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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

J.D. Vance, HILLBILLY ELEGY: A MEMOIR OF A FAMILY AND CULTURE IN CRISIS

This book straddles the two genres of memoir and social commentary; and it's insightful in both directions. In a voice that is forthright, authentic, and true to his roots (i.e. at times downright profane), Vance surveys his life thus far, from early childhood to his graduation from Yale Law. His childhood was divided between his hillbilly grandparents' home and his mother's increasingly dysfunctional series of homes, complete with addiction, violence, and a rotating door for men. This is an unflinching look at what it feels like to be a child with undependable people around, people who scream and throw things, who lose their temper and fight fiercely for "honor"; but it also points to the ways that high schools and government agencies (such as Child Protective Services) fail poor children in Appalachia because they don't understand the nature of the extended family systems and people's deep-seated distrust and failure of faith that any effort or hard work will improve their situation. It's about how hopelessness is sewn into the fabric of a culture. But it's also a memoir about Vance finding his way out: he graduated high school; joined the Marines for four years during which he developed his own sense of adult agency; went to Ohio State U; and then graduated Yale Law. One of my favorite chapters comes at the end where he shares how he has had to learn a new way of handling conflict, with the help of his fabulous wife Usha (also a grad of Yale Law). He explains that his sister Linsday told him that "When I fought with Kevin [her husband] I'd insult him and tell him to do what I knew he wanted to do anyway--leave. He'd always ask me, 'What's wrong with you? Why do you fight with me like I'm your enemy?'" Like his sister, Vance has to learn better ways of working through conflict, and he admits humbly that he still struggles with it. He also asks the messy questions about sympathy and accountability: "How much is Mom's life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin? ... At some point, Lindsay says, you have to stop making excuses and take responsibility. ... No person's childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card. ... but can people like us ever really change?" It's a message of hope that he provides at the end, that people can grow and change and see that "the very traits that enabled my survival during childhood inhibit my success as an adult. I see conflict and I run away or prepare for battle. This makes little sense in my current relationships, but without that iattitude, my childhood homes would have consumed me." He's clear about the difference between the two worlds he knows; and without being preachy or judgmental, he shares what he's learned from both.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney, THE DEVIL'S DIARY: ALFRED ROSENBERG AND THE STOLEN SECRETS OF THE THIRD REICH

I found this to be a rather odd book. Much like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it has two distinct plot lines. One is the story of the rise of Hitler and Rosenberg's role in developing and disseminating toxic and vicious anti-Semitism for the Nazis; the second is the discovery of Rosenberg's diary and how it was smuggled out of Germany by Kempner (a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials), concealed, misplaced multiple times, chased down across the Atlantic, and finally preserved in the Holocaust Museum.

I find I have to read books about Nazi Germany in small doses; the horrifying events and the descriptions of the viciousness of the individual Nazis are just too much to take in and too disturbing to read in long swaths. But this book provides one of the best overviews I've seen with respect to the rise of the Nazis, the terror they instilled, the wishful thinking by so many, the overwrought pretexts and lies the Nazis used to justify their actions, and the "logic" that underpinned everything from the looting to the killing. A well-researched, careful book.

Harper Lee, GO SET A WATCHMAN

My bookclub is reading this, together with To Kill a Mockingbird, this month. To say I felt conflicted about reading it is an understatement. I'd heard so much about how reading Watchman ruins Mockingbird, how Watchman reads like a rough draft, how it makes you hate Atticus because he's become a racist, how Harper Lee was exploited in order to obtain the manuscript, how it raises the question of whether Lee even wrote Mockingbird. (There is a rumor that her friend Truman Capote might have written, or edited, or ghost-written Mockingbird, a rumor that has largely been disproven.) So while I bought the book five months ago, I only began it five days ago, procrastination being one way of avoiding a wince-worthy experience!

If I consider Watchman on its own merits, I didn't find it nearly as shabby a book as I'd heard it to be. Granted, the characters are less appealing. Where Scout is consistently and wonderfully vulnerable and spunky, 26-year-old Jean Louise, coming home from NYC, vacillates between brittle and mouthy and self-absorbed. And Atticus is not the hero he is in Mockingbird; in this book, his willingness to stand up for Tom Robinson is attributed not from a sense that everyone, even a black man accused, deserves the best legal representation he can provide--that is, from a devotion to a humane ideal. It is the less personal devotion to the law. But these aren't real people, after all, and I didn't mind that so much.

What I found a bit surprising were some elements that felt incomplete, or inept. For example, I didn't like how Henry/Hank (why the switching between names?), Jean Louise's love interest seems to exist mostly to provide a thin "should I marry him or not" plot for Jean Louise; and as a character, he is flat, serving largely as a way to illuminate aspects of Jean Louise's character. (He often hints to the reader how we should interpret JL's speeches.) 

