Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Posted by nliakos on May 10, 2018

by J. D. Vance (Harper-Collins 2016)

Those of us who consider ourselves part of the “resistance” to Donald Trump and his GOP supporters often wonder why Trump’s “base”–those voters who are faithful to him, no matter what he says or does–continue to stand by their man–and whether we can bridge the divide between Us and Them and perhaps help them to see reason. Before we try to convince them that they are wrong and we are right and Donald Trump represents a disaster for our country, we should read this book about hillbillies–the “white working class” folks who live in (or originate from) the Appalachian mountains in the Eastern United States. And getting our message across to them won’t be easy, because as described by J. D. Vance (who considers himself a hillbilly although he was mostly raised in southwestern Ohio), they are more different from us than the most exotic Asian or Middle Easterner, African or European.

According to Vance, their honor code of protecting their family above all seems more like something you would find in Sicily than in America. If you insult a hillbilly’s family member, s/he would consider it normal to beat you up or shoot you. Rather than trusting the justice system, hillbillies mete out a harsh justice themselves. And if they criticize “welfare queens”, it’s because abuse of government assistance is so widespread among them that they assume everybody does it.

Vance is of this culture, but he was able to escape the poverty he grew up in and join the educated American middle class. He calls himself “a cultural emigrant.” He joined the Marines (which forced him to grow up and learn to take care of himself) and then went to college and Yale law school. But before that, he gives most of the credit to his grandparents, especially his grandmother “Mamaw”, who partly raised him and always gave him a place to escape to when things got too hard or stressful at home, where his mother alternately fought and then gave in to drug addiction and presented young J.D. and his sister Lindsay with a never-ending parade of boyfriends and husbands. His grandparents pushed him to do well in school and constantly assured him that he could succeed. But he confesses that without them and the safe haven they provided, without his older sister’s loving care, without his four years in the Marines, without any of the many factors that conspired to help him succeed, he couldn’t have done it. His present-day comfortable life would have been out of reach. Thinking about it now, about how close I was to the abyss, gives me chills. I am one lucky son of a bitch. Yet despite all the negative things he sees in his culture of origin, Vance harbors a real appreciation for these people, and a desire to see them do better, as he himself proves is possible.

I always enjoy reading books about foreign cultures, and this culture certainly qualifies, despite its being embedded in the heart of the United States of America.


Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir

Posted by nliakos on March 6, 2013

by Marina Nemat (Free Press, 2007)

In 1982, when Marina Moradi-Bakht was fourteen years old, she was arrested and imprisoned in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison for having had the temerity to ask her calculus teacher to teach calculus; when the teacher ordered her to leave the classroom, her classmates followed her out, and soon her entire school was on strike. Imprisonment followed, and interrogations and beatings. She somehow found the strength to resist, and one of her interrogators, a man 14 years her senior named Ali, fell in love with her.  The other interrogator ordered her execution, but Ali was able to rescue her. Eventually, he proposed (although she was a devout Christian), and when she did not want to marry him, he persuaded her by promising to take revenge on her parents and on the young man she loved. She converted to Islam, and she married this man. But she was eventually able to return to her family, to marry her love Andre, and to emigrate to a “normal” life in Canada. She wrote this memoir to try and purge herself of the horrific memories of the two years of her imprisonment and forced marriage, and to bear witness to the things that happened to her and to the other people she knew and loved, many of whom did not survive.

It’s a pretty incredible story, but Marina Nemat tells it convincingly and honestly. She writes about her ambivalent feelings for Ali, her husband, and about the guilt she felt for having survived, and beyond that, for betraying herself and her friends by taking the ticket out of Evin that Ali was offering her.

It is awful to imagine that Evin is still probably filled, thirty years later. with innocent people. Many of the “political prisoners” Marina Nemat encountered during her incarceration there were just children. What kind of monsters believe that arresting, beating, and murdering children can ever be justified? And yet, strangely, Marina’s story of Ali reminds us that those we call monsters are sometimes just ordinary people like ourselves. While there are those who seek pleasure in overpowering and inflicting pain on those who are powerless against them (like Hamehd in this memoir), most are probably more like Ali, who despite his threats and his creepy obsession with Marina, really did treat her like a queen, even though she never hid the fact that she did not return his love.

An excellent book, short, which will expand a reader’s understanding of Iran both past and present.


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Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy

Posted by nliakos on September 6, 2008

by Carlos Eire.  Free Press, 2003.

Carlos Eire was one of 14,000 Cuban children airlifted to the United States in 1962.  At the time, neither the parents nor the children had any inkling that their separation would last as long as it did, or that Fidel Castro would remain in power for as long as he did.  Carlos Eire went on to become a historian and an academic.  He married an American, had three children, and lives in Connecticut.  But the Elian Gonzalez affair in 2000, when Castro claimed that Elian should be returned to Cuba because all children should be with their parents, triggered the gush of memories that is this book.

Most of the book concerns Carlos’ memories from his ten years as a privileged younger son of a wealthy judge in pre-Castro Cuba; a few of them stem from his later years in America.  All are written in rich prose.  Eire has a flair for sharing the sensory details of his memories: the magical, colorful cloud of parrotfish in the sea, the taste of the Chinese man’s hotdogs, the sounds of religious items being smashed by the revolutionaries, the hot light of the Cuban sun….  He also develops the many characters in the book with affection and humor, such as his father, a fat man in baggy pants obsessed with collecting art and antiques whom Eire refers to as Louis XVI, since he apparently believed that he had been the French King in a former incarnation.

I was alternately appalled at some of the things that Carlos and his friends did, and that were done to them and others, and convulsed with laughter over their antics–sometimes simultaneously.  It was really hard for me to imagine a childhood like that.

I have always been rather more sympathetic to the Revolution than to the Cuban-American population in Miami and elsewhere which has lobbied incessantly against normalization of relations with Cuba, a tiny country which could not possibly harm the United States.  It seems that they do this out of pure spite, because it makes absolutely no sense.  Even as he describes his life of privilege and luxury in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, Eire remembers the poor dark-skinned boys who dived for money in the sea.  But I think that the poor, dark-skinned people of Cuba did not, for the most part, benefit much from the change in regime which enriched some and sent others into exile with two changes of clothes and one book.

I still think that the United States and Cuba should normalize their relations, but I have a lot more understanding of, and a bit more compassion for, the Cuban Americans who have thus far prevented it from happening.  And I am really glad that I read this treasure of a memoir.

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