"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Nonfiction roundup---Three short reviews

When it comes to road trips and audiobooks my husband always votes for narrative nonfiction. Well, 2018 has been the year of the road trip for our family, hence we have listened to some really great narrative nonfiction books through the speakers in our car.

Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
       Published in 2016, Hillbilly Elegy made quite a splash prior to the Presidential election because Vance describes the types of people who were ripe to hear Donald Trump's message and resented being called "deplorables" by Hillary Clinton.  "Hillbillies", "rednecks", "white trash" aren't just names to the author Vance, they are neighbors, friends, and relatives. Vance grew up in a steel town in Ohio but his relatives, like many other people in town came from Kentucky or hillbilly country.
       The book could be divided into two, maybe three parts. One part is his family story. How his grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw) moved to Ohio soon after WWII but they brought their Appalachian values with them. Some good values, like loyalty to family and love of country, and some bad (I'd say very bad) like drinking and fighting and terrible verbal abuse. Vance's mother grew up in this chaos and then she went on to have a chaotic life as an adult---addicted to drugs, married or in relationships with dangerous men, neglectful to her children. If not for his grandparents, who cleaned up their act, Vance wouldn't have made it through college, and law school. (That could be the second part of the book, how Vance made it out of the community.)
       The third (or second) part of the book focuses on the troubles within hillbilly communities. And no one but an insider can say the things Vance says and get away with it. He comes down hard on the community and provides a peek at what he means through the examples he shares. He believes that the hillbilly culture "increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it." A few examples really stood out. One was the story he tells about working at a tile company. The work was hard but the pay was good, as were the benefits. The owner, however, couldn't keep people in the job. One boy who he hired because his girlfriend was pregnant would miss at least once a week and when he did come to work would often spend hours in the bathroom. When he was fired, after many chances to improve, the boy moaned about the pregnant girlfriend and what was he going to do now? Another example that floored me, was the statistic about people reporting they go to church when they really don't. The perception of course is these are deeply religious people, which is far from the truth. In fact, it is the opposite. And, as studies have shown, people who attend church regularly are much more likely to be well-rounded, happy people who take care of their family and look out for the education of their young. Everything he describes about the community revolves around despair. How do you help people when they distrust outsiders but don't seem to be able to help themselves? Vance doesn't have any answers but at least he has opened the door for a new dialogue.
       Hillbilly Elegy is an excellent discussion book. Don and I "chewed" on this one together and talked and talked about what we think would be helpful and not helpful. We don't have any answers either. But we are both glad we listened to this one together. By the way, J.D. Vance narrated the audiobook himself. He did a nice job. The word "elegy" is usually defined as a poem of serious reflection, usually a lamentation for the dead. Isn't that sad but fittingly appropriate that he used the word in his book's title?

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach:
       Last year my husband and I attended a book event where Mary Roach was the featured speaker. Her book, Grunt: the Curious Science of Humans at War, was the all-county book of the year and the event was the culmination. Roach was so engaging and funny. She talked a lot about how she involved herself in the research she was reporting on, for example she participated in the studies the Army was doing on uniforms and heat. We thoroughly enjoyed the evening spent with her.
       Each of Roach's books take a subject and report on all aspects of it. In Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal she begins at one end and winds her way to the other end of the digestive system. There are LOTS of gross stories in between, but most of them were weirdly interesting and some were even funny. Most were memorable, too. I suppose the most memorable to me involved Elvis Presley and his famous issues with constipation. Roach interviewed his doctor and learned some new, and truly horrifying details related to paralytic ileus, or a partially paralyzed colon. At his death coroners found food in his colon which had been there for months. Gag.
       Admittedly, one has to have a strong stomach to hear news like this book delivers. But if you are curious, want to learn something, and laugh along the way I can recommend this or any of Roach's books to you. It was narrated by Emily Woo Zeller, She did a remarkable job.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
       On our last road trip our daughter and grandson joined us for 1000+ miles of driving. Obviously we had to select an audiobook that would hold all of our attention but also one that we didn't have to hang on every detail. With a one-year-old in the car, that wouldn't happen. We selected The Lost City of Z. I had read the book, which was published in 2009, several years ago for one of my two book clubs. Now my second book club has selected it so I wanted to re-read it to refresh my memory.
       Back in 1925 a British explorer, Percy Fawcett, his son, and another man went missing in the Amazon. They were on a quest to find the Lost City of Z, or El Dorado. Their disappearance made headlines around the world. For years people worldwide followed Fawcett's career and we certain that he would be the one to finally find "Z". After his disappearnace many other people attempted to find the Fawcett and his party, going on the clues the clues he left behind. Many went missing themselves. By some counts over 100 people died looking for Fawcett over the years.
       When David Grann stumbled upon some old diaries belonging to Fawcett, he too set out to get answers to the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century. But the technological advances in the 21st century were in Grann's favor, like cars, airplanes, radios, and phones. But even with all the advances Grann "found himself, like the generations who preceded him, being irresistibly drawn into the jungle's green hell. His quest for the truth & discoveries about Fawcett's fate and Z form the heart of this complexly enthralling narrative."
       It is hard to imagine, but there are still tribes living in the Amazon that have never interacted with society. The New York Times reported one such tribe was just found this week! Part of the Amazon basin are almost as foreign to us as other planets! I'm pretty sure this is an unintended effect of reading the book but I have determined to NEVER visit the area...way too many treacherous insects, reptiles, and unknown diseases! Ha.
       The audiobook was narrated by David Deakins. We had no trouble hearing him or understanding his narration. That is a big deal when there is a lot of road noise to overcome. David Grann is now one of my favorite narrative nonfiction writers. I am excited to learn he has a new book coming out this October called White Darkness. it is somehow related to Earnest Shackleton. Oh boy!

Past Due Book Reviews

12 / 16 books. 75% done!


  1. "The Lost City of Z" was a fascinating book. It made me never want to visit the Amazon. I haven't done a long road trip lately, but I see the appeal of listening to a good book while I do.

  2. I’m always looking for new non-fiction reads so this post is really helpful! I think non-fiction works better than fiction in audiobook form for some reason! I’m particularly intrigued by Hillbilly Elegy! Great post 😊

  3. What a great threesome of books! I thought Hillbilly Elegy was good, but not great. I keep meaning to read something by Mary Roach as all her books sound super interesting. And, The Lost City of Z sounds good, too.


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