Hollywood Park

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Thank you to Celadon Books for providing me with a copy of Mikel Jollett’s memoir, Hollywood Park, in exchange for an honest review.

For those unaware, Mikel Jollett is the frontman and lyricist for the Los Angeles rock band, The Airborne Toxic Event. I’m a massive fan who has had the joy of seeing them live many times. The energy and storytelling of The Airborne Toxic Event affects me in a way that is unlike anything else.

Music is a funny thing. Like poetry, sometimes it is difficult to nail down why it speaks to you. With The Airborne Toxic Event, the songs and rhythm feel personal, and unique in capturing my experience growing up in Los Angeles.

Reading Hollywood Park and learning about Jollett’s life, made me understand my own life. Our situations are vastly different, but some of the childhood trauma rings true. It also helped me understand some of my early relationship choices and dysfunction. Like Jollett, I’ve reached a place in my life where I feel at peace with my past and hopeful for my future.

Jollett’s Hollywood Park was released as a memoir with an accompanying album of the same title. It is a grand undertaking that has been many years in the making. Both are fabulous and deeply affecting.

In his memoir, Jollett dives into his early childhood years spent at Synanon, a commune in California. Synanon was original started as place for recovering addicts, but over time, the leadership and motivations shifted. Jollett’s parents, his father a former heroin addict, and his mother, a Berkeley idealist, joined at a time when the commune was changing, including new rules that separated parents from their children. Jollett, and his older brother Tony, spent several years in an orphanage type arrangement in Synanon.

Their mother escaped with them in the middle of the night, but leaving Synanon was not easy. They feared retribution, and Jollett witnessed the severe beating of their mother’s boyfriend, who had also escaped the commune. Jollett’s mother suffered from mental illness and struggled with poverty. She had unstable relationships, including one man who was very abusive. Jollett’s father also left the commune, marrying Bonnie, another former Synanon member, who happened to work at the child center on the compound. Bonnie had bonded to Jollett when he was young and remained a second mother to him.

In Hollywood Park, Jollett comes to terms with the effects of his difficult childhood, which created problems in his adulthood. He carried the weight of his family, including the history of Jollett men going to prison, and falling into addiction. Even though he escape this family pattern, he was waiting for the other shoe to fall, as he found success with college, writing, and The Airborne Toxic Event. He struggled with relationships, always finding excuses to run away. After seeking therapy, he discovered that he had attachment disorder. Through therapy, he was able to prepare himself for engaging in a lasting relationship, which he found, and is now married with two children. It also prepared him to deal with his mother’s erratic behavior and the death of his father.

The title refers to a former Los Angeles landmark, a racetrack called Hollywood Park. Hollywood Park is a place where Jollett’s father used to escape for an afternoon of gambling and where he spent time with Jollett. The once glamorous race track fell into disrepair prior to it being torn down to make way for a football stadium. Jollett writes beautifully about these places that now only exist in our memory, both the physical places and the memories that we have of people we have lost. I lost my mom in 2008, and I have my own memories with her at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita Race Track.

Jollett doesn’t write much about The Airborne Toxic Event, but he does give insight to the origins of two of their early hits: “Wishing Well” and “Sometime Before Midnight.” This memoir isn’t really about the band, but more about the origins of the man who felt compelled to put his words into songs.

I was fortunate to attend a virtual book event for Hollywood Park that was hosted by Tattered Cover, a Denver based bookshop. The event was originally supposed to be live, but due to Covid-19, virtual was the next best option. It was actually great. Jollett joined us from his home and played several songs. He was gracious with answering questions and sharing intimate details of his life. A week after the event, I received a hardback copy with an autographed bookplate.

Hollywood Park is a stunning memoir. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting. It is a must-read for fans of Jollett, but even if you’ve never heard of The Airborne Toxic Event, I highly recommend Hollywood Park. It is one of the most affecting and engaging memoirs that I have ever read.

 

 

 

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!

