Tag Archives: biography

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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Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand

unbrokenBook Description (Amazon):

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood.  Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared.  It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard.  So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini.  In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails.  As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile.  But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater.  Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion.  His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit.  Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.

My Review:

Executive summary: incredible

First of all, this is my review for last month’s book club book! Oops. I almost always finish my book before the meeting. But in fairness, I did have sinus surgery and foster six kittens this month. I’ve been busy. This book was worth it though. As a generality, I try to avoid biographies and non-fiction as I get distracted from them too easily. I also dislike war (or scary in general) stories too. (That’s one thing I like about book club is to be pushed a bit outside my “normal reading” comfort zone.) But this was such an interesting and well-written story, I never questioned finishing it.

Louis Zamperini was a bad-ass kid. Always getting in trouble. His older brother Pete finally convinced him to do track where he wildly excelled. He went to USC on a track scholarship. He switched to a different length (5000 m vs. 1500 m) and qualified to compete in the Berlin Olympics. (Not an important part to the story line, but I found it hilarious and interesting that the US Olympic team took a steamer from NY to Berlin and most of the athletes gained an excessive amount of weight on the way there eating all the free food!) Louie didn’t place at the Olympics but he was one of the younger members there, and he certainly had next time to achieve the elusive 4 minute mile time. He returned to the US and back to college. Then the war broke out and the 1940 Tokyo Olympics were cancelled. Louie dropped out of school, tried to join the Air Corps but dropped out because of airsickness and became a movie extra. Then, he was drafted anyway.

After basic training, Louie was commissioned as an army officer. He was trained to do bombsighting. His brother Pete was in the navy. When Louie got to his final round of training in Washington, he first met Russell Allen Phillips, or Phil, who was the captain of the plane Louie would be on. Phil had a girl Cecy waiting for him in Indiana. Louie and Phil flew on a B-24, “the flying coffin”, and named it Super Man. (The author heavily foreshadowed the fact that their plane was going to go down with statistic after statistic of how terrible the B-24’s were. In fairness, she had introduced the book with 2 pages of Zamperini already on the life raft but I still found the statistics a little heavy handed that could have been footnotes or appendices instead.) The crew goes to Hawaii after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and bombs Japanese holds in the region. Mechanical problems plague all the planes, including Super Man who eventually was shot to bits during the bombing over Nauru. They managed to get the plane back to Funafuti (5 hours away) where most of the crew was nursed back to health and then were attacked by the Japanese. After the attack, Louie, Phil and a few others were sent back to Hawaii where they were sent out on a rescue mission on the Green Hornet, a notoriously bad plane. Not long after take-off, both leftward engines died, sending the plane into a spiral which eventually crashed into the water. Louie, Phil and Mac were the only survivors.

They managed to get two life rafts. However, the provisions in the life rafts amounted to several military chocolate bars, a few half-pint tins of water, a brass mirror, a flare gun, sea die, a set of fishing hooks and line, two air pumps and a set of pliers with a screwdriver. And a patch kit for each raft. Over night the first night at sea, Mac, in apparent desperation and fear, ate all the chocolate.

The search parties sent for them completely missed them. They continued drifting at sea catching rain during any storms and using birds to catch small fish to eat. Louis and Phil told stories and kept their minds sharp. Mac sunk into a depression and eventually succumbed to the elements on day 33. Louis and Phil lasted until day 47 where they landed on the Marshall Islands and became Japanese POWs.  They had weathered the elements, storms, shark attacks, and gun fire for 47 days, but nothing prepared them for this.

The Japanese as a culture had (have?) a strong sense of pride and honor and when they were about to be captured, they committed suicide before allowing themselves to be captured by the enemy. Assuming incorrectly that other cultures held this same view of things, they assumed anyone who allowed themselves to be captured was fair game for all sort of torment, all but fully ignoring the Geneva Convention. He eventually (multiple prison transfers) gets placed in a prison called Ofuna with a leader nicknamed “the Bird” who had his eyes on Louis (the Bird was at the previous prison that Louis was at also and started the abuse then). The Bird thinks up all sorts of tortures for Louis, but Louis never loses his fight (which in turn encourages the Bird to try harder to break him). They work the coal mine daily and the food keeps getting more and more scant.

Eventually the US bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Approximately a month later, Japan signed a formal surrender. In the mean time, the Bird realizes what happens to those who are on the losing side and sneaks off in the middle of the night. Supply ships find the prisons and drop more provisions than the men can handle. Many of them are given to civilians in nearby towns who have also been barely surviving. Eventually Louis’s prison is rescued and he returns to the US.

Phil also made it out of camp alive, going back to the US and marrying his longtime girlfriend Cecy who had never stopped waiting for him (in part due to a trip to visit a psychic). ❤

Louis obviously suffers PTSD, but uses his new relationship (and then marriage) to Cynthia Applegate as well as his new Olympic training to help distract him. However, his war injuries were too severe and his ankle was beyond repair. He would never run in another Olympics. This disastrous news leads Louie on a path to self-destruction of drinking and gambling. Cynthia leaves but then returns. Then Billy Graham comes to speak in USC and Cynthia sees the light of salvation. She tells Louie that she won’t divorce him and convinces him to go with her to see Graham speak again.

Louie remembers all the promises that he has made but not kept to God over his years of torture, and he forgets all about his previous plan to find and kill the Bird. He becomes a motivational speaker for Graham, and when he returns to Japan to speak in front of prison guards, he hugs them.

In the end, he never really re-meets the Bird who had evaded capture by working at small farms over the year, only resurfacing after the US agreed to stop punishing Japanese war criminals.

Verdict: 4.5 stars.

This book was an amazing story of strength. Louie’s mental, emotional, and physical strength throughout the book was beyond imagination. Not only did he survive, he helped Phil and many others to survive as well, and in the end, he gave back with love and forgiveness. The book was well-written, and got through a lot of the really horrific scenes in a way that was very matter-of-fact and didn’t give me nightmares. (Important to me.) I would recommend it whole-heartedly.

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