Book Review: THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING by Morgan Jerkins

In This Will Be My Undoing, Morgan Jerkins exposes raw nerve after raw nerve, seemingly fearless about sharing her most vulnerable experiences. This book is technically an essay collection, but the essays bled together in my mind into something more closely approaching a memoir of Jerkins’s education as a black woman in a white world. It’s a great premise for a book, and Jerkins has a wealth of interesting experiences to draw on. Unfortunately, I really, really did not like the finished product. Sloppily edited, wildly uneven in tone, and at times self-contradictory in ways that felt un-self-aware rather than nuanced, I found it a deeply frustrating and unsatisfying read. I’m looking forward to seeing where Jerkins goes next–her talent is clear, so I’m not writing all of her work off as “not for me” just yet–but I think this collection is a dud.

You can read my full review below.


This Will Be My Undoing Cover
cover description: A black and white image of author Morgan Jerkins, a black woman wearing glasses and with her hair styled in long braids, leans back with her eyes closed. She looks peaceful and focused.

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

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  • publisher: Harper Perennial (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: January 30, 2018
  • length: 272 pages

When I was ten, I realized that I was black. In some ways, that had nothing to do with actual cheerleading, but rather with what blackness meant, writ large, learned from the experience of trying to force myself into this pristine, white, and coveted space, which spit me out before I could realize how much I had been abused.

–from This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

Reviewing memoirs and personal essay collections is always fraught for me. It’s extraordinarily difficult to take someone’s life story in my hands and not feel strange about nitpicking how they’ve told it to me. It is a gift when writers are willing to bare so much of themselves to us, and I try not to take it lightly.

That’s why, when I felt my first prickles of dislike about This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America–Jerkins’s debut essay collection–before I’d even finished the first essay, I felt so much dread and disappointment.

The actual experiences of misogynoir that Morgan Jerkins writes about could never be trivial, petty, or boring. They are critically important. I’m glad she’s writing about them. But in This Will Be My Undoing, I think her writing itself is all of those adjectives, and more.

First and foremost, the essays are rambling and unfocused. Not one essay stands out on its own in my memory. The events she writes about–racist taunts at cheerleading tryouts, witnessing a Nazi salute while tipsy in St. Petersburg, miraculously getting into Princeton after getting stuck on a waiting list of 1200 applicants–are notable, but robbed of their full power because their context is so wonky.

Anecdotes run too long, or too short. Truly shocking experiences go weirdly undertapped, while every last drop of portent and then some is wrung out of things that struck me as fairly mundane. Quotes and research are dropped in excessively where they’re not needed, but then her wilder claims (like one that’s been cited in many reviews already, where Jerkins asserts that every black woman she’s met has lost her virginity in a traumatic way) go unsupported.

Much of this could, and probably should, have been cleaned up by an editor before it ever reached my hands; in fact, it’s been a long time since a collection’s editing stood out to me so strongly, and not in a good way. Jerkins has chops, but even the best writers need good and challenging editors. This book doesn’t feel like it had one.

This Will Be My Undoing is at its best when Jerkins is writing from direct personal experience or historical research, and at its very worst when she tries to get into other people’s heads, and in its connective tissue between ideas.

For example, when Jerkins writes about a guilty preference for porn where blonde white women are penetrated and subjugated, the collection crackles with power. It’s uncomfortable and weird and great, because it’s one of the few times Jerkins fully seems to own and control what she’s writing about.

Conversely, my least favorite moment of the book is when Jerkins weakly points out that black disabled women are underrepresented beneath the umbrella of Black Girl Magic, because so much Black Girl Magic is about athleticism. Nothing about those paragraphs feels authentic or fresh. (Jerkins is not disabled.) It’s a thinkpiece-y attempt to unify ideas that do not need to be unified, to bring everyone into one big happy tent where they don’t actually need to be.

That essay, titled “Black Girl Magic,” is primarily about Jerkins’s labiaplasty. I appreciate that in a book so concerned with intersectional analysis, Jerkins is trying to incorporate disability into her lens. But the connection between labiaplasty and disability just doesn’t work. In fact, the labiaplasty itself seems to have very little to do with the theme of Black Girl Magic. It’s one more way Jerkins chooses to dilute a potent message by trying to make it universal, instead of doubling down on her own unique perspective.

