Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance


Author: J. D. Vance
TitleHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Narrator:  J. D. Vance
Publication Info:Harper Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

This book is being touted as offering insight into the Trump voter, but I think if you go into the book with that mindset you will be misled.  Nevertheless it is an interesting memoir of life for the self-proclaimed “hillbilly” culture of Appalachia.  Vance tells the story of his family from rural Kentucky and their migration along the “Hillbilly Highway” to a factory town in Ohio.  His community is one of strong family ties, rugged independence, and fierce patriotism.  But it is also a place of domestic violence, substance abuse, and extreme poverty.  Vance’s beloved grandmother, Mamaw, who primarily raised Vance is a key figure in the book. One of the most interesting political observations  in the book is that Mamaw could alternately support right-wing anti-government ideas and social democratic government programs.  The contradiction of these seemingly extreme viewpoints is due to the fact the established middle of both Republicans and Democrats have abandoned the ordinary working people.  Vance’s story is not typical for an Appalachian person as he joins the Marines, studies at Ohio State, gets a law degree at Yale, and now works at an investment firm in Silicon Valley. A lot of Vance’s book is the story of how he “got out” and doesn’t reflect the perspectives of those unable to “get out” or those for whom “getting out” is not an option to be desired.  With those caveats in mind, this is a good slice of life of part of our country and our people who are too often overlooked.

Recommended books: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, and The Other America: Poverty in the United States by Michael Harrington
Rating: ***

Book Review: It’s Game Time Somewhere by Tim Forbes


Author: Tim Forbes
TitleIt’s Game Time Somewhere: How One Year, 100 Events, and 50 Different Sports Changed My Life
Publication Info: Bascom Hill Publishing Group (2013)
Summary/Review:

I received this as an e-book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

In a long preamble to this book, Forbes discusses his lifelong love of sports and his realization as he turned 40 that he could go into sports management as a career.  Fast forward ten years of working on golf tournaments and Forbes discovers that he’s losing his passion for the games.  To address this, he decides to tour the United States for a year attending 100 sporting events  in 50 different sports.  Forbes likes golf and works in golf, so the first 40% of this book is very focused on golf.  I don’t like golf, so this was a bear to read, although there were interesting details about golf personalities and courses here and there.

Forbes comes to the realization that the big-time sports with athletes living large and the control of ESPN over big events are draining his love of watching sports.  Interestingly, he says he finds the behavior of crowds at big events more drunken and violent than a decade earlier.  In my own experience, going to a game was scarier in the 70s and 80s but since the 90s there has been more effort to control crowds, manage alcohol consumption, and create a family friendly environment to the point that the game experience is almost too sanitized.  Nevertheless, Forbes and I can agree that the real thrill of spectator sports is going to be found in lower-level divisions or in sports that are not in the eye of the big sports media complex.

Forbes makes his discovery when the same player helps win a  minor league baseball game that he saw in a college baseball game earlier in the year. His journey changes as begins to embrace minor sports like synchronized swimming, paddling, and high school volleyball.  He discovers communities of families, friends, athletes, and dedicated fans around the many different sports.  Finally, whether it be adult kickball, curling, or lawn bowl, Forbes finds that the best sports experience come from participation.

Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon


AuthorMichael Chabon
TitleManhood for amateurs : the pleasures and regrets of a husband, father, and son
Narrator: Michael Chabon
Publication Info: HarperCollins, 2009
Summary/Review:

This book collects together essays by author Michael Chabon about being a husband, father, and son.  Particularly his efforts to avoid the cliches of masculinity in these roles.  I can relate to his sensitive and introspective thoughts on fatherhood.  One particularly interesting essay discusses the loss of wildness in childhood (much like the concerns of Free Range Kids’ Lenore Skenazy).  This goes beyond children being able to wander around outside though as Chabon discusses how fart jokes in children’s books and movies have allowed adults to gentrify what once was a means for children to rebel against the grown-up world.  Other essays are less relatable such as the uncomfortable reminiscences of his early sexual encounters with much older women.  The essays are good and bad, but the good outnumber the bad and they all offer something worth reading.

Favorite Passages:

“A father is a man who fails every day.”

“Make all families are a kind of fandom, an endlessly elaborated, endlessly disputed, endlessly reconfigured set of commentaries, extrapolations, and variations generated by passionate amateurs on the primal text of the parents’ love for each other. Sometimes the original program is canceled by death or separation; sometimes, as with Doctor Who, it endures and flourishes for decades. And maybe love, mortality, and loss, and all the children and mythologies and sorrows they engender, make passionate amateurs–nerds, geeks, and fanboys–of us all.”

