Author Topic: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion  (Read 325 times)

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HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« on: July 06, 2017, 08:15:10 PM »
I will start out right now by saying that although I don’t think this is a well-written book, it is certainly heartfelt, honest and intelligently reflective. And while it offers no useful “cures” for the problems of poor whites in America (at least, none that can be imposed from the outside), I hope it will do something to shut the pie-holes of those who say liberals didn’t do enough to reach the white underclass during the last election. Vance makes it clear that the white underclass doesn’t listen to the likes of us, and that their biggest problem is themselves.

As he writes in the introduction: “While reality permits some degree of cynicism, the fact that hillbillies like me are more down about the future than many other groups – some of whom are clearly more destitute than we are – suggests that something else is going on.
Indeed it is. We’re more socially isolated than ever, and we pass that isolation down to our children. Our religion has changed – built around churches heavy on emotional rhetoric but light on the kind of social support necessary to enable poor kids to do well. Many of us have dropped out of the labor force or have chosen not to relocate for better opportunities. Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world.”

“It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture [i.e., the predominantly Scots-Irish hillbilly sub-culture] that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it. . . . There is a lack of agency here – a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.”

He writes from considerable personal experience. Vance’s family on both sides came from Jackson, Kentucky, the heart of coal mining country in Kentucky. While a number of hill people (including his parents) migrated to Ohio looking for work when the coal industry began bottoming out, many more remained and he’s always thought of that small town as “home”, despite having spent the majority of his life elsewhere.

He spends some time on the history of his family, and the more colorful characters with what most people would consider distinctive quirks, oddities and downright deviance, but in hill country were considered normal behavior. His maternal grandmother, for instance, probably the strongest female influence in his life, who at the age of 12 used a rifle to try to kill two men who were stealing a cow. Now, I’m not supporting cow-theft, but the story makes it clear less lethal targets were available. And this was hardly his Mamaw’s only recourse to mindless violence.

When his parents moved to Ohio, things both did and did not improve. Vance’s father (his sister’s step-father) soon abandoned the family and his mother, a registered nurse, moved on to husband #2 of what would eventually be five – a trucker with a good job and excellent income, who was mild-tempered and not abusive to his step-children. However, Vance’s mother and step-father were incapable of either living within a substantial income or staying out of screaming, cop-calling-by-the-neighbors fights with each other. A trait common to their sub-culture:

“This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poor-house. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. And when the dust clears – when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity – there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.”

“We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain out the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

After a childhood of his mother’s increasing alcoholism, drug abuse and pin-balling from one man to another, Vance’s biggest break (other than supportive relatives to take him in when his mother was truly off her rocker) was a stint in the Marine Corps, which taught him the most valuable lesson of his life: he could do any number of things he’d assumed where impossible and therefore does have some control over his life through his own effort. Armed with that, he attended Yale, became a lawyer and carved out a good life for himself although the fight against his early programming remains a constant effort.

I do want to point out, just to be clear about it, that the flaws Vance identifies in his own nature and that of his culture are hardly unknown to me in my nature. Several of them are way too well known. The only thing I can write on my behalf is that at least I know the fault is mine, annoying and disagreeable though it is to accept that.

And on the note of placing blame, I will end with this excerpt – and bear in mind when reading this that Vance is a Conservative:

“President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we’re not doing well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for teenage kids that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose), in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tell us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it – not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right."

"Many try to blame the anger and cynicism of working-class whites on misinformation. Admittedly, there is an industry of conspiracy-mongers and fringe lunatics writing about all manner of idiocy, from Obama’s alleged religious leanings to his ancestry. But every major news organization, even the oft-maligned Fox News, has always told the truth about Obama’s citizenship status and religious views. The people I know are well aware of what the major news organizations have to say about the issue; they simply don’t believe them.”

Not a whole lot you can do with people who think anything inconvenient or uncomfortable is a lie.

If I had the proofreading of Vance’s book, I’d do a deal of red penciling and tightening up of his story, but over-all I think this is a worthwhile read.
Sandy

  
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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #1 on: July 07, 2017, 12:09:30 PM »
I liked the book. I felt like he covered many things a few times over. Sometimes I thought I had accidentally gone back a page or paragraph, only to find out that some paragraphs were almost exactly the same.

I also could relate to a lot of his experiences.

I don't think that feeling like an outsider is that uncommon a feeling.

There were a few things that highly disagree with. He mentioned a few times that religion helps people. And that while it would have be anecdotal, he failed to present how religion helped him in any way. Or even not anecdotally, how religion helps in a way that is unique to religion.

