A Terrible Country

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Thank You to Viking for providing me with a copy of Keith Gessen’s novel, A Terrible Country, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Andrei immigrated from Russia to the United States as a child and now in his early thirties, is a Russian Scholar. He’s struggling to find steady employment and to make his mark in academia, so when his brother calls on him to return to Moscow to care for their elderly grandmother, Andrei decides to go. Beyond caring for a grandmother whom he loves, he hopes that being in Russia will revive his career. Andrei is not prepared for the culture shock that he will encounter in his homeland. It teaches him that being born in a place and learning about it in books, is not the same as day-to-day living.

LIKE– Initially, I was drawn to Gessen’s novel by theme of caregiving. Like Andrei, I’ve been in the position of being caregiver and I could relate to both his frustrations and the joy from this precious time spent with a loved one. Andrei’s relationship with his grandmother, Baba Seva, is one of pure love and devotion. He gives her his all, even when he is struggling financially or is feeling doubtful about his own future. The best parts of A Terrible Country are the scenes between Andrei and Baba Seva. She has dementia and her confusion is heartbreaking.

I’m fairly familiar with famous Russian literature, but I don’t have a wide understanding of Russian history or what a modern Russia looks like. Gessen’s novel gave me a glimpse into Russia: the daily life in a major city and the culture. The title of the book is a refrain through-out the story, even Baba Seva tells Andrei that Russia is “A Terrible Country” urging him to leave, as she refuses to do so herself. This sentiment is multi-faceted. In the most simplistic sense, it is terrible because of the wealth disparity, the crime, and corruption. Andrei realizes that he has had it very easy in America. On the flip-side, this is the place of his birth, the place where he still has family. He feels a strong pull towards Russia. Andrei also manages to make friends during his year in Russia, including a girlfriend. He comes to see the beauty beyond the frustrations and he embraces Russia; warts and all. Russia is no longer a memory from his childhood or a mythology patched together from text books, but a place that is part of his soul. He has developed a strong bond with this terrible country.

DISLIKEA Terrible Country was uneven in keeping my interest. It took me several weeks to read. I suspect this was due to the heavy themes and slice-of-life style, but I kept reading it in spurts, a few chapters at a time and setting it aside in favor of other books. It wasn’t that I was disinterested, I just found the story world to be a place that I didn’t want remain for an extended stay.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Gessen is a talented writer and A Terrible Country is great for readers who want a deeper look at modern day Russia. It compels me to seek out non-fiction books on the subject.

The Subway Girls

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Griffin for providing me with a copy of Susie Orman Schnall’s novel, The Subway Girls, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– It’s 1949 and Charlotte Friedman has just finished a typist course at Hunter’s College. She is eager to figure out a way to break into the advertising industry, even if she must work in the typing pool while figuring out how to show her male superiors that she is not only eager, but also capable and creative.

Charlotte suffers a set-back when she learns that there are no jobs available in her dream agencies and what’s more, her father needs her help at the family paint shop. Charlotte is beginning to feel that her dreams will never come true, when she manages to become a semi-finalist in the Miss Subways contest. The Miss Subways are a joint venture between The New York Transit Authority and the famed John Roberts Power Modeling Agency: a contest where one ordinary, yet beautiful, local girl is picked a month to grace posters in Subway cars. Initially skeptical, Charlotte realizes that by winning the contest she might be able to leverage her five-minutes of fame to lure customers to her father’s business and in return, she will gain her freedom to pursue her dreams.

In 2018, Olivia is living Charlotte’s dream of working in advertising, yet, the dream is not fully realized. Olivia is smart and capable, yet she struggles to be heard in a business that is still a “boy’s club.” Olivia has a debilitating crush on her boss, Matt, with whom she has been carrying on a secret, casual sex-based relationship. When the agency has a chance to pitch a campaign to the New York Transit Authority, Matt pits Olivia in an idea contest, against Olivia’s rival, Thomas. One of Olivia’s ideas takes her down the rabbit hole of the Miss Subway’s contest and she meets women from a different generation who make a big impact on her life.

LIKE- I’m a fan of Historical Fiction and I love the concept for The Subway Girls. After finishing Schnall’s novel, I spent a few hours looking at the original posters and reading about the real-life inspirations for this story. It was fascinating and I hope to visit the New York Transportation Museum in the near future to see the exhibit about the Miss Subways campaign. Schnall had a great idea to write a story that parallels the lives of two characters, two women from different generations, both with huge dreams.

