“Hillbilly Elegy” J D Vance (William Collins) – book review

Image result for j d vance hillbilly elegy“Hillbilly Elegy” is subtitled ‘A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’. J D Vance admits that, on the face of it, he’s not a celebrity, not achieved anything particularly significant and finds it “somewhat absurd” that this book exists. But this is one of J D Vance’s survival mechanisms – this shrugging off and playing down of achievements is part of the same dissonance that helps some survive trauma. What makes “Hillbilly Elegy” a compelling read isn’t just the writing skills learnt as an editor of “The Yale Law Journal” or his honesty, but also his ability to step out of his personal situation and place it in a wider context.

In a nutshell, J D Vance was born in Middletown, Ohio but spent most of his summers in his grandparent’s birthplace of Jackson, Kentucky. After graduating from school, he joined the army for a tour of Iraq before studying law at Yale where he met his wife and now lives amongst the middle-classes in Cincinnati. Like many, his grandparents had moved north in search of work. Armco, like other steel companies, encouraged employees to recommend family members. However, after a hurried marriage, not all family members moved with the grandparents so there were frequent visits back to Jackson, not the best way of setting down roots in Middletown. There were three children, a son and then a ten year gap before two daughters. During that ten year gap there were several miscarriages, thought to be a result of the constant arguments between the grandparents often provoked by the grandfather’s drinking problem and the grandmother’s frustration, instead of pursuing her dream she stuck with being a housewife and mother. In turn, not helped by family loyalty being uppermost and a belief that outsiders should not know what happened behind closed doors. Whilst two of the children seemed to shrug off the arguments, one daughter, J D Vance’s mother didn’t. She become a pregnant teenager in a short-lived marriage and then married again quickly into another short-lived marriage, leaving her a single mother to two children, Lindsay and J D.

Despite the revolving door of stepfathers, grandmother or Mamaw, remained a constant in Lindsay and J D’s lives. She urged both to study and do well. Grandfather helped J D with maths homework. J D acknowledges his grandmother’s consistency and support enabled him to turn around his school grades and realise he could aim higher than a job at Armco. Even though by this time, jobs at Armco were scarce, most teenagers in Middletown had a relative who still worked there and there was an assumption they would work there too. There was a collective denial about the decline of the manufacturing industry. Needing money and lacking confidence, J D deferred applying to college and joined the Marines. One key lesson from the Marines was that, if you failed at something, you simply tried again instead of quitting. Another crucial lesson was finance: he figured out that, as a poor student, he was better off applying for an Ivy League university than a hometown one. At Yale, he felt impostor syndrome and it took a professor to challenge his application for a clerkship to realise that he didn’t have to push so hard and could opt for a more appropriate route. The culture at Yale took some adjusting to: not just figuring out which utensil to use at a networking event in a restaurant, but also overcoming the urge to stay behind and help clear up. Networking was novel too: undergraduates didn’t apply for jobs but went to cocktail event and dinners to meet potential employers. Other students would lean on a family contact to open a door, which wasn’t an option J D had and he marveled at the confidence and lack of hesitancy others had in simply asking.

Alongside his story are insights into the attitudes of he society he grew up in. J D Vance’s chaotic family home wasn’t unusual. He and his sister scored 6 on the scale of adverse childhood experiences such as being humiliated by parents, feeling a lack of familial support, having parent who are separated or divorced, living with an addict, living with someone who is depressed and watching someone be physically abused. Both married spouses who scored 0. During a temporary job in a store, J D Vance witnessed people on food stamps buy soda in bulk to sell off later and noticed that these same people rarely bought fresh food. Children lost their baby teeth to “Mountain Dew Mouth” where sugared drinks were put in baby’s bottles (Mamaw intervened to prevent J D’s mother putting Coke in his bottle) and then later lost their adult teeth in fights or to a poor diet. Those in Middletown who were in work resented those out of work and on food stamps who seemed to be playing the system and doing better. Those out of work would say that welfare should be for the deserving poor who would work if there were jobs available and that work was the way out of poverty, whilst conveniently ignoring their own situation. In another temporary job, J D Vance witnessed a nineteen year old and his pregnant girlfriend get offered jobs in a warehouse. The girlfriend worked in the office when she actually turned up – in a five day week, she might make it in on three days and never gave notice or reason for absence. The boyfriend was invariably late and took lengthy bathroom breaks. After a serious of warnings, both were sacked and the boyfriend complained, asking how the employers, who knew their circumstances, could sack them.

