Book Review – Nasty Women by 404 Ink

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Title: Nasty Women
Authors: Numerous
Publisher: 404 Ink
Genre: Non-fiction, essay, feminism, politics

*This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

I have been looking forward to reading Nasty Women, a collection of essays put together by 404 Ink, since I first heard about the Kickstarter campaign from Margaret Atwood’s Twitter feed earlier this year.

Most of the authors you may not have heard of, but together they represent what it is to be a woman today, and the compilation is strong on being intersectional. When I spotted Nasty Women on Netgalley last month, I jumped at the opportunity to review it.

Book Blurb

With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever for women to share their experiences. We must hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil. Nasty Women is a collection of essays, interviews and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.

People, politics, pressure, punk – From working class experience to racial divides in Trump’s America, being a child of immigrants, to sexual assault, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, identity, family, finding a voice online, role models and more, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Zeba Talkhani, Chitra Ramaswamy are just a few of the incredible women who share their experience here.

Keep telling your stories, and tell them loud.

The stories encompass a wide variety of speakers: women of color, queer women, Muslim women, female immigrants, and female survivors of sexual assault, just to name a few. The group of authors are diverse and each story is unique.

The collection of stories are all raw and personal, deeply emotional, and powerful. It is women writing about their everyday experiences in today’s world. Many of the essays left me feeling enraged, angry…nasty. Angry at the amount of crap women that women continue to face. The increasing normalization – again – of misogyny and intolerance. The continuance of inequality.

It was a naive part of me that saw Trump do and say such horrible things, witnessed his complete lack of capability and worthiness to lead, and thought that even the most reprehensible people in my country would, at the last second, understand that allowing this would not ‘Make America Great Again’. It would merely reveal the masty, rotting heart of America that I daresay it has always had since it built a throne on stolen land and tried to crown itself king of the world.

~ “Independence Day” by Katie Muriel

The first essay, Independence Day by Katie Muriel, is one of my favorites. I believe many of us can identify with the guilt that Katie speaks to following the 2016 election.

I learned the hard way that I can’t take oestrogen. The pill and the patch made me crazy – not in the catatonic, depressive way that I’d dealt with all my life, but in a way that felt really dangerous. I was constantly angry, bordering on violent, and I began to fear that I would hurt someone…

~ “Lament: Living with the Consequences of Contraception” by Jen McGregor

Jen McGregor’s essay was another one I could relate to, as I have also struggled with some horrible side effects from birth control, which I have taken regularly since my teen years in an attempt to help relieve my endometriosis symptoms.

But the essays I appreciated the most as a reader were by authors who come from a different life experience from my own. Such as Sim Bajwa’s essay on the immigrant experience, or Joelle Owusu’s essay, The Dark Girl’s Enlightenment.

They want our things – our food, our labour, our money – but they don’t want us.

It’s infuriating and saddening. Underneath it all though, I’m weary. I’m tired of the dehumanization of immigrants and the erasure of their experiences. I’m tired of knowing that when people mean ‘immigrants’ in the West, they don’t mean white migrants from North America or Australia. I’m tired of feeling like I need to justify why my parents aer here.

~ Go Home by Sim Bajwa

This inspirational anthology is a must read for anyone who is looking to understand why intersectionality is vital to the advancement of women’s equality. As Owusu succintly states, “without all women being included in the wide and varied spectrum, the fight for equality is useless.” 

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Book Review – Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

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Title: milk and honey
Author: Rupi Kaur
Publisher: Createspace
Genre: Poetry, Feminism

These days, I don’t read poetry very often. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I read a book of poems. It has been years, other than a handful of Emily Dickinson or Maya Angelou scattered throughout the last decade. Then, last month, I discovered my birth mother’s poetry. And it felt invigorating, soul-crushing, and uplifting…yes…all of that, all rolled in to one, when I read her words.

And it came back to me in a rush, how much I used to love poetry. Once upon a time, I wrote poetry. I wrote about being adopted, about boys and love, about sitting beneath a tree on a warm, sunny day. I waxed poetic, and my poems were never anything special….but I enjoyed the process. It was one of my college boyfriends, a guy who also wrote poetry, and who turned out to be a horrible person, that turned me off of the genre.

