Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (2016) July 13, 2017

Filed under: book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 3:37 pm
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91ePx6oDUTLI read this book many months ago, probably last fall: post election season. Like everyone else, I was looking for answers.  I was trying to get a better understanding of the rural population in flyover states (in this case rural Kentucky and Ohio) and why many of them voted the way they did. So I went into the book looking for specific answers.  In that sense, I felt gyped.  I left the last page with more questions than answers, more scrunched eyes than clarifications. But then I realized I was reading for such a specific purpose that maybe I wasn’t processing all the information openly. So I sat down and reread it a few weeks later with the attitude that I’d glean what I could from it rather than assuming it would magically clarify the tumultuous thoughts in my head. My second read was better at helping me listen and see, though it was not necessarily better at helping me understand. What I walked away with was a book of contradictions–but in a sense, I think that’s much of what Vance feels about his people and value systems: contradictions.

I found the introduction to be the most compelling part of the book.  That’s where he lays out his background the most clearly.  Here are a few snippets:   “I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children” (2).  “I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree.  To these folks, poverty is the family tradition” (3). “Working class whites are the most pessimistic group in America…We’re more socially isolated than ever, and we pass that isolation down to our children” (4). “Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates makes it difficult to succeed in a changing world” (5). “It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible.  It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it” (7). “There is a lack of agency here–a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.  This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America” (7).

This introduction led me to believe he’d more or less support these assertions/observations and possibly offer solutions that might improve the lives of those in his community.  But the rest of the book merely relays a series of stories that seem to ramble on describing his “hillbilly people” and their “hillbilly values” in which they constantly glorify the good, ignore the bad, and refuse to look at the truth. A community in which, according to the author’s own observations, people don’t want to work hard and many are on government assistance, yet they despise people on welfare and see themselves as hardworking people getting screwed by the government.  It felt depressingly repetitive without ever offering much insight or depth of analysis. Basically he offers a world of irrational behavior–and it seems like it’s a cycle that’s destined to continue.  In that sense, I didn’t feel the “elegy” of the title. Maybe solutions are so complex and so hard to come by that he just didn’t have the energy to offer any. I just wanted a better sense of hope, I guess. The book reminded me of an article from the NYT about an Ohio farmer who’s lost two kids to overdoses: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/12/us/opioid-epidemic-rural-farm.html?mcubz=2

 

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In the Heart of the Sea by Nathanial Philbrick (2000) October 9, 2016

Filed under: book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 9:37 pm
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When I was 10 or 11, I read the book Alive, the Story of the Andes Survivors.  I can still picture scenes from the book in which the passengers (especially the Uruguayan rug51yifrrn4tl-_sx330_bo1204203200_-1by team) were freezing, injured, starving, and near death.  And then they succumbed to eating the dead.  I was both fascinated and disgusted.  It made a strong enough impression that 40 some years later, it was the first image that came to mind when I read the description on the back of this book. The word cannibalism sent me back to reading Alive, following the survivors’ every movement until their eventual rescue. In the Heart of the Sea has that same pull.  Philbrick, through in-depth research, takes us on a similar journey–this time on the whaleship Essex in 1819 when it is rammed in the middle of the South Pacific by a sperm whale that sank their boat (yes, the impetus for Melville’s Moby Dick). Withe the few provisions the crew could recover from the Essex, they set out in three teams on three lifeboats hoping to reach South America, 3,000 miles away–against prevailing winds and currents–foregoing the much closer Polynesian islands where they feared the unknown, particularly cannibals.  Much of their information was unreliable, and in only a few years, it would be well known that they could have found safe harbor in any number of places within 1,000 miles of their sunken ship, using prevailing winds to get them there. The author explains that Nantucket–the whaling capital of the world at that time–was known for its arrogance and close-mindedness.  Thus, most of the Nantucketers preferred 3,000 miles of open sea with little food or shelter in a tiny boat to an unknown island chain. Fear of the unknown crippled them.

