“Margaret the First” by Danielle Dutton, Catapult, 2016

Visiting the Chicago Public Library branch at Water Tower, I can’t help but peruse the newer releases.  And so, I chanced upon Margaret the First.  The velvety feel of the paperback cover, and its beautiful illustration of Margaret immediately made me feel this was a book above others.  And, an historical novel to boot.

margaret.jpg

Margaret is royally born Margaret Lucas, in 1623 in Colchester, Essex, England.  She joins the court as a lady in waiting for Queen Henrietta Maria and goes into exile in France with her and the court of Charles I during the Civil War with Cromwell and the Roundheads.  While in France, Margaret marries William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle on Tyne, a fellow exiled royal. This is a love match.  The Duke is considerably older than Margaret and supports her emotionally her throughout their childless marriage. Margaret indulges her interest in writing poetry, memoir, plays, some of the first science fiction—much of which she published in her name.  This was a first for a woman of her time and today Margaret, who was an early influence on Virginia Woolf, is revered by women’s liberation advocates.  

Dutton’s writes in a style evocative of the erratic nature of her subject.  Some chapters are a paragraph, other much longer.  She follows the historical landmarks of the time: war, exile, the restoration and life after the restoration.  Margaret and William lose their fortune in property, regain it after the restoration and eventually leave Margaret a wealthy widow.  Throughout, Margaret writes and writes—her preferred method of expression.  That and her costume, which titillated the masses who could read the first tabloids documenting the exploits of Mad Margaret.  

For my taste, the book was too short, exciting my interest in the historical period and in the characters.  That is a good thing and will lead me to seek other books relating to Mad Margaret.  
Recommended for history lovers.

“All We Shall Know” by Donal Ryan, (Penguin Books, 2017)

This is a sad, but well told story—set in Ireland, home of sad stories.  And Donal Ryan knows how to tell them.  The protagonist, Melody, seems evil, involved in a bitter marriage that she ends with pregnancy by her 17-year-old literacy student from a local community of Travellers (Irish Gypsies).  The pace of the novel follows the weeks of pregnancy, each landmark bringing another reason for spite towards her husband, Pat, his family, the village, the Travellers—and her self-hatred. She lives alone in her house; Pat with his menacing family.

Mary, a young Traveller ostracized by her husband Buzzy's clan because she is barren, befriends Melody as she lurks around the camp.  The troubles caused by Mary’s infertility and Melody’s fertility are the soul of All We Shall Know. Melody keeps her pregnancy secret from the young father, using it only to wound her husband and his family.  Mary's family enters into a protracted battle with Buzzy's clan, who claim he was cuckolded.  Melody’s own father, a passive figure, accepts her situation, and provides a safe home and care as the pregnancy ripens.  Unhappy in his marriage to Melody’s deceased mother, you feel he can begin life again with a grandchild.  

Ryan’s writing is flat-out beautiful.  

“I could still fly to London and end this, and come back and say, Yes, Pat, I was
lying, and he could persuade himself to believe me, and we could take a
weekend break somewhere and be massaged together, and walk along a river
hand in hand, and stand beneath a waterfall and feel the spray on our faces and
laugh, and think about the cave behind the falling water, cut off from the world,
and all the roaring peace to be found there, and have a drink in the bar after
dinner, and go to bed, and turn to one another's flesh for warmth, and find only a
hard coldness there, and no accommodation, no forgiveness of sins; and we'd
turn away again from one another, and lie apart facing upwards and send words
into eternity about babies never born, and needs unmet, and prostitutes and
internet sex and terrible unforgivable sins and swirling infinities of blame and
hollow retribution, and we could slow to a stop as the sun crept up, and turn from
each other in familiar exhaustion, and sleep until checking-out time on pillows
wet with tears"

All We Shall Know is concise, 180 pages, and spell-binding.  Highly recommended.


 

“The Spinning Heart” by Donal Ryan (Steer Forth Press, 2014)

The time is 2008, or so, the early days of the Great Recession in Ireland.  The Celtic Tiger period of the 1990’s through the mid-2000’s was fed by direct foreign investment, a subsequent property bubble and lax bank lending standards.  Unemployment in 2006 was 4.6%, in 2012 it was 15%, and among young workers, it was 33%.  Ireland was hit hard; they could not replace the foreign capital that fled the country.

