Tag: Ohio

Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng


All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled.

Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.
This philosophy had carried her through life and, she had always felt, had served her quite well. Of course, she’d had to give up a few things here and there….Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.

Remember, Mia had said: Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.

Once Burned…
I almost didn’t pick up Little Fires Everywhere because I felt so burned by Ng’s first novel—Everything I Never Told You, which I read earlier this year. I loved Ng’s writing style and “complicated family” is a theme I will eat up. I appreciated the struggle she set up for Lydia and her mother, Marilyn. In that book, you know immediately that Lydia is dead and you spend the rest of the book backtracking to figure out why. The “why” is revealed in the final chapter, at which point I think I threw the book down. I felt manipulated and would rather have had an ambiguous ending where I didn’t know what I happened to Lydia. (As a side note, Everything I Never Told You would probably make a good book club offering precisely because the ending is controversial. I’m not going to recommend it otherwise because my feelings are still hurt; however, it is a book that will generate different opinions and big feelings, perfect for some bookish debate.)

But then Little Fires Everywhere came out and I remembered that even if I was mad at Ng for emotionally dragging me through the lake with Lydia, I really liked her writing style. I also want to make a point to read more authors of color. And she featured characters of color. And it would be nearly impossible for her to set me up for the same kind of disappointment again. So I bit the bullet and used my Book of the Month credit on Little Fires.

Thankfully my book gamble paid off. I enjoyed Little Fires Everywhere, including the ending this time.

Location, Location, Location
The book is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the first master planned community. While you usually hear of setting talked about as a character when the setting is atmospheric—foggy and wild—Shaker Heights is definitely its own character, though it is as far on the opposite end of the atmospheric spectrum as possible from “wild.” Shaker’s identity is defined by rules and boundaries, with strict zoning codes and housing regulations, down to the colors each home within a specific neighborhood could be painted. As one of the characters noted, the founding of Shaker Heights was based on “the underlying philosophy being that everything could—and should—be planned out, and that by doing so you avoided the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.”

Elena Richardson, the mother of four of the five children at the center of the book, has internalized the Shaker way to heart—she has given up on dreams and risk and lived her life solely within the boundaries. She is safe. She is as happy as she thinks she can be. It is against this foil that we meet Mia, wild and free, artist and mother of Pearl (literally). Interestingly, Ng has us met Mia through others—there is no chapter I can recall where Mia really talks about herself. Instead, we discover her character as she interacts with her daughter Pearl as well as Eleana’s daughters Lexie and Izzy. (Indeed, it is precisely Elena’s rules and structure that drives her own daughters to Mia.) We discover Mia’s past as Elena’s discomfort and internal outrage over Mia’s freedom (though Elena wouldn’t call it that) puts her on a destruction course to discover who Mia really is.

While Little Fires Everywhere isn’t a YA book, Ng’s other main characters were strong, well-developed teen characters. I loved Mia’s daughter Pearl—I loved that she was nerdy but was still able to get the guy. Her struggles and navigating of new friendships in town felt believable. She didn’t make all the wrong choices, nor did she make all the right ones—she was a good friend to some but made some choices that hurt others. She was an internally diverse enough character that there was something in her that it seems most readers could identify with—nerdy, shy, had friends, got the guy, hurt some people, had a complicated but loving relationship with her mother.

Eleana’s two daughters are opposites—Lexie is the high-achieving rule-follower in her mother’s mold while Izzy once tried to free all the cats at the Humane Society and gave all of the not-black clothing her mother bought her to the homeless the next day. This seems to be the way of things—kids respond to (overly) rigid boundaries in two main ways—some kids kill themselves to meet the standards while others chafe and rage against them. Yet here too, they are each believable characters—Ng does an excellent job making them multi-dimensional and not just tropes. While Izzy has been drawn to Mia from the start, when Lexie falls short of the standard, it is Mia to whom she turns, not Elena.

Under the main story line revolving around Elena and Mia is a subplot surrounding the termination of parental rights of a young, uneducated, poor Chinese woman and a rich white couple desperate to adopt the baby. Through existing friendships, Elena and Mia are pulled into this conflict on opposite sides, with the teenagers also splitting to take sides. This subplot, while creating conflict that enables Ng to flesh out Elena and Mia’s characters even more and set up conflict with the teen characters, also provides opportunities to make still salient points about race.

The lawyer for the Chinese mother Bebe scores points in court by pointing out that there are no Asian dolls in the rich couple’s house, though the reader also learns that this is because major companies like Matell have done a terrible job at representing anything other than the “norm” of whiteness.

