#BookReviews: Hillbilly Elegy’s Breadth Over Depth and More…

The first half of 2017 hasn’t turned up any literary gems I’ve fallen in love with, but nonetheless I managed to read a few books I’ve enjoyed. As for the titles like Hillbilly Elegy, it’s still possible to take away important points even though the bestselling memoir stuck me as lackluster. Most of my reading these days occurs via Audible audiobooks while walking my dog. I combed through my Kindle archive the other day though and am intent on tackling some ebooks during the summer months.

 

Quote image from Hillbilly Elegy

 

 

*Each cover is an Amazon affiliate link. If you click and purchase, I get a percentage.

 

Hillbilly Elegy’s Breadth Over Depth and More…

Just like I did in December, I’m back six months later with another post to highlight recent reads. The short reviews below are the type I post to Amazon and Goodreads. Back in the day, this blog focused on lengthy critical book reviews such as scathing one of Fifty Shades of Grey. As scheduling permits, I will still be posting literary criticism pieces like How to Read a Personal Essay.

 

The bestseller status of this memoir piqued my interest, but ultimately the book falls flat. The author delivers somewhat of a sociological analysis of hillbilly culture, though it’s decidedly not very sophisticated in its delivery. At times, it read like a high school research report with citations tacked on in order to deliver breadth instead of depth. Plus, the prose borders on downright clunky a good deal of the time. The most interesting parts involve the anecdotes about Vance’s grandparents, mother, and series of “uncles.”

 

A better story would have delved into all the particulars of how he managed to come through it all as a graduate of Yale Law School. Such contrasts are where the true story gold lies and where the true implications of research can be mined if questions are to be answered. In any case, the book does solidify my impressions that the poverty I grew up surrounded by in a small silver mining town in northern Idaho bears a lot of uncomfortable similarities to Vance’s neck of the woods. This book can hopefully lead the way to a gradual deepening of the conversation it’s started.

 

Ella has cancer and John has Alzheimer’s. Together they make a complete person, mostly. Rather than waste away in a nursing home, Ella wants to go on one last road trip… to Disneyland. Everyone deserves to go out with dignity. I realized lately I tend to gravitate towards books that feature senior citizens as main characters. I’m not sure what to make of that, but this book is no exception. On the surface, I should not like this book. Almost the entire story is interior monologue. But an eighty-year-old woman certainly has a lot to say. I admire this book on many levels.

 

Where do songs come from? Where does any art come from, for that matter? What we create is the culmination of a myriad of influences. In Springsteen’s case, some of those influences include a mentally ill father, a devoted mother, a Catholic background of perpetual guilt, and the artist’s own struggle with depression. Songs about the common man can transcend the everyday, and their creator often found himself becoming a spokesperson for various causes. His life story is a study in how an artist comes to be, the hard work, the mistakes made, the steadfast grit necessary to hone one’s craft and understand one’s limitations. He notes a few times he was the dictator of the band, but yet still welcomed creative input to a degree. Various anecdotes such as his first “real” guitar actually turning out to be six-string bass are priceless.

 

Even though I’ve taught English, my background in mythology was always just enough to squeak by when teaching The Odyssey. All that’s started to change by meeting someone more well-versed in mythology than I. He also has a son who is going to end up being one of those students in class who can school the English teacher when it comes to gods and goddesses. In any case, I’m a new fan to Gaiman’s work and found this collection a worthwhile basis for developing a deeper appreciation for Norse lore as well as his other books like American Gods and Anansi Boys. The author clearly knows his subject and brings each story to life with vivid reinterpretations and deft prose.

 

The primary audience for this book is someone who hasn’t been married yet and probably wants kids. I am not that person. In any case, the book does go about offering advice on how to form a solid and lasting partnership. Despite the in-your-face title, the level of bluntness and humor struck me as veering toward the milder side. I skipped all of the chapter quizzes, but some readers will inevitably enjoy such things. To me, it’s a no-brainer to look for someone who will make a good partner, but we all know feelings can and do get in the way of taking a business-like stance to finding a significant. As someone who thought she’d been a careful spouse shopper only to have him literally disappear, I’m more inclined to heed books that give advice on how to bridge inevitable communication gaps rather than treat relationships like a business.

