Tag Archives: politics

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  272

Published:  June 28th, 2016

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir and Autobiography;  New York Times #1 Bestseller; Named by The Times as “One of six books to help understand Trump’s win”

Format:  E-book

 

This is a memoir from the point of view of a “hillbilly”  growing up in the Rust Belt of America.  He is an anomaly of sorts in that he was able to escape the circumstances of  his past and become such a success story.  His mother was an addict and abusive.  He, as a child, was a victim of her abuse.  She had a rotation of husbands and boyfriends continuously entering and leaving their lives.  Despite this, he was able to move on.  After high school, he joined the marines and served in Iraq.  Then, he went on to Ohio State and Yale Law School.  His story drew me in right away.  He tells his story through this lens:  “…for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”

He tells his own life story alongside statistics and study data of the area, its people and culture at large.  I found this a fascinating read from a voice in a corner of the world we do not often hear from.  It provides certain insights and offers plenty of discussion points.  It is incredible that he had the resilience of character combined with the alignment of certain factors that gave him the will and drive to succeed as he did.  He comes across with great humility attributing his success to these factors that did align in the right way for him.  He could have just as easily, perhaps more easily fallen into a life of addiction and poverty.

Mamaw is a crucial supporter for J.D. Vance and a relentless voice encouraging him to be more, to think bigger for himself.  Mamaw and Papaw had moved to Ohio for factory jobs from southeastern Kentucky alongside so many others.  There is a reference to Dwight Yokam’s song “Reading, Rightin’, Rt. 23” and how relatable this was to Mamaw as well as much of Appalachia at that time.  When J.D.’s mother and aunt were growing up, Papaw was an alcoholic and the relationship between the parents was stormy, even violent at times.  Mamaw eventually kicked Papaw out and becomes a guiding force and bright light for J.D. as well as for many other of her grandchildren and great grandchildren, even though this stability was not provided for her own children. Papaw serves as her sidekick, still living in his separate house, sober now.

There is a fair amount of discussion within the book about how Appalachia and the South went from firmly Democratic to firmly Republican in less than a generation.   According to this book, there was a perceived unfairness to unemployment checks, whereby those not working would seem to actually have more luxuries, like cell phones, than those who were working hard.  Also, in the realm of housing, people could live in Section 8 housing with help from the government and be neighbors to others who are paying their full share.  Obama was apparantly unpalatable to the hillbilly people because he was so educated and spoke so differently from them.  They did not feel they could relate to him.  Oh, and maybe there was some racism involved too (but this point was strangely mentioned almost as an afterthought.)  This is a class of people, strongly united in their identity, but left feeling hopeless and disenfranchised with the loss of industry where they were previously employed.

This culture of blue collar worker with their tight knit community has higher than average levels of drug and alcohol dependence, divorce, and poverty.  The children of this community are less likely to go on to college.  The men are more likely not to work.  Those that do go off to college are unlikely to come back to their home towns.  Thus, there occurs a  phenomenon referred to as “brain drain.”  This cycle is self perpetuating and reinforcing.  It is “a culture of social decay” as J.D. Vance puts it.  There is also a “learned helplessness, ” in other words, a feeling that there is nothing these people can do to change their own circumstances.

Politically, this book is very interesting.  J.D. Vance blames the hillbilly culture for their own situation.  He believes in hard work and personal responsibility despite hardships.  His views are very conservative.

J.D. Vance is a venture capitalist in Ohio hoping to give back to the community he came from.  I will be very interested in seeing how he does give back, especially after painting such a bleak outlook for the potentiality of a solution to the problems faced by these people.  He does say that the one thing he’d most like to change about the white working class is “the feeling that our choices don’t matter.”  With his law background, it will be interesting to see if he decides to jump into politics at some point.  He certainly seems interested in public policy, although skeptical of the magic bandaid.  This is an interesting, thought provoking book providing insight into a region, a class of people, as well as a pivotal period in history.

J.D. & Mamaw                               J.D. Vance

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Do you feel that you learned more about the culture of Appalacia through this novel?  Do you feel it was accurately portrayed?  Why might some people in Appalacia take issue with this novel?
  2. Discuss the guiding forces in J.D. Vance’s life that allowed him to succeed.  Discuss the role of the military in shaping his perspective and work ethic.
  3. Discuss the psychological effects of J.D.’s background on his current personal life.
  4. Why is social capital important?  How does this change for the author through his life?
  5. How would you describe J.D. Vance’s political views?  If he were a politician, who policy changes would he lobby for?
  6. Explain this “learned helplessness” that J.D. Vance talks about.
  7. Why would Donald Trump as a presidential candidate appeal to this group of people?  What do you think they hope from him?
  8. Discuss Vance’s feeling of dislocation upon graduating from Yale. How does he come to terms with them or does he?
  9. Towards the end of the book, Vance asks himself, “How much is Mom’s life her own fault?  Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”  What are your thoughts?
  10. Do you think this book would have received so much attention had it not been an election year?  … had Trump not been a candidate?
  11. What does this book say about the American Dream?  Where and for whom is this dream alive?  Where has it died?
  12. Did you feel that that J.D. Vance was blaming the victim as many of his critics have complained?

 

 

Review by Jennifer Senior in the NY Times

Review by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker

Discussion Questions by LitLovers

Ron Dreher’s interview with J.D. Vance in The American Conservative

 

 

 

Trump This! The Life and Times of Donald Trump, An Unauthorized Biography by Marc Shapiro ~ Book Review

Pages: 204

Published: February 26, 2016

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you to Patty for writing a review on goodreads, which piqued my interest in reading this book.  I was one of many people who did not understand the Donald Trump phenomenon during the election, who could not fathom the possibility of him getting elected, but it happened.  I decided I would read this biography to better understand our president, his motivations for becoming president and what his agenda might be.  I’m not sure how much new about our President I learned, however, it was helpful to have all the information in one place.

I felt that I knew the superficial Donald Trump from media attention over many years.  I knew about him as the real estate tycoon, the Apprentice showman, the man with dazzling new beautiful wives, the alleged affairs, and most recently the run for president.  He loves the spotlight and America has seen so much of him, but I was hoping to discover something more.. to explain his run for president as something more than attention-seeking.  This book is well written and researched, covers his life from crib to ascension to president, and is easy to read.

Shapiro describes a Trump who “in his personal and professional life, has been slicker than Mercury and just as hard to handle.”  What we learn from this book is that Donald Trump denies and strikes back when questioned or attacked.  He rarely gives straightforward answers.  He waffles on his positions.  He says outrageous things and gets away with it.

He has had three marriages with beautiful women.  He seems to have been enamored of the concept of “trophy wife.”  He was having an affair with the second while still married to the first.  He tried to broker a deal for Marla (wife #2) with playboy for her to pose nude, which she ultimately declined.

What comes across in this book is that Donald is extremely vain with a mania for branding.  He is a showman and a master manipulator.  He utilizes his privilege and wealth to great advantage throughout his life.  He gets into Wharton business school by way of family ties, he is able to escape the draft by reason of being at Wharton.  He wields his money and power over the media daring them to defy him.  He cares very much about his image and does whatever he can to maintain that image, including bribing journalists.  He is extremely money hungry and very concerned with public perception of his wealth, to the extent that he has actually sued over his perceived underestimation of his wealth by the media.   He is prone to telling stories that are often untrue.  Perhaps the greatest example of this is the propagation of the “birther movement.”  Trump’s insistence on questioning Obama’s place of birth had created a rallying cry so fierce that Obama felt compelled to produce his birth certificate, finally putting the movement to rest.

Donald Trump has proven himself racist.  In his speech announcing his run for president he said “When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best.  They’re sending people who have lots of problems.  They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people.”  Multiple news outlets reported that  the Trump campaign had paid extras to come and cheer for that rally and others.  Trump has stated that if it were up to him all Muslims would be banned from entering the United States.

Many world leaders have evoked a fascist comparison of Trump and his ideals, including People and NSNBC.  Trump kept a copy of “My New Order,” a book of Adolf Hilter’s collected speeches by his bed according to ex-wife Ivana.  Trump, defending his proposed ban on Muslims, in an interview with Good Morning America, cited President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of the Alien and Sedition Acts following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  In February 2016, Trump retweeted a quote from fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that said, “It’s better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”   In July 2016, Trump retweeted a picture of Clinton next to a star-shaped badge, similar to the Jewish Star of David that read “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever”  against a background of $100 bills.  It was immediately condemned as anti-Semitic, so Trump had the star replaced with a circle and #AmericaFirst.  He would soon be criticized that America First is the name of a fascist organization that encouraged appeasement with Aldolph Hitler and Nazi Germany during World War II.

Donald Trump has proven himself sexist and misogynistic.  Megyn Kelly confronted Trump during one of the first debates with this question, “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.  You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.  Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as President and how will you answer the charge of Hillary Clinton that you are part of the war on women?”  Trump responded with anger and further woman-hatred, accusing her of having blood coming out of “her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”    The Access Hollywood tape, released to the world during his campaign, revealed that among other things, Trump felt he could sexually assault any woman he wanted because he was famous.

Trump had found an effective route to the White House in courting white lower and middle class men and women in the heartland of America.  “Trump’s supporters were pro-gun, pro-flag, anti-foreigner and convinced that their shortcomings were the fault of everybody but themselves.  They came from a world that was miles removed from Trump’s.  But when it came to the countless rallies in front of thousands of confirmed believers, Trump was quite capable of speaking their language, especially on the road to the Republican National Convention.”  Trump seemed forever the showman, but had no interest in putting together an actual campaign.  Several high level members  of his campaign resigned after power struggles and subsequently, his long time campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski was fired and replaced briefly by Paul Manafort, before the press discovered he had business dealings with Russia.  Fortunately for Trump, some far-right leaning Republicans, including Jeff Sessions, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and others pledged to back him and began offering some much needed advice, like the need to pick a running mate.

Trump’s main platform for his presidential run was creating jobs, building a wall between the US and Mexico, and banning Muslims from entering the US.  He has allied himself with white supremacists, most notably Steve Bannon.  As Donald Trump’s platform has remained thin, it will likely be Trump’s cabinet members steering the ship.

This book’s publication date per netgalley, amazon and goodreads is February 26, 2016.  However, the copy that I read through netgalley took me through a history of Trump leading all the way up to the day he took office on January 20, 2017.  So, I’m guessing another edition will be released that gives this fuller biography.   Or you can request a copy directly from netgalley, here.  I’m glad I read this.  I did not feel there were a lot of surprises within this book, but it was helpful to read about Trump’s life from start to presidency to get a bigger picture.    Please note, my review is more biased than the actual book.  However, I do find it hard to believe that anyone who would read this book and take it to heart could come away singing Trump’s praises in terms of being an effective or suitable president of the United States.

 

 

Donald and first wife, Ivana

Children:  Don Jr, Ivanka and Eric

 

 

Donald and second wife, Marla Maples

Children:  Tiffany Trump

 

 

 

Donald and current wife, Melania

Children:  Barron

 

 

 

Mark Bowden’s 1997 Playboy Article on Trump – This article is mentioned in the book.  Trump tries to bribe Mark Bowden into writing a more favorable article once he realizes the weekend Mark Bowden is spending at his mansion is going awry.