The wonderful thing about having your boyfriend in town is that every day becomes a “treat yo’ self” kind of day, or in my case, a “treat yo’ shelf” kind of day.
Two cities, three days, four bookstores, and thirteen books later, I present to you: my recent loot.
Powell’s City of Books (Portland, OR)
On Sunday I spent a good chunk of time exploring the many lovely floors of Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon (I would be lying if I said the distance to Powell’s didn’t factor in my decision to attend school in Washington).
This bookstore is fantastic in more ways than one, but I especially appreciated how they tagged books written by Writers of Color (WOC) throughout the store. Given my reading goals this year, it made it easier to head for the content I was really interested in.
Now that Spring Break is here, I have more time to read for fun, yay! Finished up my seventh book today (The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat by Enid Blyton), and will be choosing the next one soon.
Have you read either The Circle or Dear Ijeawele? What did you think?
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.
Have you read it? Thoughts?
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.
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?