Hillbilly Elegy

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I finished J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy a week ago; the thoughts it has triggered refuse to settle down and go to sleep. Like a child’s insistent request for a drink, they clamor for my attention.

The title is brilliant, combining assonance with alliteration. Good mouthfeel.

I applaud Vance for his sympathetic description of his hillbilly heritage, defining deficits but not belittling its benefits. I cringed at his candid assessment of his drug-addicted mom. It brought to mind Pat Conroy’s dilemma of writing about family flaws. J.D. shows deep gratitude to his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, who raised him. Mamaw’s mouth reminds me of a friend who calls her child that little sh*t as a term of endearment. I can’t recall reading a book with more casual f-bombs. True hillbilly flavor?

…hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist. This tendency might make for psychological resilience, but it also makes it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly.

Vance’s story captured my interest when he was navigating the social world of Yale Law School. That, and his understanding of how he brought his  A.C.E. (adverse childhood experiences) with him into his marriage.

J.D.’s girlfriend called him a turtle: Whenever something bad happens — even a hint of disagreement — you withdraw completely. This echoes my own deep groove, a pattern I had of shutting down instead of working through conflict.  It took a patient and persistent spouse to let go of the fear and learn how to have a good quarrel.

While he outlines the struggles of the white working class, this isn’t a policy book that proposes solutions. But a better understanding of the problems is a beginning.

postscript –  I read Hillbilly Elegy  while the Chicago Cubs were fighting their way to the World Series. They brought up designated hitter Kyle Schwarber. (That’s a great story, too.) I discovered that Schwarber and Vance both grew up in Middletown, OH. I wonder about other similarities.

Call the Nurse

Combine James Herriot, John McPhee, Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging with a dash of Call the Midwife. Mary J. Macleod moved her family from southern England to become a district nurse on an island twenty miles long in the Inner Hebrides. She, along with a 70-year-old doctor, provided medical care for all the inhabitants in the 1970’s. She writes with a clear-eyed, unsentimental, but affectionate voice.

The book is a series of vignettes: like a gurgling stream it ambles along, making it an satisfying read in pockets of time. Macleod worked (tending elderly, administering daily injections, attending to medical emergencies) with her patients in their homes. She was called at all hours and had to traverse a mountain or be taken by sea in a boat. She cared for people from newborns to octogenarians, many who spoke only Gaelic.

This book taps into three fascinations: island culture, self-sustaining lifestyle, and Scotland. I have been on two islands in Scotland, which is knowledge enough to be dangerously ignorant. To protect the privacy of the inhabitants, Macleod calls her island Papavray. This fired my curiosity, sending me to Google to unsuccessfully tease out the island’s true name.

The best thing? The author wrote her first book (of three now published) in her 80’s. It fuels my hope. Check out her Facebook page.

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Photo taken from Iona, a small — but important — island on the western coast of Scotland.

The second best thing? This book is $.99 on Kindle today.

Okay for Now

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I enjoy persuading adult readers to read well-written young adult books. Gary Schmidt’s  book is one I recommend, perhaps even more for older readers than for a middle schooler. It made me snort with laughter and it turned me into a sobbing, sniffing mess.

Doug Swieteck has a lying, blustering, bullying, abusive father. His mom tries to compensate, neutralizing her husband’s venom to the best of her ability within the strictures of 1960’s mores. Doug’s older brothers are plain mean.

I tried to talk to my father about it. But it was a wrong day. Most days are wrong days.

So convincing is Doug’s voice that I could hear it. “Terrific.” “I hate stupid Marysville.” “You know how that felt?” and Doug’s trademark phrase, “I’m not lying.”

Perhaps we’ve all grown up with someone like Doug, a mixture of bravado and vulnerable. Someone outside the family takes an interest and tries to pull that kid up above his/her circumstances. Doug had his share of tormentors, but also four mentors who invested in him.

There are some things in this world that we cannot fix, and they happen, and it is not our fault, though we still might have to deal with them. There are other things that happen in this world that we can fix. And that is what good teachers like me are for.  — Miss Cowper, English teacher

A few things seduced me. One brother is only identified as “my jerk brother.” He is changed by a horrific situation — converted (not religious) — and Doug begins calling him by his name. It is a subtle but significant clue. The smile motif captured me. Pay attention to the smiles.

I listened to the audio version (5 stars for Lincoln Hoppe’s narration–except he mispronounced  Cowper— it’s Cooper), but was compelled to read the words.

And see the pictures. Doug Swieteck’s doorway to a better life comes through John James Audubon’s bird pictures. (The hefty Birds of America was the first gift I gave my husband after we married.) Each chapter is named after an Audubon bird; the audio experienced is diminished without seeing the prints.

