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

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: 2 of 5 stars

Two people in two weeks urged me to read this, ostensibly to help me understand how an entire demographic could vote against its own interests, and maybe how the horror of 2016 could have come about. It accomplished neither. There’s a story here that is hard and not hard to relate to. On the one hand, as I am not from Appalachia (or where the transplants landed) I will never understand that which is Appalachia, that which Vance describes.

This may well be true, but on the other hand, I grew up in a similar small town in Connecticut… It really wasn’t until I left that I realized how close to the poverty line we lived; hand-me-downs, hand-made clothes, Spam as a main dish… And I married someone whose family came from Kentucky (and where grew up quite close to Vance’s Middletown, Ohio). I recall visiting relatives in Ocala in the late 1960s who still had an outhouse. And I know well the “Mamaw” and “Papaw” grandparents of Vance, though my wife’s did not use the colorful language of Vance’s Mamaw.

Where it is hard to relate is that I have never understood the provincial mindset, the allegiance to “roots”. I have never understood regional loyalties, the “Southern way”, hollers or kin. Once I left Connecticut, I had no intention of going back. The limits were suffocating, though I only felt them after I left, when I realized there was a much bigger world than our 1968 Encyclopedia Britannica (I have no idea how much debt my parents incurred to give us that incredible resource) shared with me.

So, this book paints a picture. A specific autobiographical picture, which should not be construed as indicative of all “hillbillies”, but with commonalities too many can identify with. It did not explain to me why the people described would vote for people who are clearly intuitively obvious to the most casual observer not representing them. The distinct lack of critical thinking does not mean lack of intelligence. But Vance himself notes how people refuse to believe the truth, or worse, believe untruths despite being shown the truth, and I can’t abide willful ignorance.

Maybe this was too close for comfort. Too real. Memories of a distanced family. Memories of a small town life consciously, and with deliberate intent, left behind long ago. But I have always held that it is a moral imperative to improve oneself – if not one’s lot in life, then at least intellectually – in spite of one’s environment. Vance made something of himself. This is good. But he admits to heroes that tells me he stopped short.

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Call Her Madame…


In late 2015, Fernande Grudet, also known as Madame Claude, died at the quite respectable age of 92.

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What book do you want for the apocalypse?

I posed a hypothetical question to Facebook on April 4th, 2014:

Imminent global catastrophe…nuclear/comet/meteor/Yellowstone volcano eruption/Rush Limbaugh gets elected President/whatever…

You are able to get to a shelter that theoretically should keep you safe and can take one book (there will be no internet/wiki when you come out), and one book only.

What book do you take? And why?

I’ll reveal mine later.

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In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs by Andrew Blauner – review

In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles SongsIn Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs by Andrew Blauner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It would be hard for me to not like this book. Beatles? Oh, yeah. I was pleased to get an advance read courtesy of First to Read.

The concept is simple: Ask writers to write about their favorite Beatles songs, tell stories of what the songs mean to them, the how and why of it all.

The responses are fascinating to me…some personal, some expository. More than a couple of things were new… composition, group politics, life events…and I’ve read a bit on the Beatles. Not surprisingly, a few tidbits were in conflict with knowledge from other sources, but that made this all the more interesting.

I don’t have a “favorite” Beatles song, nor even a favorite album or creative period. I do have a few dislikes, but even John, Paul, George and Ringo disliked some of their works. This book prompted me to reflect on how I would answer that question. And to go through the catalog again.

And again and again, because…the Beatles!

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