The comparing of women from two generations, looking at how much things have both changed and stayed the same with regard to expectations and opportunity, was compelling. Although Olivia isn’t expected to marry and let her husband take care of her, she still must fight for equal treatment in her workplace. As a woman born in the late 1970’s to a single, working mother, I had been raised to believe that anything was possible. If I worked hard enough, I could do or be anything that I wanted. I still believe that, but it is slightly dampened by my work experience in male dominated areas. It is a fight sometimes. I could relate to Olivia’s situation.

I did not anticipate the big twist with Charlotte’s character. That was quite a surprise and well-done.

DISLIKE– I can’t give specific examples because it happened throughout the story, but I often felt the dialogue rang false. It took me out of the story-world. I enjoyed the characters and overall plot enough to push past the dialogue issues. I felt the problems were primarily with the younger Charlotte chapters.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Yes, if you’re a fan of Historical Fiction or mid-century New York City. I enjoyed The Subway Girls, but in the long-run, I’m not sure that it will make my list of most memorable novels of 2018. Whether or not you read Schnall’s novel, make sure to look up the Miss Subways for a bit of yesteryear nostalgia.

The Trauma Cleaner

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Sarah Krasnostein’s biography, The Trauma Cleaner, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Sarah Krasnostein explores the life of Sandra Pankhurst, a woman who beat the odds by surviving an abusive childhood in Australia to lead an extraordinary life, including running her own trauma cleaning business.

LIKEThe Trauma Cleaner was not what I expected, but was a wonderful surprise. Krasnostein alternates chapters, exploring Sandra’s life in the past and present. In the present chapters, we see Sandra’s current life and specifically, how her professionalism and empathy impacts the lives of her clients. Some of her clients are the families of the deceased, homes that Sandra’s team is hired to clean after a tragic death. Other clients include the living, people who are hoarders and need help cleaning up their environment. Sandra has a very special touch with people who are in pain and need her help. She is firm, yet compassionate. What’s interesting about the present chapters is how Sandra is equally impacted by the clients she serves. Part of the reason for her success is that she lets those in need into her life and is deeply touched.

The past chapters take us through Sandra’s life. Sandra, born male and named Peter, was adopted as an infant, becoming the second oldest son in a large family. From an early age, Peter/Sandra, was emotionally and physically abused, eventually being made to sleep in a shed in the backyard. He was isolated from his family, a family that he desperately wanted to please and be shown inclusion. It’s heartbreaking.

In his late teens, Peter moved out and got married. He had two children and ended up abandoning his family just a few years later. The guilt over abandoning his family would stay with Peter for his entire life. He never had a proper reconciliation. Krasnostein interviews Peter’s wife, adding another layer to this biography. As Peter grew comfortable in his own skin, he began to take hormones and prepare to undergo a sex change operation, eventually leading to his new identity as Sandra. The road was very bumpy, including substance abuse, prostitution, and many other dangerous situations. Quite frankly, it’s surprising that Sandra survived.

Later in life, Sandra found love and married again. Although the relationship ended in divorce, she found her true calling with her trauma cleaning business. A big theme of The Trauma Cleaner, is Sandra’s life-long quest to find herself accepted, needed, and loved. The people whom she helps are often those who also feel lonely and abandoned. Sandra helps in a way that goes beyond a professional transaction; she treats all of her clients with tenderness and respect. She makes them feel valued, even when they don’t have the same feelings about themselves.

Sandra was born in the 1950’s, when the world was a far less accepting place for those who are different. It was shocking to read about how Sandra’s job options as a transsexual in her early adulthood were limited to prostitution and drag shows. It was something of a miracle that she was able to transition to living an open life with a traditional marriage and conventional job: first working at a mortuary, then with her husband, and eventually building her cleaning company. She’s is an inspiration.

DISLIKE– Not much. The only negative is that the chapters dealing with the present day were uneven with maintaining my interest. I’m not sure that we needed quite as many examples of the present day to truly grasp Sandra’s resilient spirit and empathy. The biography feels too long.

RECOMMEND– Yes! I was expecting more of a book about the business of trauma cleaning, but I’m thrilled that this was actually a story about an amazing woman overcoming adversity. The Trauma Cleaner is the type of story people should read to be reminded that everyone has their own troubles and that we should show compassion to everyone that we encounter. The world should be a kinder place.

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.