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review 2017-12-13 20:47
Bastards by Mary Anna King
Bastards: A Memoir - Mary Anna King

This isn’t an awful book. But I’ll say the same thing I said last time I reviewed a memoir about an adoptee connecting with her biological family: it was written too soon. By which I mean both that it seems premature, with some of the most interesting parts of the story yet to be lived, and that it leaves out much of the information I wanted to know, likely because the author and her family weren’t yet comfortable sharing so much.

Mary Anna King has a complicated family: she is the second of seven siblings – all girls except for her older brother – whose father was unwilling and mother unable to raise them. The four youngest children were given up for adoption at birth, and the three oldest shunted around among family members in varying combinations; the author and her sister were adopted by their grandfather and his wife when she was 10. As they grew up, the sisters adopted at birth began to get in touch, until finally King met them all.

This is fertile ground for a memoir. And I think King is talented enough to produce an excellent memoir if the focus is right, but not so talented that she can write about anything and keep readers interested. The first third of the book is all about her early childhood, up to the age of 7. Aside from the question of how much of this she could really remember – she admits that a “memory” from age one is probably fabricated, but then proceeds to describe in detail events and her thoughts and opinions about them from age 2.5 – the material here just isn’t interesting enough to merit such length. The family is poor, the father is in and out, the mother has several pregnancies and adopts out the babies. There is nothing strikingly fresh or insightful in the author’s account. The bookjacket attempts to spice up this portion of the story by claiming the author was “raised in a commune of single mothers,” which she wasn’t. For a couple of years the mom and two oldest kids live in an apartment complex that happens to be full of single moms and their kids. That’s all.

But by spending more than half of the book on her childhood, King leaves precious little space for the things I wanted most to read about: the younger sisters’ lives, how they balanced their biological and adoptive families, and how everyone involved related to each other as adults. We do hear a little about the childhood and adopted family of one of the sisters adopted at birth; I wanted this and more for all of them. I wanted to know how their mother felt about watching her two youngest daughters grow up from a distance, without their knowing who she was. I wanted to know how the author really felt about her biological father. He disappears from the story after she goes to live with her grandparents at age 7, then calls her college dorm room expecting her to immediately resume the role of daughter and angry at her alleged bitterness over his never calling or sending presents. She denies this, but is no more candid with the reader than in her guarded email ending her relationship with him; it feels like she is still protecting herself a decade later in case he reads the book. Then she includes a detailed description of being molested by another child at the age of 5, and never says another word about it, unless you count mentions of not liking to be touched. When did she finally tell someone? With this and her family history, what were her romantic relationships like? She mentions a college boyfriend, describes him briefly and in positive terms, and has nothing else to say on the subject.

Of course, what I wanted from the book adds up to an incredible amount of vulnerability from the author and her family, which no reader has the right to demand. But if you are going to write a memoir on a very personal subject, I think you need to go all in on that subject; if you aren’t ready to do that, perhaps the memoir should wait. And this is in addition to the fact that one of most interesting parts of the story – how the relationships between all these long-lost siblings develop and how their history affects their adult lives – has only begun when the book ends. The author meets her youngest sister in the final chapter. Theoretically she could write a sequel one day, but unless you write like Maya Angelou you generally get one shot at a memoir, and Mary Anna King is no Maya Angelou.

Alternatively, if writing a very personal memoir was off the table, the author might have gone the intellectual route, reading up on adoption-related research to share with the reader. She raises the concern that her sisters adopted at birth haven’t necessarily gotten a better deal: they too have imperfect families, they wind up in a similar place educationally to the older three siblings, and they seem to spiral downward after meeting their biological family (or in one case, before). If the author can’t give us the details of her sisters’ lives, she could have gone broad, looking at outcomes for other adopted kids to discover how common this is. But there’s no research here either.

