Holiday 2019 reading (Part 2)

Over the summer holidays, I was back in New York, and armed with my beloved library card. I managed to read lots of good books during my time there, and blogged about some of them last week.

This week, I’ll wrap up the reviews of my holiday reading … also giving me a chance to “relive” my holidays, now that real life beckons…

Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance

I have been wanting to read this book ever since it was released and I began reading reviews about it, so I snatched it up right away when I saw it at the library and tore through it.

Reading Hillbilly Elegy in Central Park

This is a highly readable, first-person account of growing up in Appalachia and addressing many of the issues of persistent poverty in the region, and the failure of many social policies designed to develop the region. Vance addresses tough issues – abject poverty, substance abuse, broken families and an underlying despair – in a candid manner, and while still expressing his connection and admiration for the region and its people.

Vance himself travelled far from his hillbilly roots: first in the army, then as an undergraduate at Ohio State University and then as a law student at Yale Law School. These experiences provide him a fresh perspective on his upbringing, his community and the factors in play in hampering economic growth in the Appalachian community.

This is a must read book, one that is highly informative and readable, and sheds light on an American community that has too long lagged behind the social and economic growth experienced in other regions.

One of the best aspects of this book is that, despite his success and his move away from the region, Vance makes it clear he is profoundly shaped by the region he still calls his true home. Therefore, his analysis of the region and his hope that policies can effect real change to improve the lives and livelihoods of those who call Appalachia home are much more powerful.

The Garden Party – Grace Dane Mazur

I picked this up on a whim – judging a book by its (attractive) cover. I wasn’t fully convinced until far into this novel, but in the end I’m very glad to have read it.

(Rockaway) Beach reading for The Garden Party …

Two very different families come together to celebrate the rehearsal dinner prior to the nuptials of Adam and Eliza. The Cohens – hosting the dinner in their garden – are academics and head-in-the-clouds intellectuals. Their guests, the Barlows, are rather stodgy and unimaginative lawyers. Things progress rather as you imagine they might.

This book is beautifully written, but I was unconvinced throughout the first half. I was constantly thumbing back to the “cast of characters” for the first half of the novel, and I am often skeptical of a story told in short bursts from the point of view of each character. I last read this style with Mark Haddon’s The Red House, and it takes me a while to acclimate myself to the story or characters in a novel told in this way.

However, by the second half, I was fully enjoying this tale of disparate characters speaking past one another, and enjoyed the brief glimpses into their inner worlds. All in all, an excellent read.

Mrs Everything – Jennifer Weiner

I often enjoy Weiner’s novels, particularly her earlier ones. When I saw her newest novel, a sweeping story following two sisters from the 1950s to today, I was intrigued.

Reading between sets at my kids’ matches prior to the US Open at Flushing Meadows.

Sadly, it didn’t live up to my expectations. I felt it could have been a far better novel had it tried to be a little less everything-and-the-kitchen-sink sweeping and if it felt less that the author used this novel as an excuse to examine her pet views and opinions on every major issue facing women over the past 60 years. Honestly, by the time #MeToo crept into the novel, I was pretty jaded.

The premise was good – two sister growing up in the 1950s. One a tomboy tied to her father and not interested at all in the domestic arts. One a beautiful girl, anxious to grow up and be like her mother. When their father dies young, their mother must provide for the family, at a time when that wasn’t easy to do. With the changing landscape of social policies and the role of women through the 1960s and 1970s, this was an opportunity to allow us to see this world through the eyes of our two protagonists as they experienced shifting mores.

The set up was there for a great novel, but, in my opinion, the author’s voice intervened too many times and drowned out her characters. And, sadly for my future as a reader of contemporary women’s fiction today, there seemed to be an awful lot of virtue signaling that I didn’t want to read. This is a novel, not an annoying New York Times editorial trying to convince us. Sadly, I see many of my formerly favorite women’s authors applying this lecturing tone to their novels.

Yes – a midwestern suburban housewife back in the 1950s wasn’t going to embrace her daughter’s lesbianism. This doesn’t make her Lucifer. It would have been pretty normal at the time. Midwestern towns in the 50s could still be divided socially by race. Not a proud moment in our history, but not atypical of the time and place either. An abortion doctor when abortion was illegal was not going to ‘shout out’ his patient’s abortion and chant my body, my choice. The advice to keep her legs closed and to not come back for another abortion sounded about right for the time. These incidents and many, many more all become microaggressions that shape the sisters destinies. And there are plenty more where they came from…

To me, the sisters were very good in seeing their own victimization, but not realizing how their actions victimized others. Another main stumbling block in this novel is that in trying to “lift women’s experiences”, the men all become bastards. With the exception of a father who dies young and an infant boy who makes an appearance in the last pages, the male characters mostly come across as cardboard cutout villains. I have read other Weiner novels and knows she can create more complex and interesting male characters, so this was disappointing.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to this novel, but it seems I’ve read so many like this recently from American female writers that I am hesitant to pick them up today. I’m hoping we can go back to stories told through the character’s eyes and not being spoon fed or lectured to through woke 2019 eyes.

That wraps up my summer holiday reading. Was great while it lasted…

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