Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance


I'm not sure what compelled me to pick up "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J.D. Vance. I'd already flagged "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in Americaby Nancy Isenberg as something I might want to read, and this seemed to cover similar territory in memoir form -- a genre I've always enjoyed -- with a personal focus on the experiences of one man & his family. 

After first seeing it in the bookstore a couple of weeks ago, I began hearing buzz about it. This book, it has been said, helps to explain the political rise of Donald Trump. Explain the inexplicable?? ;)  That's a tall order, but OK, I'm hooked. ;)  Once started, I found it hard to put down. It was the fastest read I've had in some time, and I finished it in less than two days. 

Vance grew up in a steeltown in southwestern Rust Belt Ohio, where his Kentucky-born grandparents moved in the years after World War II in search of work and better opportunities for their family. But he has always considered Kentucky "home," and has scads of relatives there.

(As an aside:  I read the first few chapters of the book with the dawning "holy crap" realization that Vance's mother Bev & I were probably exactly the same age -- i.e., in a different world, I could have a 31-year-old son. Yikes!!  Vance confirmed this on page 39 -- "Mom was born January 20, 1961 -- the day of John F. Kennedy's inauguration."  I'm actually a little over a week OLDER than she is. Gulp.) 

Mom instilled a love of learning in her son and, despite a teenaged pregnancy and early marriage, attended community college and became a licensed practical nurse. Unfortunately, she also became a drug addict, married at least five times and had many more boyfriends parading through the lives of Vance & his older sister. Grandpa (Papaw) was an alcoholic who reformed only after his wife doused him with gasoline and set him on fire while he was asleep after one too many. And his family's story was far from unusual in the community where he grew up.  

Vance credits a number of people -- in particular, his sister, his aunt and, most of all, his gun-toting, foul-mouthed grandmother, Mamaw -- for helping him survive in this chaotic world -- and succeed outside of it. Mamaw told him he could do anything he wanted to, encouraged (demanded!) him to go to college, and even paid for golf lessons because she knew "that's where rich people do business."  Vance wanted to go to college -- but he also knew he wasn't ready for the demands of college and adult life generally -- so he signed up for the Marines, which included time in Iraq. It was, he says, the best thing that ever happened to him. Four years later, with the support of the Marines and his family, he was off to Ohio State University -- and from there to the rarefied and alien world of Yale Law School. (Interesting side note: One of his profs and mentors there was Amy Chua, the infamous Tiger Mother, who contributes a blurb to the book's back jacket.)  He now works for an investment firm in Silicon Valley.

Vance is immensely proud of his "hillbilly" roots & culture -- but he is not blind to its faults. He believes that a culture of "learned helplessness" has taken root among his people -- the belief that the deck is stacked against them (so why make an effort?). Unlike some conservatives, he does see a place for public policy solutions (and he offers some thoughts on subjects that include social services and education). He also thinks churches could be doing more to support their communities.  But he also strongly believes that people need to learn to take responsibility for their own choices.

This was a well-written, entertaining and thoughtful book that deserves the buzz it's getting, and I am very glad I read it (and didn't wait for the paperback, lol). You may not entirely agree with Vance's ideas, but you will probably learn something, and he will make you think.

*** *** ***

ALI note: Vance's Mamaw & Papaw married as teenagers in 1947. Vance later learned that Mamaw had been pregnant, and the pregnancy was likely one reason why the couple left Kentucky for Ohio.
In later years, Mamaw sometimes spoke of a daughter who died in infancy, and she led us all to believe that the daughter was born sometime after Uncle Jimmy, Mamaw and Papaw's eldest child [born in 1951]. Mamaw suffered eight miscarriages in the decade between Uncle Jimmy's birth and my mother's. But recently my sister discovered a birth certificate for "Infant" Vance, the aunt I never knew, who died so young that her birth certificate also lists her date of death. The baby who brought my grandparents to Ohio didn't survive her first week. On that birth certificate, the baby's brokenhearted mother lied about her age. Only fourteen at the time and with a seventeen-year-old husband, she couldn't tell the truth lest they ship her back to Jackson or send Papaw to jail.  
Mamaw's first foray into adulthood ended in tragedy. Today I often wonder: Without the baby, would she have ever left Jackson? Would she have run off with Jim Vance to foreign territory? Mamaw's entire life -- and the trajectory of our family -- may have changed for a baby who lived only six days.  (page 27)


