Friday, July 28, 2017

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

I didn't like Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance (published 2016).  I'm somewhat alone on this in that the book has received very good reviews.  It has been described as the book to be reading if you want to understand the white working class in rural and rust belt America and so I was curious. But Hillbilly Elegy left me annoyed and somewhat depressed and I have been trying to figure out why.

On the plus side, J. D. Vance has an inspiring story to tell.   He is a former Marine, served in Iraq, graduated from Yale Law School.  But what makes his story particularly remarkable is the childhood he came from. Absent father, drug addicted emotionally volatile mother, new husbands and boyfriends moving into the home. Eventually it was decided that young Vance would live with his grandparents who he rightly credits with providing stability and saving his life

It's an important story about a wildly screwed up family and the havock they can wreak through several generations. And if that was the tale the author told and if he had been more specific about how he dug himself out of such a tough start his memoir might have been more affecting and more true.  But I wasn't moved by Hillbilly Elegy and the reason is that maybe as a way to protect his grandparents and great uncles  the author romanticizes who they were.  Granted Vance has criticisms to make but too often he sees their considerable flaws as strengths rooted in Hillbilly culture:

"I believe we hillbillies are the toughest (expletive) people on this earth We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother.  We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister's honor ... but are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? ... Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

The above men were the author's great uncles, Uncle Pet who took a saw to a man who cursed at him and Uncle Teaberry who forced a man at knifepoint who had insulted his sister to eat her undergarments.  This was not the 1800's but the mid 20th century.  And then we have Vance's grandparents.  As to who they were it wasn't pretty but they cleaned up their act a year or two before the author ws born and were able to provide a safe environment for young Vance that they did not give their daughter, the author's mother, when she was growing up.

The author's family story is too extreme in my opinion to be representative of any one part of the country unless their is an epidemic of wives setting fire to husbands who come home drunk (his grandparents in their younger days) and their young daughter rushing in to put out the flames.  Seeing his story as his hillbilly legacy romanticizes a sad situation which is going on in many parts of the country and not specific to geography.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Blood From A Stone by Donna Leon

A year ago my friend Iris recommended Death at La Fenice (which I reviewed on April 14, 2016).  It's the first novel in Donna Leon's internationally acclaimed Commissario Brunetti mystery series.  I began the book not knowing what to expect and by the time I arrived at the last page I was hooked.

Blood From A Stone (published 2004) is book fourteen in the series and it's another remarkable read. Blood From a Stone is set in Venice (all the Brunetti mysteries are) and tbe novel begins with the murder of a young street vendor from Senegal, West Africa.  A week before Christmas he is at Campo Santo Stefano, a city street in Venice, along with a few of his friends selling counterfeit handbags.  Two men in overcoats and hats walk up to the young man and shoot him. They leave the other vendors alone. Commissario Brunetti arrives at the scene and begins interviewing the tourists. He doesn't get much information because the killers dissappeared before the tourists could describe them in detail.

Brunetti has no idea who the young man is or why anyone would want to kill him. He also realizes that like many in Venice he knows very little about the African immigrant vendors who sell their goods at the market.  It's a closed community and Brunetti is finding it impossible to get anyone to talk. The mystery takes a dramatic turn when Brunetti locates the room the dead man was renting and finds a fortune in diamonds. The rest of the mystery tells us about the diamond trade and how its being used to support civil wars in Africa and how governments are turning a blind eye.  Many of Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti novels are topical with regard to what is happening in the news, so reading her can be an educational experience.  Ms Leon conveys the city of Venice wonderfully, the people, the culture, the food, the history. She knows Venice and has lived there for decades.

But we Donna Leon fans keep returning to the Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries for Brunetti himself. It's hard to explain what makes him so interesting. In many respects he's not out of the ordinary.  Happilly married to his wife Paola, a University Professor. They have two teenagers.  Brunetti is an intelligent, thoughtful principled man. He's cultured, enjoys the opera, books, good food and wines. He drinks a great deal of coffee (which tempted me while reading the book to take up the habit myself).  Brunetti is a very good detective, dogged in solving the case despite what the higher ups might say.  But I think what it really boils down to is that Brunetti is a great character because Donna Leon is a great writer. Start with the first book in the series Death at La Fenice and I think you will agree.