The Spinning Heart brings this macroeconomics down to the micro world of small town Ireland.  A local contractor, headed by the scoundrel-son of a well-to-do citizen, flees the country in financial ruin, leaving his employees and his customers in a mess.  And what a pretty pickle it is: job loss, broken hearts and marriages, sad stories as only the Irish reveal in literature.  

This is a novel told from multiple points of view.  Each chapter is a character, speaking in the first person.  It takes a few chapters to see the web of plot holding them together.  Even then, it is possible to miss links that would be clearer in a sequential novel.  

The first-person narrative gives Ryan the opportunity to reveal the characters intimate thoughts and private actions.  The writing is terse, with a good deal of Irish patois and grammatical rhythm.  It takes a few re-reads to grasp the full meaning of some sentences, especially the articles and pronouns.  This may be the reason for not seeing some of the plot links.  But, stick with it.  This is a worthy and engrossing read by an emergent Irish author.

Book awards for The Spinning Heart – not bad for a first published book.

•    2012: Irish Book Awards, winner, Newcomer of the Year (The Spinning Heart)
•    2012: Irish Book Awards, Book of the Year (The Spinning Heart)
•    2013: Booker Prize, longlist (The Spinning Heart)
•    2014: IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, shortlist (The Spinning Heart)
•    2013: Guardian First Book Award, winner (The Spinning Heart)
•    2015: European Union Prize for Literature (Ireland), winner (The Spinning Heart)

Recommended
 

“The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry (Custom House, 2016)

As the white cliffs of Dover soar above the Atlantic, the Essex shoreline on the English Channel is low and muddy with river estuaries.  This mud sets the tone for the Gothic novel The Essex Serpent.  Mud that clings to clothing; mud that seizes boots and shoes forever lost; mud that pulses with brackish tidal water.

Freed by the death of her husband from an abusive marriage, Cora Seaborne escapes from Victorian London, loses her corset, and her elegant town house to embrace the plain life of Colchester in Essex, a bit northeast of London.  She is accompanied by her adolescent son, Francis, and his nanny and Cora’s companion, Martha. Dear friends from London figure in the story, but the plot develops around the denizens of Colchester.

The novel is full of Dickensian characters including the wry parson and his sprightly wife, old fishermen, curious children, learned physicians.  All spin around Cora and her trip from death and desolation to redemption.  The time is Victorian—London is a bustling, electrified city while Colchester still lives in the dark, lamp-wise and spiritually.  The myth of The Essex Serpent and it’s resolution reflect the seismic change that is coming to rural England with the 20th Century.

The themes of spirituality, demonism, and unrequited love, along with the intense observations of the writer reminded me of A. S. Byatt.  But, as dense as Byatt’s writing is, Perry writes in a flowing manner that quickly moves the story along.

Highly recommended – the best “new” novel I’ve read in several years.
 

"The Nymph and the Lamp", a novel by Thomas H. Raddall (Little, Brown and Company, 1950)

In 2005, Erik Larson wrote an excellent book about Marconi and the invention of transatlantic radio called Thunderstruck.  The secret of the wireless communication involved very tall receiving antennae on shore and electrical generating power at the source to create huge sparks of electro-magnetic energy.  They used the language of Morse Code.  The radio signal, which travels in a direct line, bounced off the earth’s atmosphere creating a curve towards its destination.  It’s far more complex than this; good reason to read Larson’s book.

Marconi stations were built on the most remote extremities of land abutting the ocean.  One of these is Sable Island off the Southeast Coast of Nova Scotia.  From its birth, Sable Island was not used to transmit across the ocean, but was a relay point for ships heading to Halifax, Montreal and Boston. There grew on the island a small population of hearty souls divided into three groups: the civilians who supported the lighthouses at either end, the lifesavers who ranged across the island ready to respond to shipwrecks.  These were established long before the Marconi station. The third group, signalmen, were employed by the wireless company, at the station built on the highest point of the island.  The former were permanent settlers, the later were usually one year and done.

The Nymph and the Lamp, set in the early 1920’s, tells the story of a signalman, Matthew Carney, who loved the island, called Marina in the novel, and stayed far beyond one year.  Finally, he took a three-month shore leave to find his family in Nova Scotia, with whom he had lost contact.  During this unfruitful search, he finds Isabel Jardine, an independent spinster, secretary to the ED at the wireless company.   Sparks fly between these two non-reactive subjects, culminating with Isabel accompanying Matthew back to the island for permanent settlement after knowing him only from his files, his reputation and no more than 35 hours together over three days. 

