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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • 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.

Mini-Review: SHARP: THE WOMEN WHO MADE AN ART OF HAVING AN OPINION by Michelle Dean

I’m out sick this week and don’t have the energy to put together a full review, so I’m writing out briefer thoughts instead. I loved Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion so much that right now, less than an hour after returning it to the library, I already miss its presence on my bedside table. (It’s at the top of my to-buy list.)

You can check out my mini-review below.


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Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 10, 2018
  • length: 384 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

So when I ask in the following pages what made these women who they were, such elegant arguers, both hindered and helped by men, prone to but not defined by mistakes, and above all completely unforgettable, I do it for one simple reason: because even now, even (arguably) after feminism, we still need more women like this.

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, page xiii

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion is a biography-cum-reckoning about the legacy of ten extraordinary women: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, and Zora Neale Hurston. 

Occasionally Michelle Dean gets off zingers every bit as cool and cutting as those of her subjects, but usually her writing style is warm and nuanced, making Sharp feel like a meaningful conversation about these women rather than a mere tribute. It’s a choice I’m glad she made; the effect is more conversation than biography, which perhaps explains why Sharp is more readable than any biography has rights to be.

While nothing could eclipse the women themselves, cameos from other literary greats–F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, H.G. Wells (along with his open marriage), and others–are charming and add a fun “cocktail party tidbit” touch to a book that is otherwise deep and thoughtful.

As a writer, I also loved this book for selfish reasons: I’ve been going through a rough patch in my own creative writing (i.e., writer’s block), and reading about these incredible women cured it. The fact that they also went through periods of massive output and no output, periods of astonishingly good work and shockingly bad work, made me feel like writing is something I can accomplish after all. If you’re in need of that sort of pep talk, Sharp is just what the doctor ordered. 5/5 stars.


My copy of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.20.18

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’ve got a YA novel about resilience, the Civil War, and zombie slaying (a killer combo!) and a nonfiction book about ten great cultural critics in my bookbag. Let’s dive in!


Dread Nation: Rise Up by Justina Ireland

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780062570604the premise: In Justina Ireland’s vision of the past, the American Civil War was never won because zombies rose from the battlegrounds of Gettysburg, forcing America into an uneasy peace, united against the undead. The Negro and Native Reeducation Act forces Black and Native people–many just children–to train to protect white people from zombies, and protagonist Jane McKeene is training as an Attendant to protect the wealthy–a cushier gig than the front lines, at least. She dreams of someday returning to her Kentucky home, far from the privilege and intrigue of the East Coast…until she accidentally gets tangled up with enemies even more dangerous than the undead.

why I’m excited: Like Orphan Monster Spy in last week’s Friday BookbagDread Nation: Rise Up is an explosive YA novel that tackles history and oppression from a fresh new angle. I love alternate history (even the zombie-infected kind) and I can’t wait to get lost in Ireland’s world, which seems to have a lot to say about our own world, too.

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780802125095the premise: Sharp tells the story of ten cultural critics who have (according to the inside flap) “what Dean calls ‘sharpness,’ the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit.” Those women are Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. In Sharp, Dean blends biography with her own cultural criticism and commentary.

why I’m excited: Dean’s chapter on Joan Didion was excerpted in Buzzfeed as “How Joan Didion Became Joan Didion,” and it was excellent, so I requested this book from the library right away. I love history, I love feminism, I love literary criticism, and I love the inside baseball of literary criticism. This book looks to have all four, which makes it a must-read for me.

I’ve been hoping to improve my cultural criticism skills (I play around with them on this blog, but I’d love to do more work with actual media outlets with editors someday), and though Sharp isn’t a how-to book, I think I could do worse than to read about the greats. Plus, Dean’s own work as a journalist and critic is really great.


