Three Recent Book Club Reads: Hillbilly Elegy, Between the World and Me, A House in the Sky

Jun 23, 2017

I belong to a fabulous book club of smart, insightful women. Each month it is seriously a treat to gather together and hash out our thoughts and opinions about a particular book and ask ourselves deep (or, as the case may be, shallow) questions about life and all its complexities.

Most of the time, I write a book review to help myself sort out my feelings and process my thoughts after I've finished a book. But in the case of these books, I've already had a chance to do all that with my fellow bibliophiles. However, I never feel like I can quite let go of a book until I've written down a few thoughts (no matter how brief).

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

J.D. Vance says this book is about "what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It's about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It's about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it."

This is the culture that Vance grew up in in Ohio and Kentucky in the 1980's and 90's. His home was poor and dysfunctional, and Vance bounced between his mother (and her many boyfriends/husbands), his father, and his grandparents. Rather than following almost all of his peers, Vance was able to break the cycle (which he credits his grandparents, particularly his grandmother, for). He joined the Marines and later graduated from Yale Law School. This is his intimate look at the spiraling society many white working class Americans live in, what is causing it, and how they can get out of it.

Vance's maternal grandmother ("Mamaw") has quite the fiery temper and the tongue to go along with it. When Vance's mother was a child, her parents had epic fights where it's a wonder neither one of them was killed. One time Mamaw told Papaw that he'd better never come home drunk again or she'd kill him. It only took one week before he'd forgotten the threat and was passed out on the couch. Mamaw, ever true to her word, poured gasoline all over her sleeping husband and lit him on fire. Luckily one of their daughters was nearby (can you imagine being a witness to this at eleven years old?) and quickly put out the fire and saved her dad.

That's just one example of the kind of home Vance grew up in, and even though his grandparents had calmed down considerably by the time he was a kid (they decided it would be safer for all parties involved if they didn't live together), his mother followed in their disastrous footsteps.

This book received a lot of attention last year as people tried to make sense of the presidential election and figure out why Donald Trump was doing so well. Vance didn't write it as a social commentary on this large percentage of voters; it was just a timely coincidence. For my part though, while I found it to be a fascinating look at a slice of American culture, I didn't think it did much to answer the election question.

Content warning: violence, abuse, and hefty use of the F-word

2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I have to admit, this was not a fun book to read, and I feel very uncomfortable even attempting to rate or review it as I'm afraid my words will be misunderstood. It's written as a letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son about the racial prejudices that have shaped America over the last several hundred years but specifically about how those prejudices still influence American culture today. The tone of the book is bitter, accusing, and judgmental, and as a middle class white woman, it made me feel uncomfortable and defensive.

So instead of saying much about it, I'll just share a few quotes that hopefully represent the nature of the book as a whole:
"Here is what I would like you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body. It is heritage."

"This is why your grandparents banned Tarzan and the Lone Ranger and toys with white faces from the house. They were rebelling against the history books that spoke of black people only as sentimental firsts: first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor--always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit. Serious history was the west and the west was white."

Black parents to children: "Be twice as good."
White parents to children: "Take twice as much."

"And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do. In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin or fuller lips or a broader nose, but in everything that happens after."
I felt defensive because he made these sweeping, blanket statements about white Americans that didn't describe the way I look at or treat people at all, and yet, I felt guilty because he was speaking the hard truth about our culture in general, and the truth hurt. I have to believe that there are many black people out there who don't feel as embittered as he does, but it doesn't change the fact that we still have a long way to go in treating all humans fairly and with kindness.

And I had to wonder what he would have thought of twelve middle-class white women sitting in a comfortable, average home in Utah, dressed nicely and eating refreshments, and discussing his book. I have a feeling he might not have appreciated it.

3. A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

I read this one right after Ian was born. It's a hard, dark story, and even though I found myself with plenty of time to read, I had to alternate between this and a couple of other books simply because it was almost too much to handle in large doses.

