Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis

by J. D. Vance, 2016, Harper (Kindle Edition)

This book is very pertinent to what is occurring in the United States today.  Individuals are angry and upset, don’t trust the government, don’t trust the media, and are prone to false news and conspiracy theories.  Vance’s book sheds a lot of light on how the “hillbilly culture” affects how many in the rust belt and Appalachia are affected by this culture.

Vance’s memoir of his life growing up in a dysfunctional hillbilly family with a mother who was untrustworthy, an alcoholic and drug user, and an abuser, illustrates the impacts of this kind of culture.  He was extremely fortunate to have grandparents who provided him with enough stability and belief in him to enable him to escape from his roots.  Unfortunately, the situation he experienced and the subsequent opportunities that opened up are fairly rare.  He is definitely an exception.

My only criticism of the book is that I think Vance suggests that the dysfunction is unique to the hillbilly culture.  I believe that there are similar forces present in many of the other cultures (Black, Hispanic, and even wealthy white families) that are creating similar behaviors.

The book is well-written and easy to follow.  I would recommend this book.3 1/2 stars

Origins of a Catastrophe

Origins of a Catastrophe, by Warren Zimmerman, 1999, Times Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York

Warren Zimmerman was the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia and the Balkan War broke out in the 1990’s.  The book relates his meetings with the leaders of the various  republics (Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia) that split from Yugoslavia and he provides his assessment of their personalities and ideologies.  In fact the book is a little bit like a memoir in addition to a historical work.

This book was a very hard read for me as the names were hard to keep track of and I didn’t know much about these countries or their histories.  Although I have rated this book fairly high due to its content, I found myself having a hard time staying with it  In fact, I usually started to fall asleep while reading it after only a few pages.

The most startling conclusion that I came to after reading this was the damage that certain individuals can inflict on their fellow countrymen when they implement their intentions, particularly when their intentions are fused with a extreme nationalistic ideology.  In our recent presidential campaign here in the U.S. one of our candidates has professed strong nationalistic views, i.e., America First.  As I read this book I was struck by how similar the personalities and ideology of Slobodan Milosevic and  Donald Trump seem to be.  Both seem to have had a strong dislike of foreigners, want to control the press (media), and harbor feelings that they have been somehow wronged by their enemies.  These are all the characteristics of a demagogue.  Scary.

While I greatly appreciate Zimmerman’s analysis of what caused the breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars, it was a bit depressing to read while at the same time our own presidential election was underway.  Both of these together was a bit too hard to take.

4 stars

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss

by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt, 2016, Harper

This book is basically a compilation of emails that Anderson Cooper exchanged with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, when she was over ninety years old.  I was impressed with how sharp and articulat his mother is at this advanced age.

The book encapsulates the kind of conversation we should all have with our parents before they are gone.  My own conversation with my mother was not very deep.  I did have several good exchanges with my father before he died, but not as deep as the conversations that were captured in this book.

What I learned was that it is important to ask your parents probing questions about their lives.  There is a lot to learn.  It’s too late for me, but maybe I can have these  conversations with my sons before I, too, am no longer here.

3 1/2 stars

Private Svoboda, Hope is the Last to Die

by Steven R. Roberts with Alexander von Svoboda, 2013, Rouge River Press, Dearborn, MI

This story is about a youth who was drafted into Hitler’s army and survived incredible hardship.  At the age of 15 Alexander Svoboda was sent to the Russian front to defend the motherland from the oncoming Russian army.  His unit was severely outnumbered and, although many of his schoolmates in the same unit did not survive, Svoboda was captured by the Russians and sent to a POW camp in Siberia.  He then escapes and makes his way back to his home in Austria (walking much of the way), only to find out that the Allies have cut a deal to turn over his part of Austria to Russian control at the end of the war.

I think the author really hit his stride in the telling of this story.  The story is told by Alexander in first person, present tense.  The story unfolds as if it is happening at this very minute rather than 70 years ago.  With each page there is something new and interesting happening and the story never drags.

Although I really liked the book, I do have a few comments that I thought could have made the book just a bit better.  In the first place, I didn’t like the font the book was printed with.  It was published using a sans-serif font which I believe is more suited to a poster or notice of some kind.  I am much more accustomed to reading a book using some kind of serif font such at Times-Roman.  After reading a while it didn’t seem to make much difference, but it took a little getting used to at first.

As I read the book, I got the feeling that the story was being told by a much older individual than a boy of fifteen or sixteen.  I am sure that the war would age someone quickly, both physically and mentally, but the story was related with far more wisdom, insight, and maturity than someone of that age could possibly possess.  It’s understandable that this would occur as the story was told to the author many years after it occurred, but it took away some of the immediacy of the book.

