Reading for Me

The Books I Have Read…..Just for Me

#15: Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance)

I first heard about J.D. Vance’s memoir while watching a news magazine interview. I was intrigued by the topic and the exploration of the Appalachian peoples. When I saw the full title, I knew I would have to read the work. It’s called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Much of Vance’s memoir is about his own troubled family and childhood. He was born to an addicted mother and his biological father was no where to be found. This began a constant revolving door of “father figures” into the lives of both him and his sister, Lindsey. As circumstances grew increasingly worse, Vance was finally cared for by his grandparents that he lovingly referred to as Mamaw and Papaw. Family members find themselves strained financially and have to follow the prospect of a stable job, leaving their home and family in rural Kentucky for the “greener pastures” of Middletown, Ohio.

Vance’s family are not the only ones to migrate to Ohio. He finds that the hillbilly culture that was finally escaped by leaving Kentucky has followed him to his new home. Surrounded by poverty and poor education, children are convinced that there is no hope for a better life. The situation constantly moves from desperate to hopeless. Yet somehow, J.D. manages to escape the cycle and attends both Ohio State and Yale Law.

Hillbilly Elegy is an honest glimpse into the lives of a large sector of the American society. While the book focuses on Kentucky hillbillies, I saw similarities to my own experience on each page. It truly became clear that Vance’s “culture in crisis” is not an overstatement of reality. The book should not be read by the timid. Vance’s use of vulgarity can be shocking at moments, but often is necessary in order to adequately convey the gravity of the situation. Neither should the book be read by those who think the problems addressed are solely due to the quality of the nation’s educational system or government involvement (or lack thereof). Vance clearly states that the enormous problem does not have a single cause that we can “fix” quickly. The solution lies within the mindset of the people that are most effected — and that is the greatest challenge to overcoming the cultural crisis we now face.

This memoir was certainly a departure from my normal reading fare. However, it is a work that caused me to think deeply about important issues facing America while exploring my own experiences with poverty, class warfare, and the overall sense of hopelessness that plagues much of rural America’s youth. Hillbilly Elegy is definitely a worthy read for all who care for the youth of America.

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Books #9 and #10

When finals hit this week, I felt as though I finally had more of my own time back. What did that mean? READING! Here’s a quick summary of the two books that I finished this week.

#9: Lit-Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives (David Denby). I started reading this fascinating book while in Albuquerque over Easter break. Denby explores sophomore English classes at three schools in New England to discover how they encourage students to become lifelong readers. Much of the focus is spent with Sean Leon’s class in New York City’s Beacon School. By departing from the traditional reading lists (with the blessings of his administrators), Leon challenges students to discuss important issues while realizing that literature continues to speak to our modern situations regardless of how “old” the story might actually be. Students read the expected authors — Hawthorne, Huxley, Orwell, and Faulkner. What is surprising is the inclusion of Plath, Hesse, Vonnegut, Dostoevsky, and Sartre among others. Mr. Leon’s students didn’t just “read” these works either; they struggled with the themes and entered into the settings and wrestled with the authors’ messages for contemporary society.

I found Lit-Up fascinating. When I first began my academic journey, I seriously considered pursuing a career as a high school English teacher. Looking back, I realize that the decision was triggered by my conflict with music professors who I refused to allow to have the death grip they were maintaining over my life. Thankfully, I saw the light and found my way back into the music field. However, my passion for literature and literacy remains. Do I think this model would work for every student? Probably not. However, I do think that Lit-Up reveals the impact a gifted, passionate educator can have on a group of students when they are given the academic freedom to follow the unscripted path that is dictated by the class’ interest and understanding. I’m tired of hearing about teachers being forced to “teach to the test.” Our students do not fit a nicely-formatted pattern; neither should their curriculum.

 

#10: The 9th Judgment (James Patterson). As the end of the week rolled around, I realized that I needed a physical book to hold in my hands, but it also needed to be a novel that I could finish before returning to Arkansas for the summer. I made a impromptu trip to the Unger Library and decided to return to my reading of the Women’s Murder Club series. I flew through this episode because I simply could not put the book down. This installment of Patterson’s series focuses on the Lipstick Killer that is haunting San Francisco with his mysterious messages of FWC and the realization that his targets are mothers and their young children. Claire, our strong medical examiner, recommends that the women of the city arm themselves in order to assure their safety while Lindsey finds herself as the only member of the police force that the lunatic serial killer will communicate with. This page-turner will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the read and ends with a cliff hanger that will force the audience to quickly dive into the next book in the series. (I’m already planning a trip to the library as soon as I get home…..because I’ve got to know what happens next for Lindsey!)

