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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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.

Friday Bookbag, 4.6.18

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 I’m on a nonfiction kick: I picked up a memoir from a survivor of Australia’s Stolen Generations and a more lighthearted collection of essays on knitting, crafting, second sock syndrome, and boyfriend sweater curses. Let’s dive in!


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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781631494246the premise: Ali Cobby Eckermann is a survivor of Australia’s “Stolen Generations”–the generations of Aboriginal Australian children forcibly taken from their families and communities by the Australian government in order to be placed with white families. The practice fragmented Aboriginal culture and subjected children to horrific abuse, but the practice unofficially continues today. In this slim memoir, Eckermann writes about her experience from traumatized child, to rebellious adolescent, to an adult who has finally found acceptance in the culture that is her birthright.

why I’m excited: This memoir received a positive review in Shelf Awareness a few weeks ago; the reviewer praised Eckermann’s co-mingling of poetry and prose as well as the powerful story she has to tell. I’ve been on a memoir kick lately and am especially looking for memoirs from marginalized writers; this fits the bill.

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781250095619the premise: Alanna Okun took up knitting to keep anxiety at bay and regain control of her life. If that seems dramatic, well, crafting is dramatic: you transform a pile of raw materials into a meaningful object that often takes on a life of its own (the collection is titled after the dreaded “Boyfriend Sweater Curse,” the idea that knitting or crocheting a sweater for your partner will cause you to break up). The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is a punchy, short, and sweet collection of essays exploring the role of crafting in Okun’s life and in the world at large.

why I’m excited: I decided I had to read this book when I saw the adorable sweater that Okun knit for the book on release day. Okun is also a senior editor for Racked, my favorite fashion website (it does some of the best longform reporting around), so I’m hoping that this book will do what Racked does best: take “women’s interests” seriously and contextualize their place in the world. I’m an amateur crafter (I knit terribly and love to sew) who comes from a family of crafty women, and I’m looking forward to reading a book that celebrates crafting’s peculiar power.


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: THIS IS JUST MY FACE: TRY NOT TO STARE by Gabourey Sidibe

Gabourey Sidibe’s bubbly, laugh-out-loud personality bursts from every page in this memoir, full of stories about growing up in Bed-Stuy, her depression and eating disorder, her time as a phone sex operator, her start in acting, and her complicated family–Sidibe’s mother is a subway singer, and her father is a polygamous Senegalese cab driver. As a memoir, it’s all over the place, but because Sidibe’s life is so genuinely interesting, this compulsively readable book feels like a slumber party with a good friend instead of your typical celebrity vanity project.

You can read my full review below.


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This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

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  • publisher: Houghton Mifflin
  • publication date: May 1, 2017
  • isbn: 978-0-544-78676-9
  • length: 256 pages

It’s safe to say that This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare is the first celebrity memoir I’ve ever purchased, and maybe even the first I’ve ever read. I do follow celebrity culture, but I’ve never been very interested in what celebrities have to say beyond their short blurbs in fashion magazines. The average celebrity’s life is so extremely different from my own that their memoirs might as well be written in Cyrillic for all I’ll relate to them.

But Gabourey Sidibe is different.

Sidibe is definitely a celebrity–she now appears on Empire and multiple seasons of American Horror Story–but I’d never realized how unusual her path to her success has been. Discovered at the age of 24 when was cast from among hundreds of girls for the starring role in Precious, an indie movie about a teenager trapped by extreme poverty and incestuous abuse, Sidibe recounts how fame didn’t protect her family from being evicted from their Brooklyn apartment; she writes about walking red carpets in dresses from mall retailer Torrid alongside women wearing ultra-high-end couture.

Precious went on to be nominated for numerous Oscars, including a lead actress nomination for Sidibe herself–but you get the sense that Sidibe has never quite lost her outsider status.

She opens the book with anecdotes about how much time she’s spent agonizing over mean tweets and Instagram comments from strangers–something I’d never even imagined a celebrity would do, but that in hindsight, makes sense. Self-flagellating over social media is, unfortunately, a pretty normal thing to do; Sidibe just has more ammunition than most. Her hurt is palpable on the page, instantly elevating This Is Just My Face from “Celebrities! Just Like Us!” to something far more interesting and true.

The memoir isn’t written linearly, something that could be both frustrating and charming. The effect is like talking to an extremely excitable but interesting friend. At times, you kind of want to interrupt for clarification–but to do so would throw off the flow. Conversations are rarely told in chronological episodes; instead, there are through-lines, and This Is Just My Face is the same way.

