. Woods lost both of her parents to cancer and was with them during the last months of their lives. She also struggled to make it living in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is my hometown and I can attest that this is no easy feat, especially on a retail, commission-based salary. Woods is living life paycheck-to-paycheck and does not have a bigger plan for her future. One hundred percent, I could relate to this. I spent my twenties and early thirties in a survival mode similar to Woods, including being a caretaker for a parent dying of cancer.

My only negative comment is that I occasionally felt that the dialogue rang false. I could easily believe the situations with the customers, even the most outrageous, but the way the dialogue was written felt too quickly intimate or simply not the way people really speak. There are cliches. More than once, the dialogue rang false in a way that made me stop reading to consider it, which disengaged me.

The dialogue issues aside, I very much enjoyed Woods’ memoir. Full Support has a lot of heart. It will be of particular interest to those who have worked high-end retail, but I would recommend it to everyone. Also, if you’re a woman who has not worked with a certified bra fitter, it is a game-changer!

 

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.

 

On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard

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Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton for providing me with a copy of Jennifer Pastiloff’s memoir, On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard, in exchange for an honest review.

Jennifer Pastiloff has built an incredible life. She is in a loving marriage, has a beautiful child, and has created a successful career as an inspirational leader of life changing yoga retreats. However, the road to Pastiloff’s currently life was bumpy.

Pastiloff had a tumultuous childhood, which included the death of her father. She suffered from crippling self-doubt and anorexia. Her self-image issues played a role in her refusal to seek medical attention for her progressive hearing loss, an issue that caused her many years of social pain, excluding her from fully participating in conversations and feeling like people viewed her as less intelligent. She meandered through her twenties/early thirties, engaging in self-destructive activities and unable to figure out her true career path or to find a good romantic partner.

On Being Human is part memoir and part self-help book, as Pastiloff gives tips and exercises gleaned from her popular workshops for reader to try at home. Pastiloff is relatable and raw. I related to her sense of feeling lost in her twenties/early thirties. She dropped out of college and spent over a decade working as a server at a cafe. I was in a similar situation and I could relate to knowing that you have skills and dreams, but also not quite knowing how to focus on a career path. The sense of knowing that there is so much more out there for you, but also not knowing how to grab it. In a culture where we value the traditional education/career path, it can be very difficult for people who do not stick to that mold. Pastiloff filled me with encouragement and hope. I would definitely recommend On Being Human, to anyone who is feeling a little lost.

Another aspect of Pastiloff’s memoir is the idea of following your gut or inner voice. Pastiloff did not have dreams of being a yoga instructor or a motivational coach, but she listened to her intuition when the opportunities presented themselves, she took them. The first time she met her would-be husband, she wasn’t interested in him, but a decade later, her gut told her to pursue the relationship. It’s part trusting yourself and part timing, as life is ever evolving and sometimes you might need the time to grow, in order to be ready to accept an opportunity. Pastiloff in her early twenties was not ready to accept certain things and she needed the time to grow. Rather than beating herself up over these missed years, she looks at them as a time needed to develop into the person she is today.

Pastiloff experienced massive hearing loss, a condition that slowly worsened over many years. Finally, she realized that she needed to use a hearing aid, something that she had been embarrassed about to the point of choosing to miss out on hearing. It was a vanity issue. When she finally conceded to needing the hearing aids, she realized that she could not afford them. However, Pastiloff had built a community of friends and clients who wanted to help her purchase them. This community came through with several other financial emergencies. My take-away is if you show enough love to other people, especially giving it freely with no expectations, often this love will come back to you in abundance. I’ve seen this happen in my own life and in the lives of those around me. Pastiloff’s younger adult years were spent in such fear of judgement, that when she was able to push that aside, she saw the blessing of allowing other people to be part of her life. We often hear that it “takes a village” to raise a child, but I think that it applies to everyone. We all need help sometimes. We need a sense of belonging to a community.

On Being Human is a wonderful reminder of the power of humanity and of embracing life. I highly recommend it for anyone who needs a bit of a boost. I’d love to attend one of Pastiloff’s workshops and to see how her energy in person, compares to the page. It is radiant in her memoir!