The story of her acclimatization to the station residents, all men, and the island’s citizens, both men and women, is a fascinating story.  It is hard not to like all the characters in this book, and to feel their anguish as the tale unrolls. 

Within a year, Isabel returns to Nova Scotia and finds a safe harbor in the region of her birth among the apple orchards of the north island.  She joins the roller coaster of boom and bust following The Great War, nurtured by an employer who is smart enough to give her responsibility and authority.  Such a man was a rare find in 1920’s provincial Canada, and a rare character coming from a male author, writing in 1950.

Raddell does a fine job of tying up the stories.  The book is beautifully written, full of glorious similes and descriptions of the nature of sea and shore.  Highly recommended for those who love an old-fashioned novel complete with love, betrayal, sadness, joy and a fascinating setting.  The book is out of print.  You may find it at a library or a used book store.  I purchased through a seller on Amazon.

"Jackie's Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family" by Kathy McKeon (Gallery Books, 2017)

When Jackie Kennedy died, May 19, 1994, I cried—not the same kind of tears as the death Jack Kennedy, who died when I was 20—the tears of one woman mourning the loss of a great woman who died long before her time.  Jackie should have enjoyed her later life:  the Onassis money, her adult children, her grandchildren, her lovers.  We wanted her to find peace.

So, when I saw that Kathy McKeon, former personal maid and sometimes nanny for Jackie Kennedy, wrote a memoir, it was required reading.  And a lovely memoir it is.  Just enough beans spilled to pique interest, nothing in bad taste.  An homage to a great American family.

Such fascinating things are revealed.  The lives of Irish immigrants who serve the wealthy on the Upper East Side, paid a pittance, but given lodging and meals and a foothold in the U.S. The title, Jackie's Girl, comes from Rose Kennedy who could not remember any names in the throngs that surrounded her.  There was such sadness in Kathy’s telling of the solitary evenings of “Madame” as she rearranged furniture and artwork to kill time.  Caroline is shown to be the blossoming figure of adult responsibility.  John Jr. is shown to be capricious, rowdy, even described as medicated for ADD.  Both children loving and respectful with Kathy and their mother.  

Madame was grateful for Kathy’s talents, which she needed to raise her children in the rarefied air of the truly wealthy.  But she did not respect Kathy’s personal time or needs.  Madame came first, not surprising.  

The story is woven throughout with the trappings of the lives of U.S. royalty (Greek, too): private planes, multiple homes with staffs, summers on the Cape.  But the Kennedy family and Onassis, never seem stuffy, overly demanding or entitled.  Ok, somewhat entitled.  Kathy’s life experience while with the Kennedy’s (She joined them when she was 19 and lived with them for 12 years, until 1976.), at least in her retelling, was touched at various stages by learning, tenderness and inclusiveness.  

Jackie’s Girl reads quickly—large leading on the pages, so it fluffs out to 300+.  It shows the polish of a good ghost writer and editor.  The small photo section in the middle is heart-warming.  Recommended for all Jackie fans.  

Physical Festival June 2-10, 2017

This is our third year attending the festival.  It’s all the things we love to see on stage, with plot and drama created by movement, puppets, mime.  It’s a festival, so some are great, some good and some, well, just toads.

There was one spectacular performance:  Anatomy of Fear by Teatteri Metamorfoosi from Finland. It’s one actor relating his daily fears, mostly centered around work, where either he is, or is made to feel, inadequate by his manager.  The fear is represented by a slightly larger than life puppet – a doppelganger, manipulated by two superb puppeteers.  This is not done with strings; the puppet is the main character on the stage, brought to life by the puppeteers holding and working the puppet, mostly from behind, so it appears to have human movement.  Since the puppeteers are in total black (not even eyes showing) you soon forget their presence.

Misiposa Nocturna: A Puppet Triptych by Portmanteau of Chicago – a wonderful local puppet company.  This time the puppets are about two feet tall, rendered in beautiful detail and manipulated by four puppeteers, who also manipulate the scenery.  Again, the puppeteers totally in black so you can lose yourself in the miniature staged creation, forgetting how it is wrought.  We have now seen this group three years running and they deliver each time.

