A Yale Law School graduate’s account of his traumatic hillbilly childhood and the plight of America’s angry white working class.
“Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash,” writes Vance, a biotech executive and National Review contributor. “I call them neighbors, friends, and family.” In this understated, engaging debut, the author reflects on his stormy journey from the coal-country Kentucky hollers of Appalachia to the declining Rust Belt to life among the Ivy League–educated elite. Born into a poor Scots-Irish family—with a pill-addicted mother and “revolving door of father figures”—Vance was raised in Ohio by his beloved and newly middle-class grandparents, hardworking believers in the American dream who married in their teens and never shook the trappings (abuse, addiction, and constant fighting and screaming) of their native Kentucky’s hillbilly culture. Mamaw, his grandmother, once set her husband on fire when he came home drunk; Papaw, a violent grouch, tossed a Christmas tree out the back door. In scenes at once harrowing and hilarious, we come to know these loud, rowdy gun-toters as the loyal and loving family whose encouragement helped the author endure “decades of chaos and heartbreak.” In the Marines and at Yale, Vance learned to make responsible adult choices and overcame the learned helplessness that characterizes many in the working class. Pointedly identifying the cynicism and willingness to blame others endemic among that class, he describes the complex malaise—involving sociology, psychology, community, culture, and faith—that has left so many bereft of connections and social support and unable to find high-quality work. The solution, he believes, is not government action but in people asking themselves “what we can do to make things better.” Declaring that he survived with the help of caring family and friends, he writes, “I am one lucky son of a bitch.”
An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.
“Everything is happening exactly as we predicted.” So exulted Adolf Hitler in his salad days, before he brought the world tumbling down around him.
Will there ever be an end to books about the Nazi dictator? Not as long as there are new documents to be released from the archives. Longtime students of the literature surrounding the Third Reich will find no surprises here, but journalist/historian Ullrich’s primary audience is a generation of readers of German who have no direct knowledge of events, making it a thorough but eminently readable introduction to the receding past. The author deals with the usual turns, such as Hitler’s rough years as an aspiring artist and the horrors of trench warfare in World War I, but he adds welcome observations and interesting asides along the way. Irrespective of the musings of Allied soldiers on the subject, for instance, he suggests that Hitler enjoyed a normal if perhaps not exciting physical relationship with Eva Braun. Of less prurient interest, Ullrich details the careful unfolding of the Nazi plan to isolate—extermination will come later in this two-volume biography—the Jews of Europe, which accelerated beyond the original timetable because “rapidly pursuing anti-Jewish persecution does no harm to the system [and] does not cause any economic difficulties or any loss of prestige in the world at large,” in the words of one contemporary. Hitler, writes the author, was in fact keenly sensitive to public opinion, as revealed in the wake of the discovery that a senior military officer had married a onetime prostitute, when Hitler lamented, “if a German field marshal can marry a whore then anything is possible in this world.” Above all, in this long but skillfully narrated study, Ullrich reveals Hitler to have been an eminently practical politician—and frighteningly so.
Timely, given the increase in right-wing intransigence throughout the world, and one of the best works on Hitler and the origins of the Third Reich to appear in recent years.
A rich, rewarding tale of love, rebirth, and chewing tobacco from the author of Mislaid (2015) and The Wallcreeper (2014).
When we first meet Penny, she’s 12, naked, and smoking a cigarette in her father’s sweat lodge in upstate New York. Eleven years later, she’s an unemployed business school graduate sitting in her dying father’s New Jersey hospital room. This loss devastates Penny in all the usual ways, and Zink’s depictions of grief and—especially—the strange state of waiting for someone to die are honest and real and occasionally lovely. In one especially heartbreaking scene, Penny realizes that, the closer he gets to death, the less she and Norm have in common. But then: “The strength and courage they desire—and lack, both of them—are the strength and courage never to see each other again. Fear is something they have in common.” This level of self-awareness is one of Penny’s finest qualities as a protagonist. The daughter of a Jewish shamanistic healer and an indigenous Colombian orphan, Penny knows she’s unusual. But she also accepts that being unusual isn’t all that strange, which is why she finds a new family when she sets out to reclaim her father’s ancestral home in Jersey City. Thrown together by the marginalization of tobacco users, the residents of Nicotine—the squat occupying the house where Norm grew up—are outré outsiders even in the outsider realm of activists and agitators. Penny is immediately smitten with the very cute and avowedly asexual Rob. When Penny’s sociopathic half brother, Matt, becomes obsessed with another occupant—a polyamorous Kurdish poet named Jazz—they form an untenable tangle of relationships that can only end in destruction. The resulting disaster is spellbinding, but even the quiet moments here are delightful because Zink does such an incredible job of depicting weirdos as real, smart, vulnerable, complicated people.
A day in the life of an enchanting and gifted woman who is almost too frazzled to go on.
