Friday, February 24, 2017

Review: Hillbilly Elegy

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hillbilly Elegy was an interesting and entertaining read, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 election. It is now often cited by liberals who are trying to be Trump apologists as a way of explaining the desperation that could lead people to vote for someone like Trump. If anyone is reading this book as a political argument or a road map to providing better social services to the Appalachian population, this is a poor choice. This is a memoir, not a piece of political analysis, and J.D. Vance is not a political scientist. He would make an extremely bad one. He's also not a social worker or social scientist and he makes a point of saying that his memoir is not meant to propose any solutions to the social problems that plague his community in Appalachia and the people from Appalachia who have migrated to towns like Middletown, OH in an effort to escape the poverty.

Hillbilly Elegy is a less poetic version of The House on Mango Street only it's about poor white people instead of poor Hispanic people. Sandra Ciscneros is a much better writer, and that's probably the main reason her book ever received the amount of attention that it did because what is clear from the reception of Hillbilly is America is dying for a reason to feel sorry for poor whites; Hispanics just shouldn't be here in the first place and deserve what they get, right? If they don't like it here they should just go back. I'm sure I'm missing some other choice comment.

In Hillbilly, Vance chronicles his experiences of growing up in a broken home, relying primarily on his grandparents as parental figures. He laments the ways his lower class family failed to prepare him for the art of fine dining, completing the FAFSA (because if you're wealthy, that form is fun), and navigating higher education. He joined the Marines right out of high school, probably because his ASVAB scores wouldn't cut it for any other branch of the military. I'm sure that's more elitism at work there.

I give Hillbilly four stars not because it is well-written because it's okay. It's nothing special. I like it because it is more revealing than the author probably intends when it comes to understanding the true machinations of the minds of this population of whites in our country who feel left behind and are dying for someone to blame. My philosophy is that it is always better to know the ugly truth than to not know. This book helps you know if you are willing to set aside whatever it is you want it to say and really take in how Vance describes his family and his perception of life so far. Approaching this work as that kind of journey will leave you more enlightened as a result.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review: Once Upon A Lie

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Once Upon A LieOnce Upon A Lie by Michael R. French
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alex, a teen from a wealthy family in the Toluca Lake neighborhood of L.A. meets Jaleel, a poor African American boy, on the other side of Cahuenga Boulevard and is immediately fascinated by his independence, optimism and impeccable taste in literature. What she doesn't know is he is also wanted for a double murder in Peartree, TX (which he didn't commit.) Alex and Jaleel become fascinated with each other's worlds, but danger lurks beneath the surface for both of them. For Jaleel, it's being on the run from the law for a crime he didn't commit. For Alex, it's a tangled web of dark family secrets that grow darker.

Once Upon a Lie has a lot of Dickensian charm for me. The characters are well developed, and definitely the greatest strength of this novel. It also is filled with chance meetings between people who are fated to meet again, and again. (The parallels go beyond that, but I would be spoiling the story for you if I shared.) French also makes some insightful observations about the limits of personal freedom in our supposedly free society (the story is set in the 1980s, but much of this is just as relevant now.) He touches on racial tensions and class as well, but the two often become conflated in this story since the main characters are from such different backgrounds.

Unlike Dickens, French has a much more concise style, and for the most part, this was clean work. I did spot a few anachronisms and minor usage errors, but since I was reading a digital galley, it's possible these have since been corrected.

Michael R. French has somehow never made it onto my radar, but once I started reading Once Upon a Lie, I found out that he has authored 20 books!

**This review is based on a digital galley that was provided for free by the publisher for review purposes. No form of compensation was provided for this review.**

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: Lust & Philosophy by Isham Cook

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Lust & PhilosophyLust & Philosophy by Isham Cook
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ex-Pat in Beijing, Isham Cook, takes us through the mundane life of an adjunct English faculty member that turns out to be not so mundane after all. Isham has a habit of turning every interaction that is supposed to be just between a teacher and student in English into something suggestive. When he isn't doing that; he's setting off the nudity alarms at his massage school that was meant to be an escape from the over-intellectualizing of everything at Univerity of Chicago. Isham has a history of bad luck that precedes all this.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Political Discussions and Pet Names

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A lot of people I know have been asking some version of why would anyone vote for Donald Trump? Normally, it feels like breaking the rules of proper discussion to answer a question without asking it directly, but when tweets from Trump supporters creep into my feed, they often are defending their choice in the face of perceived disapproval. If it stopped there, I'd dismiss this as people on Twitter being people on Twitter. It's always kind of weird on there, and elections take it from weird to downright kinky in all the wrong ways for a while. Here's my problem: I am not going to try to engage in a conversation with someone who uses a slur like "libtard" because someone who is using that sort of a term isn't in a place to have a real discussion about different opinions on issues.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Broken Monsters

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Broken MonstersBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Clayton Broome has spent years with people treating him as an outcast and dismissing him and his art, but now, he and his art are becoming something more; something too awesome for most to behold.

Detective Gabriella "Gabi" Versado is just barely able to hold things together on the job at Detroit PD while her attention-starved daughter, Layla, seems to keep finding new outlets for her frustrations.

Layla sees the dark side of high school life in a way that her mother will never understand, and the other adults at school don't seem to understand either. All she wants is to be a good friend to Cas, a girl who transferred to her charter school and changed her name under mysterious circumstances, and a good cat mommy to NyanCat.

Jonathan "Jonno" Haim came to Detroit to get a fresh start after a bad relationship but has serious doubts about how that can happen in a place that is rotting from the inside out.

