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.

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.

Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure

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Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton for providing me with an advance copy of Amy Kaufman’s book, Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Amy Kaufman provides an unauthorized look at The Bachelor franchise.

LIKE– I was a reluctant fan of The Bachelor,  including all of its many spin-offs. I became a fan of the show, when I was a caretaker for my aunt, who was obsessed. Now, years after my aunt has passed away, it remains one of my favorite “guilty pleasure” shows.

At one point Kaufman was officially invited by ABC to be part of the press for Bachelor events, but they found that she was being too negative on social media and she was blacklisted. To write Bachelor Nation, she combined her insider knowledge, research (there are so many interviews/articles/books) and she interviewed both previous contestants, and those who worked on the production. Not everyone would speak with her, but her book still feels comprehensive. My main take-away regarding Kaufman’s interest in the subject, is that she’s simply a huge fan of the show, warts and all.

It’s pretty trashy. I don’t think it will come as any surprise that The Bachelor is heavily produced and a large portion of Kaufman’s insider look involves exposing the tricks that the producers use to create characters out of contestants and manufacture story-lines. It’s more fascinating than the actual show. Let’s face it, producing is the primary reason that the show is compelling. I’ve not seen about 3/4 of the seasons, so I didn’t know all of the contestants, yet Kaufman explains the scenarios in a way that is easy to follow, without prior knowledge. Even a casual fan, will find Bachelor Nation to be an engaging read.

Kaufman has also alerted me to  the Lifetime series, UnReal, a fictional  look at the production of a Bachelor-esque show= I know my next binge weekend.

DISLIKE– Truely, I enjoyed Kaufman’s behind-the-scenes look, but I didn’t like how her writing style leaned towards informal, using a lot of slang to make herself sound relatable. It didn’t work for me. For example, she refers to her group of friends and fellow journalist that meet to discuss The Bachelor as “Bach Discush.” I cringed each time I read that.

RECOMMEND- If you watch The Bachelor or are interested in the behind-the-scenes of a reality show, Kaufman’s Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure, is a must-read.

The Tao of Martha

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PLOT– Humorist Jen Lancaster makes a New Year’s resolution to live her life guided by Martha Stewart.

LIKE– I adore Jen Lancaster. She’s absolutely hilarious and she writes in a way that makes you feel like you’re her best friend and she’s telling you crazy stories about her life over margaritas. Recently, I’ve been listening to her podcast, Stories We’d Tell in Bars, which she cohosts with her friend, Gina B. It’s a great podcast and I realized that although I’ve read most of Lancaster’s non-fiction books, there were a few that I have missed.

I spotted a copy of The Tao of Martha in Bearly Used Books, our local bookstore in Big Bear Lake and I knew it was a sign. This was one that I had been missing and life has been hectic, I could use a Lancaster pick-me-up. Her writing never fails to make me laugh.

Like Lancaster, I’m a fan of Martha Stewart. I’ve read Martha Stewart Living magazine and I admire her aesthetic, although it’s not something that I have put the effort into actually implementing. I lean more towards her ideas of home organization and steer clear of anything crafty. I don’t do crafts. In her experiment, Lancaster runs the gamut of Stewart principals, including throwing the perfect party, organizing her cupboards, and creating homemade presents.

Like Lancaster, I’m not a fan of Halloween, however, I could almost get into the spirit when I read about Lancaster covering pumpkins in sparkling glitter and creating gift bags for trick or treaters. I also appreciated the chapter where Lancaster creates an impeccably organized stockpile of supplies in preparation for a disaster or Zombie apocalypse.

This story isn’t all about Martha, it’s also about Maisy, Lancaster’s beloved dog who is facing failing health. Maisy has a fierce personality and manages to live years longer than anyone expected. Midway though the Stewart experiment, Lancaster and her husband, Fletch (another great personality in Lancaster’s books) have to make the difficult decision to put Maisy down. If you’re an animal lover, the story of Maisy and their bond with her, will resonate. You will cry. Another serious issue crops up when Lancaster has a breast cancer scare. If you’re a woman, it will make you schedule that mammogram.

