Wednesday, September 21, 2016


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


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.


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.