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#17: The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading (Phyllis Rose)

Phyllis Rose is an avid reader. During a trip to the New York Society Library to pick up a book recommended by a friend, she realized that the proposed novel was not going to work for her at this time. Now, Rose faced the daunting and overwhelming task of selecting her next book. Rose decided to embark on an expedition of “off-road” reading; she would read her way through a randomly selected shelf of the library.

As she browsed the plethora of shelves, Rose established a few guidelines for her project. The shelf had to include at least one classic novel she had intended to read but had not yet experienced. The shelf had to include multiple authors, with only one author having more than five books represented. Rose would commit to read only three of this author’s works. The shelf that was finally selected was LEQ to LES and contained 30 volumes. The Shelf is a memoir of the books Ms. Rose encountered in her adventure as well as her reflections about writing and all things publishing.

I was first drawn to this memoir because I found the premise so interesting. So much of our reading is influenced by reviews and academia. What wonderful novels have we missed out on simply because they have not been deemed worthy by the elite? What gems might be discovered by daring to venture into uncharted territory?

I especially enjoyed Phyllis Rose’s thoughts on why so few women are considered major literary figures in our society. In the chapter “Women and Fiction: A Question of Privilege,” Rose explores the topic through both contemporary and classic examples. “Libraries: Making Space” revealed much about a book’s life on the shelf. . .and its inevitable removal. In the profound closing chapter, the author explores the qualities a book must exhibit to gain “Immortality.”

The Shelf has inspired me to do some off-road reading myself. I plan to replicate Rose’s experiment after finishing the books on my bedside table. I’m excited to see where this adventure leads in the months ahead.

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#16: Ghost Waltz (Ingeborg Day)

After many weeks, I finally finished reading Ghost Waltz. This family memoir traces one family’s history in 1940s Austria. Central to the story is Ingeborg’s feelings about her father and his transition from police officer to SS officer. Did her father agree with Nazi ideologies? Did he work for the SS simply to provide for his family and avoid trouble in a turbulent time?

A secondary issue of Ingeborg’s feelings about all things Jewish is also examined. She considers herself an anti-Semite, despite her revulsion of the prejudice. Ingeborg cannot ascertain if her thoughts about Yiddish phrases, yarmulkes, and greedy Jews were taught to her in early childhood or are a genetic predisposition. Unfortunately, the memoir does not provide a clear answer to this question.

Those who have followed my reading adventures know that I am fascinated with the World War II era. While I found it interesting to examine an Austrian family who did not necessarily want to align themselves with Nazism, I found Ghost Waltz to be a bit pedantic. The writing was stilted and failed to draw the reader into the author’s world. This was definitely a book I finished reading simply because I had started it. I wouldn’t recommend it to other readers.

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#39: My Nine Lives – A Memoir of Many Careers in Music (Leon Fleisher)

In addition to determining to learn more about composers, I have also begun to venture into biographies about performers. I was immediately attracted to the memoir of Leon Fleisher because of my personal interest in music related injuries. I was aware of his many years as the left-handed pianist due to focal dystonia and his legendary teaching at the Curtis Institute. I quickly learned that this marvelous musician was a man who epitomizes perseverance and passion for his craft.

I especially enjoyed reading Fleisher’s finely crafted descriptions of performances and lessons. His words made me thirst to hear the sounds that he produced. His insights encouraged me to revisit familiar pieces that hold special places in my heart. I cannot wait to finally hear his legendary recording of the Brahms’ D Minor concerto. I greatly appreciated the author’s open discussions about his various obstacles, failures, fears, and relational difficulties. I suppose we all face the same challenges to some degree; it’s comforting to hear a stellar musician sharing situations with which I can identify. I suppose it gives me hope for overcoming them in my own life as well.

I’m glad I read the memoir. I look forward to listening to Fleisher’s recordings. I trust that I will return to My Nine Lives again in the future.

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#21: Malibu Nanny: Adventures of the Former Kardashian Nanny (Pam Behan)

I have very little interest in the lives of the reality stars known as the Kardashians. Honestly, I probably couldn’t pick their pictures out if I was asked. I read Malibu Nanny because I know the author and felt our friendship deserved giving the book a read. What I thought was going to be a typical “tell-all” turned out to be a beautiful memoir of mistakes, loss, and love.