In conclusion, there is a discussion about how the problems of those living in poverty and without work can be solved. He doesn’t see it as a problem that can be solved without a profound shift in hillbilly culture. There’s not much point in creating jobs if, like the nineteen year old and his girlfriend, people can’t be bothered to turn up and work. There’s not a lot of point in expecting children with no working adult in their household to have aspirations to get a good college degree, although putting poor children alongside middle-class children in schools, raises expectations in poor children, that can’t be achieved if the middle-classes have deserted places like Middletown. One thing the American government could help with is to redefine a family to include aunts, uncles and grandparents. J D Vance argues if his grandmother could have fostered him, he would have had less chaos in his background, but instead he was left dreading social workers getting involved because his grandmother would not be recognised as a potential fosterer and he’d have been shipped out to strangers. His chief argument is that hillbilly families need to take a long hard look at themselves and accept that chaotic backgrounds and parental addictions harms children and the state of denial where all problems are someone’s else’s fault is a trap of their own making.

These conclusions are compelling argued in non-legalese. J D Vance uses language to communicate, not obfuscate and his vocabulary is engaging. “Hillbilly Elegy” is both a successful memoir and a social history of growing up in the 1980s. It’s also proof you don’t have to be a celebrity or prize-winner to be interesting.


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“Urban Myths and Legends” The Emma Press – poetry review

Urban Myths and LegendsThe editors Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright wanted to find poems that “shared Ovid’s glee in storytelling” looking for transformations and gripping ideas. Some poems take their inspiration more directly from “Metamorphosis” than others and some hint at fairytales – a glass slipper, a rose briar – while others create their own myths. Some transformations are dramatic, as in Pam Thompson’s “My People”

“… those who lived near the canal
grew scales

and those who lived on the tops
grew furs to keep out biting winds

and some sprouted wings
to hunt for food

or so my mother told me
before her toes pitched her

into a middle kingdom
of sloughed-off skins
and reheated dinners.”

Other transformations are less dramatic, in Deborah Alma’s “My Brown-Eyed Girl”

“my sister and I discovered
that she’d always coveted
my grey-green eyes
and I, hers of golden brown,
and Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes
was never personal enough.

So we swapped, we popped out
our eyeballs, slipped them
into our mouths to moisten them
before slotting into familial sockets.
Then we sat down with a nice pot of tea,
lemon drizzle cake
and little chance of rejection…”

The contrast between “grey-green” and “golden brown” follows the line of desire; “grey” suggestive of boredom and “golden” suggestive of reward or treasure. The routine detail of tea with cake acts as a anchor and keeps the poem from veering off into fantasy. It also resists the temptation to fork off into a nightmare. Other poems take on the personification of an inanimate object, for example in Jon Stone’s “Yardang”

“…Out it came, a tortile bolt
of drunkard wind – dying to screw
and strew, to chew and chisel bone
or stone, to shave down to a hump
each stump. Now I’m a blasted dune,
the scoundrel’s plaything. Now I drift,
as darkly as the shifting coast,
from one form to some other, strand
by strand, flayed to my filament,
while on its high and singing wire
the mad sylph speaks its only like.
My faltering’s its favourite band,
my knots its little coterie.
The coward wind is changing me.”

The yardang projects its reinventions on the wind it blames for whittling it into shape and toying with it: an unreliable narrator but a likable one. “Urban Myths and Legends” feels like a city walk along a street with varied architecture, some buildings ornately constructed, some classical and modern with clean lines, each a marriage of form and function; each worth stopping to study while a gentle wind whispers of history, suggestive fantasy and magic realism along a street worth return visits.

