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✿Ring Around the Prose✿

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February 2017

Book six: time to flex my Spanish lit muscles!

It’s been a reaaalllyyyy long time since I’ve read a novel in Spanish, so I’m both excited and a little nervous to delve into El libro secreto de Frida Kahlo.

frida

Have you read it? Thoughts?

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.

At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.

Rating✈  Travel companion

Long story short: My expectations for this book were largely shaped by reviews that heralded J.D. Vance’s work as an explanation for the way the 2016 elections turned out. That is not the case. While Hillbilly Elegy is an interesting look at Vance’s childhood, it’s also a book written in a vacuum that can’t be applied to any community outside of Vance’s working-class Appalachia.

Perhaps the most telling critique of Hillbilly Elegy is the fact that Vance wants us to look at how class and the family environment affect the poor without filtering our views through a “racial prism” (8). This is problematic because it’s an incomplete story. Yes, their struggles are valid, but it’s also important to acknowledge that their race didn’t add an additional barrier to them being successful.

The fact that Vance chooses to ignore racial tensions is especially ironic considering that he spends about a quarter of the book talking about how hillbillies were immigrants in their own rights. For example, when his grandparents moved from rural Kentucky to the moderately populated community of Middletown, Ohio, they had a difficult time adapting, and were often called out for behaving differently than Middletown “natives”. The reason they moved in the first place? To give their children a better life. Cue major eye-rolls. That’s basically what immigrant parents want for their children: to give them the opportunity to be more successful than they were. The fact that many current residents of Appalachia seem to have forgotten this history (along with the fact that their distant relatives literally came from a different continent) is not only extremely hypocritical, but a form of immense privilege.

When attempting to justify why working-class Appalachia largely didn’t relate to Obama in 2008 Vance says, “Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him” (191).

First of all, while there may have been some overlap between Obama’s and your community’s adversity, because of his race Obama had to overcome a lot more. Even after taking office claims that he was Muslim or a Jihadi terrorist persisted. No White president has ever been accused of being a terrorist, even though most attacks in the U.S. are carried out by White, Christian males.

Second, of course he faced adversity before you knew him. Being in a position to run for President implies that you’ve overcome certain obstacles to be there in the first place! And why does somebody have to currently be going through a hard time for you to empathize? Aren’t you asking the reader to understand what motivates you now because of all that you’ve been through? Can you not extend that same courtesy to somebody else?

But it gets better: in the same breath, Vance asks for our sympathy: “I am a tall, white, straight male. I have never felt out of place in my entire life. But I did at Yale” (201). I don’t say this lightly: I literally can’t even.

I’m going to end my review there in case my brain implodes. If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy I would love to hear your thoughts. I have more things to say, but need some time to unpack it all.

Review: I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters by Rabih Alameddine

Brief synopsis (back of the book): A powerful novel of a woman’s self-definition and a daring literary feat in which a Lebanese-American woman, Sarah Nour El-Din (named after the “divine” Sarah Bernhardt because of her red hair) tells her story. Chapter after Chapter, she throws out her opening and begins again.

The hilarity and tragedy of family life, the dark absurdity of cultural conflict, the horrors of rape and war, the pathos of broken love affairs, and the general confusion of the modern world–Sarah survives it all. Anyway, she’s willing to start over one more time.

Rating:🌴 Island collection

Long story short (no spoilers): I had a really great time reading this novel. I enjoyed both the protagonist—such a wonderfully complex human!—and the writing style, but what intrigued me the most was that it was written entirely in first chapters. Yep, you read that right: each chapter is literally Chapter 1.

This creative narrative choice worked really well. At first I thought it would be slow and dull, because I assumed each part would begin with the same information, and it did for a little bit, but it quickly expanded to become a rather vibrant and rich story. Part of that was due to a “layering” of details: each chapter had certain central themes in common, but always added slightly new information or veered off in another direction, so it felt like you were getting to know Sarah more organically than if the chapters progressed normally.

Another thing that added to the charm was that the chapters were not in chronological order, nor were they always linear. And then, about a quarter of the way through, the chapters began to pick up different tones and even writing styles, which was fascinating.

This was my first introduction to Rabih Alameddine, and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of his work. Have you read I, the Divine or any other novels by this author? What did you think?

 

 

Pre-review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

I’m going to do something I haven’t done before and write a “pre-review” for my next reading challenge book. I picked up a copy of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance from the library today.

“From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.” Goodreads

We all have a way of seeing the world that enhances our own survival, a “framework” of sorts. This framework helps us understand, relate to, and learn from those around us. When we stop training our frames to recognize new patterns—for example, by meeting new people or reading about new ideas—we risk narrowing the way we think.

One of my reading goals this year is to hear more from voices that are too often silenced. That means authors of color, as well as less-than-popular political opinions. In reading Hillbilly Elegy I hope to better understand the framework that drives 41.6% of the country, while at the same time broadening mine through self-reflection.

This idea first came to me after the debacle that was November 8. To say I was “distraught” is an understatement; I was numb, I was frustrated, and I was fearful. Two days later I attended a public forum hosted by Chris Vance, a former chair of the Washington State Republican Party, and Christian Sinderman, a political consultant. There they discussed the results of the state and federal elections, touching on polling results, what happened in the election, and where the two major parties seem to be headed from here out.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but the forum was the first time I paid attention to the conservative anger that helped elect a man like Donald Trump. Like others living in predominately blue or liberal states, I underestimated their resentment and strong desire to “realign” America.

There had been a growing stagnation with Rust Belt* voters due to 30 years of bi-partisan alienation. It began with Reagan’s anti-union, anti-government posturing, continued through Clinton’s NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement), and culminated with Bush and the Great Recession. While Democrats offered voters less Wall Street and more employment and training services, the GOP offered lower taxes and easier answers. Trump gave constituents a socially conservative, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment clarity they lacked with previous corporate-backed Republicans.

According to Vance and Sinderman, most voters were rational and not all were racist, bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic or xenophobic (did I leave anything out?). Their choosing Trump was a rational expression of frustration with the “rigged” establishment and economy. In Trump they found somebody that gave voice to their struggles.

This is where I have a hard time empathizing with conservatives and Trump supporters, and this is what I hope Hillbilly Elegy explains to me. I understand why someone would act in their own self-interest, but not when it’s at the expense of almost everybody else. Electing a man who spewed nothing but hatred towards many individuals and groups because he promised you would have your steel manufacturing job back is just cruel. Supporting a candidate who has proven both by his words and by his actions that he will not ensure the health and safety of so many is deeply disturbing.

I say all this because I hope Hillbilly Elegy will give me some clarity. I hope it can offer practical suggestions about how to move forward. I hope it will help me reconcile my empathy for a group of people who are losing their way of life, and my anger at (what appears to me as) their insensitivity.

If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy I’d like to read your (non-spoiler) thoughts about it. If you haven’t yet, will you pick it up? Check back later for my full review.

*The Rust Belt is a term for the region from the Great Lakes to the upper Midwest States, referring to economic decline, population loss, and urban decay due to the shrinking of its once-powerful industrial sector.

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