I noticed in a couple of places where there were some grammatical errors in the case of a pronoun (using the accusative “me” instead of the nominative “I” with an intransitive verb).  In English these errors are frequently heard and seen as we typically use different cases only with pronouns, but  it is unlikely that a schoolboy who is trained in much more structured German would be making the same kinds of grammatical mistakes that we typically do in English.  This is a pretty minor criticism, but as I was reading along, it was a bit jarring to see a typical English grammatical error uttered by a German schoolboy.

Lastly, there were a couple of places where the author switched from active to passive voice and back that seemed out of place.

These small items didn’t detract from the overall impact and impression of the book.  I liked it very much. 4 stars


by Elie Wisel, 1972 (new translation by Marion Wiesel, 2006), Hill and Wang, a division of Farrer, Straus, and Giroux, New York

Compelling, horrifying, saddening – one individual’s story of his Holocaust experience.  Also, I might add, beautifully written.

Reading this, I can understand why it is so difficult to believe that there exists a living God who loves each and every one of us.  How can this ever happen on earth if that were true?  Elie Wisel became convinced a benevolent God who answered his prayers did not exist when he witnessed the atrocities being committed by his fellow human beings.  This book not only calls us to remember the Holocaust so that it can never be repeated, but it also raises questions as to how God, if he exists as a god who loves us, would ever permit this to happen to anyone.

The prose in this book is so compact and powerful, that it is extremely easy to read.  Only the content makes it difficult to get through.  After reading it, though, I am grateful to the author for sharing his experience, as painful and difficult as that effort may have been.5 stars

I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941, A Diary of the Nazi Years

by Victor Klemperer, Translated by Martin Chalmers, 1999, Modern Library Paperback Edition, Random House, New York (First published in Germany under the title Ich will Aeugnis ablegen bis sum ltestn: Tagebucher 1933 von Victor Kempere, Copyright Aufbau-Verlag GmbH, Berlin, 1995).

First of all, this is a book that I wouldn’t ordinarily read but I found it in a box of books that my son had after taking a master’s degree in Eastern European History.  I picked some of the books out of the box thinking I would like to check them out.  I decided I would give this one a try.

It was a moving book for me to read, although it was also very tough to get through.  In the first place, I don’t particularly like reading diaries.  The day-to-day activities of a person seem to drag and, in this book, there is no exception.  Secondly, Klemperer spends much of his time working on his writing and there is a great deal of detail about the subject of one of his books, the literary history of 18th century France.  Ughh!!!

Where the book has impact, however, is in the depiction of the inexorable tightening of the restrictions on his freedoms by the Nazi regime.  Klemperer and his wife, Eva, are both Protestants, but he has Jewish ancestry and is deemed to be “non-Aryan.”  Because of his extraction, he is targeted with the same restrictions placed on Jews.

Klemperer is also fervently anti-Zionist and considers himself thoroughly German.  He fought in the trenches in WWI and has a close affiliation with German culture – at least in the beginning of the book when the Nazis first come to power.  He recognizes very early, however, that the National Socialist movement is severely flawed and that Hitler is a madman.  His continually references his overriding desire to outlive the Third Reich.

The cover of the book has a quote from Time Magazine comparing it to Anne Frank’s diary.  It says, “Richer and more disturbing than Anne Frank’s journals”.  There is some truth to that as it reveals a similar level of anxiety and fear.  On the other hand, this diary was written by a professor of literature versus a young girl.  Klemperer is a master of expression and captures his thoughts and emotions extremely well.  Another major difference is that Anne Frank was essentially isolated from the rest of the world while she was in hiding.  Klemperer and his wife are out living in society during this period (although his freedoms are gradually constricted).  He and Eva attempt to live “normal” lives while all of the lunacy goes on around them.  He has access to news accounts and speeches of the Nazis as well as the reaction of both Aryans and Jews to what is happening.  He is able to not only express his own feeling and reactions, but he also pays a lot of attention to the mood of others in Germany as all of this is happening.  It’s like having a recorder playing back the events and the resulting effects.

The attempts a living a normal life while these events are happening are notable.  Despite losing his job as a professor of literature at one of the state schools of higher education and being severly constrained financially, he manages to build a house, learn to drive, buy a car, go on trips, visit relatives and friends, go out to eat, etc. (at least until his house is appropriated in 1939 because he is “non-Aryan.”)  He continues to focus on the books he is writing, even after he is forced into confinement.