*** *** ***

Reading this book reminded me of an excellent multi-part documentary I saw on PBS Frontline about 10 years ago called "Country Boys," following two teenaged boys growing up and struggling to finish high school in rural Kentucky.  I wonder what has happened to them in the years since then? 

*** *** ***

This was book #14 that I've read to date in 2016.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

"Florence Foster Jenkins" and the power of chasing a dream

Dh & I are generally avid moviegoers, but it's been a busy summer -- and, quite frankly, there haven't been a lot of movies around lately that we've really wanted to see. Happily, that is changing. :) 

(Some possible spoilers.) 

The first movie we saw after our return from our recent road trip was "Florence Foster Jenkins," starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg (better known as Howard on "The Big Bang Theory"). I had heard a bit about the movie and the true story it was based on, and seen a couple of trailers, and a few days before we went, I picked up the book that provided the source material for the script, "Florence Foster Jenkins" by Nicholas Martin and Jasper Rees. It's the type of quirky, real-life story that I love.

Florence was a wealthy New York socialite and patron of the arts who fancied herself an opera singer -- and actually gave a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall shortly before her death in 1944. To put it mildly, she was not. You can find some of her recordings on YouTube if you care to hear the proof. In fact, some have dubbed her "the world's worst singer." She was enabled in her delusions of grandeur by her common-law husband, the second-rate actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who worked tirelessly to encourage and protect her, and people in the arts community who relied on her generous patronage. We first hear her sing at the same time aspiring pianist/composer Cosme McMoon does (Helberg -- who really does play piano in the movie!), when he auditions to become her accompanist. The expression on his face when she opens her mouth and lets out those first few off-key notes is priceless (and possibly Oscar-worthy). I have to admit I laughed so hard I had tears streaming down my face.

But while there is humour in the movie, it's not played strictly for laughs. Streep does a marvellous job (as usual...!) of conveying Florence's sincerity and underlying fragility. It's funny, it's a bit sad in parts, and it's touching.

There's a scene in the movie where Florence has just confessed to the new doctor treating her that she has syphilis, contracted from her first husband on her wedding night. (It's suggested in the book that the disease may have had an effect on her hearing, and singing.)  In those days, pre-penicillin, there was no cure for syphilis, and Florence lived far longer than most people with the illness. As a result, her common-law marriage/relationship with St. Clair Bayfield was of a non-sexual nature.

After the doctor leaves, she & St. Clair are talking and she expresses how she wishes she could have given him a child. "We could have been a family," she says sadly. "We ARE a family," he assures her. (Hugh Grant is also amazingly good here.)  The exchange reminded me of another Meryl Streep movie, "Julie & Julia," where she played the wistfully childless Julia Child, supported by her loving husband Paul (Stanley Tucci). (My post about "Julie & Julia" remains my all-time most viewed and commented upon, and continues to draw traffic and comments.)  

There's nowhere in the book or the movie where Florence's childlessness is specifically linked to her musical obsessions, but it's easy to see that music filled a void for her (just as food and cooking filled a similar void for Julia Child). "Music is and always has been my life," she says. We believe her.

Reflecting on the movie later, I was also reminded of Tracey Cleantis's book "The Next Happy" (which I reviewed here), about the sometimes destructive power of chasing your dreams and how to let them go. Unlike most of us, Florence had the money and the social clout to keep following her improbable dream long after most of us would have had to throw in the towel. It's suggested in both the book and the movie, though, that being confronted with the negative reviews of her Carnegie Hall concert, and the realization that people were laughing at her, shattered her illusions and ultimately contributed to her death a few months later.

