May Reads

Hi all and apologies for combining May and June’s posts. All I can say is that reading wise I have been slow. My kids have gone slightly feral and are now night owls – current bedtime for the 4 and 7 year old is about 9pm. In my defence they are put in bed at 7:30 but clearly my homeschooling is only exhausting me….they are wired. This means when they finally go to sleep, I am left to tackle to war zone of a house or go for a run. By the time I drag my weary carcass into bed I manage to keep my eyes open long enough to grunt a goodnight to my husband and then I am unconscious. To be honest, it’s a miracle that I have read anything at all!!!

  • Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. 4🌟.
In this internationally best selling memoir and passionate analysis of a culture in crisis, ‘Hillbilly’ – born Yale Law graduate J.D. Vance takes a probing look at America’s white working-class through his own experiences growing up.
The book tells a true story of what social, regional and class decline feels like when you are born with it hanging around your neck. As his family’s saga plays out, the book shows how J.D.’s grandparents, aunt, sister and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty and trauma.
Writing with piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history. Hillbilly Elegy is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of the population. It is unmissable reading in these times of political upheaval.

These are politically dark times to say the least. There is not much that would surprise me now. I used to be pretty disinterested in politics but the sheer madness of the world is making me sit up and want to learn more. As different as the US and the UK are, both countries policies are made by complete buffoons. This book has been hailed by the Times as: ‘a book to help understand Trump’s win.’ As yet, a book hasn’t been written to help me understand Brexit or Boris Johnson’s election, but I thought Hillbilly Elegy might explain some things to me.

Vance is a self-proclaimed hillbilly and it’s a badge he wears with pride and with no feeling of disrespect. He was raised by his grandparents in Middletown, Ohio. His mother was addicted to painkillers and later heroin, and his maternal grandfather was an alcoholic. Due to his mother’s inability to maintain a stable relationship and her addiction to drugs, Vance lived with his grandmother, “Mamaw.” According to Vance, this type of childhood is not unusual in the “Rust Belt.” Unemployment is high and substance abuse is rife.

Vance writes the story of his life. He describes that even though he was lucky enough to escape the Rust-Belt of Ohio, he was still chased by the ‘demons of life’ he thought he had left behind. Without a doubt his is a success story. He was lucky to have a grandmother who provided him with the stability he needed which in turn gave him the confidence to seek a better life for himself. He joined the Marines and served in Iraq and later read Law at Yale.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance gives an honest portrayal of American , white working class. A fiercely loyal group of people who voted for a Trump because they felt he would preserve the “American Way of Life.” These are voters who are afraid of change and are worried that if you are white, male and Christian, you are likely to be discriminated against.

To define these two groups and their approach to giving – rich and poor; educated and uneducated; upper class and working class – their members increasingly occupy two separate worlds. As a cultural immigrant from one group to the other, I am acutely aware of the differences. Sometimes I view members of the elite with an almost primal scorn – recently, an acquaintance use the word “confabulate” in a sentence, and I just wanted to scream. But I have to give it to them: their children are happy and healthier, their divorce rates are lower, their church attendance higher, their lives longer. These people are beating us at our own Damned game.

I really enjoyed Vance’s writing. This is not a sob story and he does not play the victim. He does not seek to distance himself from his upbringing. He is proud of where he came from ‘we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth.’ He ask questions that are relevant and important without ostracising himself from the people he grew up with:

Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

So did this book help me to understand Trump’s win?? I think Trump is an idiot, a spoiled brat with bad hair playing at politics. This book has made me see the reasons many voted for him….see, but not agree.

  • Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. 4 🌟.

All Lina wanted was to be desired. How did she end up in a marriage with two children and a husband who wouldn’t touch her?

All Maggie wanted was to be understood. How did she end up in a relationship with her teacher and then in court, I hated prior in her small town?

All Sloan wanted was to be admired. How did she end up a sexual object of men, including her husband, who like to watch her have sex with other men and women?

Three Women is a record of unmet needs, unspoken thoughts, disappointments, hopes and unrelenting obsessions.

When it comes to stories about relationships, I have a massive aversion to anything romantic, sugary and most importantly anything in which the female has an inner goddess. Yuk. I am a little embarrassed to say that had this book been about happy, functional relationships, I would not have picked it up. I like my relationship storylines to be gritty and realistic. Characters don’t have to be likeable but I have to believe them. Three Women is a work of non-fiction so the ‘storylines’ were real. This resulted in a brilliant if somewhat depressing snapshot of female sexuality. Lisa Taddeo still feels we are a long way off sexual equality. Maggie’s story revolves around her teenage relationship with a married school teacher and the subsequent court case. Lina, sexually abused at school, leaves her unhappy marriage only to begin a relationship with another man who calls all the shots. Sloane, who incidentally is the character I struggled to connect with, seems to have the happiest relationship with her partner – both are swingers but it is Sloane who is the subject of gossip and scrutiny.

This was a book club pick and although people thought it was pretty depressing, it’s readability made it a definite lockdown hit. I have to say that our meeting discussing this book would definitely have been improved by discussing it in a pub over a glass of wine!!!! Trying to discuss a book about sexual desire with a group of women who don’t know eachother massively well, over Zoom, after a day of lockdown home schooling was slightly tricky. I wonder how different our discussion would have been if we were altogether in a pub with a glass of wine???

So what was discussed? We discussed Taddeo’s concept. The book was always intended to be about desire but not necessarily female desire. She interviewed men as well as women but the final three women’s lives were so all consumed by their sexual needs that it became obvious the book would be about them. We had an interesting discussion about the men in the book….all of whole we decided were as damaged as the women. I don’t think any of the characters were happy.

Anyway if you are looking for a salacious read that will make you feel slightly smug about your own dull sexual needs then this is the book for you.

  • Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman. 3🌟.

As a member of the strictly religious Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, Deborah Feldman grew up under relentlessly enforced customs governing everything from what she could wear and to whom she could speak, to what she was allowed to read. Yet in spite of her repressive upbringing, Deborah grew into an independent – minded young woman whose stolen moments reading about the empowered literary heroines of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott helped her to imagine an alternative way of life among the skyscrapers of Manhattan. As a teenager, she found herself trapped in a sexually and emotionally dysfunctional marriage to a man she barely knew. The tension between Deborah’s desires and her responsibilities grew until she gave birth at 19 and realised that, regardless of the obstacles, she would have to forge a path to happiness and freedom for herself and her son. 

Probably like a lot of people, I watched Unorthodox on Netflix during Lockdown. I was enthralled. I felt like I wanted to know more about Judaism so as well as reading the book, I watched Strictly Kosher and Unorthodox on YouTube and also One Of Us on Netflix. My appetite still unsated, I took to google and spent a lot of time reading http://www.myjewishlearning.com.

So why the obsession….and yes, I think I am a little obsessed. I grew up in a very culturally undiverse area of rural England. Everyone had white faces, two kids, shopped in Sainsburys and went to church on a Sunday….not necessarily because everyone was religious….it’s just ‘what nice people do.’ When I was 8, I started at the convent school in our local town. We weren’t catholic but it fed a lot of children to the secondary school my parents wanted me to eventually attend. I found it all a little terrifying. I remember in the chapel a very realistic and huge statue of Jesus on the cross – blood dripping from his crown of thorns, his hands and feet. I found the nuns (particularly the old ones) sinister and a bit spooky. We prayed A LOT. At the beginning of the day, after break, before lunch, after lunch and at the end of the day. I remember for prayers we had to sit cross legged with our hands open and resting on our knees to encourage Jesus to ‘lie in our arms.’ In our RE lessons, the wonderful Mrs Nichols read stories of the Saints. I remember us all wanting to hear there bloodthirsty ones of how they died. No wonder I was intrigued and not a little scared by religion. I guess the thought that someone can live their whole life according to their religion intrigues and interests me. The idea that an unknow entity can dictate what you eat, who you talk to, how you dress etc.

Unorthodox answered so many questions about the Satmar society. A group of people who have been so persecuted in history that they feel safety in their own insular world. Deborah writes really well and I respect and admire her. Ultimately, she wanted what we all want for our daughters – freedom to express herself, freedom to read the books she wants, freedom to dress how she chooses, the opportunity to have the education she wants. Deborah Feldman wanted more for her life than to marry and have children.

Below are a couple of quotes that give you an idea of Deborah’s character. If you have watched and enjoyed the series please read the book, I really enjoyed it.

I wonder if Eli feels like he is Satmar, like it’s in his blood and can never be washed away. I make a note to ask him that, when we are alone. A bold question, but I can disguise it in innocent words. I need to feel him out, see if he has his own opinions about the world we live in, or if he just parrots the views of those around him. I may not have a real say in the matter of my own marriage, but at the very least I would like to enter into the arrangement armed with as much knowledge and power as possible.

The phrase, what God wants, infuriated me. There is no desire outside human desire. God was not the one who wanted Mindi to have children. Could she not see that? Her fate had been decided by the people around her, not by some divine intervention.

  • Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh. 5🌟.

The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop. Trapped between caring for her alcoholic father and her job as a secretary at the boys prison, she tempers her dreary days with dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, her nights and weekends are filled with shoplifting and cleaning up her increasingly deranged fathers messes.

When the beautiful, charismatic Rebecca St John arrives on the scene, Eileen is enchanted. But soon Eileen’s affection for Rebecca will pull her into a crime that far surpasses even her own wild imagination.

This is my kind of book. I love a book where you delve into the life of a person….this is the nosiness in me coming out. When I look back on my favourite books of this nature, Olive Kitteridge springs to mind. Like Eileen, both books are set in New England and both books give an intimate portrait into the protagonist. I think for me, I don’t have to like the central character, I just have to feel like I know her. People are interesting and Eileen is certainly that.

I found the book hauntingly sad. A woman who has slipped through the cracks, who spends too much time in her own head. Eileen is marginalised because she is ‘a bit odd.’ We all know people we have avoided just because they are different. The novel is both dark and at times hilarious. Eileen is strange, a little disgusting but ultimately endearing and I found myself feeling quite attached to her. I am not a crier but this section towards the end of the book made me cry. Who can explain why some books move us more than others….I loved it.

I said goodbye to the house from where I stood over the bathroom sink. I tell you I felt strangely calm. The weight of the gun, the money in my purse told me yes, it’s time. Get out of here. I had my last moment with myself in that place, in front of the mirror with my eyes shut. It hurt to leave. It was my home, after all, and it meant something to me, each of the rooms, each chair and shelf and lamp, the walls, the creaking floorboards, the worn banister.

Thanks so much for reading.

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