***Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by JD Vance

Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance, is the author of the bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Before the reader even opens the cover, the book’’s alliterative title grabs you. The timing of its release was prescient, as it coincided with Donald Trump’s campaign theme to “Make America Great Again.” To a large extent, the people Vance writes about—hillbillies and small town folks who think mainstream America has forgotten about them—are the choir to whom Trump preaches. 

With President Trump’s march to the White House, we’ve learned just how restive and divided we are as a nation. Much of the discontent centers on a population Vance knows well—his friends and family members. They and others born in Appalachia moved from the Kentucky hills to towns and cities in Ohio.

In the process, these folks brought their culture and customs with them, including a tradition of hard work, rough manners, and coarse, tell-it-as-it-is language, but also generational poverty, lack of education, and drug addition.

Throughout the book, Vance articulates his love for family and his fellow hillbillies. He’s as candid about their faults as he is about his difficult childhood. He constantly moved from place to place, while living off and on with a drug addicted mother, and different father figures, until his grandparents took him in.

One of the helpful ways Vance ushers outsiders into this culture is through the use of language. For instance, he tells us that if you catch a minna, you’ve snagged a minnow. A hollow, for those who don’t know, is a deep valley, although Vance says he never used the word hollow, except when explaining the difference between hollow and holler.

One of Vance’s first jobs as a teenager was a cashier in a grocery store that served both poor and more well-off customers. One day he asked his grandmother why only poor people bought baby formula. She told him that poor people don’t breast feed.

That’s an interesting tidbit, but, I’d have preferred to hear from a mother or two, why breastfeeding is a no-no. In another soundbite, the author says his people are depressed, obese and in poor health because breakfast is often “Pillsbury cinnamon rolls … Taco Bell for lunch, and McDonald’s for dinner.” Why is that? Is their gas turned off? Too lazy to cook?

Much of the book reads like the dry narrative of a PhD thesis. Without even getting into the nutritional aspects, does a family who often eats out understand the costs of fast food?

It takes too long for the author to tell us that many of the folks who came to Ohio for a better life found work in factories or mines and were thus able to join the middle class. There is also a long buildup to explain the present discontent and cultural divide. When he finally gets to the point, he tells us what we’ve been seeing and hearing for decades.
Globalization and automation have been especially hard on the industries of “hillbilly people,” and they’re angry. They’ve lost their jobs; they’re financially strapped, depressed, increasingly obese, drug addicted, uneducated. Many of them place the blame on Democrats (though not Vance’s grandmother), immigrants and especially President Obama.


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*****Book Review, Woman in Berlin, by Anonymous

A Woman in Berlin, by Anonymous, is a book about mass rape during Word War II, including the author’s own violations. The forward and introduction state that the thirty-four year-old author was a professional journalist, who remained objective, even instilling bits of humor into her story. womn-in-berlin

In 2001, after her death, the public learned that Anonymous was a woman named Marta Hillers. True, she writes without self-pity but, frankly if two women, instead of two men had written the forward and introduction, I think they would have better emphasized how the author’s anguish consistently leaps off the pages. It was an extraordinary book to read, but not an easy one.

One of Hillers most poignant passages comes after she has sex with a Russian soldier. Feeling dirty and powerless, she wishes there was more water and that it was easily obtainable, but above all, she longs for a decent bar of soap.

Prior to the Russian invasion of Berlin, a city filled with old men, women and children, the women fully comprehend what will happen when the Red Army arrives. Often using gallows humor, these proper middle class women not only understand and try to mentally prepare for the anticipated rapes, but they speak frankly and painfully discuss their feelings after the assaults.

The events in the book take place over approximately two months in the spring of 1943, but Woman in Berlin was first published in Germany in 1953. It outraged the German public, a populace who thought they would rule the world. The fact that they could not even protect their women was more than many could handle. Thus, the book was summarily dismissed as one that simply wanted to “besmirch the honour of German women.”

Everyday rules don’t apply in wartime and Hillers shows how sisterly bonds can help women survive unspeakable trauma. When you realize that seventy years after events in this book, today’s rape victims often can’t or won’t tell another soul what happened to them, the bravery and fortitude of Hillers and her cohorts is all the more extraordinary.

War, indeed, creates odd bedfellows. We learn that the women shared heartbreak, but neighbors, as best they could, also shared food, water and fuel. However, when war ends and “normalcy” returns, that sense of fellowship vanishes.

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St Louis Lit in the Lou Book Festival

Speaking about “Sugar Hill Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem” at Lit in the Lou Pub Crawl. I teamed with Wash U Prof., Henry Schivey, fellow memoirist.

img_2962Our location, because of noise in the gallery, was the back room of an exciting new enterprise–Create Space Generator. The weekend included Keynote Speaker, Jacqueline Woodson and Patricia McKissack, winner of Tradition of Literary Excellence Award.

