(Hey, look at this! I’m blogging!)

So I finished Hillbilly Elegy today.

I figured I should read it, as my beloved wife is a native of Middletown, OH and a good hunk of her family still lives there. I have a few thoughts.

In many ways, this is an inspiring narrative, and one that resonates with me, though – and I want to make this absolutely clear – I am not from a broken home. Indeed, for whatever issues I have had with my family (and it would be intellectually and morally dishonest to say that we have not had issues), I am forever grateful that my home life was so stable. It really does make a difference. We may have been rural, but my parents would never let us be “rednecks.” This is one of the reasons I so often ask why it is necessary to conflate the two, and why so many people (both within and without the rural community) encourage such conflating.

But, as is said in Revelation, I have a few things against thee, JD Vance.

First of all, I don’t entirely agree with your characterization of several sections of Middletown. This is a minor point, but there is more going on than you state. Downtown, for example, has some neat things underway, even if it’s not there yet. I am willing to attribute this to two things. A) We have a tendency – and clearly I am guilty of this – to either overromanticize our hometowns or exaggerate the perceived awfulness, and; B) It sounds like you haven’t been back in a few years. Completely understandable, and I am willing to concede this particular point to these two ideas.

My second point consists of a sharper criticism, one that I believe is linked to Mr. Vance’s current situation. Mr. Vance rightfully points out several flaws with the culture that produced him, and indeed you must change the culture to change the situation for the greatest number of people. But apart from some perfunctory slaps on the wrist, Mr. Vance is almost completely unwilling to assign any of the blame to corporate and financial practices that contribute to the problems. There was a telling moment when he describes working for former Ohio state senator Bob Schuler, who was opposed to further payday lending regulations. Vance says that these predatory loan places were the only place people from his background could go to get financial assistance, and that if more people from his background were part of the system, governments would not be so quick to impose further regulations on these institutions.

As Joe Biden might say, that’s malarkey. There are other ways to get assistance without having to resort to near-usury.

Keep in mind that, no matter Vance’s beginnings (and it is an inspiring narrative), he cut his legislative teeth working for a state senator determined to protect predatory lenders, and he is currently the principal for a major financial firm in the Bay Area, one which is founded by Peter Thiel. I am not so blind as to not understand the importance of both capital and the ability to move capital in our current system (indeed, it is why I cannot endorse the idea of wholesale destruction of the financial sector), but Vance is not exactly a disinterested party. By shifting the blame away from financial policies that could have mitigated the situation, and from corporations and investors that intentionally drained money from communities, Vance is able to maximize his otherwise just criticism of his native culture while signaling that he is – to use a phrase that I have heard many times in different circumstances – “one of the good ones.”

This same idea permeates my third criticism, that he is too dismissive of the social contract. Throughout the work, there is almost no mention of the role of government and political structures in assistance, except to say that Child Protective Services is often viewed by Appalachian culture as “the enemy.” There are moments of criticism for the government programs that provided assistance, but – in keeping in line with someone published regularly in Bill Buckley’s National Review – the ideology of the book is rooted in encouraging bootstrap-pulling among those who are bootless.

I am not completely against the book. Vance has clearly overcome many obstacles, and he makes a compelling argument for transcending one’s limitations and beginnings. He does, to his credit, consider arguments from all over the political spectrum, and is as quick to blame conservative fake news as he is liberal snootiness. I just wish he wasn’t so determined to maintain the Horatio Alger narrative, as it doesn’t tell the full story and in some cases deliberately shifts blame. I would still recommend it, approving quotes from David Brooks and all, because unlike other conservative writers, Vance is at least trying to figure it out.

(This review, by Alex MacGillis in The Atlantic, hits on similar points.)

I have just finished John Lewis Gaddis’ George F. Kennan: An American Life. Normally, when the cover blurb is a glowing review by noted war criminal Henry Kissinger, I write off the book immediately. However, Kennan was a giant in the field of foreign relations, and his history is the history of the Cold War. Gaddis is a biographer of the highest caliber, and the prose jumps at the reader. In this, the book represents its subject well, as Kennan was well known for his pungent writing.

What I took away from all this is that Kennan (who was the half brother of the composer Kent Kennan, he of Counterpoint text fame) succeeded as a diplomat and planner because he recognized early on that nations were more than just governments. Kennan read Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Chekhov; the latter had a tremendous influence on him outside of diplomacy as well. Because he understood Russian culture and heritage, he was able to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union some 40 years before it happened. Kennan saw the diplomatic corps, politicians, and military leaders miss opportunities to solve many of the problems of the Cold War before they even started, and in a peaceful manner.

Kennan was also a human being with all the foibles thereof. He could be bullheaded and was prone to bouts of serious depression. He often took diplomatic and professional setbacks personally, and when he missed something, he missed it big. In this, he was very much like the great writers he loved as well. When out of government service (and sometimes while in), he worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, producing historical scholarship and interacting with some of the greatest minds in human experience.

Gaddis knows his subject and his times backwards and forwards, and is also known as a historian of the Cold War, so it makes sense that this book is put together well. He had the full participation and approval of George and Annelise Kennan before they died, and spent decades with both of them to get the material. If this is an era of interest to you, get this book.


Following the suggestion of my friend Neil Laferty, I purchased Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.


The book is a collection of speeches, interviews, essays, etc. on various aspects of space exploration: why we did it, why we should keep doing it, what problems we have doing it, and the like. It reads well – Tyson never uses science jargon as a way of keeping the hoi polloi at the gates, and even a non-scientist like me could understand the concepts. He looks at all the arguments with a sympathetic eye, while simultaneously maintaining a healthy scientific skepticism. This is no mean feat, and he nails it.

Make sure you read the appendices, which include the legislation creating NASA and other bits of space-related legislation as well as budget comparisons and data for space exploration.


