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

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
By: JD Vance (Author/Narrator)
Publisher: HarperAudio
ISBN13: 9780062477521
Unabridged 6 hr and 49 min
Genre: Autobiography/Memoir

Synopsis:

From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.

Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.

At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.


(New) Thoughts

As someone who spent her childhood raised in the Appalachian region, I approached Hillbilly Elegy as a personal read. The majority of my life was spent living between Ohio and Kentucky before finally relocating across the states to Oregon. I knew that I would find some possibly comforting and perhaps discomforting familiarity within the pages of this memoir. However, what you are about to read is brief and a bit defensive I am admitting, because that is how this title made me feel for the majority of my time with it.

I want to be forthcoming before I delve too far into my experience with this book. I have reshelved this title several times for a variety of reasons. I have read countless reviews and debates comparing this memoir to the very reason Trump succeeded in the presidential election and have encountered multiple labels and “assumptions” spread throughout those comments in regards to individuals from the Appalachian region that paint a picture of an uneducated and decaying society that has little to offer. And while, I cannot deny there are faults within every community and that the economic hardships within this society have certainly created a series of challenges that feel stagnating at the best of times, reading these remarks are difficult to swallow when you know the reality of what lies beneath the surface.

I have also must admit that I found myself associating with and struggling with JD’s story. While my family did not exactly adhere to the same ideals and practices, I was a friend to many who did. I grew up in an area that was small and everyone knew everyone. This was life for many years. A declining economy and failing welfare system certainly attributed to fewer resources in terms of education, declining work ethic/morale and increased drug abuse in many areas. I think the same can be said for any  area or society as this is a common theme when individuals begin to struggle. But it is not the only theme. Amidst the turmoil and challenges there are those who arise with a fierce loyalty and desire to overcome. Much as JD has done. I did enjoy his narration and felt that it added a nice personal touch. All memoirs should be self narrated when possible. And I feel that some personal truth for the author was exposed, which is always admirable.

My problem lies within the fact that Hillbilly Elegy feels too blanketed. Listening to JD describe his history of family violence and the constant references to the lack of education and failure to thrive was not only depressing but somewhat unfair. I cannot deny the truths in this book as I have witnessed them first hand, but I have also been fortunate enough to personally witness the other side of the coin and found myself unable to fully appreciate the “tunnel vision” I experienced during my time listening the his tale. I will not attempt to discredit and disagree with the information provided and will respect the author’s raw approach to this. I encountered some of the mentioned directly throughout my own childhood. But I was saddened with the end result and that read a bit like misplaced blame and solicited unnecessary labels and assumptions within the reading community. I am very aware of the stigma associated with this region as I have experienced it and continue to do so at time when asked where I grew up. This felt like a missed opportunity to lift the veil and clear some of the negative air. It feels that too often literature chooses to focus on the stereotypes and downfalls of this culture while failing to acknowledge the strengths and positives. I choose to believe there have to be better explorations and representations of the Appalachian region in existence.

Untitled designEnjoyed with a cup of Earl Grey and a splash of milk.

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Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

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Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places
By Colin Dickey
Narrated by Jon Lindstrom
Publisher: Penguin Audio
ISBN13: 9781524703653
Unabridged: 10 hr and 48 min
Genre: Nonfiction/History (Paranormal)

Synopsis:

Colin Dickey is on the trail of America’s ghosts. Crammed into old houses and hotels, abandoned prisons and empty hospitals, the spirits that linger continue to capture our collective imagination, but why? His own fascination piqued by a house hunt in Los Angeles that revealed derelict foreclosures and “zombie homes,” Dickey embarks on a journey across the continental United States to decode and unpack the American history repressed in our most famous haunted places. Some have established reputations as “the most haunted mansion in America,” or “the most haunted prison”; others, like the haunted Indian burial grounds in West Virginia, evoke memories from the past our collective nation tries to forget.     
       With boundless curiosity, Dickey conjures the dead by focusing on questions of the living–how do we, the living, deal with stories about ghosts, and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed, for whatever reason, haunted? Paying attention not only to the true facts behind a ghost story, but also to the ways in which changes to those facts are made–and why those changes are made–Dickey paints a version of American history left out of the textbooks, one of things left undone, crimes left unsolved. Spellbinding, scary, and wickedly insightful, Ghostland discovers the past we’re most afraid to speak of aloud in the bright light of day is the same past that tends to linger in the ghost stories we whisper in the dark.


