Monthly Archives: April 2017

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

Review (Amazon): 

EVERY DAY THE SAME
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

UNTIL TODAY
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel goes to the police. But is she really as unreliable as they say? Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the investigation but in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: pathetic and boring

I have NO IDEA what the hype was all about regarding this book. It is similar to Gone Girl, in that there’s not a single likable character in this book. But Gone Girl was actually interesting, not about a pathetic alcoholic creepily watching people while riding on a train. If I hadn’t been reading it on vacation, I’d have put it in my charity donation box unread.

Rachel, the main character, divorced from her husband 2 years prior after he was caught having an affair with Anne. Rachel moved in with a friend, started drinking heavily, and her train ride into work drives her past her old neighborhood where she had lived with her ex-husband Tom. The train always stopped so that she could look out the window and see one of the houses that was a few doors down from her old house. The couple who lived there had moved in after Rachel moved out, so she didn’t actually know them, but she concocted a story about their happy life.

Eventually Rachel’s drinking gets her fired, but she doesn’t want to tell her roommate, so she just keeps taking the train to and from the area where she worked, and mostly just drank all day. One day instead of seeing the couple outside their house, she sees the woman with another man, kissing.

When that woman goes missing, Rachel feels compelled to help the investigation. She doesn’t feel like the investigators are taking her seriously (she is an alcoholic and because she happened to be in that neighborhood at the same time as Megan went missing but was too drunk to recall anything) so she decides to reach out to the husband herself. It starts as just to try to figure out what had happened the night that she could not remember, and also to tell the husband about the mystery man, who turns out to be the shrink that Megan was seeing. Pathetic Rachel can’t let it go though because it’s really the only thing in her sad life so she keeps going over to visit the husband, but Anne keeps seeing her around the neighborhood and reaches out to the police about it. Tom was “supposed to take care of it” but he obviously hasn’t done so. She keeps calling him at all hours and now she’s hanging around. And to add to Rachel being a pathetic weirdo, she decides that she should also start going to the same shrink that Megan went to so that she can make her own assessment of whether or not he’s a killer.

As Rachel starts regaining some memories of the evening that Megan went missing, she realizes that she saw Tom near the train station, and she sees a woman get into the car. She thinks that it’s Anne, but eventually she realizes that it can’t be Anne because Anne has a baby, and she didn’t have the baby with her, and she wouldn’t have left the baby at home. So she realizes that it wasn’t Anne getting into the car, it was Megan.

She goes over to Anne’s to tell Anne that she and the baby need to leave! Anne doesn’t really believe her, but then Tom shows up. He tells Anne and the baby to go upstairs which they do, and he tells Anne how sorry that he is and that he was only sleeping with Megan when Anne was tied up with the baby. Anne realizes that Tom is just a shady person and has been using all the women he’s been with and telling them lies of his family, his military service, among other things. So once she puts the baby up, she goes back downstairs to find Rachel stab Tom in the neck with a corkscrew. Anne helps to push it in, and when the investigators come by, they have a perfect self-defense story.

Verdict: 2.5 stars

This book was so boring. It felt like a terrible reality TV show. All of the characters were pathetic and dull, and the story itself wasn’t any better. When I was at the beach, a woman asked me whether I’d recommend the book (because she like probably everyone else has heard of it), and I said definitely no. Another woman who was nearby gushed about how much she liked it, but she said that the movie was not worth seeing. Not that I was planning on it, but good to know. Even for a beach read, this book was mediocre.

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Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance

Review (Amazon): From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

My Review:

Executive Summary: Interesting

This story is an interesting glimpse into a section of America that not many people know about and even fewer understand. I include myself in that, and I grew up in nearby (to Ohio) Pennsylvania, 7 miles from the closest town whose population was around 1000 people. So you’d think I’d be familiar, but not really. In fact, a guy I work with was born and spent his early years near where I grew up, but he moved to Middletown (where most of the book is set) and spent the rest of his childhood there. He said there was (he’s in his 60s) a huge difference between the folks who emigrated from Kentucky, like the author’s family, and those who didn’t. He mentioned too that they didn’t call them hillbillies; they called them briar hoppers.

J.D.’s family was a bunch of rabble rousers from Jackson, Kentucky. It seems like most people from there were the same rough crowd, although endearing in their own way. Everyone knows everyone and has for a long time so people are friendly and nice to each other, but cross one of them, and they legitimately might kill you. So you can see how moving to Ohio (where not everyone has the “take God into your own hands” attitude) in search of better opportunities can prove challenging.

J.D. made it work though, seemingly partly by accident or luck, but he had some moments where his family made it work. His most constant family were his grandparents, although when they were parents, they were pretty terrible. Due to their alcoholism and fighting, J.D.’s mom was not set up for success. The other two children seemed to be fine enough, but J.D.’s mother never really got it together. Despite being smart enough to get a nursing certificate and at moments of lucidity, to stress to J.D. and his sister how important school was, a series of shitty boyfriends, fights, addictions, and job losses did not put her into a position to be a remotely decent mother.

Between his sister and his recovered grandparents, J.D. manages to graduate high school, and enrolls at Ohio State. However, he can’t bring himself to go. He’s nervous about all of the costs, and leaving his family, and just everything about it. So he decides to do the Marine Corps (still has to leave his family). Mamaw doesn’t think he’s making the right choice, but he does his 4 years in the Marines and comes back to go to Ohio State. (Reading the book, the author does mention advantages of going to the military but when he goes to Ohio State, he’s still doing stupid things like taking out payday loans or showing up for interviews wearing army fatigues). He packs his schedule full of classes and graduates in record time and then starts applying for law school.

He doesn’t initially apply to any top tier schools, but after realizing that law degrees from those sort of schools give you jobs as waitresses, he reconsiders and applies to Yale. He is accepted and even pays less than he would have at a less esteemed school. But it’s a huge culture shock that is entertaining but a little sad to read. Luckily classes there are small and he has fellow students and teachers (specifically one in particular) who helps him find his way. At the end of the day, he graduates, and he and his wife take jobs in Cincinnati. He still has a challenging relationship with his mother, but a good one with those who had continually supported him–his sister and some of his aunts and uncles. Hopefully we see more to come from him in the future.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

Overall I thought the story was interesting. It was fairly cohesive and provides a glimpse into a life that most of us (thankfully including myself) never experience. I did feel like the story dragged a bit once J.D. goes to the marines and then back to Ohio State, but all in all, the stories of his upbringing and challenges go a long way to explanations. However, I felt like the conclusion was a little weak. Not that I expected the author to “solve the problem”, but I left wanting more of a conclusion. It could have been  “here are ways to help” or more social activism from him (a website which has political candidates to follow or laws/bills to support), but instead, it ended on a little bit of a neutral. Overall though, definitely would recommend.

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