ALLY HUGHES HAS SEX SOMETIMES by Jules Moulin

24501369My final read of 2016 was the (unfortunately named) Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes by Jules Moulin. It’s a light read about Ally Hughes, a professor and single mother in her early 40s with a twenty-year old daughter named Lizzie. When Lizzie was ten, she went to stay at her grandmother’s house so that Ally, then an economics/women studies professor at Brown, could grade papers all weekend. While Lizzie was gone, Ally ended up hooking up with Jake, one of her former students who had come over to do some household repairs for her. Over the course of the weekend together, Ally fell for him, despite their age difference and the fact that he had been her student. Ally decides not to pursue him, though, because she doesn’t want to lose her job and she’s focused on being a mother.

Ten years later, Jake is now Noah, an A-list actor with a new name and an impressive list of credits. Ally, who doesn’t pay attention to pop culture or technology, has no idea who Noah is when he shows up at her house for dinner one night, accompanying Lizzie. She is shocked to find her former crush, Jake, in her kitchen. But is Jake surprised? Or has he orchestrated the evening just to get back in touch with Ally?

Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes was easy to finish, which is what I needed in these waning hours of the year. But it’s a somewhat silly story. Jake is just too good to be true, and Moulin tried too hard to make Ally seem “complicated”. Lizzie was self-absorbed and annoying, despite a twist at the end that shows that she’s actually pretty smart. The dialogue was unrealistic and confusing at times, and there were characters and references who floated in and and out and/or made no sense. It’s basically a romance novel with a little bit of edge.

Again, this was a light read that served its purpose. Not the most fulfilling, but quick and fun and sorta cute.

HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. Vance

27161156I am one book away from my reading goal for 2016. Book #51 was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a “personal analysis” of hillbilly culture and how it has shaped the political views, economic conditions and troubled lives of poor, white Americans. I can’t think of a more relevant book to read in the wake of Trump’s victory, as I think it explains a lot about the election’s outcome.

Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but his family’s roots are in Kentucky, which is hillbilly central. His grandparents moved to Ohio to escape their poor Appalachian roots, but as Vance explains throughout the book, they never really left Kentucky behind. His childhood was chaotic and stressful. His mother married five times and fought addiction throughout most of her life. He lived mostly with his grandmother Mamaw, a strong-willed woman who provided stability and encouragement to Vance as he grew up, but who also struggled economically after her husband died. Mamaw raised him with the hillbilly values and views that she herself grew up with, so even though Middletown was more economically successful than “the holler” where Mamaw and Vance’s mom came from, his family history shaped him strongly.

Hillbilly Elegy was an eye-opening and utterly important read. I learned quite a bit about what so many people in America believe and why they are so disillusioned. One chapter describes why so many poor white families have trouble breaking the cycle of downward mobility: their home lives are chaotic; there is drug usage and physical violence at home, in front of small kids; they don’t study and they don’t make their kids study; they don’t work, even when they don’t have jobs. “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

I dog-eared so many pages of Hillbilly Elegy that I could create an entire blog post full of quotes. I found a few passages about why poor whites distrust Obama to be especially powerful. They can’t relate to Obama  – not because of his color, but because he’s so foreign to them in every way: his education, his parenting, where he grew up. The modern American meritocracy worked for Obama, but it won’t work for them.

Vance beat the odds and went into the Marines, then to college and on to Yale Law School. The final chapters of Hillbilly Elegy talk about him having his feet in both words and ultimately feeling comfortable in neither, and about how he has reconciled his upbringing and his education. He ends with some ideas about how to help fix the ills of the white poor, based on his own upbringing and the challenges he overcame.

I highly recommend Hillbilly Elegy. It’s readable, compassionate and absolutely crucial to understanding the country we live in today.

THE RISEN by Ron Rash

risen-hc-cHow have I not read anything by Ron Rash before?

The Risen is my first foray into Rash’s Appalachia, and hopefully won’t be my last. It is about the summer of 1969, when a young woman comes to a small town in North Carolina and upends the lives of two brothers, Bill and Eugene. She disappears shortly after the summer ends, and when her dead body is discovered 45 years later, Bill and Eugene finally confront what happened that summer between them and the woman, and also the role they played in her ultimate demise.

The Risen is told very simply. It is narrated by Eugene, and jumps back and forth between the present and that fateful summer. Details are teased out slowly throughout the book, about Eugene’s troubled, alcoholic life and ruined relationship with his daughter; about Bill and Eugene’s strict, domineering grandfather; about how the brothers’ roles as kids persists throughout their lives.

Despite its short length, the story is a rich and complicated one, with a few twists along the way. It’s about loyalty and responsibility, resentment and disappointment, and how lives can be irrevocably changed in one summer and set on immutable courses for years to come. I finished it a few days ago, but I keep thinking about it, discovering new dimensions and connecting new threads.

