Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy

Author: J. D. Vance
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Date of Publication: June 28, 2016
Pages: 272

                                           "They learned readin', rightin', route 23
                                            To the jobs that lay waiting in those cities' factories
                                            They didn't know that old highway
                                            Could lead them to a world of misery"
                                                  - Dwight Yoakam (from "Readin', Rightin', Route 23")

     It seems a little premature for a 30-something to write his memoir.  It is surprising to me that a publisher bought it and even more surprising that Hillbilly Elegy has become the primer for understanding poor white America and the feelings of helplessness and anger which propelled Donald Trump to the presidency.  After reading the book, however, I understand the importance of this book and its unique perspective on the current state of "the American Dream."  

     I found this book easy to read.  Even though it seems like a sociology text in spots, the author keeps the statistics and academic analysis to a minimum.  Vance is able to tell his story and his family's story in such a way that the reader can truly understand the multiple variables which affected him (both positively and negatively) and shaped his adult life.  These same variables defeated many in his family.  The author was fortunate to find the right mentor and guidance at just the right time to point him in his upwardly mobile trajectory.

     This is a story of a grandson of Kentucky "hillbillies" who migrated from Eastern Kentucky to Ohio following World War II.  These folks were looking for jobs and their slice of the American Dream.  As noted in the Dwight Yoakam song quoted above, the escape via Route 23 didn't always have a fairy tale ending.  For the Vances, life brought broken marriages, lost opportunities and addiction: in short, a world of misery.

    J. D. was saved by the two most exceptional characters in the book, his grandparents:  Mamaw and Papaw Vance.  Their home was a safe refuge for J. D. when chaos consumed his home.  J. D. enlisted in the Marines after high school and did a tour in Iraq.  He returned home and attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School.  He very frankly describes his difficulties each step of the way.  Even as he climbed the ladder of success he had to fight the feelings that he didn't belong. 

     In the Preface the author states that "I do hope that readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.  To many analysts, terms like 'welfare queen' conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole.  Readers of this book will realize quickly that there is little relationship between that specter and my argument: I have known many welfare queens; some were my neighbors, and all were white."  Vance points out that "there is  cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government and that movement gains adherents by the day."  He notes that "There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites."  He then goes on to explain how politicians, especially modern conservatives, fail to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents.  "Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers...  The message of the right is increasingly: It's not your fault that you're a loser; it's the government's fault."

   So, I guess it was time for this thirty-something to write his memoir.  There is much to mull in this short but powerful book.  It is an American success story for the author, but one that is paved with misery and suffering on a grand scale for his family and friends.  The characters are powerful and the author tells this in a very engaging and entertaining way.  It is just as funny in some sections as it is pitiful in others.  Read this book.  It is indeed an important one.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The 2017 Best Novel Edgar Award - My Choice

The 2017 Best Novel Edgar Award - My Choice

Five novels published in 2016 have been nominated for the 2017 Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America.  The winner will be announced on April 27, 2017.  I have read and reviewed the five novels on this blog and now will pick my winner.  I will up date this blog on the 28th and we will see if I agree with the experts!

These are the five nominees, hyperlinked to my reviews:

The reality is that I liked all of these books.  There was not a single dud in the bunch.  I would recommend them all.  But, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose this award, so here are my rankings:


     This book was really good.  I appreciated the way the author incorporated a lot of modern technology into the story.  The characters were well developed but not very likable.  The plot was a bit convoluted for me, but the ending made sense.  All in all, a worthy nominee, but not my winner.


     What Remains of Me was clever with interesting characters but I thought suffered from a bit of a convoluted plot.  The resolution of the story was surprising.  Again, a worthy nominee, but not my winner


     This book pretty much had it all: interesting and sympathetic characters, a well paced and believable plot and a satisfying conclusion.  My only gripe here was that the ending was a bit predictable.  I also thought that the media types presented here were a bit stereotypical.  Nit-picky complaints, though, given the great quality of this book.


     This book had great characters but could have had maybe a little tighter plot.  I thought that it dragged in sections.  That said,  I probably would have picked this as my Edgar winner in most years.

My Winner:

     If you had asked me before I had read any of these books, I would undoubtedly ranked this book last.  I had no expectations for this and thought that I would hate it.  Boy, was I wrong.  The writing is superb.  The plot moves along and the characters are all incredibly well developed.  I enjoyed every page of this book and was genuinely sad when I finished it.  This is not your typical "mystery novel", but is my winner by a long shot.  We'll see what the Mystery Writers of America have to say later tonight!

Update:  The Mystery Writers of American announced that Noah Hawley's Before the Fall won the Best Novel Edgar for 2017.  I can't argue with that at all.  Again, I thought all five books were  excellent and would recommend them all!  T.C.