The women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the mad housewives, and the Annie Halls can welcome a new member to their club: Eleanor Flood, the narrator of Semple’s (Where’d You Go Bernadette, 2012, etc.) second sendup of Seattle and its denizens. Eleanor, formerly a New Yorker and the animator of a popular cartoon about four girls in “ '60’s style pinafores” misdirecting “their unconscious fear of puberty into a random hatred of hippies, owners of pure-bred dogs and babies named Steve,” lives in Seattle with her sweet Seahawks doctor husband and her precocious, makeup-wearing third-grade son. Timby goes to Galer Street School, an ultra–PC environ familiar to Bernadette fans, where Eleanor imagines his arrival was greeted with delighted cries of “Eureka! We’ve got a transgender!” This book is so packed with interesting characters and situations, it could have been three times as long. You want more New Orleans Garden District (where Eleanor’s sister has been kidnapped by an effete Mardi Gras krewe captain), more New York animation studio, more poignant childhood stories (dead actress mother and alcoholic father, illustrated in a beautiful color insert), more annotated poems ("Skunk Hour," by Robert Lowell). Only one thing you don’t want more of—a weird plotline about husband Joe’s secret life. As Eleanor tells Timby when they visit a public art installation, “I don’t mean to ruin the ending for you, sweet child, but life is one long headwind. To make any kind of impact requires self-will bordering on madness. The world will be hostile, it will be suspicious of your intent, it will misinterpret you, it will pack you with doubt, it will flatter you into self-sabotage—My God, I’m making it sound so glamorous and personal! What the world is, more than anything? It’s indifferent.” Ah, Eleanor. You could have stopped at glamorous and personal. Because few will be indifferent to this achingly funny and very dear book.
This author is on her way to becoming a national treasure.
Churning through lovers, baggies, and bottles, writer Michelle Leduski runs for LA with the end of the world on her heels.
In 1999, San Francisco’s Mission District is rapidly gentrifying. The gritty glittering landscape of artists and radicals is gradually being supplanted by the sterile manufactured cool favored by dot-com boomers who spread like a fungus, displacing the neighborhood’s previous crop of displacers, to which Michelle belongs, “a tribe bound not by ethnicity but by other things—desire, art, sex, poverty, politics.” In what seems at first like a lightly fictionalized memoir, Tea (How to Grow Up, 2015, etc.) traverses ground familiar to readers of her previous work: booze, drugs, sex, protracted adolescence, and '90s queer culture. But as time destabilizes, we’re irresistibly sucked into an alternate universe where the byproducts of modern living cause illness and alienation, the natural world has been all but eradicated, poisonous mists roll off the Pacific, and compost-powered cars trace the roads. Michelle leaves the Mission and attempts to write about a relationship ruined through the slow decay of self-neglect but is constantly plagued by a memoirist’s fears of overexposing and harming those around her. While reality expands and collapses like a gasping lung and the Earth crumbles around her, Michelle digs at the emotional truth of a loss that feels like the end of everything. But, rather than succumb to apocalyptic depression as spectacles of hysteria and petty distractions continue to swirl around her, Michelle claws her way out of her spiral of self-destruction to face the end, clear-minded and resolute. Gliding deftly through issues of addiction and recovery, erasure and assimilation, environmental devastation and mass delusion about our own pernicious tendencies, this is a genre- and reality-bending story of quiet triumph for the perennial screw-up and unabashed outsider.
A biting, sagacious, and delightfully dark metaliterary novel about finding your way in a world on fire.
A stunning—and profoundly disconcerting—take on the campus novel, Wayne’s (The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, 2013, etc.) latest is as dark as it is addictive.
Academically and personally troubled, Harvard freshman David Alan Federman has spent his adolescence on the outskirts of his life. He is, by his own observation, defined not by his presence but by his utter forgetability, his complete absence of notable traits. His own photograph is “a rectangular vacuum of charisma.” At Harvard, though, he's determined to make himself known. It's at a mandatory orientation meeting that he's first captivated by the otherworldly being of Veronica Morgan Wells, paragon of wealth, of elegance, of “worldliness…taste…[and] social capital.” He is suburban New Jersey; she is all Park Avenue, out of his league. Instead, David begins a (relatively) chaste relationship with Veronica’s more-appropriate roommate, a nice, earnest Latin American history major, the kind of virginal Midwesterner he imagines someone like him would end up with. And still, he lives and breathes for the certainty of his eventual relationship with Veronica, intertwining himself in her life at any cost. But as David’s intensity escalates, it becomes clear that Veronica has an agenda of her own. Slowly, and then all at once, the novel artfully snowballs to its arresting (if somewhat abrupt) conclusion, but despite its elements of psychological suspense, the pleasure of the book is not in its ultratimely plot but in its complicated—and unsettlingly familiar—cast. These people are nuanced even when they're disturbing, human even when they're horrendous. A spectacular stylist, Wayne is deeply empathetic toward his characters, but—brutally and brilliantly—he refuses to either defend or excuse them.