In 2009, Amanda Lindhout was traveling in Somalia when she and her friend, Nigel, were abducted by a group of masked and armed men. (The details as to why she was in Somalia in the first place are too many to go into here, but just know she was well aware of the danger she was putting herself in when she first stepped off the plane.) For the next 460 days (15 months), she and Nigel were held captive for a large ransom. The things they experienced spanned the spectrum of sad, disturbing, and absolutely horrific. When I closed the book after the final chapter, the only thing I could think is, The resiliency of the human spirit is amazing (and closely followed by, Could I have endured like she did?).

For most of the time she's in captivity, Amanda feels like she's mere millimeters away from the breaking point, and she's not exactly sure what will happen when that moment comes--will she commit suicide or lash out at her captors or go certifiably crazy? But I found it so interesting that when that moment finally comes (because you better believe that it does), the outcome is empathy and compassion towards those who have tortured her, which you would never ever expect. Amanda said,
"What had just passed? I had no idea. Whatever it was, it unsettled me. In the moment, it had felt perfectly rational and even profound, like the lifting of some great curtain, the flash of a hidden truth. But now my mind started to analyze, attempting to hammer what had happened into words and structure, and the thing itself resisted. I couldn't shape it or explain it. I could only live with it, this new feeling, complicated as it was."
When a book has a co-author like this one does, I always wonder how much of the writing is influenced by him or her? In this case, the writing was actually quite gripping (and not just because of the intense nature of the story), and I was especially impressed with the pacing. When you have so many bad things happen, I think it's easy to use up your superlatives pretty quickly, but in this case, I always felt like there was still somewhere for the story to go (even though that tragically meant there were more atrocities to come). Whether it was Amanda Lindhout or Sara Corbett who deserves the credit for the writing, it was nevertheless quite captivating.

Content warning: rape, torture, violence, language. This is not an easy read. 

I don't know that any of these are books I would have chosen to read on my own, but they ended up being quite thought-provoking and made for some really great discussions.

What have been some of your favorite book club reads?

A Little of This and That in April and May

Jun 16, 2017

I was going to just let these months go without an update because, you know, we're halfway through June already, but there were just a few things I wanted to record for my own benefit.

These two months were busy ones. We were . . .

Saying . . . goodbye to Mike's parents before they flew back to Germany. The good news is, I've waited so long to write this update, they'll be back home in just a week. Yay!

Recording . . . an interview with Rachel Wadham on BYU Radio's literature-based program, "World's Awaiting." My episode can be listened to here. I felt like a found a kindred spirit in Rachel, and I'm so glad I got to meet her and chat about books for an hour. It was delightful.

Playing . . . basketball. I had been planning on giving Aaron a basketball hoop for his birthday (at the end of July). But after watching them play basketball at their cousins' house, I became convinced that we needed one immediately. I'm not usually one for instant gratification, but in this case, I'm so glad we didn't wait. That thing has gotten daily use in the last two months. Every day when Aaron got home from school, he wouldn't even go into the house before he started playing. Mike also plays with the boys almost every evening after work. And it's been quite popular with all the neighbor kids as well. Basically, it was worth every penny and then some. It's quite literally saving me this summer.

Organizing . . . a neighborhood Easter egg hunt. We asked anyone who wanted to participate (ages 12 and under) to bring a dozen filled plastic eggs to our house the night before the hunt. Then the next morning, we hid them in our yard plus the yards of three of our neighbors. We divided the kids by age (0-3 years hunted in one yard, 4-6 years hunted in another, etc.), and then each child could find twelve eggs. I loved not having the craziness of a huge community egg hunt, and it was so fun to chat with all of our neighbors on one of the first really lovely days of spring.

Cheering . . . on Aaron's car at his pinewood derby race. He didn't win, but he didn't come in last either, and we figure we have at least fourteen more chances to get it right. :-)

Visiting . . . Aaron's class wax museum. This was one of the most impressive things I've seen. All of the kids chose a famous person to learn about, wrote a brief biography about him/her, memorized it, dressed up in costume, and then delivered the speech slowly and expressively. And maybe even more impressive than all of that is that it was all done in class. I didn't do a single thing except borrow a part of Aaron's costume from my sister-in-law. It was so fun to walk through the wax museum: all of the kids stood as still as statues until one of us pushed the "button" beside their name and brought them to life. Aaron was Mozart. I usually consider him fairly shy, but apparently his teacher must have worked her magic because she somehow got him to be totally animated while he was saying his speech (and over the course of two days, he probably said it 75 times). Did I mention how much I loved Aaron's teacher?

