Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Book Brief: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis 
by J.D. Vance
Harper, 2016
272 pages
source: borrowed hardcover and audiobook from the library

Publisher's summary:

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.

My thoughts:

Hillbilly Elegy seems to be everywhere lately. The author was even an ABC News election night commentator. Ironically, I finished reading the book just hours before election results were announced.

Hillbilly Elegy  is interesting and eye-opening memoir, reminiscent of The Glass Castle.  Vance shares his experiences openly and in the process changed my perception of 'hillbilly culture'. The writing is very good and, as it turns out, Vance is also a fine audiobook narrator.

The book, however, is not as strong from a big picture/social commentary standpoint... which leads to my, probably mistaken, expectations. Is the book a memoir or a social exposé? I was hoping for some equal combination, but doubt that was the author's intent.

My personal 4-star rating reflects my (mistaken) expectations.  Hillbilly Elegy is easily a 5-star memoir.

Highly recommended.


36 comments:

  1. Great review. It is true for me, too, that my expectations can make a difference in how much I enjoy a book. I'm glad you enjoyed it, in spite of your slight disappointment, and it is ironic that you finished it when you did!

    My copy of White Trash is supposed to be delivered today!

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    1. Laurel-Rain Snow- I'm guessing White Trash may provide more of the social commentary I was looking for, but hope it's not too dry... will be curious to hear what you think.

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  2. I've been thinking about reading this because of all the great reviews. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  3. One book you might like that has a big picture approach is The Unwinding, by George Packer. I am reading it now, and it is excellent (and depressing). Quite long and more told in vignettes, but the author does follow a few key people over time. I think you might like it!

    I have this on my library hold list.

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    1. Aarti - That definitely sounds like my kind of book! I plan to read fiction in December, but will add it to my January list. Thank you for the recommendation.

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  4. Replies
    1. Kathy - If you liked The Glass Castle you'll like this one.

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  5. I also have heard much about this book.

    I think that sometimes a straight memoir without an overt message can say lot about society and culture. Sometimes the message is also not so clear cut.

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    1. Brian Joseph - Vance has such an interesting background and has overcome a lot to get to where he is today. It's a very good read, but not what I was expecting.

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  6. With all the hype surrounding this book, especially since the election, I would have expected a social expose as well.

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    1. Debbie - It's still a worthwhile read, but I was expecting more overall discussion.

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  7. This book does seem to be everywhere...which is probably why I haven't picked it up yet. Too many people talking about it. :) But it does seem to be getting mostly favorable reviews. Might have to give it a try...someday.

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    1. Lark - I often avoid reading the 'it' book until the popularity fades. Hope you get a chance to read this someday.

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  8. I recently picked up a copy and look forward to reading it. I was interesting in reading it before I had any knowledge of it being a part of the NY Times list of books for understanding why Trump won the election. I plan on reading the majority of books from that list, but am VERY leery of it being presented from that context.

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    1. Toady - There is not much of an overt 'understanding Trump' angle in this book, but you can certainly make your own inferences. This is mostly Vance's story, with not quite as much social context as I was expecting.

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  9. I've heard other reviews that say that this book didn't quite fulfill whatever they expected. I think if you expect a memoir, it's not really that because it's a social commentary. And if you expect a social commentary, you get a memoir. But I'll just keep a heads up about that for when I read it next year.

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    1. Rachel - Expectations can be tricky and I think book marketers really jumped on the 'understanding Trump supporters' angle to push this one.

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  10. Really enjoyed reading your review of this one. I don't think it would have been on my radar very much but it definitely sounds like a good read.

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    1. Iliana - It's a wonderful memoir... if that's what you expect going in!

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  11. This book does seem to be everywhere lately! You're not the first person who I've heard say that it wasn't as analytical as they hoped. I think that's probably the fault of everyone who keeps saying this is a good way to understand the election, which to me suggests a more analytical book.

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    1. Katie - So sorry, I just found your comment in the moderation folder, but never received notification that it was there! I think you are right about everyone saying it was a way to understand Trump voters that altered readers' expectations. I think if I'd just expected a memoir, I would have been happier. Still, it was a very good read.

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  12. Oh I'm glad I read your review. I too have been seeing this book everywhere and have put it on my list. I will go into it as memoir instead of social commentary.

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    1. BethF - I think the release timing with the election cycle caused marketing people to push it in a way that skewed my expectations.

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  13. Great review. I am really looking forward to this one.

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    1. Stephanie - It's a really good memoir! Hope you like it as much as I did.

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  14. I had the exact same reaction, I wanted more of the big picture, but couldn't fault the book, only my expectations.

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    1. Lisa - I'm still looking for a good 'big picture' book on the subject...

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  15. I've just started listening to this book and I have adjusted my expectations so that I don't expect a social commentary. You are right that Vance is a great audiobook narrator.

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    1. Athira - Glad you're enjoying the audio. It can be a gamble when the author narrates, but Vance does a great job!

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  16. I've seen this one on various blogs. It does sound like quite a memoir. How he went from Hillybilly to Yale Law School is quite impressive indeed. I'd like to check it out and I might look for the audio -- thx for letting me know the author reads it.

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    1. Susan - Vance's success is impressive. I think his time in the marines was crucial... certainly taught him discipline!

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  17. Some of these same books are on my reading list.

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    1. Patty - Not sure why blogger is adding these comments to the wrong post, but I hope you get a chance to read some of these, too!

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  18. I was a huge Amy Tan fan but I wasn't keen on this one. Prefer The Hundred Secret Senses.

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    1. Vintage Reading - For some reason, this comment published on the wrong post. But, based on so many negative reviews, I've decided to skip Saving Fish From Drowning... it's doubtful I would be able to finish before our book club meeting on Tuesday anyway.

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