DISLIKE–  Nothing. The Tao of Martha is another gem from Lancaster.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Lancaster is a treasure. I recommend The Tao of Martha and all of her books. In fact, you might want to start with her first book, Bitter is the New Black, as an introduction to Lancaster and to learn how she even became writer. Her podcast is definitely worth a listen!

Here is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World

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Thank you to Bloomsbury USA for providing a copy of Nate Staniforth’s memoir, Here is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Ever since Nate Staniforth was a child, he had always been captivated by magic, specifically, how a magic trick can bring a sense of wonder to even the most jaded adults. Staniforth persued his dream of becoming a magician and soon found himself burned out on a rigorous national tour and loosing what he had loved about being a magician. Stanfiorth takes a hiatus and travels to India to meet with street magicians, in the hopes that he can regain the spark that he had once felt for his craft.

LIKE– I absolutely love a magic show and I’m one of those adults that Staniforth loves to have in his audience, someone who allows themselves to be swept away by the wonder. Staniforth writes about the need as a performer to never allow yourself to lose your own excitement. A few years ago, my family went to see David Copperfield in Las Vegas. Copperfield is one of the premiere magicians in the world and Staniforth even mentions a childhood trip to see Copperfield perform. Copperfield’s show was the worst magic show and one of the worse live performances that I have ever seen. It had nothing to do with his talent and tricks, but everything to do with his lack of enthusiasm. Staniforth may not be as famous as Copeprfield (yet), but he knew enough to realize that he needed to take a break and reevaluate where his career was heading. I thought this was a very bold move, especially as he decided to take this risk just as his career was taking off.

I enjoyed reading about his travels in India, especially when he met with a family of magicians living in the slums. This portion of the story is very transformative, filled with sensory descriptions and self-reflection on the part of Staniforth. Staniforth is a likable narrator and it’s easy to join him on his journey, including the excitement that he experiences through his travels. It truly makes you realize that “magic” isn’t limited to a glitzy stage, but can be found in the every day.

DISLIKE– Nothing. This is Real Magic is a compelling, fast-paced memoir.

RECOMMEND– Yes! This is Real Magic is part memoir and part travel journal. It’s a wonderful pick for readers who enjoy magic, but who also can appreciate the wonders of every day life, especially lives different from their own.

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.

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death

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Thank you to Scribner for providing me with an advance copy of John Bateson’s book, The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– John Bateson explores the career of coroner Ken Holmes, who worked for California’s Marin County Coroner’s Office for over thirty-six years.

LIKE– Death and the business of it is fascinating. My aunt’s first husband was a coroner in Los Angeles County and although I didn’t know him, I heard of stories from his career via my aunt. Those stories are a big reason that I was drawn to The Education of a Coroner.

Bateson explores many of the cases that Holmes worked on during his career, including tough cases to crack and those that remain unsolved. Included are celebrity cases, suicide jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge, and even a case involving a cult. The Education of a Coroner is not gratuitous, but it does include details of death, which can be gory. I know that some readers would not be able to handle the details. They will definitely live in your mind for awhile. Bateson covers all areas of the job, including crime scene protocol, autopsies, trials, and behind the scenes office work. I learned that in many counties, the coroner is an elected position. It should probably worry the general public that in some parts of the country, the coroner is not even required to have any medical experience. With basically zero experience, anyone could be a coroner, even if they shouldn’t be. It’s scary.

Some of the cases were fascinating, especially the way that Holmes worked with the evidence to eventually solve a crime. Truly, no two cases were alike. I appreciate that the book touches on the sensitive subject of how Holmes spoke to the families of the deceased. I can appreciate that the job of a coroner is someone who wears many hats and speaking with loved ones must be among the toughest parts of the job; certainly not something that everyone would be able to handle.

DISLIKE– The pacing was occasionally sluggish, which I attribute to my unequal interested in all of the cases. Perhaps Bateson included too many cases, as not all were equally interesting or impactful. Less could have been more.

RECOMMEND– If your curious about the job of a coroner and if you like reading about various cases, then I highly recommend Bateson’s The Education of a Coroner. It’s not for the squeamish, but if you can stomach it, it’s an important look into a profession that greatly impacts our society.