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 40 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, his aunt, his uncle, his 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.
I really, really wanted to like this book. I got excited just reading the nine-page introduction and remember excitedly telling my husband about it on the day I started the memoir. Coming from humble beginnings myself, I felt like I would be able to relate to Vance’s story, although I grew up in rural Texas and North Carolina and not Kentucky/Ohio.
But really, the comparison ended there. Vance’s memoir begins with the story of his origins (his grandparents) and follows a pretty linear timeline. It was hard to feel empathy for his mother, who dragged her two kids in and out of so many relationships that I almost lost count of the men in Vance’s life. I believe she was married at least five times, and eventually became addicted to heroin. The figure he looked up to the most was his paternal grandmother, or “Mamaw,” as he called her, but I have to say I took issue with her language and demeanor. I understand she grew up in the backwoods of Kentucky and was married and pregnant before she was even the legal age to drive a car, but her “colorful” language and roughneck behavior did not strike me as someone who should be a role model for any young child. I can’t even repeat some of the things she said to family members and her grandchildren because I found them so offensive. This made it hard for me to read chapter after chapter of how wonderful “Mamaw” was and how his years living with her changed his life. (His grandparents never divorced but stopped living in the same residence by the time Vance was in his teens). I found myself wondering over and over what the point of the memoir is. The book has the subtitle “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” and while Vance did discuss the mentality of many of the working class that reside in the area he grew up in (there’s a sense of entitlement without the work ethic to back it up), I felt like he circled around the topic without giving any substance.
I do have a great deal of respect that Vance realized after being accepted to Ohio State University that he didn’t have the maturity he needed to successfully complete college, thus leading to an enlistment in the Marine Corps first instead. He also completed college pretty quickly once he began his courses, then heading off to Yale Law School. But I found my mind drifting during the chapters where he attended Yale. He didn’t seem to know why he wanted to attend law school, other than the fact that all the successful people he knew from his hometown were either doctors or lawyers, and he didn’t like blood. I don’t even think he is still a practicing lawyer, as the bio on the book jacket says he is now an investor in a venture capital firm. I read some other reviews before writing this one, trying to pinpoint why I found myself skimming the last chapter of the memoir by the end. I think one reviewer nailed it by saying she felt Vance’s prose lacked the color and authenticity one would expect from someone who grew up in the Rust Belt, with childhood memories of Appalachia. Vance went through the motion of detailing his story, but he never plumbs into the depths of how running from his mother on a country road, in fear for his life, or having to pay for her extended stay at a motel after she relapsed into drugs again, really made him feel. What the reader gets is a memoir that reads more like a term paper. And while that may be okay for some, it leaves the reader wanting.
About the Book:
What does it mean to belong? In a place? With a person? To a family? Where do our senses of security and survival lie? I Don’t Belong Here ruthlessly investigates alienation during moments of transit and dislocation and their impact on women’s identity. These twenty essays—ranging from conventional to lyrical to experimental in form and structure—delve into the root causes of personal uncertainty and the aftershock effects of being a woman in an unsafe world. Provocative, authentic, intimate, and uncompromising, Melissa Grunow casts light on the unspeakable: sexuality, death, mental illness, trauma, estrangement, and disillusionment with precision and fortitude
Memoir is not something I read a lot of, although I’ve been trying to remedy that over the past few years with books such as Wild and The Glass Castle. I even took a course with Grunow a few months ago on writing creative nonfiction so I could sharpen my own skills. I was curious to see how her teaching style related to her own work, and I wasn’t disappointed.
First of all, I love the theme of the book; after all, who here doesn’t relate to feelings of isolation and not fitting in? I Don’t Belong Here is divided into four distinct sections: “Unspoken,” “Displaced,” “Suppressed” and “Misunderstood.” She describes the death of a part of herself after a violent sexual assault by a boyfriend in the piece “Before and After.” The description of her experience is so painfully raw and honest that the reader wants to weep along with her.
In “Fire and Water” Grunow dives into the differences between the destruction fire and floods can cause to a home, and an analysis of the impact each one leaves behind. “A flood is worse than a fire,” a co-worker tells her. “After a flood, you’ll worry whenever it rains.” She describes the damage a heavy rain and flood caused to her home in Michigan, and the effect of storms and tornados in her childhood years living in a mobile home. Grunow reminisces about riding her bike with her childhood friends, picking up the metal skirting from mobile homes that was blown about, balancing the pieces on her handlebars and cutting her knees as she pedaled. Anything, everything, can cut something else, she remembers.
