Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

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Late in 2018, I began listening to Cathy Heller’s podcast, Don’t Keep Your Day Job. Heller’s inspirational podcast focuses on following your passion and creativity towards a meaningful career. On one of her episodes, Heller interviewed Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Duckworth has a very popular TedTalk on the subject of grit, which she turned into a deeper exploration in her book. In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she explores the idea of having grit and how grit could be a bigger predictor of success, then either talent or genius. A person who has grit has the drive to persevere and often that leads to success.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance made me consider my own level of grittiness. In some areas of my life, I’ve shown plenty of grit, which I always have attributed to stubbornness. However, I’ve definitely had dreams and chased them to a degree of success. I’ve done the 10,000 hours or damn near close, that is considered a bench mark for mastering a skill.

However, I can also remember a strange phenomenon from my middle-school years that was common with my peers, where it was more social acceptable to feign having not worked hard. That somehow to be smart, it only counted if it was innate and that studying was less-than. To ace a test or paper without having put in the effort was seen as a superior result. This of course, especially with adult hindsight, is ridiculous and pitiful. Luckily, this was short-lived and not an attitude that followed me to high school, where many of my friends worked hard for well-deserved success.

I’m not a parent, but during the chapters on parenting for grit, I could see how my mom pushed me. How she strove to instill grit. Truthfully, I wish she had pushed even harder, but I definitely appreciate that she went to the local parent-teacher store and bought workbooks for me. I always had extra mom given homework assignments on the weekends and every day during school breaks. She would drill me with flashcards and feed my love of reading with endless books. I’m not sure I liked the extra work, but it was a real benefit to me, instilling not only educational skills, but discipline and meeting expectations.

Duckworth gives a brief mention regarding parenting for grit with the distractions of modern technology. She has two teenager daughters and although her family is strict with technology rules, they are not perfect. I liked her response to whether or not millennials, distracted by technology, lack attention span and thus grit: she said that each generation has differences in culture and experience. Essentially, it’s unfair to judge millennials because of how their lives have been impacted by technology, that it is better to realize that they are growing up with a different experience. It was a light-bulb moment to think of different generations of having different cultures.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is filled with wonderful examples of grit, from cadets at West Point, to professional athletes, and even children competing in the National Spelling Bee. It’s a fascinating look at drive and passion that is truly inspirational.

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.

Murder by the Book

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In Murder by the Book, Claire Harman explores a horrific Victorian England crime that captivated the country. In 1840, Lord William Russell, a well-to-do senior citizen, was found nearly decapitated in his bed at his London residence. The hunt for the murderer focused heavily on Russell’s servants and finally yielded a confession from his valet, a Swiss national named Francois Benjamin Courvoisier. Courvoisier admitted guilt, but his testimony was often conflicting and although he was ultimately sent to the gallows for the crime, there has been doubt as to whether or not he was the actual murderer, or if so, did he have an accomplice?

Harman’s book doesn’t only focus on the murder, but also puts the crime in context of other events during the era. Much as there is a current trend for blaming video games, music, and movies for violence in our society, there was a similar situation occurring in Victorian England. In the mid 1800’s, people were captivated by crime novels. There was a popular book genre called the “Newgate Novel.” Named for the infamous Newgate prison ( where Courvoisier was held and hung), the novels romanticized criminals.

In particular, there was one Newgate Novel that rose to controversy with the murder of Russell: Jack Sheppard. Written by William Harrison Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, is the true crime tale that Courvoisier claims gave him the idea to murder Russell. Jack Sheppard was a huge part of pop-culture, which beyond the book, also was told through multiple stage plays, may of which were an inexpensive form of entertainment that all segments of society could enjoy and did so, by seeing the productions multiple times. The idea of a servant turning on their employees, especially in such a brutal fashion, was a panic at the time and led to even more criticism of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Novel genre.

Other famous authors, like Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, closely followed the Courvoisier trial. Dickens in particular became a strong opponent of public hangings, his thought being that the damage done by the public witnessing an execution, is greater than its act as a deterrent against criminal behavior. He witnessed Courvoisier’s execution and used his writings to speak out against the act. The last public hanging in the United Kingdom would occur just a few decades later. The way Harman describes the festival atmosphere around the execution is chilling.

A very interesting fact that Harman mentions is that a doctor wrote to Scotland Yard with an idea that finger prints might be used to identify the true murderer. This was before finger printing was used and the idea was dismissed, not be used until fifty years later. Harman mentions that had finger printing had been around, other Victorian era crimes, such as Jack the Ripper, might have been solved.