Nevertheless, Florence's story also reminds us that we can find value and meaning in doing what we love to the best of our ability -- even if we know we'll never be truly great at it.  People recognized that Florence's singing was sub-par (even if she never did) -- but (as the movie shows) they also admired her can-do spirit and determination. "People may say that I couldn't sing. But no one can say that I didn't sing," Florence observes with a smile at the movie's end (a quote attributed to the real-life Florence).

The book was interesting in filling out the details of Florence's life, but unless you're really curious about her and the times she lived in, you can probably go straight to the movie (which I would happily recommend). 

This was book #13 that I've read so far in 2016.

Monday, August 22, 2016

#MicroblogMondays: Odds & ends

*  When in doubt (about what to blog about), use bullet points. ;)
*  Saturday night's Tragically Hip concert was an emotional experience, as expected -- part celebration, part farewell, part wake. It was pretty cool to see all the photos online of all the viewing parties from across Canada, though. It's hard to know exactly how big the audience was, but they are estimating something like 12 million people, or about 30% of all Canadians, watched at least part of the show. That would make it the second-most viewed broadcast in Canadian history. Only the 2010 Olympic gold medal hockey game drew a larger audience.
*  Speaking of the Olympics, daytime TV (which is generally a wasteland to begin with) feels strangely empty now that the Rio Games are over. 
* I am increasingly reminded that the summer is almost over, and school will be starting shortly. We've been trying to avoid the malls (especially on the weekends) & the hordes of back-to-school shoppers. Do parents these days post photos of their kids' first day of college/university & moving them into dorm rooms, etc.?  I guess I am about to find out...!  :p
*  Oldest Nephew & his Fiancee got a puppy over the weekend!  Now the big question: who's going to look after him while they're away on their honeymoon? And why do I get the feeling it's going to be us?? ("Hey, Aunt Loribeth & Uncle Dh are retired and they don't have kids...they don't have anything better to do...!")  I like puppies, and he's a cutie, but I have absolutely no experience dealing with animals, let alone in a condo setting. All I can say is he'd better be potty trained by then...

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here.      

Thursday, August 18, 2016

"Courage, my word"

It seems almost un-Canadian to confess this, but I didn't know who The Tragically Hip were for a very long time. They formed in 1984, just as I was finishing school and getting ready to be married.  I was in my 30s by the time they began hitting their stride as a band in the early 1990s, which is generally a time when your grip on current musical trends starts to slip. I was in my 40s by the time they achieved official Canadian icon status.  I do remember seeing their 1995 appearance on Saturday Night Live, introduced by their very proud fellow Kingstonian, Dan Aykroyd. That was supposed to launch them into fame in the U.S. It didn't. Your loss, America. ;) 

Instead of knocking themselves out trying to appeal to a broader international audience that didn't appreciate them, the Hip embraced their Canadian-ness -- and Canadians, in return, embraced them, fiercely. Their songs are full of references to Canadian places, people and events:  1950s Toronto Maple Leafs hockey star Bill Barilko, whose mysterious disappearance halted the Leafs' string of Stanley Cup victories until his body was discovered more than a decade later... David Milgaard, who spent years in prison for a murder he didn't commit... the 100th Meridian, where the Great Plains begin... Hugh MacLennan, who coined the phrase "two solitudes" to describe English and French Canada. Not only did they write a song about Bobcaygeon (a small town in cottage country Ontario) they made it (sort of) rhyme. ;)  ("It was in Bobcaygeon/I saw the constellations/reveal themselves one star at a time.") 

Gradually, I started recognizing certain frequently-played songs on the radio as Hip songs. And then I realized I had gradually absorbed the words, and was singing along. It's gotten so that I can almost instantly recognize a Hip song even before quirky, charismatic lead singer Gord Downie opens his mouth to unleash his distinctive voice. Something about the guitar and that rumbling bass line...

