Review: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book more than lives up to its promise. I watched JD Vance’s TED Talk and heard his NPR interview and resolved to pick this book up. It doesn’t disappoint, however it may be a bit different than you think, based on the aforementioned summaries. I was expecting a well-researched nonfiction sociology exploration supplemented by his personal stories. It’s inverted. The book is very much a personal family memoir, supplemented by a sprinkling of stats and regional history. At first this turned me off. He spends the first chapter introducing us to the members of his lineage and I thought, “no book needs fifty ordinary characters.” But he focuses on a few, and he makes each choice relevant. He talks about his great uncles in terms of their obstreperous reputations. He talks about his grandparents in terms of a stable home to fall back on when his parents fail him. He talks about his sister, aunt, and cousin in terms of their healthy marriages and what they did differently to break the mold of corrosive relationships endemic to the culture.

The formula, if you will, consists of a personal anecdote or journey, followed by statistics and historical context, followed by a compassionate, contemplative analysis. Vance displays a deep sense of appreciation and love and emotional intelligence. He is very forgiving but not at the expense of incisiveness. Wisely, he keeps away from politics, though he flirts with a few ideas toward the end having to do with income credits, schools, and welfare. It’s obvious he’s a conservative thinker, but his sense of worldliness and openmindedness is exactly the brand of conservatism we need more of for a well-balanced national conversation.

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Review: Supreme Court Decisions

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Supreme Court Decisions
Supreme Court Decisions by Richard Beeman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to imagine why I would give a civics book a five star review. It’s not a “book” at all, just a series of excerpts of some of the most famous of Supreme Court cases. I’ve never been interested in politics until recently (I think 2015-16 probably activated a lot of people). Yet I’ve always been drawn to Supreme Court cases. Though some may disagree, I’ve always appreciated that justices are lifetime appointments. Removing the fundraising-campaign-reelection infrastructure, I believe frees up these individuals to focus on their jobs without fear of consequences. That gives them the ability to make bold rulings that withstand the test of time more than congressional acts or presidential rulings, which in hindsight seem many times like shortsighted pandering.

I love that SC decisions blend logic, morality, law, technology, and philosophy. It’s an extremely cerebral book, in that you will be forced to think about an issue in a new way, regardless of your personal belief. The first tough lesson to learn is thinking of the SC as the living embodiment of the constitution, as written, not a group of nine superthinkers dispensing morality for the masses. This particular tension came to light, for example, when John Roberts upheld the ACA as a constitutionally sanctioned tax, while condemning the act itself. The book is filled with examples of this. It is tempting to read the paragraph summary of each case and make a personal judgment before diving in to the decision’s text. This is very difficult to do. Each decision (along with the many dissents included) is carefully crafted from a unique perspective, and if you want more than a laundry list of seminal decisions, then you must tune yourself to appreciating that perspective for the moment.

Having said all that, it’s refreshing to finally have some content understanding (rather than headline understanding) of such famous cases as Marbury v. Madison, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Citizens United. I may be late to the table with my civic education, but I know there are millions out there who yearn for the who-what-why explanations of why their country is the way it is. To that yearning, I will always prefer to go to the source itself to avoid the coloration of another’s telling.

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Review: Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta

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Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a delight to read! I picked up this book at one of the dozens of book stores and gift shops in the delta selling it. Part travelogue, part memoir, it’s an hysterical exploration of the kooky culture and characters living in the poorest part of the poorest state in the union, the Mississippi Delta, a rich-soiled, cotton-planted floodplain extending from Vicksburg to Memphis. I just finished a weeklong tour of the region myself, so it was especially delightful to read about all the places I’d personally been, and in a few cases, about some of the people I’d actually met myself.

I hope the outlandish descriptions and soulful meanderings convince you to add this region to your list of places to see on your personal travels. If you live in the South, it’s only a few hours’ drive away. (Be sure to stay at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale if you’re doing the Blues Trail!)

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Review: Armageddon in Retrospect

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Armageddon in Retrospect
Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this collection. There is something spooky about war stories taking place off the battlefield. I think there is nothing which probes deeper into human nature than the interactions and motivations of people during “a state of war.” The title story wasn’t my favorite: a tongue-in-cheek letter from a scientist leading a lab project claiming to have successfully isolated and trapped the devil and so freeing humanity from temptation and violence forevermore. It gave me a good chuckle though.

My favorite stories were “Great Day” and “The Commandant’s Desk.” The former is about a 2037 Army of the World recruit who takes part in a time travelling experiment back to a 1918 World War I battlefield. The latter is about a carpenter who’s been pressed into service by three different occupying commandants during the Czechoslovakian war (German, Russian, and American) who has to keep changing the logo on the same desk.

There is a humorous, fatalist streak in all his stories, not unlike Slaughterhouse-Five, one of my favorite books. He conveys the tragedy of senseless war born of his own experience as a POW in Dresden. It’s easy to see that that experience defined his life and his writing forever.

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