It’s clear that Jerkins is willing to dive deep and go hard in pursuit of a great essay. That’s why it’s frustrating when she repeatedly pulls back at the last second and buries the good stuff between way too much 101-level explaining.

I don’t think the essays in This Will Be My Undoing work at all, much less the book as a whole. That’s a damn shame. ★★☆☆☆

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I purchased my own copy of This Will Be My Undoing and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias is an essay collection so essential that I’m pained that it didn’t exist fifty years ago, or thirty, or ten. Thank goodness we have it now. Chronicling Esmé Weijun Wang’s years of living with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder (along with other compounding chronic and mystery illnesses like Lyme disease), its essays go far deeper than abnormal psych 101s. Wang instead weaves in more open-ended themes of liminal space, the boundaries of science and belief, and what it means to be permanently sick. The keenness and heart of The Collected Schizophrenias reminds me of the very best of Joan Didion.

If you live with mental illness, especially one of “the schizophrenias,” you need to read this book. If a loved one lives with schizophrenia, you need to read this book. And if you just plain love terrific nonfiction writing, you need to read this book.

You can read my full review below.


The Collected Schizophrenias Cover

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang

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  • publisher: Graywolf Press
  • publication date: February 5, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

In these investigations of why and how, I am hoping to uncover an origin story. Pan Gu the giant slept in an egg-shaped cloud; once released, he formed the world with his blood, bones, and flesh. God said, “Let there be light.” Ymir was fed by a cow who came from ice. Because How did this come to be? is another way of asking, Why did this happen?, which is another way of asking, What do I do now? But what on earth do I do now?

–from the essay “Diagnosis” in The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

I knew I would love The Collected Schizophrenias the second I held it in my hands. It’s a sturdy paperback, perfect bound, with a cover design like a particularly lovely composition book. I knew I would love it because that is the kind of notebook they allow you to have in a psych ward–that or a legal pad, which is what I wrote on during my own stay. If you’re a writer in a psych ward, you know that such a notebook is an escape.

What’s inside The Collected Schizophrenias also feels like an escape from the overly simple and the simply overwrought. Esmé Weijun Wang establishes a distinct style from the first page, which begins, simply, “Schizophrenia terrifies.” It does. The escape velocity from that mind-numbing terror–similar to the escape velocity required from mere bland sympathy–is one part clarity, one part mystery, one part wild love for oneself, others, and the world. Wang nails the combo. This book does not put its author-subject on display the way so many mental illness memoirs and biographies do, as if this were a zoo or a classroom. She gently but firmly commands a more personal kind of attention.

In the essay “Perdition Days,” Wang documents weeks spent in the Cotard delusion, when she believed she was dead. In “Reality, On-Screen,” she writes about how watching the movie Lucy during a psychotic episode warped reality, and how watching Catching Fire after the episode restored it, fragilely. In “The Slender Man, the Nothing, and Me,” she compares her obsession with The NeverEnding Story’s The Nothing with the Creepypasta Wiki’s The Slender Man, who inspired two Wisconsin girls to stab a third.

In all three of those essays, Wang, a novelist as well as a nonfiction author, refers to needing to remove herself from fiction for her own safety when she’s psychotic. It’s a detail that moved me and perturbed me. I had never even considered it as a thing that someone might need to do. And that’s only one of many quiet but earth-shaking details in the The Collected Schizophrenias.

For each personal revelation here, there’s just as much research and reporting, on everything from the Americans with Disabilities Act to California’s dreaded 5150s to the story of Nellie Bly, the American journalist who went undercover to expose the terrible conditions in 19th century psych wards.

“The schizophrenias” of the title refers specifically to the kaleidoscope of diagnoses that make up psychotic disorders: schizophrenia, nonspecific psychoses, and schizoaffective disorder, a blend of schizophrenia and a mood disorder like bipolar or depression. Wang has that last schizophrenia: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.

Less specifically, “the schizophrenias” seems to be a way of talking about a life lived in, as Wang writes in “Perdition Days,” percentages. Percentages of sane. Percentages of psychosis. Schizophrenias.