Sidibe’s complicated relationship to her parents is one such through-line. Her anecdotes are startlingly honest: she’s open about her distaste for her father, who entered into a green card marriage with her mother and then promptly engaged in polygamous relationships with women in New York City and in his native Senegal; she’s open about her frustration with her beloved mother, a subway singer whom Sidibe thinks should spend more time being happy. Most painfully, she’s open about how much her fame and income have poisoned her relationships with relatives who now always seem to have their hand out.

But just as she’s honest about the hard times, she’s also honest about the good ones. She’s especially good at finding the humor in her time as a phone sex operator, where her quips sharpen the emotional power of her anecdotes. (In one of the best parts of the book, she recounts the stories of people who called phone sex lines just for conversation, particularly troops stationed abroad.)

The memoir concludes with a chapter about the notebooks upon notebooks of self-insert *NSYNC fanfiction Sidibe wrote as a teen and 20-something; this chapter directly follows an anecdote about how emotional she felt while meeting President Obama. Somehow, the revelation of how much time she’s spent writing fanfic isn’t surprising, since This Is Just My Face feels like the work of someone who somehow stepped right into her own daydreams.

Going from a 24-year-old struggling psychology student and phone sex operator to getting an Oscar nomination? Meeting Oprah? Mo’Nique? The President of the United States? That’s amazing, and Sidibe never seems to forget it.

This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare feels more like a heart-to-heart conversation than words on a page. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and a refreshing take on what memoir can be. 4/5 stars.


I purchased my own copy of This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 1.5.18

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.

I ran a little wild in the nonfiction and memoir section of the Kindle Store this week and have an abundance of riches to share, so my descriptions of each book will be more abbreviated than they’ve been in previous weeks.

Ready? Let’s dive in.


9781492649359The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: This real-life story of the factory workers who were poisoned by the glow-in-the-dark radium paint used to paint the faces of watches is almost too sad and bizarre to believed. I find radioactivity fascinating and would be interested in this book for that alone, but as a bonus, this book has also received rave reviews.

9781250080547The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: In a culture that has a difficult relationship with sex to begin with, sexual crimes and abuse become even more difficult to unpack. Marzano-Lesnevich’s memoir contrasts her own horrifying history of being sexually abused by a family member with that of a man whose murder of a child was sexually motivated. This book has received less critical adoration than some of the others I bought this week, but I’m intrigued by its blend of true crime and raw memoir.

9780544786769This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love Gabourey Sidibe’s particular brand of carefree style and her amazing sense of humor. I’m not usually interested in celebrity memoirs, but Sidibe isn’t an ordinary super-rich, disconnected celebrity. Best-known for her Oscar-nominated role in Precious, Sidibe has also appeared on American Horror Story: Coven, Difficult People, and Empire. She’s one of the celebrities I’d most like to meet in real life, and I’m hoping this memoir is just as down-to-earth as I’ve found her online presence and acting to be.

9781616204624Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: This was my biggest impulse-buy of the shopping spree. Who knows if this book will turn out to be as compelling as its eye-catching cover, but I love good science writing and I’ll admit that I’m curious as to why cannibalism is such an intensely repulsive taboo. The line between “animal” and “human” has always seemed disconcertingly thin to me, and it looks like this book will explore that quite a bit.

9780062422910My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward: A Memoir by Mark Lukach

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I’ve experienced a week-long stay in a psych ward myself, and I absolutely love memoirs about psych wards, as painful as they can be to read. I know that my own experience of mental illness has been devastating–although my health has improved a lot since that week five years ago–and I’m intrigued about the perspective Mark Lukach has as the spouse of someone with severe mental illness. I’m sure that this is going to be a heart-wrenching read for me, but I hope it will be a healing one, too.

9780062379290The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love food, I love history, and I especially love Southern food and Southern history. What a treat for me that this book includes all of that. Twitty explores the unique forces that have shaped African American cuisine in the Deep South, from slavery to African heritage to religion. I’ll have to keep snacks on hand while reading, because I can guarantee that this book will make me hungry. Its goal of tracing African American lineage in the South reminds me a lot of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a novel I adored, so I’m excited for that element as well.

9780062362599Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love Roxane Gay’s Twitter and used to obsessively read her short stories available online, but I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t read any of her books. Bad Feminist, her collection of essays, has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I’m planning to finally tackle it this month–but I’m actually more excited about this memoir, which unpacks her history of disordered eating. I’ve struggled with guilt about my weight for years and am looking forward to reading a book by another fat person about the complexities of the experience.