Who knew that a string of horrific murders could be just the thing to bring all of these people together and get them closer to the acceptance, or at least, visibility, they thought they wanted?

Lauren Beukes relies a bit more heavily on clich├ęs for her chapter titles than one might prefer, but Broken Monsters still has plenty of good turns of phrase that I found myself highlighting as I read. There's also tons of juicy and disgusting stuff in here to keep the most bloodthirsty horror fan happy. It's like a little burrito of serial killer story and supernatural horror wrapped in a commentary on objective reality and perception.


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Monday, September 19, 2016

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Good as GoneGood as Gone by Amy Gentry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you're a mystery/suspense buff and you are looking for something with a 100% original twist and that's the only reason you read this genre, this probably isn't the book for you. If you enjoy books with likeable characters and an interesting view into the psyches of the main characters, consider checking this one out.

At 13 years old, Julie Whitaker disappeared from her home in the middle of the night. The only witness was her younger sister, Jane, and she only caught a few glimpses through the cracked closet door. Her parents, Professor Anna Davalos and her husband cooperated with law enforcement, paid for billboards, and did all the right things, but they didn't hear anything about their missing daughter for years. Fast forward to one night, eight years later, and a young woman shows up at their front door; it's Julie. Initially, the family enjoys a happy reunion, but hairline cracks appear in the restored happy family picture. Anna can't deny that too many things remain unexplained, and when a private detective reaches out to ask a few questions about her daughter, the cracks spread further. How can someone reappear after 8 years? Could she even be the same person she was then? Was she ever that person? Inquiring minds will just need to read the book to find out.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

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HarmonyHarmony by Carolyn Parkhurst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found out about this book via Amazon's 10 Best Books of August 2016 and decided to give it a try for a couple of reasons: 1. my book blog is hurting for current reviews in the worst way and 2. it seemed to have enough intrigue for a great summer read. I am a huge fan of The Mosquito Coast and was hoping for something with a similar flavor since it seemed like the build-up was leading to creating a mini utopia only for things to go terribly wrong.

The Hammond Family, of Washington, DC, buys into a commune led by parenting expert, Scott Bean, in the hope of finally creating an ideal, toxin and bullying-free environment for their daughter, Tilly who is afflicted by some form of Aspergers. The story unfolds through the alternating viewpoints of Iris, Tilly's younger sister, Alexandra, their mother, and Tilly. As expected, this makes it difficult to determine how much is objectively true. What we know for sure is the family moves to Camp Harmony in New Hampshire to start a new life. They meet other families in a situation similar to theirs: they have a child that just doesn't seem to fit in anywhere, and Scott Bean was the first person to give them any sense of hope. Soon, they take guest families at the camp. Each group of guest campers offers some view into what continues to happen as life outside the camp passes them by, and reminds them of how much control Scott has over them in their little corner of New Hampshire. Eventually, the tensions created by these glimpses of the outside world lead the younger ones in the group to question if things really are better on the inside, and things heat up when it comes to Scott's attention that his view of the ideal community is about to be challenged.

Parkhurst tackles a very interesting idea here, and she does so with terrific attention to character and voice. I especially enjoyed the passages Tilly narrates. They're so delightfully surreal and provide just the right balance of tragic foreshadowing and doubt. This was one of those books that was almost impossible for me to put down. I kind of knew where the story was headed, but kept hoping for a different outcome because I was totally invested in the characters. It's definitely a good read.

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Monday, May 4, 2015

May is Short Story Month & I'm Excited!

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I recently finished reading High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, and I am so glad I did. I plan to review it here soon, so stay tuned. Thanks to a recent tweet by Sara Zarr, I realized that this month is my birthday month and short story month. This is so awesome I don't even know where to begin. Personal disclosure: I am working on my first compilation of short stories and I'm about to start shopping one of them around. I got some great feedback at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, so I am feeling pumped about my own short story prospects. It's a terrific form to read and write, and if you've been feeling turned off to short stories because of bad experiences in high school, give 'em another try. David Sedaris once wrote in his introduction to Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (yes, also a short story anthology) that stories can save you. They can. Short fiction can do it even faster than novels. Cool, eh?

There's so much that can be said about short fiction. It is a form that once kind of dominated the fiction people read and then became relegated to either artsy magazines, super intellectual glossies, and the occasional erotica in Cosmopolitan. It's tough to sell people on short stories. Why read? We want to be entertained, yes, but we also want to be able to say we read something important, right? What short story is that important?

As an avid reader, I'll admit that the pieces that stick with me and haunt me in my quiet moments are short stories. The powerful novels I've read are amazing and nothing can take anything away from them, but short stories can be powerful. They're like dreams that make us question reality for the rest of our lives. Those are the best ones, anyway.

I hope to add a list of my own to the official ShortStoryMonth.com site, but until I come up with something formal, please peruse the following gems to start---you won't regret it! These are not literature---they are just AWESOME.
Powder by Tobias Wolff from The Night in Question
Bullet in the Brain, Tobias Wolff from The Night in Question
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
Hunters in the Snow by Tobias Wolff
To Build a Fire by Jack London
The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe
The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe
Dr. Hiedegger's Experiment by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood
Isis in Darkness by Margaret Atwood
Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried by Amy Hempel
Bulldog by Arthur Miller (I originally read it in The New Yorker)
The Guinea Pig Lady from Trailerpark by Russel Banks
Mexican Manifesto by Roberto Bolano in The New Yorker

These are individual stories. We haven't even gotten into compilations, but if you haven't read these, you need to. They're the missing pieces of my soul I never knew I needed and they are beautiful.