“Urban Myths and Legends” is available from The Emma Press

“In the Cinema” Stephen Bone (Playdead Press) – poetry review

Image of In The Cinema
The ending of the title poem, “don’t tell me how it ends/ don’t spoil it for me,” echoes through this collection. Stephen Bone is good at giving readers the telling detail and leaving them to work out the ending. In “Unmendable”, a potentially valuable glass is dropped on the floor

“with a rich percussion,

a jigsaw of glass
at our feet.

For a moment like haruspices
we studied the red remains;

then the word arrived,
reached you first;

unmendable, you said.”

The word could be just as much about the relationship as the glass. The tone changes as the couple survey the broken glass and the “s” assonances stop and give way to the short ‘i’ vowels and ‘d’ endings. The pared-down, minimalist style continues throughout. One effect of this is to drawn attention to each word because, the fewer words there are, the more significance each one has. In “78s”, the narrator comes across a gramophone in a loft with collection of vinyl records and naturally tries it out:

“Their voices

now and slurring
under the drag of the needle
as the turntable slowed. Like
grotesque recordings from their
deathbeds.”

This seems uncharacteristically overwrought until the final stanza (over the other side of the page),

“Until, with a few turns
of my arm – as if cranking up
a vintage car – their lungs filled
again with thirties’ air. Resurrected
to the prime of your life.”

Although the poem names some of the artists, I’d have liked a little more context, more detail on music style or the significance to the previous owner who is not named and simply addressed in the second person. Did they dance to the records or sit in still reverence when listening? Did they openly talk about how the music made them feel or was coming across them more like uncovering a spider-webbed photo album of people whose names have been lost in the mists of time? The reader doesn’t know if “you” is a distant relative or a mother. It’s definitely a different “you” to the one with the broken vase.

Not all poems are in second person however and one of the most moving is “A New Kind Of Rain”, where a boy calls his grandmother to be picked up after a game is rained off (presumably football but not specified).

“not hearing the flatness
in her voice, the intake
of breath, on the edge
of saying something
but didn’t.

Her eyes were red
and she was wearing
more powder than usual.
He could smell its rose-like
scent as she gently pulled
him to her, before
he heard the slow, quiet
sentences…

On the journey home
he sat silently beside her,
digging a fingernail deep
into his thumb;
watching the wipers
frantic
to keep up
with a new kind
of rain.”

It captures that teenaged self-centredness that fails to notice the grandmother’s grief until she tells him and his concerns pale against hers. Again the end is not spoiled for the reader. Occasionally I’d have liked a change in tone, but these poems are written with care and appreciation of detail. The poet clearly understands how to choose details to focus on and allow to accumulate into a story.

“In the Cinema” is available from Playdead Press.

“The Widow’s Confession” Sophia Tobin (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Widows Confession Sophia Tobin book coverThe confession is split into sections and a chapter built around each section so readers can see the back story to the confession and draw their own conclusions to what happened as the story unfolds. It’s set in Broadstairs, Kent in 1850 and the writer of the confession is Delphine Beck (although readers later learn that’s not her real name). Delphine has come to Broadstairs to paint and escape attention after leaving New York, where she was born and grew up, in mysterious circumstances. She has travelled with her sister Julia. Locals are suspicious of the widow, thinking her unconventional ways – walking about the town without a companion and painting – will bring bad luck and some look at her suspiciously when the body of a girl washes up on the beach. Delphine and Julia are not the only strangers in town though. The vicar, Theo Hallam, has a guest, Edmund Steele who later meets his aunt at the local hotel. She befriends two ladies, an aunt and a niece and their circle is joined by Mr Benedict, another painter, who is in Broadstairs to indulgence his artistic temperament, temporarily away from his wife and children, as much as paint. The group come together for excursions, beach walks and picnics, visits to almshouses and other local attractions. Delphine watches Mr Benedict’s efforts to separate aunt and niece and assumes he has designs on the niece, whom she gently tries to warn. The niece reveals she is adopted and has to look to marriage to secure her future. She is worldly enough to know there’s no future in Mr Benedict’s efforts, which are not aimed at the extramarital affair that everyone assumes. Delphine also watches a gentle romance develop between Julia and Edmund Steele which she fears will result in her having to reveal her own secrets. She also puzzles over Theo Hallam’s reaction to her which seems to veer between hatred and tenderness with no apparent cause.

