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?


  1. I loved Between the World and Me. I listened to the audiobook, which he narrates, and didn't pick up on a bitter tone. It was more...mournful. :( Definitely still uncomfortable in parts, but that helped me gain understanding.

  2. Wow, those are a lot of tough reads to tackle! I read Hillbilly Elegy and agree that it didn't fully explain the whole election deal, although I could see how some people might interpret it that way. My biggest takeaway from it was actually through my teacher lens--I used to teach in a rural area, and the attitudes and culture described in the book reflected what I saw in many of my students, though I didn't recognize at the time what was going on (I just inwardly got frustrated that so many of my students just didn't seem to care about school or see the point in it). Anyway, that was a tough enough read for me, so I can only imagine what those other two would have done for me! But I guess that's the good thing about things like book club is that they push us to read and discuss things that we typically aren't comfortable discussing, which is how change happens. (Of course, I've never actually been a member of a book club, so I'm just going on assumption here!)

  3. How timely! I was planning to read "A House in the Sky" in July, but now I think I'm chickening out. I keep waffling on "Hillbilly Elegy." Your book club sure does a good job choosing challenging titles.


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