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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Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (2014) August 7, 2016

This might be the most important book I’ve read this year.  Paired with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s  Between the World and Me, these two memoirs offer a raw and brutal lens with which to examine race in America.  As a recent Harvard Law graduate in the 203426171980s, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a firm based in Alabama dedicated to defending the poor, the non-represented, the incarcerated, the  condemned–specifically those on death row. The book spotlights one of his first cases–Walter McMillian, a black man wrongly convicted of murdering a white woman–in which Stevenson discovers not only a shocking lack of credible evidence that sent a man to death row (where he spent decades of his life), but also a rural Southern culture steeped in political corruption, racism, and fear-mongering. Stories of numerous inmates are woven in between the McMillian case, one just as heartbreaking as the next.

I found myself continually shocked by the information in this book: shocked and embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of prison statistics and my lack of understanding of policies like “three strikes and you’re out” or political slogans like “tough on crime.”  These seemingly positive policies that appear to protecting our safety have actually led to startling statistics: “the highest rate of incarceration in the world, a quarter of a million kids sent to adult jails and prisons for extremely long sentences, 3,000 juveniles sentenced to die in prison, hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders forced to spend decades in prison, a half a million people in prisons for drug offenses, and life sentences for non-homicide offenses” (p 15). And finally, “scores of innocent people who were sentenced to death and nearly executed” (16). An unprecedented amount of money has shifted from health, education, and social services to prisons, and a huge number of private prison companies have hit the jackpot through our mass incarceration rate.

I could go on for pages and pages, but here are some of the most memorable statements I took from this book:

  • “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (17).
  • One older man said to Stevenson, “Tell them to stop saying our country never experienced terrorism before 9/11.  We grew up with terrorism. Anyone who was white could terrorize you. We had to worry about bombings, lynchings, and racial violence of all kinds.”(299).
  • “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we have thrown away children, the disabled, and the weak, not because they are a threat to public safety, but because it makes us seem tough” (290).
  • A society should be judged not by how it treats the rich, but how it treats the poor and the disenfranchised.
  • The opposite of poverty is not wealth.  The opposite of poverty is justice.

When I teach Mockingbird to 9th graders next month, we inevitably talk about race, racial profiling, false accusations, and fear.  But over and over again, students are quick to say, “thank goodness it’s not like that anymore.”  They are so mistaken.  Because most of them are white, they have no idea what it means to be black.  And they have no idea what it’s like to live with the fear of being arrested and jailed for something they didn’t do or for something so minor, it would heed little more than a warning for someone with lighter skin. Stevenson has committed his entire career to providing equal justice for those who have been ignored by our court system.  We could learn so much from his definition of mercy.

View Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk: We Need to Talk about an Injustice

 

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (2013) August 6, 2016

Filed under: Bean's favorites,book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 9:07 pm
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Before re18428067ading this book, I knew next to nothing about Chechnya aside from the fact that it was in a seemingly constant battle for independence from Russia.  And in some ways, I guess that’s still what it’s known as: a republic that would like to be independent of Russia except that it can’t seem to remain stable as its own nation. Like so many nations plagued by war and a struggling economy, corrupt leaders plunged a fledgling Chechnya into chaos instead of stability–and that chaos led it right back into a Russian Republic. The story takes place between 1994 and 2004, jumping back and forth between the times before, during, and after the First Chechen War and the Second Chechen War. The time jumps can be a little confusing, and I found myself rereading Wikipedia articles to try to keep the war outcomes straight and trying to figure out who the “Feds” referred to exactly, but eventually, I decided it didn’t much matter.  This is a story of family and neighbors. Of Sonja, who is trying desperately to run a nearly abandoned hospital in Grozny while dealing with the loss of her sister, and of Havaa whose father has been abducted and who needs a safe haven. It’s a story that reveals the complexities of survival–how far can each of them (or each of us) be stretched before we break or give in. How compassionate can anyone afford to be in an environment of devastation and corruption.  And yet, we witness faith and commitment beyond what seems possible in such a war torn place. At one point in the story, Akhmed–Havaa’s neighbor who shepherds her after her father’s abduction–is drawing portraits of missing people.  Families come to him to draw a portrait of their son or brother or father or mother or aunt, the family member who has been abducted by the Feds and will likely never return.  These portraits offer the only physical reminder of those who have disappeared, and Marra writes this scene in one sentence that is nearly 500 words long (1.25 pages of connected clauses that is–yes–grammatically correct). The sentence seems to be a metaphor for challenges that stretch out indefinitely.

This story reveals the power that the Russian government inflicted on these people and of the courage that the rebels used in their resistance.  But we also see how Russian soldiers who brutalized others were starving and freezing because their own government gave them guns but not food or proper clothing.  Basically everyone in the story is scrapping out a life of survival whether they’re fighting for or against the Russian Feds.  Torture, kidnapping, starvation, forced prostitution, corruption, you name it.  It’s part of the Chechen story.  And while this is a book of fiction, it seems to bring out the raw truth of living in Chechnya during this war torn era. And yet, somehow, Marra brings this devastation to us through beautiful, at times almost poetic, writing.

