‘Hillbilly Elegy’: Love trumps circumstances

“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance

“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” has been trumpeted as a book about why poor white folks voted for Donald Trump. To me, that’s a trumped-up pronouncement.

If you’ve read “The Glass Castle,” a stellar memoir by Jeannette Walls, this will be familiar. Children struggle to escape the poverty and the quagmire of generations of underachievers. There is dysfunction, drug abuse, domestic violence, joblessness, aimlessness, a overwhelming sense of stagnation. Like Ms. Walls, Mr. Vance rose above his circumstances, beat the odds and grew up to be more than the sum of his parts. Vance then looked deeper into just why he — and not others — was able to do so.

In a nutshell? His grandmother loved him, nurtured him, pushed him to succeed and filled in the gaps and it made all the difference. She made him see the possibilities.

“Never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them,” my grandma often told me. “You can do anything you want to.”

Eloquent, she’s not. But she believes in her grandson and provided him with some stability and encouragement to be his best.

Vance writes: “Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness’ when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes of my life.”

He raises many questions, but he doesn’t offer many answers as to how this can be prevented. Government aid and intervention help, but they aren’t enough. The real solution, he believes, involves vast cultural change. That segment of the population has to change its outlook and belief that there are few possibilities for its citizens. That means walking the walk (not just preaching responsibility but actually being responsible), trying harder, self-reliance and not self-pity.

As the New York Times said in its review, Vance offers “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump.”

Vance writes of the underclass among whom he grew up (an underclass found not just in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, but throughout the country): “There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.”

He says: “There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society of the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day. … the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”

Sounds like rhetoric from the 2016 presidential campaign, doesn’t it?

Vance didn’t write this book as a political statement. He wrote it to try to understand his success and his ties to his family and community. As an adult, he straddles two worlds. He takes a deep dive into his psyche and his fear that maybe he can’t completely escape the dysfunction and struggles that marked his early years.

It’s an eye-opening read from a political standpoint in the aftermath of the presidential election and a look inside hillbilly culture many of us only know through stereotypes. It’s a story of betrayal and loyalty, of struggle and crisis and of both loving and despising where you come from.


Pamela Paul beat me to it


IMG_2372Since 1997, I have kept a log of the books I’ve read. I’ve forgotten what inspired me to do this.  My love of books and reading, sure. But I think it also was to document growth and changing tastes. Plus, each year there is an instinctual challenge to try to beat the previous year’s numbers.

It turns out I’m not the only one to do this. If only I had thought that others would be interested in seeing what I’ve read.

Pamela Paul beat me to it. Paul, whose already enviable life includes living abroad in her 20s as well as working as the New York Times Book Review editor (dream job!), is the author of the new “My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues.” Bob stands for Book of Books and it is her record of all she’s read since she was 17.

For 28 years, she has documented her reading history (and her life). It’s not just a list of books. A news release says: “It’s about the deep and powerful relationship between book and reader. It’s about the way books provide each of us the perspective, courage, companionship, and imperfect self-knowledge to forge our own path. It’s about why we read what we read and how those choices make us who we are. It’s about how we make our own stories.”

I think I may have to get this book. Reason 1: I can relate to this.  I can track what was going on in my life, to some extent, by what I read. Reason 2: I love hearing what other people are reading and how books have shaped their lives. It’s a bit voyeuristic, but in a civilized way.

I think of my reading log as a personal document. A living document.


I find keeping track to be soothing in a way, leaving proof of something I’ve accomplished. A historical document, if you will. I can tell you by the selection of books each year where I was in my life.  I would love to think of myself as a bibliophile, but really I’m just finding my way. Still. I like historical fiction, thrillers, best-sellers. I wish I liked nonfiction more. I dislike chick lit.

Another writer who loves keep tracking is Jenny Rosenstrach. She’s documented every dinner she’s had since 1998.

This tally morphed into a blog and a series of cookbooks, starting with “Dinner a Love Story: It All Begins at the Family Table.” Her cookbooks and blog are about food, family, struggling for a work/life balance and reading.