Grunow’s writing is rich, lyrical, and draws parallels the one would never even think of, making for a savory reading experience. She digs deep into her own psyche while exploring her decision to get multiple tattoos during her college years.
I give workshops, presentations, trainings, all as a professional who appears professional. Underneath those layers, though, my skin sings a different song, a ballad of many verses comprised of love, pain, mistakes, imprinted memories. I could especially relate to the piece titled “We’re All Mad Here: A Field Guide to Feigning Sanity,” where she writes about doctors, You will burn through doctors the way a middle school girl burns through crushes.
I highly recommend “I Don’t Belong Here,” whether you’re looking to dive deeper into the world of memoirs and creative nonfiction, or seeking ideas for how to expand your own writing. There is much to dissect here, and I promise you by the last page, you will be ready to take a good, hard look at your own imprinted memories and how they have shaped your world.
About Melissa Grunow:
Melissa Grunow is the author of I Don’t Belong Here: Essays (New Meridian Arts Press, 2018) and Realizing River City: A Memoir(Tumbleweed Books, 2016) which won the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Memoir, the 2017 Silver Medal in Nonfiction-Memoir from Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest, and Second Place-Nonfiction in the 2016 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Nervous Breakdown, Two Hawks Quarterly, New Plains Review, and Blue Lyra Review, among many others. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and listed in the Best American Essays 2016 notables. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction with distinction from National University. Visit her website at www.melissagrunow.com or follow her on Twitter @melgrunow.
I can’t remember exactly how I stumbled upon the powerhouse that is Rachel Hollis. It may have been on Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love podcast. Lately, I’ve been finding so many interesting people on podcasts! Anyway, I was inspired by Rachel’s story. She graduated early from high school, decided not to attend college, and instead headed to Los Angeles to conquer her dreams and marry Matt Damon! The last part didn’t really work out but she did find a man of her dreams (David Hollis) and kicked off a successful career in event planning, wedding planning, and is now an entrepreneur, author, motivational speaker, and creator of Chic Media.
After following Rachel on social media, I kept hearing about her latest book, Girl, Wash Your Face. The title intrigued me. When I heard that it was a motivational book geared towards women I was also intrigued. I was going through a slump in my life at the time where I felt like I sucked as a writer, in my professional career in marketing, and generally in life.
So I picked up the book one day while in Target. And I’m glad I did. Rachel’s writing voice is just like the voice you hear on her blog, Instagram feed, and in clips from her conferences and speaking engagements. She is authentic. She is blunt. She is encouraging. She made me feel like I am worthy of my dreams, and anyone else’s opinion of me isn’t my business. Wow.
The book basically follows 20 different lies she tells herself and why they aren’t true. Most of these related to me (although instead of wanting to marry Matt Damon, I may have had my eye more on his buddy Ben Affleck). These lies include things like “I’ll Start Tomorrow” or “I Am Defined by My Weight” or “I Need a Hero.” I think I especially loved the chapter titled “I Need to Make Myself Smaller.” It actually inspired this blog post over at WOW! Women on Writing.
When I got to the chapter on “I’m a Terrible Writer,” these words struck me the most:
When you’re creating something from your heart, you do it because you can’t NOT do it. You produce it because you believe your creation deserves to be out in the world. . . But you can’t MAKE people like or understand it.
I feel like this a lot. Sometimes I feel like people think I’m strange because I’m obsessed with true crime and missing persons cases. But that’s where my passion lies, along with writing literature for teens. Since I read Girl, Wash Your Face, I have been so productive it’s not even funny. I’ve written a new short story and submitted it to a contest. I dragged an old YA manuscript out and have been line editing it so I can start querying agents. I picked myself up after an abysmal critique from a freelance editor on a second YA manuscript and am trying to figure out to make the opening sing and not bore people. I’m seeking out opportunities in professional development to help me succeed in my day job in theatre marketing. I’m ON FIRE!
So if you need a good dose of motivation, I recommend you check out this book. It worked for me, and I’m passing it along to a friend I’m seeing tomorrow night. I hope she enjoys it as much as I did.
Today I’m hosting author Sebastian Slovin in support of his touching memoir, Ashes in the Ocean: A Son’s Story of Living Through and Learning From His Father’s Suicide, during his blog tour with WOW! Women on Writing.