9781328663795Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler

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why I’m excited: Okay, so this one’s cheating a little bit…this book was actually my Christmas present to my partner during our annual trip to Barnes & Noble, where we each pick out a book for the other. An account of the relationship between Nazi Germany and drugs, particularly heroin and methamphetamine, this book caused quite a stir when it was initially published in Germany and I can’t wait to read it when she’s finished.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

4 oldie-but-goodie books about food and farming to read this Thanksgiving

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image source: picjumbo.com

I love cooking, good food, and that peculiar quiet that happens when most stores and offices are closed (don’t get me started on Black Friday creep), so Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s also a holiday based on over-simplified feel-good fibs, and can also stir up unpleasantness about everything from eating disorder recovery to acrid family politics.

In other words, it’s complicated, kind of like our national relationship with food on the whole. To celebrate–or at least commemorate–the upcoming food frenzy, I’m sharing four of my favorite food and farming books that would be perfect for savoring over the long weekend.


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (with Camille Kingsolver and Steven L. Hopp

9780060852566Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Troubled by the ecological toll of modern agriculture, particularly the fossil fuel expenditures involved in transporting food from farm to grocery store to table, Barbara Kingsolver and family moved to Appalachia and embark on a year of local eating. The result is this book, which is adventurous, funny, alarming, warm, and also a love letter to Appalachia.

If you’re a fan of Kingsolver’s fiction, you know that she is deeply concerned with themes of family and sustainability, making this memoir–peppered with nonfiction reporting on food issues and environmentalism–even more charming. The window into Kingsolver and her family’s life is as precious as the window she opens onto our alienating modern food system.

Hit By a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn by Catherine Friend

9781569242988Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Certified city girl Catherine Friend fell in love with a woman who dreamed of farming, so the two picked up and moved to southeastern Minnesota to raise sheep and wine grapes. In Hit By a Farm, Friend explores the steep learning curves of both farming and long-term relationships, and it’s as much a book about her partnership with her now-wife Melissa as it is a book about farming.

Still, there’s plenty of farming and food commentary to be had, accompanied by a glimpse of the swath of writing life that exists between unpublished nobody and runaway bestseller–Friend is a moderately successful technical writer and romance author as well as farmer. This book is laugh-out-loud, bust-a-gut funny, and Friend’s no-nonsense approach to her relationship with Melissa makes this one of the great lesbian memoirs–if such a sub-genre exists–too.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

9781416551614Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Dirty Life is another fish-out-of-water memoir, recounting formerly-of-NYC writer Kristin Kimball’s whirlwind romance with a sustainability-minded farmer, and their move to a plot of land in Vermont that they slowly transform into a thriving CSA (a weekly share-based community-supported agriculture business). Kimball’s book is honest and gritty, featuring more of farming’s bitter disappointments than most books in the sustainable agriculture sub-genre, making it more credible and complex than the typical feel-good, permaculture-will-save-the-world story.

I spent my teens living on my mom’s failed hobby farm, and The Dirty Life came closest to capturing what that’s like (even though Kimball’s farm eventually does succeed). If you’re looking for an emotional rollercoaster and sensory feast of a farm memoir, this is it. (There’s also a memorable scene where she recounts eating a heart–if memory serves, a venison heart–stuffed with breadcrumbs. It’s a lot to take if you’re squeamish, but it’s certainly evocative.)

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel

9780385420174Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

It’s a classic “food book” to the point of cliché, but for a reason–Like Water for Chocolate is one of the most sensual and lovely books about the power of food that there is. Esquivel’s novel follows the life of Tita, the youngest daughter in a wealthy Mexican family who is prohibited from marrying in order to devote her full attention to her aging mother. Tita’s heart breaks early when she has a forbidden fling with a man named Pedro, who eventually marries her sister. The story of Tita’s fight for independence is told through her cooking, which imparts whatever emotions Tita is experiencing upon whomever eats it.

Is it over-the-top? Absolutely. Is it gorgeous and memorable? Absolutely, again. I especially love the glimpse into family life during the Mexican Revolution and into a food tradition that’s very different from my German-Scandinavian-American family’s food traditions. The book is relatively short if memory serves, but if you’re in the mood for a three-hour drama fest, the film has its own sort of joy and magic. It’s in Spanish, but English subtitles are available, and the ridiculous image of Tita’s sister, Gertrudis, riding naked on horseback through the wilderness with a rebel soldier, is well worth it.


What are your favorite books about food? I’m always looking for good food journalism, food and farm memoirs, food-centric fiction, cookbooks, and more, so please leave your recommendations in the comments, especially if it’s a more obscure title than these four.

Because of the holiday, I’m skipping Friday Bookbag this week. I’ll be back on Monday with a review of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng!