This was a quick but not light read. My thoughts as I read:
1. I found the beginning of this book unusually confusing. Who is this person? Where is sheThis was a quick but not light read. My thoughts as I read:
1. I found the beginning of this book unusually confusing. Who is this person? Where is she from? When is this set? BRB; I need to go study Lapland. 2. Where is Rhinebeck? (It's in upstate NY but at first I didn't even know what country we were in.) 3. Wow, Clar is destructive. But who is she? What does she do? 4. This has to be the past. No cell phones, "retarded," ignored disability, institutionalization, blouse, phonebook. Best guess: it's set in the early 90s but some of it seems more consistent with the 1950s. 5. I see absolutely nothing to like about the main character. (Just past halfway mark) 6. I knew about her parentage frustratingly long before she did. 7. Seriously, in the 90s, when I assume this is set, people didn't casually use "retarded" so much and people with Down syndrome haven't been routinely institutionalized since the early 1970s. It's jarring and suggests a much earlier setting for the novel. 8. Interesting, emotionless delivery. Flat, declarative sentences. Perhaps like the Finnmark winter landscape.
Very competently written. Compelling. I felt tremendous sympathy for both Olivia and Clarissa without truly liking either character. ...more
I did not know what to expect from this book. A friend I respect (an attorney from Chicago) recommended it to me. But another friend I respect (a profI did not know what to expect from this book. A friend I respect (an attorney from Chicago) recommended it to me. But another friend I respect (a professor of southern studies whose background is closer to that described in this memoir) had a very negative reaction. I began reading with great trepidation and, to be honest, I didn't hate it as much as I expected to. I quite enjoyed parts of it, especially when Vance was sharing his experiences growing up. (A lot of his childhood was painful to imagine, but the writing here was engaging.). But there were some huge drawbacks, especially later in the book, that colored the experience for me.
1. A few chapters in I was struck by the immaturity of Vance's microcosmic vision. As children many of us have a sense of grandeur about ourselves and the world importance of our families. As we mature, most of us come to realize that our families are important *to us* and that our stories might be worth sharing more widely, but that our family's world significance is somewhat less than we assumed as children. (See, for example, all the "hillbilly royalty" stuff. We all have family stories like this. Every family does.)
2. It's also strange how Vance goes from "this is my family's experience" to "this is the experience of the whole region they're from and nowhere else in the world." I'm from rural Kentucky people, too, but few of Vance's assertions fit my family's stories. And now I live in Missouri, by no means part of Appalachia, but we certainly have grandparents named Mamaw and Papaw here (something Vance claims is the sole province of Appalachian "hill people").
3. How can Vance talk about the scarcity of good jobs and the beauty and importance of his hometown in one paragraph, then make a throwaway comment in the next about how the community is full of hard workers except those on food stamps? What does being a hard worker have to do with not being on food stamps? You can work plenty hard in a rural area with few good-paying jobs and still need government assistance with food. It's clear Vance is aware of this, but his tendency to slip in harmful stereotypes is infuriating. Vance frequently contradicts himself throughout Hillbilly Elegy (more examples below).
4. "This was my world - a world of truly irrational behavior." This goes a long way towards explaining the lack of examined reasoning in Vance's thinking. The neighbor is foolish for not leaving an abuser but the author's beloved PaPaw was just learning how to be a husband and his marriage had "rough patches." The neighbor is inscrutable for buying drugs but when Vance's mother does the same it's a coping mechanism. Problems are sympathetic when they're experienced by family and symptoms of the welfare state when they're experienced by neighbors.
5. P. 189: why the non-patriotic dig at the D.C. to Boston "corridor?" If Vance's fellow Marines were, as he claimed, patriots from everywhere, why can't New Englanders be patriots? If we have to acknowledge our problems so that we can fix them why is constructive critique not allowed? Why can patriots not come from any part of the country? What makes "hillbillies" more patriotic than people born a few hundred miles north?
6. P. 191: Vance claims that white conservatives don't like Obama not because they're racist but because he went to Ivy League schools. No word on why that hatred doesn't apply to EVERY OTHER PRESIDENT and presidential candidate EVER.
7. P. 193: Obama Econony as a pejorative even given earlier acknowledgement of the preceding recession?!
8. 194: modern conservativism encouraging distrust/blame the government is bad - I agree. All the stuff about increasing poor whites' feelings of distrust for the media and the government being harmful was solid. Unfortunately, Vance falls into the same trap from time to time, especially whenever he decries as "elite" anyone with an education, or a white collar job and a home in a safe neighborhood, or money.
9. P. 214: "social capital" / "a professor term" I hate how Vance uses a term then feels pretentious for using it so makes fun of the "professors" who would use that sort of word. Well, if there's a better term, use that! And if there's not, then just use the word, define it if necessary, and move along without the nasty little jabs at the people who taught you that word (and the other concepts and skills that are facilitating both your success and your writing of this book).
10. During law school, many of what Vance seems to assume are unique ignorances on his part due to his "hillbilly" upbringing are really quite common and probably true to many if not most students. Otherwise he could just ask a classmate. After all, he had all these "close friends" from every walk of life and a girlfriend who also did her undergrad at Yale, right? (I'm not talking about butter knives and sparkling water - though he could have learned this stuff from books like I did - but rather about which judges are nicest and which clerkships best prepare attorneys for their desired careers.)
11. This book is oddly lacking discussion about race. Vance talks about the symptoms and complications from his hillbilly upbringing as if they're unique to his culture alone while the "ACEs" are far from unique to poor white culture.
12. P. 235 full circle. Vance criticizes a motel manager by assuming that she hadn't majored in hospitality management. Herein lies his uncomfortable balance: prejudiced against those who went to colleges and against those who did not, all the while writing as though there's no one like him (from a poor white disrupted background as a graduate of an elite school with a professional degree).
13. 244: I'm glad to see that Vance does support the public social safety net. With his repeated jabs at food stamps I wanted to scream. What's the alternative?! Yes, there are people who abuse the system by buying food with assistance and spending their money on cigarettes. With any system of assistance - public or private - someone will abuse it. But is the appropriate response to that letting children starve?
14. Aha! In the conclusion Vance acknowledges his dichotomy. I do appreciate that.
15. P. 256: back to railing against The Elites of D. C., NY, CA, as if he's not one. As if there's something wrong with bring from somewhere. As if everyone born outside a Kentucky holler is an elite. (Note: Vance himself was born in an Ohio city, as were his parents. His grandparents moved away from Kentucky as teenagers. While the communities and problems Vance describes are real, I don't think they're unique to poor white people from rural areas of a handful of states.)...more