Schizophrenia may onset in your late teens, twenties, thirties, long after your life is already on its course. I’ve thought about that endlessly. My bipolar I disorder crested and changed my life when I was 17. I was psychotic too, and when I started treatment they thought I might have schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, just as Wang does. I have now lived for years without psychosis. The schizophrenias seem to have been ruled out–for now. But I have always wondered if they might make up a second wave of my mental illness; now that I’m 24, they could be just around the corner.

After reading The Collected Schizophrenias, the thought of that potential new wave no longer feels frightening or crushingly sad to me. Wang gave me a picture of how my life–any life–might go on with schizophrenia; the way she writes about how her “physical” illnesses like chronic Lyme intertwine with her mental health only strengthens this picture of going on. The Collected Schizophrenias offers a new framework on how to be sick and whole–perhaps wholly sick–without losing your self underneath.

There are 13 essays in the book, and the only way you might know they were essays rather than chapters of a single memoir is that certain biographical information is occasionally repeated: Wang’s diagnosis (schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type), her acceptance to Yale, her work in a psychological research lab. Somehow this works to make the book more cohesive, not less; it feels faceted, and each time this information was repeated I felt a different way about it. The narrative is remarkably tight, even when it veers far from chronology.

Every essay in The Collected Schizophrenias reminded me of Joan Didion. Maybe that’s because I’ve been working my way through The White Album for the past two months. Maybe it’s because, like Didion, Wang has strong ties to California, and California permeates this book.

But I think most of all it’s because both Didion and Wang tell stories using decisive, crystallizing, anchoring words even when those stories are about the times they felt most anchorless. Wang’s prose here is lilting and light, punctuated just enough by sharpness and dark. Didion’s, too. They blend the detail and rigor of reporters with the wide-ranging questions and openness of artists. Neither writer is ever just one thing. They are full notebooks. Perfect bound. How lucky we are to have their words to escape into.

The Collected Schizophrenias is everything I want creative nonfiction to be: sharp and soft in all the right places, conveying things that dates and numbers and statistics cannot. What a stunning book. I found it life-changing. ★★★★★

Books you might also enjoy:

  • The White Album by Joan Didion
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks

I purchased my own copy of The Collected Schizophrenias and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE HOT ONE by Carolyn Murnick

I’m still recovering from surgery, which means my reviewing and reading pace has gone way down while I relax and nap. (Lots of naps!) I’m in the mood to catch up with older releases I’ve missed over the past few years, and that’s why it feels like the perfect time to review The Hot One, a memoir that’s been near the top of my TBR list since it first came out in 2017.

The Hot One, dramatically subtitled A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, is about the murder of writer and editor Carolyn Murnick’s childhood best friend, Ashley, who was the victim of a serial killer in the early 2000s. It’s also about the ways our adult selves diverge from our child and adolescent ones, and especially all the ways women are limited by one-dimensional definitions (for example, “the hot one” vs. “the smart one”).

The premise is powerful and The Hot One’s first third is excellent, but the book soon fizzles into what I found to be boring, confusing navel gazing. You can read my full review below.


The Hot One Cover

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder by Carolyn Murnick

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  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: hardcover in 2017, paperback in 2018
  • length: 272 pages (paperback)

In the courtroom I had seen in a new way what it looks like when a life is cut off at twenty-two. All the messy baby fat of emotional immaturity still stuck on you for eternity, paraded out for everyone to see.

–from The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick

A woman’s murder is never just her murder: it’s a stage for social commentary and catharsis, too. Usually it’s men drawing the conclusions, but in the true crime memoir The Hot One, it’s the victim’s female friend, Carolyn Murnick. Murnick uses the murder of her childhood friend Ashley as a jumping off point for big ideas about friendship, men, women, girls, the criminal justice system (kind of), journalism, sex, sex work, drugs, and most of all, herself.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot? It is, at least for Murnick. Her intense emotion is palpable and her courage in writing about this experience is admirable. But on the page, The Hot One feels remarkably understuffed. It’s simultaneously airy and swampy, overly personal and too broadly political, very dry and also too messy.