Murder by the Book took me about 1/3 to really feel invested in the story, but as soon as I reached that point, I couldn’t put it down. The crime is shocking, but the real fascinating element is how the crime informed public debate over art and social policy, such as executions. Violence has always been part of culture and art has always included violence, making this shocking case from 1840, just as relevant in today’s conversation. Does glorifying violence lead to violence? I don’t advocate censorship or banning art, but somewhere in all of this there does seem to be a problem that has been occurring for generations. I think mental health is likely the missing puzzle piece and by his own admittance, Courvoisier claimed to have been in a rage. At the time Phrenology, the pseudoscience of studying skull shapes to analyze mental traits, was all the rage. Of course now, Phrenology is not only disproven, but also associated with racism and the goal of proving superiority with certain races. However, it is interesting to note that even if the Victorians were on the wrong track with Phrenology, the idea of exploring mental imbalance and its association with violent behavior was of importance.

Harman’s book leaves the reader with much to consider and would be a great pick for book clubs or classrooms. It’s great for true crime enthusiasts and history buffs, as well for lovers of Victorian England authors. Murder by the Book is a compelling read for people who can handle the gory details!

 

We are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays

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I received Samantha Irby’s essay collection, We are Never Meeting in Real Life, as a birthday present from my husband. I think that he figured that he could never go wrong with presents involving both books and cats, with Irby’s cover sealing the deal. He was right.

An afternoon was lost, as I snuggled under a blanket and immersed myself in Irby’s essays. Her writing reminds me of one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris. Like Sedaris, Irby has a very unique and strong voice, that grabbed my attention immediately. I treated her essays like a bag of potato chips; just one more, until the whole thing was finished!

Like Sedaris, Irby has a knack for finding humor in dark places. Her essays tackle subjects such as family estrangement, failed relationships, and health issues. Like Irby, I lost both of my parents at a fairly young age and have had to navigate being an “adult orphan.” Although our situations are different, I could relate to her on this topic. It’s a situation that I do not share with any of my friends that are in my age group. I also found some of her anxieties and social issues to be similar to mine. Her sense of humor adds levity to these sensitive topics.

One of my favorite essays was Thirteen Questions to Ask Before Getting Married. In this essay, Irby answers questions from New York Times quiz that her wife, Mavis, sent to her shortly before they wed. It’s filled with somewhat generic questions that people should consider prior to marrying and Irby answers them with raw honesty. She is answering them from the perspective of someone who is comfortable with who they are and what they need. It made me think of my own marriages and how different my second marriage was from my first. When I met my current husband, I was in my mid-thirties and I knew what I wanted and needed. This was not at all the case with my first marriage at twenty-six. I’m not saying that young people can’t have very successful marriages, just that I didn’t. I needed to know myself better and to enter the union knowing what I needed and how to help my partner with what they needed.

Mavis also has children and Irby does not. I’ve never wanted my own children, but I became a stepmom with my second marriage. It’s such a mix of emotions, luckily mostly wonderful, but certainly something that I had never sought out. I could relate to Irby navigating this new territory. Being a stepmom is a joy and challenge, which Irby writes about with care and humor.

I recommend We are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays and I look forward to reading Irby’s other works. She’s a talent!

Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own?

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Thank you to Hazel Loutsis, for providing me with a copy of her travel book, Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own?: My Gap Year Traveling Solo at Sixty, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Hazel Loutsis was a single British woman approaching sixty, when she had a life-altering thought while at the dentist: rather than paying thousands of pounds for a procedure that she didn’t really need, she would spend the money on traveling the world. Loutsis put her affairs in order, bought a good backpack, and flew to India, to begin her year of adventure.

LIKE– Loutsis has an amazing adventurous spirit, embracing all of the experiences that come her way. She picks destinations that are off-the-beaten path, rarely declines trying new things, and truly gets to know the people living in the places that she visits.

I was intrigued by Loutsis style of travel. She keeps it simple, mostly staying in hostels (usually filled with college students) or in accommodations where she volunteers to earn her keep. She is easy-going when it comes to camping, long bus rides, and general discomfort. Honestly, I’m not sure that I could embrace her style of travel, yet I’m envious of the incredible experiences she had during her year abroad. It was certainly a deeper experience than the average traveler. Many times, these experiences seem to come as a reward for her experiencing discomfort, like amazing views after a grueling hike. Loutsis often favored small towns and nature, over big cities- which is also opposite to me. It was engaging to read a travel report from someone so different from myself.

My favorite part was when Loutsis decided to sleep under the stars, while on a tour of the Australian outback. She managed to sleep through Dingos raiding the camp. The Dingos stole sneakers from another woman in the group. Loutsis is told not to worry, since the Dingos don’t usually attack people!

I love travel writing, because it allows me to live vicariously through the author’s journey: Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own, is no exception. Thanks to Loutsis, I have many destinations to add to my bucket list!

DISLIKEAre We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own, is a straight-up travel journal. It was just like reading a travel diary from a friend and lacked a sense of style that is found in professional travel writing.

RECOMMEND- Maybe. I certainly admire Loutsis and I found much of her book to be enjoyable. That said, I’m not sure that it was unique among the many travel books that are on the market and certainly less polished.

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!

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.

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.