Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

27161156Nonfiction – print. Harper, 2016. 263 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”, Vance recounts his childhood raised by an often deride segment of America — the “hillbilly”, Scots-Irish living in the Appalachia region of the United States. Vance’s mother — a nurse — struggled with drug addiction throughout his life, and that coupled with the constant cycle of stepfathers and boyfriends in Vance’s life meant he often took refuge in the home of his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw. This refuge provided a steadying hand for Vance; he would go on to graduate from Ohio State, receive a law degree from Yale, and reach the crux of the “American Dream”.

(Early on in his memoir, Vance explains how he’s never heard anyone outside his Scots-Irish community use the terms Mamaw and Papaw. My grandparents were originally from Oklahoma, but the very last birthday card I received from my grandmother is signed “Love Mamaw  and Papa”. I never used their chosen monikers, though, because none of my friends in Texas referred to their grandparents in this manner.)

In many ways, Vance’s Mamaw and Papaw achieved the American dream. They moved from Jackson, Kentucky — where both were raised in abject poverty — to Middletown, Ohio. Papaw worked a steady, unionized job at the factory in town, and the family were able to afford a home in a nicer neighborhood for their three children. Yet their “American Dream” wasn’t without its problems — Papaw was an alcoholic, domestic violence marked much of Mamaw and Papaw’s relationship, their daughter became a drug addict, their neighborhood in Ohio lost value after the factory began shedding jobs, etc.

“I remember sitting in that busy courtroom, with half a dozen other families all around, and thinking they looked just like us. The moms and dads and grandparents didn’t wear suits like lawyers and judges. They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and T-shirts. Their hair was a bit frizzy. And it was the first time I noticed “TV accents” — the neutral accent that so many news anchors had. The social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected it to were not.” (pg. 79)

Vance places much of the blame for their setbacks on the fact that neither of them was able to leave their “hillybilly” roots behind. The guns and the violence and the drinking permeating the Scots-Irish culture (think Hatfields and McCoys) traveled across the border with them, and their adopted hometown became known as “Middletucky” because so many Kentuckians moved to Ohio for the same economic prospects that his grandparents relocated for. Except the best parts of their community — the extensive family networks, the social trust — failed to be reestablished in “Middletucky”, and Vance explains how he and his grandparents began to see themselves as “better”.

Not solely in the sense of the white-black racism that so permeates American culture, but in a sense of being better than their fellow working class Americans. Because at least Vance and his grandparents didn’t take welfare benefits. (Except they did.) And they didn’t rundown the neighborhood by allowing Section 8 voucher holders to rent from them. And they had jobs unlike, according to Vance, thirty percent of the young men in Middletown work fewer than twenty hours a week and aren’t aware of their own laziness.

“We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large majority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.” (pg. 139)

This sense of being “better” builds a hatred of both the (white) neighbors and the federal government. Because if welfare didn’t exist, then the neighbor buying T-bone steaks wouldn’t be able to have more than Vance or Mamaw. Because if Section 8 housing didn’t exist, then Vance and his sister could have left their bicycles on the front porch. Because if hard work was the determinate for success, then the white, working class of Appalachia would be more successful than the coastal elites who dominate the political and economic spheres of America.

And that particular refrain is not new or revolutionary or groundbreaking; it’s something well-known to those of us who spent any time in the South or the Midwest. So, no, I did not take anything particularly new or revolutionary or groundbreaking away from reading this memoir. What I did find fascinating, though, was the way Vance’s memoir largely manages to fall in lockstep with the argument so often held up by Republican circles as to why black Americans are economically disadvantaged — the failure of the black community to police their own morality.

Take, for example, the issue of education. Vance was barely holding onto a 2.1 GPA by the time he moved in his grandparents during his sophomore year of high school, and he credits his grandmother purchasing a $180 calculator for him as the kick in the pants he needed to start investing in his own education because he needed to honor her sacrifice to put together that amount of money. Thus demonstrating that if only (grand)parent expressed an interest in their (grand)child’s education, they will success.

Yet he previously blamed his grades on his own lack of interest in school (a “moral” failing), the way he bounced around from one school to another following the collapse of his mother’s latest relationship (a “moral” failing), and the lack of resources afford the school district in Middletown (a governmental failing). And he explained how he didn’t feel prepared for college until the Marines — in other words, the government — taught him that he could achieve. So, despite his grandparents stepping in to police the morality in which he was being raised, he still needed government intervention to help him out.