How Not to Die Alone

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Thank you to Penguin Group Putnam for providing me with a copy of Richard Roper’s novel, How Not to Die Alone, in exchange for an honest review.

Andrew has spent years carrying around a big secret. When he was being interviewed for his current job, he accidentally told his would-be boss, that he was married and rather than correcting the mistake, Andrew went on to fabricate a life that includes a wife and two kids. The lie kept growing and now he feels that he has crossed a point of no return. He works for a government agency who handles funerals for people who have died alone and as he investigates these lives, Andrew realizes that he is in a similar position. His parents are dead and he has a rocky relationship with his sister. A series of events, including a new employee named Peggy, threaten to reveal Andrew’s manufactured life.

How Not to Die Alone is a beautiful story that is both deeply affecting and delightful. Andrew has been hit hard by life and he has reached a state of arrested development, living out a middle-aged existence in a tiny, dilapidated apartment that is filled with model trains. His only friends are those whom he communicates with solely through online message boards for model train enthusiasts. Until her untimely death, he has strained, quarterly calls with his sister, Sally. He doesn’t have a lot in common with his coworkers and is dreading the company bonding dinner parties that his boss has recently cooked up. Andrew’s life is lacking, but his imaginary life is stellar.

Andrew spends so much time crafting his imaginary family, that he almost believes that they are real. No one in his office has any reason to doubt their existence. However, when Andrew meets Peggy, he is instantly attracted to her. She’s funny, attractive, and clearly interested in Andrew. Peggy is in the process of separating from her alcoholic husband and although she may soon be available, everyone knows that Andrew is in a very happy marriage. Andrew fears that by revealing the truth, he will lose trust in his coworkers and possibly his job. Yet, if he wants to have a chance with Peggy, he will have to kill-off his imaginary family. Andrew is used to staying in the safety net of his comfort zone and this situation is forcing him to be uncomfortable. Yet, the more he considers his lie, the more he realizes that his comfort zone isn’t very comfortable. He is ready to reveal the truth, but struggling to work up the courage.

How Not to Die Alone is a story with a lot of compassion. Andrew is a complex character. He constantly lies, yet he has the empathy to attend the funerals of strangers, even when it goes beyond his job description. Roper has structured the story to pack the maximum punch, as we don’t learn the extent of Andrew’s problems until late in the novel. It’s crushing. Roper added a wonderful element of weaving the songs of Ella Fitzgerald into the story. Andrew loves Fitzgerald, but there is one song that he cannot bear to listen to and when we learn the reason why, it is devastating. The musicality works well, adding a theatrical quality to the story. The chapter where Andrew’s big trauma is revealed is very cinematic in the best possible sense.

A major theme is the consequence of dishonesty; how both being dishonest with others and with yourself, can severely impact your life. The way Andrew lies to himself and makes excuses for the life he lives, is almost worse than the lies that he tells others. Andrew is terrified of relationships, yet when he find the courage to reach out to others, they make him realize that his fear was unwarranted. A particularly lovely part of the story occurs when Andrew dares to meet his online friends in real life and to ask them for a major favor. My ultimate takeaway from How Not to Die Alone, is live boldly.

I highly recommend How Not to Die Alone. It just might end up being my favorite book of 2019. Roper is a marvelous writer and I fell in love with Andrew, rooting for him all the way. This novel gave me the warm-fuzzies.

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.

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.

 

Then She Was Gone

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Jewell’s novel, Then She Was Gone, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-Ellie Mack is a beautiful, smart, popular teenager, who seems to have everything going for her. One day, on her way to the library, she disappears and her case goes cold. A decade later. Ellie’s mother, Laurel, begins to date a man named Floyd, whose daughter, Poppy, bears a striking resemblance to Ellie. Laurel begins to revisit her daughter’s disappearance and discovers new facts of the case. Can Laurel finally find out what happened to daughter? Does Poppy hold the key?