Well, I’m ready to reclaim it. So, when I got home from my trip to meet my biological mother’s family, with a basket of her letters, and a journal of her poems, I felt inspired. To take up a new genre, and explore it anew. One week after returning home from that trip in April, I went out and bought Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur.

And that is how I found myself reading it during Dewey’s 24 hour readathon.

it is your blood
in my veins
tell me how i’m
supposed to forget

Milk and Honey is about survival, and is split into 4 sections: the hurting, the loving, the breaking and the healing. The design of her poems are inspired by a Punjabi script called gurmukhi, in which words are written only using a period. There is no other punctuation; all letters are treated the same – no upper or lowercase. I loved this style, as it is often how I used to write my own poetry, only in my case, I was modeling e.e. cummings.

Rupi Kaur was born in Punjab, and moved to Canada with her parents at a young age, and through her poetry she provides a voice to other women of color who may be silenced in a patriarchal and/or colonizer culture. Before reading her poems, it helps to know where she is coming from, as she talks about in the preface:

my thoughts go to the sexual violence we endure as south asian women. we know it intimately. from thousands of years of shame and oppression. from the community and from colonizer after colonizer. by the time i am born i have already survived the first battle of my life. against female feticide. i am one of the lucky ones who has been allowed to live. we are taught our bodies are not our property. you will do with them as your parents wish until they pass the property onto your husband and his family. a good indian girl is quiet. does as she is told. sex does not belong to her. it is something that happens to her on her wedding night. our job is to lay obediently. not to enjoy. let him take.

our trauma escapes the confines of our own times. we’re not just healing from what’s been inflicted onto us as children. my experiences have happened to my mother and her mother and her mother before that. it is generations of pain embedded into our souls.

i read hundreds of books growing up. but none can explain this torment to me. i need access to words written by people who look like me writing about the things i am going through. at that moment i realize the importance of representation and know this must be different for my children. they must have access to their own literature.

Rupi Kaur’s writing is succinct; many of her poems are only a few lines. She is incredibly skilled in bringing her point across in a tiny amount of space.

our backs
tell stories
no books have
the spine to
carry
~ women of color

Some people describe her work as cliché, or simplistic. I disagree. Yes, there is a certain simplicity, a minimalism, but that does not make her words or message simple.

apparently it is ungraceful of me
to mention my period in public
cause the actual biology
of my body is too real

it is okay to sell what’s
between a woman’s legs
more than it is okay to
mention its inner workings

the recreational use of
this body is seen as
beautiful while
its nature is
seen as ugly

YES, YES, YES, YES, YES!!

I had that reaction quite a few times while reading her book. As a woman, as a feminist, as someone who has experienced trauma in my past, I could relate to many of her poems. And I found it a fascinating self-study to look back at all my post-it notes after finishing the book, and realize the poems I currently relate to the most were not in the sections about hurting or breaking, but in the chapter about healing.

This is a book about the human experience, and it is relatable on a wide variety of levels. It takes a lot of courage to write in such a personal manner, and I look forward to seeing what Rupi Kaur does next.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Read Watch Play #10

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Good morning! Today’s post will link up to The Sunday Salon, and the Sunday Post. Read, Watch, Play is a monthly round-up of bookish and non-bookish entertainment going on in my home this week. Feel free to join in and let me know what fun you have had recently!

What I’m Reading

 

My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I am slowly plugging away at this one. Don’t be deceived by my slow progress…I love it! My Own Words could best be described as a compilation of Justice Ginsburg’s speeches, articles, and opinions. I love how she continually references and mentions all of the trail-blazing women that came before her, like Belva Lockwood and Florence Allen.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. I’m proceeding cautiously with this one, given all the sexism and misogyny. I’m only 30 pages in, but so far I like the world-building.

What I’m Watching

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This Is Us. I binge watched the first half of the season over winter break in December, and have been watching weekly ever since. This is definitely one of my favorite TV series at the moment. I have loved every, single episode, many of which have hit SOO close to home with my life right now (Randall’s reunion with his birth father, mainly). Until the finale. What was that?! I did not like it. I wanted more Randall, Kate and Kevin!

What I’m Playing

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Ticket to Ride. I just realized we have been so busy that gaming has not happened for a while in our house! Instead of leaving this section blank, I’m throwing in the board game that is currently at the top of my wish list!