Book Review: 2017 Edgar Nominee: Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman

Where It Hurts

Author: Reed Farrel Coleman
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Date of Publication: January 26, 2016
Pages: 368

    Reed Farrel Coleman is a veteran writer with many accolades.  He has twenty three previous novels.  Where It Hurts is the beginning of a new series featuring ex-cop Gus Murphy.  This author knows how to tell a story.  The dialogue here is crisp and moves the story along.  The author is very familiar with the Long Island setting and this gives the book authenticity.  This novel is character driven and the main character is very sympathetic.  You can't help rooting for Gus Murphy.

    While most ex-cops in these types of novels are alcoholics, Gus is not.  He is mired in grief over the loss of his only son.  His marriage disintegrates, his daughter goes off the deep end and his career is over.  He is pathetically sleep walking through a mindless job as a van driver for an airport hotel.   Gus is approached by a career criminal who asks for his help in solving the murder of his son.  Gus agrees to help this fellow, mainly because he is sympathetic over the situation.  Gus is gradually sucked into a serpentine investigation, crossing swords with his former co-workers in the police department as well as annoying members of organized crime, drug dealers and assorted other ne'er-do-wells.  

     This was an entertaining and well written novel.  My only complaint is that the action kind of comes and goes.   There are very slow sections where the author explores the characters more than moving the plot along.  Frankly, I got lost a few times.  All in all, though, this was a very good read and I would suspect that future installments will be even better.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Book Review - 2017 Edgar Nominee - Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Jane Steele

Author: Lyndsay Faye
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Date of Publication: March 22, 2016
Pages: 432  

     I try to read the novels nominated each year for the Best Novel Edgar before the winner is announced by the Mystery Writers of America.  I pick my own winner and see how it stacks up against the Mystery Writers.  Each year there is one book which I dread reading;  usually that book is something way off of my usual reading path.  This year Jane Steele was that book.  Likewise, there is always one book each year which totally surprises me and makes me glad I read it.  Jane Steele was that book this year as well!

     This is not the classic "who-done-it" or police procedural.  This book reinvents Jane Eyre.  The reader follows the life of Jane Steele, the daughter of a British gentleman and a French lady.  Orphaned young, Jane leaves the family home for boarding school and, finally, to life in Victorian London.  The book comes full circle when, as a young adult, Jane is hired as a governess by the new owners of her childhood estate.  Each stop along the way Jane is involved in a mishap whereupon someone is killed.  Just as this book is not the usual mystery novel, Jane is certainly not the usual serial killer.

     The plot is almost incidental to the writing.  The author excuisitely describes mid-1800s life in  various locales in Britain.  The sections focused on London were particularly entertaining.  The various secondary characters are all vibrantly brought to life and add many dimensions to the story. The hero, though, is Jane herself, who ventures into self-discovery and survives devastating circumstances time and again.

     Here is an example of the author's ability to draw her characters.  Jane is in London, having abandoned the private school to which she had been sent after her mother's death.  She encounters a man selling newspapers:

     "Then I heard a strange voice calling out.
     'Most 'orrible and beastly murder done!  Most haudacious and black crime committed!'
     A man of middle age stood with a sheaf of yellow papers, crying out the latest atrocities.  He was bent over - I hesitated to call him hunchbacked, but he flirted with the appellation - a heavy, downward-leaning human whom I could imagine tracking rabbits like a bloodhound.  He owned a bloodhound's jaw too, a great slab on either side of his face framing his crooked teeth with fleshy drapery.  His hair was russet and his eyes a hard yellowish hazel like petrified wood.
     'Murder most'einous!' he cried.  'Murder most hunnatural!  Penny a page, miss.'" 

     So, this book succeeds on many levels.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and was genuinely sad when I had finished it.  I would not be surprised if Jane Steel was the Mystery Writers' pick for the Best Novel Edgar!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review (2017 Edgar Nominee): What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin

What Remains of Me

(2017 Edgar Award Nominee)

Author: Alison Gaylin
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Date of Publication:  February 23, 2016
Pages:  384

     What Remains of Me is a clever and very well written mystery which also explores the unseemly side of growing up in Hollywood.  Kelly Michelle Lund is the daughter of a stunt man and a make-up artist who is sucked up into the wild social life of movie star children.  When an Academy Award winning director is shot in his home Kelly is arrested, tried and convicted of his murder.  A motive for the murder was never established.  Thirty years later Kelly is out of prison, married and working as a writer.  Kelly's father-in-law, a famous but aging Hollywood star, is murdered and Kelly immediately becomes suspect number one.

     Through a series of flashbacks we learn more of Kelly's family life and more of the history of her two parents.  The plot becomes more entangled when connections between Kelly's parents, Kelly's older sister (who committed suicide as a teen) and the two murder victims are revealed.

     I found this book entertaining but at times hard to follow.  Some of the relationships are curious and many of the characters (including Kelly) are difficult to like.  Some of this seemed to be straight out of "National Enquirer" but all in all it was an interesting read which does keep you guessing until the very end.  A worthy Edgar nominee, but probably not the winner (in my humble opinion).

