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: Body Leaping Backward

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Review for "Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood" by Maureen Stanton (2019)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

“Body Leaping Backward” is a memoir of Maureen Stanton’s life growing up in the mid-70’s in a working class family in Walpole, Massachusetts. Throughout the book, the shadow of the maximum security prison in the area looms large, in both the author’s mind and in the warnings her mother gives her to behave herself, lest she end up on the inside of the gates.

For the first several years of her life, Stanton grows up in a happy home with her six siblings. Around 11 or 12, her parents divorce amicably and thus begins the family’s slide toward poverty, dysfunction, drugs, and criminal behavior. Stanton’s mother, left with 7 children to raise, begins to steal food from local grocery stores. Maureen becomes depressed, the confusion of which leads her into taking drugs, mostly angel dust. A significant amount of the book details her drug use, which come to an end right around the time she finishes high school. Although she commits many petty crimes during this period, Stanton never actually spends time in Walpole Prison. She credits her turn away from a destructive life to counseling and positive friendships with non-drug users.

This book has some interesting parts. In addition to details about her childhood, Stanton writes extensively about what the suburban drug culture was like in 70’s-era Massachusetts and feeds in informational tidbits about the War on Drugs, Walpole prison and its famous inmates, and other things. There are also her personal diary entries throughout the narrative, which read like some angry girl manifesto. Unfortunately, none of this ever really gels into a cohesive, consistent narrative. The overall pacing is slow, and the sections where I wanted details there were few (i.e., like where her parents were during all this drug use) and where I didn’t want details there were many (i.e., the family’s installation of backyard pool). Also absent from this book was any kind of discussion about the external forces that really kept Stanton and her family out of prison–namely, their socioeconomic status and race. She lists all the “crimes committed” during the time period in the appendix, yet fails to mention the obvious fact that had she been a few shades darker and living within the Boston inner-city limits, she would have undoubtedly served time in jail and/or prison. It would have been inevitable.

All in all, this book is just ok for me.

[Note: Thanks to Edelweiss for a digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Stray

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Review for "Stray: Memoir of a Runaway" by Tanya Marquardt (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Hmm…I listened to the audio version of this, read by the author herself. Not bad at all.

Lemme start here: it’s always tricky when you write a review for a memoir because you never want to write too harshly, as if you are evaluating the ups and downs of someone’s life. This book is a doozy because while good, it never altogether felt ‘right’ to me. Although “Stray: Memoir of a Runaway” is about the author running away from home at 16, this is only a singular event in the book. Yes, she grows up in a highly dysfunctional home and becomes rebellious, but she never truly runs away–she remains in the same town as her mother and lives with friends, partying and clubbing and eventually returning to her mother after 6 months and living for a while with her father.

To me, “Stray” was more of a life history, told from a much older and wiser woman. Marquardt talks about any and every thing a teenager with minimal supervision does: party, go to goth clubs, smoke, discover boys, and drink. But this is it. She never really has an epiphany or changes course, she continues her lifestyle and the story ends shortly before her graduation from high school and her acceptance into college.

If the writing had not been so engaging, I probably would have stopped listening this around 50%. For this reason, I’m giving this 4 stars.

P.S – I’d be interested in how Tanya Marquardt does fiction. Hmmm….

Review: Juliet the Maniac

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Review for “Juliet the Maniac” by Juliet Escoria (to be published on 7 May 2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I’m a bit biased on this review because I love Juliet Escoria’s writing. I read her other book of fiction, “Black Cloud,” a few years ago, loved it immensely, and knew that I had to have more of whatever she writes. This book was no exception. I got an advance digital copy on Edelweiss and read it in a few days.

“Juliet the Maniac” is a fictionalized account of the author’s struggles with mental health issues as a teenager. The story begins when her bipolar disorder emerges around age 14 and continues for two years, chronicling a downward spiral of drugs and mental illness. The book covers Juliet’s two suicide attempts, medications, as well as stints in hospitals for “treatment.” Despite these measures, her problems continue. There’s extensive discussion of her history of self medication, mostly through drugs, reckless behaviors, and self harm.

This reads like memoir, but it is a novel. The more I got into this story, however, I didn’t really mind if it was true or not. Overall this book is a very raw reading experience–the more the drugs and the self harm went on, as a reader I became desensitized, much like Juliet’s response to “treatment.” I put treatment in quotes because there was considerable debate within myself while reading this whether it made her better or worse. Interspersed throughout the story are doctor’s prescriptions, pictures of relevant objects, and ‘notes’ from the author in the present day, reflecting on aspects of her past. I thought that inclusion was a beautiful touch.

The only thing I didn’t like about this novel is the fact that most people will have to wait until May to read this. When it does come out, however, do read it. 4.5 stars, highly recommended.

[Note: I received a free digital copy of this book from the publisher, Melville House, and Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Hey Kiddo

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Review for "Hey Kiddo" by Jarrett Krosoczka (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Ayyy…first post of the New Year!! Happy 2019!

Heartbreaking but hopeful nonfiction graphic novel about the life of the author, Jarrett Krosoczka. After giving a TED talk about his upbringing and receiving an overwhelmingly positive response, he decided to create this book. I’m glad he did.

Jarrett was born in 1977 in Worchester, Massachusetts. His mother was young at the time of his birth and, as he would later find out, struggling with heroin addiction. His father’s identity remained somewhat of a mystery, Jarrett does not learn his name until he is almost a teenager. For a time when he is small, Jarrett lives with his mother, though she eventually turns back to heroin and criminal activity. At the age of 3 he goes to live with his grandparents, who despite their own rocky marriage, love and raise Jarrett with all of the nurturing he could ever ask for. They take him to visit his mother in jail and throughout her detox stays, answer his questions and see him through school, but most importantly they encourage his desire to draw, which he does to escape from the pain of not having a mom.

The novel follows Jarrett until he graduates from high school. Although he does eventually discover his dad and develop a relationship with him, he continues intermittent contact with his mother due to her drug addiction. Years later, as a successful and best selling author, he decides to share this story to connect with other people.

Anyway, I loved this book. It is YA, but deals with very adult issues. I imagine that it resonates with many people, particularly now due to the overwhelming prevalence of the opioid/meth epidemic. Even as a middle school teacher, I taught many students who were being raised by aunts and uncles and grandparents, mostly due to their own parents being incarcerated or simply gone, addicted to drugs.

Five stars. Don’t miss this.

Top Fifteen Tuesday: Reads for 2019

I’m so hyped for some great reads coming down the pipe in 2019 that I couldn’t cull my list down to 10, so here goes:

Nonfiction/Memoir

1. Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive – Stephanie Land

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2. Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood – Maureen Stanton

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3. The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation

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Fiction

4. Queenie – Candice Carty Williams

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5. The Other Americans – Laila Lalami

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6. An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigozie Obioma

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YA

7. The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali – Sabina Khan

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8. Belly Up – Eva Darrows

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9. A Good Kind of Trouble – Lisa Ramee

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10. With the Fire on High- Elizabeth Acevedo

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11. Watch Us Rise – Renee Watson

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12. The Revolution of Birdie Randolph – Brandy Colbert

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13. Internment – Samira Ahmed

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14. Let Me Hear a Rhyme – Tiffany D. Jackson

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15. On the Come Up – Angie Thomas

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