Hillbilly Elegy is a humblebrag of a memoir

2 Nov

51idsm4kvzl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Memories of an Appalachian adolescence meshed with analysis of the disaffected white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been making the rounds as a primer on the sentiments that have given rise to Donald Trump. It certainly has all the right ingredients: Vance is a white man who grew up poor in Ohio with family roots in Kentucky. His mother struggled with addiction and had a string of bad boyfriends and husbands. Vance was mostly raised by his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw; his sister; and a cast of eccentric aunts and uncles.

Vance’s childhood was chaotic at best, and he might have been headed down the same path as so many of his peers (unemployment, drugs) were it not for Mamaw’s tough love and his spontaneous decision to join the Marines after high school. After the Marines came college, then Yale Law. Then a year clerking, a year lawyer-ing, a year in operations, and then—oh the end. Then this book. Because Vance, now a Silicon Valley investor and contributor to The National Review, is only 31. Continue reading

5 books, reviewed real quick

25 Oct

Summer 2016 went by far too fast, distracted as we were by Donald Trump and the return of the bare midriff. But even though my ST updates this year have been lackluster at best—it’s my 2017 resolution, I swear—I did actually manage to finish some books this summer. So before the frost fully sets in, here are a few things I done read recently. Continue reading

Timehopping with Homegoing

14 Oct

img_2430As cars and RVs line up to pay the $25 entry fee to Arches National Park, I find myself tempted to assume that what’s ahead will be overwrought. Commercialized. Banal. The minimum-effort visitor to Arches (i.e. any rando with a car) can take an 18-mile drive around the park, at the entrance of which sits a quintessential visitor center—part education, part kitsch. I haven’t seen Delicate Arch yet (Arches’ most iconic landmark) and yet I have: on keychains, t-shirts, laminated posters, and lighters—and painted in great detail on a canvas in my Moab, Utah hotel room.

Once inside, a winding road takes me up a rock cliff, which I notice absently, and then with something bordering on panic. All the relevant alarms start to sound in my brain: YOU ARE DRIVING ON A CLIFF! THE SIDE OF THE CLIFF IS RIGHT THERE! And while I know I’m supposed to be feeling some sort of How Stella Got Her Groove Back exhilaration—I’m here! On my road trip! Seeing natural beauty!—mostly I am terrified. I’ve had a driver’s license for 17 years, but I’ve also seen Final Destination a bunch of times.  Continue reading

Oryx and Crake is the future humanity deserves

19 Sep

Oryx_Crake_Margaret_AtwoodI got my first taste of the apocalypse driving west on Route 50.

US-50 spans Maryland to California, and much of its Colorado/Nevada leg tracks I-70, one of several highways that have more or less rendered Route 50 obsolete. Sometimes they’re the same road, and sometimes I-70 is visible in the distance, its familiar green signage and rush of 18-wheelers a comforting talisman against the isolation of the elder thruway. But every so often the highway is miles off, and the visual lull of gas stations and rest stops give way to a different kind of lull: the thrum of tires on barely paved asphalt, the rush of breeze through open windows, vistas of untouched landscape in every direction.

Near Fruita, Colorado, Route 50 and I-70 part ways, and the former enters a stretch of near-total isolation (what I will come to know as one of many). The smooth surface of well-maintained blacktop gives over to worn, crumbling asphalt, and sometimes gravel. Lane lines fade and then disappear; desert shrubbery creeps in at the shoulders, threatening to overtake the pavement entirely. For 23 minutes, I didn’t see a single other car. Surrounded by mountains, vegetation, the mutterings of unseen wildlife, and one disintegrating road, it suddenly wasn’t hard to imagine a world in which people ceased to be, to imagine the planet reclaiming the land we colonized, bulldozing the evidence of humanity in the slow-motion manner of mother nature. It felt wrong, even, to be the only human thing, the only piece of civilization in sight. Like encroaching on someone else’s property, or stepping behind enemy lines. Continue reading

The Mandibles is Titanic for the economy, and there isn’t enough room on the door

27 Jul

y450-293For as long as there have been disasters, there have been disaster stories. Sometimes they’re natural, sometimes extraterrestrial, sometimes militaristic. Sometimes a disaster story is only personally devastating—a sudden death, a fatal illness. And sometimes it’s national, or global, or even inter-planetary.

Catastrophes have long since been molded into narrative archetypes, such that any new movie or book or television show centered on the unraveling of human society after [fill in life-changing event here] can be easily folded into a pre-existing canon of work ruminating on those same hypotheticals. There is clearly something in us that experiences a perverse glee imagining the upending of everything, perhaps because such thought experiments cast in blissful relief the advantages and conveniences of a charmed life in the modern, real world.

But even in our imaginations, economic collapse ranks low on the list of fictional conjectures, somewhere between friendly aliens and symbolic single-symptom afflictions (see: mass blindness). The world’s somewhat recent flirtation with financial crisis has produced some emergent economic fiction, but it tends to focus on financial firms—who runs them, how, and whether they should be held accountable (see: Margin Call, ArbitrageMoney Monster.) Rarely is there a story centered on the machinations of an economic undoing as experienced by normal people; usually that kind of homey cast is reserved for plagues or earthquakes or the zombie apocalypse.  Continue reading

I’m already mentally casting Emma Cline’s The Girls

19 Jul

the-girls-cline-9780812998603On paper, Emma Cline is the kind of girl I want to punch. A stylish waif with a successful middle-part and piercing blue eyes. The owner of a near-monochromatic wardrobe that’s both simple and defiant in its simplicity. The recipient of a $2 million advance, at the age of 25, for her first book (and two to come), the end result of a bidding war between 12 major publishers. The author of a debut novel whose film rights were snapped up by Scott Rudin before the manuscript even sold. Cline is living a charmed life, a romantic-comedy-set-in-Manhattan kind of life, an I-live-in-a-shed-for-the-novelty-of-it kind of life. I want to find her wherever she’s tapping away on her laptop at twee essays for vaunted literary magazines and punch her right below that middle-part.

There’s only one problem with this plan—several, if you count the unlikelihood of my finding her shed or her even still living in the shed, or my managing to punch anyone in the face, arguably unprovoked, without consequence. The problem is that The Girls, the novel loosely based on the Charles Manson murders, for which Cline received said $2 million advance, is actually quite good. Seamlessly, thoughtfully, annoyingly good. So good I want to punch her in the face anyway for it being so good.  Continue reading

Barbarian Days is an actual surfin’ safari

30 Jun

51+9Q4THKRL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_For a sport so culturally linked to stoners and burnouts, surfing requires a surprising amount of energy. Physical, to be sure—all that paddling and balancing and trying not to drown—but also intellectual, and perhaps emotional too. There are seemingly infinite permutations of reefs, winds, cloud-covers and currents to assess, and a truly passionate surfer’s life is inextricably linked to these permutations, to whether their combination on any given day means everything must be dropped, every obligation sidelined, in the interest of catching a few good waves.

For reasons that have to do mostly with my own lack of prowess at anything requiring corporeal exertion, sporting memoirs aren’t usually my jam. The intricacies of a physical activity (save, I guess, one) feel duly rendered to me as text, even though I know there are hundreds of books that arguably disprove this opinion. But as athletic-endeavor memoirs go, William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days made a pretty strong case for itself—it was on a bunch of “Best of 2015” lists last year, aaaannnd it won a Pulitzer.  Continue reading