Hmmm… Americans in 2016?   The irony is unmistakable.  Their decision to head for South America cost many lives–some died of starvation and at least one was killed because he drew the shortest straw.  The others needed his body for food. The details are at times, difficult to read, but the story is a page turner, delving into the moral and societal implications. I’m always a nonfiction adventure fan, and this book felt like a fusion of Alive, the Perfect Storm, and Into Thin Air–all survival (or lack of survival) stories that captivated me.

 

Deep South by Paul Theroux (2015) August 5, 2016

The magic of Paul Theroux’s writing lies in his ability to bring out the character of a place through anecdotes and observations.  He picks up bits and pieces

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along the road–often the very bits and pieces that others overlook–and in weaving them together, he creates a story.  The main character of his story is a place, and in this case, that place is the Deep South. Over a period of a few years, he traverses the back roads and rural highways of Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina, talking to mayors, social workers, preachers, hotel and gas station owners, gun sellers, and a host of other locals to portray the very best and very worst qualities of this area of our country, both past and present. We learn about Virgin Johnson who was 12 when he became the first black student in an all white school after “voluntary integration” in 1966.  His only guardians were the black janitors.  At 13, while working for a survey company,  a property owner shot at him and told him to get off his property. Virgin recalled finding his fighting spirit at an early age and harnessing it throughout his life.

Over and over, we meet people who have lost their jobs in manufacturing with no retraining programs available to help them find new work or no new work to be found and no way to support themselves.  Some have lost hope; others find hope and beauty in the smallest things: an uplifting sermon, a flowering shrub, a patched ceiling, a food pantry. Theroux often makes comparisons between the lack of aid and resources offered to these tiny communities in the Deep South and the billions of dollars and resources our government and NGOs provide to African villages.  Why do we do so little to care for our own people, he asks.

Many of the stories are heartbreaking, some of them are uplifting, and some of them are shocking.  Toward the end of the book, he arrives on the campus at University of Alabama where he discovers that the Greek system remains segregated.  Though a number of sororities wanted to offer membership to black women, and the University’s president marched across campus in support of sorority integration, the sorority alumni forbid the acceptance of black students.  This is current day.  Good Lord, I nearly dropped the book from my hands when I read that.  And people in this country think we don’t have a race problem?

This book is a bit longer than it needs to be, but Theroux is never less than thorough, and when I read the last story, my heart ached for the people and places in our country that are so off the map, it’s as though they cease to exist.

 

Missoula by Jon Krakauer (2015) May 22, 2016

Filed under: book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 2:06 am
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I have utmost respect for Krakauer as a writer and an investigative journalist. He al635590820521456528-Missoula-Krakauer-coverways seems to find a story that needs telling, and he humanizes his stories in such a way that his readers understand the issues and implications of his topics, but we also see the personal and emotional side by getting to know the people who make up each story. In that sense, Missoula, the story of  rape and the justice system in a college town, lives up to his other books.  However, unlike his other works, I found Krakauer’s bias to be obvious and angry.  He’s always been good about disclosing his personal biases, but I think he usually does a good job of keeping them in check. In this book, they seem to color some of his descriptions and depictions.  I also found this book to be tedious at times, especially in the middle when we get a blow by blow analysis of a long court case.  I usually cannot put his books down, but I ended up skimming much of the second half of Missoula, getting the gist of it. That said, it’s an important story: people need to be aware of the extent to which rape happens on college campuses–and the extent to which so many rapes go unreported.  This book helped me better understand the emotional toll many girls/women experience, and why so many cannot bring themselves to report a rape. It also exposes the football culture, not only at University of Montana, but at other schools, where too often football players carry a sense of entitlement toward women and sex. This is surely an important book for any parent who’s sending a child (female or male) off to college as I did two years ago and will again in a year.  (nonfiction)

 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015) April 6, 2016

Filed under: Bean's favorites,book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 10:31 pm
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This is a tough and powerful read: it’s intellectually challenging, and, at times,  emotionally draining. Written as a letter to his teenage son, Coates  puts 150709_SBR_Coates-COVER.jpg.CROP.original-originalforth his philosophy of life and what it means to be black in America.  Within the first few pages he questions not what Abraham Lincoln meant by a “government of the people,” but what the word “people” actually means because–as he asserts–America’s progress was built on looting and violence by those Americans “who believe they are white” (6).  Wow.  I had to read that sentence several times.  Not white Americans, but Americans who believe they are white. What does he mean by this? I think he means that being white allows me to live a white life, but the phrase “white American” is not strong enough or angry enough to convey the privilege and the freedom that comes with that life .

