Review: Hillbilly Elegy

I’m probably the last person in the world to read this book (it came out in 2016), but since I’m quarantine’d up like the rest of the world, I finally got around to getting a digital copy from my library. It didn’t go so well. Anywho, here goes:

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Review for "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J. D. Vance (2018)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Oh hell no…I didn’t like this book.

J.D. Vance, a self described “hillbilly,” grew up poor and disadvantaged in the Appalachian Rust Belt of Ohio. His parents were divorced before he could talk, his mother had addiction issues, and his Mamaw took most of the responsibility for raising him. He eventually goes off to the Marines, on to Ohio State, and graduates from Yale Law. He carries emotional baggage from his childhood experiences, but honestly umm…Mr. Vance is not a hillbilly. With his Ivy League education and newfound book fame he’s probably among the top 10% of wage earners in the country. So umm, a hillbilly? I don’t think so.

This book points to meritocracy as the answer to every problem that deep poverty brings. If J.D. Vance can achieve the American Dream with a quality education, a decent job, and hard work, then why can’t you? The virtue signaling of this book is loud and unmistakable, that if you’re still poor in the richest and best country in the world, you deserve to be. It’s interesting that Mr. Vance has adopted a conservative political viewpoint to coincide with this fallacy, which completely ignores the social, racial, and gender inequities that have been present since the day this country was founded. He absolves the government of blame and espouses personal responsibility for ourselves and our communities, yet stops short of any kind of real solution for the poverty, drugs, and loss of manufacturing jobs that plague his beloved working class.

And then there’s race. Other than once or twice, there is very little discussion of the obvious, and that’s the fact that Appalachia is still a very racist place with a long history of hatred and violence towards black people and other minorities. I find it interesting that people look to this book as “the reason why Trump won,” but there’s no acknowledgement of the white supremacy that was already long present among the working class that made his win possible. His avoidance of this topic is cowardly and telling; a refusal to see simple facts.

This book was also boring. Who cares about J.D. Vance’s agony at figuring out which fork is which at his first big fancy dinner party?

I gave this book two stars, because one star seemed cruel. I still might go back and subtract one. What the hell.

Review: Children of the Land

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Review for "Children of the Land" by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Children of the Land” is Mexican-born poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s personal and familial experience with immigration and becoming an American citizen. Castillo first came to the U.S. with his undocumented parents as a child. They settle in California, where ICE agents frequently raided their home and his father was deported back to Mexico. To ‘become invisible’ to arrest and detection by authorities, Castillo does well in school and learns, in his words, “perfect” English. He goes to college and eventually receives American citizenship through the DACA program, first set into place under the former President Barack Obama.

Through DACA, Castillo is able to visit his father in Mexico. Although their relationship is strained, he assists his father in the long, fraught process of getting a green card. While this attempt proves unsuccessful, it is only after his father is kidnapped by a violent drug cartel that Castillo is able to help his parents seek asylum in the U.S.

This book is raw and spares no details of America’s dehumanizing immigration system. I would certainly recommend this over “American Dirt” because it is a represents a Latinx view of the lives of the undocumented and the myriad of dynamics (social, familial, personal) that come with it.

Review: Everywhere You Don’t Belong

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Review for "Everywhere You Don't Belong" by Gabriel Bump (2020)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I should have loved this book, but for me it was just ok.

“Everywhere You Don’t Belong” is the story of Claude McKay Love, a Black boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago. After being abandoned parents at a young age, he is raised by his grandmother, a former Civil Rights activist, and her queer friend Paul. As people come and go throughout Claude’s life, his awkwardness is the clear focal point of all of his interactions. After a violent riot in his neighborhood, Claude takes up journalism, using the opportunity to escape Chicago and go to college in Missouri. When a family friend turn up at his college dorm, he finds that escaping his past is not so easily done.

This book is told in short vignettes rather than a traditional narrative. There’s an irreverent quality to this book that I appreciated, with some great imagery and memorable dialogue that’s (at times) quite hilarious. Unfortunately, this is a book that doesn’t have much to offer as far as a plot. The characters are compelling but not well rounded, and there’s a repetitiveness here that don’t hold up well to the short, story-by-story structure that it’s told in.

I gave this three stars. I would be interested in reading further books by Gabriel Bump, his voice definitely distinct and original.

Review: The Girl with the Louding Voice

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Review for "The Girl with the Louding Voice" by Abi Dare (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ahhh, this book made me want to stand up and cheer!

“The Girl with the Louding Voice” is the story of 14-year-old Adunni, a Nigerian girl who longs to go back to school and become a teacher. Her mother is dead, and her father believes that education is wasted on girls. When the family falls upon hard financial times, her father accepts a tv and several other gifts as a bride price for his daughter. He gives Adunni away in marriage to an older man who already has two wives and several children.

As a wife, Adunni finds life unbearable. She quickly discovers that her husband is only concerned with her bearing him a boy to raise. His older first wife is cruel and causes her constant misery. In contrast, her husband’s much younger second wife is kind, and her and Adunni develop a lasting friendship. After a tragedy involving the second wife, Adunni escapes to the large city of Lagos, where she finds work as a servant to a wealthy, abusive mistress. When an opportunity to further her education comes and offers Adunni a chance to escape, she takes it–in great peril to her life.