 

All of the books I read this year can be viewed on my Goodreads Reading Challenge. While you there, make sure to add me as a friend if we haven’t already connected.

 

Have you read Hillbilly Elegy? What recent reads would you recommend and why? What recent reads have disappointed?

 

 

I’d like to thank Marie Bailey for featuring my GoFundMe breast cancer campaign in the post Living in the Moment and Beyond.

 

Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2017

Author: Jeri Walker

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31 Comments

  1. I haven’t read any of these books,but based on what you’ve said about them The Leisure Seeker is the one which most appeals to me.

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    • Of all the books I read the first half of 2017, I did enjoy The Leisure Seeker the most.

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  2. Jeri, it was a pleasure writing about your campaign 🙂 And thank you for these reviews. My husband has a copy of Hillbilly Elegy and I believe he started reading it but he’s “obsessed” right now with reading about the Total Solar Eclipse so who knows if he’ll ever finish it. I have a copy of Springsteen’s book (the one rock star I’m still worshipping after seeing him in 1978 in Massachusetts), waiting for the day when I can indulge myself. The Leisure Seeker definitely sounds like one I would enjoy. I also really, really enjoy audiobooks. Most recently I listened to MacBeth: A Novel, narrated by Alan Cummings. You might be interested in adding it to your queue. The authors are two professors who simply are offering their interpretation of MacBeth; by no means do they intend their novel to replace the play. Cummings is a wonderful narrator.

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    • Marie, quite a few counties in Idaho will be in the path of the total eclipse. I hope I make it out somewhere to see it, but there’s a chance my surgery might fall then as well. I love Alan Cumming ever since he was the lead in Cabaret. His reading voice is simply great. I’m listening to the Audible sample of the MacBeth novel now and already really like it. I also enjoyed Cumming’s memoir.

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  3. Hillbilly Elegy was disappointing. The buzz led me to believe that Vance would offer concrete insights into his corner of the U.S. and a deeper understanding of the country as a whole made up of many parts. It didn’t. His dismissal of the psychological aspects of a life left the memoir hollow. I kept reading hoping that he’d realize that his theory about how well-connected groups of people put a “thumb on a scale” to help their children succeed is not a phenomenon solely of the outwardly “successful.” He didn’t seem to notice that a few chapters earlier he spoke about how the Hillbilly families moved for work and brought everybody from their home towns to join them for new employment, because the bosses encouraged them to bring in new employees. I think he needed a good editor—hint, hint—one who would challenge him to make it a better book.

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    • Candy, hollow is definitely a fitting word to describe Vance’s memoir. It will be interesting to see what other titles may result from other memoirists as a result of his book’s success. Maybe some will be much better 😉

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  4. Nothing here really jumps out at me. If this was a bookshelf I was browsing I probably would have picked up Hillbilly Elegy. That is, until I read your review. I have enough to read, thanks for saving me from this one.

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  5. I haven’t read any of these Jeri. But a friend was reading Springsteen’s book while we holidayed together so I was getting a blow by blow every day at the pool. Sounds like a good read but have to wonder if it was ghost written. 🙂

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    • DG, I can imagine Springsteen had some help getting the memoir in order. I too gave my guy many blow-by-blows as I listened to it during the snowiest winter on record in my neck of the woods.

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  6. Thanks for the reviews, Jeri. I haven’t even heard of the first one. Although it sounds interesting, I think I would rather delve into Gaiman’s book. I absolutely love reading about Goddesses and Gods. Recently, I finished reading Edith Wharton’s Short Story collection and it is amazing. The stories are timeless and she shows her characters without telling. I’m currently reading Elizabeth Berg. Her work is light and cozy which I truly enjoy from time to time. Of course, I’m reading my own work for polishing up the edits 😀

    p.s. I would never view a potential partner as a business deal—bound to fail. Always listen to the heart. I’ve learned that the hard way.

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    • Lisa, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be as prolific a writer as Berg? I just happy to have finally found a doable stride with getting my writing done. After a year of GoFundMe updates, I plan to start a narrative nonfiction blog that will result in blogging a a book a year.