 

Toil & Trouble

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, Toil & Trouble, in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a huge fan of Burroughs and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read his latest memoir. Much like his previous best sellers, Toil & Trouble dives into Burroughs’ life, including his difficult relationship with his mother and his relationship with his husband, Christopher. Burroughs has a quirky outlook on life and a wry sense of humor that cracks me up. He has a knack for great phrasing and I often pause while reading to admire his off-beat descriptions.

In Toil & Trouble, Burroughs claims to be a witch. His witch powers are hereditary, passed down from his mother. He is told that he is a witch as a young child and several incidences, particularly those involving premonition, lead him to believe that this is true.

I’m not sure if I believe in witches, but Burroughs makes a convincing argument. In any case, I recommend that readers go along for the ride and believe in the magic, because Burroughs does create magic with storytelling and the premise of Toil & Trouble ends in a lovely way, where we see that his witchcraft has managed to protect the person he loves the most. It’s truly a beautiful story and Burroughs has arranged the chapters for maximum emotional punch. In these pages, I really grew to love his marriage to Christopher and the life that they have built in rural Connecticut.

Aside from the heart-warming aspect of the story (and I fully suspect that Burroughs would never call himself heart warming), I delighted in the stories of Burroughs’ bizarre neighbors. In Connecticut, they have moved next-door to a former opera singer and her henpecked husband. These are nosy neighbors, the kind of neighbors that are perpetually awkward. I’ve had those neighbors and could completely relate to making efforts to avoid them at all costs, even to your own discomfort.

The chapter that had me laughing to the point of tears, involved Jeffrey, a very strange and narcissistic man, who was selling his lavish home. Burroughs’ friend, Maura, was the realtor selling Jeffrey’s home and she suggested that Burroughs’ come along to see the house. Jeffrey, a model, furniture builder, and jack-of-all-trades, was a force of nature. Quite honestly, I whole heartedly believe that Burroughs’ is giving an accurate recollection of his experience with Jeffrey, because the truth is stranger than fiction. This is too weird to be fake. It’s hilarious, but also a bit sad, as obviously Jeffrey is a troubled person and lacks the self-awareness to realize how he portrays himself to others.

Toil & Trouble is another home-run for Burroughs. I throughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. It’s funny and it has heart. Plus, as a bonus, the chapter have fun “witchy” themed names.

 

Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church

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Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing me with a copy of Megan Phelps-Roper’s memoir, Unfollow: a Memoir of Loving and Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church, in exchange for an honest review.

Unfollow is a memoir of faith and forgiveness that details Megan Phelps-Roper’s decision to leave the controversial Westboro Baptist Church. The church was founded and headed by Megan’s grandfather, Fred Phelps and is famous for its aggressive protest campaigns.

If you live in the United States, it’s very unlikely that you haven’t heard about the Westboro Baptist Church. They are constantly in the news for their hate-filled attacks towards what they believe is sinful behavior, such as homosexuality, even going as far as to protest at funerals of those whom they believe are sinners. The church is considered by many to be a hate group and they certainly do not shy away from hateful speech in efforts to have their message heard. They relish the attention and media coverage, including leveraging it to their advantage by arguing with those who disagree with their tactics.

I found Phelps-Roper’s memoir to be eye-opening and honest. I knew about their protests, but I didn’t know anything about the members of the church or its structure. The Westboro Baptist Church is comprised almost entirely of members of the Phelps’ family. It’s a small group. It rarely has outsiders join and therefore, is a very insulated group. I wrongly assumed that they would behave more like other conservative fringe groups, but what Phelps-Roper revealed was surprising to me. For example, the kids attended a regular school and were very familiar with pop culture, such as current music and movies. Pop culture was not forbidden or sinful. Although they had a modesty dress-code, it was probably even more liberal than other churches and did not become more restrictive until Phelps-Roper was an adult and deciding to leave the church.

The Phelps family is highly educated and above all, law degrees are prized. Fred Phelps was a lawyer and he encouraged his children to follow in his path, including Phelps-Roper’s mother. The women in the church take a very active role, using their education to fight lawsuits and also fight for their protections under freedom of speech. I suppose that this shouldn’t be surprising, as the Westboro Baptist Church has operated a shocking campaign for many years and has been able to defend their right to do so. I think most people, myself included prior to this book, would be surprised to learn that they are a very educated group of people with strong women.