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi (2016)

Filed under: book reviews,Memoir — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 8:07 pm
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In my continued fascination with cancer books, I easily read this small book in one41jFVZL72YL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_ sitting.  It’s hard not to.  From the outset, we know the author is doomed by a cancer diagnosis at a young age, and we cannot help but be heartbroken by his unfortunate circumstances.  A neurosurgical resident in his mid thirties, Kalanithi worked at breakneck speed for years on end trying to become the best doctor he could be.  This entailed never-ending shifts, personal sacrifices, and seemingly little attention to his marriage.  And just as he sees this pace of life nearing its end, he notices something is awry with his body.  How and why it took him several months to realize his symptoms were a sign of something far worse than fatigue is rather confusing and seemingly unrealistic, but apparently he was able to justify  pain, weight loss and other discomforts as merely the strain of his work. That struck me as rather out of touch for a doctor dealing with cancer patients on a regular basis, but much like teenagers who feel invincible, a successful surgeon in the most difficult specialty probably lives in that same false state of security.

Kalanithi write this book as he is undergoing treatment–and literally as he’s dying.  We get detailed accounts of daily appointments, his attempts to continue to work, and his conversations with his wife and his friends.  And yet, somehow, the raw emotion of this journey doesn’t come through the way it should.  Perhaps because the book is essentially a first draft or perhaps because his attempts at humility feel forced or perhaps because he simply does not know how to express himself, it feels like there is a gap between the writer and us. His story is emotional, but I still felt like he was holding back his true self.  Whereas the last 20-ish pages of the book written by his wife after his death seem to hit the reader with much more power and genuineness.  I guess I just liked her better than him and felt connected with her loss more than his.

Still, it’s a book that cannot help but ask us to reflect, to consider what it means to live and to die, to hang on and to let go.  It does not have the power of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, but it does move us to consider who we are, what we value, and how we’re living our lives.

 

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)

 

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.

 

 

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (2015) August 12, 2015

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 2:11 am
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Before opening Go Set a Watchman, I read at least five opinion articles in the New York Times about this much anticipated “new” book by Harper Lee (keep in mind that Watchman was written before Mockingbird but not published until 2015). Most of the opinions—some written by folks who had not even read the book—focused almost entirely on Atticus’s character having morphed from the “justice for all” Atticus of Mockingbird to the racist Atticus of Watchman, leaving the reader wondering which one is the real Atticus Finch. So I’ll chime in with my own ideas, mimicking some of what I read from others, but also, I hope, adding something new.

First and foremost, Watchman comes across as an amateur work. It’s clearly a first (or at least an early) draft of Mockingbird and not a new book or a sequel. I find it most intriguing as an exercise in creating the same story from a different point of view much like I might assign my own students: once a story is “finished,” try retelling it from a different perspective and then compare them and see which one works better. From that sense, reading Watchman was kind of fun and felt like a Where’s Waldo puzzle. I’d read a scene and figure out how or where or what aspect of that scene ultimately became part of Mockingbird and what was changed from its original conception. The strongest scenes in Watchman were the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, so it’s little wonder that Lee’s editor told her to revise the book and tell the whole story from a child’s perspective. Those were the scenes that felt natural, that rolled off the page with ease. By contrast, many of the other scenes, particularly the animosity between Scout and Atticus felt forced and clunky. Lee had an agenda to expose Southern racism from a New Yorker’s point of view—but overall, it just didn’t feel convincing. Scout, despite her 26 years, seemed bratty and immature. Thus, in her conflict with Atticus, she came off as the less likable character.

Since Watchman is set in the 1950s, it makes sense that Atticus would question school integration, the NAACP, and the Civil Rights movement. In fact, the drawback to Atticus’s character in Mockingbird is that he seems too perfect which makes him, at times, not believable. It’s easy to be all about justice and equality in the 1930s when the black population had no rights and no voice. It’s much more difficult to live by this same ‘justice and equal rights for all’ when schools are integrating and the black population (which often outnumbered whites) could potentially gain voting rights and positions of power. In Watchman, Atticus is more realistic, more human. Good or bad, he’s a product of his times. Like many whites (the majority?), he’s fearful, and he has strong reservations about the future and their way of life. Expecting his character to remain unchanged from one book to the other is rather naïve since one is set during the depression and the other during the Civil Rights movement.

The idea that Atticus is a man of justice and yet fears life in the South in the midst of the Civil Rights movement is a valid idea, and one that could have made for a compelling novel. It makes sense to show how these two sides of a man might come into conflict with one another and how that man’s daughter—living in New York City—would not fully understand this conflict. But the way that Lee tries to bring this out in Watchman just doesn’t work. Her racist Atticus seems over the top and disconnected from his other side. Lee is much too heavy handed, and with this approach the dichotomy that she wants Atticus to represent falls apart.

In addition to the flashback sections to Scout’s childhood, the other strong scenes in Watchman are the conversations between Scout and Uncle Jack, a character who has only a minor role in Mockingbird. In this book (especially pgs 195-202 and 260-271), he’s the voice of reason in that he can convey to Scout why the South—with its anti-government blood—will struggle with and push back against a new way of life, an equal rights way of life. Uncle Jack is a much more believable character, and while his musings don’t excuse Southern racist views, they dohelp explain where these views come from. Through Uncle Jack’s character, I think Lee achieves her intended message. The flaws in Scout’s and Atticus’s characters only serve to muck it up.

Watchman offers an interesting and complex premise, but in the end, Mockingbird is the better book–better point of view, better character development, better writing. (fiction)

 

 
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