Or, look at the way he addresses his mother’s drug problems and cycle of poor relationships. He explains how his sister and, to some degree, he have placed the blamed for their mother’s failings at her feet. But he also, at turns, blames her parents and their hillbilly culture for raising her without the example of a stable relationship, and both he and his grandparents tried to protect her from jail time or from losing custody of him. A level of empathy he tries to impart of his readers. At the same time, the African American community has been decimated by mass incarceration for similar crimes without any attempts of empathy for the experiences of those left behind.

Is it fair to take a memoir about life as a member of a specific segment of the American population and criticize it for failing to address the experiences of another segment of Americans? No, it’s not, and I fully recognize that fact. Yet, following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, there was a rush among Americans — journalists, pundits, my own friends — to understand the white, working-class Americans who cast their votes for Trump. To try to create a narrative to explain why Trump won over the more experienced candidate despite the polls suggesting he would be soundly defeated.

And Vance’s memoir seemed to top all of the “Understanding the Trump Voter” book lists floating around post-election. People are turning to him and his experience to try and foster empathy for a group that voted for a man like Trump, and I do believe it’s important to understand why the Right feel the need to “take their country back” and vote against their own economic interests.

“President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we’re not going well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for teenage kids that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose), in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it — not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.” (pg. 191)

But readers must also be careful not to push the white, working class Scots-Irish into the same trap that the African American community has pushed into. To start to believe that if only government was smaller, if only communities were stronger, if only  white working class folks and black Americans worked harder and lived in stable relationships, then their lives would be better. Because there are systemic issues — lack of educational resources being a major one — affecting both communities that cannot be fixed by morality or a relationship with God alone. (On that particular note, Vance explains how his community claims to be more religious, but attends church far less than they claim in surveys.)

Interestingly, Vance says he worries the true message of his book — the difficulty of achieving the “American Dream” due to the compounding problems of poverty, lack of education, unstable home life, drug addiction — is lost when people try to use his book as a primer on “Trumpism”. His interview with Ezra Klein, which I listened to after finishing the book, expands more upon this and starts to pull his book away from the “if only you were more moral” trap as Vance does actually believe the US government should step in to assist with these problems. (In both the memoir and the interview, he doesn’t really know how or in what shape that assistance should take place.)

This “true message”, though, is an important one, and my critiques should not be taken as justification for passing on Vance’s memoir. It opens a window into a world that pundits, politicians, and “coastal elites” have shut for far too long but, please, look out that window without closing your eyes to the fact that some of the lessons from this memoir have already been put into action — work for welfare requirements, for example — and have not worked in alleviating poverty or opening the American dream to people of lower economic economics.

Murder in the Bayou by Ethan Brown

28365038Nonfiction — print. Scribner, 2016. 224 pgs. Library copy.

Between 2005 and 2009, the bodies of eight women were discovered dumped in the bayous and canals of Jefferson Davis parish in Louisiana. The “Jeff Davis 8” victims cross the racial divide of the county; their commonality stems from the fact that all were engaged in prostitution, addicted to drugs, and were related in some way to each other.

The most important commonality, however, is that each of the eight victims was connected in some way to the sheriff’s department operating out of Jennings, Louisiana. This connection extends beyond the typical law versus criminal interaction — one of the women was last seen transported in a pick-up truck that was then sold to one of the police officers — and provides a major incentive for the department to botch their investigation.

The book follows the botched investigations into each woman’s murder in order to expose the corruption and criminality permeating these eight cases. A single chapter is devoted to introducing each victim, how and where she was found, and Brown’s theory on her final moments. As the number of victims increases, though, Brown starts to drop this formula in an attempt to start teasing out common threads and an overarching theory about the extent of corruption in these investigations.

The downside of this shift in writing style is that the earlier victims are given more focus and attention, and the details of their cases appear firmer than those of the latter cases. I relied heavily upon the list of victims, suspects, and their relationship to one another provided at the beginning of the book in order to keep facts straight as Brown attempted to connect dots that I didn’t always see.

However, the attention to detail in terms of describing the setting and the people interviewed was quite well done. I really felt I was standing alongside Brown as he traveled across the parish conducting interviews and piecing together timelines. (His descriptions actually aided in my understanding the environment of another book I read after this one set in the adjacent parish to Jefferson Davis.)

Brown’s book is an expanded version of a piece he published on Medium asking “Who Killed the Jeff Davis 8?”. I read the Medium piece after finishing the book and felt I could have read one or the other and walked away with the same information. The one benefit to the book is the final chapters are allocated to explaining how the community reacted to the article. The local newspaper asked to republish the article, but then rescinded their request and began criticizing the validity of his investigation. Interviewees tell Brown that he should leave town and never return.