The memoir does crackle along nicely in its first third, in which Murnick details her friendship with Ashley and its tragic end. Murnick and Ashley were not close at the time of Ashley’s murder, and this is the best part of the book, although it is of course the worst part for Murnick. She is angry at herself for abandoning Ashley; she is angry at Ashley for abandoning her; she is angry at the fact of the murder for destroying any chance at reconciliation. That’s compelling stuff.

Crucially, it’s compelling stuff that also has a linear narrative. Murnick and Ashley become inseparable; they drift apart; the murder happens. It’s an arc.

It’s when that arc transitions into Murnick’s solo journey to come to terms with the murder that The Hot One becomes a voyeuristic-feeling slog, like you’re overhearing a stranger’s rambling therapy session rather than reading words assembled for publication. It’s told out of order, but not very effectively. I don’t mind piecing things together for myself, but it would be nice if it felt like I had the whole puzzle rather than odd parts.

I have the utmost respect for what Murnick has been through, and I want to be clear that in no way do I think the actions or emotions she describes in The Hot One are unseemly or wrong. I just think that they’re her actions and emotions, deeply private and inaccessible to me, and that unfortunately, The Hot One gives me little reason or opportunity to get invested in them. When Murnick is writing about Ashley, her prose shines. When she’s writing about herself, it just thuds. Unfortunately, this book is mostly her writing about herself.

The Hot One hammers certain points home again and again: that Ashley did sex work, that she was hot and flirty and confident, that she was slut-shamed and a drug user and living a double life, and that her murder was left unsolved for years partially because of all those things. (It was assumed she was killed by a jilted lover or that she had gotten tangled up in drugs or trafficking.) These things are stated and restated so many times that I found myself just skimming over them whenever they reappeared.

But The Hot One then leaves other points desperately unclear. There are weird interludes in the book where Murnick visits with astrology-obsessed friends who talk about how serial killers are often thwarted water signs. She visits a guy who’d once gone on a date with Ashley, and almost ends up sleeping with him herself, until he reveals himself to be kind of a cad. She’s asked to testify after tons of writing about how she was afraid to testify…and then we get barely any details about that testimony or what it felt like.

It’s not that these events are “wrong” or “unbelievable.” Again, nothing about Murnick’s experiences could be wrong or unbelievable in this traumatic context. It’s that the way she transcribes them for readers is murky, and worse, boring. I went from loving the book in its first chapters to loathing it by its midpoint, simply because I couldn’t understand what was going on or why it was relevant.

I also think Murnick’s reaches for political relevance are clumsy, especially with the new afterword in the paperback addition, which tries to tie the memoir to the #MeToo movement and to Murnick’s pregnancy. Her points about the ways girls both are defined and define themselves with narrow concepts like “the hot one” or “the smart one” are spot on, because they’re based in her experience. Her points about, say, the male gaze are…less spot on, since they veer wildly between talking about men’s literal gaze and the feminist concept of the male gaze without clearly distinguishing the two. Lots of other feminist concepts get similarly bungled, and the courtroom and criminal justice sections are frustratingly thin.

Like Emma Cline did in her (fictional) book about murder, The Girls, Murnick seems determined to draw wide conclusions from one narrow experience when the narrow experience is actually more compelling on its own. And as in The Girls, Murnick writes about the experiences of upper/upper middle class white girls without really acknowledging that many other kinds of girls exist, with many other archetypes than just “the smart one” or “the hot one” working against them.

The Hot One is of course different from The Girls, because Murnick is writing about her own experience. Yet it’s almost worse, in a way, since The Hot One has plenty of room for interesting research that could have filled those gaps, whereas The Girls was confined to a tighter narrative structure.

Murnick has published several excellent essays about her experience, including one that’s a condensed excerpt from this book, which is what motivated me to buy my own copy. In short form, her points are salient and gripping. But spun out into a whole book, they fizzle. It’s terribly disappointing considering how much I adored that excerpt.