Welcoming . . . baby Ian to the family. The highlight of the last two months. Obviously.

Enjoying . . . lots of time with my mom and sister who spent a week here after Ian was born. My mom baked treats with Clark and kept up on the never ending mountain of laundry and even played basketball. Angela played games, drew pictures, and cuddled Ian. They even babysat the boys so Mike and I could go out for lunch. Their help was so invaluable.

Celebrating . . . Mike's birthday, Easter, Mother's Day, and Clark's birthday. All good things.

Attending . . . the performance of Maxwell's class opera. He and his classmates made up the story, wrote the words, composed the melodies, made the set, and performed the entire thing. Maxwell played the part of a double-sided stamp (I guess you had to be there. . . ). Even more impressive though was when we got home and Maxwell acted out all the parts and sang all the songs by himself. Which reminds me, I need to get a video of that before he forgets it all.

Reading . . . a lot. Such are the perks of a nursing baby.

Wearing . . . Ian in the baby wrap every day. I love this thing so much. I've had other baby carriers over the years, but I wish I'd had this one with all of my boys. It's so comfortable, and it keeps Ian so snug and close. I love it.

Working . . . on lots of projects. That would be Mike. Here's a rundown: He built benches in the kitchen (and the seats are hinged so they can double as storage), painted the kitchen (it's no longer a putrid green), planted the garden, organized the shed (not for the faint of heart), installed automatic sprinklers in the backyard, and planted two trees.

Knitting . . . every spare minute. That would be me. Projects included: a tie for my dad's birthday (I discovered the magic of washing and blocking when it straightened out all of my uneven edges), a baby hat for my friend's new baby (I tried short rows for the first time to make the ear flaps!), and progress on Ian's baby blanket (I changed the way I hold the needles and yarn, and it's increased my speed by a lot).  And I lined up a bunch of new projects as one who is addicted to knitting will do.

Running . . . in the school fun run. Aaron really wanted to finish in the top three this year, but he barely missed it and came in fourth (same as last year). Maxwell didn't have quite the same stamina but crossed the finish line with a smile on his face

Lagging . . . behind on responding to blog comments. I will get to it though, so don't give up on me!

Recording . . . Episode 13 of The Book Blab. Suzanne was visiting in Utah, so we filmed it in person. Oh, and our babies met.

Finishing . . . the school year. Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley had phenomenal teachers this year, so it was a bittersweet ending for sure.

Kayaking . . . with my family. We spent Memorial Day kayaking, fishing, eating, and playing. It was so much fun.

Wondering . . . why it's so hard to maintain a regular blogging schedule. Seriously though. I have so many things I want to write about, but a week slips by so easily without finding time to write a single post. I need to figure out some sort of routine.

Kicking . . . off summer with the first (of many) trips to our neighborhood pool.

How is your summer going so far?

Review x 2: The Distance Between Us and Ten Miles Past Normal

Jun 6, 2017

With these two books, I'm checking off another goal on my 2017 list: Read two young adult novels.

And yet, I don't feel like I should check it off.

Why? Because the whole point of that goal was to help me find realistic, clean, well-written YA novels that I felt like I could recommend. And I don't think either of these achieved that objective. Not exactly anyway.

I read The Distance Between Us by Kasie West first. It's about a girl, Caymen, who lives with her single mother and helps run their porcelain doll shop in a small touristy town. One day, Xander Spence walks into the shop on an errand for his grandmother. He's good-looking, extremely wealthy, and just a little bit snobbish. Of course Caymen has absolutely zero interest in him, except actually she's completely smitten with him. And wouldn't you know it, Xander seems to like her, too.

I rolled my eyes a good deal through this whole book, but then spent one evening forgetting about everything else except finishing it.

Then I moved onto Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O'Roark Dowell about 14-year-old Janie Gorman who lives on a farm with her parents and sister. They haven't always lived on a farm, but several years before, they decided (at Janie's urging) that they wanted to be more independent and try living off the land. But now Janie's going to high school, and she very much wants to just blend in and hide her association with anything rural or country. Then she meets Monster Monroe (that's his real name), and he doesn't seem the least bit caught up in all the social pressures of high school. Hanging out with him not only helps Janie be okay with being herself but also introduces her to a new hobby she really loves.

This one was cute and quirky and made me smile, but again, I didn't come away totally impressed.

But here's the thing: were both of these novels realistic? Yes, at least to a certain extent--no fairies or time travel or anything like that. Were they clean? Yes, very, especially Ten Miles Past Normal, which was a little more juvenile. I wouldn't have any problem recommending either of them on that point. Were they well-written? Yes, not in a wow-me kind of way, but the writing didn't annoy or distract me.

So on all my criteria, both books earned at least decent, if not outstanding, marks. So what is my problem? Why can't I just bestow my stamp of approval and move on?

And I guess the answer is I'm looking for something more. I want a book that transports me into the story, not one that leaves me standing with a skeptical look on the side. I want writing that compels me to come back for more and stays with me long after the final sentence. I want characters that make me think deeply or, on the flip side, provide a good dose of amusement and entertainment. This is what I expect from the middle grade and adult fiction I read, so it doesn't seem too much to ask young adult fiction to do the same.

I think if I'd read these books when I was sixteen, my feelings about them might have been very different. And maybe that says something: as a thirty-two-year-old mother of five, I'm not exactly the target audience. But I feel like a book that is really well done will make me feel like I'm sixteen again and might even make me want to be sixteen again. Maybe.

So I'm still on a quest for clean, realistic, well-written YA. You all gave so many great suggestions on my goals post, and I'm planning to return to those comments for more ideas, but if you've read a YA novel recently that has wowed you, please tell me about it. Maybe it will wow me, too.

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Jun 2, 2017

I think the very first book I read by Amy Krouse Rosenthal was Duck! Rabbit! It was cute and clever, and I liked it. But it wasn't until a couple of years later when I read Little Pea that I went back to the library and checked out Little Oink and Yes Day! and Spoon and a good many others. I was so excited about this new-to-me author that I passed on the recommendations to my good friend who lived across the street, and she fell hard for all books AKR also. We've both been fans ever since.

Earlier this year, I found out that Amy Krouse Rosenthal had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. You may have seen her essay in the New York Times entitled "You May Want to Marry My Husband." If not, you must read it pronto but not without a box of tissues close by.

After reading her essay, I immediately put her newest book (a memoir, not a picture book) on hold at the library. It took weeks for it to come in, and during that time, on March 13, 2017, Amy Krouse Rosenthal passed away.

Reading this memoir was a sweet and delightful experience, but also heartbreaking. So heartbreaking. I don't know when in the timeline of writing this book Amy found out she had cancer, but I'm assuming the bulk of it had already been written by the time it was discovered. At any rate, she never mentions her diagnosis or seems to have any inkling that her own lifespan might be anything less than average. She didn't know how her story would end. But I did. And that made it all the more poignant.

In fact, she wrote things like this:
"If one is generously contracted 80 years, that amounts to 29,220 days on Earth. Playing that out, how many more times then, really, do I get to look at a tree? 12,395? There has to be an exact number. Let's just say it is 12,395. Absolutely, that is a lot, but it is not infinite, and anything less than infinite seems too measly a number and is not satisfactory. Also, I would like to stare at my kids a few million more times. I could stare at them a few million more times easy."
And I wanted to weep because she didn't actually have anywhere close to 12,395 more times to look at a tree.

I read When Breath Becomes Air last year. It was written by Paul Kalanithi after he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The book was profound, as you might expect from someone who is facing his own death.

