Hillbilly Elegy – by J.D. Vance

It’s very unusual for someone from JD Vance’s background – a poor Appalachian kid from a broken home riddled with domestic abuse and violence – to end up with a law degree from Yale. Yet this memoir is the story of how Vance achieved this goal. The story is both personal and powerful, but as someone who grew up in West Virginia, I found that it often painted a complex culture with too broad a brush.hillbilly elegy

As a memoir, I thought this was a moving story. There’s something beautiful and important that comes from someone sharing their story and experiences in a long-form narrative. But this book tried to be something more than a memoir – in among the moving anecdotes from his past, the author included segments of sociological commentary and generalized explanation of the culture he grew up in. These sections weakened the story. The writing in them was weaker, and I wondered if an editor requested that the author add them in after the fact. In addition, the author seemed too close to his own traumatic experiences to have a clear and objective grasp of the culture as a whole. He commented a number of times throughout the book that he felt somewhat like he was betraying his culture by going to Yale and entering into the privileged world that came with it. This struggle with the transition between the two worlds and the tension that he (obviously) still feels about his past seem to interfere his attempt at making objective sociological commentary. He tells his story with heart and conviction, and it’s a story that we need to hear. But the attempt to expand his story into generalities about the culture detracted from the story as a whole.

I wish this book had come out at a different time. It’s quite a good memoir – a man telling the story of his growing up years, in a difficult home. But this book came out just before the U.S. election of 2016, at a time when a huge group of people were trying to figure out the culture of Appalachia and the American south, and trying to find out “who the Trump voter really is.” A lot of people latched on to this book as “the answer” to what Appalachian culture is all about. This is problematic. The story is moving and important, but it’s one person’s story. We can’t extrapolate out and say that we finally understand an entire culture based on one personal account.

Another problematic aspect to this book is the fact that there’s no in-depth discussion of how to define success. The author gives a very specific example of his own success – “getting out,” going to Yale, having a financially lucrative career. But he glosses over another success story in the book: his sister’s. While they both grew up in the same broken and very dysfunctional home, his sister married a solid, kind man, and seems to have formed a happy and stable life, even while she stayed in a working class rural environment. Sometimes success means “escaping.” But sometimes it doesn’t. To me, breaking the cycle of abuse and instability is the biggest success in both of their stories.

This book struck a very personal chord for me, because I grew up in West Virginia. I wasn’t born there (a fact which makes a difference to those who were), but I lived there from age five through my high school graduation. It was my home. A lot of the things the author describes in his memoir were things that I observed around me while I was growing up – the fierce tribal pride and family loyalty, the widespread poverty and difficulty in adjusting to and finding jobs in a new global economy, the tension and contrast between those who work tooth and nail to make it on their own and those who depend on the welfare system. But while many aspects of this story were very familiar to me, I resisted the inference that the author’s personal story was representative of the culture as a whole. There are plenty of families in rural Appalachia that aren’t riddled with domestic abuse. There are plenty of stable, happy families who love each other and love the place they live. There are plenty of people living in Appalachia who love it there and want to continue living there – not everyone views it as a place to escape from. There are problems in Appalachia, to be sure, and the collapse of the coal mining industry has certainly worsened them, but I found it to be a wonderful place to grow up.

 

Bookish Links

1. Who Reads Poetry

A collection of essays from readers of varied backgrounds about why they read poetry.

2. Kazuo Ishiguro Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this week. His only book that I’ve read is The Buried Giant (which I loved), but I see several more in my near future.

3. 13 Diverse, Spooky Reads for Kids

A great list of Halloween reads for kids. I particularly enjoyed The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste.

4. Women Writers of the African Diaspora

I have a particular interest in African writers, and in women writers. Here’s a list where the two overlap.

5. 10 Memoirs by Women in the Culinary World

Culinary memoirs from women around the world — India, China, and the USSR all feature in books on this list.

 

Picture Books about the Middle Ages: Monks and Monasteries

In the last 15 years or so, there’s been a change in the world of picture books. The picture books that explore history and the lives of famous people have gotten so much better. You can see it in the Caldecott lists, with titles starting to appear such as Henry’s Freedom BoxA River of WordsDave the PotterMe…JaneThe Noisy Paintbox, or Freedom in Congo Square — all books that tell compelling stories while at the same time exploring a particular historical person or event. As both a history buff and a lover of picture books, seeing more of this kind of picture books makes me very happy.

There’s something magical about exploring history through picture books.  Instead of a list of kings and battles and dates, you get a compelling narrative or personal story, complete with illustrations that give the kind of visual cues for the historical setting that are almost impossible to relate solely through words. A well done historical picture book engages the senses and gives a unique window into the time period.