The Hot One is a promising new kind of true crime memoir: one that turns its voyeuristic gaze on its author and her baggage, rather than on all the gory, salacious details of the crime. I just wish it had actually delivered on that promise. ★★☆☆☆

Books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of The Hot One and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 7.27.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week in my bookbag, I’ve got a sober meditation on climate change, a literary take on Korea’s Gwangju Uprising from the author of The Vegetarian, a futuristic video game-themed YA adventure, and more. Let’s dive in!


Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore by Elizabeth A. Rush

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New American Shore Coverthe premise: Author Elizabeth Rush reports on areas on the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and beyond that are threatened by rising seas and climate change. From worsening natural disasters like hurricanes to islands literally drowning beneath incessant waves, Rising is a polyphonic portrait of a world on the brink of change.

why I’m excited: Excited is perhaps the wrong word for this one, as climate change is an issue I’m deeply worried about, and I think this book will cause me no small amount of anxiety. But I’m looking forward to immersing myself in Rush’s reporting and educating myself on what’s happening on the coasts. I currently live in Minnesota, which is about as far from an ocean as you can get in North America. (We have Lake Superior, but that doesn’t count in this case.) I’m not affected by climate change with as much urgency as the communities Rush documents are, and I consider it a duty to inform myself. Every review I’ve read of this book does praise Rush’s skillful, lyrical writing and interviewing, so I hope it won’t be an entirely self-flagellatory exercise.

Human Acts by Han Kang

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Human Acts Coverthe premise: Set against the backdrop of the bloody 1979 Gwangju uprising in South Korea, Human Acts is a series of interconnected stories about people desperately trying to make a difference–and survive. It spans three decades of lead-up and follow-up to Chun Doo-hwan’s declaration of martial law that led to the deaths of anywhere from 160 people to around 2000. (For more information on the premise of the novel, the history of the Gwangju uprising, and Han Kang’s personal connection to both, I recommend reading Min Jin Lee’s excellent article, “Korean Souls,” in the New York Review of Books.)

why I’m excited: I remain obsessed with Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, which I reviewed a few months ago as “extraordinary and…nauseating, like a spinning theme park ride with its speed cranked up one level past safety.” Where The Vegetarian was almost claustrophobically personal, Human Acts appears to break wide open, encompassing more stories and larger events. Also, I know embarrassingly little about the history of Korea (especially South Korea), and I’ve recently found fiction to be a good way in. From Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum (about Japanese occupation and comfort women) to The Hole by Hye-young Pyun, which I wrote about in a previous Friday Bookbag, I’ve been striving to read more works by Korean and Korean diasporic authors, and I look forward to adding Human Acts to that list.

Driven: A White-Knuckled Ride to Heartbreak and Back by Melissa Stephenson

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Driven Coverthe premise: For Melissa Stephenson, cars are (and were) an escape, from her blue collar childhood in Indiana, to her brother’s suicide, to camping trips with her kids in a VW bus. Driven is a memoir of her relationship with her brother and her healing after his death, structured around the cars she’s loved over the years.

why I’m excited: I can’t say that the “cars” part of the premise sets me on fire. My partner’s a mega-gearhead, but I’m not. This memoir seems to be about more than cars, though. It seems like it’s also about family, and healing, and independence, and how sometimes running away from something can also mean running towards our better selves. It’s being billed as similar to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a book I adored. I certainly hope it scratches the memoir itch I’ve had recently.

Warcross by Marie Lu

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Warcross Coverthe premise: Warcross is an immersive international video game sensation: think Fortnite meets Overwatch meets World of WarcraftEmika Chen is a hacker and bounty hunter who scrapes out a living hunting down people who bet on Warcross illegally, but she risks it all when she decides to make quick cash by hacking into the Warcross championships. She’s caught–but instead of getting arrested, she gets an appointment with the elusive founder of Warcross, who offers her a job in Tokyo as a spy…where she uncovers fortunes and dangers greater than she’d ever imagined.

why I’m excited: It’s hard to beat a good YA sci-fi thriller–they’re like a surprise trip to an amusement park in the middle of a dreary reading schedule–er, work week. I’m especially excited about this one because I loved Marie Lu’s Legend series (Goodreads) when I was a teen, and also because Lu worked in video game design before she was an author, so I think Warcross will be full of cool (and maybe even accurate!) details.

