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:



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


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.


The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (2009) January 5, 2012

Filed under: book reviews,Memoir — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 3:39 am
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The word ‘inspiring’ appeared in 7 of the first 8 reviews I read of this book, and while I certainly don’t disagree with that description, forgive me for not jumping on it and riding the wave all the way through my review.  Kamkawamba—along with author Bryan Mealer—tells the story of his childhood in Malawi and how he created a windmill to capture energy so that he could bring electricity to his family, and eventually to make his family’s life easier by pumping water to their house and to their crops.  That’s the gist of the story, and the first several pages bring us to the climax where Kamkwamba stands on the windmill tower poised and ready to light a bulb while much of his village watches.  It is a good and fascinating story, though not very well told.  After those first few pages, the  next hundred pages or so contain various disconnected tales from his childhood: the toys he made from scratch, the school he attended when he could, the Magic many believed in, the food they ate, the crops they grew, etc.  The stories offer background information, but probably more than we need for a book about building a windmill.  The middle of the book goes into heart-wrenching detail about the famine of 2000-2001 (the stomach churning details reminded me of What is the What and Kaffir Boy).  And the final third chronicles the windmill building and how that led to an invitation to an international TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, a private school, TV interviews, and eventually Dartmouth College.  The larger story is fascinating, but the writing feels sometimes disjointed and sometimes like a diary chronicling event after event.  Though all the information he includes is interesting in its own right, it feels rambling—as if he wasn’t sure which details were important to bring forth the story, so he included everything he could remember. Like most memoirs, the true story trumps the writing.  Still, it offers history, anthropology, sociology, politics, invention, and technology, so there is much to learn about in this book.  Not a great read, but definitely an important, intriguing, and yes, inspiring story.  (memoir)


*The Girl who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow (2010) March 13, 2011

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 9:46 pm
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Rachel falls from the sky–she really does.  But she’s not an angel or a bird.  She’s a young,biracial girl who sails through the air from the top of a building to the ground below where she lands, along with her brother, her mom, and the baby still in her mom’s arms. Rachel is the lone survivor. No spoiler alert here because all of this happens within the first 15 pages.  What we don’t know is why they fall.  And that’s what the story is really about. When it opens, Rachel is living with her grandma, whose “body is a bullet. . .thick and short.”  She goes on to describe her Grandma as one who “looks something like pride.  Like a whistle about to blow.”  We get Rachel’s version of the story first, but not the whole story–because she’s trying to figure it out–and then we get the story from the voices of other characters: Jamie, who sees them fall; Roger, Rachel’s father; Nella, Rachel’s mother; and Laronne, Nella’s boss.  Together, they unravel a story of what happened and why, and through them, we watch each character make sense of the events and try to move forward.  It takes a while to understand the relationships and the time sequence (requiring me to reread sections several times), but as it comes together, I developed an increased appreciation for the four perspectives and the answers they each unveil.  Some may see it as disjointed–and it is–but I think the fractured telling of the story mirrors their journey, from Nella’s marriage to her death and from Rachel’s survival to her acceptance.  I don’t see the racial aspect as a strong motif–poverty and culture seem much more important.  The story can be tough to stomach at times, and it left me wondering where my empathy lies.


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