A startlingly sharp study of not just collegiate culture, but of social forces at large; a novel as absorbing as it is devastating.
Successful women writers reflect on being mature and female in early-21st-century America.
In this sequel to The Bitch in the House (2002), novelist/journalist Hanauer (Gone, 2012, etc.) gathers essays by nine original Bitch contributors and by such writers as Jennifer Finney Boylan, Robin Rinaldi, Sandra Tsing Loh, and Kate Christensen. The book is divided into four sections and begins with musings on lifestyle choices. Original contributor Pam Houston begins the anthology by reflecting on lessons she has learned about herself—for example, how her need for alone time trumps any need for a relationship—since writing her first Bitch essay. Transgender writer Boylan uses her move to a new job in New York as an opportunity to meditate on the upheaval that took place when she first came out. Sexual expression at midlife is the subject of the second section. Writers Robin Rinaldi and Sara Crichton write about the liberating sexual rebirths they experienced after ages 40 and 55, and Grace O’Malley discusses the unexpected joys of weekly scheduled sex with her husband of many decades. In the third section, women tell stories of the tribulations of married life. Erin White discusses how she and her wife “were the very opposite of radical” in the problems they faced and overcame as spouses, while Loh reflects on the rocky road to sharing a less-than-perfect life with her “lovable, getting-on-in-years” boyfriend. The final section deals with different kinds of starting over. For Susan Sonnenberg, a new life meant taking a chance on “the impulsive and rash and glorious" and saying “yes” to a second husband. But for Cynthia Kling, it meant a volunteer job teaching prison inmates that taught her lessons in “what really matters in life.” Sharp and lively, these essays offer insight not only into individual writers, but an entire generation of women coming to terms with the possibilities and limitations of their lives as older females.
A provocative collection about “what happens later, after those frantic, demanding, exhausting years with work and very young kids and, sometimes, not enough money.”
In this collection, written “in appreciation of all the young people who would not bow down,” outspoken journalist Chang (Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America, 2014, etc.) offers six critical essays addressing racial inequality and inequity and how these provocative, multifaceted issues impact virtually every culture.
Though he acknowledges that race relations continue to negatively emblemize “the permanent fog of a country that repeats the spectacle of fire in every generation,” the author explores the potential for cultural change he believes still lies within society’s grasp, even while serious issues remain. He asserts that Donald Trump and bands of culture-war extremists have capitalized on “the energies of anxious whites [who] have been diverted from class uprising toward racial division.” Chang further considers “the whiteness of Hollywood” and the inherent racial bigotry of the film and TV industries, suburban colorization, and more recent influential work from artists like Beyoncé. When absorbed individually, the author’s incisive essays will educate and inform readers. Collectively, Chang creates a chain-linked manifesto arguing for an end to racially charged violence and discrimination and urging global open-mindedness to the struggle of the oppressed. Intended as a written response to the Ferguson, Missouri, riots, the book also offers moving observations of those months of unrest and palpably captures the charged atmosphere on the streets and the history-making heft of the protests. Readers seeking remedies to racial discord will instead find a multifaceted history lesson coupled with troubling updates on recent urban upsets within the author’s interconnected discourse. With his galvanizing message, Chang reiterates that while there is much work to be done on the inequality front, the opportunity to “get it right” has not passed us by. He implores readers to listen, act, and become involved with today’s activists, who offer “new ways to see our past and our present.”
A compelling and intellectually thought-provoking exploration of the quagmire of race relations.
Two families are fused, atomized, and reconfigured by a stolen kiss, a child’s death, and a bestselling novel.
In her seventh work of fiction, Patchett (This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, 2013, etc.) turns from the exotic locales and premises of Bel Canto (2001) and State of Wonder (2011) to a subject closer to home: the evolution of an American family over five decades. The story begins on a very hot day in Southern California at a christening party for Beverly and Fix Keating’s second daughter, Franny. A lawyer named Bert Cousins shows up uninvited, carrying a bottle of gin. With its help, the instant infatuation he conceives for his stunning hostess becomes “the start of his life.” After Bert and Beverly marry and move to Virginia, the six newly minted stepsiblings are dragged unhappily into new relationships and settings. On another hot afternoon, one of the children dies from a bee sting—a tragedy compounded by long-kept secrets and lies. Jumping ahead, we find Franny in her late 20s, having an affair with a Saul Bellow–type novelist 32 years her senior. “Other than the difference in their ages, and the fact that he had an estranged wife, and had written a novel about her family which in its final form made her want to retch even though she had found it nothing less than thrilling when he was working on it, Franny and Leo were great.” Since Patchett comes from a blended family with the same outlines as the one in this book, the problems created by Leo's fictionalized family history, also called Commonwealth, are particularly intriguing. The prose is lean and inviting, but the constant shifts in point of view, the peripatetic chronology, and the ever growing cast of characters will keep you on your toes.
A satisfying meat-and-potatoes domestic novel from one of our finest writers.