The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh

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The Occasional Virgin Coverthe premise: Two women–Yvonne and Huda–were raised in restrictive households in Lebanon: one Christian, one Muslim. When they meet on vacation in Italy, their complicated pasts threaten to interfere with the powerful and successful professional lives they take pride in now.

why I’m excited: I enjoy fiction that delves into religion and its effects on our lives, and I especially enjoy that one protagonist is Christian and one Muslim. Christianity and Islam are so often set up as an either/or that a novel that deals with their similarities is hugely exciting to me. I also love novels that explore how the values we’re raised with can interfere with the values we wish to have now. This novel could turn out to be sloppy or melodramatic in execution a la The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (which has a semi-similar premise), but I like the idea enough to give it a shot.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE GOSPEL OF TREES by Apricot Irving

The Gospel of Trees is an ambitious memoir: it’s both a personal reckoning and a much bigger historical one; it’s a microcosm of one missionary family and also a macrocosm of the tangled legacy of missionary work around the globe. In it, Apricot Irving recounts her personal experience growing up as a missionary’s daughter in Haiti–Ayiti Cherie–while weaving in meticulous and nuanced research about the island’s brutal colonial history. It’s a little too long and its structure comes somewhat unglued by the end, but it’s still a top-notch memoir by a gifted writer that will reverberate with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


9781451690453

The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving

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  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: March 6, 2018
  • length: 384 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

When we don’t know what to make of a situation, we grope for a familiar pattern, a path worn into the grass. The danger, of course, is that by imposing our own expectations, we fail to see anything clearly. I am as guilty of this as anyone.

Stories, like archaeology, are fragmentary, composed of scraps and nuances, and–depending on what is left out–most narratives can be constructed so as to end in either glory or ruin. But the missionaries I had grown up with were neither marauders nor saints; Haiti was neither savage nor noble. The truth was far more complicated.

The Gospel of Trees, page 1

Publishing is full of books by white people who write about how they saved the “Third World” or how the “Third World” saved them. Luckily, The Gospel of Trees feels like a sort of antidote to this disrespect and tackiness: written by a white woman who was once a missionary’s daughter in Haiti, it somehow turns these tropes upside-down and inside-out, transforming them from cardboard cut-outs into something rich and new.

Apricot Irving is the daughter of white farmers who picked up everything and moved to northern Haiti as missionaries in the 1980s; Irving and her sisters went with them. At first the girls were enchanted by the beauty and opportunities of their corner of the island–especially the paradoxical and uncomfortable luxury they enjoyed as blan outsiders, a sharp contrast to their austere lives in the States–but paradise soon crumbles beneath their father’s single-minded desires and anger and their mother’s growing exhaustion.

Irving draws on a wide array of material to build the narrative: her own diaries, those of her parents, the ever-optimistic and fundraising-oriented missionary bulletins sent back to American churches, field research, historical documents, and personal letters; the facts never feel mushy or in doubt.

She is also impressively introspective throughout: she writes about some of her most unflattering thoughts and actions with a thoughtful openness I can’t even imagine possessing. It allows her to tackle enormous questions of race, wealth, religion, power, privilege, misogyny, and more without it coming across as yet another guilty white person looking for absolution. It’s clear that she’s either found absolution within herself or has given up on finding it, so there is–refreshingly–not a drop of neediness left on the page.

It’s all tremendously effective right up until the latter third, which sees Irving first leaving Haiti as a teenager and then returns again and again as an adult. The tight structure of the first two parts is replaced by a confusing coming-apart that muddies things; all the powerful contradictions and ironies from earlier pages seem to fizzle out as Irving doubles back and forth and back again.

But this is a top-notch memoir regardless of that slump. Irving is a stunningly talented writer; better yet, she’s a stunningly talented thinker, someone who seems capable of holding multitudes within her without flattening sharp edges in the process. (I wish I had that talent.)

The Gospel of Trees is neither bitter nor sweet; it’s not even merely bittersweet. It contains a whole and dazzling palette. It haunted me as I read it and it will continue to haunt me long after I’ve set it down. ★★★★☆


My copy of The Gospel of Trees came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.27.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week my bookbag is packed with all sorts of goodies: a mind-bending short story collection, a midcentury mystery, a “dystopian” literary novel with a twist, and a memoir of the complicated legacy of missionary work in Haiti. Let’s dive in!