He spends much of the book talking to his son about living in a black body–again, not living as a black man but living in a black body. Emphasis here on the fact that the black body has encased him in a frame that allows others to suspect him, trail him, harass him, shoot him. And so his question to his son is “how to live within a black body within a country lost in the Dream”(the dream being the American dream which was built on the backs of slaves). Ultimately he says that the question is “unanswerable, though not futile” (12). I have to say, though, that the tone of much of the book makes it feel futile–and yet, Coates intersperses this grim reality with a hopefulness at times. He wants his son to understand the reality of their world and their black bodies, especially since his son has grown up in a different world from his father’s streets of inner-city Baltimore; thus, he feels his son has more to lose.  He follows this with, “I am not a cynic.  I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of black bodies, which, somehow will always be assigned to you” (71). That’s the line that hit me hardest, and when I hear white teenagers at school say “if we just stop talking about race, we’ll all get past it” it’s because they have never lived in a black body; thus they will never know what it feels like to carry that responsibility every day of their life.

This is a must read.  Coates made me think and reflect in a way that I have never pushed myself before.  Others need to do the same.

 

The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy (2013) April 3, 2016

Filed under: book reviews,Memoir,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 10:47 pm
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17857644The first time I read The Prince of Tides, I was mesmerized.  I remember blocking out the world until I finished it and thinking how could any family be that messed up? How could any writer so compellingly convey the dynamics of a dysfunctional family? The feared, all-powerful father, the mother propelled by societal rise, the sister struggling with depression and suicide, the narrator tormented and yet seemingly functional. Soon after finishing the book, I devoured Conroy’s previous novels, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipine, and the Water is Wide, a memoir that spoke to me as I was currently trying to inspire and understand my inner-city high schoolers though I was a young, white teacher with little experience.

A few years after all of this reading–sometime in the mid 90s–I went with a friend to Fripp Island, South Carolina, and while there, visited Beaufort.  I think I wanted to be as close to Conroy’s life and characters as possible. By then, I knew that much of his fiction was really a re-enactment of his own family’s journey, centering around his abusive father, and I wanted to be physically close to the epicenter. Eventually, though, I took a Pat Conroy break.  I had seen all of the movies, had my fill of the emotional turmoil of his characters (aka: family), and had moved on to marriage and kids of my own.  I revisited him briefly when I picked up Beach Music several years after it came out (it seemed overwrought and I never finished it) and then My Reading Life, which I skimmed. But nothing could quite match his earlier work.

Yet, I remained intrigued by Conroy’s relationship with his father–and with the rest of his family.  I knew his books had unhinged them as family members easily recognized themselves in the fictional characters he created (though they were already unhinged, so I’m not sure how much further they could unravel).

I picked up The Death of Santini (albeit more than 2 years after it came out), probably because Pat Conroy had just died, and I became once again interested in the intertwining of his life and characters. I flew through the first few hundred pages as Conroy recreates scenes of his childhood and the daily violence –both physical and emotional–that occurred at the hands of his father. I suppose I was ready to read the “real thing,” after living through it with his fictional families so many times.  And I was not disappointed.  His use of detail and dialogue made me feel like I was in the kitchen witnessing his parents fighting: “I saw my father’s hated face getting ready to slap the living hell out of me when I saw something rising into the air above him. It was a butcher knife.  I saw its flashing blade slashing into the artificial night.  A jet of blood hit my eyes and blinded me” (8). And so it goes, scene after scene of what actually happened in the Conroy household and how it unraveled the family, including the author who subsequently spent the rest of his life struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts as he continued to write, trying to make sense of his past. But I actually became tired of the scenes with his father as Conroy both hated and loved him, blamed and forgave him–over and over.  And often, the book strays away from the father/son relationship into a minutiae of details about grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other family members that seemed unimportant.  I ended up skimming many parts of the book.  In the end, my feeling is this: Conroy will always mesmerize as a writer of precise detail, though overdone at times, in bringing out the rawest of human emotion, capturing the essence of what it means to hurt and betray.  But I couldn’t help but feel that I shouldn’t be privy to such private family encounters.  This memoir seemed to be primarily cathartic writing, spilling every detail of his family and his marriages into the public.  I kind of wish he had just written it as a personal journal.

 

 

Becoming Nicole: the Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt (2015) February 10, 2016

Filed under: book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 5:18 pm
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I was fascinated by this book, beginning to end.  When it arrived in our school library just a week ago, I was ready to check it out before the book had even been properly catalogued.  And now that I’m ready to return it, I hope all teachers and 9780812995411_custom-741e66521190b63326b0cb3e1196971fc82e39cf-s400-c85counselors will have a chance to read it. Nicole Maines and her brother, Jonas were adopted as infants–twin boys. Kelly and Wayne Maines  could not have biological children, so when Kelly found out her teen-age cousin Sarah was pregnant, she and Wayne asked to adopt.  They received two healthy, beautiful boys: Wyatt and Jonas Maines.  But by age two it was clear to Kelly that Wyatt did not identify as a boy.  He begged to wear dresses, play with barbies and princess dolls, sport sparkly clothes, and watch the Little Mermaid. Just before he turned three, Wyatt was watching his dad renovate a bathroom, mimicking his dad by banging on the wall with a toy hammer.  His dad, a self-avowed ‘manly’ man–Air Force veteran and conservative Republican–was thrilled to finally have a father-son bonding moment with Wyatt.  And then Wyatt turned to him and said, “Daddy, I hate my penis” (23).

Thus began their journey–one that Wayne struggled with, leaving Kelly as the rock of the family.  She was steadfast in her beliefs that her son was neither strange nor sick–just different. She devoted her time to researching and learning until she landed on the concept of gender identity disorder (changed to gender dysphoria in 2013, thus emphasizing that it is not, in fact, a disorder, but a state of unease when a person’s sexual anatomy doesn’t match up with his/her inner sense of gender).  In rural Maine in 2000, there weren’t exactly a whole lot of resources or support. The story goes on to chronicle the family’s new understanding, their struggles, setbacks, and triumphs along the way, from Wyatt’s early elementary years through high school graduation in which the kids attended several different schools, ultimately moving to Portland, Maine to attend a more progressive high school.  By then, Wyatt’s legal name change in 5th grade had been in effect for four years.  Much of the latter half of the book centers around a legal suit against the rural Maine school district (Orono), that prevented Nicole (formerly Wyatt) from using the girls bathroom. Ultimately, the Maineses won in the state Supreme Court.

But what I found most fascinating in the story were the many blocks of scientific information that supplement the story–credible, researched information that explains just howand oppportunities complicated gender can be.  A few excerpts that discuss this: “Our genitals and our gender identity are not the same.  Sexual anatomy and gender identity are the products of two different processes, occurring at distinctly different times and along different neural pathways before we are even born” (89). . .”Beyond chromosomes, any kind of mutation, or change, in the balance of hormones will tip the sexual development of the fetus toward one side or the other independently of what the chromosomes ‘say.’  Scientists have identified more than twenty-five genes that are involved in creating differences in sexual development” (90). . . “Unquestionably, there are multiple factors that affect gender identity, and while there are still questions to be answered, what we know now is that the interaction of genes with prenatal exposure to hormones in the second half of pregnancy affects brain development that influences gender identification” (162). . . “Gender identity is not a fixed target…For some, the sense of being male or female is simply not as central as it may be for others” (162).  Perhaps the most important message of the book is this: “How we define a person’s gender has become increasingly more difficult the more science reveals gender’s complexity” (165). This, of course, will be hard for some folks to understand–let alone embrace.  But like women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and now transgender rights, it’s a matter of learning about and accepting that which we do not yet understand and, for some, what which is beyond the comfort zone.  There was a time when people could not conceive of a black person with the full rights and opportunities of a white person (and sadly, some folks still possess this midset). Now we are in a time when many people cannot understand the concept or the rights of someone who is transgender.  I hope that education, science, and empathy will change that—and soon.

 

 
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