 

The Confetti Maker by Frank Wurzinger (Germany) – a one man Blue Man Group, with paper instead of blue goo.  Impossible to describe in a short paragraph, but if you are familiar with Blue Man, you get the picture - the one above is after the performance.  We loved it.  (Side note:  Blue Man Productions was recently purchased by TPG, who own Cirque de Soliel, so watch for major expansion.)

Wojtec: The Happy Warrior by The Quarter Too Ensemble (UK) – this would have rated higher because the story is fascinating, but was lost in the frenetic presentation.  It’s a true story of a Syrian brown bear adopted as a cub mascot by a Polish Armament Division stranded in the Middle East in WWII.  When they are deployed to Italy and fight in the Battle of Monte Casino, the now full-grown bear accompanies them and serves as a carrier of ammunition to the troops throughout the attack. 


Memory of Dust by Theatre de l’Ange Fou from France and Spring Green WI was an hour-long performance of modern dance/poetry performed by Steven Wasson and Corrine Soum.  Not exactly our cup of tea, but would have benefitted from more poetry, which was lovely.  The performers are easily in their 70’s with the stamina of young adults.

We also attended the evening of performances by locals learning the craft.  We were underwhelmed and hope that next year’s crop is either better pre-judged or that the organizers open the stage to a broader geographic audience of new performers.  

Overall, we enjoyed the festival and will always be there to be treated to unexpected greatness.  


 

“Barometer Rising” by Hugh MacLennan (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941)

Second in the books I’m reading to prepare for my first visit to Nova Scotia in September.  Barometer Rising is an historical novel based in 1917, the First World War as experienced from the Canadian Maritimes.

MacLennan’s first novel (he went on to become a prominent figure in Canadian letters) folds elements of the Canadian experience into a romance set in history.  The reader’s experience is multiple:  how Halifax embraced her key role as the UK’s major port in the West, the jumping off point for convoys heading to the war bearing munitions, arms, lumber, coal, men—all produced in Canada and extracted to support a war effort that was not Canada’s. There is the experience of a provincial city (about 60,000), influenced by the mores of immigrants from the colonial U.S., Scotland, and the U.K., all conservative.  There is a touch of women’s rights, but only because of the war effort.  

The focal point of Barometer Rising is the Halifax Explosion, December 6, 1917.  As I was unaware of this tragedy, it pulled me right into the climax of all the characters’ development according to how they responded.  It is the largest man-made explosion prior to the atom bomb.  Read the book or check Wikipedia if you want the horrible details.

MacLennan did an excellent job of setting up rich characters who harbor slowly revealed secrets and set the story in a time unique to Halifax.  This is an “old fashioned” historical novel. Just a soupçon of sex, lots of conflict—a well-written and easy to read book.  


 

"Hookman" , a play by Lauren Yee, produced by Steep Theater, May  2017

We saw Hookman over a month ago – mostly because we try to see everything that Steep produces, not because we were attracted to the play.  To refresh my mind, I read through several reviews, and this one from "Picture this Post" by Brent Eichoff seemed to capture an uneven night of theater, “this genre bending play jams one part drama, one part coming-of-age story, one part horror, and one part comedy into its 70-minute running time. The result is a dizzying and at times uneven, but thoroughly enjoyable play addressing such topics as the safety of young women, date rape, and survivor’s guilt."

What I remember most is the guiltless viciousness (funny as well) of the protagonist’s college friends.  Lexi, a college freshman from the Left Coast is attending an Ivy League school on the Right Coast, likely on scholarship.  A stream of frenemies keeps up a riff of indifference, boredom, malice and faux support.  Guileless Lexi finds solace in the reappearance of her West Coast BBF, who was killed in a gruesome auto accident involving Lexi.  It’s interesting that male reviewer Eichoff captured nothing of the loss of a loving friend and the reality of shallow acquaintances.  

The playwright, Lauren Yee, won multiple awards for her work, though she is just 21.  Yes, 21, and already has plays produced by The Goodman and Steep.  Imagine what the future hold for her and for us.   

