On ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the wake of November 2016 and with a GOP-controlled federal government, many of us from the progressive movement—myself included—questioned how large swaths of the United States continue to elect officials who advance legislation that effectively harms those most in need. They appear to vote against their own self-interests. But, why and how?

JD Vance’s memoir allows a glimpse into the realities for those from the holler—Appalachia and the Rust Belt, regions which overwhelmingly supported the likes of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

Vance’s tale is one of family, and one which left me muttering, ‘oh no’ and ‘oh dear’ again and again. It is not a rosy or happy tale for much of the book, and parts of his narrative are difficult to read given how utterly awful it is to imagine as a child’s life. Yet, Vance escaped a cycle of substance abuse, physical and emotional trauma and countless uncertainties commonplace within his community and family. His journey, by his own account, is unimaginably unlikely, and he considers himself unbelievably lucky to have not just graduated from a university (the first in his family to do so), but to also have been accepted to and excelled at a leading law school, Yale Law. It is an incredibly unlikely story of the American Dream fulfilled.

Yet, he also poignantly and carefully paints a reality for those of us unaware of the life of those in the holler, even those who left the hills and valleys of Appalachia for jobs in the Rust Belt. Jobs which now no longer exist and no longer guarantee hillbillies or the working class in general a life better than that of their parents. His own mother faired worse than his grandparents, a reality his grandparents apparently struggled with as well. For those like Vance, achieving the American Dream of upward mobility is less a dream than a drug-fuelled pipe dream. That understanding—that working hard increasingly means little towards escaping poverty—intertwines with the physical and emotional pain experienced by many amongst his social and cultural network both in Middletown, Ohio and the hills of Kentucky. Increasingly, dependency on opiates became the norm and the primary means of escape, a heart-breaking reality that becomes inescapable for many and has resulted in far too many overdose deaths to younger and younger cohorts. The life he now lives offered many opportunities to him, whilst simultaneously presenting so many unknowns and uncomfortable moments. He now occupies two social classes, separated worlds away from one another. He didn’t just receive an education in law; he survived an incredibly steep learning curve into the world of the those born to privilege.

I don’t share much of Vance’s world view nor can I really fully understand the life he has lived thus far. Yet, much of this book resonated with me. And, much of what he has to say about how to address the shrinking idealism of the American Dream and how we can recover some of the ideological distance that divides our discussions today made sense to me. Rather than focusing on what divides us, perhaps we can all retrain our lens on what unites us. It may be a seemingly insignificant or impossible task taken at the individual level. But, each individual action and reaction when taken collectively can affect change, at the personal, community and societal levels.

JD Vance’s memoir illustrates this rather nicely, whereby any one of the actions in his own life undoubtedly made a profound difference to where he is now and might have lead him on an entirely and far less hopeful path.

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On ‘Strength to Love’

Strength To LoveStrength To Love by Martin Luther King Jr.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.

This quote more than any other moves me, and serves as a reminder that tolerating injustices of any kind, whether directed at me or at others, represents an incredibly slippery slope.

Nearly 50 years after his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr remains a voice of strength and love and compassion aimed at shattering the hatred that justifies racial injustice. Sadly, nearly 50 years later, much of his writings and reflections related to his faith in a loving and just god and the reality of being black in the 1950s and 1960s America ring true today. As a diverse nation, we’ve come some way from the dark days of the civil rights era; but, if the last year has provided me with any sort of measuring stick on where we as a nation now stand, we still have much further to go.

I do not share MLK’s faith. Despite being raised in a Southern Baptist family, their god and the stories in The Bible never really made sense to me. Their god was one to fear, whose wrath was fierce. And, much of the rhetoric I heard justified the supremacy of those like us — white, middle class, privileged. In Strength to Love, MLK uses his faith and scripture to justify justice. To justify love rather than hatred. To justify compassion and inclusion.

So much of this collection of sermons and reflections remain relevant in these times. In a chapter entitled, ‘The man who was a fool’, he states, ‘The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live.’ I couldn’t help but wonder what he would think of our world today, where technology has boomed. I wondered if he would be demonised as a ‘fake news pundit’ or a antifada anarchist. But, I also wondered how powerful these tools could be when coupled with his various messages and teachings, particularly amongst those who share his faith. And, particularly when addressing the various unarmed shootings of young black men by police officers.

He closes this chapter with these words: ‘What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world of externals—airplanes, electric lights, automobiles, and color television—and lose the internal—his own soul?’ I’m not sure where I lie on the existence of a soul, but whilst we in the United States possess so much stuff, I wonder if we haven’t lost which makes us truly rich beyond wealth. More than anything, I can only imagine how much more fortunate (and happier) we’d be if we would only view our fellow citizens as worthy rather than as ideological or racial enemies.

Strength to Love may represent a piece of our past and a long ago moment in our young nation’s history. But, to my mind, it serves as a powerful guide for what we still need to accomplish as individuals and as a nation.

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On ‘Six Words Fresh Off the Boat’

SIX WORDS FRESH OFF THE BOAT: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America (ABC)SIX WORDS FRESH OFF THE BOAT: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America by Larry Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The story of the United States is the story of immigrants intermingling. (It is also one forgotten, where most of those migrants decimated native populations as well.) But, capturing the stories of immigrants in six words only is as compelling and beautiful as it is tragic.

‘Six Words Fresh off the Boat’ eloquently pieces together six-word narratives alongside longer stories and context, illustrating all that it means to be an American in today’s anti-immigrant climate. George Takei and Chimimanda Nogozi Adichie provide shorter reflections from their own lives alongside the painful truth of undocumented DREAMers who have lived invisible lives.

‘Nobody is ever just a refugee’, warns Adichie. Indeed. No-one is simply ‘American’ regardless of how recent they arrived.

These collections are poignant reminders that America was already great. And, it will remain so as long as we cherish own rich diversity and patchwork histories rather than dismiss them in search of uniformity.

My own six-word narrative as an American?

‘American falls in love with Cuban.’

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On ‘Between the World & Me’

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will never know what it is like to live as a black man or woman in today’s America. And, I can’t imagine raising a black child, particularly a young black man, in the US. All I can do is image the reality of knowing that they may not come home any time they leave.

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long letter to his son, I can understand the pain of history and helplessness that accompanies current events a little bit better.

Coates is very quickly becoming one of my favourite writers on contemporary issues in the US. His perspective alone equally intrigues and compels me. His writing blows me away. Through it, I can feel his anguish and uncertainty and anger, and share those sentiments. I also feel more than a little shame for being a part of a system that values him less than me simply by virtue of our individual histories. I am privileged because I am white and solidly middle class, as well as for growing up in a suburban utopia that never knew the dangers of simply stepping outside whilst black.

I sat down to read a part of this book; I ended up finishing it in a single sitting.

Everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read this book. Not once, but multiple times. If we ever hope to move beyond the existing divisions and racial inequity that surrounds us all, we need to understand the experiences of those like Coates. It will make us squirm with discomfort and shame by actions which I imagine we in our privilege never think of twice. And, it should.

But, by understanding such perspectives a little better, we can also understand why so many feel compelled to take a knee or protest yet another white cop escaping justice for killing another unarmed black man.

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On ‘They Say / I Say’

They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic WritingThey Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A colleague and friend of mine passed along this book’s citation, suggesting that it might be of interest to me for a new course I’m teaching on academic rhetoric and argumentation.

She could not have made a more apt book recommendation.

What a gem for those seeking to become better academic writers as well as for those guiding others to improve their writing skills and prose. Examining academic texts not simply as a report of findings but as a conversation amongst scholars helps to create clear and engaging texts, rather than prose that suffers from the inaccessibility label often lobbed at members of the academy and their manuscripts.

Indeed, I’m often asking my own students why academic texts shouldn’t engage readers, even those from fields and disciplines further removed from their own?

I’ll be recommending this to all of my students from now on. And, revisiting this book as I work to improve my own writing as well my classes.

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On ‘The Subversive Copy Editor

The Subversive Copy Editor, Second Edition: Advice from ChicagoThe Subversive Copy Editor, Second Edition: Advice from Chicago by Carol Fisher Saller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love this book.

Copyediting and proofreading as a job entered my life rather unexpectedly and perhaps entirely because I was the only native English speaker in an office of Russians. Such skills have lead me down career paths I never envisioned, and at times upon completion of various gigs left me reeling from unending headaches or bursting with immense pride in equal measure.

Carol Fisher Saller is witty, insightful and brutally honest throughout this book. Reading her is like chatting with a trusted (and at times irritatingly correct) colleague and patient mentor.

Whether you want a look into what editors do, wish to embark on a career or vocation as a copy editor or just want an entertaining read abut a profession that is both vitally necessary and frequently dismissed, this is a great read.

Here’s to all those subversive copy editors. May we never run out of red ink.

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On ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

I Am Not Your NegroI Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ during its only showing in Helsinki a few months ago at a film festival. I knew it would be a powerful documentary and commentary on race in America, both historically during the civil rights era and given contemporary events. I had no idea I’d still be so affected by some of those words and images today.

Given current happenings in the US, and specifically the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, I keep returning to various scenes from the film and the eloquent anger and pain carried through Baldwin’s words, whether calmly spoken and delivered by himself decades ago or narrated by Samuel L Jackson. Medgar, Malcom and Martin were silenced, but Baldwin almost seems alive in the theatre or in the words printed in this book. I can only image how incredibly powerful his planned book would have been. In its absence, I’m grateful to at least have ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, along with all of his other works.

In a fevered state this afternoon, I came across this excerpt, and it seems so appropriate in this moment:

‘You never had to look at me.
I had to look at you.
I know more about you than you know about me.
Not everything that is faced can be changed;
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

Nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Nearly 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed, we appear to have regressed in our attempts in the US to face the brutal reality in the history of our nation. Until we face that reality—openly and honestly and completely—how many more Charlottesvilles will we witness?

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