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: A QUICK & EASY GUIDE TO THEY/THEM PRONOUNS by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

This short-‘n’-sweet comic book guide to they/them pronouns has two simple goals in mind–to educate people about they/them pronouns, and to encourage the use of gender neutral language in general–and it accomplishes those things breezily and effectively. I’m nonbinary myself, and while none of the information here was new to me, it was presented with admirable precision and concision. I wholeheartedly recommend A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns as a toolbox and source of friendly validation for trans and nonbinary folks and their allies.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns will be released on June 12th, 2018. You can read my full review below.


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A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

  • publisher: Limerence Press (an imprint of Oni Press)
  • publication date: June 12, 2018
  • length: 64 pages
  • cover price: $7.99

I came out as nonbinary in 2015. I distinctly remember how that felt: how afraid I was, how exhausted I was, but also how hopeful I was that I could finally live out an important part of myself authentically. For months, I pushed at friends and family members to remember. Please don’t call me a woman. Please don’t use “she”; please use “they” instead.

Unfortunately, outside of my very innermost circle, none of it stuck–and between being a busy student and a person with multiple disabilities, I just didn’t have the energy to keep correcting people. My feelings haven’t changed–I’m still a nonbinary person, and I’m happiest when people refer to me using they/them pronouns–but it’s not something that gets acknowledged in my day-to-day life anymore.

That’s why A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is so refreshing: it’s a 64-page comic book that can be read in less than an hour, and its breezy, no-nonsense tone treats a future in which gender-neutral language prevails as a given instead of a distant dream. That’s a much-needed hopeful message for nonbinary people. It’s also a palatable one for the legions of friendly-but-ignorant people who struggle with gender-neutral language, even if they aren’t hostile to it: this book is a cheerleader that says, yes, you too can do it!

In fact, what I appreciated most about the book was that it simply doesn’t acknowledge the bigots. Far too many educational resources about trans and nonbinary people take a sweeping, self-important approach that simply tries to do too much at once. Changing the mind of someone who’s virulently transphobic is maybe impossible, and it’s certainly something that can’t be done in the space of a brief and affable comic book, so the authors choose not to try. The book is clearer and better for it.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns also walks an admirable line of providing information without presenting itself as an unimpeachable authority. It’s quick to offer general definitions and cheat-sheets while also explaining that there are as many ways to be nonbinary as there are nonbinary people. It offers suggestions, like encouraging businesses to train staff to use gender-neutral language (cutting down on erroneous “sirs” and “ma’ams”), without insisting that those suggestions are inherently solutions.

Also, smartly, the book encourages people to err on the side of gender-neutral language not just for the sake of nonbinary people (who are a small but growing slice of the population, after all), but also to create a more equal world where gender matters less in general. It’s an argument I wish more trans and nonbinary advocates would make.

I’m confident that I can attribute all these good qualities to the fact that the book is spearheaded by an actual nonbinary person who uses they/them pronouns: Minneapolis cartoonist Archie Bongiovanni. (You may recognize their work from the Autostraddle Saturday morning cartoon, Grease Bats.) It’s cowritten with their cisgender (non-transgender) male friend, Tristan Jimerson, meaning the book can speak for nonbinary people and allies alike.

Of course, it’s not all perfect: I’m not a huge comics person, and though the comics format makes the book feel breezier and easier to read, I would have preferred plain text. (That’s 100% just because I’m boring, but I figured I’d note it anyway.) The jokes are on the corny side and a few don’t quite land. Most of all, because nonbinary identity tends to be so unique and personal to each individual, there were a few points in the book that rubbed me the wrong way since they didn’t ring quite true for me–a problem that cis readers likely won’t have.

Overall, A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns fills a necessary niche with aplomb. It’s cheap to buy (just $7.99) and quick to read, and I recommend it highly, especially for educational and professional spaces looking to do trainings on this topic or just looking to keep resources on their shelves.

If you’re a nonbinary person looking for validation and a toolbox–or a cis person who’s looking to be a better, more supportive friend to the nonbinary community–this book is for you. 4/5 stars.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is currently available for pre-order and will be released on June 12th, 2018.


I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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!