Make yourself a cup of tea and sit down, I have three books to unpick in this post. First up is Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Vance’s memoir was lauded as one of the major works of 2016. Perhaps this is unsurprising, since it details his own upbringing amongst the disgruntled, white, working class of America. They have had the spotlight of infamy and blame shone upon them ever since their supposed champion ran in and won the US election. Everybody wants to know why so many people in this cultural group support a bigot who is proud of his lack of education and experience and who paints himself as the archetypal self-made American man (ignoring the ‘small’ million dollar start up loan his KKK-supporting father so generously gave him).
Vance’s memoir is driven by his life-long the need to attempt to explain the hillbilly sub-culture that has long been mocked and side-lined. Fortunately, despite the fact that he grew up surrounded by and being a hillbilly, Vance does try to be unbiased in his book. It is quite balanced and I do admire this, because it must be difficult to fairly judge your own people that you love, but who are often extremely problematic. I also appreciate the fact that Vance does comes to a recognisable conclusion at the end of his book, which can be difficult in a memoir. That being said, he does occasionally fall into the trap of romanticising his ancestors, as we all do, and does not touch on their intolerance of outsiders or difference as much as I would have wanted him to. ‘How I Shed My Skin’ – review here – is more adept at that sort of criticism. Overall, I did enjoy the opportunity to attempt to understand America’s ‘forgotten’ white working class.
Next up is Cane, Jean Toomer’s seminal work from that explosion of culture, the Harlem Renaissance. For me, dipping back into the Harlem Renaissance felt like catching up with an old, intellectual friend that I had not properly seen since the days of my dissertation. Cane is a challenging read. When you have not been used to reading through an academic lens, it takes a while to get used to it again.
Although it is a little difficult to settle into, once you are comfortable, Toomer’s writing flows like liquid gold. His poetry is exquisite; if I had to choose, ‘Georgia Dusk’ and ‘Storm Ending’ are my favourites from Cane. Toomer’s writing is at its best when it is set in the South, in my opinion, so the second section of the book was of less interest to me. Cane‘s third section was the one that has stuck with me the most, where he weaves prose and play effortlessly and, despite the fact that he was a native of the North, perfectly paints the world of the South. It brings to the forefront that essential dichotomy of the Harlem Renaissance: a deep divide between North and South, between pride and shame of Southern history and ancestors. Cane makes me want to delve further into this fracture.
Finally, the last book I read was a pure joy. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is a homage to books and their power, paired with a somewhat predictable, but nevertheless enjoyable small town tale. If you ever need to read something that makes you proud to be a book lover and read a romance that is a good few steps up from some of the irritatingly named chick lit that is out there, this is it.