So when I started looking over my 7-year-old son’s history curriculum for this year, I was disappointed with the lack of picture books. We homeschool and our curriculum (Sonlight) relies mainly on A Child’s History of the World and The Usborne Book of World History for its survey of world history. These are both good books, but I thought the experience would be enriched by adding in some well chosen historical picture books along the way.

In this first post, I will share the picture books we used to supplement our study of monks and monasteries during the Middle Ages. I’ll continue with an ongoing series of posts featuring the picture books that align with various periods of history as we study them. Our curriculum for this year covers the rather daunting period of the Middle Ages through World War II. With this large of a time span, it’s obviously going to be a high level survey, with just a few hand picked picture books to go along with each era.

So whether you’re a homeschooler, a teacher, a librarian, or just a parent or care-giver who wants to explore history with the kids, I hope you enjoy diving into this collection of picture books.

Picture Books About the Middle Ages:

Monks and Monasteries

The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane – by C.M. Millen

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This tale follows a plucky young monk named Theophane as he works in the scriptorium of an Irish monastery, copying manuscripts and creating books. Told in lilting verse, and with beautiful stained-glass style illustrations, the story brings to life a number of aspects of bookmaking — making the ink, collecting herbs and berries for color, binding up donkey hair for brushes, etc. My favorite aspect of this particular book was the fact that it incorporated into the text translated quotations of actual poems written by Irish monks in the margins of their manuscripts.

Magic in the Margins – by W. Nikola-Lisa

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This story also focuses on a young boy working in the scriptorium of a monastery, but the focus is different than in The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane. Our main character, Simon, is just an apprentice in the scriptorium, and he longs to progress from simple sketches and exercises to being able to fully illuminate pages in the manuscripts. An unusual assignment from the abbot of the monastery leads Simon on a journey of discovery about meaning and imagination in art. This book goes into more depth about the artistic marginalia that monks included in the illuminated margins of their manuscripts than other books I’ve seen.

Saint Francis and the Wolf – by Jane Langton

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Set in 12th century Italy, this is the tale of a wolf who terrorizes the town of Gubbio until Saint Francis steps in and brokers peace between the wolf and the town. The charming illustrations are in the style of medieval illuminations and give a good sense for both the dress and the architecture of the time.

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{For fellow homeschoolers: this list of books aligns with Week 1 of Sonlight’s Core C}

 

 

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Literature as Companionship

Literature as Companionship

by Margarida Cadima

 

In his semi-autobiographical novel Satori in Paris, Jack Kerouac writes about “…the tale that’s told for no other reason but companionship, which is another (and my favorite) definition of literature…”. I quote Kerouac because throughout my life, literature has had a panoply of qualities, among which companionship.

Due to my father’s job, I moved around quite a lot growing up. I’m Portuguese, but I was born in Rome, and have lived in Lisbon, Nairobi, Geneva, New York, Paris and London. Being an only child, I didn’t have a sibling with whom to share this nomadic experience, so I turned to books as companions. Literature was my travel companion.

In 1999, when I moved to Nairobi, Kenya with my parents, I had a children’s version of The Three Musketeers with me. I used to read and re-read it, and through D’Artagnan’s adventures, I could better cope with my own adventure, of adapting to a new culture, a new school and a new language, English. I remember fondly the lunch hours spent in the library reading children’s books and magazines (I was a huge fan of American Girl magazine!), at first trying to read and understand the words on the page, then eventually being able to string together the words and comprehend the story I was reading. Literature was my language companion.

As I grew older, literature continued to accompany me and helping me better understand the world I lived in. In high school, we read Machiavelli’s The Prince, and there you have sprawled on the pages of this work human nature. It is all the more impressive when you think that this book was written some 500 years ago, and how pertinent it remains to our present day. Literature is my companion in understanding human nature.

I will never forget the day when I decided I wanted to devote my life to the study of literature. It was 10th grade English and we had to read The Great Gatsby. Never had I read a book that, to put it simply, contained all of life. The decadence, the idealism, the unrequited love: it was all there! To everyone who has read and loved The Great Gatsby, you know what I’m talking about. At that moment, I knew then I wanted to read and learn about and study more literary works. I want to spend my life delighting and discovering everything literature has to offer. As Italo Calvino said, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” I wanted to engage in this dialogue. I wanted to join this never-ending conversation. It was then I decided. Literature is my companion, for life.

I graduated high school in June 2009, less than a year after the global financial crisis exploded. In the news, all we heard was that people were being laid off. There were no jobs. Nobody was being hired. So studying literature did not seem like an obvious choice. Perhaps this generalized hopelessness made it all the more clear that you have to study what you love. It may be cliché, but you have to follow your passion. To this effect, I’m concluding with a quote by  literary critic M.H. Abrams, who graduated high school during the Great Depression and justified his choice of studying literature as follows: “There weren’t jobs in any other profession,” he explains, “so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn’t enjoy.”

