Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Book Brief: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis 
by J.D. Vance
Harper, 2016
272 pages
source: borrowed hardcover and audiobook from the library

Publisher's summary:

From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.

Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.

At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.

My thoughts:

Hillbilly Elegy seems to be everywhere lately. The author was even an ABC News election night commentator. Ironically, I finished reading the book just hours before election results were announced.

Hillbilly Elegy  is interesting and eye-opening memoir, reminiscent of The Glass Castle.  Vance shares his experiences openly and in the process changed my perception of 'hillbilly culture'. The writing is very good and, as it turns out, Vance is also a fine audiobook narrator.

The book, however, is not as strong from a big picture/social commentary standpoint... which leads to my, probably mistaken, expectations. Is the book a memoir or a social exposé? I was hoping for some equal combination, but doubt that was the author's intent.

My personal 4-star rating reflects my (mistaken) expectations.  Hillbilly Elegy is easily a 5-star memoir.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Nonfiction November Week 5: My Growing TBR List

Nonfiction November is a wrap! It's been a great month and I truly enjoyed my nonfiction reading. Week 5 is hosted by Lory at Emerald City Book Review.  Here is the prompt:
New to My TBR: It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!
First, I need to apologize. I forgot to note who mentioned these books! I'd go back and look if I had time, but...  If you talked about any of them this month, please let me know and I will add your link. Next year I'll be sure to add names as the books join my TBR.

Second, this is not a complete list of books added to my list. I'm afraid that post would be far too long.

And finally, I want to thank our hosts for planning and organizing this event.  Well done, ladies!
Katie at Doing Dewey
Julz at Julz Reads

by Mary Oliver

by Jan Jarboe Russell

by Elizabeth Little

by Candice Millard

by Matthew Desmond

by Lisa Sanders

by Jonathan Eig

Now the question is how many of these books can I read before next year?


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thanksgiving Weekend Update: November 27, 2016

Has it really been just a week since my last update?? After I hit the publish button on Sunday, we endured a record-breaking 30" snowstorm that lasted until Tuesday afternoon, a record-breaking Thanksgiving (and Friday leftover feast) crowd, and an epic kick-off to the Christmas season with our annual family party... my cousins are the best. Now I am exhausted! We'll take our daughters to the train station in a few hours, then I'm going to curl up on the couch with a book, a blanket, and a cup of tea for the rest of the day!

Despite all the cooking, feasting, and general commotion, I did manage to finish one book this week:

My Beloved World By Sonia Sotomayor
In keeping with my Supreme Court theme, I read the memoir of the third woman appointed to the highest court... a truly inspiring account of her life up until the time she was appointed to the federal judiciary.

Now I must decide what to read next. There are still four days left in Nonfiction November. Should I begin one last nonfiction title or pick up a much-anticipated novel? Hmmm...

On the blog//
Tuesday Intro: My Beloved World
Nonfiction November Week 4: Supreme Reading

In the kitchen//

The week ahead//
It's time to put away the Thanksgiving/fall decorations and get started on Christmas! An anniversary dinner at our favorite inn... my father's 81st birthday... and then on Friday we leave for Florida. We'll load up my old car,  spend a few days driving down, and then fly back the following Saturday.  The car gets to live in FL permanently, but we must travel back and forth until retirement ;-)

I hope you enjoy what's left of the long weekend. How did you celebrate Thanksgiving? What are you reading today?

This post will link to It's Monday, What Are You Reading? hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Tuesday Intro: My Beloved World

I was barely awake, and my mother was already screaming. I knew Papi would start yelling in a second. That much was routine, but the substance of their argument was new, and it etched that morning into my memory.
"You have to learn how to give it to her, Juli. I can't be here all the time!"
"I'm afraid to hurt her. My hands are trembling." It was true. When my father made his first attempt at giving me the insulin shot the day before, his hands were shaking so much I was afraid he would miss my arm entirely and stab me in the face. He had to jab hard just to steady his aim.
My Beloved World
by Sonia Sotomayor

One book often leads to another... As I was finishing the last few pages of Sisters in Law over the weekend, I knew I had to keep reading about the other women on the Supreme Court. Fortunately, my library had both the ebook and audiobook of My Beloved World available, and I downloaded both. I've read about a third of the book so far and am loving it!