Recommended booksAmerican Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent, Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy and Lost In Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia by Mark Salzman
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Cheesemonger : a life on the wedge by Gordon Edgar


Author: Gordon Edgar
TitleCheesemonger : a life on the wedge
Publication Info: White River Junction, VT : Chelsea Green Pub., c2010
Summary/Review:

Edgar wanted so much to gain employment at a San Francisco worker’s cooperative that he applied for a job in the cheese department despite not knowing much about cheese.  This memoir/manifesto tells of his two decades learning about cheese, visiting farms, attending conferences, and dealing with customers.  Edgar draws on his past in punk rock to explore the community and ethics of the cheese world.  This may be the least pretentious book about cheese possible, and I enjoyed reading Edgar’s stories and opinions.  I’m also hungry for some cheese.

Recommended booksCoop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting by Michael Perry and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
Rating: ****

Book Review: Marbles : mania, depression, Michelangelo, and me by Ellen Forney


AuthorEllen Forney
TitleMarbles : mania, depression, Michelangelo, and me
Publication Info: New York : Gotham Books, c2012.
ISBN: 9781592407323
Summary/Review:

This graphic memoir depicts artist Ellen Forney’s experience when diagnosed with a bipolar personality, and her efforts to come terms with the manic and depressive periods of her life, as well as the cocktails of pharmaceuticals to help address this.  Forney explores the idea of the “troubled artist” stereotype, wondering if medication would kill her creativity, but also learning of the terrible struggles of famed bipolar artists.  This book ends on an upbeat note as Forney reflects on how she’s changed since her diagnosis, and grows to accept some of the tradeoffs in life.

Favorite Passages:

“Sometimes it seems like ‘pain’ is too obvious a place to turn for inspiration.  Pain isn’t always deep anyway.  Sometimes it’s awful and that’s it.  Or boring.

Surely other things can be as profound as pain …  ?”

Recommended books: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield


Author: Rob Sheffield
Title:  Love is a Mix Tape
Publication Info: New York : Crown Publishing, c2007.
ISBN: 9781415931301
Summary/Review:

I read these books out of order, but I previously enjoyed Rob Sheffield’s Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, his memoir of life growing up in the 1980s and 1990s told through the music of that era.  This book is similar with several mix tapes providing the frame from which each chapter is built and is filled with observations about music not from a dispassionate critic, but from a fan who sees music intersecting with every aspect of human life.  I particularly like his insight into the last recordings of Kurt Cobain displaying the worries of being a husband and father.  But the central point of this book is Sheffield’s relationship with Renee, his first wife who died of an embolism in 1997.  The book marinates in honesty as Sheffield details the sometimes tempestuous nature of their relationship and later the overwhelming grief at finding himself a young widower.  Sheffield is a talented writer and the fact that this book actually made me laugh more than I cried is a testament to his skill.

Favorite Passages:

“I have built my entire life around loving music, and I surround myself with it. I’m always racing to catch up on my new favorite song. But I never stop playing my mixes. Every fan makes them. The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they can add up to the story of a life.”

“It’s the same with people who say, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Even people who say this must realize that the exact opposite is true. What doesn’t kill you maims you, cripples you, leaves you weak, makes you whiny and full of yourself at the same time. The more pain, the more pompous you get. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you incredibly annoying.”

Recommended booksFever Pitch by Nick Hornby
Rating: ****

RELATED POST: Mix Tapes

Book Review: Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne


Author: David Byrne
Title: Bicycle Diaries
Publication Info: New York : Viking, c2009.
ISBN:  9780670021147
Summary/Review:

David Byrne has a folding bike and takes it with him on his travels around the world.  This book collects his ruminations from cycling through many great cities.  Sometimes they are observations on what he sees from the saddle, but often they ponder more deeply place of the city from architecture to culture to politics.  He is admittedly didactic at times, but he often makes a good point.  Knowing Byrne as the singer/songwriter for Talking Heads, I found his narrative voice not at all what I expected, sometimes a little crude, sometimes a little lofty, but usually compelling.  This is a good book for learning about the necessary changes that need to be made to our cities to survive an uncertain future.