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To connect with Margarida, check out her Instagram.

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

 

Bookish Links

1. On the Philosophical Implications of Shelving Books

For anyone who has struggled with the question of where on the shelf a book truly belongs.

2. 100 Biographies and Memoirs of Remarkable Women

From Helen Keller and Anne Frank to Tina Fey and Malala Yousafzai — a fascinating list of books by and about women.

3. Best Translated Book Award Fiction Longlist – 2017

For anyone interested in new and acclaimed translated fiction. The list includes books translated from Icelandic, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Italian, Macedonian, Wolof, Dutch, Hungarian, Russian, and Japanese.

4. On the Accidental Origins of Beloved Books

Or why I write more while I recover from ankle surgery.

5. Celebrate Poetry Month: 28 Breathtaking Poetry Books to Read Now

For anyone interested in reading more modern and contemporary poetry. Each listing includes a sample of the poetry, so you can get a feel for the poet’s style.

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Nancy Will Save Me

Nancy Will Save Me

By E. Barclay Spriggs

Maybe it began with how the pages felt on my fingertips. Perhaps it was the smell of the leaves and glue. Every time I hold a book in my hands, I can leave this world to discover other realms. Even the solid, rectangular shape helps me to stay grounded yet capable of immediate escape. To feel it. To hold it like an old sweater close to my chest. I have always found comfort there.

I chose to study literature because I believe that a passion can be a career. But I became tired. Tired of reading. Books were no longer a joy but a burden.

I study the depths of trauma and violence, abuse and rape. These are real worlds that I feel deserve investigation and exposure. Yet I wondered why I chose this proverbial rabbit hole that continually pulls me into worlds so plagued with darkness. When did literature become so painful? I had made my passion a chore; using books like bricks to wall myself into a somber, lonely place.

I knew I needed a change when the books took over my couch and bed. I spent three nights in a guest bedroom because my work was eating my life. One evening when I couldn’t sleep (what’s new?), I turned over and looked at my late grandmother’s bookshelf where I keep pages of sentimental importance. Instead of turning out the light to stare at the ceiling fan, I sought out one book with a yellow exterior: The Secret of the Old Clock. Its smooth cover and worn pages felt more comfortable than the blankets on the bed.

The violence and trauma of the reality I study faded away as I absorbed the words. They were replaced with childish mystery and action. I had entered a world that I had forgotten; a world that re-released my passion. Nancy Drew had come back to my life. How can she possibly make it? Why would someone leave that threatening message? Who can she alert to say that she is trapped in the cellar?

I ordered the next ten books of the series the following day. I simply could not stop. The stories seemed so innocent and sincere. I had found my therapy: the key of keys that reminded me – despite the brutality of the world – that literature is salvation.

Sometimes we need to return to the place where it all started. For me, it is Nancy Drew: the unstoppable, determined young woman who perseveres. She can tap dance Morse code, she can navigate a schooner single-handedly, she can do acrobatics on a horse’s bare back. And, like a child, I fade away into the pages and forget about the world that will rudely awaken me in the morning.

When the sun sets and I close the book on violence and suffering I enter a place that heals me; that makes me remember how words can lead to other dimensions where happy endings exist. We all need such relief. And I can only hope that we find it, or else life remains an uncomfortable mystery that only the likes of Nancy Drew can solve.

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

Bookish Links

And now for your weekly dose of bookish links from around the web:

 

1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Can people please stop telling me feminism is hot?”

A fantastic profile of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of my favorite authors. She’s written books like Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sunand she’s known for TED Talks like The Danger of a Single Story and We Should All be Feminists. This profile discusses her upcoming new book.

 

2. Norse Mythology: Stories from the top of the world

The book to read alongside Neil Gaiman’s newest.

 

3. The Sharp Horn of Africa: Best Books on Somalia

If “pirates” is the only word that comes to mind when you think of Somalia, here are some books to better understand the country as a whole.

 

4. Jhumpa Lahiri: On the compulsion to translate Domenico Starnone

I’m always intrigued by authors who write in multiple languages. Jhumpa Lahiri’s voyage has intrigued me — her very first book (written in English) won the Pulitzer Prize, but after writing several more acclaimed books in English, she decided to publish a memoir in Italian. Now she’s started translating Italian works into English. Her thoughts on translation in this essay are compelling.

 

5. Picture Book Biographies of Nobel Peace Prize Winners

I don’t know about you, but I think picture book biographies have gotten much better in the last 5-10 years. This list features picture book biographies of famous Nobel Peace Prize recipients, from Theodore Roosevelt to Desmond Tutu.