There is a broad ranged of interests represented in this book: Audubon, Apollo 11, the Vietnam War, Jane Eyre, Periodic Table, baseball, and Aaron Copland. There is drama, devastation, and unexpected grace. I loved the book. Would a young teen love it?

Come Rain or Come Shine, The Book

I once prayed, Lord, please let Jan Karon live long enough to get Dooley and Lace married. The answer to that prayer was a whelming flood; I started crying on page 32 and sniffed and sobbed my way—punctuated by laughs—to the final page. Redemption, benediction, healing, holy amazement, connection. Reading this brings the satisfaction of resolution, the “two bits” after the “shave and a haircut”.

Weddings are my thing. Joyful solemnity, giving, sharing, joining, celebrating, laughing, crying, hugging, singing, dancing, rejoicing, thanksgiving. I love a good wedding and I’ve been to a few profoundly remarkable ones.

There was joy in the air; you could sniff it as plain as new-cut hay.

The focus of Come Rain or Come Shineis on the month before and the day of The Big Knot. Dooley and Lace want a small, intimate ceremony at Meadowgate Farm. Karon enjoys poking fun at the myth of a ‘simple country wedding.’  There are obstacles and annoyances. There are secrets and surprises. There is the unrelenting pressure of diminishing time to get the place wedding-ready.

DSC_0964The main character is Lace Harper. Her journals reveal her heart, her hopes, her fears, her loves. She wants to find a wedding dress for under $100; she is thankful for the callouses which document her hard work. She wants to get it—this whole starting a new family—right. I appreciated the ways Dooley and Lace honor the memory of Sadie Baxter (benefactor) and Russell Jacks (Dooley’s grandpa) in their wedding. Fun stuff: there is a Pinterest page for Lace Harper’s wedding!

Jan Karon and Wendell Berry are both skilled at portraying a community where giving, helping, and reciprocating are the norm. In their novels they don’t cover up the hurts, the anger, the tensions, the troubles. Weddings can be awkward with family drama. Karon handles the presence of Dooley’s birth mom, Pauline Leeper, in the same room as his siblings with utmost care. There is no easy resolution, no instant reconciliation, just baby steps, tiny beginnings towards the on-ramp to healing.

I connected with this book in many ways. This summer we went to a small, simple country wedding (see picture above) in a pasture. My son and daughter-in-law have a wind storm and fallen trees in their wedding story, too. I know what it is to be gob-smacked by blessings, reduced to silent tears of joy. Live music is the best for dancing the night away. I love the song in the title.

‘Why can’t life always be lived under the stars,’ she said, ‘with great music and family and friends?’

♪♫♪ Come Rain or Come Shine ♪♫♪ is a standard (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics Johnny Mercer) that has been covered by scores of recording artists. I used it ten years ago when I made a PowerPoint slideshow for Curt’s folks’ 50th wedding anniversary. In the course of my work, I listened to B.B. King and Eric Clapton on endless repetition. And I can honestly say, I never tired of it. But there are so many recordings of this song, that I put my listening of them in this post.

This book.

I finished it last night. I started it again this morning.

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

Public_transport_in_Gaborone(Public transportation in Gaborone, Botswana – photo Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander McCall Smith did a good thing when he crafted the character of Mma Precious Ramotswe. In each book, she is consistently the kind, traditional, perceptive, tender-hearted, contented woman I’ve come to regard as my friend.

And yet, he doesn’t filter out all the unsavory aspects of Botswana life. In this 12th book of the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, we see a young mother who treats her children with utter indifference, cattle killed, a menacing man and a cowed woman.

I recently finished The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, the twelfth book. I’m reading them out of order, according to library availability.

The title of the first chapter is The Memory of Lost Things; could it be an allusion to Proust?

As with every book in this series, I care about Mma Ramotswe’s culture ten times more than whatever mystery needs to be solved. There’s a dig at mobile phones, complainers, fathers who don’t take responsibility for their children. On the plus side is Mma’s abiding love for her late father and for her ‘late’ tiny white van, her compassion for those who suffer, the poetry of night sounds, her gratitude for Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, her encouragement to an undeserving recipient, and the joy of an abundant wedding feast.

There is a tender moment between two bereaved women. I have a late baby, Mma. It is a long time ago. ~ I have a late child too, Mma. McCall Smith understands the permanence of grief. Almost every book has a small reference to the baby Mma Ramotswe lost.

In the end Grace Makutsi marries Phuti Radiphuti, which means she will never have to ride in public transportation again, and she can indulge her love of loud shoes. The wedding doesn’t have the prominence that the title gives it, but that’s OK.

