Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Readalong: The Unwinding, Part 1


The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
by George Packer


Shortly after Election Day, The New York Times published an article entitled "6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win".  I'd recently read one of the books (Hillbilly Elegy) and added another (White Trash) to my wish list when I discovered Rachel's year-long readalong of all six. While I can't commit to them all, I am on board for the first.

What's The Unwinding about?
I'll borrow from the goodreads summary... it's long, but explains it better than I can.
American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward. In The Unwinding, George Packer... tells the story of the United States over the past three decades in an utterly original way, with his characteristically sharp eye for detail and gift for weaving together complex narratives. 
The Unwinding journeys through the lives of several Americans, including Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers, who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in the Rust Belt trying to survive the collapse of her city; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington insider oscillating between political idealism and the lure of organized money; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who questions the Internet's significance and arrives at a radical vision of the future. Packer interweaves these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era's leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics that capture the flow of events and their undercurrents. 
The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation. Packer's novelistic and kaleidoscopic history of the new America is his most ambitious work to date.
My initial thoughts:

I enjoy listening to nonfiction and borrowed this audiobook from my library via Overdrive. It begins with a short prologue (read by the author, the rest of the book is narrated by Robert Fass) which lays out his basic claim that the way of life we have known in America is "unwinding" before our eyes. Packer captured my attention with these few pages and I decided to purchase the ebook for a read/listen combination.

As Part I begins we are introduced to several Americans, both private citizens and public figures. The section continues as a series of alternating biographies. Each one is interesting individually and, taken together, represent a broad cross-section of American life.

About the structure:

This type of structure - the examining an event or time period through experiences of specific individuals -  has been successful for me in the past. The example that comes to mind is the 1985 book Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by J. Anthony Lukas, a Pulitzer Prize winner which tells story of the busing crisis in Boston. (I credit that book with my adult rediscovery of nonfiction... it's excellent.)

The life stories Packer chooses to highlight illustrate geographic, economic, and racial diversity. He seems to be painting an overall picture of economic, social, and political instability.

Bottom line:
I'm not quite sure how this book might increase my understanding of Trump's victory, or even how these personal stories connect to prove the author's thesis, but it certainly makes for interesting reading.

I'm curious to see what Parts II and III hold.



26 comments:

  1. I just put this audiobook on hold at the library...wish I'd done it in time for the readalong! But, I'm #1 on the waiting list, so maybe I'll get it in time for parts 2 and 3.

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    1. Sarah - Sounds like your wait should't be too long. I'll probably do one more post when I finish... chapters about Oprah, Raymond Chandler, Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, and even Jay-Z add interest, but I still can't see how he'll tie it all together.

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  2. Because I enjoyed Hillbilly Elegy SO MUCH, I think I'd better pick up a copy of this one, too. Thanks so much for sharing your early thoughts, JoAnn; excited to continue following along!

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    1. Tara - Hillbilly Elegy was so good... a little strange for me finishing the book early on Election Day and then seeing the author as one of ABC's analysts that night! Can't wait to see how the author will tie all the stories in The Unwinding together.

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  3. I might like to do the audiobook of this Inner History. Sounds interesting. As for how Trump won the election, don't get me started .....

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    1. Susan - After watching the evening news tonight, I'm contemplating a new career as an activist (ha!) ... it's only been a few days, but I can't take much more.

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  4. Hmmm....I'll watch for your review of this one. Sounds very interesting and like one that might work well for me too on audio.

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    1. Kay - It seems strange that I'm enjoying this so much without being able to see how (or if?) he'll pull it together to make the point.

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  5. That is a great idea of a readalong. I'm really curious to hear how the rest of the book works out for you. It definitely sounds very interesting.

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    1. Iliana - I'm curious to see how he'll wrap it up. It's so interesting, but I can't see how it all comes together to make his point.

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  6. I've been on the wait list for Hillbilly Elegy forever it seems, I should have just bought it but, now I'm determined to wait it out LOL

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    1. Diane - Ha! I know that feeling. Hope your wait isn't too much longer...

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  7. I definitely don't read enough about current events but this kind of story-telling approach appeals to me and might change that!

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    1. Audrey - This structure works really well for me, too. I've read on and am finally starting to see it all come together...

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  8. I will make this brief, but even the NYT never fails to blow my mind on how rude, and one sided they can be.
    I voted for Trump because things need a big kick in the pants, and that's the only way it could happen.
    Liberal handouts cannot be sustained, and it is not the government's purpose. Ask the man who spoke at the Clinton convention about the Constitution.
    Oh, and I am from a family of small, and medium sized business owners, and am neither a Hillbilly, or White trash. How incredibly insulting, and hurtful.
    If only I could have a conversation with a liberal who could discuss their position rationally! I welcome that, if you are interested.

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  9. Jan - This is a book blog and my purpose here is to discuss books, not politics. In this post I talk about my initial impressions of a book I am currently reading, mentioned a book I have read, and noted one I might like to read. I have never talked about my political affiliation (which might surprise you) and do not intend to do so here. Commentary on the book is welcome.

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  10. I really like this idea for a readalong. I know I read Hillbilly Elegy right before the election and I truly did feel like Vance's book explained a lot about the election results. (Though that certainly wasn't his purpose.) I've recommended it to so many people!

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    1. Susie - I think the timing of Vance's book worked out better than he could have predicted... it's certainly helped sales!

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  11. Thanks for a great review of what sounds like a valiant attempt to make the state of our country more understandable.

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    1. JaneGS - Hoping to have more coherent thoughts by the time I finish... hopefully within the next few days.

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  12. Such an interesting concept for a read along! I hope you enjoy it. The entire event is baffling!

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    1. Pat - The book is very interesting and I hope to finish today. Wondering if I'll make time to join for a couple of the others...

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  13. It is certainly a tumultuous time right now in america- and I think a lot of us are struggling to make sense of it. I hope you enjoy this book and that it helps!

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    1. Greg - I'm still not sure how much the booked helped, but it was a fascinating read.

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  14. I remember that NYT list and wanted to read many of those books too. Love the structure of this one - I am a fan of nonfiction books from the perspective of actual people. They make for more interesting reading. I will have to read this one, but maybe not this month.

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    1. Athira - I completely agree about the structure and thoroughly enjoyed this book! The audio version is very good, too... perfect for a read/listen combo.

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