"The Death of a Pope" by Piers Paul Read (Ignatius Press, 2009)

I've enjoyed Piers Paul Read's other books, so thought this would be a good read.  It was and it wasn't.  Quick and easy - sort of a Catholic thriller set around the death of one pope and election of another.  Good setting and Read knows his Catholic stuff.  But, the book needed to be fleshed out more.  Characters lacked depth, and as with most thrillers, the ends tied together all too easily.

The plot centers around the possibility of terrorist activity in Vatican City when hundreds of thousands of Catholics are in St. Peter's Square watching for white smoke.  Nice time to set off a bomb, either by ISIS or others who would like you to think that ISIS in involved.  That situation is not something that occurred to me, but I'm sure it has to the Vatican and the Roman police. We live in such strange times.

The Death of a Pope is a good beach read.

“The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” by Alistair MacLeod (Ontario Review Press, 1988)

Book #3 in my research reading for a trip to Nova Scotia.  These short stories are existential in their presentations of life, choice, decisions, death.  You won’t come away laughing or even smiling, but you will feel that you have experienced MacLeod’s vision of the people of Cape Breton.  Some stories (there are only seven.) have one protagonist, others cover generations.  The atmosphere is always starkly real.  

Nova Scotia had many waves of settlement. The Micmac were the natives when the Europeans took up residence.  First the French, the famous Acadians who were expelled mid-18th century by the British after six wars for domination.  The British encouraged emigration from the New England colonies and 2000 families came in the early 1760’s, both farmers and fishermen. At the same time, Gaelic Highland farmers in Scotland were forced off their crofts (rented land) by the Highland and Lowland Clearance: landowners forcing the change from farming to sheep grazing.  Also, many Highlanders were Catholic and the prospect of more religious freedom in Canada appealed. Many of these Highland farmers settled in New Scotland, Nova Scotia, around Cape Breton at the far eastern end.  It is the descendants of these people, some still speaking Gaelic, who are the protagonists in MacLeod’s stories.  They settled in Cape Breton to be away from others and continue their Highland traditions.

MacLeod’s stories arise from the pressure of more contemporary society on the traditions and the psyche of these settlers.  They are mostly farmers and fishermen; few characters are from the city.  Animals are laborers, not pets.  The older generation cling to their independence despite infirmity.  In the remote areas, there are no phones, no electricity, only bad roads and tight fishing boats.  

In a slightly different vein, the last story, The Closing Down of Summer, is about miners who go “off-island” for the big bucks and the big risks.  Again, it’s about the pressure of change, knowing that you and your mates will likely be replaced by equipment.  And the miner reflects a point of view I’ve not seen expressed in relation to work underground.

“I have always wished that my children could see me at my work…And that they might see how articulate we are in the accomplishment of what we do.  That they might appreciate the perfection of our drilling and the calculation of our angles and the measuring of our powder, and that they might understand that what we know through eye and ear and touch is of a finer quality than any information garnered by the most sophisticated of mining engineers with all their elaborate equipment.”

I am not a short story lover, but I felt fulfilled by MacLeod’s stories because they allow for character development.  All situated in Cape Breton, you begin to understand the nature of the environment, the people and plots from story to story.

Highly recommended, but not light reading.  
 

“Barometer Rising” by Hugh MacLennan (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941)

#2 in the books I’m reading to prepare for my first visit to Nova Scotia in September. Barometer Rising is an historical novel based in 1917, the First World War as experienced from the Canadian Maritimes.

MacLennan’s first novel (he went on to become a prominent figure in Canadian letters) folds elements of the Canadian experience into a romance set in history.  The reader’s experience is multiple:  how Halifax embraced her key role as the UK’s major port in the West, the jumping off point for convoys heading to the war bearing munitions, arms, lumber, coal, men—all produced in Canada and extracted to support a war effort that was not of Canada's making.  There is the experience of a provincial city (about 60,000), influenced by the mores of immigrants from the colonial U.S., Scotland, and the U.K., all conservative. There is a touch of women’s rights, but only because of the war effort.  

The focal point of the book is the Halifax Explosion, December 6, 1917.  As I was unaware of this tragedy, it pulled me right into the climax of all the characters’ development according to how they responded.  It is the largest man-made explosion prior to the atom bomb.  Read the book or check Wikipedia if you want the horrible details.

