Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

hillbilly elegy

This memoir from JD Vance is an eye-opening, articulate depiction of the “hillbilly” culture of the Appalachian region.  As Vance shares with the reader about his upbringing – bouncing between Kentucky and Ohio – he opens our hearts to the plight of the poor, often uneducated, white population in this region.  As we learn about his experience with his traumatized and drug-addicted mom and his angry, foul-mouthed, sometimes violent, but unendingly loving and devoted grandparents, we see how entrenched the culture is and how difficult it is to dream in this world.  Fortunately, for him, he was able to find love and support enough to find his way to success – but his journey was complicated and chaotic and he never forgot from where he came.

The honesty and self-reflection with which this story is told brings the reader right into the author’s life.  We are right there with him when his mother takes him on a death-defying car ride.  We are right there when his older sister cares for him as a devoted mother would.  The love and appreciation that he feels for his grandparents who were his constants in a very tumultuous childhood is palpable.  And we can understand when he reflects on how to improve the lot of his fellow hillbilly peers and come up short.  The poverty, the distrust, and the violence that pervades this culture are so entrenched that it feels impossible to overcome.

I think this is an important book for people who are not from the South to read.  It really provides an understanding of a whole sub-culture of people that comprise  part of the fabric of our United States.

A very, very worthwhile read!


An Improbable Friendship by Anthony David


This is a difficult book to write about, probably because I am still trying to digest it all for myself, let alone try to share it with anyone else.  The friendship that is chronicled in this book is that which existed for many years between Ruth Dayan, wife of Moshe Dayan, and Raymonda Tawil, Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law.  Although they were each related to men who were enemies, they themselves were able to strike a bond of friendship and respect because of their common goals and common ideals.  They each believed in the inherent good in all people and that peace could be achieved between Palestinians and Israelis if they were just brought together and allowed to live side by side.  Each worked relentlessly to try to bring this dream into a reality, Ruth by working directly with Palestinian women (helping them to earn money through their weaving) and Raymonda through the media.

What became difficult about this book is the details, which were, as the history of Israel is, quite bloody and controversial.  While I have always been aware of Israel’s displacement of Arabs from their homes during the formative years of the state, this book provides the gory details and describes it in real, human terms.  It is, to say the least disturbing.  It did truly open my eyes to some of Israel’s darkest moments.  On the other hand, I cannot help feeling as though there are some details that are not included, such as the fact that after the U.N. declaration of a 2-state situation in 1948, the Israelis were willing to abide by this but the Arabs were not.  And terrorism is terrorism, no matter what the root of it, and the only true way to solve a problem is to negotiate it through.  The story, as it is written, portrays Palestinians as the underdogs and I think the bias in the writing is a fault in the book.  It is so clearly slanted to the left that in the writing of the story of these 2 very brave women, the author actually alienates readers – and probably the very readers he wants to sway.

The book does highlight how the female perspective on the situation is often different from the male one.  Ruth and Raymonda were able to disagree about many things, but they always found common ground and started back from this.  Their priority was always to fall back onto humanism and love.  I firmly believe that if women were in charge, we’d be able to reconcile a solution to the Middle East and find a way to make peace.  I think leaving out testosterone and “honor” would do the world a service.

I definitely learned a lot about the history of Israel, the complexity of the political quagmire that remains there, but also how one can spin events in many ways to work to one’s purpose.  I think too much of the latter was done in this book and this may have caused what I understood to be the “mission” of this book to backfire.


The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman


Rachel is a headstrong, fiercely independent young, Jewish woman living with her family on the island of St. Thomas in the early 1800’s.  Unfortunately, when her father’s business falters, it appears that the only solution is to marry Rachel off to an older man (with 3 young children), so that the two businesses can merge and hopefully prosper.  Rachel is devastated, as this certainly will delay the realization of her dream, which is to one day sail off to live in Paris.  Her best friend, and housemaid, Jestine, tries to convince her to resist, but she too is powerless in resisting the cultural pressures of her time and status as a woman.  The two of them experience many heartbreaks and successes together as the saga of their lives moves forward.  The one success that Rachel achieves, although this is one that causes her great pain as well, is that she ultimately becomes the mother of Camille Pissarro, the painter.

The writing of the tale is as lyrical as Pissarro’s paintings themselves.  The author paints both St. Thomas and Paris with words, filling in the hues, the aromas, the sensations of each world. There is also a great amount of magic and fantasy, as Rachel’s faith mixes with that of the native culture of St. Thomas, and conjures up many fictional, imaginative stories that Rachel records for herself and for her children.  And although there are a few paragraphs in which the author sort of meanders onto sidetracks, it is a story that keeps one glued because the characters are ones you don’t ever want to leave.

I admire Alice Hoffman for telling the story from Pissarro’s mother’s perspective.  It is not just a fictionized biography, but it is truly a story of a strong woman in a time when women weren’t allowed to be strong.  She shows how difficult the times were and how women’s powerlessness was analogous to that of the slaves at the time.   Neither could own property, could determine who they would marry, or truly had control over decisions that were made for them by the men in their lives.   This further deepened the emotional strength of the story.