I was also surprised that in his early years, Fred Phelps was a strong defender of civil rights. This is such a contradiction, as Phelps is in many ways a villain, yet he was also a strong activist, using his legal background to help the black community.

Phelps-Roper’s memoir is about a girl raised in the faith of The Westboro Baptist Church. She spent her childhood and young adult years at protests and believing the faith of her family. She even took on a stronge leadership role when she became an adult, which included spearheading their social media campaign. Yet, she was always questioning and engaging with people who had different beliefs. It took many years, but over time she began to have a crisis of faith. This crisis occurred around the same time that her church was undergoing changes, including a rise in male leadership and a suppression of women. She grew up in a church where every church member’s voice was heard, but now hers was being minimized. She saw terrible things happening to her immediate family, when they were accused of breaking church rules. She also began to see the ways to interpret the Bible and had doubts about her church doctrine.

I had mixed emotions for Phelps-Roper, as she made her decision to leave the church. Leaving the church mean’t a total cut-off from her family and although she left at the same time as her younger sister, Grace, they were two young women who were very alone in the world. I feel like it is important to make clear that I don’t agree with any of their principals, nor their tactics. I think what the Westboro Baptist Church does is disgusting. As much as I want to defend their and anyone else’s right to freedom of speech, I feel their sentiments are hate speech. It’s reprehensible. That said, I can’t image the bravery that it takes to make the decision to leave both your faith and your family. in addition, Phelps-Roper is a public figure and she had to leave under the scrutiny of the public eye, especially of those whom she hurt through her previous actions.

The amazing thing is how her memoir shifts to forgiveness. Phelps-Roper found many friends from those whom she had protested against and considered sinners. She was welcomed with many hugs and much forgiveness. It seemed like the people she had harmed were actually more willing to offer her forgiveness, than she was towards herself. Phelps-Roper continues to make amends by publicly speaking about her childhood in the church and writing books, such as Unfollow.

Unfollow is an important memoir for the insight that it provides. It’s very easy to hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, but it isn’t easy to take a deeper look at them. I still consider their speech and tactics to be hateful, but I also have a broader understanding of what it would be like to grow-up in that world and what it truly means to both seek and give forgiveness.

 

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!

See You in the Piazza

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Thank you to Crown Publishing for providing me with a copy of Frances Mayes’ latest book, See You in the Piazza, in exchange for an honest review.

See You in the Piazza, follows renowned travel writer Frances Mayes, as she tours the different regions of Italy. Mayes and her husband are American, but they own a second home in Italy and have fallen in love with the country. Mayes and her husband set off on a series of trips to discover and report on the best restaurants and landmarks in each region. On certain segments of their journey, which spanned over a year, they were joined by friends and other family members. The result is a love letter to Italy.

Mayes has a gift for lush imagery, especially her sensory descriptions of food and wine. Do not read while hungry! Mayes and her husband are definitely foodies and experiencing Italian cuisine is a huge focus of their travels. Although they do not shy away from experiencing local dives, the bulk of their dining is done at amazing five-star restaurants. I love to eat and experience incredible cuisine, but I seriously don’t know how they manage so many intense meals. As someone who has not yet (emphasis on “yet”) visited Italy, I was surprised by the regional differences in food and the variety of ingredients that encompass Italian cuisine. For those who love to cook, Mayes has included many recipes from the restaurants featured in her book.

Admittedly, See You in the Piazza was a slow read for me. I read it in small chunks and it took a few months to complete. it is long and written as a travel diary, which did not captivate my interest. It jumps between Mayes’ masterful writing and the vibe of having a neighbor tell you every tedious aspect of their last vacation. I love travel writing and I know that Mayes’ is respected in her field, but despite her gorgeous descriptions, I not sure that her style speaks to me.

I read an advanced readers copy, but I imagine that the published version will likely include photographs and maps, which would greatly add to the enjoyment of the book.

See You in the Piazza is a great pick for those who adore Italy or who have an upcoming trip in the works. Mayes provides much inspiration for places to visit and experience. It definitely made me wish that I could just jump on a plane and head to Italy!

