Book Reviews: April 2018

Four books in April! I managed to keep my reviews shorter, minus Hillbilly Elegy. I got a little rant-y on that one.

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
  • American Kingpin by Nick Bilton

 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical coming-of-age story. As a child, Angelou lived with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, except for when she was with her mother in St. Louis or San Francisco.

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Before reading this I had only heard a few of Angelou's poems here and there, so I didn't know much about her life or writing style. As soon as I started reading, though, I realized it was going to be a good one. Usually when I love a book I can go on and on about it, but every now and then I read one that's just so perfect I feel inadequate to add anything else to what's already been said. This book is one of the latter.

One thing that struck me was the way she depicted her rape. Yes, it was graphic and horrifying to read, but more than that, Angelou did an excellent job of showing the confusion she felt as a child. She was lonely, unsure what was happening to her, and afraid to be honest. It was heartbreaking, and I just wanted to hug her.

There were dark moments but plenty of humorous ones, too, all made more powerful by Angelou's skill as a poet. But enough trying to do justice to this, just read it!

A few lines I liked:

“She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy.”

“The air was weighted and thick. A bigger house had been set on our roof and was imperceptibly pushing us into the ground.”

“The trip to the kitchen and back could not have taken more than two minutes, yet in that time I tramped through swampy cemeteries, climbed over dusty gravestones and eluded litters of night-black cats.”

Rating: 5 of 5 stars


 

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

Hillbilly Elegy, an honest appraisal of author JD Vance’s family history, touches on tough subjects such as drug abuse, absentee parents, and "making it" when the odds seemed stacked against you. 

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I have very mixed feelings on this book, so this is going to be a long rant. I was expecting more social commentary, less memoir. While I absolutely see grains of truth in some of what Vance said, I’ve managed to boil down my discomfort with this book to three points:

  1. Hillbilly Elegy has been heralded for a couple years now as a way to understand Trump supporters. Nope. Wrong. This is just one guy talking about his very messed up family. I don’t think the marketing was necessarily Vance’s fault, but it’s misleading and the only reason people are talking about it is because this guy “made it” and went to Yale law after serving as a Marine. (To be clear, I do respect him for all he accomplished.) Just be aware that Trump is not even mentioned in this.
  2. Hillbilly Elegy does not speak for all of America's white working class, both in political opinions and in life experience. Not all white people in the South are drug addicts. 
  3. Vance pretends racism isn’t really an issue.

I’m not going to get into politics much, but just to be transparent - there is nothing I like or respect about Trump. But again, this book doesn't mention him, so the rest of my review won't either. 

Vance spent the majority of this book giving the reader his family history, and he didn't hesitate to get right into the dirty details. One old story was about a family feud in which a relative of his killed someone else and got away with it. The story made it into the New York Times, so guess what? “When I first read this gruesome story in one of the country’s most circulated newspapers, I felt one emotion above the rest: pride.” Um, WHAT? Vance was PROUD that his family made it into a paper for murder?

Another thing that completely baffled me was how Vance repeatedly excused his family’s terrible behavior. (Mamaw in particular.) The best example was a story Vance told about Mamaw, Papaw, and their oldest son, Vance’s Uncle Jimmy. Once at a store, the clerk asked young Uncle Jimmy not to play with a toy - a reasonable request, since the item was for sale and Uncle Jimmy was a young child all alone. Store employees are not babysitters. When Mamaw and Papaw finally showed up and learned that their kid wasn’t allowed to play with the merchandise, what did Papaw do? He smashed the toy. They both started throwing items around the store. Papaw threatened the employee: “If you say another word to my son, I will break your fucking neck.” Then, because this was the 70’s or something, he walked out with zero consequences. THESE PEOPLE WERE THE SANE ONES IN VANCE’S LIFE! Vance later said, “Normal middle-class parents don’t wreck pharmacies because a store clerk is mildly rude to their child…. That’s what Scots-Irish Appalachians do when people mess with your kid.”

Listen. I AM (partially) Scots-Irish Appalachian and I have never had an urge to do such a thing and I don’t have a single family member who would do this. Can I think of a handful of people from my hometown who act this way? Yes. Trashy people are everywhere. But the vast majority of people from my hometown, high school, childhood church, etc. would be embarrassed beyond belief to throw such a hissy fit as an adult.

