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review 2017-11-25 00:58
The Music of the Spheres
The Music of the Spheres - Milton Chase Potter

3.75 stars, rounded up

 

CW: 

Death, depression, cancer (side character)

(spoiler show)

 

I wouldn't classify this as a romance, though there is a love story. It's more about two boys becoming friends and helping each other through some tough times. Well, it's more Adam helping Ryan through some tough times, but they both fulfill something that's missing in the other's life, as Ryan provides Adam with a surrogate family. Their friendship is wonderful and often put a big grin on my face. 

 

It's first-person POV and present tense, which I know some readers may have issues with. I'm not one who cares about that normally, and while it mostly doesn't bother me here, I did find myself often wanting to see Adam's side of things. This was especially the case in the one brief scene we have with Adam's foster father.

The fact that Adam was in one foster home for three years should tell him that his foster parents are dedicated to him, because that's not very common. And his foster father seemed almost desperate to get to know one of Adam's friends and find out more about him. So why exactly was Adam keeping his foster parents at such a distance when he so readily accepted Ryan's family? And also, why did he so quickly go from "I don't like being touched" to initiating hugs with Ryan?

(spoiler show)

It almost felt like there was something else going on there than the brief explanation that we got, so the choice to do this in first-person does limit how much we get to know about Adam. I also wanted Ryan to figure out his feelings for Adam a lot sooner than he did.

 

I was not prepared for the turn this story made at about the halfway mark. It was very emotional and while I hated what happened, it was beautifully written. The writing throughout the story flowed nicely and I liked seeing how these characters cared about each other and how they "adopted" Adam to their family and helped each other when things got rough.

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review 2017-11-24 23:00
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.E. Vance

This is an interesting and very readable memoir by an author who grew up in small-town Ohio; it gets its name from the fact that his family was originally from Kentucky, and he grew up with a strong connection to Appalachia. It is worth reading for the author’s story, though not so much for the “culture” portion of the subtitle. And to the extent he talks about politics – many readers suspect he’s an aspiring Republican politician, and given his current activities this seems likely – while he talks about the disconnection and disenchantment that led to Trump’s election in a sane way, he fails to offer productive suggestions for the troubled community of his childhood.

Vance begins the story with his grandparents, who moved from Appalachia to Middletown, Ohio, in search of better opportunities. They found them, but isolated from their community, they created a toxic household for their kids – he drank too much and sometimes turned violent; in response she tried to murder him in his sleep. They shaped up only in time to help raise the grandkids when their deeply damaged daughter, with an addiction and a never-ending string of failed live-in relationships, proved inadequate to the task. Vance’s childhood was chaotic, and he made it through high school only because his grandmother stepped up and took him in. But even once he managed to get out, the legacy of poverty and domestic chaos continued to shape his life: he needed the Marine Corps to teach him self-confidence and basic financial literacy, and a patient partner to deal with his total ignorance of how to handle conflict constructively.

The story is well-told, and will be an eye-opener for many who haven’t faced the challenges Vance did growing up. It’s important to remember that poverty isn’t just a lack of money; it’s the lack of educational, social, and emotional resources that people need to make money. Someone who doesn’t believe they can do better, or is completely unaware of need-based financial aid for college, is going to struggle even if they seem from the outside to have options. That said, this does read like a memoir by an aspiring politician; even when it’s candid, it is careful and polished in a way that seems designed to keep political doors open.

But the book doesn’t deliver on its promise of “a memoir of a culture in crisis.” While Vance visits Appalachia frequently, he never actually lives there and so is on the sidelines of its culture. Certainly his white, working-class Ohio neighborhood is in crisis, but the book doesn’t engage much with Vance’s friends, neighbors and co-workers. Understandably, his attention is focused on his own personal and family struggles. The “culture” aspect comes up mostly in his placing blame for the Rust Belt’s economic failures on its culture; he writes about people who talk a good game about “hard work” but never actually perform it, and young parents who spend their days watching TV and receiving government benefits, and then he talks about how “the community” rather than the government needs to solve the region’s problems.