(New) Thoughts

Ghostland is exactly what it claims to be; an exploration of America’s haunted history and places. Colin Dickey treks across the US examining some more infamous haunts and a few lesser known. As someone who spent their childhood in search of the next big ghost story, this promised to be my cup of tea.

“Surely ghosts will follow wherever there is bad record keeping” 

This is the sort of book that understandably piques the curiosity. Sporting a collection of haunted locations, I will admit I found myself slightly disappointed in the lack of actual fear factor I anticipated. Dickey’s approach is admirable though and warrants consideration. Addressing each haunt and history with a skeptical eye, he delves deep into the stories unearthing the often less than stellar realities.

As someone with a deep appreciation and interest in the supernatural I am aware that skepticism is an important part of the search for answers and the truth. The author undertakes the task of exposing the truth behind the provided stories, debunking them one by one.

Perhaps, that is where the connection failed for myself initially. I craved a dark, unexplained tale of horror. What I received was a brief lesson in history. A look at how times alters even the most legendary of stories and the role that human psych  and even spirituality play in such. We are often guilty of subconsciously bending the truth to fit our own needs as a society. Sometimes we are haunted by tragedy, family disputes and lies.

“But this, too, you could say, is part of the American story, as we have always been people who move on, leaving behind wreckage and fragments in our wake.” 

Dickey’s direct methods and examination offer substantial insight. Jon Lindstrom (who I first encountered in Dark Matter) accompanies this with a fluid and effective narration that offers a seamless encounter. Information is delivered in digestible portions that feel well researched.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places may not have delivered the supernatural stories I sought, but it delivered none the less. Well timed execution assure an experience that offers entertainment and solicits thought. But I struggled with what felt like an air of disbelief and biased opinions on the author’s behalf. I personally believe the most effective investigators will keep an open mind and felt that was not exactly the case here. The author felt that of a pure skeptic, but I still enjoyed my time with the book. I recommend exploring this on your own accord and formulating an opinion. It could be a worthy discussion read.

Untitled design Enjoyed with a glass of iced green tea and a hint of spearmint.

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Lost Boy by Brent W. Jeffs

lostboybook

Lost Boy
By Brent W. Jeffs, Maia Szalavitz
Publisher: Broadway
ISBN13: 9780767931779
Pages: 241
Genre: Nonfiction/Autobiography

Synopsis:

In the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), girls can become valuable property as plural wives, but boys are expendable, even a liability. In this powerful and heartbreaking account, former FLDS member Brent Jeffs reveals both the terror and the love he experienced growing up on his prophet’s compound—and the harsh exile existence that so many boys face once they have been expelled by the sect.

Brent Jeffs is the nephew of Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the FLDS. The son of a prominent family in the church, Brent could have grown up to have multiple wives of his own and significant power in the 10,000-strong community. But he knew that behind the group’s pious public image—women in chaste dresses carrying babies on their hips—lay a much darker reality. So he walked away, and was the first to file a sexual-abuse lawsuit against his uncle. Now Brent shares his courageous story and that of many other young men who have become “lost boys” when they leave the FLDS, either by choice or by expulsion.

Brent experienced firsthand the absolute power that church leaders wield—the kind of power that corrupts and perverts those who will do anything to maintain it. Once young men no longer belong to the church, they are cast out into a world for which they are utterly unprepared. More often than not, they succumb to the temptations of alcohol and other drugs.

