Monday, February 20, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,  by J. D. Vance, is the book everyone is reading now post-Trump victory, to attempt to understand the forces that brought that man to the White House.

For people who know something about poverty in America, there is little to learn from Vance.  Children from dysfunctional families, raised around drugs, without a loving and fostering authority figure, fall into the same cycle of poverty, drugs, teen pregnancy, and unemployment as their parents.  This is the plight of the poor everywhere. Vance, in a sense, is lucky; his grandparents played a dominant role in raising him, giving him stability and love. This saved him. 

Perhaps the most fascinating parts of this memoir is Vance’s deep ambivalence of his culture. He knows that Appalachian Hillbilly culture lay at the root of some of the social problems he experienced .  He is harsh on his own people, while maintaining his compassion.  But at the same time, he is proud of his culture.  One section about Barack Obama is telling:

“Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.”

In one place he presciently writes about the Appalachian distrust for government:

“This isn’t some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy. This is deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society.  And it is becoming more mainstream.”

All of this may be true and should be read and discussed. But I must admit I come to this book with a great deal of preconceptions.  My ancestors came from Europe in the 1890s with nothing; and at least one side of the family was worn down by grinding poverty, alcoholism, and mental illness.  Life was difficult, but their descendants have, by and large, left that culture behind.  Rather than ennoble a life that crippled them, they changed and adapted to the dynamic of New York City and were rewarded.

Vance's book shows that the Scotch-Irish culture, with its insularity and sense of victimization, is  a crippling agent.  My ancestors chucked their culture away to build a new one.  They had no choice.  And that adaptive sense, the idea that America demands flexibility in nearly all areas of life, I carry with me. That is what America demands of us, or we are left behind.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Olive Kitteridge: a novel, by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge, holds much promise in the title, before we even open the book.  There will be a central protagonist, Olive Kitteridge, and like Anna Karenina, other characters will be introduced; yet the central axis of the novel will remain the title character.

When Strout does this, her novel soars.  We fully explore the interconnected world of Olive Kitteridge, her family, friends, and acquaintances. 

But Strout overshoots the mark in places.  She introduces too many characters, and often their connection to Olive Kitteridge is slight, or missing.  At moments like these, the novel goes into the weeds. Had Strout kept control of her material and stayed on the mark, this book would have been a masterpiece.  As it is, it is a very good, perhaps even great novel.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Masters

In Elie Wiesel’s Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Masters, Wiesel artfully blends conversational and erudite discussions of characters from Judaism’s most sacred texts.  

The strength of this work is the great breadth of the material covered.  Despite this, Wiesel is never stretched thin; he brings a life-time of study and reflection to these chapters, providing fresh insights and details, and we are the beneficiaries of his work.

If you want to know how Jewish people read their sacred books (or should!) this work is a necessity.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Minted Riot : a light poem

The Winter Sun is warming
The charming time is dawning
We stand here at the lip
No more to skinny-dip
In winter’s great gloom

We write a little rhyme
To pass away the time
Till spring’s sun does shine

Then we slip into the quiet
Of life's newly minted riot
Leaves a buds on fire
Our nose the eager buyer
Of the season's fresh scent
Our souls, doubled and bent

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future by Laurence C. Smith,

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future by Laurence C. Smith, explores, just as the title suggests, the world as it could be in 2050.  Smith examines this scenario through four lenses: demography, natural resource pressure, globalization, and climate change.  The book was written in 2010, so Smith was trying to peer forty years into the future.

Forecasting is an extremely difficult venture, and given the topics he picks, even harder.  He sets certain ground rules.  One is the current conditions will continue for the next forty years.  There will not by World War III, nor will great technological advances come to the aid of our ailing planet.

These premises are hard to swallow, especially technological advances. But Smith must have some fixed point, or the book would not have a steady foundation.  

Really, we learn far more about the present conditions of our planet in this work, rather than the future.  Smith is also a climate scientist, so expect far more about climate change than the other three steams.

We can argue about details – yet this is a sound work that explores difficult problems.  What can we expect in forty years?  Our planet and society is changing profoundly.  Where does it lead?

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson,

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, deserves all the accolades it has received (including a Pulitzer).  He has written a monumental book, both familiar and strange, dense and fluid… the kind of novel novelists should strive to write.  Despite the title, the overused formula of "The ____’s Son or Daughter," the book delivers the goods. 

The novel takes place in North Korea, with excursions in Japan and Texas.  The main character, Pak Jun Do, is a kind of clever and driven Forrest Gump.  He keeps getting into tight squeezes (most deadly) but gets out of them from the force of sheer luck.  He sheds jobs and identities like shirts.  

Ultimately, in the dystopic world of North Korea, you are what the Dear Leader wants you to be, and this will spell doom for Park; yet in the end, it is Park's selfless act of love that makes him a uniquely free person, despite his fate.