Forgive my cynicism, but this just sounds like abdication of responsibility. Conservatives will like Vance’s message because it’s about less government, and many liberals seems to have liked it as well, perhaps because he points the finger at those very white working-class people who tend to vote Republican, or perhaps just because it puts all of us middle- and upper-class folk, liberals and conservatives alike, in the comfortable position of having no responsibility for this problem. How would we react if the people being blamed here were non-white? Certainly race adds to and compounds all the problems of class, but I don’t think anyone – even Vance – believes that Appalachia and the Rust Belt acquired their economic malaise as a result of a “lazy” culture, rather than the other way round. But once we accept that cultural decay results from a lack of economic opportunity, it seems perverse to blame the people trapped in these disadvantaged areas for the problem.

And there’s a larger question here, which is: who is this “community” that is meant to solve the problems of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, and how are they meant to do it? Do we really think the Ladies’ Garden Club, or the Baptist church with 100 members, is going to create new jobs, or help those who’ve gotten caught up in the criminal justice system due to addiction get their lives on track, or feed three meals a day to the three kids whose single mom can’t afford to work because day care costs more than a public college and she doesn’t have a reliable support system? No, addressing these needs is going to require “the community” coming together in a much more large-scale way, with enough funding to actually make a difference... hmm, this sounds like government, whether it’s involved directly or through providing funding. After all, what other institution can claim to represent the entire community?

But Vance – who at the time he wrote this was living in San Francisco, not working in that “community” onto which he offloaded responsibility – takes the well-worn route of blaming individuals for not being perfect, and then using human weaknesses to justify his argument that government shouldn’t help them. When writing about his teenage job at a grocery store, he takes the opportunity to complain about food stamp recipients: some of them bought steaks (likely meaning they’d go hungry at the end of the month, though he doesn’t mention that), while others “gamed the welfare system” by “ring[ing] up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash.” That is how food stamps are supposed to work, by the way: you buy food with them, and non-food items with your own money.

Of course, in a perfect world all poor people would only ever make smart financial decisions, and none would ever indulge in luxuries or have addictions. But, you know, people are human, and I don’t blame them; would you scrimp every penny if you saw no prospect of anything better on the horizon, or would you try to enjoy what you had while it lasted? I understand the teenage Vance’s anger at seeing others receive public benefits while he worked and was still poor (though he doesn’t address whether he and his grandmother qualified for food stamps but opted not to apply, or whether they made more money than their neighbors). But he merely complains about “welfare queens” – trying to make this concept acceptable to liberals by applying it to poor white people – without offering any actual solutions.

In reality, more than a quarter of households receiving food stamps consist of elderly or disabled adults, while 58% of able-bodied, working-age recipients of food stamps are employed when they apply, and 82% within a year. I would guess those numbers are lower in economically depressed areas like the ones Vance describes, where jobs aren’t always available. But simply working isn’t the answer when 45% of retail employees receive some type of government benefits. And of course conservatives also oppose increases in the minimum wage, which might help these people make it through their work alone.

So it’s unclear how Vance thinks poor and working-class people ought to feed their families and otherwise make ends meet, but let’s just focus on a couple of people who from the outside at least look lazy and entitled, and then place blame responsibility on a “community” that we aren’t part of, and we can all go home satisfied. Right? I grant you that he sounds a lot saner than many Republican politicians these days when it comes to questions like why so many people distrust the media or believe Obama isn’t a citizen, but he certainly doesn’t say anything here to convince me that putting him in office would be good for his constituency or the country.

That said, the book is mostly about his story rather than politics; while I don’t want to see him in office (at least not unless he’s able to find more compassion for those outside his immediate circle and propose real solutions), I do recognize his achievements and believe that he has a story worth the telling. So read it if you like, but don’t turn off critical thinking just because he seems more rational than many current politicians.

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review 2017-11-24 17:45
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss
The Hearts of Horses - MOLLY GLOSS

It’s too bad about the title and cover. This is a lovely work of literary historical fiction, which happens to feature a protagonist who trains horses, but which neither anthropomorphizes nor is sentimental about them. Really it’s a story about the hearts of humans: how they live together and love one another. It’s the first winter of America’s involvement in WWI, and the shy but tough 19-year-old Martha Lessen arrives in a rural Oregon county looking for work. Which she finds gentling horses for eight local families; this allows the author to dip into many lives, with a strong sense of compassion and understanding of people and relationships.