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Book Review (2017 Edgar Nominee): Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall

Author: Noah Hawley
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Date of Publication: May 31,2016
Pages: 400

     OK, thriller and mystery fans, this is the real deal.  Nominated for the 2017 Edgar Award for best mystery novel, Noah Hawley has crafted a book which keeps the reader turning pages all of the way to the end.  The set-up is fantastic:  Eleven people board a private charter plane leaving Martha's Vineyard for New York.  Sixteen minutes later the plane crashes into the Atlantic without explanation.  There were two survivors: a middle aged alcoholic artist and a small child.  

     The author expertly alternates chapters giving the backstories of each of the people on the plane with chapters telling the story of the search for the missing plane and investigation into the crash.  The backstories of the passengers are excellent character sketches.  In addition to the artist, there is an investment banker about to be indicted for laundering monies from countries such as Iran and North Korea.  There is a right wing media mogul who has created many enemies with his attack style journalism as well as his wife and two young children.  There is a former Israeli operative who is a hired security guard for the media mogul.  The crew includes a career pilot with an unblemished record, a playboy co-pilot who is the nephew of an influential U.S. Senator and a hostess who may be involved with the co-pilot.

     There are motives for the murder of most of the passengers and crew.  Until the downed plane is found there are multiple conspiracy theories as to who may have caused the crash;  or was the crash a mechanical failure or pilot error?  The media fans the flames of conspiracy and tarnishes the  reputations of all involved.  The artist/painter who survived becomes suspect number one (at least in the media) when it is discovered that his most recent paintings all depict tragic disasters: train wrecks, natural disasters and, yes, plane crashes.

     The author deftly brings all of these multiple story threads to a satisfying and surprising conclusion.  Noah Hawley is also a noted screenwriter and producer of hit TV shows such as "Fargo".  He has won an Emmy, a Peabody and a Golden Globe award in his career.  He has a gift for creating tension and suspense which moves the book along rapidly.  He has taken an intricate story with multiple moving parts (eleven people on the plane!) and woven a very intriguing story.  

     This is a great one and I recommend it highly!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl

Author: Hope Jahren
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Date of Publication: April 5, 2016
Pages: 304

      Lab Girl is part memoir, part discussion of earth sciences and paleobiology and part discourse on women in male dominated (specifically scientific) fieldsThe book is informative, entertaining and humorous, often all at once.  It is extremely well written and thought provoking.

     The author relates her early life growing up with a physicist father and often accompanying him to his laboratory.  She naturally becomes interested in studying the sciences which was relatively unusual for young women in the 1970s.   While in college she worked as a pharmacy technician and became enamored with working in a hospital.  She had this to say about that experience:

"Working in the hospital teaches you that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the sick and the not-sick.  If you are not sick, shut up and help.  Twenty-five years later, I still cannot reject this as an inaccurate worldview."

     Dr. Jahren graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota and instead of pursuing medicine, obtained a PhD. from the University of California, Berkeley.  Her field of interest is soil science.  She has developed innovative methods of studying fossil forests during a distinguished academic career at Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins and now at the University of Hawaii.

    In  Lab Girl the author spends alternating chapters illuminating areas of her scientific expertise with how these studies have shaped her life story.  It is intriguing the way that she counterposes chapters describing some area of her plant study with incidents from her personal history which follow the same path.  For example she expounds upon plant habitats:

"A cactus doesn't live in the desert because it likes the desert;  it lives there because the desert hasn't killed it yet.  Any plant that you find growing in the desert will grow a lot better if you take it out of the desert.  The desert is like a lot of lousy neighborhoods:  nobody living there can afford to move."

She also describes living in downtown Baltimore in a reclaimed neighborhood in much the same fashion.  The author finishes her description of desert plant life by describing resurrection plants - small plants which wither and turn brown during drought conditions but rapidly re-hydrate during rain.  She follow up this discussion with a chapter describing her own experience with mania, comparing the human sensations of heightened energy and sensitivity to the to the biologic over activity of the desert resurrection plant during a storm.

     In Lab Girl Dr. Jahren makes her points about women in traditionally male roles without turning the book into a feminist screed.  At one point she notes: "In my own small experience, sexism  has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can't possibly be what you are."

     Lab Girl is memoir at its finest.  It was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, a "New York Times" 2016 Notable Book and an Amazon Top 20 book of 2016.  The author is boldly honest as revealed in these quotes:

"My early career had all the makings of a long, slow academic train wreck."   

"I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along."

"Our world is falling apart quietly.  Human civilization has reduced the plant, a four-hundred-million-year-old life form, into three things: food, medicine, and wood.   In our relentless and ever-intensifying obsession with obtaining a higher volume, potency, and variety of these three things, we have devastated plant ecology to an extend that millions of years of natural disaster could not."

Read Lab Girl.  You will be glad that you did.