Hillbilly Elegy

271611561 I first heard about J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis early last summer from the assistant pastor at our church. I heard about it over the course of the summer and the fall by friends in real life and online. And then pre and post-election I heard it mentioned over and over again in the media, mostly as a way to “understand why Trump won”. So when someone at my book club offered it up as a suggestion for our next selection I was glad to finally move it from my TBR pile to my read pile.

I’m still processing what I think about the book, and the book club meeting tomorrow night will probably help with that. Overall, I highly recommend it.

It’s really two books. The first is the memoir of Vance’s family. On its own, as a memoir only, the book is fascinating. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio as the grandchild of two self-proclaimed hillbillies from Kentucky. His childhood and adolescence were marked by domestic violence, a mother who struggled with addiction and a string of revolving stepfathers and boyfriends of his mom’s who were in and out of his life. However, he also writes about the fierce loyalty of his kin and the grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw) that essentially raised him and his sister. He eventually broke the cycle of poverty by joining the Marine Corps, followed by college at Ohio State University and then finally by Yale Law School.

The second part of the book is the “memoir of culture in crisis” and is the part that has been lauded by conservatives and liberals alike as providing an understanding of the white working class. This part of the book is also the part that has been criticized by conservatives and liberals alike. Depending on your political leanings you might either feel that Vance is blaming the poor for their own problems or that he is suggesting too much government intervention in society.

The more I think about the book I think that the genius of it (and also the weakness in it) is that it reflects the messiness of life: both in the personal and in culture. When Vance tell his own story he very openly attributes his success to the people he had in his life that were willing to fight for him: his Mamaw, Marine instructors, his sister, and even Amy Chua (yes, that Amy Chua). However, it also is obvious to any reader that not every kid in Appalachia who has a strong grandmother and loyal sister will end up at Yale Law School. It’s a mistake to read a memoir and try to apply the lessons directly to someone else. We all owe our success (or lack thereof) to a mix of innate talent, personality,  grit, the family that we are part of, location, luck, friends, mentors, timing.

Similarly, the problems of any particular culture are messy. Vance  portrays this with sympathy and honesty. He talks about friends from high school who choose not to work because they don’t want to get up early. He talks about how addiction can be both a disease but also how the addict has some personal responsibility for their choices. His arguments don’t easily fit into a political box, because the problems don’t fit neatly into the box. It’s a book that makes you think and that is definitely worth a read.

For further reading:
Some critical reviews:
 J. D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America by Sarah Jones in The New Republic 
Review in the Guardian by Hari Kunzru

And some positive ones:
The Lives of Poor White People by Joshua Rathman in the New Yorker
Janet at Across the Page

Interviews with Mr. Vance:
in the American Conservative with Rod Dreher
on Cleveland.com with Henry J. Gomez


Scenes from a Wetlands Walk





Seen: Two Great Blue Herons, Five or Six different kinds of turtles and too numerous to count Canada Geese. We also think we saw some Red Headed Woodpeckers but they were high in the trees and we didn’t really see the distinctive heads very well. We wouldn’t have even known to look but a very nice birder on the trail stopped us to point out the distinctive sound and to tell us that they had been spotted.

We’re still technically on break and not “doing” school until next week. However, on our walk in addition to looking at the birds we discussed prime numbers, Charles Lee and the duel in Hamilton, the nature of heaven (with Ruth after she asked me what I thought I would do the first time I saw God) and hibernation. There was also a lot of Narnia and Harry Potter discussion due to our recent and current read-alouds. When I got home this morning the boys were replicating Galileo’s famous gravity experiments by dropping objects off the stairs to see which landed first. This was because David had been reading about gravity in his Science Encyclopedia. Over break we’ve also had spontaneous discussions about iambic pentameter (thank you Incorrigible Children), mythology and even grammar.

I have no way of knowing if other families find themselves discussing math and grammar and gravity over breakfast. It seems normal to us. I suspect that homeschooling makes this more common because we are used to school and life all being one rather than in separate spheres. It’s one of the many advantages to learning as a family.


Cybils Finalists

cybils-logo-2016-round-lgThe Cybils finalists were announced on Jan 1st. I used to follow this annual award contest more closely. For several years I made an attempt to read as many of the fiction and non-fiction picture books as I could and I served as a non-fiction judge one year. Judging was super fun and I would love to do it again but I’m not sure I blog enough to qualify.

Even if we’re not reading as many picture books as we used to and I’m not blogging much about the chapter books we read, I still look forward to the finalists each year. The Cybils is unique among book awards in that the books are selected based on literary merit AND kid-appeal. I pretty much can always find excellent book choices for all three of my readers from the winners and finalists.

This year I’m especially excited about the new audiobooks category. We listen to a LOT of audiobooks (which probably is mostly a reflection of spending too much time in the car). I’m going to look for Out of Abaton and The Inquistor’s Tale: Or the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog in our library. Both look excellent. I think my fantasy loving 13 yr old will love Illuminae and it’s hard for me to find anything he hasn’t already read so I’m excited to give him something new to try.  I also put pretty much all the fiction picture books, non-fiction elementary books, and middle-grade graphic novels on hold. It’s like Christmas in January! If you have kids, check out the Cybils website and the lists of finalists (this year and past years). I guarantee that you will find something good.

Happy New Year!

dscn0037dscn0047Our annual tradition for the past 16 years has been a New Year Day walk with friends. This was the 14th walk (we had to cancel twice for bad weather). People have come and gone over the years, although the one family we began with all those years ago has been there with us every year. Back in 2002 when we began they had two kids and we had none. Now they have seven with the oldest in college and we have a teenager.

When we began the tradition we though of it as being a way to start the New Year off on the right foot (pun intended). I think we were thinking about the physical activity and exercise and the idea of how many resolutions revolve around being active. Over the years it’s evolved, like our families and lives. The walk is shorter to accomodate little kids and strollers. We usually do lunch afterward. This year it was before due to church in the morning. I still think it’s a fabulous way to begin a New Year but I think that what has really been the important part is the friends and fellowship. The walking is secondary.

2016 Read-Alouds

This year has been a year of change in the way we read-aloud. We are still reading but it’s gotten harder to be consistent with bedtime reads as the kids have gotten older and have more evening activities. For years, I have juggled more than one book at bedtime. Usually that meant one book for the youngest and one book for the two older boys. We also typically had a separate read-aloud going at lunchtime.

At some point this year we transitioned to only having one book to read at night. Overall, I think this has been a good thing. When we all read the same books together as a family it brings us together. We end up knowing the same jokes and get the same references. We can talk about the characters and muse about what will happen next. There aren’t a lot of things that a 13 year old boy and a 7 year old girl have in common. John and Ruth love each other (most of the time) but the fact is that a six year age gap means that there aren’t a lot of shared interests. Except for books.

I asked all three kids separately what their favorite books from the list were. Ruth said “The Doll People, Harry Potter and Narnia.” David said “The Doll People, Harry Potter and Narnia.” John said “A Pocketful of Murder, Harry Potter and Narnia”. For audiobooks they all three named the Gregor the Overlander series and the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Places series (for which we are anxiously awaiting the next one on hold at our library). The fact that they all had the same favorites reflects that books are really central to our family culture.

I may go back to reading some thing separately next year. There are books that I want to share with Ruth that I think the boys will be less interested in. There are books that I want to share with Ruth and David that John has already read. But it’s nice to have reached the sweet spot where there are plenty of books that all three kids can truly enjoy.

Read Alouds:
The South Pole Pig by Chris Kurt
The Mystery at Meerkat Hill by Alexander McCall Smith
Pocahantas by Joseph Bruhac
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
Mossflower by Brian Jacques
A Pocketful of Murder by R. J. Anderson
Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis
Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis
The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis
The Tolkien Letters by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Doll People by Ann M. Martin
The Meanest Doll in the World by Ann M. Martin
The Runaway Dolls by Ann M. Martin

The Doll People Set Sail by Ann M. Martin
Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliot
The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright
The Four Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright
Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright

Spiderweb for Two by Elizabeth Enright
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane by Suzanne Collins
Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods by Suzanne Collins
Gregor and the Marks of Secret by Suzanne Collins
Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Unseen Guest by Maryrose Wood
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Interrupted Tale by Maryrose Wood

2016 Books

Total Books Read in 2016: 67
Fiction Books Read in 2016:  52 (1 play, 2 graphic novels)
Non-Fiction Books Read in 2016: 15
Audiobooks in 2016: 5

When I look back over what I read at the end of the year I always have a hard time making lists like “top ten” or picking favorites. Instead, I often find myself looking over my lists and thinking about the books that I’ll remember the most from the year.