So Martha is the protagonist, and hers is a fairly standard though well-told story of finding community and love after a rough childhood. But she’s also the catalyst for other characters’ stories, which occupy just as much of our time. There’s the “German” couple ostracized by many of their neighbors (they are German in that his family immigrated from there, and she married him). There’s the woman who splits wood to feed her three young children and alcoholic husband. There’s the educated farmer dying of cancer – which at the time had no real treatment – and the stalwart wife who must confront the reality of his illness and death every day.

This is a very well-written book, told in a measured, contemplative way; when there is excitement, the book is more interested in how the characters manage their situations and how those situations affect them than in action for its own sake. The omniscient narrator drops into the heads of various characters in a natural way, and also fills us in on local history and on the times. Writing 90 years later during another overseas war, the author seems particularly interested in the culture of wartime America.

Overall, this is a wise, warm and observant character-driven novel with social commentary. Be warned that it takes awhile to get going; I wasn’t hooked until somewhere between pages 50 and 75. But it was well worth the investment, and I enjoyed it as much as Gloss’s stand-out epistolary novel, Wild Life, though they are very different books. I look forward to reading more of her work soon.

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review 2017-11-24 13:58
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps ★★★★☆
The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps - Jeanette Winter

Crossing the ocean, Jane stayed on deck

and watched the waves, even when the cold wind blew.

She saw all the different blues and greens of the sea,

and fish that glowed through the dark water.

 

 

What I loved best about this little children’s book was the emphasis that was placed on Jane Goodall’s accomplishments and the characteristics of her person and work that helped her to achieve them – curiosity, determination despite hardship, and patient observation, but done in a way that was celebratory rather than preachy. I enjoyed the artwork, too, with its bright unusual colors and sense of motion. In telling Goodall’s story, the book also tells us a story about the forest in Gombe in Tanzania, where deforestation and poaching were threatening the chimpanzees with extinction, accompanied by a rather horrifying illustration of a poacher aiming a gun at a mother chimp playing with her infant chimp amid tree stumps. Although the book tries to end on a high note, that illustration is the one that stuck with me after finishing.

 

This was an ebook, borrowed from my public library. I read this for The 16 Tasks of the Festive Season, square 14: Book themes for Quaid-e-Azam:  Pakistan became an independent nation when the British Raj ended on August 14, 1947. Read a book set in Pakistan or in any other country that attained sovereign statehood between August 14, 1947 and today (regardless in what part of the world). This book is set in Tanzania, which became independent from the UK in 1961, according to Wikipedia.

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review 2017-11-23 21:48
Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley - Charlotte Gordon

This is such a fantastic biography that I suspect it will become my gold standard. It’s a dual biography of two well-known female intellectuals (who were also mother and daughter), Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. All I knew of either woman before reading this was her most famous book, but as it turns out they both lived fascinating – and, because they were writers, well-documented – lives. Both traveled internationally (Wollstonecraft even lived in France in the midst of its revolution), wrote extensively, and had children outside of marriage, and all this in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

This isn’t only a factual account; it brings both protagonists to life in alternating chapters (because Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Shelley, the two barely intersect), with distinct, complex and vivid personalities. And Gordon is an excellent storyteller, rendering their lives in a readable style more compelling than many novels; the end of a chapter would often leave me wanting to read just one more. The book is rich in information about the times, providing the context of these women’s lives and the lives of those around them, but despite being a history, the facts never feel inevitable; this is quite an achievement, requiring fresh and vivid storytelling. For the first 100 pages I was concerned that it would be a downer, featuring women oppressed by their gender and culture at every turn, but both women soon grow up and take control of their destinies. In the end, my only concern is that, while the book includes extensive endnotes and a bibliography, the author usually only cites a source when directly quoting someone; I wanted to know where more of the assertions about people’s feelings, in particular, came from.

Overall, this is an excellent book, and it left me curious to read both of these writers and see how my analysis of their works compares to the author’s. This would be a great choice for anyone interested in the lives of historical women; for those who don't typically read biographies, it's a perfect place to start.

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