“Hillbilly Elegy:” A Book Review. Does J.D. Vance succeed in explaining the Rust Belt to the rest of America?

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Photo credit: Goodreads.com

Rating: 3/5 stars

Like many folks in the past few weeks, I stumbled upon J.D. Vance’s nonfiction book and memoir Hillbilly Elegy on a list of ‘best books to understand the 2016 election’ written likely by The New York Times or another similarly eminent publication. In reading it, I hoped to glean an unfiltered, insightful perspective of someone who is from and still holds a deep emotional attachment to his home in Appalachia.

By that metric, the book succeeded — with a few disappointing caveats. Vance gives a honest personal account of everything from witnessing his mother’s drug abuse to the screaming fights of his neighbors to the enduring love of his Mamaw (grandma) that gave him a pathway to great success as a Yale Law student. (Mamaw is awesome and by far the best character in the book, by the way. I would have read this book just to hear her swear like a sailor; gruffly, yet lovingly push Vance to become educated and achieve something more than a hillbilly life; and threaten those who dared hurt her family.)  The book offers both a deeply unflattering and at times, heartwarming look at the people that he calls his friends and family as an insight more broadly into the culture of white working-class Appalachia.

The writing isn’t earth-shattering by any means, but then again, I didn’t open it up expecting literary flash, but rather, interesting substance. As a minor critique: the book can get a little repetitive at times in its storytelling. But I think I was more disappointed in the content, in part because I was hoping for something more than memoir. Had the book combined his powerful story with compelling academic analysis, it might have been more well-rounded and meaningful than a simple narrative account.

The book wasn’t written with the intent to explain the ‘working class Trump voter’ to the liberal masses — even though it’s since been interpreted by much of the mainstream media to be just that — but Vance did seek to shed light on the culture of Appalachia, of how people who live in the Rust Belt behave and why, even if their behavior seems to run counter to their best interests. I would say he succeeded somewhat in making us more aware of and empathetic towards working class Appalachia. However, the end result is often a one-note picture of people who often act in horrible ways to those around them, entrapped by the harshness of their circumstances and being unwilling to rise above them. Still, it’s hard to dismiss, because it is Vance’s own lived narrative.

True, Vance does offer some answers to questions like ‘how do we help ameliorate the situation in Appalachia?’ with some no-nonsense talk against condescending paternalism — which white-collar America is all-too prone to offer up in discussions of blue collar workers — and failed, if well-intentioned, government policies to help the poor. And yet, he offers no tangible solutions as alternatives to the government policies that he bitterly derides.

For example: I almost laughed at his chiding of politicians who set forth legislation to curb payday lending — predatory loans offered at exorbitantly high-interest rates to primarily low-income folks that often leaves them trapped in spiraling debt. He justifies his support of a horrible practice like this by citing how payday loans helped him get over a short-term economic windfall without any long-term debt. This is a case where anecdotal evidence slips dangerously into a generalization that I would strongly wager is not true for many working class individuals — something which Vance tends to do throughout the book.

The biggest critique though: At the end of the book, you’re often left with the feeling of despair; this is just the way it is in this part of the country, and absent the love and support of key familial figures that Vance was lucky to have in his life, most young working class people in Appalachia have little chance of making it out of there. And that’s a tough, maybe overly simplistic pill to swallow for most readers — especially for a policy wonk like me fresh out of Washington, DC — even though it’s the primary takeaway from the book.

A Barnes & Noble closes down this holiday season and shatters Bronx residents’ hearts

Seasonal holiday wares are in full display at the Baychester Barnes & Noble in the Bronx. Red and white tins of spiced black tea, peppermint bark, and mugs bearing the grinning faces of Snoopy and the Grinch adorn the entrance to the bookstore’s café. Kids fresh out of school for the day chase their siblings around the carpeted children’s section and beg their parents for new books.

And yet, the Baychester Barnes & Noble is slated to close its doors at the end of this year. It is currently the only bookstore located in Bronx – a borough of nearly 1.5 million people in New York City. According to Metro US, the last independent bookstore in Bronx, Books in the Hood, shut its doors in 2011. The next closest Barnes & Noble is in Yonkers, north of New York City.

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The Baychester Barnes and Noble in the Bronx. Photo credit: Barnesandnoble.com

The shuttering of Barnes & Noble in Bronx is only the latest in a series of closures over the past ten years, though they have become fewer in recent years. According to Fortune.com, Barnes & Noble store numbers dropped from 793 in 2007 to 648 in 2016.

Although Barnes & Noble has pledged to open up a new bookstore in the Bronx sometime in the next two to three years, the community will still be for a time bereft of a key place of learning and tranquility, especially for its youth.

 

It’s an interesting dilemma in New York, where residents usually mourn the closing of independent stores due to gentrification – not a chain retailer like Barnes & Noble. But, I understand the feeling.

 

Growing up in the suburbs of northern California, I loved going to my local Barnes & Noble. I would curl up between two aisles and devour one book after another, reluctantly retreating from my cocoon after three hours to find my mother at the appointed time and depart. A chai frappucino and a set of good books at Barnes & Noble was all I needed.

 

When the Barnes & Noble near my hometown closed down a few years ago, I experienced a keen sense of sorrow, knowing that when I went back home, the site of many good childhood and teenage memories would be gone. I chatted with my mother, begrudging Amazon for decimating bookstores nationwide while I simultaneously bought a Kindle.

 

So I brave the long sojourn from Manhattan to the Bronx, taking the subway and then another bus that drops me off at the side of a lonely highway next to the Bay Plaza shopping center – a strip mall with a Stop & Shop and Bob’s Discount Furniture, among other stores. There isn’t a single mom-and-pop store in sight.

 

And there it is. Flanked by a Kmart and a Forever 21, stands the Barnes & Noble. It appears like any other any Barnes and Noble, with a red brick façade and posters in the window advertising discounts for children’s books like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Bestsellers like The Girl on the Train and Ina Garter’s new cookbook are prominently on display.

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A popular children’s book on display at Barnes & Noble. Photo credit: Amazon.com

 

Strolling in, I ask an employee if she has any thoughts on the closing of the store. She remarks with a curt “We’re not allowed to talk about that.” So I ask for her manager.

 

While I wait, I approach a woman and her young son at the front of the store, and start chatting with them. Her name is Heather Arminio, and she’s aghast to hear that the store will be closing its doors. “We’ve been coming for years. I brought [my son] since he was a little kid, we would come to story time on Saturdays, and he would always come to pick out books. I’m a little upset because I don’t like to order books online from Amazon. I like to physically come to the store and look at the books.”

 

While I’m talking to Heather, the store manager, John, a short man in a polished red collar shirt, interrupts me. He’s all smiles, but I know this is no laughing matter. He never says outright that I can’t interview anyone, but the threat is implicit, as a security guard walks back and forth across the storefront. He fumbles at the counter for a bit before handing me the contact information of B&N’s corporate headquarters.

 

We shake hands and part. I walk over to the Starbucks cafe in the corner of the store, still wondering how I nearly got kicked out of the nicest place at in the world – apart from Disney World, of course. I guess there’s a downside to Barnes & Noble’s corporate charm. The chai frappucino is as sugary as always, but it leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

 

After finishing my drink, I head out the store, and set up camp outside the front door. Luckily, I don’t need to wait long. Jane Willis, a twenty-something pre-K teacher, reminisces about the times that she and her friends spent here as teenagers, and thinks with sadness about the children who won’t get to do the same.

 

“Now where are they going to go to enjoy the books, to enjoy that family time with their parents?”

 

Jane sighs. “It puts everybody at a disadvantage. A whole community of people, people like me. Where can we get books? I shouldn’t have to go to a different borough to get books from a bookstore.”

 

If she had to choose between traveling to Manhattan or purchasing books from Amazon, Jane says she would choose Amazon. Score 1 for Amazon. 0 for Barnes & Noble.

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Many have credited the decline of corporate bookstores such as Barnes & Noble with the ease of purchasing books online on Amazon and the rise of e-readers like Kindle. RIP Border’s, another chain bookstore and former B&N rival that bit the dust a few years ago. Photo credit: Amazon.com

 

Shortly afterward, I spot a middle-aged woman carrying a petition and a pen, her eyes resolute, as if set on a mission. Her name is Marie Placide. Marie comes to the bookstore frequently to attend writer’s workshops and do research for her book on Haiti. Her daughter was a valedictorian at Truman High School in Bronx, and the Barnes & Noble was often a place of academic refuge for her, a place where she could walk to after school and study in peace. Marie says dishearteningly:

 

“We don’t have many spaces where parents can come with their kids that are quiet and intellectual spaces.”