Both Rosenstrach and Paul are journalists, with a history in magazines and newspapers. Both were able to craft careers documenting issues of importance in their personal lives, whether it’s marriage (Paul’s “The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony” or her research on childrearing, “Parenting, Inc.: How the Billion-Dollar Baby Business Has Changed the Way We Raise Our Children”) or Rosenstrach’s desire to keep the traditional family dinner alive despite picky children and crazy schedules.

I have all of Rosenstrach’s books and cook from them regularly. (Solid recipes, great writing.) I think it’s commendable when people commit to something, whether it’s logging in hours at the gym, documenting the food you put on the table for your family or noting which books you’ve read.

Perhaps you’ll find some favorites among the book selections pictured in my journal. I think reading about what others like to read is so insightful. Paul is also responsible for the “By the Book” series in the New York Times, a favorite of mine. It takes “What book would you take with you on a deserted island?” a step further. (Can her life be any better?!)

A terrifyingly good book, ‘It’ leaves a lasting impression

My very well-worn copy of “It.”

The summer I was 16, I read “It” by Stephen King twice in a row despite the fact that it’s terrifying. It’s also terrifyingly good.

(By the way, the only book I’ve ever found to be scarier is the excellent “Helter Skelter.” I couldn’t even read that one indoors and certainly not at night. I still get freaked out just looking at it.)

Now, Stephen King and horror are not usually on my to-read list. However, I beg of you to please read the 1986 book before you see the upcoming movie. The trailer, which is floating around the internet like so many of Pennywise’s balloons, captures all the unease and creepiness and terror I remember. Just watching the trailer scares me, but I’m already planning to see the movie, which stars Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise.

In perusing the book now — many, many years later — it is clear that King is a master at setting a scene, at crafting a sense of dread and impending doom, at the quick scare. He’s not particularly gory. He’s incredibly wordy. He also intuits the fears that hide in the recesses of our minds. The bogeyman, dark basements, cellars, shadowy figures, the sinister underpinnings of small towns. And with Pennywise and John Wayne Gacy, I think clowns will always be a fear.

Interestingly enough, this came to my attention: 200 Superb Books Everyone Should Read at Least Once: http://bit.ly/2pwnuSF

The list put together by the BBC is unusual in that it features not only classics (Dickens, Austen, Hemingway), but children’s books and more modern novels. It is a tad heavy on British authors. (An aside: Just who is Jacqueline Wilson, who has multiple mentions on the list?)

But guess what also makes the list? “It” by Stephen King.

According to Wikipedia,  ” ‘It’ deals with themes that eventually became King staples: the power of memory, childhood trauma and its recurrent echoes in adulthood, the ugliness lurking behind a façade of small-town quaintness, and overcoming evil through mutual trust and sacrifice. Publishers Weekly listed ‘It as the best-selling book in the United States in 1986.”

“It” also topped the New York Times Fiction Best Sellers list for 12 weeks in 1986 and another two heading into 1987. The novel has high ratings on goodreads.com, too.

So I urge you to not just take my word for it, but please, please read the novel before you see the movie. It’s long (more than 1,000 pages), but it’s critically acclaimed and stands the test of time. And you’ll never look at storm drains the same way again.

The weight of expectations

Expectations are powerful. They can inspire, propel, intimidate, crush. In these books, they play a key role in the trajectory of characters’ lives.

These three books are among my all-time favorites. Their common theme is one that weighs heavily on me as I’ve always worried I won’t live up to expectations, especially my own.

everything I never told you

The unforgettable “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng is a staggeringly poignant story of expectations on children. In this case, it leads to tragedy, but that’s no spoiler because within the first sentence we know the teenage Lydia is dead. The novel is much like the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri (whose books I would highly recommend, especially “The Namesake” and “Unaccustomed Earth”) that involve immigrant experiences and the pressures children face to do more, be more and prove more. Ng’s book focuses on Marilyn and James Lee’s dreams — dashed by parenthood, racism and thwarted attempts at happiness — that end up being inherited by their favorite child. Lydia hopes that by relentlessly trying to be all her parents hope for that she can maintain the tenuous happiness and delicate balance in her family structure.