Tragically, Brent lost two of his brothers in this struggle, one to suicide, the other to overdose. In this book he shows that lost boys can triumph and that abuse and trauma can be overcome, and he hopes that readers will be inspired to help former FLDS members find their way in the world.


thoughts

This is my first review of a nonfiction title. I am attempting to provide you with nothing more than a few thoughts and my experience during my time with this book. Please be warned that this book does include sensitive material such as sexual abuse.

Until recently, it was a very rare occasion that any autobiography or memoir would capture my attention, let alone make an appearance on the blog. But I am a mood reader, and my mood has been changing. I find myself desiring to know more. Often my chosen topics are those that many might not understand. Although I do know that you are out there. It just doesn’t always go over as well to discuss darker subjects during a lunch date or at your kid’s ball practice.

I openly admit to harboring a strong fascination with cults and religious based followings of unhealthy nature. FLDS and polygamy have been a subject of intrigue for many years, largely due in part to my continuing interest in the human psych. The unyielding followers and devotion found within FLDS arguably and easily fall within the classifications and realm of cult behavior.  Also as a woman and mother, I find myself personally challenging to the concept of polygamy with many unanswered “why’s” and “how’s”. So after a recent documentary that shared a portion of Brent’s story and a look at the FLDS leader and so-called “Prophet” Warren Jeffs, picking this book up made complete sense. I feel no need to provide a recap, as the synopsis is sufficient and thorough.

I do want to specify at this point that I am not comparing FLDS (The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) to LDS who have since disowned many of the practices that are still found within FLDS, such as polygamy. I understand that there is a difference and do not pretend to be an expert in either, nor is this review an attempt to pass judgement on anyone’s religion. With that said, here are my thoughts on the book itself:

Lost Boy is an autobiography of one young man’s life inside and outside of FLDS. It lifts the veil, revealing insight into a world that is hard to grasp and understand. It is a story of manipulation, fear, abuse, loss and survival. It is not an easy read at the best of times, but it is a worthy read.

I found myself in deep appreciation of how much history and back story is actually contained within this book. It was not what I expected, but a welcomed surprise. We are presented with more than a sad and harrowing tale. We are given the working knowledge to understand why our author’s life was so hard and how it came to be for him and so many others. Instead of simply explaining that there was abuse and mistreatment, he shows the reader how it was all possible. We are provided a glimpse into the life of FLDS members that enables us to piece together the true manipulation that is occurring and how such a following began. We learn how fear and religion have been twisted and used against those who were so devoted. We learn how one man, Warren Jeffs, still manages a tenacious and detrimental hold on so many lives even now from prison.

The are many triggers in this book, as Brent makes a conscious effort to be open and forthright. As I mentioned, this not a gentle read. It is every bit candid as it is personal. A childhood of abuse is brought forth, but not without also honestly mentioning the times that there was still happiness. He acknowledges that amidst the chaos there was love and a sense of belonging. There is a simple and raw honesty that enables the reader to not only see but understand. My heart mourned as he described how difficult it was to separate from something so harmful because he knew nothing else. He was so integrated that the prospect of life outside the Church had become terrifying and isolating. He bravely exposes his own harsh reality and struggles that include drug use and bad decisions. There is no saving face. Simply what was and is. This is a story of real life within the FLDS and the ramifications.

I admire Brent’s decision to not only share his personal experience, but the reality of what it was/is to be raised FLDS. The choice to expose and address the years of brainwashing and abuse could not have come easily nor without cost. Lost Boy challenges us to look beyond our own comfort and see from the other side of the curtain. I recommend this to anyone who desires to learn and gain more knowledge of cults within a religious settings and the effects of them on youth, families and the society that those who manage to escape must reenter.

*I had a lot of issues with formatting and corrections while writing this and have honestly given up. So I apologize if it is a bit of a mess.

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