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*****Book Review: Snowblind: Stories of Alpine Obsession, by Daniel Arnold

Snowblind by Daniel Arnold is a collection of fictional short stories highlighting extreme weather conditions and how they relate to the obsessions and excesses commonly found among mountain climbers. We learn that some men and women will risk anything, from disfigurement of severe frostbite, to the life of a fellow climber, if that’s what it takes to reach the summit’s top.

Arnold takes us up the highest peaks in Asia, Europe and the United States. Some stories are spellbinding. If there is a fault in this action-packed book, it is when climbers’ behaviors become so extreme, it seems unbelievable. However, some of the dangers and risks portrayed in non-fiction, such as Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, are also difficult to believe, so in Snowblind, the line between fact and fiction is likely a fine one. Unknown-1

I found the book highly informative. For instance, when climbers run out of daylight, they often tie onto the vertical side of the mountains and sleep standing up on a narrow ledge. Also, the cost of mounting an expedition can run up to $100,000 dollars or more. A trip with a dozen climbers might use 100 sherpas whose jobs are to carry food and equipment for the climbers and themselves. Also, most Sherpas are ordinary men looking to make a buck, not tough, fearless mountaineers like the legendary Nepalese guide, Tenzing Norgay.

As food is consumed and equipment (for both climbers and Sherpas) is no longer needed, the Sherpas are then paid and sent back down the mountain. Unnecessary equipment is abandoned, thus leaving the mountainside looking like a garbage heap.

Snowblind js awash with death defying deeds, but Arnold is also a master at describing variable weather conditions, characteristics of certain mountains or idiosyncrasies of those who climb them.

Two examples:

“Mount Fairweather occupied the northern horizon of our minds. Child of earthquakes, mother of snow. Glaciers crawl down its shoulders like dreadlocked snakes on a Medusa. From the summit, you could see deep Pacific waves strike the edge of north America, and the black-white wilderness of the Canadian interior, and maybe even your own soul.”

“Skim had found a bucket hat and a straight stemmed mahogany pipe at the church thrift. He was cousin to a stork, pale faced and gangly, with a blue vinyl storm suit draped on him like on a coat rack…”

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***** Book Review: Lights Out, by Ted Koppel

Reading Lights Out by Ted Koppel, reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. McCarthy writes fiction, some would call it science fiction, but Lights Out is a 279 page, real life wakeup call filled with expert testimony, solid research, and examples of what would happen if the United States experienced a major cyberattack. Lights Out

One of the scariest parts of this book is that some major US cities have already had massive blackouts. Several high security government agencies have also had their computers hacked (Office of Personnel Management), as have large corporations, including Target. Yet many higher-ups in government and industry remain poorly prepared for a cyber emergency, and some officials are in denial that anything catastrophic would ever occur.

Currently, three electrical grids provide power to most of the country. To operate, the grids need massive generators in good working order. The existing ones are aging and new generators take years to build, plus they can weigh up to 900,000 pounds, so transporting one becomes an enormous undertaking.

Ideally, the military has generators secretly secured in unknown places. Those would be used for rescue and restore operations. People in high-rises or dense urban neighborhoods would have the most difficulty. Based on Koppel’s findings, those who are best prepared are survivalists and people who live off the grid and are always prepared for the worst.

Koppel lays out some worst case scenarios and shows us what will happen if all our food goes bad, water stops flowing from faucets, waste systems quit working, looters roam the streets, people start dying and law enforcement struggles to maintain order. The only thing that keeps the reader from the total despair, in my opinion, is Koppel’s calm and professional journalism, because make no mistake, this is a real life, pre-apocalyptic horror story.

I happened to be reading Lights Out during the battle between Apple and the FBI over the locked iPhone that belonged to the California terrorists who killed 14 people in San Bernardino. If the principals in that fight haven’t read Lights Out, they should.

Koppel makes too many salient points to repeat here, but the following quote may be one of the best to sum up America’s present state of readiness for a cyberattack:

“Until the general public is made to understand the scope of the actual threat, the natural inclination will be to preserve what we know and value, against what we still suspect may never happen.”

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Webster Groves HS Student Gives me a Gift of Time and Talent

On Friday, February 26th, I gave a talk on Alexander Hamilton and Harlem history for students at Webster Groves HS students during their second annual All-Write Festival.

The Festival consists of a full week of presentations by local and national authors, and talented Webster students. At the end of my talk, after I thanked everyone for inviting me, a student named Mayra Sherman came on stage and presented me with her painting of my Afterlife in Harlem book cover. This was totally unexpected and is a gift I will cherish.

IMG_2579IMG_2582The All-Write Festival is a creative endeavor that takes months of planning by many hard working teachers, most of them in the  English Department.

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Wonderful Addition to the Old Neighborhood


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