I also disagree that the "non-racist" reasons for mistrusting Obama were authentic, because "his people" voted for people matching those things all the time. He wears a suit, like the ones they vote for go out to debates and public speeches in jeans and a t-shirt. That he was successful, like (other than Trump and Bush II), the other guys are not successful... I do wonder what he thinks about his conclusions on his party and Trump are.

I disagree that "nothing" can be done because they have to help themselves because they cause their own problems. I'm sure that a lot can be done, and that following his conservative politicians and giving wealthy people more and more tax breaks and doing less and less for poor people is the wrong way to go.

Overall I thought it was good and gave me a lot of things to think about and to reconsider.

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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #2 on: July 07, 2017, 06:28:01 PM »
If I had the proofreading of Vance’s book, I’d do a deal of red penciling and tightening up of his story, but over-all I think this is a worthwhile read.
As excellent as I'm sure you would be at that, you really should be writing book reviews for a living.

And, I knew there was something I meant to read this week other than two of Octavia E. Butler's books.  :d'oh!:
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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #3 on: July 07, 2017, 07:13:45 PM »
If I had the proofreading of Vance’s book, I’d do a deal of red penciling and tightening up of his story, but over-all I think this is a worthwhile read.
As excellent as I'm sure you would be at that, you really should be writing book reviews for a living.

And, I knew there was something I meant to read this week other than two of Octavia E. Butler's books.  :d'oh!:

 ;D  I would have read Butler's books first too!  At least Vance's book is short.
Sandy

  
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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #4 on: July 07, 2017, 07:20:25 PM »
I liked the book. I felt like he covered many things a few times over. Sometimes I thought I had accidentally gone back a page or paragraph, only to find out that some paragraphs were almost exactly the same.


Not only a number of repeats, but a lot of places where I thought he contradicted himself.  It really did need tightening up.

I'm not sure about how much help outsiders can be, particularly when I look at my own hillbilly and coal miner relatives and how persistently they shoot themselves in the foot, both in their personal lives and in the voting booth.

I was really concerned that I was not going to be able to be impartial reading this book, and I think I was right that I was not.  Exasperation is the enemy of sympathy. 
Sandy

  
"I think this is the prettiest world -- as long as you don't mind a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life that doesn't have its splash of happiness?"  from The Kingfisher, by Mary Oliver

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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #5 on: July 07, 2017, 07:23:49 PM »
If I had the proofreading of Vance’s book, I’d do a deal of red penciling and tightening up of his story, but over-all I think this is a worthwhile read.
As excellent as I'm sure you would be at that, you really should be writing book reviews for a living.

And, I knew there was something I meant to read this week other than two of Octavia E. Butler's books.  :d'oh!:

 ;D  I would have read Butler's books first too!  At least Vance's book is short.
I'll start it tomorrow. Even reading slowly, I should finish it no later than Sunday. The two other books I'm reading can wait a day or two.
Life is but a momentary glimpse of the wonder of the astonishing universe, and it is sad to see so many dreaming it away on spiritual fantasy.~Carl Sagan

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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #6 on: July 08, 2017, 12:00:57 AM »
I'm not sure that I could connect to American hillbillies. Their "culture" is pretty alian to me. The book description also doesn't appeal to me, I'm not so much into family stories unless the writing is absolutely stellar. I think I'd give is a miss this time.
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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #7 on: July 09, 2017, 10:56:29 AM »
If I had the proofreading of Vance’s book, I’d do a deal of red penciling and tightening up of his story, but over-all I think this is a worthwhile read.
d
As excellent as I'm sure you would be at that, you really should be writing book reviews for a living.

And, I knew there was something I meant to read this week other than two of Octavia E. Butler's books.  :d'oh!:

I agree with Velma, you really should be writing book reviews for a living as I enjoyed your post immensely. Anyway I will pick this up later today, or more exact download it to my Nook once it is recharged.

I liked your post as well Davin...in fact I'm not more excited to read this than I originally thought I would be.
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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #8 on: July 09, 2017, 07:11:59 PM »
Came across this interesting essay on FB on the plight of poor white trash in the Appalachians:  My Mother Wasn't Trash.  He also had some critical (butt hurt sounding to me) thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy

I can't agree with his opinion that what poor people need is not someone giving them financial help, but a sympathetic ear listening to them.  I know given the choice between cash and someone listening to my tale of woe, I'd grab the cash and nerts to the sob story.  Maybe it's just me.
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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #9 on: July 09, 2017, 08:15:15 PM »
Came across this interesting essay on FB on the plight of poor white trash in the Appalachians:  My Mother Wasn't Trash.  He also had some critical (butt hurt sounding to me) thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy

I can't agree with his opinion that what poor people need is not someone giving them financial help, but a sympathetic ear listening to them.  I know given the choice between cash and someone listening to my tale of woe, I'd grab the cash and nerts to the sob story.  Maybe it's just me.