I just finished A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically, in which the author asks, “What if someone really did try to take the Bible’s guidelines on living as literally as possible for one year?”

If you know me, you know that I grew up in a very conservative religion. While we didn’t follow the dietary and fabric guidelines literally, we did believe in a traditionalist/Restoration movement interpretation. Salvation was real and necessary, and there was only one path to it. I know from my Bible. (Common phrase amongst my people: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”) This approach was a little different. Jacobs tried the theological things (prayer, study, gathering with like-minded individuals), but most of the book centers on following the behavior codes with regard to food, clothing, and interaction. Over the course of the book, he develops an appreciation for certain aspects of a religious life, such as taking time out to be thankful, taking one day to rest, but in the end he opts to return to his secular life, albeit with a greater understanding.

It’s a good read, though if you’re not ready for discussions of priestly minutiae it might throw you off. I did enjoy that the author became less of an egoist over the course of the book; all of us, most of all me, could benefit from such a transformation.

Up next, when I finish it: Courtesy of Mike Berry, S. A. Paolantonio’s Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America.

Whatcha reading?


I finally finished the Milan Kundera books we have and turned my attention to a new book – The Postmortal by Drew Magary.

In the not-too-distant future, a scientist discovers a way to stop the aging process. From there, it gets weird.

I blazed through the book in two days – partially because it reads quickly (as befitting a blogger – Magary writes for Deadspin and Kissing Suzy Kolber) and partially because I didn’t want to put it down. The book spends some cursory time reflecting on the Big Issues of potential immortality, but is mostly a character study in how humanity – individually and collectively – reacts, evolves, and devolves. Sometimes the story drags, especially in the middle, but on the whole this is a wicked little text. There were moments I was genuinely skeeved out by how certain people reacted to being frozen in age, which to me is a testament to Magary’s imagination and talent.

I recommend this book. Magary can do more than the fart and boob jokes that populate KSK (though I do love those as well), and The Postmortal is proof of that.

Whatcha reading?


Once again, I prove my commitment to my plan to read more fiction by reading non-fiction.

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. Fascinating man, Einstein…and just as subject to human foibles (lust, anger, resistance to change) as the rest of us. He completely shattered the realm of physics with Relativity, then spent the rest of his life trying to combine Relativity and Quantum Mechanics (a theory for which he held little regard, at least at the beginning). The story reminds me of the poem “Ten Mills” by Robert Frost:

I never dared to be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.

I recommend this book. The physics are tolerable (i.e., you don’t have to have a degree in the stuff) and the story is interesting.


I just finished a wonderful book of essays by Nicholson Baker, The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber. The man has a gift for thinking about and understanding language. I know I won’t look at the language – or lumber – the same way again. Sometimes the stream-of-consciousness gets a little old if you hear it out loud, but on the page it dances.

Not well-known fact about Nicholson Baker: He attended the Eastman School of Music for a time. What his major was, I do not know.

Whatcha reading?


I just finished a remarkable novel – Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, as translated by Alison Anderson. Simultaneously postmodern and a manifesto against empty postmodernism, the book examines the lives of Renée, a 50-something concierge at a Parisian apartment building and Paloma, the nearly 13-year-old daughter of one of the tenants. Renée is more intelligent and cultured than the tenants suspect, though she goes to great lengths to hide this. Paloma feels that she can’t handle the ordinariness of her life and decides that on her 13th birthday, she is going to do something drastic. An older Japanese man who moves in to a recently vacated apartment both reaffirms and upends their beliefs about culture and beauty.

Few books go to the heart of the human condition so effectively. It’s not without flaws (Paloma loves the aphorism, and her thoughts are skewed accordingly), but it is absolutely worth reading.


This week’s installment of Whatcha reading? features the theme of place. Both books are inexorably tied up with the idea of location.

Fiction: Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections. One of the most well-received works of the early 21st century, this work examines the Lambert family (elderly parents Al and Enid, grown children Gary, Chip and Denise) and Enid’s attempt to get the entire family back to the Midwestern city of St. Jude for one last Christmas before Al’s medical condition deteriorates further. Each of the three children has fled St. Jude for various reasons, and no one feels particularly compelled to return unless absolutely necessary. I can see why this book has been so positively reviewed – it’s a heckuva good book.

Nonfiction: Fred Hobson, The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World. These are adaptations of Hobson’s Lamar Memorial Lectures at Mercer University (just down the road in Macon, GA). Hobson takes up the discussion of Southern literature post-Faulkner with analyses of Bobbie Ann Mason, Ernest Gaines, Richard Ford and many others. Among his more interesting conclusions: The most likely heir to the Southern Agrarians – many of whom were not just pro-segregation but avowedly racist – is the African-American author Ernest Gaines. If you’re interested in Southern literature, I highly recommend it.


This might end up being a weekly feature as well, at least during the summer months.

Now that the diss is in the can, I find myself able to read for my own edification/amusement much more. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share what’s been on my bookshelf in the past few weeks.

Scholarly: Schoenberg’s Musical Imagination by Michael Cherlin. I’ll have more on this in an upcoming Theory Thursday.

Nonfiction: Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 by Harold Holzer. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a big antebellum history and Civil War buff. (I joke that I should be a Whig, as I’m in favor of the tariff and internal improvements.) This book examines in more detail the Cabinet-building that Doris Kearns Goodwin explored in Team of Rivals, and also explores how he had to balance what people were expecting him to do versus the fact that he had no real power until March 4. It’s a solid tome, and if you enjoy this period in history I’d say it’s indispensable.

Fiction: Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. It’s frightening how relevant this book still is. At least it ends with a quiet rebellion against the forces of conformity and small-mindedness.

So…whatcha reading?