They're a Canadian institution. So it was a shock when I turned on the TV on May 24th to the news that Downie has cancer. Brain cancer. Terminal brain cancer. At age 52. Not much younger than me. The country went into collective mourning. Coming on the heels of the deaths of a string of other musical icons, including David Bowie, Glenn Frey and (just weeks earlier) Prince, I can remember asking the TV set, "Geez, 2016, what have you got against music??!" 

Some people facing such a diagnosis would just pack up & go home to enjoy what's left of their life. Downie has four young children, and his wife is a (breast) cancer survivor herself. Instead, the band immediately announced they would be touring Canada this summer. For Gord. For the fans. For themselves. They didn't say it would be their last tour, but everyone knows. Tickets sold out in seconds flat, and fans have been flocking to arenas over the past few weeks to say goodbye, and thank you. Downie has not given any interviews since his diagnosis was revealed -- but he has been strutting his stuff onstage in brightly coloured metallic suits and wearing elaborate feathers in his trademark hats. And he hasn't shyed away from singing songs with lyrics like these (as noted in a great Slate article by a Canadian expat, explaining the band to non-Canadians): 

If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me
They bury me some place I don't want to be, you’ll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously,
Away from the swollen city breeze, garbage bag trees,
Whispers of disease, and the acts of enormity,
And lower me slowly and sadly and properly,
Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.

The final concert is this Saturday, in their hometown of Kingston. There's a widely shared post going around Facebook right now, warning "Please note: Canada will be closed this Saturday night." The CBC has bowed to public demand and will be broadcasting the concert live on TV, radio and online. The prime minister (who tweeted his best wishes to Downie and the band after the cancer diagnosis was revealed) will be in attendance. Huge public viewing parties are being planned in cities and towns across the country.

There are far bigger Hip fans than me hereabouts. I almost feel like a bit of a fraud writing about them here. But like the wallpaper, they've always been there -- well, for the past 30 years, anyway (and that's a long time for most bands!). It's hard to be a Canadian of a certain age & not feel some patriotic pride at what they've accomplished, and what they've meant to our country and our people. And it's hard to be a human being and not feel sad for Downie & his family, for the band, and for the fans, both rabid and casual, who have loved them so much all these years. I surprised dh & even myself by bursting into tears while reading the concert review in the local paper over breakfast at my parents' house a few weeks ago.

"The Free Press has decided to forgo our usual star rating because, on this rare occasion, it’s irrelevant," the reviewer wisely wrote. "No number of stars is going to adequately or unbiasedly capture the emotion and intention behind this night — it’s impossible to attach a numerical value to a goodbye, so we won’t."

I will be watching on Saturday night.

*** *** ***

ALI note (you knew there had to be one, right?): 

Because most of the Tragically Hip songs I'm familiar with are the obvious ones I hear on the classic rock radio station we listen to, I was not familiar with "Fiddler's Green" -- at least, I didn't think so until I listened to a clip that was flagged on my Facebook feed by one of the pregnancy loss pages I follow -- and then I recognized the melody. It's said Gord Downie wrote the song in memory of his nephew, his sister's son, who died at a young age from heart issues. Apparently the band has been playing it a lot on this tour;  there are more recent clips available on YouTube but this is one of the most-viewed concert versions of the song there, from a few years back in Abbotsford, British Columbia:


"Kick" by Paula Byrne

After many years (too long) in relative obscurity, it seems Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, favourite sister of the late president, is finally getting her share of the limelight with not just one but two biographies published within several months of each other.

Earlier this spring, I read & reviewed the first of those biographies, "Kick Kennedy" by Barbara Leaming. I was surprised to see yet another book about Kick on the shelves of my local mega-bookstore in early July. I finished reading it while on my recent vacation.

The Leaming book focused specifically on Kick's time in England. It provides readers with some good background on life among the upper classes in England before, during and after the Second World War -- the England that Kick knew and loved so well -- and on Chatsworth and the Devonshire family, specifically. Leaming was lucky enough to interview Andrew, Duke of Devonshire, and several of Kick's other British friends and contemporaries (several of whom have since passed away).