The right doesn't want hand outs. And they don't want others to have them either. My Dad is this way and by virtue, so am I. I think people need help sometimes though.

However the right wingers think that being given solutions to your problems will make you lazy. But the problem with isolating yourself that way is it makes you dumb and unwilling to consider you are a fallible human being. Sitting on top your tower of trash (or of your name on it) never to be taken down until it collapses under your own weight.

And like someone said before, they want a certain level of individualism but be a nationalist at the same time because they see the USA as a nation of individuals. (Even though it's not because cliques form regardless even amongst them; hence sympathetic ear to listen to them)

Anyways the sympathetic ear thing sounds like he just wants someone to listen to him whine all day.
But, uh...well there it is.
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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #10 on: July 10, 2017, 08:44:49 AM »
Came across this interesting essay on FB on the plight of poor white trash in the Appalachians:  My Mother Wasn't Trash.  He also had some critical (butt hurt sounding to me) thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy

I can't agree with his opinion that what poor people need is not someone giving them financial help, but a sympathetic ear listening to them.  I know given the choice between cash and someone listening to my tale of woe, I'd grab the cash and nerts to the sob story.  Maybe it's just me.
I think people need a sympathetic ear as well as support. Not always money, but that is most often the easiest way to support someone. People need more than just money, and too many people try to simplify the solution to the problem.

It would also help if people stopped misrepresenting the problem. Poverty is largely cyclical, where people move into and out of it over years and/or generations. But most people who talk about it, act like the poor are always the same people. Which is only true for a small percentage.

Edit: I also wanted to add, that I think that one point he learned which I think is the more valuable lesson is that people have a lot of control over their own lives. I think that can be taught and there are some programs that help with that. But those are losing funding too.
« Last Edit: July 10, 2017, 09:01:14 AM by Davin »

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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #11 on: July 10, 2017, 08:54:43 AM »
The right doesn't want hand outs. And they don't want others to have them either. My Dad is this way and by virtue, so am I. I think people need help sometimes though.

However the right wingers think that being given solutions to your problems will make you lazy. But the problem with isolating yourself that way is it makes you dumb and unwilling to consider you are a fallible human being. Sitting on top your tower of trash (or of your name on it) never to be taken down until it collapses under your own weight.

And like someone said before, they want a certain level of individualism but be a nationalist at the same time because they see the USA as a nation of individuals. (Even though it's not because cliques form regardless even amongst them; hence sympathetic ear to listen to them)

Anyways the sympathetic ear thing sounds like he just wants someone to listen to him whine all day.
There is a bit of nuance that is needed for this. Most right wing voters do not want handouts for anyone. But the people they vote for give out trillions of dollars worth of handouts to the wealthy. So they say they don't like handouts, but they vote like they don't mind handouts so long as they don't go to people who need them.

I understand a lot of the things the right wingers say they want, but they're not voting for people that actually do those things. If they voted like they say they want, there are far fewer idealistic conflicts in Democratic representatives than there are in Republican ones. They are voting for the wrong people.

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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #12 on: July 10, 2017, 10:57:20 AM »
The right doesn't want hand outs. And they don't want others to have them either. My Dad is this way and by virtue, so am I. I think people need help sometimes though.

However the right wingers think that being given solutions to your problems will make you lazy. But the problem with isolating yourself that way is it makes you dumb and unwilling to consider you are a fallible human being. Sitting on top your tower of trash (or of your name on it) never to be taken down until it collapses under your own weight.

And like someone said before, they want a certain level of individualism but be a nationalist at the same time because they see the USA as a nation of individuals. (Even though it's not because cliques form regardless even amongst them; hence sympathetic ear to listen to them)

Anyways the sympathetic ear thing sounds like he just wants someone to listen to him whine all day.
There is a bit of nuance that is needed for this. Most right wing voters do not want handouts for anyone. But the people they vote for give out trillions of dollars worth of handouts to the wealthy. So they say they don't like handouts, but they vote like they don't mind handouts so long as they don't go to people who need them.