Assumptions chip away at relationships. Just how well do the Lees know their children? How well do Lydia and her siblings really know each other? How well does Lydia know Jack, the object of her affection?

Lydia struggles under the burden of being a disappointment. But just as she resolves to be her own best self, to stand up for who she is, free from the goals others have placed upon her and the sacrifices she puts upon herself, tragedy strikes.


In “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach, Mike Schwartz sees a bright future for his college baseball team when he’s able to help recruit fielding phenom Henry Skrimshander. He takes Henry under his wing and puts his own best interests aside. When Henry’s confidence tanks, Schwartzy realizes he has sacrificed his future for Henry’s and the team’s. And the expectations the team and college place on Henry may not match his own. Several characters have to figure out how to live their lives on their own terms.

Edith Wharton skewers the pettiness and cruelty of 19th-Century New York high society (of which she was a member) in “The House of Mirth.” Lily Bart is a once-wealthy beauty whose currency, both literally and figuratively, is in decline. She expects to inherit from an aunt, but also knows she must marry to secure her future. The fly in the ointment is that she wants it all — money, love and a place in society — on her own terms. Missteps, delays, misinterpretations, malevolent maneuverings by supposed friends and desperate attempts to maintain her status keep her from her happy ending.

“… she had a fatalistic sense of being drawn from one wrong turning to another, without perceiving the right one to take until it was too late.”

Wharton paints Lily as a sympathetic character, one burdened by the circumstances of her birth and a victim of her own choices. In hesitation, a fate is determined.

“That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.”

It’s a beautiful novel, full of emotion and a chilliness within the opulent, manner-driven confines of a bygone society.

Lyndsay Faye belongs on your bookshelf


Lyndsay Faye deserves your attention.

While she has achieved critical acclaim, I don’t know anyone besides me who has had the enormous pleasure of reading her books. Faye immerses herself in her fictional worlds and the reader soon gets caught up in them, too.

“Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson” imagines the intrepid and beloved sleuth Sherlock Holmes trying to solve the gruesome Jack the Ripper slayings in Victorian London. Her descriptions of the sordid alleyways and cobbled streets of 1888 are atmospheric. Her rendering of historical details (and facts of the Ripper slayings) makes the story all the more compelling. She’s a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and it shows. (She has a new book out that I haven’t read, “The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes.”)

Oh, how I love Timothy Wilde, the ex-bartender turned kindhearted fledgling copper star (police officer) who struggles to escape poverty amid various tragedies in Faye’s trilogy that begins with “Gods of Gotham.”  Tim has a love-hate relationship with his drug-addled yet heroic firefighter brother. Valentine Wilde, who is also in the political arena, plays both sides of the law, often with good intentions. Faye delves deep into the New York of 1845, a city teeming with immigrants and racism and crime and misfortune. The police department is in its infancy. There are interesting (and dark) mysteries to solve in the trilogy, a beautiful but fated romance, Tammany Hall political machinations and an impressive use of flash, the slang of the criminal world. Indeed, Faye adds a dictionary of sorts so readers can decipher what characters are saying. It’s a wonderful detail. For example, a stargazer is a prostitute. A dead rabbit is an athletic, rowdy fellow. If you’re swag-rum, you’re wealthy. A cranky-hutch is an insane asylum. It’s funny and clever.

If you read the trilogy, go in order, starting with “Gods of Gotham.” Then move along to “Seven for a Secret” and “The Fatal Flame.” I was so sad when the series ended. I still want to know what happened next in the lives of the characters to whom I grew attached.

In “Jane Steele,” a thoroughly entertaining retelling of “Jane Eyre,” our murderous heroine seeks love and her place in the world. You’ll fall in love with Jane as she bests those who do her and the ones she loves wrong. You will be rooting for her to have a happy ending.