  1. What is the What by Dave Eggars
    Probably the most difficult and saddest book I read this year due to the material. But also probably one of the most grace-filled and ultimately hopeful. 
  2. My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
  3. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
    Strout and Tyler are both perfect at capturing the lives of ordinary people and making the reader see the extraordinary in those lives.
  4. The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal
    This story of a heart transplant told from the perspective of all the different participants (including the heart) is one of the more unusual books I’ve ever read.
  5. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
    Adult fantasy meets science fiction. I tend to think I don’t like either (although I loved fantasy as a kid). This might be the book that convinced me I was wrong. 
  6. American Born Chinese by Gene Yang and Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
    And these two reads early in 2016 convinced me that graphic novels are also one of those “things I don’t like” that I’m wrong about. 
  7. Chains trilogy by Laurie Halse Anderson
    We are totally immersed in all things Revolutionary in our homeschool. I read the first of this young adult trilogy along with my oldest as an assigned school book and then loved it so much I had to read the other two. Really excellent. 
  8. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
  9. Patient H. M. : A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
    Both of these medical books were memorable for different reasons. Kalanithi’s memoir of dying is sad and beautiful and should probably be required reading for all doctors. Patient H. M is an incredible story of a real-life man who suffered complete short-term memory loss after a lobotomy and then became the basis for most of what we know about memory today. The fact that the author is the grandson of the surgeon who performed the lobotomy made the book even more memorable. 
  10. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
    Reading this book during this election season was almost surreal. The story of Bonhoeffer itself is unforgettable but made even more so juxtaposed against current politics.

My full list of books read in 2016 is here for those interested.

If you like checking out lists of books (and adding to your own TBR list) be sure to check out Semicolon’s special year-end Review of Books.

And more Christmas Books…

 Susan Jeffers’s The Twelve Days of Christmas is pretty much exactly what you would expect and that’s a good thing. The text is mostly just the familiar song. The illustrations are the lush colorful paintings typical of Jeffers complete with plenty of glitter. Jeffers adds a bit of a story to the carol, told mainly through the illustrations and a little bit of added text. A girl named Emma breaks her snow globe and is transported to a magical land by Santa. If you have a girl who enjoys other Jeffers books, she will likely be delighted by this one as well.

We love the Duck books by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. This Christmas edition is just as fun and goofy. Duck as usual is up to his old tricks and manages to get all the animals stuck in Farmer Brown’s chimney. Luckily there is someone coming who can save the day!

Our Christmas book basket has become our favorite Advent tradition. (As I might have mentioned once or twice or a hundred times.) Some days we read funny books (like Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! )Some days we read beautifully illustrated books. Some days we read books with favorite characters. Some days we read books that make me cry.  Some days we read books that remind us all of the real reason for Advent.

So far what has been the most memorable book of the season is one that is none of those things. In fact, it is memorable mainly for being so bizarre that we all couldn’t stop laughing from the sheer weirdness of it. Christmas at the Toy Museum by David Lucas is just weird. The story is basically that the toys have no presents to unwrap so they decide to wrap themselves. Then they take turns unwrapping each other and being excited. Alert readers may have discovered the problem with this plan. What does the last toy that gets unwrapped have to unwrap? Perhaps it’s enough to say that my 13 year old loved this book because of it’s so awesomely stupid (his words) and couldn’t wait for me to blog about it. I’ll leave it at that.