I highly recommend The Risen and plan to check out more of Rash’s books.

I listened to the first 2/3 of The Risen on audio, and it was excellent. The narration by Richard Ferrone was *perfect*. I can’t say enough about how well-cast this production was. Ferrone captured Eugene’s passion and shame just perfectly, with a deep, passionate voice that had just the hint of a tremble in it. He’s best known as a thriller and mystery narrator, which makes sense, though he added the perfect dose of romanticism to troubled, dreamy Eugene. Huge props to the audio version of The Risen – I was sorry not to have had the opportunity to listen to the last third.

 

 

BOOKED by Kwame Anderson

41zviprzzyl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Our December Mother-Daughter book club read was Booked by Kwame Anderson. It’s the story of Nick, a seventh grader dealing with the demise of his parents’ marriage, a crush on a classmate, a budding soccer career and bullying.

What makes Booked interesting is that the story is told in verse. This style highlights Nick’s emotions and inner dialogue, which makes it all more poignant and genuine. What could have been a somewhat unremarkable litany of middle school woes becomes transformed into something lovelier. Nick’s father is obsessed with words – he even wrote a dictionary – and while Nick feels burdened by his father’s requirement that he read the dictionary, he too is a gifted linguist and finds power in expressing himself. He ends up joining a book club (because the girl he likes is in it) and finding some escape through reading as well.

Booked was a quick and interesting read, and our group of 7th graders found enough to talk about – what role did the quirky librarian play? Were the adults in Nick’s life paying enough attention to what he was going through? How did the use of poetry change their feelings about the book? What was in the mysterious dragonfly box? In the end it probably won’t be our most memorable book of the year, but for the verse alone it was a good choice.

We have identified a theme running through many of our book club books this year: kids being left to themselves to deal with some weighty problems, and adults generally being unaware and unhelpful. While this theme is a bit frustrating – we adults aren’t that bad! – it makes sense. How else to present adolescent protagonists who grapple and grow throughout the book? I am curious to see if this theme will continue into 2017.

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben Winters

winters_undergroundairlines_hcUnderground Airlines by Ben Winters imagines an America where the Civil War never took place. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while fighting to abolish slavery, and modern day America is now made up of 46 states where slavery is illegal and 4 Southern states where it is not.

The narrator, Victor, was a slave in a meat processing plant in one of the Hard Four, and he managed to escape several years before the book opens. He was eventually caught in Chicago, but instead of going back to the factory, he made a deal with the U.S. Marshals: he’ll become a slavecatcher – someone who tracks down runaways – and has a chip inserted into his neck so that the government can always find him. He’s free, but not free. He’s a slave, but not a slave.

When Underground Airlines opens, Victor has been assigned to find a runaway in Indianapolis. As the case evolves, he discovers details missing that suggest that the man he is looking for – Jackdaw – is not the typical runaway slave. From there, Victor is drawn into an increasingly complex web of underground abolitionists, double agents, unethical government agencies and people willing to give up their lives to the cause of undermining the slave economy. He finds himself ultimately returning to the South and going back “behind the fence” to try to solve the case, although who he is working for – and whose directions he is following – shifts throughout the book, keeping the reader guessing.

I commend Winters on the creativity behind Underground Airlines. His depiction of institutionalized slavery is chilling and deeply offensive, but also sadly realistic. He included the fictional legislation ensuring slavery will continue legally into perpetuity, and also traced the global economic forces brought on by U.S. slavery and their ramifications throughout the 46 free states. I am always impressed with writers of dystopian fiction who are able to conjure up whole worlds different from our own and convey many layers and levels of those societies.

Victor was a complex and interesting character, and I also liked being in his head.

I am not a big fan of thrillers, so I wasn’t as crazy about the parts of the book involving escapes and gunfights and beatings and violence. Not my thing. It wasn’t gratuitous in Underground Airlines– slavery is violent – but again, not my favorite thing to read. That said, the violence was relatively contained so I was able to get through the book. I also had trouble tracking a few of the plot twists, but ultimately, I think I understood it. There’s a pretty big reveal at the end that explains why the stakes were so high in this particular recon mission, and I am proud to say that I followed it! Yay me.

I listened to Underground Airlines on audio, and the narration by William DeMerritt was SO good. His ability to transform realistically into so many different characters – white or black, young or old – was pretty amazing (though I didn’t love his narration of a female character named Martha). He did an excellent job with this book, conveying Victor’s anger, helplessness and intelligence as needed throughout the story, and like Victor, he never lost his cool or his consistency. I highly recommend the audiobook of Underground Airlines.

This was a pretty good read, overall. I am not sure I would have picked it up had I known it was as much a thriller as dystopian/moderately realistic fiction, but I am still glad I read it. Thought-provoking, especially at a time when so many of our institutions seem to be at risk.