LIKE-I’ve read several of Lisa Jewell’s other novels and I was very excited to be granted a copy of Then She Was Gone. Jewell is masterful at crafting great suspense and mysteries. However, where she really shines is with her characters. She has a gift at tapping into the human psyche and creating relatable, multi-deminisional characters.

Characters are what shine in Then She Was Gone. I was most drawn to Laurel, the grieving mother who not only lost her daughter, but also saw her marriage collapse under the weight of a missing child. Laurel is just getting her life back together when she meets Floyd and is shoved back down the rabbit hole of her daughter’s case. Her anxiety and grief is palpable.

We do not learn Ellie’s fate until late in the story, but she is the narrator in some of the flashback chapters. Of course as a reader, our bond with Ellie is not going to be strong, like her mother’s, however these chapters do serve to give us a clearer picture of Ellie and give us a chance to connect with her. Jewell is equally great at writing adults and children, letting us see Ellie’s frame of mind and motivations.

Then She Was Goneheads to some very dark places and is a story that made me anxious. I saw a blurb comparing it to Gone Girl, which was a little misleading. When I think of comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, I think that the story must have an unreliable narrator. Then She Was Gonehas narrators under duress, but they are not unreliable. I read another that compared it to Alice Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones,which is a much better comparison with regard to both theme and tone.

DISLIKE– I anticipated the twist early on and kept hoping that it would not be what I was expecting. It’s not that the story wasn’t intriguing, but it’s always a little bit of a let down when you manage to figure out the twist early on. I did not anticipate the creepy, disturbing aspects of the twist. It gave me chills.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Jewell is such a marvelous writer that I have to recommend all of her novels, including Then She Was Gone.

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.

Gutshot

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PLOT– A collection of visceral, magical, and often horrifying short stories by Amelia Gray.

LIKE– I received Amelia Gray’s short story collection, Gutshot, as part of my Quarterly Company Literary Box. The spring 2017 box was curated by Borne author, Jeff Vandermeer and as part of his picks, Vandermeer included Gray’s collection.

I had never heard of Gray previous to her book arriving in my box, but immediately, I was drawn to the title and cover art. I packed Gutshot to take on my cruise to Alaska, but just a few pages into the first story, I realized that this was too special of a collection to read while on a distracting, family holiday. I stuck to magazines for the vacation. Now, eight months later, I finally found a distraction free afternoon and took the plunge.

Many of her stories are raw and powerful. There are few that elicited the feeling of the title: Gutshot. I felt physically moved and wounded while reading them.

Here are a few of my favorites.

A Contest- a micro-short about people competing to put on the best display of mourning for a person that they love who has died. They are told that the gods will pick the person that has experienced the most grief and that person’s loved one will come back to them. Several people are mentioned and they are all very worthy, including parents grieving over a lost child. The story simply ends with one sentence involving a character who had not been mentioned earlier in the story, a woman who opens her front door to find that her cat has returned. This had me in tears. I’ve lost so many people and pets in my life, but honestly mourning a pet is such a different type of grief.

The Lives of Ghosts – Marcy has recently lost her mother, but discovers that her mom is haunting her in the form of an enormous pimple on Marcy’s face. A pimple that talks and gives advice, including unsolicited motherly advice. This story was so completely unexpected, humorous, and ultimately heartbreaking. I found myself laughing out loud at this irreverent story.

Thank You– A hilarious story about an escalating passive-aggressive exchange of thank you notes. Thank You, as with many of Gray’s stories, increases in outrageousness, creating a fantasy situation. Very funny and relatable. I don’t think there are many women who won’t relate to this frenemy story with manners.

DISLIKE– I can’t claim to like each of Gray’s stories with equal measure; some were so bizarre that I found trouble connecting. Often her stories turned grotesque or incredibly violent, which is not something that bothers me, but I also felt that it didn’t always serve the story, like it was for shock value more than anything.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Gray is a talented writer and the stories in Gutshot are not ones that I can easily compare to another author. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are certainly original. The stories that got me in my gut, I will not soon forget. I look forward to reading more stories by Gray.