Mamaw had other issues. Once, Vance mentioned that she was a hoarder. Another time, after telling her husband not to come home drunk or she’d kill him, this happened: “Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it to his chest.” And apparently this was how Mamaw communicated: “Stop being a lazy piece of shit.” “You have shit for brains.” “You’re too stupid for the Marines/You’re too smart for the Marines.” Again - she's the sane, reliable adult in the family. 

Vance also had plenty of issues with his mother, who was a drug addict and had a constantly rotating line of men in her house. In some chapters Vance would say all the men weren’t that bad, then he’d say “I wanted these goddamned strangers to stay the fuck out.” Sadly, it came across like he still had issues with it even as an adult. I feel for him there. I’m sure that was hard to live with and Mamaw, definitely to her credit, always had her door open ready to give him a place to stay.

Overall, Vance was very honest about his family’s issues. I respect that. I’m sure it was difficult to write all of this down, and the problems he brought up are very real issues in society (particularly the drug abuse). That being said, he clearly avoided certain subjects, such as racism. He tried to gloss over the racism against Obama by saying the people in his area thought that Obama was too good. As in, his redneck, hillbilly, white family thought that Obama was too good a father, too educated, his suits were too nice, etc. And for that reason, they didn’t like “his wife” telling the hillbillies how to eat healthier. (It irritated me so much that Vance did not say Michelle, or First Lady, but “his wife” instead.) Sure, I can believe that some people were intimidated by Obama’s success. But Vance refused to complete the thought. These hillbillies were intimidated by this success...in a black man. I have heard, with my own two ears, a white man admit, “I hate Obama because he’s black."

For the record, I am not related to this person and yes, I did get furious and say something back to him. It was long ago and I was so mad I actually couldn’t see anything for a second and I don’t remember what I said. I haven’t seen that person in years but VANCE, DO NOT FUCKING TELL ME THAT RACISM ISN’T A PROBLEM. You are lying to yourself. He even admitted he had a cousin whose family stopped talking to her when she had a half-black child.

Okay, enough ranting. One final quote:

“I took a Yale friend to Cracker Barrel. In my youth, it was the height of fine dining-my grandma’s and my’s favorite restaurant. [To my] Yale friend’s, it was a greasy public health crisis.”

I’ve got Vance’s back on this one. Cracker Barrel is the bomb. I could eat those biscuits all day.

I truly hope this book was therapeutic for Vance to write, but I don't think it needs to be held up as some great social commentary when in reality, it barely skims the surface. Read simply for another human's life story. 

Rating: 2 of 5 stars

 

 

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

College professor Jason Dessen is happy with his life. He loves his job, wife, and son. One night, he's kidnapped and knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he realizes that everyone around him knows him as Jason - but nothing about this world is the same as his own. 

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Dark Matter was more "thriller" and less "science fiction." To be fair to all the detailed sci-fi out there, the science itself was pretty mediocre. After a few vague, Physics-101-type explanations, the book became strictly focused on Jason's attempt to restore his life. For that reason (and because of the constant paragraph breaks, yikes) this wasn't a five star book. 

This would be great for an afternoon beach read, though. For a whole day after I read it, I was thinking things like - What would have happened if I'd gone to a different college? What if I didn't take the class where I met my husband? What if I moved somewhere other than DC? I have no hesitation in recommending Dark Matter as something easy and fun.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars (4 on Goodreads)

 

 

American Kingpin by Nick Bilton

American Kingpin is the real life story of Ross Ulbricht, a programmer who started the Silk Road - an anonymous online forum where users could purchase drugs, weapons, and even human body parts. 

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American Kingpin was for my book club, so this probably wasn’t one I would have ever picked up on my own. I had a vague notion that the Silk Road had something to do with drugs and the internet, but honestly that was as far as my knowledge went. The details about the case were really interesting; I specifically liked the parts about each Federal office’s investigation and how they were really able to build a case against Ulbricht when they all worked together.

The reason I only rated this three stars was because of the writing style. There were just so many useless details, like the weather when Ulbricht went camping various times with friends. Or constantly repeating over and over that Ulbricht was a libertarian. And melodramatic warnings that “Little did he know, [this dramatic event] would soon happen and change his life!!!!!” It jumped back and forth from non-fiction into an attempted narrative style too often for me to really get invested.

Again, the case itself was interesting. There are plenty of podcasts and documentaries out there on Ulbricht and the Silk Road, though, so if you’re really interested in this case one of those might work for you just as much as this book.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars