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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

Homegoing – by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing (2).jpgThere are some powerful books out there about slavery and civil rights in America, and there are some incredible works of African post-colonial literature, but this book provided something new –- a juxtaposition between the two.

The story begins with two sisters in West Africa, one of whom is sold into slavery while the other stays on the Gold Coast. But the book is not primarily about these two women -– it’s even more about their descendants. In a series of chapters that read a bit like short stories, we hear the stories of these two women’s descendants, generation by generation, switching back and forth between the two sides of the family. The many threads of stories create a tapestry of history, spanning two continents and nearly three centuries.

The sweep of history seemed at times like its own character, moving forward and affecting everyone in its path. Previous books I’d read about the history of slavery had only focused on one or the other side of the Atlantic. But this juxtaposition of the history of West Africa with the history of enslaved West Africans in the United States provided new and fascinating perspective. This book juxtaposes the conflict between the Asante, the Fante, and the British in West Africa (and its effect on the slave trade) with the ramifications of the Fugitive Slave Act on free black families in the American north. It juxtaposes the changing relationships between people groups in Africa as the white missionaries moved in with the way black identity as an African-American contrasts with black identity as a Ghanaian. It juxtaposes the growth of independence movements in West Africa with the heroin epidemic in Harlem. This book interacts with the sweep of history on both sides of the Atlantic in a complex and compelling way, and in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the depth of character development for the scope of historical overview.

The characterization in this book is exquisite. We only have the space of a short story to get to know each character, and the chronology switches back and forth between the two sides of the family, so the narrative could have easily ended up jumbled and confusing. For me, it was the characterization that prevented this and held the book together. Each character seemed so real and alive. There was true depth and roundness to the characters as well. With such brief snapshots into each moment in history, and such an ambitious scope to the book, it would have been easy for the book to compress each character’s life into the-black-experience-during-such-and-such-a-time-period. But this wasn’t the case at all. Certainly, the black experience over the course of history was a main theme, but characters also interacted with family conflict, work challenges, friendships, marriages, the conflict between desire and duty, mental health difficulties, societal challenges, and many other aspects of life. Their lives came across as vivid and multi-faceted.

I’m always particularly curious about the portrayal of characters with scars and physical disabilities in books, and so I found the chapter about a man with a large burn on his face to be particularly intriguing. The interaction with his scarring carried on into his daughter’s story, and the following description of her response to his scars was very moving to me:

“Whenever her father or grandmother asked her about pain, Marjorie would say she had never known it. As a young child, someone had told her that the scars her father wore on his face and grandmother on her hands and feet were born of great pain. And because Marjorie had no scars that resembled those, she could never bring herself to complain of pain. Once, when she was just a little girl, she had watched a ringworm on her knee grow and grow and grow. She’d hidden it from her parents for nearly two weeks, until the worm overtook the curve where thigh met calf, making it difficult for her to bend. When she’d finally shown her parents, her mother had vomited, and her father had snatched her in his arms and rushed her to the emergency room. The orderly who came to call them back had been startled, not by the worm, but by her father’s scar. She’d asked if he was the one who needed help.” 

As you can see from this section, the writing in this book is vivid and compelling. I was struck with how a lifetime of emotions about the character’s own response to her father’s scars and the responses of strangers can be wrapped up and tangled into a single powerful scene. Throughout the book, the author uses striking anecdotes like this one to express a chaotic variety of emotions. The immediacy and compactness of the writing carries throughout the book.

All in all, I found this to be a vivid and intriguing book. While there were times when it the content was graphic and difficult, the characters were so beautifully drawn that it kept me engaged and invested in finding out what would happen. The interaction between the history of West Africa and the history of enslaved Africans in the US was a fascinating juxtaposition that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The writing was arresting and vivid, and I look forward to seeing what Yaa Gyasi writes next.

Bookish Links

And now, some bookish links for the week:

1. Exceptional Translated Fiction

A list of literature translated from other languages. I’m excited to read a number of titles on this list, and it could be a good resource for anyone participating in the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2017 Reading Challenge.

2. The Stranger’s Tongue

Speaking of literature in translation, this is a wonderful essay on the process of translation, the empathy it can engender, and the fascination that comes with what is untranslatable.

3. How Rereading Brings Comfort

I resonated with this essay on the comfort of re-reading books. Since my recent ankle surgery, I’ve re-read Robin McKinley’s Beauty, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Sometimes you just need a date with an old favorite.

4. Poems of Anxiety and Uncertainty

This is a beautifully curated collection of poems that explore the theme of anxiety and uncertainty. In our current unsettled political climate, we could probably all do with some more poetry in our lives.

5. Dear Fellow Traveler

A reflective essay, meditating on an unusual guest book.