Faye has a laser focus on the little things. She gets the historical nuances right. She’s a creative writer whose characters are memorable — none of them is perfect. They are flawed and appealing and beautifully imagined. She deserves a wider readership.


Oh, the Toll House Cookie



Why is it that of all the cookies I’ve made, my boys love the recipe on the back of the bag of Toll House Semi-sweet Morsels the best?

There is nothing wrong with Toll House Cookies. Quite frankly, the extra salt makes the dough pretty tasty. The recipe is very reliable and easily adapts to substitutions on the add-ins.

Interestingly, the Toll House Cookie was an experiment by Ruth Wakefield, who decided in 1938 to chop up a bit of chocolate bar and add it to a butter drop cookie after she discovered she was out of baker’s chocolate. The Massachusetts innkeeper had a hit on her hands. The cookie grew in popularity after a Boston newspaper reprinted the recipe. In 1939, the folks at Nestle got her permission to promote her recipe on chocolate bar packaging and then on bags of chocolate chips. What did Wakefield get in exchange? A lifetime supply of Nestle chocolate and $1.

I love reading cookbooks and baking blogs and trying new things. I just don’t want to eat batches of goodies all by myself. I love baking dozens upon dozens to give away for Christmas, too. From the feedback I’ve gotten from friends, family and colleagues, they think the cookies are delicious. But, for some reason, my family just isn’t as thrilled. They want the tried and true.

I have attempted to sway them with all varieties of cookies, but somehow that simple recipe is the one they look forward to. Well, that one and Peanut Butter Blossoms, which are one of the few cookies I don’t like and the only variety that doesn’t last a day in our house.

Sure, they like frosted sugar cookies and my youngest gets excited for spiced molasses, a specialty for the holidays, but if I had a dollar for every batch of cookies that languished in its Rubbermaid container …

Even more unbelievably, my husband prefers cookies that have been around awhile. I will only eat them within the first two days or so.  And to top it off, he actually prefers cookies without a lot of chocolate or stuff in them.


So instead of trying a new recipe today, I got out the trusty Toll House chocolate chips and flipped the bag over. I usually make them as bars (after enjoying a good scoop or two or three of dough) and underbake by a couple minutes. Sometimes I will substitute a different kind of chip or M&M’s. But what kind do the boys prefer? The original.

In my next life (or maybe today)



In my next life, or maybe sooner, I’d love to follow the example of Jen on a Jet Plane. Jen Ruiz is a full-time lawyer in Florida who makes it a priority to travel the world, usually at discounted prices and usually alone. True, she doesn’t have a family to tie her down (Doesn’t that sound negative? It’s not. The responsibilities involved with a family make it the truth!) and she’s young so it probably seems like she has all the time in the world.

On her website, she says not to wait around for the right time, the right partner, the right price. This is a philosophy I need to adopt: To live life in the moment. Always waiting for the right time has led me to put off what I’d love to be doing.

The truth is the clock’s ticking and none of us knows how much more time we have left. Waiting for retirement is not a sure bet. Jen on a Jet Plane budgets, hunts down deals and isn’t afraid to venture off alone. I need to be more forthright and persistent in doing what I want to do. If travel is important to me, I should make time for it. It’s as simple as that.

This isn’t original. Thomas Jefferson wisely said centuries ago: Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.

One of the best experiences of my life was traveling to Europe as a college student in 1991. Shout-out to one of the best traveling partners around, Shefali!


If I were to go now, I would pack better (for heaven’s sake, check out what I used as a backpack!), eat more adventurously and take copious (and better) photos. I would explore more. I would immerse myself in the people and the cultures and pay attention to the details. For example, I went to the Colosseum in Rome, but I didn’t take a tour or learn much about it. Traveling as a student, I was always short on funds and we were trying to pack in as many sites as we could.

In most areas of my life, I need to see the possibilities, not the obstacles. If not now, when. After all, as Charles Dickens said: “Procrastination is the thief of time” and we only get so much of it.