Here is a quote to whet your appetite.

Nowadays, people are always thinking of getting somewhere—they travelled around far more, rushing from here to there and then back again. She would never let her life go that way; she would always take the time to drink tea, to look at the sky, and to talk. What else was there to do? Make money? Why? Did money bring any greater happiness than that furnished by a well-made cup of red bush tea and a moment or two with a good friend? She thought not. 230

 

Pat Nixon

Pat-NixonAfter I finished Going Home To Glory, by David and Julie Eisenhower, (see Revisiting Eisenhower) I decided to read Julie Nixon Eisenhower’s biography of her mother, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story.

I learned a lot reading this book, first of all respect for Pat Nixon. “Overcoming adversity” is such an exhausted cliché. But how does one describe the circumstances wherein a girl—13 years old—nurses and loses her mother to cancer, then in the space of five years nurses and buries her dad; works full time to help one, then another brother go to college; enters USC at age 22 and graduates cum laude three years later after working multiple jobs?

Here’s what impressed me about Pat:

♥ Her family adored her. Her brothers, her husband, her daughters, her sons-in-law, her grandchildren. That is a major accomplishment when you have lived life in the public eye and needed to be absent from family often. Yes, this is a sympathetic biography.

♥ She reached out to people. Her default mode with crowds was to shake hands, look in the eyes: connect. It’s one thing to connect with supporters, but she pursued detractors and protesters, often disarming them with a smile. She was a cool cucumber in life-threatening situations.

♥ Discipline and duty directed her steps. Campaigning is grueling: sometimes three solo appearances during the day and an evening with her husband. Entertaining dignitaries non-stop. She never shrank from what needed to be done.

♥ She sought *and found* beauty. Flowers, colors, fashion, design.

♥ She traveled to all fifty states and over fifty countries of the world.

♥ She read. In her later years, sometimes five substantial books a week.

♥ She was a creative grandma. She played “shoe store” with her granddaughter. They lined *all* of Pat’s shoes up; her granddaughter was the sales person and Pat would ‘shop’ and try on shoes. Oh, how I want to do this with my Aria when she’s older.

♥ Her signature phrase was “Onward and upward.”

I found Pat Nixon’s funeral online…and watched the whole thing. One of the earlier songs was Vaughn Williams’ For All the Saints, a song I decided at age 17 I wanted at my funeral. Billy Graham spoke about death, describing it as five things:
— a coronation
— a cessation from labor
— a departure
— a transition, and
— an exodus or “going out”

I’m glad I read this. When I finish a book that catches my imagination, there are more books I ‘need’ to read. This is my life. Even though it smacks of voyeurism, Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage is a book I’m interested in reading, based on recently released love letters.

The Boys in the Boat

1936-team-on-waterThe Boys in the Boat consumed me while I consumed it. I blew dry my thick mop on the low setting so I could read more of it each morning. For a two week stretch I managed to work the book into every casual conversation.

In short, the book is about rowing, about the University of Washington crew who took the gold at the 1936 OIympics. Daniel James Brown tells the story with skill, weaving the personal and team history of the crew, the craft of boat building, the Nazi propaganda guru, Leni Riefenstahl, together in so spell-binding a way that, even though you know the outcome of the final race, you have to turn the page to find out.

Certain elements of the story were bound to draw me in: Nazi Germany, a motherless child, boating, work ethic, craftsmanship, athleticism. But what captured me the most was the harmony, the heartfelt cooperation, required between the boys in the boat. If you don’t like some fellow in the boat, Joe, you have to learn to like him. The combination of humility and confidence, requisite to a good crew, fascinated me. My husband has built and rowed several duck hunting scull boats in his time. By default (and by interest—his nightly question is ‘what are you reading?’) Curt gets the first feedback from my reading. But there was no way I could simply tell him about the chapter on the art of boat building. I read it aloud and reveled in his comments and appreciation.

Reading in the age of YouTube means that the scenes recreated on page are available to watch on a screen. This short book trailer shows the stunning end of the Olympic finals. (I’m glad that I saw this after I read the book; knowing the back story helped me appreciate the significance that is hard to grasp in the few seconds of the footage.) What a thrill!

As I read I bumped into “old friends”: The Suzzallo Library, Grand Coulee Dam, Fritz Kreisler(how does a world-class violinist get into a book on crew?), Louis Zamperini of Unbroken fame, and Hugh Laurie. Yeah, that Hugh Laurie! If you loved Unbroken, odds are you will like The Boys in the Boat.

It’s called “swing.” It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists—must be mirrored exactly by each oarsmen, from one end of the boat to the other.  160