Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

This book, subtitled A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, is exactly that, a memoir.  Hard to think of a memoir written by someone who was only 31 years old when he wrote it! Vance himself confesses the absurdity of this in his introduction where he writes, “I didn’t write this book because I’ve accomplished something extraordinary.  I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me.  You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.”

And so Vance begins to tell his story. What makes this story compelling is that, while it tells of all the ways in which the decline of manufacturing jobs in the United States has left people behind, he is unflinchingly honest about the ways in which many of his people, whom he calls “hillbillies,” have brought about their own demise and their own lack of hope – their lack of care for their children, their sinking into the drug culture, their laziness and lack of any self-awareness.

Vance’s own family has had its difficulties.  As he writes, “I have, to put it mildly, a complex relationship with my parents, one of whom has struggled with addiction for nearly my entire life.”  He himself came close to flunking out of high school: “Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.  That is the real story of my life, and that is why I wrote this book.  I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it.  I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children.  I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it.  I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels.  And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”

Vance clearly has a great love for the people about whom he writes, particularly his crazy grandmother and grandfather – and “crazy” is his word, not mine.  This love comes shining through the book even when he sees clearly how the ways in which they act have negative effects on everyone around them.

— Jeanie Smith

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

 The New Jim Crow
This book is an important, but tough, read.  Important because we need to know the extent of our massive prison population and how it got that way.  Important because we need to understand that mass incarceration, in the name of the war on drugs and “law and order,” has been applied discriminatorily against our black and brown youth, particularly boys and young men.  Important because mass incarceration is the new face of a very, very old attempt to keep black and brown people from being full members of society.  Important because those of us who are part of the white majority need to see the face of our society from the perspective of those who are not white.
The book is tough because the conclusions are inescapable.  It’s tough because well-meaning Christian white Americans have let this happen under our eyes.  It’s tough because our response, if it is to combat this problem at its root, must be far more than simply revising our mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Michelle Alexander brings incredible research to these points, carefully laying out facts and figures from her experiences as the director of ACLU’s Racial Justice Project inNorthern California and as a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun and as a professor of law at Ohio State University.
She argues that, contrary to what most of us want to believe, “colorblindness” is part of the problem and not part of the solution.  In her final chapter, entitled “The Fire This Time,” she challenges us to rethink denial, to talk openly about race, and to adopt an “all of us or none” attitude toward justice.
Like most of our societal problems today, this one is complex.  Solutions will not be based on 30-second sound bites, but on systemic work to rid ourselves and our institutions of implicit bias.

Not an easy read.  Yes, a tough one.  But one that’s necessary.—Jeanie Smith

You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, by Heather Sellers

St. Timothy’s Books, Brew and Banter book club has just finished reading a fascinating book by Heather Sellers entitled You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know.  The story is a memoir and concentrates on this author’s coming to an understanding of a condition she has known as “face blindness.”  The official term for this condition is prosopagnosia; what it means is that she is unable to put together any memories of people’s faces.  Yes, she sees their eyes, noses, mouths (that’s vision), but cannot put them together in memorable forms (perception).  She recognizes some people by hairstyle, the way they carry themselves or walk, the style of dress they usually wear.  But others – even her own husband – she frequently does not recognize.

What makes the book fascinating is that she does not really understand that she has this condition until she is in her late 30’s, when she is also coming to grips with the fact that her mother is a paranoid schizophrenic.  Her father is an alcoholic who has significant problems of his own.  To say that this woman comes from a dysfunctional background is to understate her childhood.

Written in a style where the author moves back and forth between the present and the past, we see Ms. Sellers’ childhood and adolescence remembered from her perspective at close to 40 years old.  We feel her pain at shuttling back and forth between living with one parent and then another; her disappointment when neither of her parents will complete college scholarship financial information forms; her heartache at her lack of friends because other kids see her as stuck up when she doesn’t recognize them.  And yet, she never stops loving her parents and trying to understand them. The story is ultimately one of the power of love and forgiveness to bring redemption and acceptance to troubled relationships.

We enjoyed this book a great deal and would recommend it highly.  The book is well written and makes reading on and on a pleasure, even, and maybe particularly, in the parts where she is finally able to find medical help that explains prosopagnosia.

—Jeanie Smith