Books I have read

10 Books, Movies That Explore The American Experience

Over the past month or so,  I’ve read — or watched — a wide range of material exploring the American Way.

Here are 10 works I recommend:

1. Glass House by Brian Alexander: I learned about this book from What’s Nonfiction (read review here) and was several pages into the book before I realized that I’ve been to Lancaster, Ohio multiple times in the past year (the story’s setting). It is the town where I dine after a day of hiking at Hocking Hills. Although the financial aspect of the book is too complicated for my tastes, the societal implications of the economic downturn hits close to home. The book deals with the heroin epidemic and the town leaders inability to solve their economic depravity. The obsession of Lancaster’s leaders with poorly thought out solutions (like festivals and tourism) for their economic demise felt very familiar.

2. Dream Land: This is an excellent book to better understand how states like Ohio became an easy target for the heroin trade. Dealers, mostly from small, rural regions of Mexico, swooped in and profited off the consumer base created through opioid prescriptions. The lack of violence in Ohio (and other states east of the Mississippi River) is by design as customer service and a pizza-delivery style approach — plus a keen awareness of law enforcement’s desire for ‘big busts’ — kept the heroin market thriving.

3. Don’t Let Your Kids Kill You: A manual of sorts for parents who have children dealing with drug addiction. The book offers insight into the signs and problems of addictions while offering methods on maintaining a high quality of life for the non-addicted.

4. Tears We Cannot Stop: Sermon to White America. Black minister Michael E. Dyson touches on everything from Black Lives Matters to the hypocrisy of the Tea Party, which he astutely notes, read, on the House floor, a modified version of the Constitution (avoiding the article about slaves being 3/5ths human) when they came to power in 2010. The book offers a strongly argued viewpoint that’s America’s ‘whiteness’ is part of our problem in the current era.

5. The Complacent Class by Tyler Cowen: Several books have addressed the issue of how American communities are becoming more segregated by class and income in addition to race. But this book also looks at the impact this segregation is having on politics and our democracy. The lack of mobility of the current generation has left us economically and politically vulnerable, the author asserts.


6. Warning: This Drug Can Kill You: In this hour-long HBO Documentary you meet several families from across the country dealing with various degrees of the heroin epidemic. The movie begins with 1990s footage of a pharmaceutical company falsely claiming that opioids are non-addictive. The movie ends with a law enforcement agency that, in lieu of criminalization, have an open door policy to place willing heroin addicts into rehab centers. Very powerful stories from ‘real’ people dealing with the fallout of an epidemic created by an under-regulated industry.

7. Friends of God: Filmed in 2006 by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the slant is obvious. The story is interesting as she criss-crosses the country highlighting churches and church signs while interviewing powerful ministers. Although not the goal of the film, it does show the mindset (Vote your Values) that willingly voted for president Trump and why they are doubling-down despite his less than Christian tactics.

8. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Although the film was a little disappointing since the story is quite powerful, it is still a quick way to learn about the rise of the bio-medical industry. Cells extracted from Henrietta Lacks, without her consent, have resulted in cures, cutting-edge medicines and billions of dollars in profit. Lacks, a poor, black woman was never compensated for — what amounts to legalized theft of — her cells. And, as the film points out, it is still legal to extract cells from a patient without their consent.

9. I Am Not Your Negro: Based on a unfinished project by black novelist James Baldwin, the film is mostly a look at America’s hypocritical whiteness. Although there is plenty to comment on about the film, one of the most powerful effects for me was how they zoomed in on historical photos of school integration. By zooming past the black teen or child heading to school and highlighting the expressions on the faces of white children, teens and adults, it is very disheartening to realize those same intense expressions of hate exist today, more than 50 years later.

10. All The Way: This is another HBO film, and it is about LBJ’s campaign for the presidency. LBJ was renown for his crudeness, which the film includes, but the movie is really an excellent condensed version of 1964 — LBJ’s first full year as president. It shows how, even then, politicians were more concerned about wielding power than democracy. Be forewarned, for those tired of the current political debacle, it will not be pleasant film, and it may reinforce budding cynicism.

Categories: American History, Books I have read, movies

‘Orphan Train Rider’ A Great Short Nonfiction Read

orphan-train-riderIf you are looking for a short read (about an hour) on a subject you likely have not heard about — read Orphan Train Rider by Andrea Warren.

The book covers the life of Lee Nailling who rode the train from New York to the ‘West’ (the Midwest) with two of his brothers — after their mother died. The story tells what happened to each of the boys as well as the siblings that were not considered orphans.

Included in the book are data and stats about orphans and how children were generally treated up through the 1920s. For example, in the 1850s, a 7-year-old child could be tried as an adult. This meant that some orphans, like those who had committed petty theft — often to eat, were jailed with adults.

