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.

Object Lessons: Luggage

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Thank you to Bloomsbury Academic for providing me with an advance copy of Susan Harlan’s book, Object Lessons: Luggage, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTObject Lessons is a new short book series that explores ordinary objects. In this edition, author Susan Harlan writes on luggage, sharing the history of luggage and how it relates to her own travels.

LIKE- I like the concept of the Object Lessons series; an in-depth exploration of an ordinary object. Object Lessons: Luggage blends historical information with personal thoughts, via an American road trip that Harlan takes while writing the book.

I was most intrigued by the history of luggage. For example, there is a short section talking about luggage that was brought on the Titanic and the fact that one single piece of luggage survived the sinking. I also learned about the origins of Louis Vuitton steamer trunks and that you can currently buy retro versions of the trunk and the company will customize your suitcase with travel stickers. You can have stickers that reflect your own travels or even create a fantasy of where you would like to go. This is a great book for building your repertoire of trivia knowledge.

I adore travel writing, but I was less interested in Harlan’s journey. However, towards the end of Object Lessons: Luggage, Harlan visits the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama. Airlines sell unclaimed luggage to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, which then sells the items to consumers at a great bargain. This is a huge tourist attraction and special items have even earned themselves a place in an onsite museum. I thought this was fascinating and certainly a reason to consider visiting Alabama. The museum sounds quirky and my kind of place.

DISLIKE– I was unevenly interested in Object Lessons: Luggage. I felt that some of the references, especially quotes from movies and pop culture, provided tenuous connections. The tone of the book flipped between academic and informal, where I wish it would have picked one style. I think academic would have been the way to go.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I definitely learned a lot of interesting tidbits while reading Object Lessons: Luggage, but I also found myself skimming sections. I have another book in the series on my Kindle, so I will be interested to see how a different author explores a different subject.

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South

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Thank you to University of North Carolina Press for providing me with an advance copy of Karen L. Cox’s book, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Historian and author, Karen L. Cox, explores the sensational true-crime case of Jennie Merrill, who was murdered in Natchez, Mississippi in 1932.

LIKE– Although I had never heard of the Jennie Merrill murder case, this was one of the top news stories during the Great Depression. One of the primary reasons that Merrill’s murder captivated America, and one of the big reasons that this book was so fascinating, is the bizarre and colorful characters that were involved.

Merrill was a rich, recluse who lived in a mansion and aside from necessary trips to town and work-staff, she only socialized with her cousin, who was in love with her and lived in a nearby house. They were both older and there was gossip that they may have even secretly wed. Merrill was murdered in a robbery gone wrong and several people were involved.

Two of the suspects were Merrill’s next door neighbors, Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery. They were essentially squatting in a crumbing mansion, where animals like goats and chickens freely roamed the rooms. The house should have been condemned, it was filled with vermin, mold and rotting animals. Dana and Dockery were eccentrics and went by the monikers; Mountain Man and Goat Woman. They had previous court dealings with Merrill over their goats destroying her property and there was zero love between neighbors.

Along with Dana and Dockery, George Pearls and Emily Burns were at the scene of the crime. Pearls was an African-American man who had recently returned to his hometown of Natchez, after having trouble finding a job up North. He quickly began a relationship with Burns, a local domestic, who became involved with the robbery/murder, after Pearls picked her up, giving her the impression that he was taking her on a date.

Burns ended up being the only person to serve time for Merrill’s murder, even though she was the least involved of the four. Pearls ran away up North and although he was convicted for his involvement, he was presumed dead and didn’t serve time. Dana and Dockery were initially jailed as suspects, but were set free, even though the evidence was against them. It’s very likely that being white is what allowed them to escape, especially since lawyers were able to pin the crime on Burns. At that time in Natchez, they law held that if you were involved with a murder, whether or not you committed the actual crime, you were equally guilty by association. Burns served eight years of hard labor of a life sentence, a sentence that was overturned by a government official who decided to show her mercy and set her free for time served. It was very clear that Burns did not plan the crime and her guilt was one by association and for standing-by while the crime took place.

The craziest part of the story involved Dana and Dockery. When they were released, they capitalized on the fame of their story and started giving tours of their home. They had zero shame and hammed up their eccentricities, giving the public what they expected. Their living conditions shocked the nation. Although they were still technically squatters, Dana and Dockery did nothing to pay rent or use the money to fix up their home. They also had several different lawsuits for various matters, always trying to squeeze money from somewhere. They both died years after Merrill, still living at Goat Castle. The actual owners of the property were never able to evict them and when they were dead, Goat Castle was demolished.

DISLIKE– The pacing was slow. I found the second half of the story to be more compelling than the first. It took me longer to read Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, than it should have, simply because of the pacing.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you’re a fan of American history or true crime, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, is a great pick.. The story is outrageous and filled with fascinating characters. Although this happened in the 1930’s, it’s unfortunate to note that justice/incarceration issues for African-Americans in this country, has not changed much. The Goat Castle case remains relevant with regard to the treatment of race in America.