MacLennan does an excellent job of setting up rich characters who harbor slowly revealed secrets, and setting the story in a time unique to Halifax.  This is an “old fashioned” historical novel.  Just a soupçon of sex, lots of conflict—a well-written and easy to read book.  

“Holmes & Watson” by Jeffrey Hatcher, produced by Arizona Theatre Company

Billed as a “thrilling new Sherlock Holmes mystery”, it was more a “tongue in cheek mystery” based on Sherlock Holmes characters.  The plot is complex, as you need in a mystery, the acting was fine, the conclusion tied up all the loose ends.  It just didn’t light my fire.  Thankfully it was one long act.  Sherlock Holmes mysteries are a genre—you know what to expect.  There were several clever character reversals, and I appreciated the twists.  I would call this standard matinee fare, and we attended the matinee.  
 

"Hidden Ones: A Veil of Memories" by Marcia Fine (L’Image Press, 2017)

I love historical novels that make me dig deeper into the history told in the books.  And such is Hidden Ones, a novel about the Conversos, or Crypto-Jews of the new world.  

Set primarily in the 1650’s in Mexico City, the book traces the lives of Celendaria Crespin and her grandmother, Doña Clara Henriquez de Crespin.  They are victims of the Tribunals of the Holy Office of the Inquisition of the Spanish Catholic Church (and therefore Spanish government, there being no separation of church and state) against heretics, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, rationalists and unorthodox believers. The Inquisition was not limited to Spain, but included Italy, Portugal, the Papal States, and Spanish and Portuguese colonies.  It began in 1231 and officially ended in 1834.  

The Crespin family are Sephardic Jews, originally expelled from Spain in 1492 (yes, the same year Columbus discovered the New World) and the from Portugal in 1497.  The resulting diaspora spread Sephardic Jews throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, Europe and into the New World.  At first, the choice given the Jews was convert to Catholicism or be arrested as heretics.  Later, even Conversos (Jews who converted to Catholicism) were arrested for their Jewish background and the belief they still practiced in private.  It was a no-win situation, driving Jews into complete denial and occlusion of their heritage.  Today, their descendants, most living as Catholics are amazed to find Jewish ancestors on the family tree.   The Crespins followed other Jews they knew to Mexico, hoping for a better life.  The Inquisition followed the diaspora.  

In Hidden Ones, the Crespins leave Mexico City in the 17th century for parts further north, eventually ending in Santa Fe, New Mexico by the 19th century.  Celendaria marries into a Converso family and they continue to carry on Jewish traditions without rabbis, books, synagogues, or minyans.  They learn to identify fellow Jews and bond with them.  

I was raised in the Catholic Church.  They don’t dismiss the role of the Inquisition in church history, but we learned more about bringing heretics and radicals to trial (think Galileo) than about Jews and Muslims.  It was uncomfortable and enlightening to put sympathetic, though fictional, characters through the gauntlet of accusation, arrest, bribery, torture and imprisonment.  

Until recently, the Crypto-Jews have remained an unknown part of the settlement of the Southwestern U.S.   When I moved to Tucson, part of the fascinating history was the role played by famous Jewish families who settled here to provide supplies for the mines:  Levis, Goldwaters, Drachmans, Appels.  But they came in the 1850’s from St. Louis and points east or west. Little did I realize that Crypto-Jews had been living in Arizona for centuries, immigrants from Mexico and other Spanish and Portuguese colonies.  The University of Arizona website has a page on Crypto-Jews with links to historical research.  http://swja.arizona.edu/content/crypto-jews

Marcia Fine wrote this book in short chapters (a plus) titled to identify the point of view, Clara or Celendaria, and the date.  This enables a different type of dialogue using no quotation marks or attributions, as you know who is speaking. It makes for smoother reading and eliminates unnecessary words.  Initially, I had to make little associative leaps to get the rhythm, but after two chapters, I was into the flow.  

The story of the Crespin family is a solid foundation on which Hidden Ones is written.  The plot is straight forward and linked believably to the historical context.  It’s an easy read and one that may lead you to look more closely at local history and your family tree.