I understand a lot of the things the right wingers say they want, but they're not voting for people that actually do those things. If they voted like they say they want, there are far fewer idealistic conflicts in Democratic representatives than there are in Republican ones. They are voting for the wrong people.
That's it exactly.

I finished the book last night. There is a bit of a whiny undertone in parts. He so easily dismisses help from "outsiders," yet admits that a great number of "hillbillies" can't find their own way out of the mire of poverty, abuse, low educational achievement, addiction, that plague so many of those communities. He goes to great pains to show how little he understood of the wider world when he joined the Marines and how much he relied on mentoring (although he didn't use the word) both there and later at college. He acknowledges how much those skills contributed to his success. Yet, he still falls for the conservative story that all those he left behind need to do it pull themselves up by their own bootstraps with minimal outside help. The cognitive dissonance is grating. I think Mr. Vance still has some growing up to do.
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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #13 on: July 10, 2017, 11:37:55 AM »
That's it exactly.

I finished the book last night. There is a bit of a whiny undertone in parts. He so easily dismisses help from "outsiders," yet admits that a great number of "hillbillies" can't find their own way out of the mire of poverty, abuse, low educational achievement, addiction, that plague so many of those communities. He goes to great pains to show how little he understood of the wider world when he joined the Marines and how much he relied on mentoring (although he didn't use the word) both there and later at college. He acknowledges how much those skills contributed to his success. Yet, he still falls for the conservative story that all those he left behind need to do it pull themselves up by their own bootstraps with minimal outside help. The cognitive dissonance is grating. I think Mr. Vance still has some growing up to do.
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Re: HAF Book Club: Hillbilly Elegy discussion
« Reply #14 on: August 25, 2017, 11:00:18 AM »
I forgot to leave a review on this book, what the heck why didn't anyone remind me? 8)

Overall thought it was a good read, and enjoyed it quite a bit, though I do agree that it wasn't edited very well, at times I felt I had started off on a page already previously read?

Don't necessarily agree with all of the authors conclusions with regards to our society, but than again the author doesn't seem to pretend to be an expert on policy so I think his commentary and observations are definitely noteworthy, and a help to further the discussion on how to help empower poor communities.

I do also think highly of how he acknowledges that his upbringing haunts his own marriage, this type of self realization is important for all of us I think, to me it's the most important lesson of the book.


Have recommended it to several friends, one is currently reading it and so far is also enjoying it.

Last night I listened to a podcast about the film "Detroit” which is about the infamous 1967 riots which took place here in Detroit, the film came out to commenerate  the 50th anniversary of the riots.

Anyway they were interviewing a reporter who had covered the riots in Detroit, and he spoke about the death of one 31 year old man who had been killed by troops called in by the President. The man was originally from Kentucky, and had migrated to Detroit to work for the automotive industry. They originally claimed the man had been shot for being a sniper, but further investigation discovered that is was a rifle he was killed holding, but a broom.

The reporter commented how in following up with the victims family down in Kentucky they spoke about his dreams of heading north and escaping the poverty of the hill towns of Kentucky only to have them shattered by getting caught in the cross hairs of the riots.

This reminded me of "Hillbilly Elegy" of course, and also of neighbors we had living in Dearborn when I was a kid. The family was also from Kentucky, and I knew them as Anne and Frank. They lived in the house directly behind ours, separated at that time by an alleyway that cut-throught the middle of the block. Anne was nice, and she would often give my sisters and I homemade biscuts or cookies, or other snacks when she saw us outside, Frank on the other hand was perpetually grumpy and according to my mom and dad, also perpetually drunk.

But our families got along quite well, Frank worked for Ford Motor Company until he retired, he always wore white collared shirts, long sleeve in the winter and short sleeve in the summer. He smoked a ton, and was a permament fixture sitting on his back porch patio chain smoking, and as my dad would often say, “Watching his grass grow”.

Anne had a sister who came to live with them when I was about 12 whose name was Edith, and as I became a teenager her and Anne would pay me to do chores around the yard and house because Frank was dealing with health issues that stemmed mostly from his drinking and smoking.
He would snap at me sometimes when I was in the house, but the ladies would just tell him to shut up and for me to ignore him.

When I was older Edith paid me to take care of her car for her. I would take take it out and fill it up with gas, change the oil, do the brakes (With my Dad’s help) wash, buff and wax it…she paid me decently.

After working on the car or doing yard work, or what other chores needed done they would insist on feeding me, good southern food, lots of lemonade.

House smelled of mothballs, and they were devout Baptists.
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