Elena is able to think she is open-minded and not racist because she “doesn’t see race” which is another common completely unhelpful thing white people say.  By not “seeing race,” Elena and the rich couple aren’t being good and charitable; they’re destroying part of the child’s identity. Whether you see race or not, it’s there. The question is whether the present diversity is recognized and celebrated rather than ignored, like a dirty little secret no one talks about. Elena is able to pat herself on the back for this and think she has no problem with race when it’s clear she does—she has a problem with anything that doesn’t follow the rules and highlights difference.

Shaker Heights itself also can’t have a problem with race since the town officially embraced integration, refused to allow racial covenants, and prevented white flight. Yet, even for all of this, we’re still told that Bebe’s lawyer was one of two Asians in his class and was expected to marry her by all his classmates since they “match.” While Ng’ first novel (set in the 70s) had more overt anti-Asian racism, Little Fires Everywhere features the microaggressions and assumptions still present today. While the tiki torches of Charlottesville have demonstrated that overt racism is clearly still alive and well, books like Little Fires Everywhere show us what “benevolent racism” still looks like in most places, even the most perfect of places.

While not as frequent as the commentary on racism, one of the other points Ng makes that hit home for me was about Elena’s “benevolence”—how she forced people to accept philanthropy they would rather not accept. So often, its easy for me as a well-educated white woman to think I know what is best and to thus foist myself onto someone, thinking I’ve solved the problem without listening or having the person themselves weigh in on what they actually need. Like discarded t-shirts in a third world country, benevolence is often far more about the giver than the receiver. Not terribly surprising, either, is the fact that Elena keeps score. Does it really count as benevolence if you’re always waiting for the opportunity to cash in on the favors you’ve forced people to accept over the years?

Writing Style
I love Ng’s writing style–it’s not overly flowery or showy (she refers to the fires set in the house as looking like they had been set by a “demented Girl Scout” who had been camping in the house), but you can tell Ng has honed her craft to find just the right words. The writing is relatable but polished, falling cleanly into the LitFic category as opposed to simply contemporary fiction.  (Of course Amazon has it categorized as Women’s Fiction —what does this even mean?!?).   Compared to the first novel, Ng’s writing seems to have found a more solid footing—she seems confident of her voice and so Little Fires Everywhere felt like a stronger read to me. I can’t wait to read what she comes up with next.

Published September 12, 2017 by Penguin Press (@penguinpress)
Author: Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing)
Date read: October 8, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a recent memoir from J.D. Vance, a man who grew up in Jackson, Kentucky and then Middletown, Ohio. He escaped these towns where manufacturing was declining, schools were failing, and families were falling apart—first as a Marine, then as a summa cum laude graduate of The Ohio State University, before landing at Yale Law School. Hillbilly Elegy paints itself as Vance’s look back at how the Rust Belt and Appalachia got to where they are now, as told through his personal life examples. What is not quite so clear up front is that Hillbilly Elegy is also, at least partly, a political screed.

In hindsight, Hillbilly Elegy is one of those books I probably should have abandoned early on, as not for me.

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
While I don’t have enough of a catalog on here yet for this to be clear, memoir is one of my favorite genres. I love a well-done memoir that introduces me to a world completely outside of my own so I approached Hillbilly Elegy with anticipation. I had heard Hillbilly Elegy touted on NPR in an interview with Vance shortly after the shock of Tuesday, November 8, 2016, and seen it in a variety of magazines as a book to read to explain how such a large group of people can have seemingly voted against their interests (#healthcare). I had read The Glass Castle several years ago and was expecting something at least somewhat similar but on a larger scale than a single family. This is not what I got.

My biggest problem with Hillbilly Elegy is that I have never, to my best recollection, read a memoir so politically biased. This is not to say that it is directly political—I have read memoirs of politicians. Rather, from the selection of stories to the conclusions Vance then draws from them, I had the distinct impression through many of the chapters that I was, quite literally, listening to Repubican propaganda rather than a memoir. Two of the starkest examples for me were Vance’s attempts to convince his reader of the evils of public benefits, like food stamps, and that much of Appalachia’s rejection of President Obama has nothing to do with race.