But therein was the magic of Amy's memoir for me. You expect someone who is dying to suddenly notice the beauty in the ordinary, everyday, mundane things, which Paul Kalanithi did. But you don't expect that from someone who is very much in the middle of living. And yet, Amy does: She feels happy when she arrives at the crosswalk and there are still many seconds left on the walk sign; she observes the beauty of green treetops against blue sky; she recognizes the fleeting sweetness of waving to her son as he stands by his bedroom window.

And when she highlighted those ordinary moments, I felt an immediate kinship with her. I'm not as good as she was at appreciating the loveliness in a normal day, but I despise the unrelenting passage of time because I want to live life to the fullest, and I don't think I've quite figured out how to do that yet.

The book has an unusual format, which won't surprise anyone who is familiar with Amy's work. It is set up like a textbook; it begins with a pre-assessment, followed by different subjects (geography, social studies, etc.). There's a midterm essay sandwiched in the middle and a final review at the end. It's not chronological in any way--more just little snippets of Amy Krouse Rosenthal's life and personality and musings.

There were parts of the book that I would give five stars to in a heartbeat (I want to memorize the midterm essay because I loved every paragraph so much). It was interesting to see how she applied each subject to her own life (I'm still curious to know who Ana and Peter were in the Romance Language section. I feel like I should be able to figure it out, but they're not mentioned anywhere else in the book. Maybe she talked about them in her first memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life? Or maybe they're pseudonyms for someone else?)

But I didn't love all of the subjects equally (which is similar to real life, I guess). For example, the math equations were clever but also seemed like a waste of paper. There were thirteen equations in this section, and they took up twenty-six pages. That made for some pretty fast reading, but I don't know if all that white space was really necessary. And also, there were just a few things that were maybe a little too clever for me because I just didn't get them, no matter how many times I read them again.

There was also a texting element to the book. At certain points along the way, the reader is invited to interact with the book. For example, if you see a rainbow, you can take a photo and text it, and it will then be added to the rainbow gallery. Or you can hear a recording of Kenneth Koch reading one of his poems. Or you can participate in a survey of whether curly or straight brackets are more popular. At first I thought this element of the book was totally gimmicky, but in the end, I think it did for me exactly what Amy Krouse Rosenthal intended it to. She is really big on making connections with friends and strangers alike (just read "The Short, Collective, Biography Experiment" if you have any doubts), and I realized partway through the book that I was doing something I've never done with any other book before: I was thinking about the other people who were reading it. Of course I wasn't actually putting names or faces to anyone or having any real interactions with them, but I felt this strange connection nonetheless.

The texting part is optional of course, and I only participated in the ones that interested me. My favorite was the musical accompaniment that went along with the last few pages of the book. It was beautiful and added a depth and poignancy I wasn't expecting.

But here's the truth: I really just love Amy Krouse Rosenthal's writing, and I love the way she thinks about the world, so I didn't actually care if it was my favorite subject or not. She captures life in a unique way, and there were many times where I paused in my reading just because I was so taken by her way with words. For example, this:
"The word literature enters the room with its nose in the air. But get it in a corner, ask the right questions, and it will reluctantly fess up to its humble origins. It hails from the Latin litterae, you whisper in your date's ear. It puts on a big act, but it literally just means 'things made of letters.'
Or this: 
"I cannot be the only one who finds myself making a concerted effort to heave/tug/lug a conversation up and over the hill of small talk."
The whole book (even my least favorite subjects) was such a pleasure to read. I wanted there to be more: more serendipitous discoveries, more playing around with words, more colorful observations.

Amy said,
"If it is wonderful, splendid, remarkable--a view outside a window, a lit-up fountain at night, that fig-chorizo appetizer--I am compelled to seek some sort of saturation point, to listen/stare/savor on a loop, to greedily keep at it until I've absorbed, absconded with, and drained it of all its magic. Invariably, I will have to move on before I have had enough. My first word was more. It may very well be my last."
I don't know what her last word was, but that's the word that kept coming to my mind as I finished this book. I want more of Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

And that is why, upon finishing it, I watched her TED talk, put several of her books on hold at the library, reread her New York Times essay, read Little Pea to Clark, and revisited my favorite parts of this book.

And it still wasn't enough.
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