Things My Son Needs to Know About the World

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Fredrik Backman’s memoir, Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a huge fan of Fredrik Backman and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review his latest book. Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, is Backman’s first memoir, a departure from the novels for which he has garnered world-wide acclaim. He last few novels (Us Against You and Bear Town) were exceedingly bleak and dark. I loved them, but they left me with a heavy feeling. Generally, the tone of Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, is humorous and light-hearted. Backman has a hilarious style of self-deprecating humor and I often found myself giggling while reading.

The memoir comprised of short chapters, some less than a page, all written within the frame work of advice that Backman wishes to impart to his young son. There is one sweet chapter where he speak directly to his wife, whom he clearly adores and references throughout his book.

Although mostly humorous, there is a running current of Backman’s serious fears and dreams for his son. For example, in one chapter he mentions the importance of finding a sports team. It’s not that he cares that his son plays or watches sports, but Backman sees the way that sports has created bonds in his own life. He wants his child to be able to bond with friends and he sees sports as an easy entry point, but he also fears that his son might develop interests in which he does not know how to relate. He wants his son to know that he will be a supportive father, no matter what, but that he also fears that they won’t have things to bond over. The bonding is vital.

Backman writes about a time when he was shot during a robbery in a convenience store and how just a matter of inches could have left him dead or paralyzed. He speaks to the importance of those inches in everything in life, how something so small can change everything. This chapter was exceptionally poignant and along with the rest of the memoir, made me understand more of why Backman chooses certain subjects for his fiction works.

My step-children are Swedish and live with their mom in Stockholm, so I was interested in the tidbits on parenting in Sweden. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but most of Backman’s concerns and dealings with other parents, are similar to sentiments that are echoed by my parent friends in the United States.

There is a hilarious chapter on navigating Ikea, which also rings true for the Ikea shopping experience in the United States. Follow those arrows!

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, Backman is a fabulous writer and someone whom I am always thrilled when he publishes a new work. I highly recommend all of Backman’s books!

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.

My Squirrel Days

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Thank you to Scribner for providing me with a copy of Ellie Kemper’s memoir, My Squirrel Days, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Comedian Ellie Kemper reflects on her childhood and shares stories from her journey towards success in the entertainment industry.

LIKE– I’m a huge fan of Ellie Kemper and I was happy to see that she is just as charming and funny the page, as she is in her acting roles.

My Squirrel Days strikes a good balance of stories from Kemper’s pre-fame years to tidbits from her professional career. I think this should be required reading for anyone who is interested in getting into the arts, as Kemper shares both rejections and triumphs, but most important she reveals her tenacity. I imagine that most people think that a regular role on a hit show like The Office, might bring instant fame and wealthy, but Kemper ( although not losing sight on her fortune in landing the role) keeps it in check and shows that not everything is as easy or glamorous as it seems. It reminded me of a similar sentiment that Anna Kendrick mentions in her memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody. Wealthy and fame do not always come quickly in the entertainment industry, even when you land a great role in a hit television series or film.

I really enjoyed the chapter on Tina Fey and the behind-the-scenes of Kemper’s show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I love this quirky show and I wish that Kemper’s memoir had included even more about Kimmy.

Kemper’s writer’s voice is hilarious. She sets up early on that she was a curious and intense child, a personality trait that carried into her adulthood. She often pokes fun at her own uber-driven behavior. One chapter focuses on her Soul Cycle addiction and how she was very particular about needing a certain bike in the studio. I don’t do Soul Cycle, but as a very particular, routine person, I found myself relating to this chapter.

Her fan-girl love towards David Letterman and excitement over being a guest on his show is a delight to read. Her wacky idea to make him toast is just awesome.

DISLIKE– I hate to say this, but although I enjoyed reading Kemper’s book, I don’t feel that it is a memoir that will make a lasting impression. Even as I am writing this review, about a week after finishing her book, I needed to go back to remember details.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you’re a fan of Kemper or breaking into the arts and needing to get a little encouragement. My Squirrel Days is a humorous, light-read that will brighten your day. Plus, gotta love anything with a squirrel on the cover!