New (to us) Christmas Basket Books

18342011A few of the new-to-us books in our Advent Book Basket this year. Kate Westerlund’s The Message of the Birds is a sweet simple story about the birds of the world spreading the message of Christmas to the children of the world. It bothered me a bit that the message of Christmas becomes distilled down to Peace on Earth. That is part of the message but not the whole message. I don’t mind secular Christmas books but ones that are a watered down version of the real story do bother me. The illustrations by Feridun Oral are beautiful, especially if you like birds. My kids also really liked the last page that featured a word cloud of the word Peace in many different languages. We’ve been to several Christmas events this Advent season with different languages featured which has stirred   a general interest/awareness of languages in the kids and this was a nice addition to that.

Maple and Willow’s Christmas Tree
 is the newest addition to the Lori Nichols’s Maple and Willow series about two young sisters. I really like this series because I think is a perfect example of what has become rare in children’s fiction: simple non-quirky, non-snarky stories about real kids.  This Christmas addition is just as sweet as the other books. The girls are thrilled to get their first REAL Christmas tree but then it turns out Maple is allergic to the tree. They figure out a way to make Christmas special. Another thing I like about this series is that Lori Nichols gets the relationship between sisters perfectly. It’s sweet but not unrealistically sugary sweet. My favorite dialogue: “I’m sorry for ruining Christmas”. (Maple)  “I’m sorry you ruined Christmas too.” (Willow). As the parent of three kids, I could completely hear that being said in our house by siblings that love each other (most of the time).

24904391The Reindeer Wish is another book that is part of a series, although we hadn’t read the others. The story is by Lori Evert and features breathtaking photographs by her husband Per  Breiehagen of their daughter Anja. The story is fairly predictable: Anja discovers a baby reindeer and raises it but then must one day realizes he would be happier living with other reindeer. So she delivers him to Santa to live and work with Santa’s sled team. The photographs are amazingly beautiful though and will make even the most snow-hating person want to move to a Nordic country to live.


17349000Another book that we enjoyed more for the illustrations than the story was Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno (illustrations by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer) . That is probably due more to my kids ages than the book itself. This was a straight-forward telling of the familiar story of the Three Bears but with Santa Claus instead of Goldilocks. The illustrations are fun with lots of details. Recommended for families with preschoolers as fun Christmas reading.

Advent Art


One of the (many) good things about having three kids is that I can repeat projects and activities I did with the oldest years ago and they are new to the youngest member of the family.  We’ve done this Advent art project twice before and it’s become one of my favorites. It’s super simple, allows for some open ended creativity and makes a pretty finished product.

First, you take old crayons and shave them. You can do this with a crayon sharpener. We’ve also used a vegetable peeler with good results. Then you cut out a shape using white paper. The first two times we did this I had the kids first draw a simple picture on the paper and then cut around it. However, I realized that the picture gets kind of lost in the end so we skipped that step this time. Next, you place the shape you have cut out on a piece of wax paper that is bigger than the shape. Then sprinkle crayons over the paper. I don’t give a lot of instructions at this point, other than to point out that large clumps of crayon will likely turn brown in the end.


The next step is the most fun. Place a second sheet of wax paper over top of the white paper and crayons. Then apply heat with the iron. It does not take a lot of heat to melt the crayons and have the two pieces of wax paper seal together so watch the kids carefully at this step. Finally, cut around your white paper shape , leaving a border of wax paper.




They end up looking pretty in a window. It was a fairly grey and rainy day when we did these but they look especially nice in the sun. We also experimented this year with leaving out the white paper and just dropping crayon shavings between two pieces of wax paper. I liked the way that turned out as well. We ran out of time but I think if we do this again I would experiment more with that method.

With art projects for kids there is often a struggle between process and product. A lot of adults will talk about being more “process driven” and I agree that the value in doing art with kids is often more in the doing itself than in having a perfect finished product. But I also find that my kids like product. One of my kids in particular worries more about having the finished product look “right” even when I purposefully talk about their being no “right” answer in art.  One of the things I like about this project is that it’s so obviously open-ended and loosey-goosey that even a perfectionist kid can have fun just playing around and seeing what you end up with.

The last two times we did this:
In 2012 with a 3, 6 and 9 year old
In 2009 with a 3 year old and 6 year old