Orphan trains ran in the United States beginning in 1854 and the last one departed in 1930. More than 200,000 children were sent to find new homes this way. It represented the largest migration of children in our history.


Categories: American History, Books I have read

New York Times Bestseller, ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ Mentions My Hometown, Describes Region’s Poverty

My father, far right, with his brothers in Cumberland County, Ky.

My father, far right (holding infant), with his brothers in Cumberland County, Ky.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is described as one to read to understand the Trump win but, I was drawn to the book for a different reason.

I happened upon a TED Talk by the book’s author, J.D. Vance, about a year ago (The struggles of America’s forgotten working class) and when Vance mentioned he was from Middletown — located about 30 miles south of my home — I decided to read his book. Upon reading it, I discovered that as a grade school student he lived in Preble County (where I live) for a short time.

When I was about nine years old things began to unravel at home. Tired of Papaw’s presence and Mamaw’s constant ‘interference’ Mom and Bob decided to move to Preble County, a sparsely populated piece of Ohio farm country approximately thirty-five miles from Middletown.

The ‘experiment’ in Preble County ends, he says, when his mother overdoses and Vance returns to his grandparents’ home in Middletown.

Shared Lineage

The book has garnered good and negative reviews — and some reviews raise legitimate questions, but as a resident of the region with a similar background, I can relate with much of the story he tells, even if his characters are significantly more colorful than the ones I know. (The volume and type of cursing that exists in the book starkly contrasts with the language I heard growing up, even from the ‘unsaved,’ in my lineage.)

Vance’s lineage is from Jackson, Kentucky, mine is from Cumberland and Clinton County, Kentucky.

His tale is about a hardworking, tenacious and, quite often, self-destructing culture. As Vance unveils a landscape of poor, unrepresented Americans we see a group that does not escape its impoverished past. In southwest Ohio, where much of the story takes place, Kentuckians migrated here during the 1950s-1970s because union jobs offered a better standard of living. The company Vance’s grandfather worked for — AK Steel — actively recruited working-age men from Jackson County and the surrounding area, Vance reports.

By the time Vance is raised, though, the livable wage jobs are mostly gone as unions lost their foothold.

Dysfunction and Hard Times

So, the book is a tell-all about his dysfunctional family and the economic hardship they faced. The story is real and relatable since many people still live that way here.

My qualm with the book is the heavy-handed advise sprinkled throughout, that quite frankly, will not work. He is writing to ‘his people’ telling them government policies won’t change their situation, only they can. As the Jacobin review points out Vance overlooks the reality that systems already in place had, in many ways, locked this demographic into perpetual poverty. As Bob Hutton writes,

It’s a somewhat eccentric but fairly harmless idea. But at no point does Vance suggest that Kentucky and Ohio residents might benefit from higher wages, better health care, or a renewed labor movement… Hillbilly Elegy is misnamed. Elegies are poems dedicated to the dead. The American hillbilly isn’t dead; he’s just poor. The book should have been titled Hillbilly Reprimand, because Vance doesn’t want to mourn the hillbilly — he wants to make him a good worker.

What Is Versus What Could Be

I agree with Hutton. More than 200 years of history has proven this demographic has not found a way to achieve the American Dream. On the whole very few escape the poverty. Their communities have been filled, as Vance points out, with hardcore drug problems, addictions that are nearly impossible to shed (like meth and heroin), something he indirectly proves through the reoccurring theme of his mother’s failures and drug abuse.

As I am seeing in my own community, drug abuse will not resolve itself. It requires government intervention. As I write, in today’s local paper, out of the 21 indictments handed down by the Grand Jury in January, 15 were drug-related. We are a county of 40,000 residents.

‘Hillbillies’ also have few economic opportunities because their job options are often fast food or retail, so even those ‘hard-working’ individuals with multiple jobs will not achieve any upward mobility on those salaries. One 50-something man I recently met from the Middletown area, who had taken on seasonal work, noted that with his new job he was now working about 90 hours a week. Another woman I met stated the temporary job was her third source of income. They were doing their part — working hard — but they were hardly ‘living the dream.’

The real underlying story in Vance’s memoir is he was lucky to make it out. And it is his escape, that points to the real solution. He openly admits the upper echelon of our society have a different set of mores and values and, to become successful, Vance embodies them.

Brain Drain

His story also reveals he is the exception, not the rule. Vance follows the tried-and-true method of upper mobility for most Appalachians. He leaves the region. In his case, he goes to the Silicon Valley where more economic opportunities exist. Most of ‘his people’ do not have that option. They will not become a Yale-educated attorney. Instead, their life and economic choices are significantly more bleak and they will be exploited by the existing economic conditions in their communities.

And, because of their poverty, many will die prematurely.

Rated 4 out of 5: In spite of his ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality, the book does provide a peak inside the mores and values of some Appalachian working poor.

Categories: Appalachia, Books I have read