Here is a portion of the goodreads summary:
The first Hispanic and third woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor has become an instant American icon. Now, with a candor and intimacy never undertaken by a sitting Justice, she recounts her life from a Bronx housing project to the federal bench, a journey that offers an inspiring testament to her own extraordinary determination and the power of believing in oneself.

What do you think? Would you continue reading?

Every Tuesday, Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea posts the opening paragraph (sometime two) of a book she decided to read based on the opening. Feel free to grab the banner and play along.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Nonfiction November, Week 4: Supreme Reading

Nonfiction November is entering its fourth week already... and Julz of JulzReads has taken over the hosting duties. This week's prompt:
Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
I'm not a lawyer, but I have been interested in the Supreme Court for most of my adult life. The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin is the best book I've read on the subject. Earlier this year, I enjoyed Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. (my review)

This month my Nonfiction November reading seems to have (unintentionally) taken on a Supreme theme. Last weekend I finished Sisters in Law, a dual biography about Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Linda Hirshman. As I was reading the final pages, I impulsively decided to dive right into My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor... a wonderful book so far.

by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

Can you recommend other books about the Supreme Court?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Weekly Update: November 20, 2016

Hello and happy Sunday! It's Thanksgiving week and winter has arrived with a vengeance. It's snowing now and we're expecting 12" or more by tomorrow. I need to make a grocery store run, so will head out soon before it gets much worse. Hopefully the storm will not impact our family and friends visiting for the holiday.

On to the books...
I'm embracing Nonfiction November this year. In the past, I've posted a review or two and read at least one nonfiction title, but this year it has been all nonfiction, all the time... and I'm loving it!

Finished reading//

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D.Vance
An interesting and eye-opening memoir (especially in light of the recent election), but not quite as strong from the big picture/social commentary standpoint. I'll post a review soon.

I finished this dual biography yesterday... two extraordinary women with very different legal styles, philosophies, and paths to the highest court. If you're at all interested in the Supreme Court, this is a must read. I'll review this one soon, too.

Current reading//

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
An impulse choice. As I turned the final pages of Sisters in Law, I clicked over to my library's website and borrowed both ebook and audiobook. The opening chapters are instantly engaging.

On the blog//

Book Brief: Ten Days in a Mad-House  by Nellie Bly
Nonfiction November Week 3: Book Pairing
My Current Read: Sisters in Law  by Linda Hirshman
Nonfiction November Week 2: What Should I Read Next?

The week ahead//

There will be cooking... lots of cooking. We're up to 21 for Thanksgiving dinner, but the number could go higher. We will make multiple trips to the train station (wish the girls could leave the city at the same time). We'll cut down our Christmas tree on Friday while everyone is home, and the annual extended family Christmas party (complete with Yankee Swap) with my cousins is on Saturday. It's going to be a family-filled week!

The rest of the year will be a blur of holiday activities, a trip to Florida, birthday and anniversary celebrations, shopping, cooking, etc. I'm hoping to maintain a regular blogging and reading schedule, but we'll see...

How was your week? What are you reading?

This post will link to It's Monday, What Are You Reading? hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Brief: Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly

Ten Days in a Mad-House
by Nellie Bly
ebook, Open Road Media 2015
(originally published 1887)
101 pages
source: borrowed from the library

Summary (from goodreads):
In 1887, Nellie Bly accepted an assignment from publisher Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and went undercover at the lunatic asylum on Blackwell Island, America’s first municipal mental hospital. Calling herself “Nellie Brown,” she was able to convince policemen, a judge, and a series of doctors of her madness with a few well-practiced facial expressions of derangement.