Politics of Happiness

Favorite Passages:

My generation makes fun of the suburbs and the shopping malls, the TV commercials and the sitcoms that we grew up with — but they’re part of us too.  So our ironic view is leavened with something like love. Though we couldn’t wait to get out of these places they are something like comfort food for us.  Having come from those completely uncool places we are not and can never be urban sophisticates we read about, and neither are we rural specimens — stoic, self-sufficient, and relaxed — at ease and comfortable in the wild.  These suburbs, where so many of us spent our formative years, still push emotional buttons for us; they’re both attractive and deeply disturbing. – p. 9

These [modern] buildings represent the triumph of both the cult of capitalism and the cult of Marxist materialism.  Opposing systems have paradoxically achieved more or less the same aesthetic result.  Diverging paths converge.  The gods of reason triumph over beauty, whimsy, and animal instincts and our innate aesthetic sense — if one believes that people have such a thing.  We associate these latter qualities with either peasants — the unsophisticated, who don’t know any better than to build crooked walls and add peculiar little decorative touches — or royalty and the upper classes — our despicable former rulers with their frilly palaces, whom we can now view, in this modern world, as equals, at least on some imaginary or theoretical level. – p. 79

I’m in my midfifties, so I can testify that biking as a way of getting around is  not something only for the young and energetic.  You don’t really need the spandex, and unless you want it to be, biking is not necessarily all the strenous.  It’s the liberating feeling — the physical and psychological sensation — that is more persuasive than any practical argument.  Seeing things from a point of view that is close enough to pedestrians, vendors, and storefronts combined with getting around in a way that doesn’t feel completely divorced from the life that occurs on the streets is pure pleasure.  Observing and engaging in a city’s life — even for a reticent and often shy person like me — is one of life’s great joys.  Being a social creature — it is part of what it means to be human. – p. 292

Recommended books: Pedal Power by J. Harry Wray and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Rating: ***

Book Review: Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle


Author: Gregory Boyle
Title: Tattoos on the Heart
Publication Info: New York : Free Press, 2010.
ISBN:  9781439153024
Summary/Review:

Not really a memoir, but more illustrative vignettes from Fr. Greg’s work with gang members in Los Angeles.  This beautifully written book is both inspiring and heartbreaking.  Inspiring because of the wonderful humanity of the “homies” the comes to its fullest when they are given some love and dignity.  Heartbreaking because so many of the people we come to while reading are cut down by gunfire and die too young.  This is a book I highly recommend.  Learn more about Fr. Greg and his homies at the Homeboy Industries website.

Favorite Passages:

We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she’s not pissed off at us. p. 54

Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it. p. 67

Success and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified — whichever came first. p. 172

Recommended books: Respect: An Exploration by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists by Courtney E. Martin and The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw by Michael Sokolive
Rating: *****

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson


Author: Greg Mortenson
Title: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Journey to Change the World… One Child at a Time
Publication Info: Tantor Media (2006), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
ISBN: 1400102510

Summary/Review:

I’m probably the last person in the United States to read this book but here is my review anyway.  This memoir/biography tells the story of Greg Mortenson, a mountaineer who after a failed attempt at summiting K-2 is received warmly in a remote village in Pakistan.  As a means of paying back the people of Korphe for their hospitality he promises to build them a school.  Fulfilling this promise is wrought with many challenges but leads Mortenson to a new mission in life, eventually founding the Central Asia Institute to support education in the remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially for girls as a means of promoting social change and peace.  This is a nice, inspirational work and if you haven’t read it, check it out.

Favorite Passages:

“In times of war, you often hear leaders—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—saying ‘God is on our side.’ But that isn’t true. In war, God is on the side of refugees, widows, and orphans.” — Greg Mortenson

Recommended books: Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy, and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Coop by Michael Perry


Author: Michael Perry
Title: Coop : a year of poultry, pigs, and parenting
Publication Info: New York : Harper, c2009.
ISBN: 9780061240430

Summary/Review:  As the title implies this is a book about a man taking up running a family farm with pigs and chickens while also raising a family.  There is his wife, a step-daughter, and a brand new baby and it’s touching how he tries to do right by all of them.  This book is also very much a memoir as Perry reflects back to growing up on his parents’ farm.  He grew up a member of a small and nameless Christian denomination and while no longer practicing the faith appreciates the sincere devotion of his parents that lead him to grow up in a household with dozens of adopted and foster children.  This is a touching, insightful, and quiet peak at one man’s attempts at the country life in the modern age.

Recommended books: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard and Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.
Rating: ****