Hillbilly Elegy

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

This book is an autobiography by a young man from a very dysfunctional working-class family in Ohio. He survived a family culture of violence, broken relationships, and addiction due to the steady influence of his “hillbilly” grandparents who instilled the importance of education, and to a stint in the Marines which taught him self-respect and self-discipline. It is a book which is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. I gave it 4-stars for being entertaining and inspiring, reflective and insightful, but I would want to read more before assigning his experience to a whole cultural region. He is a generation removed from Appalachia, and surely not everyone there comes from dysfunctional families. So if you are looking to understand the results of the 2016 election, his political and economic analysis is superficial at best. The issues that he faced and overcame are not unique to Appalachia.

Book description: Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for more than forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.

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Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully written and a quick read, this is a childhood memoir written in free verse. The audiobook was read by the author. I never felt like I was listening to “poetry” but it all had a kind of flow that worked for each short snippet of memory. I am not sure how this would appeal to children, but to a white woman who also grew up in the 60s, this was a trip down memory lane. It made me think about my own childhood and the part that family, religion, and school teachers played. She describes a life both extraordinary and ordinary, both different and familiar to my own. I never felt distanced by her experiences as a black person growing up during the Civil Rights movement, or her memories of racism. I was more struck by how universal her experiences and memories were, and I think anyone reading this, young or old, black or white, will find much to relate to.

Book description: Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

Wesley the Owl

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His GirlWesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O’Brien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this very touching story of a woman’s experience raising a barn owl and living with it for nineteen years. Their bond was something very special. The book apparently has “wonderful photos” which I will have to seek out. The audiobook was narrated by Renee Raudman and I have to say she did a great job with Wesley’s vocalizations! I laughed out loud at some of her tales. Not for the faint of heart – there are mouse guts galore – and I will never forget her description of testicle soup – how scientists do research on human fertility. I read this because I love animal stories, but also because I consider the owl to be my own personal inner totem. I think her philosophical comments about “The Way of the Owl” could equally apply to “owl” people like me.

Book description: On Valentine’s Day 1985, biologist Stacey O’Brien adopted Wesley, a baby barn owl with an injured wing who could not have survived in the wild. Over the next nineteen years, O’Brien studied Wesley’s strange habits with both a tender heart and a scientist’s eye—and provided a mice-only diet that required her to buy the rodents in bulk (28,000 over the owl’s lifetime). She watched him turn from a helpless fluff ball into an avid com­municator with whom she developed a language all their own. Eventually he became a gorgeous, gold-and-white macho adult with a heart-shaped face who preened in the mir­ror and objected to visits by any other males to “his” house. O’Brien also brings us inside Caltech’s prestigious research community, a kind of scientific Hogwarts where resident owls sometimes flew freely from office to office and eccentric, brilliant scientists were extraordinarily committed to studying and helping animals; all of them were changed by the animals they loved. As O’Brien gets close to Wesley, she makes astonishing discoveries about owl behavior, intelligence, and communication, coining the term “The Way of the Owl” to describe his noble behavior. When O’Brien develops her own life-threatening ill­ness, the biologist who saved the life of a helpless baby bird is herself rescued from death by the insistent love and courage of this wild animal.

Furiously Happy

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible ThingsFuriously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not sure I should even offer a review, since I decided not to finish this book. Made it 126 pages. It was hilariously funny for about 30 pages, and after that it just seemed sad. Her zany, random train of thought – at times brilliant and at other times just silly – reminded me of Robin Williams. Is it the mental illness that drives this kind of manic humor? Or is it the other way around?

This was a book club read that I didn’t get in time to read for the meeting. Now it has a hold waiting for it and I can’t renew, so back to the library it goes. I could re-request it, but I don’t think I want to. Sooooooo many other books waiting to be read.

This would be a great book to dabble in now and then for 30 minutes. But to sit and read cover to cover requires too much energy. It’s like trying to keep up with a dog that is constantly saying “Squirrel!”

Home: A Memoir

Home: A Memoir of My Early YearsHome: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews Edwards

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been a fan of Julie Andrews since childhood. And I could listen to her voice all day long. Full of lots of family details, and the grueling day to day routine of a performer, along with anecdotes about her contemporaries: Rex Harrison, Robert Goulet, Richard Burton, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Moss Hart, Roddy McDowell, and T.H. White. I hope she will continue her memoirs – this ends before Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Victor/Victoria.

Book description: Audiobook read by the author. Julie takes us on a warm, moving, and often humorous journey from a difficult upbringing in war-torn Britain to the brink of international stardom in America. Her memoir begins in 1935, when Julie was born to an aspiring vaudevillian mother and a teacher father, and takes readers to 1962, when Walt Disney cast her as the world’s most famous nanny. Along the way, she weathered the London Blitz of World War II; her parents’ painful divorce; her mother’s turbulent second marriage to Canadian tenor Ted Andrews and a childhood spent on radio, in music halls, and giving concert performances all over England. Julie’s professional career began at the age of twelve, and when only eighteen, she left home for the United States to make her Broadway debut.

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I Am Malala

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was fascinated to learn more about the young girl, Malala, who gained the attention of the world when her fight for girls’ education made her a target of the Taliban. She tells of her family, her school friends, her drive to be at the top of her class, her father’s dream to build a school, her love of her homeland (the Swat Valley of Pakistan), her faith in God/Allah, and enough history and politics to understand her story. I was fascinated by her description of the Buddhist statues left by earlier settlers before the Muslim country was created, I laughed at her telling how she and her friends would play “Twilight” – from the books (and DVDs) about vampires, I got angry about the senselessness and violence of the Taliban agenda, I cheered at her courage and resilience, and I am sad that she and her family had to find a new home in Britain. One child, one teacher, one book, one pen – yes, it can change the world.

Book Description: When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, when she was fifteen, she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive. Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she became a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest nominee ever for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The audiobook contains a PDF file of the photos in the book.

Spinster

Spinster: Making a Life of One's OwnSpinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating look at the lives of single women over the last 150 years or so, through the eyes of a young journalist coming to terms with the by now outdated expectation that women must be married to lead happy and fulfilling lives. She also writes about the lives of 5 other women writers who served as her role models. I think there is much more that could be said about this topic, since she looks mostly at women who did not want to marry and have families (some of them did anyway) and made choices that fostered their independence. To me, a spinster is someone not independent by choice, and who has not come to terms with their unmarried and unloved state. A spinster, to me, has neither husband nor boyfriend nor female partner. She throws all single women, divorced, widowed, and otherwise into the spinster category. So I was kind of expecting something else from this book, but judged on what it is, she writes well and it did make me think from time to time.

Book description: “Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence.” So begins Spinster, a revelatory and slyly erudite look at the pleasures and possibilities of remaining single. Using her own experiences as a starting point, journalist and cultural critic Kate Bolick invites us into her carefully considered, passionately lived life, weaving together the past and present to examine why­ she—along with over 100 million American women, whose ranks keep growing—remains unmarried.