The local doctor and police are content to write the girl’s death off as accidental drowning. To other otherwise would mean spending scarce resources or funding an investigation from their own pockets. Even two further deaths fail to provoke a reaction: the bodies of a couple were found in a chalk pit and it’s assumed they fell in after drinking too much at a nearby tavern. Without the resources to investigate or families to demand action, it’s down to the group of visitors and vicar to try and uncover the truth, limited by the lack of forensic data available and the reluctance from townsfolk to talk about the deaths.

From Delphine’s confession, readers learn she’s been disowned by her family by an act of teenage rebellion which brought unintentional disgrace on her. This led her to travel to England with her sister – also disowned – to forge a new life and new identity. So far the pair have been careful not to forge friendships or set down roots in any of the places they’ve visited. When Mr Benedict discovers Delphine’s true name via an art dealer with a loose tongue, Delphine makes plans to move to London. A move that might be scuppered by Julia’s desires for Edmund Steele.

Mr Steele’s visit to Broadstairs isn’t entirely one of a tourist either. He and Theo Hallam have a mutual friend who is concerned about Theo’s wellbeing and had asked Edmund to spend time in Broadstairs to check on Theo. The vicar had previously been on a mission to Africa and is trying to conceal his guilt over a chain of events he set in motion before returning to England. Although not his fault, he carries the burden of a woman’s accidental death and has convinced himself that he is not worthy of another woman’s love. A problem that has parallels with Delphine’s secrets.

A third potential victim is rescued and the group’s attention turns back to the serial killer in their midst. The killer’s motives are very much in keeping with the social constraints and values of the period, making the historical setting justified. Similarly, Delphine’s and Theo’s secrets are very much of their time and their issues have echoes in the killer’s motives.

“The Widow’s Confession” is very much from Delphine’s viewpoint as she struggles to make sense of her situation and reflects on the situations of the group she finds herself in. She knows she cannot go back to her life with her family in New York but has to make sense of the past before she can live in her present. Fortunately she is an empathetic character, practical, down to earth and as observant as you would expect an artist to be. It is also easy to warm to Edmund Steele, the sensible friend, and Theo Hallam, a man struggling with his own past and desire to be helpful to his parishioners. Julia, the niece and her aunt seem to be hiding secrets under a veneer of manners and expected behaviour. The confession enhances the story behind the murders and the two are credibly woven together so both are integral to the story.

Overall “The Widow’s Confession” is engaging with both the historical and thriller elements carefully sown together.

Next week, there will be a guest post from author Sophia Tobin discussing why she set this novel in Broadstairs and the challenges involved in writing about a place that has a direct personal connection.

Sophia Tobin's Blog Tour appearing on 21 January 2015 at emmalee1.wodpress.com

“The Stray American” Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press) – novel review

The Stray American Wendy Brandmark book cover

Larry Greenberg teaches law at an American college in London, England. He signs a new contract each year and thinks of going home to Boston, USA. He vacillates between girlfriends, skeletal Carla and the Rubenesque Devorah. Carla is English: eccentric and blank and works as an illustrator for medical textbooks. She draws a picture of him naked with a wing in place of one arm, telling him a story about a girl whose brothers were turned into swans. The girl has a limited chance to turn them back into men but doesn’t do it quickly enough and the youngest is left with one wing.

Devorah is an exiled New Yorker with every intention of going back home. Through her, Larry meets the “Un-Americans”, a group he’d put off joining when a colleague invited him. Collectively the group want to fit in but their Britishness is worn like a new coat: it looks OK in the mirror but the shoulders are stiff and the arms not quite the right length. After a dismal bring-and-share Thanksgiving, the group begin to drift apart.