What are you up to on this sunny, Spring Sunday? 

SHEroes: A Parent-Child Reading List for Women’s History Month

Yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Ruther Bader Ginsburg celebrated her 84th birthday. Long a champion of gender equality, it also served as a reminder that I had yet to publish my article for International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month!

In celebration of the world-changing contributions women have made – and continue to make – throughout history, here is a list of non-fiction selections highlighting these achievements, and companion picture books to read with children covering the same shero or topic. Starting with the birthday woman herself!

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Supreme Court Justices Pose For "Class Photo"

Getty images.

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made….It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”

A trailblazer. She is only the second female justice on the  United States Supreme Court, and is recognized the world over for being one of SCOTUS’s main advocates for advancing women’s rights under the law, including her support for adding an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I am currently in the middle of reading this one right now. It is the first book from RBG since becoming a Justice in 1993; a compilation of her speeches, writings, positive and dissenting arguments from her long career.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy. The first picture book written about RBG and just published last year, M received this book in November through the PJ Library program – a free, monthly book club that sends Jewish-themed books to Jewish children and their families. I Dissent tells the story of Ginsburg’s many disagreements with the motto that “disagreeing does not make you disagreeable!”

 

Malala Yousafzai

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“I tell my story not because it is unique but because it is not. It is the story of many girls. Today, I tell their stories too. I have brought with me some of my sisters from Pakistan, from Nigeria, and from Syria who share this story… This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change. I am here to stand up for their rights, to raise their voice.”

This young woman has inspired the world. A teenage Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Malala is a Pakistani girl’s education activist who survived an assassination attempt when she was 15. She is an inspiring individual that works tirelessly for equality in education across the world.

I am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai, Christina Lamb. The story of a young girl who risked her life to fight for the right to be educated, her miraculous recovery after an assassination attempt, and her ongoing work in children’s human rights.

Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words by Karen Leggett Abouraya. Filled with beautiful illustrations, this inspiring biography is perfect for young readers preschool – 2nd grade.

The Founding Mothers

“If we mean to have Heroes, Statemen and Philosophers, we should have learned women.” ~Abigal Adams, in a letter to John Adams, August 14, 1776

Little attention has been given to the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters that stood with the American Founding Fathers. Author Cokie Roberts brings to life the women in history that also helped to shape American when it was just a duckling. It was the women who insisted that the men come together for civilized conversations. It was the women who helped to keep a young, new country from falling into partisan discord.

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts. Highlighting the contribution’s to American history by Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Deborah Read Franklin, Eliza Pinckney, Catherine Littlefield Green, and Martha Washington.

Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies – the picture book based on her book for adults, also highlighting the female patriots during the American Revolution.

Women in Science

“Their path to advancement might look less like a straight line and more like some of the pressure distributions and orbits they plotted, but they were determined to take a seat at the table.” ~Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave after losing her battle with cervical cancer, yet practically every doctor and scientist knows her name. Taken without her knowledge or permission, Henrietta’s cells live on in scientific laboratories, known as HeLa cells.

This book brings up grave injustices in the scientific community, including the dark history of experimentation on people of color, and the battle over whether or not we control the very cells that make up our body. Despite Henrietta’s cells providing an inspiring breakthrough in medical research, her children and grandchildren live an impoverished life in Baltimore, they have seen no profits or reparations for what was taken from Henrietta without permission.

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky. Unfortunately, there are no picture books about Henrietta Lacks or HeLa cells, but I highly recommend this book for young readers that highlights the contributions of 50 notable women in STEM fields. Women featured include Wang Zhenyi, one of the greatest minds of the Qing dynasty; Nettie Stevens, who discovered that biological sex is determined by X and Y chromosomes; Edith Clarke, the first female electrical engineer; Alice Ball, who helped to cure leprosy; and Katherine Johnson, who calculated the flight path for the first manned mission on the moon. You may recognize that last name mentioned, since Katherine Johnson is currently getting the attention she so justly deserves as one of the African-American female mathematicians featured in the hit movie and book, Hidden Figures.

Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space by Margot Lee Shetterly. Also available in a Young Reader’s edition.

Happy Women’s History Month! Are there any books you are reading this month to celebrate the contributions that women have made throughout history?