Don’t Look Behind the Curtain
Ironically, in his structure of these arguments, Vance falls victim to his own logical fallacies. He argues that it is short-sighted and too simple to say that the rejection of Obama can be boiled down to race while simultaneously telling his reader two stories about food stamps—that he saw people at the grocery store he worked in as a teenager selling them to buy some beer and that his drug-addicted, unemployed neighbor used them to buy steaks—to convince us that public benefits like food stamps are a problem and should be done away with. We should not draw wholesale conclusions about all of Appalachia when a handful of people are calling the President the N-word but we should conclude the welfare state with its “Welfare Queens” (a phrase used earnestly by Vance when discussing a woman who “shockingly” had all her children by the same man) should be done away with based on two recollections of a teenage grocery bagger.

I found myself gobsmacked listening to his description of Obama as having, essentially, moved past any hardship in his life.

Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president [Obama]. But the president feels like an alien to many [people in the town he grew up in] for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor, which of course he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up. His accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is foreign. His credentials are so impressive that they are frightening.   He made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis, and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him.

Interestingly, George W. Bush meets most of these descriptors, yet was not rejected by Appalachia by any stretch.* Our 43rd president attended Yale for undergraduate and Harvard business school. He is also rich, having had family money and worked in the Texas oil industry—he was once co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. While Bush’s early years were spent in Midland (I’ve been there—NOT a large town)—he then attended private school in Houston for two years before attending boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts for high school.   The only significant difference in the description Vance paints of Obama and the reality of W. is how they speak.

My point in this is not that Appalachia is a bed of racists (though, certainly, there are some there as there are anywhere—it’s naïve to suggest race had nothing to do with the perceptions of Obama). Rather, Vance is the master of selection—picking and choosing facts that fit his narrative and constructing fairly convincing arguments to match his points based on the selective narrative he provided as the set-up. Vance is so earnest, so seemingly trustworthy, it’s easy to see why this book is being considered authoritative.

The tone in several places is also concerning. In telling stories about someone who was perceived to be homosexual, Vance described the person was a “pervert.” The context is Vance quoting another person but the word is said repeatedly and with such vehemence in the audiobook, it left me fairly convinced that, despite hiding behind another person’s alleged quote, this may be spot-on for how Vance feels. If he doesn’t, he should perhaps re-word that section in future editions.

Defining the Elite
He talks about “they” and “them” when he refers to people that his hometown would consider “elites” though the book conveniently leaves out that, after graduating from Yale, Vance went to work for Sidley Austin LLP and now works for a venture capital and private equity firm in San Francisco associated with Peter Thiel (founder of a small company called PayPal). As an attorney, I can assert with confidence that he was making six figures at Sidley Austin and is certainly not making less working for Mithril Capital Management LLC now. For all of his “them”-ing, Vance looks a lot like the thems now.

It’s Not ALL Bad
The book is not entirely without redeeming points. The only parts I would ever listen to again were close together in Chapters 13 and 14. In Chapter 13 he makes several points about social capital—how doors are already opened to some, cracked for others, and almost altogether locked for a third group, unless someone like a mentor or caring professor will open the door for you.   Similarly Chapter 14’s discussion of trauma in kids is worth reading, particularly in light of the abuse Vance survived. Neither of these sections is perfect and there are certainly better sources for the material; however, it felt unfair to rip the book so harshly without at least acknowledging that a few points here and there landed. I’m sure many of the points he makes about the loss of manufacturing jobs and the opiod crisis are also also accurate; I was just having a hard time not getting distracted by all the bias to appreciate them.

In Sum
Vance’s life is his life—I have no reason to doubt that the stories in Hillbilly Elegy happened to him in the way he said. And this book almost certainly reflects the way a lot of people in Appalachia and the Rust Belt feel about the economy and the government that has seemingly (and in many cases, actually) abandoned them. My problem is the agenda. If Vance wants to write a book of political essays, he should. If he wants to write a memoir, he should. Blending these genres in Hillbilly Elegy in such a way that it felt like he was directly trying to hide his agenda ultimately felt so dishonest that I would never recommend this book to anyone.

*In both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, George W. Bush took Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, in addition to the rest of the states typically considered to be the South.

Published: June 28, 2016 by HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: J.D. Vance (Twitter: @JDVance1)
Date Read: July 18, 2017
Rating: 1 star

Excellent sources of more nuanced and educated criticism than mine can be found here:

Hillbilly Ethnography by John Thomason
J.D. Vance, The False Prophet of Blue America by Sarah Jones
For the Good of the Poor and Common People: What Hillbilly Elegy Gets Wrong About Appalachia and the Working Class by Elizabeth Catte