All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

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9780399593000the premise: This collection of nine short stories spans centuries and genres is “united by each character’s struggle with fate,” according to the inside flap. The stories also explore science, religion, and the overlap between them, with settings ranging from Andrew Carnegie’s fiery steel mills to the Old West to futuristic genetic labs. At least, I think that’s the premise–short story collections are very hard to summarize before I’ve read them, so I hope I’m doing this one justice.

why I’m excited: This book’s cover is sublime, and I’m not too proud to admit that that’s what drew me in first. Second was the fact that short story collections are a delight to read; I love getting the chance to catch my breath between each story in a way that can’t happen between chapters in novels. Third, Anjali Sachdeva is playing with the boundaries of literary fiction and sci-fi in ways I find delightful. This is right up my alley.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

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9780316272476the premise: In the summer of 1965, the two children of Ruth Malone–a single mother and cocktail waitress–go missing. Malone herself is immediately suspect, her fashionable clothing and makeup, taste for booze, and interest in men making her a target of gossip in her tight-knit Queens, New York community. As the investigation and trial unfold, journalist Pete Wonicke is assigned to cover the case, and he finds himself increasingly entangled in Ruth’s mysterious web: is she a heartless murderer or an unlucky victim of misogyny and the rumor mill? The answer might lie in between…

why I’m excited: I eat up Midcentury stuff with a spoon (Mad Men is hugely flawed but one of my favorite shows for this reason), so a murder mystery set in 1965 New York? That’s a slam dunk for me. I also love books about journalists (check) and ones that dive deep into misogyny and the toxic and contradictory expectations we place on mothers (check). I can’t wait to get lost in this book.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

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9781941040010the premise: Peggy Hillcoat is kidnapped and taken to the middle of nowhere by her ultra-survivalist father when she is eight years old. He lies to her and tells her that the rest of the world has been destroyed, and the two share a harsh, isolated life in rural Britain for years before Peggy stumbles upon a pair of boots that lead her back to civilization, her mother, and a secret that threatens to tear her apart.

why I’m excited: I was trying to figure out why this title sounded so familiar when I realized that Our Endless Numbered Days is also the title of an Iron & Wine album. It’s the perfect title for this story, which puts a great twist on typical apocalypse stories. I grew up homeschooled on an extremely isolated and dysfunctional farm in rural Minnesota; like History of Wolves rang true for me back in October, I think this book is going to feel heartbreakingly personal, so I’ll keep a box of tissues handy when I read it.

The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving

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9781451690453the premise: Apricot Irving grew up in Haiti as the daughter of an environmentalist missionary determined to reforest the country’s devastated hillsides. In The Gospel of Trees, Irving reckons with that past, writing about the bitter legacy of colonization and the unintended consequences of trying to “save” a country you barely understand.

why I’m excited: Missionary work fascinates me because it’s so contradictory. It’s a supposedly altruistic act that often has terrible consequences. It’s rife with painful family drama (The Poisonwood Bible, anyone?) even though it’s all about bringing more people into a Christian fold that idealizes family. And its racial and colonial dynamics are particularly traumatic and messy. I’m excited to read this book, both because Irving has led an interesting life and I think it will be interesting to read about, and also because I hope it will help me sort out my own complicated feelings on this subject.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: TOO AFRAID TO CRY: MEMOIR OF A STOLEN CHILDHOOD by Ali Cobby Eckermann

From 1910 to 1970, it was official Australian government policy that Aboriginal children should be removed from their families whenever possible in order to assimilate them into white culture. The children harmed by this practice are known as the Stolen Generations, and author Ali Cobby Eckermann is just one of their number. She recounts the vicious racism, sexual abuse, domestic violence, addiction, and physical injury that she has experienced, but this memoir–told in alternating poetry and prose–is as focused on her return to wholeness as it is on her wounds. Too Afraid to Cry is lovely even when the experiences Eckermann recounts are brutal, and I turned the last page feeling calm and hopeful that even in the face of great injustice, it’s never too late for healing.