All that said, I read this book quickly, found it readable and basically enjoyed it. The author does a perfectly fine job with those parts of her adult life she does describe, some of which are quite personal. And of course, my reaction can’t predict those of readers for whom adoption is personal. Nevertheless, this is not a great memoir and it may preclude the author from writing a better one someday.

Final two comments: the title doesn't seem quite apropos when the parents were married, and there are unfortunately no pictures.

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review 2017-11-29 21:21
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Anything Is Possible - Elizabeth Strout

This is a lovely collection of interrelated short stories. It begins in Amgash, Illinois, the hometown of Lucy Barton, and when it ventures further afield, it’s to follow characters whose stories are suggested by the previous ones. The protagonists are mostly older people – grandparents or old enough to be – and a common theme is dealing with loss: of livelihood, of a spouse (to death or divorce), of parents or siblings who move away.

It is a melancholy book, and getting a little too caught up in the stories and reading them all in two sittings got to me a little. But it is also a book full of compassion and understanding for its characters (most, though not all, of the protagonists are compassionate and understanding people themselves), of human connection and love, of wisdom about what makes people tick. It is very well-written and got me quickly invested in the characters and their situations. In some cases I wanted to know a lot more; this was especially true of Patty’s story, though Abel’s sticks in my memory as well. Though I thought highly of My Name Is Lucy Barton, the story about the title character’s reappearance underwhelmed me and was probably my least favorite. But I am tempted to re-read that book now that I’ve read this one.

In sum, this is an excellent collection, rather quiet and sad, featuring complex and believable characters. I recommend it.

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review 2017-11-27 22:10
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - Michelle Alexander

This is an important read for social-justice-oriented folk. Michelle Alexander – a law professor and former ACLU attorney – lays out a cogent argument for mass incarceration and the drug war functioning as systems of racial control, comparable though not identical to prior systems such as Jim Crow. Although white and black Americans use drugs at similar rates, law enforcement treats it as a war only in poor communities of color, where it terrorizes people with military equipment and tactics, and seizes property as “forfeiture.” Harsh penalties, particularly for those drugs most associated with black people, mean more African-Americans are behind bars now than were imprisoned just before the Civil War. In some large cities, nearly half of African-American men are under penal control, whether in prison or on probation or parole. And once released, anyone with a criminal record is a legal target for discrimination in employment, housing, professional licensing, student loans, public benefits, etc. People with a felony record can be prevented from voting or sitting on a jury. And the effects extend beyond imprisonment and even discrimination, tarring the entire black community with the brush of criminality in many people’s minds, so that mass incarceration in many ways defines the relationship between African-American society and the rest of America.

My biggest doubt about the comparison, before reading the book, was how a system that bases punishment on individual actions could compare to blanket laws disenfranchising people based on race. Alexander doesn’t deal with the personal choice issue quite as directly as I would like, instead making the point that everyone breaks some law sometime, but black communities are the ones heavily targeted by law enforcement. Even if the only thing you do is speed a little, if you’re white you’ll probably never be stopped, but if black you’re liable to be pulled over and have the police “ask” to search your car for drugs (to most people it doesn’t sound much like asking with a uniform and a gun). If we pursued every violation of the law so aggressively in white communities, and treated white kids as potential criminals from a young age, and handed out sentences counted in decades for non-violent crimes commonly associated with white people, huge numbers of them would also wind up locked up, on probation or parole, or with criminal records. That wouldn’t happen, though, which is good evidence that something is going on here that isn’t just about keeping the community safe.

Obviously I’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg here; Alexander is thorough, and her writing clear and convincing, well-sourced through extensive endnotes but still readable for non-academics. Once I got into the book, the pages went by quickly. She says at the beginning that this book is intended for people who care about racial justice but tend to view racial disparities in the criminal justice system as regrettable side effects of societal racism rather than a system of disenfranchisement. As a member of the intended audience, I found this book eye-opening, creating a real perspective shift. I wish I could distill that into a review, but Alexander has already done the work, so I will just recommend the book instead.

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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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