The stakes in Watchman are not nearly what they are in Mockingbird, and this has to do with the plot. Certainly both books have to do with race and the south. But in Watchman, the plot is more about Jean Louise letting go of her father as a perfect model conscience, and figuring out that Henry isn't the one she should marry, than about race. In fact, much of what Jean Louise learns about race in the South is through a lecture that her uncle provides in the last 1/8th of the book. Thus, Watchman is a novel about an individual character more than a cultural concern, if that makes sense. A plot about a girl discovering her identity isn't as effective a way of introducing the problem of race as the trial of Tom Robinson (front and center in Mockingbird).

But I did like that Watchman ends in a way that doesn't put Atticus and Jean Louise (or anyone) neatly into the camp of Good or Bad. In some ways, it is a more "mature" ending, though perhaps not as satisfying as Mockingbird, in which Atticus transcends Maycombe's racism and Boo thwarts Bob Ewell's viciousness so completely. And if Jean Louise is a little too disparaging of Maycomb (in some wry scenes with the Maycomb ladies), that also feels "real" for a 26-year-old coming home from NYC. All in all, I'd give it 3.5 stars out of 5. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Fredrik Backman, A MAN CALLED OVE

I'll own straightaway that this book made me cry. I finished it on an airplane, and my seatmate kindly pretended not to notice me swiping away tears. But I also feel somewhat ambivalent about some elements of the novel. The protagonist Ove is 59 and a curmudgeon--disagreeable, bitter, inflexible, and at times truly lacking in empathy. With each chapter, the author doles out the backstory--the various betrayals, disappointments, experiences with cold-hearted white-shirted bureaucrats, and very real tragedies--that have led Ove to his current stony, emotionally disengaged state. So, with each chapter, the reader enacts the "evolving-empathy" trajectory that, toward the end of the book, Ove will embark upon too. (Ove plus L equals Love?) But I felt that the author didn't quite take Ove's pain seriously; there is an outrageous and even absurd quality to representations of Ove's behavior (e.g., his tantrum at the computer store) that made me laugh and reassured me from the start that Ove would rediscover his good, kind heart by the end. Perhaps I also felt shades of other books in here; Ove reminded me of the dour French chef Madame Mallory in *The Hundred-Foot Journey*, whose heart is softened by the exuberant Indian family who moves in across the street. In this book, it's an exuberant Indian woman, her husband, and her two lively children who begin to lure Ove back to the world of feelings. And as for the cat ... well, I couldn't help thinking of Blake Snyder's book "Save the Cat: The last book on screenwriting that you'll ever need," so named because one of the ways to make a tough or potentially unsympathetic character sympathetic is to have him do something like ... save a cat, which Ove does, eventually. Still, I enjoyed the book; I'm a sucker for any book that deals with empathy; and I'd read another by Backman.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Elizabeth Strout, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

This is a quiet book; it is the first-person recalled conversation between a woman (Lucy) who is in the hospital for several weeks for an operation and recovery; and her mother, who comes to visit her from a tiny town in Illinois. It largely concerns Lucy's poverty-stricken, desperate childhood, and how she made the transition to living in New York City, married and with two children, and becoming a writer. (The voice feels deeply authentic, and I couldn't help wonder how much the narrative voice leaned on Strout's own experience.) The prose is even in tone, not at all hysterical or overwrought; but the memories are wildly uneven--from Lucy reading books in a quiet classroom after school (to stay warm, and avoid going home to the garage, where they live) to being locked in a truck for a day, with a snake, while her parents are at work and her older siblings at school. People might gripe that this book "tells" instead of "shows"; I would not say so at all. (To me, "telling" is not the same as reporting events that happen off-stage, or in the past; it's when events happen on stage and the author writes "she was mad" instead of "she hurled the pot at his head." But not everyone would agree with my definition.) This book is, for me, about empathy; how it happens unevenly, how the mother who is incapable of empathy when Lucy was young has developed a crack here and there, but is still largely unenlightened and too fragile to cope with anything real; how marriage shines a bright light on childhood scars; how recovery happens through contact with people who are steady, who are honest, who know how to listen and love. It's a quick read (an hour or two) and worth it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Geraldine Brooks, THE SECRET CHORD

Geraldine Brooks's earlier novels Year of Wonders and March are still two of my favorites; but this one didn't resonate with me the same way. It's the story of King David, told by his prophet Natan; parts were familiar to me (the slaying of Goliath) and parts not; it's full of war and political intrigue and rape. The use of a secondary character to tell a fiery protagonist's story is often an effective device; but I didn't feel that Natan's point-of-view added as much as it might have, partly because his character did not change throughout; he begins and remains the prophet. (Often, for me, the dual change in two characters can create all kinds of good dramatic tension.) As usual with Brooks, some of the language and phrases just sing--"[I saw] the sinews of his back, taut with the strain of the pulled bow"; "her face was tilted upward, to catch a meager shaft of light." But at times I was pulled up short by certain words that felt very contemporary--"scar tissue" (mid-19th-c), the feet on the stones beating a "celebratory tattoo" (1500s), and the phrase, "Well, you might have suckered my brother but you don't fool me." I will always read Brooks's books, however, and look forward to her next.