Sunday, February 12, 2017

Cluster Critiques

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

“I related to this book personally,” I said as we walked the ten blocks from my friend’s home to the Capital for the Women’s March in Austin. “Of course you did,” said my friend. “You are a hillbilly.”

I am a hillbilly of sorts if you define hillbilly as country – or what out in West Texas where I grew up we call “redneck,” named for people whose work environment is more outdoor than in. But to a redneck, a hillbilly is from the shallow end of the gene pool, and distinguished by bad teeth, poor grammar, and the lack of at least a high school education. We all classify. Don't we?

The irony here is it could be the culture of disrepair described in Vance’s book, desperate for a voice – any voice - the current administration capitalized on, buoying someone otherwise undignified into a position of power – launching a universal outcry symbolized by the Women’s March.

Author J. D. Vance’s story of ascent from Kentucky Appalachia hillbilly to Yale graduate feels more an anomaly than the achievement of the “American dream.” Although one might think his message is “I got out, so can you,” the story is more along the lines of “It was really bad, but only as bad as the distance from which viewed.” Vance grew up in a terrible environment of poverty, abuse, alcoholism, chaos and insecurity. But it felt normal to him when he was standing in the middle of it.  It only felt abnormal, and gave Vance his perspective, when he slipped away, into the marines, eventually graduating from law school.

I don’t know that there’s an abiding message in Hillbilly Elegy, other than when the disenfranchised crowd gets big enough, revolution is inevitable, regardless of whether the revolution is their solution or only imagines it is. In any case Hillbilly Elegy was an interesting and relatively well-told story about a segment of our society we would just as soon not believe exist. It reminded me of Jeannette Walls jaw-dropping bestseller, Glass Castles, about surviving an unimaginably deprived childhood, but less poetic. Vance’s keen writing skills keep Hillbilly Elegy from being a pity party, and elevate it to “Real Life 101.” Read it.

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

About thirty seconds into the audible version of Close Range, I turned off the sound system in our car and said to my husband, “Wow, I’ve missed Annie Proulx! I’d forgotten how well she writes ‘country’.”

Although I’ve only read a few of Proulx’s books, That Ole’ Ace In the Hole, about pig farming in the Texas Panhandle, is one of my favorite books of all time. Her capacity to capture and articulate the “country folk” culture made me feel, possibly for the first time in my life, that a college degree and big words, aren’t necessarily the true measure of intelligence. I’ve known some stunningly smart people who never made it past grade school (like my dad), and some irrationally stupid college graduates (who will remain nameless), and Proulx’s characters confirmed for me that people’s worth isn’t truly known until we truly know them.

Proulx’s The Shipping News won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, but probably her biggest claim to fame came as a result of the final short story in this Close Range collection, Brokeback Mountain, which when made into a movie, won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award.

Annie Proulx is one of those writers who’s writing is so poetic you barely care the point she’s making, but she can certainly make her point in very few words. I’ll never forget these two quotes in Brokeback Mountain when two cowboys can’t realize the deep love they have for each other:

I can't make it on a coupla high-altitude fucks once or twice a year! You are too much for me Ennis, you sonofawhoreson bitch! I wish I knew how to quit you.

If you can't fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it.

Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers by Leslie Bennetts

I never really wanted to like Joan Rivers’ bawdy, acerbic brand of humor, but did appreciate that she and Phyllis Diller were two of the pioneer female comedians who definitively pierced the gender barrier in a standup comedy style dominated by men in their era.  The leading themes in this mostly intriguing biography are (1) Rivers achieved her extreme wealth and fame through a grueling work ethic, a life of sacrifices, and by relentlessly fighting for everything she got; (2) She was a dedicated wife, mother, grandmother, and friend (3) She always had very low self-esteem.

If you’re looking for a blow-by-blow of River’s obsession with plastic surgery you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re interested in what it took to succeed as a female comedian in a culture that fought her every inch of the way, you’ll be totally satisfied; author Bennetts does a commendable job of presenting years of detailed struggle in an amazingly palatable format. One of the things that jumped out at me was what a dedicated friend Rivers was. There were so many testimonials about her loyalty and generosity – not just monetary generosity, but her sensitivity and the time she dedicated to her friendships. That impressed me.

I also enjoyed reading about River’s elaborate parties, (she would rent huge yachts and sail large groups of friends all over the world), and her home decorating style, best described as Louis XIV on crack. There’s a lot of print dedicated to Rivers’ relationship and eventual falling-out with Johnny Carson, and that part although initially fascinating, eventually became tedious. All in all, though, I finished the book with a great deal more respect for Rivers, and if you like biographies of celebrities, you’ll enjoy Last Girl Before Freeway.

I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood's Legendary Actresses by Robert Wagner

I remember slightly swooning as a teenager every time Robert Wagner entered the scene of a movie, and I’ve always thought he was a terrifically handsome guy, so I was interested in what he had to say about the many Hollywood actresses he acted with, dated, and no doubt bedded.  

When it comes to sheer numbers and royalty, Wagner doesn’t let us down. We get his takes on Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Swanson, Norma Shearer, Loretta Young, Joan Blondell, Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell, Dorothy Lamour, Debra Paget, Jean Peters, Linda Darnell, Betty Hutton, Raquel Welch, Glenn Close, and the two actresses he married, Natalie Wood and Jill St. John.