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

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Title: The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent A Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean my Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.
Author: Gretchen Rubin
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Nonfiction, self-help

I seem to have a special weakness for the “stunt genre” style of memoir: where an author spends a year doing something extreme, and then writes about it. Books like Julie and Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, A Year of No Sugar, and now The Happiness Project have all graced my bookshelves. They are usually fun reads, written in an entertaining and engaging style.

The Happiness Project is definitely one of the better ones I have read from this genre! The book follows author Gretchen Rubin as she dedicates an entire year to improving her personal happiness. Each month is focused on a different theme: vitality, marriage, work, parenthood, leisure, friendship, money, eternity, books, mindfulness, and attitude. She sets up a personal resolutions chart, adding to it as each month passes.

Coming off ofjust reading  A Year of No Sugar, which I did not like, and browsing the plethora of 1 star reviews on Goodreads for The Happiness Project, I was prepared to hate this book. Rubin leads a thoroughly privileged life…I was skeptical as to how she would pull this off.

You can tell straight away that she has done a tremendous amount of research. She references philosophers, happiness researchers, psychologists, theologians and great spiritual masters. Each monthly experiment is backed up by detailed research. I loved that! Too many non-fiction authors that are targeting a mainstream audience fail to add in resource lists, and footnotes; Rubin did not fall into that trap.

Some of my key takeaways from The Happiness Project:

“Be Gretchen”. Throughout the book she is continually reminded to be herself. It is the first of her twelve personal commandments (another great idea). I, too, need this mantra, to “Be Alisia”. To let go of all the things I am not and enjoy and embrace the things I am. For example, I am not a crafty person at all. I am not very good at it, and more importantly, I don’t enjoy it. So, a few years ago, I let it go. No more did I struggle with ridiculously complicated childhood craft projects for M. You will never see me volunteer to make the decorations for the school book fair, or change out the themed bulletin boards. It was one of the best things I ever did!

THINK. Think before speaking, and listen before you talk.

T – is it True?
H – is it helpful?
I – is it inspiring?
N – is it necessary?
K – is it kind?

Nagging Tasks. She has a small piece of advice in the January chapter that has turned out to be tremendously helpful – to schedule one hour every week on your calendar to tackle nagging tasks, those annoying household chores that have no real deadline. I immediately tried this out, adding a weekly “Power Hour” to iCal, and in only two hours across two weeks, I have successfully: replaced a broken light switch plate, renewed M’s passport, sorted and purged all of our old reusable water bottles and food storage containers, took a stack of clothing donations to a local nonprofit, bought new cutting boards, cleaned out my Inbox, and made progress on my huge stack of papers that need to be scanned and filed digitally. This small piece of advice has definitely been a mood booster!

Don’t expect praise or appreciation. Overcome the need for people to applaud the nice things you do, that are in actuality just a regular part of life. Start telling yourself, “I’m doing this for myself. Because I want to.”

Spend out. Use the nice stationary instead of hoarding it. Buy new toothbrushes regularly. It’s amazing how much that actually hit home! We are quite good at using items until they fall apart. In many ways, that is a good thing, in some ways it is not. Toothbrushes should definitely be replaced before they look…well, like you used it to clean the shower grout. Razors should be thrown out before they get rusty, not one month after the first rust spot appears. Etc.

Forget about results. Focus on the process, not the outcome.

Give positive reviews. Enthusiasm may seem easier than criticism, but in fact it is harder to embrace something than to disdain it. Stop making unnecessarily negative statements: “The food was too rich” or “There’s nothing worth reading in the paper.” Instead, look for ways to be sincerely enthusiastic.

The Happiness Project has been out for a few years now. Have you read it before? Did it make any lasting impact on your life?

Book Review – Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub

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Title: A Year of No Sugar: A Memoir

Author: Eve O. Schaub

Publisher: Sourcebooks

Genre: Non-fiction memoir, Food

It’s Dinnertime. Do You Know Where Your Sugar is Coming From?

Most likely everywhere. Sure, it’s in ice cream and cookies, but what scared Eve O. Schaub was the secret world of sugar–hidden in bacon, crackers, salad dressing, pasta sauce, chicken broth, and baby food.