At the institution, Bly discovered the stuff of nightmares. Mentally ill patients were fed rotten, inedible food; violently abused by a brutal, uncaring staff; and misdiagnosed, mistreated, or generally ignored by the doctors and so-called mental health experts entrusted with their care. To her horror, Bly encountered sane patients who had been committed on the barest of pretenses and came to the shocking realization that, while the Blackwell Island asylum was remarkably easy to get into, it was nearly impossible to leave.

My thoughts:

This short book, a piece of investigative journalism, embarrassed an institution and helped bring about its eventual closing. It also prompted a grand jury investigation which was instrumental in bringing about policy changes and budget increases in the New York  Department of Public Charities and Corrections.

Bly's conversational tone held my interest throughout as she recounted her experiences at Blackwell Island asylum. I didn't realize there were female journalists at that time, or that reporters had such a long history of going undercover for a story. I found parts of Bly's narrative difficult to read. Thankfully, her account is short... much more would have become depressing.

Of particular interest is the fact that Bly, once admitted, did not keep up the feigned insanity:
From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be by all....
She felt many of her fellow inmates had been wrongly admitted, and went on to speculate that conditions within the asylum were bad enough to make anyone insane:
What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.
 Overall this was a quick, interesting read.

My rating:

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Nonfiction November Week 3: Book Pairing

It's Week 3 of Nonfiction November... our host is Sarah from Sarah's Book Shelves  and we're talking about book pairings:
This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

My pairing this year is a book club selection that sent me searching for facts:

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain (fiction)
West with the Night by Beryl Markham (nonfiction)

Circling the Sun was my book club's May selection. Fictionalized biographies tend to frustrate me, so I was not excited by the prospect of reading another. Surprisingly, I ended up enjoying the novel very much. Circling the Sun introduced me to Beryl Markham, who is perhaps best known as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. She was also an accomplished horse trainer and lived in Africa for most of her life. But McLain's book also left me with a nagging question. Which parts of Circling the Sun were fact and which were products of the author's imagination?

West With the Night is Markham's memoir. It provides beautiful descriptions of the African landscape, horse races, and flying... very evocative of time and place. Unfortunately, she keeps the reader at a distance. There is little information about her personal life or relationships. Perhaps that is why McLain decided to write the novel...

My original blog post about the two books and our book club meeting is here. Clicking on the titles above will take you to goodreads.

Visit Sarah's Book Shelves for links to more book pairings.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

My Current Read: Sisters in Law by Linda Hirshman

Introduction, Ruffled Collars 
By the time the nation celebrates the birth of its democracy each Fourth of July, the nine justices of the Supreme Court have mostly left town. But before departing the capital for their summer recess, they must first decide all the cases they have heard since their current term began the previous October. The hardest, most controversial cases, where the unelected Court orders the society to change in a big way, are often left to the end. As the days for decision tick away in late June, the temperature in the courtroom is as hot and heavy as the Washington summer air. 
On the morning of June 26, 1996, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman appointed to the high court since its founding, slipped through the red velvet curtain behind the bench and took her seat at the end. Five places along the majestic curve sat Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, since 1981 the first woman on the Supreme Court, or the FWOTSC as she slyly called herself. Each woman justice sported an ornamental white collar on her somber black robe, but otherwise there was no obvious link between the First and Second, any more than between any of the other justices. On that day however, the public got a rare glimpse at the ties that bound the two most powerful women in the land.
Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World
by Linda Hirshman

What are your currently reading?
I'm currently reading Sisters in Law by Linda Hirshman.

How did you find out about this book?
I noticed it on the new nonfiction shelf at the library last winter and, after taking a closer look, added it to my wish list.

Why are you reading it now?
It's Nonfiction November... and, in light of the recent election, current interest in the Supreme Court is high.

First impressions?
Hirshman has done her research. The book is well-written, informative, and most importantly, not too dry.

Which character do you relate to so far?
RBG has become something of a cult hero, but both women are pretty amazing. Their lives and approach to the law could not be more different.

Are you happy to continue?
Yes. I'm enjoying this book as a read/listen combination.

Where do you think the story will go?
Since it's nonfiction we already know where the story goes, but I'm picking up lots of interesting information along the way.