His description of the “charisma of these women on film, why they became stars, and how their specific emotional and dramatic chemistries affected the choices they made as actresses as well as the choices they made as women” was satisfying and interesting. He says up front his book IS NOT a tell-all, and I can assure you it isn’t, Wagner one by one essentially says, over and over again, they were beautiful, they were nice, and he had/has a deep and abiding respect for them. But after a while it begins to take on an eye rolling inspiring, gratuitous disingenuousness. Come on Wagner give us a little spice, a little variety! Who was the best kisser? Who made big mistakes? Who turned you down?  Something! Skip this one.

The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State by Lawrence Wright

Timing is everything, and Pulitzer Prize Winner Lawrence Wright, as a young journalist and Vietnam War conscientious objector, ended up an “alternative service” teacher at American University in Cairo, setting the foundation for his life-long immersion in, and journalistic expertise on the culture and politics of the Middle East, al-Qaida, the Islamic State, ISIS and terrorism.  

When I began this book I keep feeling like I’d read it before, and soon realized I had. It is a compilation of a number of essays Wright had written for New Yorker, and a good bit was excerpted from his 2006 book The Looming Tower (the Pulitzer winner), which I devoured and which introduced me to a new essential threat I’d never serious entertained before in my lifetime. That didn’t, however, diminish my – well enjoyment doesn’t seem an appropriate characterization of reading about the never-ending horrific battle between religious factions – so let’s just say it didn’t diminish my interest and intrigue and down-right astonishment at the volume and detail of knowledge Wright possesses about that “world”. A world, that before 9-11, seemed remote and of minimal interest, but on 9-11 became “our world.”

A lot of The Terror Years illustrates the flagrant disregard of warnings presented to the FBI and the CIA and the Executive office about threats made to the US, making me wonder if lessons learned there are the reason more recent terrorist activities in America have been single acts as opposed to orchestrated events like 9-11.

Without a doubt, hometown boy Lawrence Wright has a wealth of knowledge and is a very commendable writer. It takes a certain dedication to read non-fiction books that scare the hell out of you, so I can’t exactly say, read it you’ll enjoy it, but I can say it is very good.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Here’s what Julie Klam of the Washington Post said about 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. “I once met a woman who had no issues with food or her body. Just kidding! I’m sure there are people like that, but none that I know.” 

My body image has finally, recently taken on a more “health” and “a good example for my grandkids” theme, but for most of my life it’s been about how I looked, or more precisely how I thought I looked – viewed of course through the carnival-like house of mirrors created by a world that significantly prizes androgynous, waif-like women; at least until Kim Kardashian made big butts OK as long as they are accompanied by big boobs.

Awad certainly isn’t the first woman to write about body image and weight and how it’s dominated her life, but her book stands out because it is fictionalized, and because Awad has a wicked, albeit dark sense of humor and a striking and endearing writing skill. This author’s stories are all tinged with a cutting sadness that rings painfully true to my and no doubt many other women’s experiences, but we trudge on through her unpleasant experiences because they are validating and roughly comforting. And more often than not, we forget this book is about the humiliating and limiting psychosis of body image and just fall into the rhythm and euphoria of really good writing. Read 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.

The Best American Series - 2015 and 2016

Every year since 2009 (when I first discovered The Best American Series of Writing) I’ve looked forward with excitement to reading The Best Sports, Science and Nature, Travel, and Food Writing, chosen from thousands of articles in top magazines, newspaper and journals.  

For example, in this year’s Best American Sports Writing 2016, edited by Rick Telander, Chicago Times and Sports Illustrated columnist, I was riveted by Ariel Levy’s Breaking The Waves, about Diana Nyad’s horrific long-distance swims, and Brian Phillips’ Sea of Crisis, about the mysterious world of sumo wrestling.

And although I was aware that actor Andrew McCarthy had achieved some fame as a travel writer, I was surprised to learn he’d edited The Best American Travel Writing 2015, including fabulous articles not intended to sell hotel rooms, but rather to paint the true culture and soul of intriguing, far-flung and not so far-flung destinations, like Kevin Baker’s 21st Century Limited, about American train stations, “once the most magnificent in the world…even in the smallest towns, they tended to be little jewels of craftsmanship,” and then there was the very funny article by Iris Smyles called Ship of Wonks, about her adventures on a cruise for physics buffs.
In The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, edited by celebrated science writer Amy Stewart, I was stunned by Gabrielle Glaser’s expose on the seedy underbelly of AA in The False Gospel of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Antonia Juhasz fascinating take on the BP disaster in Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea.

In The Best Food Writing 2015, edited by Holly Hughes, former executive editor of Fodor's travel publications, we learn about the latest food trends, what food looks like in the farthest reaches of the planet, and we revisit the traditions and nostalgia of family meals. I’ll never forget the article about a four-day cooking and eating marathon in France prepared by a group of gourmands.

I could literally (or maybe not so literately) go on and on about how informative and enjoyable these collections are – allowing us the best of writing on captivating topics, without the expense of buying magazine and the hassle of sorting through endless advertisements and less enlightening writing. I hope you’ll check out The Best American Series.

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