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  7. I agree with you Jeri, this year I haven’t come across any literary gems. I pick up books at the recommendation of friends, read slowly and therefore I am quite choosy. Thanks for these reviews…sorry to say that none of the books seem to inspire me. Last week I finished reading ‘On tyranny,’ a small but powerful comment on present times and how despots keep rising from time to time. Frivolous and romantic stories no longer interest me as they are all similar!

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    • Balroop I don’t have much patience either for stories that tend to be too similar to another. Thanks for mentioning On Tyranny. It sounds like a title I would like to read.

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  8. I love that you review these books, so if we decide to check them out, we know more what to expect. I’m still interested in The Hillbilly Elegy, in spite of your review. But now, I’ll have better expectations when I get around to reading it. And I love the idea of where does art come from, so I’ll have to take a look at the Bruce Springsteen one too. Thanks for exposing me to some books I’ve never encountered!

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    • Meredith, I do feel Vance’s book is worthwhile for the conversation he’s sparked, just don’t expect mind-blowing writing.

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  9. I haven’t read any of these books. I’ve been liking the Peter Robinson Alan Banks’ books quite a bit. I find the older I get, the more care I take in truly saying: I love this book and recommending it to friends.

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    • RoseMary, I enjoy mysteries but don’t make enough time to read them. That’s the story with most titles for me these days, but thank goodness for dog walks and audio books. I added Gallows View to my reading list just now.

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  10. I’ve wondered whether to pick up a copy of Hillbilly Elegy, based more on the staggering number of Amazon reviews than anything else. But reading your review, I think I’ll pass! A great book that you might like that goes in depth about Appalachian culture etc through essay format is Deer Hunting With Jesus. I read it about a decade ago but parts of it still stick with me, which doesn’t usually happen with my sieve of a brain. 🙂

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    • Laura, I’ve heard of Deer Hunting with Jesus. Thanks for bringing it to my attention again. I’m sure it will stick with me as well, and I’ve added it to my reading list.

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  11. Your reviews remind me that I have to get myself a copy of at least one of Neil Gaiman’s books as I keep hearing about them! A friend of mine read the Springsteen book and loved it but, then, he’s a huge fan, so likely he would have loved the alphabet printed inside that cover 😉 I’m reading the Land of Stories series right now. I’m enjoying the YA genre for a change. It’s fantasy and great fun.

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    • Christy, it took me forever to pick up a Gaiman book, but American Gods truly won me over. I consider myself a true fan now. I just finished Neverwhere not long ago as well as Anansi Boys.

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  12. I don’t veer much into the literary world, but it was interesting to see your take on the different works.

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  13. Enjoyed your reviews, Jeri, even without the gems. I haven’t read Hillbilly Elegy and it is definitely not one I’d be attracted to. My mother’s family are originally from Oklahoma and now live in the backwoods of the Bayou in Louisana, all of which means I’ve had my fill of hillbilly and “dumb Okie” jokes. Bah humbug. 🙂

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    • Marty, one author I’ve enjoyed for a glimpse into backwoods life is Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone.

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  14. Great reviews Jeri. You have given us a little taster of each book.

    The book I found of most interest is The Leisure Seeker. I love the idea of someone living life to the full and not allowing their age or limitations get in the way. We can learn so much from the elderly as they have tons of life experience.

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    • Phoenicia, The Leisure Seeker is a great example of going out of this world on one’s own terms. Overall, it’s an uplifting book. The downfall to some readers is how much of the story takes place inside of Ella’s head as she looks back over her life.

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  15. The Leisure Seeker seems to be the one that I would most be interested to read out of all the books listed but lately, I haven’t really found many great new books which has been disappointing. I love re-reading books so I have just been re-reading a few of my favourite ones these past few months.

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    • Emily, I go on kicks too where I like to re-read old favorites. I have a stack of paperbacks I’ll get rid of once I give each one another read.

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  16. I hope we don’t end up with a duplicate comment as I entered one and then got an error message.

    I love your reviews, Jeri, as they are written with intelligence and honesty. I would enjoy reading Springstein’s memoir. Thx for sharing.

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