You can read my full review below.


9781631494246

Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood by Ali Cobby Eckermann

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  • publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W.W Norton & Company)
  • publication date: March 6, 2018 (first published in Australia in 2012)
  • length: 224 pages
  • cover price: $25.95

I wanted to be by myself and not think about the new school, so I climbed to my favourite place, my old cubby built high in the pine trees, where no one could see me. I watched strips of clouds float through the leaves, and let my thoughts drift with them. Daydreaming had become my new pastime. Mum said daydreaming was an age thing, and that I would hopefully grow out of it soon.

Too Afraid To Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood, page 59

It’s rare that I read a book in one sitting; I’m an easily distracted person with a low threshold for getting overwhelmed and upset, meaning that intense books like this one usually take me a dozen or so attempts to finish. To my pleasant surprise, I finished Too Afraid To Cry over the course of one morning on my couch. It helps that this memoir is short, but that’s not the only reason: Ali Cobby Eckermann is an astonishingly gifted writer who seems to have an abundance of goodwill towards herself and her readers, and though she’s experienced awful things in her life, she grants us all the joys she’s experienced, too.

If you’re not familiar with Australia’s racist assimilationist policies that targeted Aboriginal children (especially “half-caste,” or mixed race children), two good primers come from Australians Together and the New York Times. In short, the policies tried to force Aboriginal culture to “die off” by adopting out these children to white families and forbidding them from speaking and practicing their language and culture. It’s a brutal, white supremacist practice that continues unofficially today, and I was glad that I had researched it a bit before reading Too Afraid To Cry, since Eckermann’s approach to the tragedy is decidedly micro and doesn’t fill in the blanks for the uninformed.

Adopted away from her mother to a white German Lutheran family when she was just a baby, Eckermann grew up ostracized by neighboring white children and warned away from neighboring Aboriginal children, whom her adoptive parents considered a bad influence. Suspended between cultures, Eckermann turned to alcohol and drugs, eventually adopting away the son she had out of wedlock when she was 18–inadvertently continuing the cycle of the Stolen Generations.

The memoir opens with Eckermann recounting the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of a family friend while her mother was in the hospital, and I braced myself for another Very Difficult Book (I’ve read a string of those lately). Instead, Too Afraid To Cry opens like a flower after that first chapter instead of closing like a fist. Eckermann doesn’t shy away from writing about her pain, whether it’s racist taunts she heard in the schoolyard or the broken leg she got when her foster brother ran over her leg with his car. But she pays just as much detail to to the lovely parts of her life: the joy of beach vacations, chasing camels in the desert, her friends in the pub, her barbecue wedding, and her eventual reunion with her Aboriginal family.

If you’re looking for a book to teach you about the big, overarching facts of Australian assimilationist policy and the Stolen Generations, Too Afraid To Cry isn’t it. Instead, it’s something much smaller, more precise, and truer: Eckermann offers up her life in piercing, unaffected prose, her lack of judgment disarming, her ultimate redemption reassuring.

I always admire writers who pick a small task and then do it to the nines. That’s exactly what Eckermann does here, in lyrical, slightly accented prose that reads just like a good storyteller sounds. Even the poems that alternate with the prose chapters–a technique I often find gimmicky–feel exactly right. (It helps that Eckermann is a renowned poet more than she is a prose writer.)

My favorite part of the memoir was the final quarter, where Eckermann recounts meeting her Aboriginal family for the first time and beginning the process of healing with them. It’s such a hopeful thing to read in a world that feels decidedly un-hopeful. It’s so wonderful to think that despite the trauma Eckermann’s been through, it still wasn’t too late for her to find a measure of peace. I think there’s a tendency in literary fiction and memoir to drive home that the world is a terrible place, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read a book that posits that in fact we are all, at our core, resilient.

I can’t recall the last time I’ve read a memoir as cleansing, as purifying, and as hopeful as this one. While reading Too Afraid To Cry, I felt as though Eckermann had extended me a hand, promising me that despite the fear and trauma of the now, we can still build a better tomorrow, one where no child is stolen and everyone belongs. 5/5 stars.


My copy of Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.