Click here for more information, including the goodreads summary.

Tuesday Intro is hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea.
Brona's Salon is hosted by Brona at Brona's Books.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

NonFiction November Week 2: What Should I Read Next?

Nonfiction November moves into Week 2 with a focus on selecting nonfiction. Rachel has hosting duties this week, so link up your post and find links to others at her blog, Hibernator's Library. This week's topic:
Choosing Nonfiction: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book?

My personal "Big Three" include:
- interesting subject matter
- great writing... no dry, textbooky prose, please!
- if I'm listening, a good narrator

Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to?

I'm interested in a wide range of topics, but return most frequently to:
- food/foodie memoirs
- books about books and reading
- medicine/medical research/history
- social history
- travel

Do you have a particular writing style that works best?

I love narrative nonfiction, but am also a fan of journals and letters.

When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you?

I try not to let a pretty cover influence my reading choices and, for nonfiction that's fairly easy. It seems like publishers don't try as hard as they do with fiction. In fact, some of the best nonfiction I've read over the past couple of years have uninspiring, downright boring covers.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

A little color and an interesting font or graphic can make a big difference.  I liked both of these books.

A photograph of a person, or people, is effective. Here are three titles from my wish list:

by Jenny Nordberg

I also like covers that give a sense of place, like these from books I enjoyed:

by Katherine Boo 
The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett*
The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt

* Thank you, Susan, for catching my error. The Voyage of the Narwhal is actually fiction! I meant to include the cover image for In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides in the above collage.

And finally, I really love this cover of The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, mostly because it reminds of Persephone endpapers.

As for titles...
I rely on the title, especially what comes after a colon, to tell me what the book is about, so they are much more important than the cover. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach has it all - great title and cover, plus it's a good read!

What influences your nonfiction choices?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Weekly Update: And now it's November...

Hello, friends. It's Sunday morning and it's light outside! Daylight savings time is finally over, but I doubt I'll be as happy this afternoon when it's dark at 5 PM. Halloween was quiet this year with only one group of trick-or-treaters (friend's children). I had my traditional peanut butter cup breakfast on Tuesday, then sent the rest of the candy to my husband's office. Our "grey-b-sitting" stint ended on Tuesday, too. Zelda misses Angus, but I think she's happy to be the lone greyhound in the house again.


Nonfiction November is here. I enjoyed all the "My Year in Fiction" posts and started a new nonfiction TBR list. I've decided to read only nonfiction this month (ramping it up from one or two titles in previous years), so we'll see how that goes. If it's a success, I may carry it over into December.

Finished this week//

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
To say opinions vary widely is an understatement, but I absolutely loved this book! A solid 5-star read and a contender for my favorite novel this year. Review coming soon.

This short book, recommended by Athira, was my Nonfiction November kick-off. I'll post a review later this week.

Current reading//

Brain on Fire by by Susannah Cahalan 
I ignored this book when it was released (somehow thought it was a reissue of Girl, Interrupted... the author's names are similar), but saw it mention on Sarah's discussion-worthy short books list last week. I clicked over to library website and borrowed the ebook. My hold of Hillbilly Elegy came in the next day, so I may end up saving this for later.

This book has been on my list since it was released last summer. My library hold finally came in Friday and then the audio became available Saturday. I still can't believe the timing! It's off to a strong start.

On the blog//

Book Review: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
Nonfiction November Week 1: My Year in Nonfiction
Nonfiction for Your Book Club

The week ahead//

Claire Messud is speaking at a nearby university this week and I'm going with my book club! We'll have a quick dinner-meeting, too. Should be fun.

We're off to New York again on Friday to celebrate my husband's birthday. No definite plans yet, but plenty of ideas! It will be a quick trip as we'll head back home Sunday morning.

How was your week? What are you reading?