Oh, how I’d love to go back to the Musee D’Orsay now!

The Orchard by Theresa Weir


Have you ever started a book and realize that you’ve already read it?  This is what happened with this book – and it’s really the reason why I’m writing this blog!  I lose track of what I’ve read already – and now that I’m blogging, hopefully it won’t happen again…  This book is intriguing, though, and I ended up reading it again anyway.

It is actually a memoir, the story of Theresa Weir, a young woman with a rocky past, who worked and actually lived in her uncle’s bar.  She meets Adrian, a young, handsome apple farmer whose farm was rumored to be cursed.  Theresa, usually guarded, is taken by Adrian’s innocence and they begin a whirlwind romance that no one anticipates will last.  Theresa learns gradually what is at the root of the “curse” of the farm and she fights along with Adrian to try to overcome the history of the farm (guarded severely by Adrian’s hideous mother) to save themselves and their family.

What is important here is the message, which is that pure greed has led to the enlargement of farms and the use of toxic chemicals to achieve the “perfect” specimen of produce.  A key line in the book says something to the effect of man needing to work with nature not against it in order to grow the food he needs.  Adrian’s mother insists on perpetuating the use of pesticides on their farm, even in light of the deaths and miscarriages that have occurred there because of the chemicals.  And nothing convinces her otherwise, even the death of those close to her.

It is a story very close to my heart – as I agree that there is insurmountable evidence that pesticides are toxic.  The more we work with nature and not against it, the better!

Yes Please by Amy Poehler (migrated from bookblogger)

In the tradition of Bossy Pants, by Tina Fey, this book is a compilation of musings by her friend, Amy Poehler.  In fact, I liked this one better.  Amy Poehler speaks about her roots in improv and comedy, her earlier, hungrier days, and her experiences on SNL and on Parks and Rec.  She speaks about her family, her marriage, and her children in sort of random order.  She is funny, smart, honest and a little philosophical and the book definitely held my attention all the way through.

A nice little break from the serious stuff I’ve been reading…   Shout out to my daughter who is her biggest fan and who lent me her pre-ordered book!

This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor by Susan Wicklund and Alex Kesselheim (migrated from bookblogger)

This stirring memoir is the story of Susan Wicklund, MD, who performed abortions in multiple states for over 20 years.  It begins with an account of her personal experiences that lead to her decision to do this work and it takes the reader through the course of her tumultuous and dramatic career.  No other type of doctor is hunted and intimidated the way these brave physicians are.  No other doctor is forced to subject their families and friends to the kind of outright brutality that these doctors are — and ironically in the name of God!  They deserve all the recognition that this book begins to achieve.

It truly brings to light the hypocrisy of the protestors who plagued her.  In their urgency to protect “rights” of the unborn, for example, they completely trample over the rights of ACTUAL LIVING PEOPLE WHO SHOULD BE PROTECTED!  Staggeringly, some of the people who protested actually came in for services and then went  back out and protested again.  And you can be sure that their sisters, mothers, cousins and friends had probably used the services as well.  But go and shoot at the doctor and go and burn down the clinic so that you can make your empty, cowardly statement.

As you can see, I am passionate about this topic.  But I think no matter what your view on this subject, this book is a fascinating real-life story of a heroine.  An important book for us to be reading especially in the current, right-wing, conservative political climate in which we are, sadly, living.

Brain on Fire (migrated from bookblogger)

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

This is an autobiography of a young woman who had a psychotic episode that was caused by an extremely rare disorder of the brain.  Susannah Cahalan was a young, dynamic, outgoing and talkative journalist for the New York Post who suddenly started experiencing hallucinations, seizures and disordered movements.  She deteriorated to the point of catatonia, and was then fortunate enough to have been referred to a neurologist who was essentially her savior.

What is fascinating about this autobiography is that since the author was unable to think in any logical or functional way during the acute period of her illness, she pieced together her experience through interviews with and journals by her family, boyfriend and physicians.  She creates a smooth story from this research and tells the story as if she did remember it herself, always reminding the reader that this is what she was told occurred.  Some of her hallucinations are told first hand, however, because in her mind, these images were what was real.

Of course being a physician, this case is extremely interesting, but I think anyone could appreciate how interesting her course was.  In addition, it gives the reader an insight into how rare medical conditions can masquerade as usual ones and that diagnosis and treatment of medical problems can sometimes be extremely challenging.  While physicians are trained to recognize and treat the more common medical conditions, they are also trained to recognize that when symptoms and signs don’t add up, one has to delve deeper into the medical literature and look for what we refer to as the “zebras” of medicine.  (The saying is that when you hear hooves you should think horses not zebras.  Unfortunately, there are zebras out there as well.)

As Cahalan says, also, she was uniquely fortunate to have both the emotional support of her family and boyfriend (who stayed true to her through the whole ordeal and after) as well as financial support.  This enabled her to not only get through this very difficult time but also to access the medical treatment she required.  It is touching to read about how each of the family members dealt with her illness and stood by her side even while she was unrecognizable, both physically and emotionally.

It’s a tough book to read but very interesting…