With her eyes open by the work of obesity expert Dr. Robert Lustig and others, Eve challenged her husband and two school-age daughters to join her on a quest to eat no added sugar for an entire year.

Along the way, Eve uncovered the real costs of our sugar-heavy American diet–including diabetes, obesity, and increased incidences of health problems such as heart disease and cancer. The stories, tips, and recipes she shares throw fresh light on questionable nutritional advice we’ve been following for years and show that it is possible to eat at restaurants and go grocery shopping–with less and even no added sugar.

Year of No Sugar is what the conversation about “kicking the sugar addiction” looks like for a real American family–a roller coaster of unexpected discoveries and challenges.

My opinion about the Year of No Sugar fluctuated wildly while I was reading it, from hating it tremendously, to thinking it was mildly okay towards the end.

The basic premise of Schaub’s memoir is a sound one…sugar IS everywhere. I just came off of a month of following the Whole 30 plan, used by many, including myself, as a dietery reset to get back on track towards eating a whole foods, healthy diet. During the Whole 30 you cut out many things: grains, dairy, alcohol, corn, soy, legumes, and sugar. While I modified slighlty – I kept in brown rice and quinoa – the hardest aspect of Whole 30? Cutting sugar.

Because.It.Is.Everywhere. Practically every condiment contains sugar: pickles, ketchup, mayo, relish, etc. It’s in salad dressings, chicken and beef stock, sauces, deli meat, breads, bacon, sausages, pasta sauce, prepared soups, sushi, smoothies…it is literally everywhere.

After Schaub discovered this after watching a Youtube video by Dr. Robert Lustig, she decided to set off on living a year without sugar, including her whole family in the experiment. Now this is where I started to have major problems with the misleading title and concept of her book.

Because they didn’t live a Year of No Sugar. Hell, with all of the exceptions, I’m not even sure they lived a week with no sugar. Eve makes a distinction between fructose and dextrose. She cut out fructose, including fruit juice (preferring to eat fruit in its natural form). But, from the way her memoir is written, it sounded like most nights of the week, she still made a dessert. Her exceptions included:

  • The family had one dessert per month that contained sugar
  • Each family member could pick one exception per person, a sugary food that didn’t count and which they could have at any time throughout the year. Eve chose wine, her husband Diet Dr. Pepper, and her two girls jam.
  • The kids had a third exception: they had autonomy outside the home, when their parents were not present (i.e. birthday parties, school, etc), to make their own decision on whether or not to eat any sugary treats offered.

Having just come off of the Whole 30, the very best thing that I did to help cut sugar cravings was to follow the guideline of not allowing any substitutions that resembled dessert. No gluten-free angel food cake made with coconut “sugar” and almond flour. No banana “ice cream” or avocado chocolate pudding or raw brownie bites. The idea behind the Whole 30 reasoning is that indulging in sweets – even with no sugar added – is reinforcing the behaviors that you are trying to change. I was skeptical, but at the end of 30 days I can see with absolute certainty that my taste buds have completely changed as far as sugar is concerned.

Later in her memoir, Eve started baking with dextrose. All told, from the way the book read, it seemed like they ate more desserts during their Year of No Sugar than our family did before embarking on the Whole 30. She spends most of her time in her memoir describing the various ways she tried to sweeten her foods without breaking her resolution. Ultimately, the whole book feels wildly arbitrary and hyper-controlling all at the same time.

She also puts forward a dangerous idea: that cutting out sugar may be the magic cure-all for all of Western societies ailments. Life is not that simple. Meanwhile, the family had no problems indulging in other unhealthy foods during the Year of No Sugar.

The writing style is engaging in fun, but I can’t support the majority of the content. And when you get to the end, there is a lovely recipe section, but what recipes does she include? Desserts. Not only her “unsweetened” desserts (made with dextrose), but the recipes for her once-a-month sugar treats. I found it all highly ironic.

I successfully cut out all sugar for more than a month, and since that month ended, I have only had a sugary treat once: dark chocolate with almonds. It fundamentally changed the way my body tastes sweets, and I plan on continuing long-term with a drastically lower amount of added sugar in my diet. I will keep using the packaged foods I found that do not contain added sugar as a replacement for like items that do contain sugar, and save the sugar intake for a true, high-quality treat every once in a while.