This post will link to It's Monday, What Are You Reading? hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey 
by Anne Brontë
originally published in 1847
ebook, 221 pages

narrated by Emilia Fox
Audible Studios, 2008
6 hours and 27 minutes

Summary (from goodreads):
At age 19 Anne Brontë left home and worked as a governess for a few years before becoming a writer. Agnes Grey was an 1847 novel based on her experience as a governess. Bronte depicts the precarious position of a governess and how that can affect a young woman. Agnes was the daughter of a minister whose family was in financial difficulty. She has only a few choices for employment. Agnes experiences the difficulty of reining in spoiled children and how wealth can corrupt morals.

My thoughts:

Agnes Grey, the book I was dealt in the recent Classics Club spin, is a simple, straight-forward, and relatively short story based on the author's experience as a governess. Life as a governess was difficult for Agnes (Anne), whose family had recently fallen upon hard times. None of the women in this novel have a particularly easy time of it... a fact which made it easy for me to understand how Anne progressed from this story to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a book many consider to be the first feminist novel.

Agnes Grey is slightly predictable (nowhere near as exciting as 'Tenant'), and Agnes herself comes across as somewhat preachy and self-righteous, however this was still an enjoyable read overall. It also has one of the best closing lines I've come across:
"And now I think I have said sufficient."
A note on the audio:
Agnes Grey was a read/listen combination for me, and my first experience listening to Emilia Fox. Her accent is lovely, though initially I thought she spoke too quickly. However, I settled in before the end of the first chapter and ended up enjoying her narration very much.

My rating:

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Nonfiction November Week 1: My Year in Nonfiction

Nonfiction November is here at last! This annual event has become a personal favorite. What's not to love about a whole month of bookish topics, and even a readalong, devoted entirely to nonfiction? Event details can be found here. Our hosts this year are:

Katie at Doing Dewey
Lory at Emerald City Book Review
Sarah at Sarah’s Book Shelves
Rachel at Hibernator’s Library
Julz at Julz Reads


Reading nonfiction is a fairly recent development in my reading life. I grew up reading fiction, and continued through college and career. It was an escape from the demands of young children and family life. There were years when I read only one of two nonfiction titles, and probably years when I read none at all. In the late 90s, my book club began choosing nonfiction occasionally, and things began to change. Slowly. I discovered that sometimes nonfiction read like a novel... but it would be years before I would come across the term 'narrative nonfiction'. My reading and enjoyment of nonfiction has really taken off over the past five or six years. This year it accounts for nearly one third of my reading - a personal record.

The subject matter has been varied this year, to say the least - from the atomic bombjoy-sparking organization, and campus rape, to a foodie friendship memoir, the '86 Mets, and developing a cure for CML - but I returned most frequently to social justice and the law.

Regular readers of this blog are aware of my love for audiobooks, especially when it comes to nonfiction. I must be an auditory learner, as I seem to retain more when I listen. My nonfiction reading has been evenly divided between formats -  print, audio, and print/audio combinations.  Whenever I listen, I try to get a print copy, too, so I don't miss out on photographs, charts or graphics, and maps.


When Breath Becomes Air  by Paul Kalanathi
The Philadelphia Chromosome  by Jessica Wapner 
Just Mercy  by Bryan Stevenson

These three books stand out as clear favorites. I absolutely loved The Philadelphia Chromosome. It included so much that interests me -  cancer/gene research, new drug development, clinical trials, and personal stories. That probably sounds dull to most people, but it was written in a way that kept me riveted... listening well into the night. Unfortunately, it's not a book I recommend frequently.

When Breath Becomes Air has been my most recommended nonfiction title this year, but always with the warning to keep a box of tissues nearby! I finished Just Mercy a couple of weeks ago. That is my most recommended title now, and will continue to be for some time.

Finally, as a public service announcement:
 If you know any fans of the late 1980s Mets, please tell them about Kings of Queens: Life Beyond Baseball with the '86 Mets by Erik Sherman! I thoroughly enjoyed listening, but can't think of anyone (other than my brother-in-law) who might be interested.

My hopes for Nonfiction November are simple... I want to hear about all the books! And read them before next year ;-)

Visit Doing Dewey for links to more My Year in Nonfiction posts.

Yesterday's Post: Nonfiction for Your Book Club



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