Here’s what you need to know about the book:
Vernon Slovin was a legend. He was one of the best swimmers in his home country of South Africa, and for a time in the world. He prided himself on being the best. The best in sports, business, and life. He had it all, a big home, athletic prestige, fancy clothes and cars, and a beautiful wife and family. Everything was going his way until it all came tumbling down. He lost everything, including his own life. In the wake of his suicide he left his wife and two young children.
In this riveting memoir, Vernon’s son, Sebastian Slovin chronicles his experience of living in the shadow of a suicide, and his journey out of the darkness and into the light. Slovin shares his quest to uncover why his father took his own life. A pilgrimage that led him around the world and eventually back to himself.
Ashes in the Ocean is a powerful story about facing one’s fears and choosing a different path.
Paperback: 222 pages
Publisher: Nature Unplugged (March 2018)
About the Author:
Since he can remember, nature has been a central part of Sebastian’s life. He was fortunate to grow up in the beach community of La Jolla, California, and spent his childhood mixing it up in the ocean. As a young boy, he lost his father to suicide, which would later deeply inspire his path in life. As a young adult, he had the opportunity to travel extensively and experience many of the world’s great surf spots as a professional bodyboarder. Through his travel, Sebastian developed a deep love and appreciation for our natural world, and at the same time was drawn to the practice of yoga.
His love for yoga led him to study at Prana Yoga Center in La Jolla, California, and his passion for nature eventually led him to pursue a BA in Environment and Natural Resource Conservation at San Diego State University. He also holds an MA in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego.
He lives with his wife Sonya in Encinitas, California. He and Sonya have a business called Nature Unplugged, which focuses on cultivating wellness through healthier relationships with technology and a deeper connection to nature. When he is not writing or working on Nature Unplugged, Sebastian enjoys swimming, bodysurfing, surfing, and stand-up paddling (pretty much all things) in the wild Pacific Ocean. Find Sebastian Online:
Amazon Author Profile: https://www.amazon.com/Sebastian-Slovin/e/B078XN8XZL
From the opening pages of Ashes in the Ocean, I was pulled into Sebastian Slovin’s personal and heartfelt memoir. My heart raced as I read through the description of a popular annual swimming race in California and how Vernon Slovin would deliberately enter the heat of the race with the younger competitors just to challenge himself. I could easily picture his beautiful young family cheering him on from the cliffs above. The scene is the perfect way to introduce the determined, physically fit man constantly seeking perfection and the acknowledgement that he was the best at anything he set his mind to.
There are some people who are born to be one with the water, and Vernon Slovin was one of them. He passed this legacy down to his son, Sebastian. The description of the ocean waves and pristine beaches in picturesque La Jolla, California throughout the book made me want to transport myself there—as did the later chapters featuring beaches in Australia and South Africa.
Because his father’s suicide occurred when he was only six years old, it was many years before Sebastian had the context in which to explore the dynamics in his father’s personality that would lead to such a catastrophic end. For years he and his mother and younger sister struggled to pick up the pieces, to survive without the sheltered and prosperous world Vernon Slovin had tried to insulate them in.
Although he was young when his father took his own life while staying with family in Australia, Sebastian grew up hesitant to discuss “the elephant in the room” with his mother for fear of opening up old wounds. He also feared, deep down, that because of his genetics and history of his father’s mental illness he too would have no choice but to succumb to a suicidal end.
Once in high school, though, Sebastian continued to cycle through the emotions many deal with after losing a loved one to suicide—confusion, guilt, and anger. To help process his lingering questions, Sebastian embarked on personal research project in the hopes of filling in the unanswered questions he had about his father’s life and death. With much of the dogged determination his own father had possessed, he met with his father’s former swim teammates, friends, and business partners. With each e-mail, conversation, and long-distance correspondence, he learned more and more about the competitive swimmer who was recruited from South Africa to compete at the college level in the United States.
Vernon took the same skills and drive that made him successful in swimming and translated that to his business life. During one of Sebastian’s interviews with one of his father’s friends, he started to understand that his father had an almost unhealthy obsession with “winning” and achieving his goals. He would shut out everything else while he worked to achieve them. Because of this obsession, he didn’t know what to do when he failed, which he ended up doing in his career as a stockbroker.