For those looking to cut back on sugar in packaged products,  I recommend the following items:

  • Salad dressing,  Cindy’s Kitchen Barcelona Vinaigrette is a great pre-made option.
  • Trader Joe’s Kettle Cooked Chicken Soup for a gluten-free, sugar free prepared soup
  • Chicken stock: Imagine Organic Free-Range chicken stock
  • Trader Joe’s Chile Lime Chicken Burgers (these are particularly good in a lettuce bun with guacamole)
  • Rao’s Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce

I picked up Year of No Sugar purposely after finishing the Whole 30 to help me stay motivated to keep sugar out long-term. What I found was that this book didn’t help that goal in any way, but I did discover that I alreadym have the motivation I need to keep on this path. Yay for self-empowerment!

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

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Title: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J.D. Vance
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Non-fiction, memoir

Hillbilly Elegy has certainly been making the rounds lately, with J.D. Vance appearing on numerous talk shows. His book has been marketed out the wazoo as something all liberal-minded individuals should read to provide insight into the mysterious “Trump voter”. This memoir has been talked up as one of the most informative books published in 2016 on the plight of working-class whites.

In reality, Hillbilly Elegy is just a memoir, and to be honest, not an incredibly remarkable one at that. And, in my case, one of those instances where a book definitely did not live up to the hype.

I will fully admit, about 1/3 of the way into the book, I started to realize I had completely misplaced expectations as to what I was reading. I was expecting something that was half memoir, and half social commentary and analysis. Hillbilly Elegy is not that. What it is, in my opinion, is 90% memoir, and 10% minor social commentary, that sometimes contradicts itself.

This book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

J.D. Vance was raised by an abusive, drug-addicted mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town not too far removed from the small Pennsylvania town where I grew up. Vance’s family spent summers visiting the rural Appalachian community in Kentucky where his grandparents were born and raised.

The subtitle claims that this is an elegy, and a memoir, for the Appalachian culture of his grandparents. Writing a family memoir is one thing, writing the “memoir” for an entire culture, based purely on your own experiences, I find highly presumptuous. J.D. Vance is doing a great disservice to the very people he is trying to help. His story is one of upward mobility, and to that end, it is a very enlightening read. But it is not an adequate “memoir” of an entire culture.

J.D. Vance escaped the life he was raised in, despite his addicted mother, a revolving door of fathers, and a community that was struggling with many of the same problems. It should therefore come as no surprise that there is a strong sense of ‘bootstrappery’ about his beliefs – pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps. That it is up to yourself, not the government, to make your life better.

While J.D. Vance may be making some mass generalizations (that seem to play to both the liberal and conservatives stereotypes of Appalachia), there is no denying that there is some truth to what he says. He brings up some interesting points, but I find that he is too quick to blame the poor for their own misfortunes.

Take this excerpt:

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.

In the next paragraph he does mention one barrier to full-time employment: the fact that in many areas, the only jobs available are part-time. But then he leaves that idea in the dust, and doesn’t come back to it again. He spends very little time on the disappearance of blue-collar jobs, and what it truly means to be isolated from the educated, American “mainstream”.

If Hillbilly Elegy was solely a story about upward mobility, a conversation about what it is like to be stuck in a community that can not seem to keep up with the present, this would have been a good book. When he starts to ruminate about poverty in all of Appalachia, and simplify it to a message that is predominantly – “do better, work harder” he lost me as a fan. He is definitely not mean-spirited, possibly more of the “tough love” approach (which may explain Amy Chua’s endorsement on the back of the cover, author of  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother!). Ultimately, I felt that he was pigeon-holing an entire community into categories of dysfunction and laziness. Something that should sound awfully familiar to African-Americans, who have been subjected to many of the same stereotypes.

Which brings me to one final point about something missing from this book. Vance seems to be writing for Appalachia as a whole, but at no time does he ever bring up the issue of race. Appalachia is often painted as poor, rural, and white. Once again, the Appalachian’s who are PoC are erased from existence. The fact is, Appalachia does not have one story, one voice, and it does a disservice to the region every time that it is painted in such a way.

While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I added White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg to my TBR list. I hope it will provide more of the in-depth analysis that I am looking for right now.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars.