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 ‘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 ‘Ash & Quill’ by Rachel Caine

Ash and Quill (The Great Library #3)Ash and Quill by Rachel Caine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my god! What am I supposed to do until the next instalment comes out?!

I seriously love this series. I don’t know if it’s because it’s about something as compelling as a Great Library or the notion that books are trapped and controlled by individuals with less than noble and more than nefarious intentions. But, it’s a brilliant series to my mind and I’m enjoying these gems immensely.

What a perfect escape from the rest of the world, and, yet, oddly dystopian in its own right.

But, seriously, when is The Great Library #4 coming? Because I can’t wait to read more!

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On ‘For All of Us, One Today’

For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's JourneyFor All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey by Richard Blanco

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A good friend of mine (and poet himself) attended a reading by Richard Blanco and had him sign a copy of this little gem of a story for my husband (a Cuban) and I. It was a lovely surprise to receive in the mail. And, one made all the more meaningful for the various connections and parallels with my own little part of the world.

As an immigrant to another country myself, married to a one-time immigrant to the US, there is so much that resonates with me in this particular journey and story. Blanco’s poems are lovely and meaningful. And, I can see now why he was chosen as the inaugural poet.

Aside from the poems and process of being inaugural poet, the more inspiring bit is his devotion and inspiration to making poetry more relevant and visible in contemporary American life in the wake of his experience. Rather than boasting about being selected as inaugural poet, he desires to do good with that voice gained as a result. And, to give voice to all those whom he influenced and inspired with his poem.

We are a country of immigrants, some newer and some far removed from their ancestors who first stepped foot on North American soil. But, the majority of us are from elsewhere. Embracing that unique mixture and shared reality and history is what makes us truly great to my mind. What a fitting way to acknowledge that diversity and shared history through the selection of Blanco as inaugural poet.

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Furiously Happy

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible ThingsFuriously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My introduction to Jenny Lawson began with Beyoncé, the Giant Metal Chicken. Need I say more?

I loved this book. And, I love The Bloggess for simply being her wonderfully wacky self. Several chapters in this particular book resonated with me quite deeply, largely because of her brutal honesty and clarity in writing about her own mental illness. Anyone who has struggled with that voice in their head will know how pernicious it can be. But, in her writing, she makes the reality of living with and dealing with those highs and lows a little more accessible for those who love someone battling the nonsense in their head. And, for that alone, I am grateful to her.

We’re all a little weird. We’re all incredibly quirky. And, we’re all equally wonderful in our uniqueness, whether we struggle with health issues or not. And, when we can, we should all be furiously happy.

And, we should plant giant metal chickens all over place, because why the hell not?!

Giant chickens for the masses

An army of metal chickens spotted in Menton, France, Spring 2014.

 

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