It’s clear both the legacy of his father and the shadow of his death affected Sebastian in more ways than one. He shared the same passion for water, and competed for many years in professional bodyboarding at beaches all over the world. When he discovered yoga, he became convinced he had to be the very best teacher and took all the certifications necessary to become a master instructor. It was only while sidelined after a serious hip surgery (where he re-injured himself after trying to get back in shape too quickly) that he realized he was following directly in his father’s footsteps once again.
Sebastian’s memoir is a thoughtful exploration of the deep ties we have to family and how we must shape our own destinies, regardless of what we think are the legacies left behind for us.
A few years ago I took my daughter to a literary festival called EpicFest in uptown Charlotte. This was yet another one of those events where I used my sweet, accommodating daughter as an excuse to go and hear one of my favorite children’s authors speak.
Lauren Oliver has written many books I’ve enjoyed, as well as one adult novel that confused me a little bit so I’ll probably need to read it again. I’m mostly drawn to her young-adult novels such as Panic, Vanishing Girls, Replica, Before I Fall (which was adapted into a film this past year), but I picked up a copy of her middle-grade novel, Liesl and Po, for my daughter to get autographed at the festival. I was intrigued by the premise of the novel after hearing Oliver answer a Q&A at EpicFest. She said she was inspired to write the story after the death of one of her best friends. In fact, she said she wrote it mostly as a way to process her own feelings of loss—she wasn’t actually sure the novel would be published. In the back of the book, she writes:
The idea for the book came from a fantasy I entertained during those months: I dreamed about unearthing my friend’s ashes from the decorative wall in which they’d been interred and scattering them over the water, the only place he’d ever felt truly at peace.
Below is the synopsis of the novel:
Liesl lives in a tiny attic bedroom, locked away by her cruel stepmother. Her only friends are the shadows and the mice—until one night a ghost named Po appears from the darkness.
That same evening, an alchemist’s apprentice named Will makes an innocent mistake that has tremendous consequences for Liesl and Po, and it draws the three of them together on an extraordinary journey.
One of the things that always impresses me about children’s novels is how deep and profound they can be. Children are resilient beings, and I think sometimes we forget that. Liesl and Po tackles some tough subjects in the way that’s reminisent of Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling. After the death of her father (which readers soon learn was a murder) Liesl is trapped in a small attic room with only the barest scraps of food and drink (think items one might be served in a concentration camp) with only an androgynous ghost named Po to keep her company. She questions Po about what live is like “on the other side” and finally becomes motivated to escape her circumstances and take her father’s ashes to the only place where he was happiest.
Will, the alchemist’s apprentice, also lives a hardscrabble life, as he is an orphan who is verbally (and sometimes physically) abused by the alchemist. He is also forced to skulk around in the dead of night to fetch unimaginable items such as chicken’s heads or a dead man’s beard from a local mortuary. He’s carrying a large box full of magic that is supposed to be delivered to a local wealthy woman, The Lady Premiere, who lives in a castle. When the box of magic gets mixed up with the ashes of Liesl’s fathers, well, you can imagine that the two children get caught in quite a pickle.
The setting of this book is stark, and grey, much like the author viewed the world after the death of her friend. But slowly, through a tale of adventure and lovable characters such as Po, a ghost-animal named Bundle that could be a dog or cat, and a sweet but not-so-bright security guard named Mo (short for Molasses), the color gradually creeps back onto the pages, both literally and metaphorically. It also takes place in a setting and time period that could be anywhere and at anytime.
The back of the book says appropriate for ages 8-12, but I would probably recommend it more for ages 10 and older, because there is so much talk of death, “the other side” and description of a crematorium and the pretty scary character of the stepmother.
Anyone who knows me knows I love to cook. This wasn’t always the case–ask my husband about the slop I used to try and whip up for us when we first got married. There was a LOT of processed food and frozen dinners thrown in there. Then when I was pregnant with our first child and we were both working demanding jobs, there was mostly take-out. Slowly I started cooking more, little by little, but I was still using a lot of processed ingredients (like those yummy condensed soups) because that’s all I knew. Several years ago I came across the 100 Days of Real Food blog and was happy to find recipes that included nothing but whole food ingredients. If you don’t know about the family behind the blog, including mom and Charlotte, N.C. resident Lisa Leake, you can read more about their story here.
I absolutely loved the first cookbook and learned so much about what is considered real food and what has added ingredients. I found so many great recipes I added into my usual rotation, such as the Slow Cooker Potato Soup, Slow Cooker Fajitas, Mini Quiches (my daughter even makes these herself now!), Whole-Wheat Pasta with Kale-Pesto Cream Sauce, etc. I also learned how to make my own whipped cream and it is yummy!
