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.


All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen

all who go

In the tiny, ultra-Hassidic (Skverer) community of New Square, author Shulem Deen dared to question his religious practices and belief in God. Born in Brooklyn to a different sect of Hassidism, he chose this community because of his impression that it was welcoming and that it espoused the spiritual essence he was searching for.  He studied in the yeshivah there and in time was married off to a girl he’d met only once before his wedding.  He tried to make a life for himself, studying, working (or trying to, in spite of the minimal secular education he was provided), and even fathering children.  But his doubts began to niggle at him as did his curiosity about the outside world (of which he knew almost nothing).

This is not the best-written or the most gripping story, but it is very human and very heartfelt.  More importantly, it also gives the reader an insider’s view into this terribly insular ghetto.  More than almost any other sect of Judaism, this group of people consider any exposure to the outside/modern world (television, newspapers, etc.) a doorway to sin.  There is no such thing as discussion or debate, unless it is related to the study of Torah.  Anyone who questions the Rebbe — the ultimate leader believed, in a sense, to hold a direct line to God — is one who must be punished and abolished from their midst.  And this is the ultimate fate of Shulem.

Sadly, this is another example of how religious extremism promotes hatred, intolerance, and cruelty toward anyone who is perceived as different.  Poor Shulem was just another victim of this.




Me Talk Pretty One Day (migrated from Bookblogger)

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Fun book!  When my family asked me what this book was about, I had to answer, “Nothing, really.”  It is sort of the Seinfeld of books…  David Sedaris, in his sardonic, laugh-out-loud style, describes vignettes from his childhood, his experiences living in Paris, and his various work experiences.  While he is sometimes outrageous in his tone, he describes some scenarios that any reader can relate to and in that he draws the reader in and thoroughly entertains.

In short, it’s hard not to have a great time reading this book!


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…

Behind the Beautiful Forevers (migrated from bookblogger)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

The “moral” of this book could be “Life sucks and then you die… or kill yourself.”  This is a painfully realistic depiction of life in the slums of Mumbai, derived after the author lived among these real people for four years.  It is written like a novel, focusing on a particular family who lived next door to a woman with one leg.  Fatima, or “One Leg” as she was called, was always jealous of the money the family earned by collecting recyclable trash and in a jealous rage, set her own face on fire and accused the family of triggering her suicide attempt.  Because of this, the family had to confront the unabashedly corrupt criminal justice (or IN-Justice, really) system in order to extricate themselves from this messy nightmare.  Meanwhile, in the telling of this story, the author weaves the pain and the misery of the other surrounding characters into the tale and leaves the reader plainly devastated.

The level of poverty is frightening enough, but the competition and jealousy and the level of corruption that perpetuates the poverty is just overwhelmingly depressing.  Many times while reading this book I found myself yelling at a page in outrage.  Investigators into the supposed “crime” made aggressive advances to extort bribes in exchange for reporting more favorable evidence.  Potential witnesses asked outright for bribes to speak on either side.  Another unrelated example of the corruption was when federal funds were extracted from the government to set up schools to educate these poor children and then this money was pocketed by the officials who set them up (fake accounts made for fake teachers on a fake payroll — the whole 9 yards).  And it was based on truth.

What is so sad is that the people are so disenfranchised and discouraged that they do not band together and revolt. Rather, they compete against each other and push each other down to make themselves feel elevated.  A profound quote on page 254 summarizes this by saying, “In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your own ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished.  The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.”

This book is difficult to read, but very eye-opening into the underbelly of India.

Beautiful Boy (migrated from Bookblogger)

Beautiful Boy by David Sheff

I put off reading this book for so long because I knew it would be difficult — and rightfully so.  However, I do believe it is worth reading.  It is the harrowing, true story (probably so much more harrowing because it’s true!) of a father whose son is addicted to methamphetamine.  The account is painstaking and painful, recurrent and repetitive, really because the experience is.  He tells of his son, Nic, who is a bright, talented, truly “beautiful” boy who maybe  and maybe not because of his parents’ difficult divorce and their long-distance custody arrangement, begins to use marijuana.  He quickly moves on to alcohol and other drugs and finally finds his true love in meth.  And the drug, as it tends to do, takes over his life.  When Nic is on the drug, he becomes a different person — cold, impervious, resentful and conniving and completely manipulates his friends and family to enable his drug use.

His is a typical story, evidently, and the author peppers the story with actual research statistics and theories and advice for other parents in the same situation.  Mostly, though, it seems to be a catharsis for this father who writes as his way of coping.  He offers frequently that there is no great advice and there is no single answer to what heals an addict.  It seems there are some addicts who cannot be healed.  Even with treatment and rehab there is relapse and it often seems truly hopeless.

Probably most importantly, the author stresses particularly at the end of the book, the importance of the family members to get treatment themselves.  Being that closely tied to an addict can be just as “addictive” and destructive as being the addict.  It can take over your life just as easily.  This is an important message for those close to anyone with such an overwhelming disease.

As painful as this book was to read, I am so glad I did read it.  I learned so much.