Pam Behan and I were both students at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where we studied music. Pam was a year ahead of me, but we got to know each other since we were both majoring in piano performance. I always knew Pam’s schedule was hectic because she was a full-time student, waited tables at a local restaurant, and was a nanny for the Jenner family (as in olympic gold-medalist Bruce Jenner), but I had no idea HOW crazy Pam’s life was. Now that I’ve read her memoir, I am shocked that Pam ever had time to complete her degree and maintain a semblance of sanity. Pam later becomes employed by the Kardashians when Mr. Jenner and Kris Kardashian marry.

Malibu Nanny is full of funny stories of the family as you would expect. The central character in the saga, however, is Pam herself. As readers, we watch as this young woman from Minnesota copes with the fast-paced, materialistic southern California society while trying to maintain her Midwestern values. Along the way, Pam faces the challenges associated with attempting to establish a career and start a family. Her difficulties with men throughout her life are tragic and explain why both Bruce Jenner and her father hold such important roles in her life.

As Pam’s journey takes her away from the craziness of Hollywood to Jackson, Tennessee and Aberdeen, South Dakota, Pam finds herself on a spiritual journey as well. Due to troublesome circumstances, Pam finds herself running to the God of her childhood and finds a renewed faith that is based in an authentic and personal relationship with a loving Savior. Pam tells the story of her life with such grace and honesty that her testimony of faith doesn’t feel preachy and comes along rather unexpectedly in the book. I have always known Pam to be a warm and loving person whose smile is infectious. It’s wonderful to see that the smile has grown because of Jesus.

Several passages in the later portion of the memoir spoke to my heart. In one of my favorite passages, Pam is reflecting over mistakes she has made in the area of relationships.  Pam states, “I reflect on some of my poor choices in men, and the years of heartache it caused. Yet, even the worst mistake of all — my choice to stand by Terry — was an integral part of the plan….God specializes in redeeming bad choices.  Now I look at all that pain, and where I am now, and I say this is why! Every bit of that horrible pain was worth it to have this most precious gift.” (p. 175) Isn’t it thrilling to know that “God specializes in redeeming bad choices?” Like Pam, I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes. I’m so thankful that they have been and continue to be redeemed by my loving Heavenly Father.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever wondered where their life was taking them. While Malibu Nanny shares some stories about the famous people Pam has encountered over the years (including the time Pam was dating mega-star Sylvester Stallone!), the memoir is really one woman’s story of finding herself while chasing her dreams and ultimately finding herself in a place of perfect peace.

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#3: The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe)

Internet connection at home as been sketchy this week, so I’m a little late in posting. I’ll get back to the regular routine next week. I still wanted to make sure that I told you all about The End of Your Life Book Club. It was a tremendous read and one I highly recommend for other book lovers as well as those who enjoy stories about family relationships.

Will Schwalbe and his mother formed a book club of two people as they together faced the endless doctor visits associated with treatment for MaryAnne’s pancreatic cancer. Most of the discussions occurred in quiet corners of waiting rooms or while chemotherapy was being administered. The memoir is a beautifully written account of the books they shared while allowing the reader an peek behind the curtain into this debilitating disease.

I identified with the book because of my own passion for reading that I share with my mother. While we don’t spend lots of time talking about books formally, we are constantly sharing with each other what we’re reading and why we’re enjoying it (or not). It was somewhat ironic finishing the book in the waiting room of the Memphis Gastroenterology Group while Mom was having an initial consultation. (Thankfully, we are not concerned that Mom is struggling with a major health issue at this time….just some things that are making her uncomfortable.) As I read the honest account of MaryAnne’s final days, my heart broke for Schwalbe and his family. While tears rolled down my cheeks, others waiting for their loved ones to emerge from the examining rooms watched me with nervousness.

I can’t say that I fully understand everything Schwalbe expressed in his book. I haven’t experienced the loss of a parent. I haven’t sat at a bedside knowing that the end was coming soon. I can say that I feel as though I have been formally introduced to his mother, a woman with a beautiful spirit that impacted people around the world. My life has been made richer by meeting her on the pages of The End of Your Life Book Club.