When a foreign student, who cannot return to his home country due to involvement in political activism, discovers he cannot stay in England either, he turns to Larry for help. Larry’s expertise is corporate law, so he refers the student to a colleague. This sets in motion a chain of events that force Larry to choose between Devorah (USA) or Carla (England).

Through Larry, a man who could pack up his office in ten minutes and fly, Wendy Brandmark explores themes of rootless and identity. At first Larry’s disengagement and knowledge that he can always return to Boston so has a safety net, seem like advantages. He has no urgency to make life in London work, unlike his student who has no safety net or Devorah who feels claustrophobic in London’s clutter and longs for her childhood spaces. But his safety net wraps around him and becomes a barrier. Keeping his options open prevents him from committing to any of them.

“The Stray American” is a novel where everything seems to happen but everything happens. Larry is both flawed and engaging. His desires for both Carla, a distant fluttering bird, and Devorah, homely and vibrant, are credibly drawn. While Larry sees himself as putting in his hours at a college where no one is allowed to fail, his students see a professor and at least one goes on to enter a prestigious US college. Similarly his colleagues ask advice and invite him to dinners, showing Larry is more substantial then he thinks he is. He makes “The Stray American” an engaging, inviting read.

“The Stray American” is available from Holland Park Press

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Sophia Tobin's Blog Tour appearing on 21 January 2015 at emmalee1.wodpress.com

“Deadline” John Sandford (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

Deadline by John Sandford book cover

Virgil Flowers, with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, has a knack of making work for himself. In tracking down a dognapping gang, he uncovers a meth lab and then a possible connection to the murder of a journalist on a local paper, all in the backwoods of south east Minnesota, where he only agreed to help out with the dognapping case to stop the local rednecks turning into lynch mob. Readers, having been party to the school board meeting where a motion to kill local journalist Clancy Conley was passed, already know the who, why and how of the murder, which means John Sandford has set himself an uphill task of keeping readers hooked through the twists of investigations and getting them to care about the outcome.

Luckily there’s a lightly done thread of humour and well-drawn characters, who aren’t stereotypes or there to add local colour, to keep readers interested. It doesn’t take Virgil long to discover a flash drive that belonged to Clancy Conley with all his notes and evidence of the story he was working on that got him killed. Virgil’s clue is a song title. Readers have already figured out the hiring place due to the frequent references to it every time Virgil enters or leaves the journalist’s trailer. Conley had uncovered the school board’s scam: overcharging on essentials like fuel for the school buses and creaming the profit for themselves. Over the best part of a couple of decades, that amounts to sizeable profit. A profit the school board aren’t above protecting with murder. Their initial plan is to kill Conley to kill his story. Then, to throw Flowers off the scent, they agree to kill one of the town’s undesirables, who happens to be linked to the dognappers, and then throw in an arson attack on the offices the school board uses as good measure. Sandford keeps the pace fairly slow so readers get to know the individual school board members, their reasons for getting involved in the scam and, in a couple of cases, their getaway plans if they were caught. Although one of the board members does observe that Flowers is “sharper than he looks”. The incongruity of school board meeting to pass a unanimous motion to commit murder is played for humour.

Meanwhile Flowers has to keep the lynch mob, who know the dogs are on their way to be sold to bunchers who then sell the animals on to research laboratories, at bay so the DEA can take down the meth lab, as well as figure out the weakest link in the school board so they give each other up. No one pretends that’s not going to happen. Flowers is a laid-back fisherman with a love of vintage rock tee shirts, cowboy boots and his current girlfriend, Frankie. Frankie, a single mother of a brood of children, has survived two of the eight novels in the Virgil Flowers series so far so she looks like a keeper. Unlike most detectives’ love interests, Frankie copes with the danger inherent in Flowers’s job. Flowers doesn’t drink excessively, have anger issues or a dodgy family background so manages to escape the clichés and avoid looking too much like a Minnesota version of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux or Elmore Leonard’s Raylan. But John Sandford does share the same observant eye for the landscape and rural poverty and treats his subjects with compassion.