Reviewed by Ann Boland
ann@annboland.com


 

“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance (HarperCollins, 2016)

I read through the best-seller list in the WSJ every week.  Mostly, I don’t recognize the books, sometimes I do know the authors, but it keeps me in tune with the top of the book market in which I work.  Repeatedly, my eye was drawn to the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance which has remained on the non-fiction best sellers for months.  I was attracted by the unique title, but most of all by the author who I erroneously assumed was J.A. Jance, best-selling author of many mysteries set in the states of Washington and Arizona--great recreational reading.  I realized my cognitive error (old age) and looked up J.D. Vance—and ordered the book.

This is a memoir from childhood through early career of a boy born into a hillbilly family in Kentucky who migrates to Middletown, OH.  They move from rural poverty to urban factory jobs, along with other Kentucky families.  J.D. has a miserable childhood:  15 father figures who rotate in and out of his mother’s life, an unstable mother, and eventually, poverty.  But he is blessed with a loving and level-headed older sister, a mentoring aunt and grandparents who, though thoroughly hillbilly (a culture that he defines through example), love, nurture and guide J.D.  

It’s difficult for those of us who are middle-class white to empathize with poor whites.  I saw a bit in the 1950’s Ozarks where my grandparents had a 600-acre rock farm.  They were made poorer by the depression, but the rock farm was originally their hunting lodge, where they were now forced to live full-time.  Compared to our neighbors, the O’Mally’s, the DeVeaux’s, the Hogan’s, we were royalty.  And, since these neighbors owned farms, they were higher on the pecking order than most hillbillies in the book, and they were of a different generation. When U.S. Army Fort Leonard Wood opened 20 miles away, many flocked to the steady government jobs and likely upward mobility.  

The kernel of J.D.’s memoir is that lower class whites feel they have been abandoned by both Democrat and Republican politicians and governments.  Traditionally Democrats, lower class whites feel abandoned by elite liberals from the East, much like they have been ignored by traditional Republicans who focus on the role of profitable business to float all boats.  And along comes Trump, who usurped the Republican party and paid attention to lower and middle-class whites and their plight of closed factories and disappearing jobs.  Combine that with distrust of print media and willingness to believe conspiracy theories about Obama, Clinton, health care, voting so enough changed parties to elect a man who really has no substantial understanding of the lower classes, black or white.  

The refreshing point of this memoir is that J.D. does not point fingers at the local, state or national government or the politicians for his childhood problems.  In true conservative style, he proves through his life that we all contain within us the ability to “move up”, make reality of our dreams.  He acknowledges the critical roles played by the mentors in his family, his universities, the Marines, his religion and his wife.  Conversely, he feels there is much more that can be done by government and middle and upper class individuals to focus on the core problems of poverty:  single mothers, a flood of cheap and available narcotics, underperforming schools, and the loss of religion.  

I can’t say I enjoyed this book – most of it is too bleak to be enjoyable.  It is well written; it’s a quick read; it isn’t didactic, and it makes you think.  If you are interested in one man’s insight into why the U.S. is foundering, you should read it.

I recommend that after you finish the book, you read this interview of J.D. Vance with Rod Dreher of “The American Conservative”.  It drills a bit further into Vance’s point of view.
http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/trump-us-politics-poor-whites/

And if you want some good reading for a mental holiday enjoy any of J.A. Jance’s books.  
 

“The Illegal” by Lawrence Hill (W. W. Norton & Co, 2016)

I listened to this book and the best thing about it is the narrator, Gideon Emery.  As many great audio book readers do, he created a voice for each character, making a rather dull book into a masterpiece.

Lawrence Hill also wrote The Book of Negroes which I reviewed several weeks ago.  I was interested to see what he would do with a contemporary novel.  

It’s the story of a young black marathon runner from Zantoroland, living illegally in Freedom State.  Why Hill thought it necessary to make this a slightly dystopian plot with fictional national entities, I don’t know.  Why not just use Somalia or Nigeria and South Africa?  Doing so would have required a lot more careful research, but it would have been so much more compelling.

In reading through the Amazon reviews, I noted that one Canadian reviewer thought the book depicted the condition of African-Americans.  That never crossed my mind.  Yes, Hill portrays problems of illegals, but they are universal problems today, and African-Americans are citizens, not illegals.  That said there are significant problems in the U.S. regarding the treatment of minorities and illegals.  Canada has a much better track record. 

I can’t find much to recommend The Illegal.  Not a bad read, just not good enough to merit the investment of time.  Listening to it in my car as I drove around Tucson was the perfect way to fill those boring minutes.