Hillbilly Elegy, my book club’s pick for the month of June, is J.D. Vance’s memoir of growing up poor and white in Ohio, in the heart of the collapsing Rust Belt of America.
Vance compares his familial story with a larger cultural issue at work in middle America, the decline of the white working class. A hillbilly among hillbillies, Vance grew up in poverty, with an unstable addiction-prone mother and a multitude of ever-disappearing father figures, within a family where loyalty was fierce and volatile, where every meal was fast food and struggling at school was a given. Despite these early challenges, and with an acknowledgment that his path isn’t the norm within the culture, Vance (now 32) enlisted in the Marines, attended college, and graduated from Yale Law School.
My reaction to the book is mixed. Hillbilly Elegy is definitely readable and Vance’s story is an engaging one. More memoir than sociological study, the mash-up leaves little room for a deep dig into the big issues – class disparity, the drug addiction epidemic, the failing education system, the disillusionment of the American Dream. While Vance makes a case for class divide limiting the opportunities available to Middle America, it can’t be ignored that the author, a white cis Republican male, and the hillbillies with whom he identifies, benefit from a system of white privilege that protects their white bodies every day and affords them more opportunities and higher paychecks than the multitude of others in America today.
Samantha Irby is funny and acerbic, and her candid personal essays cut the bullshit and get right to the meat of life.
In We are Never Meeting in Real Life, Irby, author of the blog bitches gotta eat, writes about growing up poor and black outside of Chicago, about her sick mom and her loser dad, about being a smart but underachieving student and going to a middling college. She also tackles sex and dildos, shit, stomach issues and body aches, eating and fatness, mental illness, and her love of television and staying indoors. She writes about how the world, in so many ways, asks her to apologize for her size and for her appetite; over and over her essays give the world the bird: No way, fuck you. That doesn’t mean she’s immune to self-doubt, complex body issues, and the constant struggle to be. She just doesn’t owe anyone an apology.
Irby’s humor, while honest, witty, and raw, isn’t for the faint of heart. She is sarcastic and cutting, as hard on those around her as she is on herself.
My book club mostly reads contemporary fiction but this month we decided to read and discuss Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. Despite being a National Book Award finalist and receiving praise and accolades from multiple media outlets, we didn’t love the book.
Montgomery structures her narrative around visits to the New England Aquarium where she meets and interacts with a few different Octopuses and profiles the folks who care for them, and includes a basic overview of the body/brain of the octopus and some historical and cultural references. Overall the book is very repetitive (if I had to read one more paragraph about the author sticking her hand into the octopus tank I might gouge my eyes out) and I kept wishing Montgomery would focus less on her general awe of the octopus, and more on the octopus itself.
#50!! And just like that I’m halfway to my goal to read 100 books by the end of the year…
One of the things I appreciated about Berkeley-based Thi Bui’s gorgeously illustrated graphic memoir The Best We Could Do, is that she opens her book with an intense birth. She is in labor with her son, and, by way of her lovely illustrations, we are in the moment with her. I couldn’t help but find a parallel between the “birth” of the book, the creative impulse, and Bui’s labor, the creation of life; the book opens, she opens, the story unfolds, a life is brought forth.
The Best We Could Do is a story of life and survival, of family and identity. Bui tells the story of growing up between two cultures, the story of her parents – where they grew up in Vietnam, how they met, the dreams of their youths, the realities of adulthood. It is the story of a country and a people torn apart, by colonization, by the Vietnam War. It is the story of refugees. It is powerful and memorable, a fascinating and evocative read.
Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass is intimate and insightful and achingly beautiful and I loved it.
Hourglass is a stunner, a deftly braided memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. In it Shapiro excavates the girl she was, examines the woman – mother and wife and writer – she is now, and speculates about the woman she is constantly becoming as her life inches closer, ever closer, towards death. Shapiro has packed so much into this slim book, the fast abandon of youth, the intense love and weight of years of marriage, the anxiety and joys of parenthood, the sweet sting of memory, of aging.
“How do you suppose time works? A slippery succession of long hours adding up to ever-shorter days and years that disappear like falling dominoes? Near the end of her life Grace Paley once remarked that the decades between fifty and eighty feel not like minutes but seconds. I don’t know yet if this is the case, but I do know this: the decades that separate that young mother making her lists from the middle-aged woman discovering them feel like the membrane of a giant floating bubble. A pinprick and I’m back there. But is she here? How can I tell her that her lists will not protect her?”
Looking for a great Mother’s Day gift? Buy this.
Do you listen to The Moth? It’s one of my favorite weekly podcasts. The true stories amuse, delight, and move me to tears every single time I listen.
There were a number of pieces in the new collection from The Moth, All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown, which I’d heard and loved before. Reading these felt like visiting old friends, the voices of the storytellers ringing through clear and memorable.
What a treat to discover stories I’d somehow missed. Some new favorites included comedian Tig Notaro’s “R2, Where Are You” about finding understanding and acceptance with her step father, Kate Tellers’ brave look at her mother’s death in “But Also Bring Cheese,” Ishmael Beah’s “Unusual Normality” about his trajectory from child soldier in Sierra Leone to to playing paintball at a party in upstate New York, Carl Pillitteri’s harrowing end-times experience inside the Fukushima Nuclear generating station during the 2011 earthquake in Japan in “Fog of Disbelief,” and Cathy Olkin’s “On Approach to Pluto” about her decade of work on NASA’s New Horizons Mission to Pluto, among others.
In addition to all the excellent stories and a foreword by Neil Gaiman, the book itself is beautiful, a hardback with a midnight blue matte cover and gold foil. This would be a perfect graduation gift.
Like my copy of Manguso’s 300 Arguments, nearly every page in this slim book is dog-eared; Ongoingness is full of passages I want to return to and sentences that bring on all the feels. In it, Manguso, an avid diarist, writes about the act of keeping a diary. For her, the diary is not only a record of life, but the proof of every day. In an attempt to live with complete awareness, to ward off death, she actively archives experience, builds a document that leaves a trace and pins down memory. This is not the diary itself, but a series of meditations on the act of writing daily, on the formation of identity and how it changes, on parenthood and aging, love and loss, and ultimately the ongoingness of time.
Manguso’s passages about being a new mother, nursing, and the body as vessel struck me at the core:
“In my experience nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.
I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.
My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.”
It’s so good.
So many dog-eared pages in this little book, so many bite-sized gems.
“The first beautiful songs you hear tend to stay beautiful because better than beauty, which is everywhere, is the memory of first discovering beauty.”
“I don’t love writing; I love having a problem I believe I might someday write my way out of.”
“I used to avoid people when I was afraid I loved them too much. Ten years, in one case. Then, after I had been married long enough that I was married even in my dreams, I became able to go to those people, to feel that desire, and to know that it would stay a feeling.”
“Like a vase, a heart breaks once. After that, it just yields to its flaws.”
I loved this book so much I went out and bought Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of A Diary.
As someone whose inevitable monthly mood swings impact not only myself but those around me, I was interested in reading Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day. Part diary, part experiment, part drug history lesson, the book exposes Waldman’s ongoing battle with severe mood imbalances and details her experiences taking minuscule doses of LSD in an attempt to find balance in her life. In it, she candidly reveals her insights on microdosing, from the discovery of what it is to “microdose,” to finding a dealer, setting up a dosing calendar, tracking the results, all while researching the history and cultural conceptions/misconceptions of the drug.
Overall the read was a fairly interesting one, though I felt the book could have been edited down a good 100 pages; I found myself wanting more of Waldman’s personal life and less LSD history and cultural positioning.