 

Except for the Barnes & Noble. The local library may offer some respite, Maries says, but it closes early, and lacks books that students need, such as high-quality SAT prep-books.

 

And so Marie stands with her clipboard outside the bookstore, valiantly attempting to save the Barnes & Noble from imminent foreclosure. While I’m chatting with Marie, a line of people has formed that want to sign the petition. One of them is Jose Garcia, who is here with his daughter, Melanie Garcia, a student at Hunter College. Joe says:

 

“We get coffee here. I don’t even live here. We come here just to have coffee, a hot chocolate, and just to sit down and relax.”

 

For Jose and Melanie, like so many others, this bookstore is a comforting place of nostalgia where they would come to attend midnight openings of Harry Potter. Jose mournfully continues:

 

“The store that’s coming in here – the Bronx can’t relate to that store. We have no need – that’s store’s not going to fill a void. “

 

The store that Jose is referring to is a Saks Off-5th, which is replacing the Barnes & Nobles and has already signed a lease with the landlord. Indeed, in a mall filled with Forever 21s and the like, adding yet another retail clothing store – a place that would certainly lack the sense of community that has flourished over the years at Barnes & Noble – seems like a bitter pill to swallow.

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The logo for Saks Off Fifth, the retail discount store that will be replacing the Barnes & Noble in Bronx.

 

As I walk away, I’m left with a sense of despair this holiday season

But, per recent developments, it seems that all is not in vain. Noelle Santos, a local Bronx resident, is planning to open up her own independent bookstore, The Lit. Bar, early next year. The unique name for the proposed bookstore stems from two things that will flow together in the proposed bookstore: literature and wine.

So while it wouldn’t be the same as the current Barnes and Noble, Bronx residents may have already found another bookstore to love and cherish come Christmastime next year.

 

Real Talk Book Review: “First They Killed My Father”

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The book cover of “First they Killed my Father” by Loung Ung. Image from loungung.com.

First they Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers: What a fiercely powerful, gripping book. Loung Ung makes a bold move by revealing a massive spoiler in the book title, but even with that knowledge, this book remains heart-stopping and horrifically compelling until the very last page. Revealing the brutal Khmer Rouge through the eyes of a middle-class, five-year-old Chinese Cambodian girl from Phnom Penh is the perfect lens to understand the terrible impact of a totalitarian, repressive regime upon generations of Cambodians from 1975-79, during which nearly a quarter of the country’s population perished as a result of execution, torture, and oftentimes, starvation.

Loung Ung is an incredible storyteller, and you as the reader can vividly understand all the emotions and tactile senses she experiences–the overwhelming, scorching heat of the Cambodian sun as she labors in the rice fields, the terror as she awkwardly shoots into the darkness at Vietnamese soldiers (Youns) and phantoms after becoming a child soldier, and of course, the ever-present, terrible aching hurt that comes from a belly that is never full.

I am impressed and moved by her honesty, particularly the way she describes herself, such as the guilt she feels after stealing a bit of the family’s meager share of rice to quell her hunger as she looks on at her utterly malnourished younger sister Geak, as well as the all-consuming rage and desire to kill those responsible for harming her family and shattering her innocence. She makes no effort to sugarcoat her own human failings, which become amplified during the Khmer Rouge regime; her courage is admirable and it helps us understand the unromantic realities of the human condition during starvation and oppression.

Loung Ung occasionally transitions to the point-of-view of her separate family members, as if she were a bird flying high above her family members, witnessing their suffering but completely unable to alter their tragic fate. This may seem jarring at first, but it quickly becomes a powerful rhetorical device to demonstrate a five-year-old’s all-encompassing love for her family and sense of injustice at those who would take them from her.

Loung Ung, author of "First They Killed My Father." Image taken from loungung.com.

Loung Ung, author of “First They Killed My Father.” Image taken from loungung.com.

You may cry, you may be angry, but whatever the case–this book is entirely unforgettable. In both the best and worst sense of the word.

Go buy it today. You won’t regret it.

Check out Loung Ung’s website for more information about this book, and also Lucky Child: a story of Loung’s assimilation to  American culture alongside the parallel life of her sister Chou, who endures hardships in Cambodia.