NOT DEAD YET by Phil Collins

phil-collins-not-dead-yet-photoPhil Collins came out with his memoir, Not Dead Yet, this fall, joining a crop of rock bios that have been getting a lot of attention recently. I was a big Genesis/Phil Collins fan back in the 80s, so I was excited to get my hands on the audio version of Not Dead Yet.

Collins narrates the audio version, which enhances the sense of intimacy the listener feels with him throughout the book. It opens with his early days in suburban London and tracks his family life and his childhood/early adulthood obsession with music. From there, the juggernaut of Collins’ career kicks in: joining Genesis, touring larger and larger venues, taking over frontman status from Peter Gabriel, more Genesis albums, his explosive solo career, more Genesis albums, Disney soundtracks, hit movie songs, and on and on. There is a reason Phil Collins seemed ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s – he was. He was also a workaholic who couldn’t say no to any opportunity – to sing, to compose, to produce, to collaborate. He would travel the globe while on world tours, and then return to his home base where he would jump immediately into the next project without stopping.

This lifestyle took a toll on his personal life, which Collins does not gloss over. Three marriages, three divorces, long distance relationships with his five kids – these all weigh on Collins, and he perseverates on them throughout the book. He takes the blame for the failure of his marriages, though he manages to make himself look OK at the same time. Collins was criticized by the media when all of this was going on, particularly his delivering his request for a divorce from wife #2 via fax, and his affair with a woman half his age while on tour. Collins takes the blows here, for sure, but it’s clear that he is relieved to finally be telling his story.

He also shines a light on some other personal stuff, like his obsession with the Alamo and the physical ailments that plagued his later career, like an ear stroke that caused him to lose his hearing in one ear and the hand and back issues that put an end to his prolific drumming. The toughest section comes at the end, when Collins describes in painstaking detail his slide into alcoholism in the early 2010s and the terrible toll it took on his body and his family.

I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. On many occasions, I paused the audio to call up a song on Spotify or a video on YouTube, which definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.

Collins is apologetic about his ubiquity – almost overly so. He suggests that his transatlantic dual performances on Live Aid in 1985 were almost accidental, and he distances himself from the coincidence of having hit songs with two bands on the charts at the same time. He basically says, “I get it – I was sick of me too.” (Sometimes this is a little too much.)

Collins is clearly an emotional, complicated guy, and Not Dead Yet shows him in the most flattering light possible. I’m sure there are other sides to a lot of his stories (and in fact I heard a few of them at Thanksgiving dinner from someone who knows him), but I liked hearing (and believing) Phil’s version for 10 hours. I mean, that’s the point of a rock memoir, right? To clean up the reputation?

Collins’ albums have all been recently remastered, and if you listen to them on Spotify you get a new cover, a closeup of Phil’s sixtysomething face instead of the thirtysomething faces I remembered from the original covers. It’s kind of creepy, but it’s reality – our rock gods are aging. Not Dead Yet at least gave me glimpses of that younger guy, and for that I am grateful.

(And yes, I found out what “In The Air Tonight” is about. Not this:)

MY PICTURE PERFECT FAMILY by Marguerite Elisofon

5146laoj58l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Marguerite Elisofon and her husband Howard had boy-girl twins named Samantha and Matthew in 1990. The twins were premature, but Matthew developed normally while Samantha started lagging behind from an early age. After many rounds of testing, Samantha was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, which changed the Elisofons’ lives in every possible way.

My Picture Perfect Family is a painstaking account of how the Elisofons – and particularly Marguerite – learned to accept that Samantha would never be the “picture perfect” daughter they had hoped for, and how they worked tirelessly to enroll her in programs and schools that would allow her to learn and even thrive. Marguerite’s patience and persistence saw Samantha through several New York City schools until she finally ended up at one that was committed to her intellectual growth. There are many ups and downs along the way: schools that decided that Samantha was too much for them, endless tantrums and disastrous family vacations, punctuated by small steps forward, unexpected breakthroughs and some surprisingly positive playdates. Through it all, Elisofon never gave up hope that her daughter would find a place that would encourage her and allow her to pursue the activities she loved – acting and singing.

As a mother of twins myself, I was particularly interested in how Samantha and Matthew related to each other over the years, and how Elisofon navigated balancing of attention between the two, even when one twin needed so much more intervention and involvement. She includes family photographs along the way, along with the backstory of what was happening that the camera didn’t capture.

My Picture Perfect Family is a dense, engrossing read. While it is quite detailed, it is never tedious. Elisofon is a skilled writer, laying out the complications in Samantha’s condition and treatment. And it ends on a hopeful note. Samantha graduates from high school and, like her brother, goes on to college. The book ends as she leaves for college, with only a brief epilogue talking about the years that followed.

I am glad I read My Picture Perfect Family. It’s a very poignant and powerful look at the challenges of raising an autistic child and the power of a stubborn, persistent parent who wants nothing more than her daughter to be happy and challenged.