The one weakness was the touch of sentimentality that crept into the final scenes. After anti-vivisectionists gate-crash a dog fair, to prevent dogs being sold to research laboratories, and the ensuing chaos, one dog takes to following Virgil and Virgil winds up taking the dog home. I didn’t see Virgil actually doing this. From “Deadline”, Frankie seems far too practical to take on the challenge of another mouth to feed. The scene felt more like an opening into the next novel rather than integral to “Deadline”. I didn’t buy it.

“Deadline” is a smooth read, a thriller with more focus on humour than grit or motivation, written by an author who has justified confidence his characters will hold the readers’ focus. It’s a book to be read for the story rather than as a whodunit.

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“Beyond the Tune” Jayne Stanton (Soundswrite Press) – poetry review

Beyond the Tune Jayne Stanton book cover

The title comes from the opening poem, “Grace Notes”, a journey to Ireland via ferry where the final stanza invites readers to

“Wave on your luggage, walk the only road there is
till it runs out of tarmac and the salt air draws you. Listen
for the notes between the notes. Slip beyond the tune.”

It’s an apposite title because most of the poems invite readers to look beyond the words on the page to the images and thoughts conjured within. For example in “Suave and debonair” a girl’s pride in her father glosses over but still recognises his faults:

“Daddy’s girl, my angle’s blind
to a thinning crown, the comb-over;
a weak heart under peacock swagger – and
you’re taller, somehow, out of overalls
in slacks with knife-edge creases down
to split and polish; hands in pockets
weighing small change possibilities.
You shrug your shoulders
into a hounds tooth blazer, square
the broken checks of green and cream;
leather buttons left undone, token casual.

My formative years in toughened hands:
our lifelines grafted till you learn the art of letting go.”

The accumulation of details allows the reader to build the picture in their mind’s eye. The use of end of line enjambment hurries the reader over the suggestions of doubt; the “weak heart” is brushed over to the emphasis on “peacock swagger”. “Suave and debonair” isn’t the only poem to touch on memories of growing up, but, like the others, it doesn’t dwell on sentiment. There’s an acknowledgement of things not being ideal, but no hagiographic embellishment either. “Vintage” epitomises this with a look back to family seaside holidays, triggered by discovering an old case in the attic, with its sense of making the best of things.

“Rediscover Pac-a-Macs as beachwear,
resurrect the swing coat, tartan duffle bag;
own the promenade in red T-bar sandals.
Strike a pose in that ruched nylon swimsuit
christened in trawler oil, your profile
caught in the blink of a box Brownie’s eye.”

“Pac-a-Macs as beachwear” is a succinct description of summer on a UK beach. Swing coats are back in for Autumn/Winter 2014 but are never fashionable in summer. Fortunately the Brownie isn’t high definition enough to capture goose-bumps. It’s the telling choice of which details to record that create a solid foundation for these poems.

The tone of the tune changes too. Near the middle is a sequence of four poems, “Some stories from the other side” which take a darker tone. In “2. Pet” an ambiguous her has learnt to reduce her world to his house:

“feigns pleasure, throaty
as his fingers find the chip
that keeps her his.

He likes her stone-bellied;
she dreams of slipped collars,
a quick way out.

Each time he sidles back. Redolent
of feral nights in back alleys, he pins her down
with stories of newborns drowned in buckets.”

There’s love too, and not just in the poem’s title, “Love in Led Zepplin album covers”

“We pissed lyrical in pseudo-psychedelic dreams;
dawns bled tangerine, our zepplins crashed
manila skies with hummingbirds and butterflies
whose roundel-painted wings we glued
in grounded chips of china blue.

The towers on Dudley Road are long gone;
you and I, my rock, my song, still ramble on”.

The shorter “i” vowel sounds give way to the longer “o” sounds as youth became older and the initial urgency of romance became enduring love. “Beyond the Tune” lives up to its apt title.

“Beyond the Tune” is available from Soundswrite Press.

 

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