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#28: My Reading Life (Pat Conroy)

I really enjoy getting a glimpse into the reading practices of authors and influential people. That’s what drew me to My Reading Life. Author Pat Conroy tells of his earliest experiences with Gone with the Wind at his mother’s knee, his growing love affair with books as a means of escaping his father’s abuse, and his journey learning to write by reading great literature.  Conroy holds a special place in his heart for the teachers, bookstore owners, and publishing representatives who have shaped his love for reading.  He is passionate about great poetry as well as Russian literature.

Rather than attempting to summarize everything I took away from this memoir, I think it would be more appropriate to share one of my favorite passages.  Conroy tells of the role his mother played in making him a reader.  In many ways, his description of his mother reminds me of my mother’s gentle encouragement to read more and more.

“My mother turned me into an insatiable, fanatical reader. It was her gentle urging, her hurt, insistent voice, that led me to discover my identity by taking a working knowledge of the great books with me always.  She wanted me to read everything of value, and she taught me to outread my entire generation, as she had done hers.  I believe, and I think fairly, that I have done that — that I have not only outread my own generation of writers but outread them in such a way that whole secret libraries separate us.  I have tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school, because I knew that I would come to the writing of books without the weight of culture and learning that a well-established, confidently placed family could offer its children.  I collected those long, melancholy lists of the great books that high school English teachers passed out to college-bound students, and I relied on having consumed those serious litanies of books as a way to ease my way into the literary life.” (Conroy, p. 195)

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#25: An Invisible Thread (Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski)

Normally I don’t read very many memoirs. They always leave me with a saccharine sweet aftertaste that I don’t enjoy. If not overly sweet, I am left feeling depressed that I haven’t achieved more in my own life. Since I love kids so much, the caption on the cover of the book had me from the beginning:  “The true story of an 11-year-old panhandler, a busy sales executive, and an unlikely meeting with destiny.”

This New York Times Bestseller is a touching, moving story. As I read, I found myself laughing with Maurice’s naiveté and crying with Maurice and Laurie as they shared their individual stories of abuse.  What I expected to find in the book was a charming story of two unlikely individuals forming a great friendship…..and that was certainly there.  What I also found — much to my delight — was a insightful look into the meanings of home, love, and significance.  This beautiful book will certainly hold a treasured place on my bookshelf for many years to come.

As I reminisced over the book’s many scenes and tried to determine how to best describe it to my dear readers, I found myself returning to Maurice’s letter at the end of the work.  I think there is no better description of the book that this:

I know An Invisible Thread is about an unusual friendship between two different people, but I think it is about much more than that.  It is about a mother longing for a child and a child longing for a mother.  That longing had nothing to do with umbilical cords or DNA.  It had to do with two people who needed each other and who were destined to meet on the corner of 56th Street and Broadway.  Every Monday, that mother got to know her son, and that son learned about his mother.

And on those Mondays their hearts were sewn together with an invisible thread. (p. 231)

I think this would be a wonderful selection for any reading group as well as high school class.  The prose is easily accessible without watering down the complex issues explored in its pages.

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#20: Wild (Cheryl Strayed)

Wild is not my typical reading fare.  Why did I pick it up, then?  It was the first selection of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, the re-invention of the program that truly ignited my passion for reading as a teen.  I suppose you might say I read the book out of loyalty.

The memoir tells of Cheryl Strayed’s adventures along the Pacific Crest Trail as she hiked alone from southern California to the Oregon/Washington border.  Her lone journey allows her the opportunity to come to grips (finally) with her mother’s death, her failed marriage, and her life that is in shambles.  Facing one hardship after another, Strayed must come to terms with the truth that there are often situations for which she was not prepared.  The challenges of attempting to carry too heavy of a load, ill-fitting shoes, snow-packed paths, and muscle fatigue almost serve as symbols for the greater crises occurring in her life.

I read Wild as I began my own journey to personal fitness.  As I journeyed with Strayed on the pages of the book, I found myself encouraged as she overcame various challenges.  I was also enthralled as I realized that any journey worth taking brought with it struggle, uncertainty, pain, and fear.  Cheryl’s courage to push through those emotions while keeping her eyes focused on the goal that lay before her became my personal push to see things through as well.

Would I have normally enjoyed Wild?  Probably not.  I found myself getting bored with the descriptions of the scenery of the PCT (as beautiful as it was) and annoyed with some of the lengthy flashbacks.  Memoirs rarely feel as though they are entertaining reads.  Given my current life, however, I am happy to say I have read the book and believe that I will be better because of it.

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