And yet no one is ever convicted in any of the eight cases in the eight years since the final murder. A number of people have been charged, but those charges have been dropped due to lack of evidence or botched police procedures. Sadly, the position of these women on the socioeconomic ladder and the corruption in this parish mean it is unlikely these women will ever get the attention or justice they deserve.


The Cut by George Pelecanos

12904753Fiction — print. Reagan Arthur, 2011. 292 pgs. Purchased.

After returning from serving overseas in Iraq, Spiro Lucas has built a business for himself as a “finder” in Washington D.C. Attorneys, criminals, and the occasional average citizen hire him to locate stolen possession in exchange for a substantial cut of the item’s value — forty percent. The large finder’s fee assures his clients of his Lucas’ discretion and allows the ex-Marine to avoid dealing with the difficulty of reintegrating into civilian society.

Theoretically, the arrangement should allow  Lucas to take on the cases that interest him most or tug on his heartstrings. (He started down this line of work after meeting a woman in a bar whose ex-boyfriend stole jewelry she inherited.) Yet the teenage boy that Lucas just helped get off a car theft charge on technically turns out to be the son of a major drug trafficker, and daddy dearest refuses to take no for an answer.

The case? A number of packages containing weed used in Anwan Hawkins’ drug ring have been stolen off the porches of unsuspecting homeowners working 9 to 5 before his runners can retrieve them. If Lucas recovers the packages, he’ll get a forty percent of the marijuana’s street value — the biggest payday of Lucas’ short career — and a sort of get-out-of-jail card from one of D.C.’s notorious crime bosses.

Lucas takes the job and begins his investigation getting to know Hawkins’ two runners and interviewing residents of a neighborhood near the high school where his adopted brother teaches. But, of course, things begin to go horribly wrong and bodies begin stacking up in the D.C. morgue threatening the lives of Lucas’ brother, mother, girlfriend, and Lucas, himself.

The departure from the typical detective characterization is what I appreciated most about Pelecanos’ novel. Lucas has the required family problems — his father died while he was overseas, his relationships with his siblings are strained — but he also rides around D.C. on a bicycle and attends church with his mother regularly. He shies away from dive bars with the exception of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, tries to help his fellow vets get back on their feet, and reads widely and veraciously. His internal battles, thus, feel more organic, and continually morph, change, and react as his circumstances change unlike another favorite investigator of mine who never seems to change from case to case.

The novel also provides an insider’s look to the District of Columbia. I lived briefly in the area and recognized a number of streets and neighborhoods visited by Lucas. The feeling, the sights and sounds of these areas were perfectly captured, and I felt like I was cycling along Rock Creek side-by-side with Lucas.  (There were a number of areas visited by Lucas during the seedier parts of his investigation that I didn’t recognize reflecting the socioeconomic divide and racist-driven feelings of “safety” in the district.)

The sole drawback to the novel was how quickly I figured out the big twist to the plot, and I thought it was rather obvious for how slowly it took Lucas to reach the same conclusion. The rest of the novel — the characters, especially — were enough to keep my high esteem of Pelecanos’ novel, and I’d happily pick up the next book in the series or another penned by this offer. One of the rare instances where grabbing a book solely because of its connection to a favorite television show (“The Wire”, in this case) paid off.

The Classics Club: Two Years Later

Two years ago today, I put together a list of seventy-five classics I wanted to read by July 15, 2017 and, thus, joined The Classics Club. Last year, I reflected back on my progress — how many books I had read so far (16 from the list + eight other classics), how I overcame my fear of Edith Wharton, and how I tackled one of the longest books on my list.

This year? I’ve read two books — Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy and The Iliad by Homer — from my list and one other book I’d consider a classic. Which brings my total number of classics read since July 15, 2015 to twenty-seven classics with eighteen from my list of 75.

Do I wish I had read more from my list in the last year? Yes, of course, but I’m trying to avoid words like “only” or “failure” in this recap. I enjoyed both Hardy and Homer’s novels; I’m glad the Classics Club gave me the kick to pick them up. I’m also trying to avoid making too many goals or plans in the coming year. Maybe I’ll pick up some steam in the final year before my goal date, or maybe I’ll “cheat” and extend my date to 2018 (or 2019 or 2020). But, hopefully, there will be some great classics along the way!

All About Love by bell hooks

17607Nonfiction — print. William Morrow, 1999. 240 pgs. Library copy.

This collection of essays by bell hooks analyzes the many facets of love — self-love, romantic love, parental love, greedy love — and how the lack of love (or, too much of “bad” love) can spread from the public sphere to the private sphere. She defines love as “as the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. And hooks’ central thesis is that individual lives can be better by fostering love within oneself for the individual, finding non-romantic love for their community, and upending a social structure in with patriarchy and male-domination are the established order.

Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience. In our society we make much of love and say little about fear. Yet we are all terribly afraid most of the time. As a culture we are obsessed with the notion of safety. Yet we do not question why we live in states of extreme anxiety and dread. Fear the primary force upholding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation, the desire not to be known. When we are taught that safety lies always with sameness, then differences, of any kind, will appear as a threat. When we choose to love we choose to move against fear — against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect — to find ourselves in the other. (pg. 93)

On that last point, hooks draws on her own personal history and the revelation during second-wave feminism of just how widespread domestic and sexual abuse were (are?) within American families. Her father’s domination of their family unit, including his insistence on elevating the voice of his son over his daughters and wife, meant that hooks would go on to engage in romantic relationships with men who were not really men and were unwilling to support her with the kind of love she desires and deserves.

The first man adopted strict gendered-expectations for their relationship when hooks pushed him to grow up; the second did the same as people began to assume their age differences meant she dominated him. And the love she experienced as a child ended up becoming her defining foundation of love as an adult so that she was unable to find the kind of affirming or uplifting love that enhances a person’s life, that recharges their soul.

She does spend some time on how marital love is different from the passionate love that Hollywood says women should aspire to, but her primary solution to this lack of love is to encourage a more community-based version of love. For people to put more stock into the friendships they form, to accept that single parent homes are often supported by friends who take on godmother roles, to renew the ties with their larger family structures.

To that point, although she considers her nuclear family to be dysfunctional, hooks credits her extended family with supporting her through her childhood and demonstrating how love should be manifested within the family. I think this credit has a tendency to cloud her judgement — at one point, she encouraged her lesbian sister to maintain ties with their hateful and homophobic family simply because their had to be some sane ones in the lot somewhere.

It’s been my experience that people don’t tend to cut off their families unless things have reached nuclear wasteland levels of toxicity, and pushing someone to stay while preaching about self-love and affirming communities is quite hypocritical. Particularly since hooks devotes an entire essay on how society has equated parents caring for their children with love. A child who is presented to the world with clean clothes and a full belly may be utterly deprived of love and affection at home; a child who goes to bed hungry could be surrounding with love every moment of their lives.

To hooks, this false equivocation perpetrates a cycle where parents who grew up without love go on to have children who grow up without love in their lives. It also contributes to what she calls a “love of greed” where a capitalist society’s obsession with material goods drives a wedge between communities and leaves people in a constant desire for more, more, more. I agreed with the premise of this chapter, but it found her constant “slut shamming” towards Monica Lewinsky to be completely off-putting.

Could the greed hooks says motivated Lewinsky to tell her story not also have been a realization that she deserved a better kind of love than Bill Clinton was offering her? Or, a conflation on Lewinsky’s part of physical, male-dominated love with the kind of love that hooks’ admonishes our society for upholding as real and fulfilling?

And there’s the evidence that I took something from hooks’ essays. That her thinking turned my thoughts inside out and made me pause and contemplate. I ended up flagging several passages in this book, including hooks’ daily mantra that she repeats to herself each morning:

I am breaking with old patterns and moving forward with my life. (pg. 70)

But, like her, I think our personal experiences colors how we each view and approach love. I have not yet experienced romantic love, although I’ve had a tendency over the years to fall into fairly one-sided friendship that take me some time to walk away from. But I have experienced familial love far above and beyond the kind that marked hooks’ life. Yes, my parents care(d) for me in all the ways she’s listed, but I also know in the depths of my soul that they love me. That they would challenge their own thinking in order to accept me as I am; that I would be a lucky person if I was to follow the old adage about girls marrying men like their fathers.

So while I agree with some of her essays, there are others that I could not reconcile with my own definition of love. I certainly don’t feel that need to seek out the spiritual-based love she expounds upon in the end in her essays on religion and angels as a solution to society’s lack of love. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s wrong — after all, I agree that a growing obsession with consumerism and immediate gratification means people end up experiencing bursts of love rather than a sustaining love.

Yet there was also so much that I didn’t agree with, including the gendered assumptions she makes about men and women and how each of them approaches relationships. (She has a whole chapter on how men will use lying to control and subordinate their partners, but the “best” liars I know are women.) Which made the authoritarian tone hooks adopts throughout the book hard to tolerate at times and led to me skimming some essays rather than taking the time to stop and unpack each one.

That said, this is very likely my longest “review” to date so there certainly is a lot of food for thought crammed into these essays. And despite my negative reactions to some of her assertions, there is a large part of me that wants to put this book into many different hands in the hopes that each of one could scoop out the gems within these pages and discuss. I imagine each person I gave the book to would find different aspects as gems, though, given our varying experiences with love.