The book ends suddenly at the end of 1941.  I have not investigated whether there is another volume that covers his diary from that point on.  The preface of the book tells of his eventual fate so that is never in doubt, but I am curious as to what he experienced between 1941 and the end of the war.  I am not sure, however, I will ever read that as I had such a difficult time wading through this volume.  It was a tough read, but ultimately I am glad I read it.  Heaven help us if a bunch of nut cases ever manage to take over power here!four stars

The Glass Castle: A Memoir

by Jeannette Walls, 2006, Scribner, New York

This book is a bit hard to fathom.  There are elements that ring true and then there are things that seem to be a bit of a stretch.

Walls’ parents seemed to be extremely intelligent and loving, but also suffered from an extreme inability to cope with society and modern day life.  While some would call it mental illness, the fact is that there are many individuals in our society who seem to have some form of this, although not to this extreme.  It manisfests itself in a distrust of all forms of authority and a total disdain for the “normal” ways of life.  The usual result is that these individuals end up being much less successful in terms of their standard of living and other achievements.  The book does a good job of describing just how poorly decisions are made and the corresponding poor results.  In the case of the author’s family, the result is that they live in poverty and squalor, despite their considerable talents and opportunities.

Walls does a good job of bringing out her parents’ characters.  Despite their obvious shortcomings as parents, she continues to love each of them and recounts numerous situations where she connects with them.  Her father and mother each have their good points, love their children, and are not abusive to them in any way.  They are, however, complete failures in their ability to properly provide for their offspring.

I found that I could understand the author’s love of her parents while she recounts their defects.  I could not, however, understand her acceptance of their behavior.  She seems, for the most part, to “go along for the ride” and accept whatever they do, no matter how ridiculous their actions are.  She strikes out on her own to make herself successful, but she never seems to stand up to her parents and put her foot down, rather just accepting that this is the way they are.  One example of this is that she continued to give her father money for booze when the rest of the family was starving.  Maybe this illustrates how much the power her love of her father had over her, but I thought that, just for once, she could have and should have told him no.

Anyway, I thought the book was fairly well written and told a story of a situation that is probably more common than most would think possible.  At the same time, I felt that, for some reason, it didn’t all ring true.  I finished the book thinking that maybe in the author’s mind, this was the way it was, but time has a tendency to make one look at the past a bit differently from what actually transpired.  I think this may be the case in this memoir.3 stars

From This Day Forward

by Cokie and Steve Roberts, 2000, William and Morrow Company, New York

A nice little memoir about the authors’ marriage and relationship, it is interspersed with stories about other marriages, starting with the American Revolution and ending with some divorced and extended family situations.  The passages about Cokie and Steve’s experiences were interesting as they were married shortly before our marriage and went through some of the same experiences we did.  They were also revealing in that they didn’t always paint Cokie and Steve in the best light.  Their marriage did manage to survive and flourish, however, as they adjusted to one another.  Cokie grew up Catholic and Steve, Jewish, so they had a lot more to deal with than most couples.

Unfortunately, the stories about other marriage situations that were also included in the book were a bit dull reading and didn’t seem to add up to a coherent message.  They probably detracted a bit from the overall effort rather than added to it.

Overall, the book was just so-so.2 1/2 stars

Teacher Man

by Frank McCourt, 2005, Performed by the Author, 2005, Simon and Schuster Audio

This book focuses on the author’s many years of teaching in New York schools.  There are many interesting stories with flashbacks to his childhood growing up in Limerick, Ireland.  Some of the stories of Ireland, I believe, had already been told in Angela’s Ashes.

The narration of the book is definitely a plus.  Having the author tell his own story in his own dialect really added to the effect.  The book, however, did not have nearly the impact that Angela’s Ashes had.   McCourt seems a bit tired as he reads his final book.  Nonetheless, the  book is worthwhile due to the human elements contained in his reminiscences. 2 1/2 stars

Dewey, The Small-Town Library Cat who Touched the World

by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter, 2008, Grand Central Publishing, New York

This is a nice story, but is probably more interesting because of the story of the author and small-town Midwestern America.  Dewey was obviously a special cat, but it is difficult to capture that in a book other than saying multiple times how special he was.  I was impressed by the Vicki’s life, however, and how she overcame a bad marriage to an alcoholic, multiple deaths in her family in a short period of time, terrible medical problems, poverty, and raising a girl by herself as a single mother.  Despite these cards stacked against her, she managed to get a college degree and graduate summa cum laude.  She then went on to make a significant impact on the library where she worked and the town she lived in.  These are noteworthy accomplishments.

The cat part of the story was nice but I didn’t quite get how special the cat was.  Maybe having three cats ourselves as well as some pretty special ones previously has colored my thinking.3 1/2 stars