By contrast, "Kick: The True Story of JFK's Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth" by Paula Byrne covers Kick's entire life, drawing on previously unreleased material including Kick's own letters, diaries and scrapbooks. As a result, it's a much fuller picture of Kick's life, personality and influences. As one Goodreads reviewer noted, the title is slightly misleading, because Kick's romance with & marriage to Billy Hartington (the heir to Chatsworth) is only part of the overall story here. However, Byrne is British and I imagine the book was titled with a British audience in mind (not sure many North American readers would know what Chatsworth is/was). (The cover photo, though, plays up the "JFK's sister" angle, with a photo of both of them together at the beach.)

If I had to pick just one book to recommend to someone wanting to know more about this remarkable young woman, I would choose this one. Together, both books provide a much fuller portrait of her than we've had to date.

This was book #12 that I've read so far in 2016.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

New movie/book: yay or nay?

(Potential triggers -- and spoilers!) 

Dh & I were at the movies last weekend (the first one we've been to in a few months!), and saw the trailer for an upcoming movie called "The Light Between Oceans," starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander.

My jaw dropped as I realized what the movie was about. When I came home & started Googling, I learned the movie is based on a novel by the same name, which I vaguely recall seeing in bookstores.

Anyone read the book or heard about the movie? (It's not being released until September.)  I like both the actors, but I am not entirely sure I want to sit through this...

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Right now...

Right now... (an occasional meme): 

Reading:  Juggling two books at the moment: "Florence Foster Jenkins" by Nicholas Martin and Jasper Beck (went to see the movie this past weekend -- reviews of both to come) and "The Bridge Ladies" by Betsy Lerner.  

Watching/Following:  (What else?) The Olympics. :) I haven't followed these Olympics as closely as past ones, perhaps because we were travelling for much of the first part of them, but I did catch several of Penny Oleksiak and Michael Phelps's amazing swims, and Usain Bolt's incredible third gold medal run.

Listening:  To this catchy little earworm. It was playing in the bookstore when we were there the other day and I had to look it up when we got home. Never heard of the singers, but I found a live performance clip of the same song on YouTube, and they are a cute couple.

Drinking:  Lots of water & iced tea.  

Eating: A lot of hamburgers lately. Hadn't had one in years -- just got out of the habit -- but have been catching up lately ;) -- had some really good ones on our trip, and had one for lunch today.   

Wearing:  Shorts & tank tops inside;  capris & T-shirts outside.

Loving:  Our new furniture (which was delivered the day before we left...! -- one piece still to come later this week), and especially my new china cabinet. :)  It is beautiful, and has lots of space for my wedding china, crystal and other pretty things, which were packed away in the basement of our house & mostly unused for the past 26 years. (The lovely old brownstone apartment where we lived the first five years we were married had built-in china cabinets -- lucky us!)

Wondering: Where the summer went to??  July just zoomed by, and now we're halfway through August and running into back-to-school shoppers everywhere. Something we thankfully don't have to worry about as non-parents...!

Trying:  To achieve a balance between getting out of the house during the day and avoiding the hordes of said back-to-school shoppers, lol. ;)

Anticipating: The next big event on our social calendar: Older Nephew's wedding this fall, which is rapidly approaching. Eeeeekkkk!!

Hoping: That I will still fit into the lovely dress I bought for it a few months ago, especially after eating all those hamburgers, etc...!  I gained 5.5 lbs while we were away on our trip. :p  Hoping that getting back to our usual routines & eating habits will help me lose it again. (I did buy some Spanx to go with the dress, which should help, lol.) 

Contemplating: Another major road trip (!). BIL & (especially) SIL want us to come with them to Atlantic Canada after the wedding is over, which would entail driving through Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia & PEI. I'm thinking the weather would be better if we waited until next summer, but whatever. ;)  We might luck into seeing some fall colours, depending on exactly when we go. Dh & I spent a week in Nova Scotia six years ago as a belated 25th wedding anniversary gift to ourselves, and had a blast. That was in September, and the weather was mostly good then, although we did find ourselves on the fringes of a hurricane in the north Atlantic...!