The second cookbook Lisa Leake released, 100 Days of Real Food: Fast & Fabulous, features a whole slew of ways to help you integrate healthy, real food into the household with quick and simple recipes. I ordered this cookbook the second I realized it was coming out. Some of my favorite recipes include Layered Jar Salad with White Beans, Quick Cauliflower Soup, Kale, Sausage and White Bean Soup, the Orange Cream Bundt Cake, Fresh Ranch Dressing (my kids won’t eat the stuff out of a bottle now–they will only eat this!) and much more.
One recipe I’m dying to make but haven’t yet is the Cheesy Hash Brown Casserole (like Cracker Barrel’s but without the MSG and other additives). Also, these brownies are delicious and my kids can make them without my help!
The book also includes make-ahead meal suggestions that don’t require a recipe, such as hard-boiled eggs, cooked quinoa, granola, hummus–things that are great for lunch boxes and the days/nights when you want to feed everyone quickly but without grabbing fast food. There are also meal plans for each season that include shopping lists to make things so much easier.
These two cookbooks have become a staple in our house when meal planning and I can’t wait for her next one to come out.
“The most underrated force at work in the universe is that of coincidence. And yet who among us hasn’t been at its mercy?” – The Identicals
Elin Hilderbrand is one of my favorite authors, and every summer I look forward to meeting a new set of characters in her latest novel. In my favorite book, The Blue Bistro, it was Adrienne, Thatcher, the mysterious chef Fiona, and the whole colorful front and back of the house staff at the restaurant. In The Castaways it was Tess and Greg, Addison and Delilah, Addison and Phoebe and Andrea and Jeffrey, a group of couples who had all grown too close for their own good—I almost couldn’t keep up with all their secrets! In A Summer Affair it was the illicit romance between Claire and Lock as they worked together on a summer gala, even though both were married and had a lot to lose if their secret was discovered. The list goes on and on. This year, I couldn’t hold myself back when I heard about The Identicals, a tale of two identical twins who were raised on the separate islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
In fact, both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard each serve as narrators in different parts of the book. Nantucket says things like, “Famous residents: Prefer not be named,” while Martha’s Vineyard adds, “Famous residents: Meg Ryan, Lady Gaga, Carly Simon, James Taylor, John Belushi,” etc. The book is also told from the points of view of twins Tabitha (raised on Nantucket with her mom after her parents’ divorce when she was a teenager), Harper (who traveled to Martha’s Vineyard with the twins’ dad) and Ainsley, who is Tabitha’s 16-year-old daughter and quite the handful.
Both women are 39 and have lives that couldn’t be more different. Tabitha never married but had two children with her ex-boyfriend Wyatt, Ainsley and an infant son who only lived a few months. She also followed in her mother’s business trying to keep a clothing line (think Lilly Pulitzer variety) afloat, while Harper never really settled on a career and got into one scrape after another, including a drug trafficking charge. When the book begins the two women are united when their father Billy dies, and the reader learns the women haven’t spent any time together since the death of Tabitha’s son—a death for which she blames Harper for some mysterious reason. When their mother Eleanor falls and breaks her hip, there is no one to stay and watch over Ainsley, who has become quite a rebellious and indulgent teenager, on Nantucket. Harper ends up traveling to Nantucket to help out against Tabitha’s wishes while Tabitha first helps her mother in Boston, and then makes her way to Martha’s Vineyard.
I enjoyed reading about the dynamic between the two sisters, especially their complicated love lives. The character of Ainsley had the most growth throughout the novel, which was a nice surprise. I did grow a little frustrated at the hints of what happened the night Tabitha’s son died, because at the end blaming Harper was a little more than misplaced. It also reminded me a little of the storyline in Summerland that involved Ava and Jordan’s infant son who also died.
As usual, Hilderbrand’s love of food comes into play (Harper is a great cook and the meals she prepares are decadent) and it was a change of pace to read about Martha’s Vineyard this time along with Nantucket. It made me add one more place to my travel bucket list! I also purchased the book from Barnes and Noble and it featured bonus content at the end that gave a little backstory to the Tabitha and Harper’s parents, Eleanor and Billy.
Have you read any Elin Hilderbrand books? Which was your favorite? If you haven’t, what is your favorite author famous for writing “beach reads?”