I loved this book. Although the portrait of rural life is bleak (child marriage, sexual exploitation, trafficking, and forced servitude are very real), Adunni uses her ‘louding voice’ to rise up and make a difference in her circumstances. Adunni also speaks a very basic English in a very distinct dialect, which found its own rhythm as the story moved forward. The language, along with her courage and determination to make a better life for herself were what made this book worthwhile.

4.5 stars. Definitely read this if you get the chance!

Review: King and the Dragonflies

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Review for "King and the Dragonflies" by Kacen Callender (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Kingston lives in a small, unnamed Louisiana town with his parents. A few months prior, his older brother Khalid was killed. Before he died, he cautioned King to stay away from Sandy, a white boy at his school who has recently come out as gay. Throughout the story, King is overcome with grief for his brother, associated throughout the book with dragonflies, which King believes holds the spirit of Khalid. With his father telling him that “boys don’t cry” and his mother emotionally distant, King often escapes to the bayou to mourn and think about his brother.

One day at the bayou, King begins talking to Sandy. Despite warnings to stay away, the two boys become friends. Complicating his grief for Khalid and his friendship with Sandy is King’s realization that he is gay. When Sandy goes missing, King is forced to come to terms with his identity, as well as coming out to his family and friends.

This novel directly addresses many issues: homophobia in the Black community, toxic masculinity, racism, fear, child abuse, loss and grief. It’s an excellent novel that takes many of these hard-to-discuss tropes and manages to make them palatable for child readers, while at the same time not diluting their importance.

Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

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Review for "Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line" by Deepa Anappara (2020)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

An excellent yet heartbreaking debut novel that revolves around an alarming statistic: 180 children go missing in India each day. Deepa Anappara, a reporter, wrote about the children of India for many years. Children that disappear are trafficked, forced into manual labor and sexual slavery, or worse, murdered and never found. The local police, known for corruption and taking bribes, are completely uninterested in solving these crimes or doing any kind of investigation. They presume all children have run away and absolve themselves of any kind of accountability for protecting their citizens.

At the heart of this book is 9-year-old Jai, a boy living with his parents and older sister in a one-room house in a basti in a large, unnamed Indian city. Jai is your guide into life in a modern Indian slum, where smog covers everything, letting in very little sunlight and making it hard to breathe. Schools in the basti offer sub-par education, parents often work as maids and service people for upper class citizens, and the family must pay for the dignity to use a community outhouse. Every day in the slum, people live in fear of police raids and threats to bulldoze their neighborhood. Despite the bleakness Jai is optimistic and hopeful, watching tv detective shows such as Police Patrol to learn how to solve crimes. When one of his classmates comes up missing, he and two of his friends decide to become detectives to solve the mystery. As is common in India, belief in the supernatural is all throughout this book, with characters discussing djinns (spirits that can be good or bad and can appear as humans or animals). As the friends interview parents and locals about their friend’s whereabouts and find no answers, the children begin to wonder if it is a djinn that’s snatching their friends.

There are also many issues explored in this novel, such as the widespread prejudice against Muslims by Hindus. As more and more children disappear in Jai’s basti, Muslims are accused and jailed for the crimes. Even though two Muslim children are among the kidnapped, Muslims are still blamed. There’s also the wide gap between India’s super rich and the poorest of the poor, separated in the novel by a field of garbage. Despite modernization and the legal ‘end’ of caste system discrimination, class differences and the misery of poor people in India have remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

Despite the sense of hopelessness that permeates the book, it is Jai’s optimism keeps you reading until the tragic end. Although by the end Jai is forced to shade his innocence and see his world for what it really is, this is still a thoughtful coming of age story. All in all, I loved this book. The characters, the story, the setting, as well as the depiction of Indian life is exceptional.

**Note: Because this is a book with Indian characters, their language is used frequently throughout with no footnotes. There’s a glossary at the back of this book to help, though I found that after awhile I didn’t need it anymore because the unknown words could be inferred by context.

Review: Stateway’s Garden

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Review for "Stateway's Garden: Stories" by Jasmon Drain (2020)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a collection of interconnected short stories about life inside of one of Chicago’s now-demolished South Side housing projects, Stateway Gardens. Mostly set in the 1980’s, the stories follow a set of brothers, Tracy and Jacob, and their relatives as they navigate poverty, racism, drugs, and violence of their home.

Neither Tracy or Jacob’s father is around, which leaves their mother as their primary caregiver. She works long hours and rarely has time for either of her sons. Most of the stories are narrated by the younger Tracy, such as “BB Sauce,” “Middle School,” and “Stateway Condo Gentrification.” He grows up to be a highly inquistive young man amidst the ugliness around him and the eventual demise of the projects. Tracy, his older brother, chooses a slightly different path, becoming a teenage father and drug dealer. He narrates “Stephanie Worthington” and the very last story.

For me, these stories were hard to get into. The first few stories are choppy and aren’t very compelling, there’s wasn’t much to draw me into them or their characters. The same continues through much of the middle of the book, and although most of the action seems to take place toward the end, it was anti-climatic and showed very little sense of cohesion throughout. Ultimately I had to really push myself to finish this, which is a shame, given the passion and the beauty behind its subject matter.

Three stars. I expected better.