Beartown, Hillbilly Elegy, and The Sun Is Also a Star

Happy Mother’s Day to all those out there. I haven’t posted in awhile because it took me some time to get through the novel “Beartown” and I’ve been busy with the yard and getting ready for a three-day bicycle trip next weekend. It’s the annual Golden Triangle bike ride that about 400 cyclists do every Canadian May long weekend. We are hoping for good weather but you never know until it gets here. I will report back on it, until then I will leave you with a few reviews of what I finished lately.

It’s true I like an occasional sports novel. I’ve read Chad Harbach’s baseball novel “The Art of Fielding,” John Grisham’s football novel “Playing for Pizza,” and Chris Cleave’s bike racing novel “Gold” among others — so with the hockey playoffs going on, I was game for Fredrik Backman’s novel “Beartown,” which is about a small depressed community, set deep within a forest, whose junior ice hockey team means about everything to the people who live there. Molded by years of endless practice and coaching, the team has a real shot at the country’s championship — that is until a crime takes place involving its 17-year-old star player and the 15-year-old daughter of its general manager, which changes things in the community forever.

It’s an alluring premise and setting, and the novel skips around in snippets among a lively cast of quite a few characters that includes players, coaches, parents, the GM’s family, the town’s bar owner and others. Of these, I liked the young immigrant boy, Amat, who is small but very fast on skates and is trying to make the team. A lot rests on him and what he knows in the aftermath of the crime.

This was my first book by the Swedish author — who also wrote the bestseller “The Man Called Ove.” His novels seem to border on popular fiction, which is okay if it moves along accordingly. He definitely seems to know his hockey, which there is quite a bit of in this story. My only trouble was that the first half of the novel seemed rather repetitive about how important hockey and the team meant to the dying town — there’s quite a bit of backstory that takes awhile to get where it’s going — and while the novel’s second half moves better with the crime and aftermath, I found it was a bit heavy-handed and lacking in subtly. There’s an occasional voiceover narration — in addition to those of the characters’ — that seems to drum its message into you. I guess I didn’t care for that, or being molded about how to feel about the situation — let us decide for ourselves.

Still judging by all the raves on Goodreads, I’m in the minority on this one, giving it three stars, which to me means I liked it okay but didn’t overly love it.  Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an e-copy of the book to review.

Next up, I listened to the audiobook of J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” which the author does a fine job of reading. It came out last June, and I feel like I might be one of the last bloggers to get to it. It’s been that popular! I had no idea, really, but the book’s sales sure took off amid the pre- and post-election hoopla, despite not being about politics or even mentioning Trump. Nor did I know the author was just 31 when it came out last year — it’s a memoir by a young person one could say.

As many know it’s about the author and his family’s life growing up poor in the Rust Belt — first in Kentucky’s Appalachia region then in Ohio, where his grandparents moved hoping to escape the poverty. J.D. chronicles how he was raised along with his sister mostly by his grandparents since his parents divorced — his dad moved away and his mother struggled with addiction problems and a trove of men and unsuccessful relationships.

To say his family life was chaotic would be putting it mildly. But luckily for him, his tough, gun-toting grandmother provided the stability and guidance he needed to get through high school. She is quite a character, who was not to be messed with. A couple years in the Marines also gave him discipline and structure and he went on to attend Ohio State University and thereafter Yale Law School and a high-paying job.

It’s quite a rise and the book chronicles his life’s changes in details that make for an interesting read. I admire how J.D. overcame so much (especially dealing with his mother) to get his education and job and make his life better. His genuineness in the book and the audio’s narration come through, and he tells it in a way that is straightforward and pretty humble. It’s mostly a memoir but also talks about the white working-class; he seems to love his hillbilly family and neighbors but is also critical of them.

Perhaps one of my takeaways of the book is that it takes a village or a support system to raise a child, especially when you don’t have reliable parents (surprisingly this sounds like Hillary). He credits his grandparents, sister, and mentors along the way for helping him. That seems key. I also like how he talks about taking personal responsibility and not always blaming others or the government for one’s place.

Apparently J.D.’s a conservative Republican who didn’t vote for Trump or Clinton, but someone else. But I’d be surprised from what I read in the book if he fully sees eye to eye with Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, are you kidding me? Does he? I didn’t find the book abundantly political — and I may not agree with everything in it — but I thought it was thought-provoking, and I’ll be curious to see where the author’s thoughts and life take him from here.

Lastly in fiction, I also listened to the audiobook of Nicola Yoon’s young-adult novel “The Sun Is Also a Star,” which is about a teenage girl (Natasha) in New York, who along with her family faces deportation to Jamaica in 12 hours, and a first generation Korean American boy (Daniel) who is being pushed by his parents to attend a college and career path he doesn’t want. Daniel and Natasha fatefully meet, and over the course of a long day, traipsing around the city trying to solve their problems, fall for one another, while their personal histories and those of their families unfold.

I thought there were a lot of excellent things about this story: the dialogue and details with which Yoon writes about teenage life and love seem pretty authentic and she knows a lot about the magic of love and how to write about it. The families and perspectives also seemed fairly realistic, though they came off a bit stereotypical. It’s a timely premise with today’s climate of increasing deportations, and the anxiety in it seemed palpable. I actually liked this book of Yoon’s better than her first bestselling novel “Everything, Everything,” which is coming out as a movie this month.

Though I might be too jaded to fully believe that two people can fall in love with one another in 12 hours. When I pick up a YA book, I often feel like I’m the wrong audience for the genre as the whole melodrama of the teenage experience isn’t often my cup of tea. So it’s usually me and not the book to blame. A few parts of this novel got a bit cheesy to me, and other parts I thought included an overabundance of cursing by the boy Daniel. Still I’m glad I finished it, and I think Yoon has a lot of talent writing YA fiction if she doesn’t go too overboard. I like her optimism and the spirit of love in her stories.

As for TV shows we’ve been watching, we finished Season 6 of “Homeland,” which ends with the president-elect pretty much going bonkers with retribution and cutting civil liberties. Hmm, is anyone paying attention? Now we’re into the TV series of “The Handmaid’s Tale” — based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood in which a totalitarian and Christian fundamentalist government rules the former United States amidst an ongoing civil war — where society is organized with classes of women being brutally subjugated.

Oh my it’s grim, bleak stuff! After three episodes, my husband has declared it darker than Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Still it’s hard to turn away from and there is hope for the resistance. Filmed around Ontario, Canada, the series apparently has been renewed for a second season to premiere in 2018. Viva the resistance!

What about you have you seen these shows, or read any of these books, and if so, what did you think?

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26 Responses to Beartown, Hillbilly Elegy, and The Sun Is Also a Star

  1. Brian Joseph says:

    I have not read Hillbilly Eulogy. I do want to read it. It seems like an important book.

    I love the novel The Handmaid’s Tale and I thought that the original film was brilliant. I have not watched the new series. It looks great in a terrible way. I will likely do so eventually. However, I do not know if I can take that much darkness week after week after week.

    • Susan Wright says:

      I agree Brian: the TV series is a dark show to watch week after week. We will see if we can hang with it. The Hillbilly book seems worth checking out.

  2. I thought Hillbilly Elegy was terrific – it helped me understand my sister-in-law and her family.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Yeah Kathy: the memoir reminded me of a friend too and her life. I thought the audio by him was well done.

  3. Hillbilly Elegy is the story of many people I know around here in Texas, too. I wish it had been written by an older, more accomplished writer, honestly, but it certainly is a powerful story.

  4. I did enjoy Hillbilly Elegy, and afterwards bought White Trash, another recommendation for trying to understand the stunning events in our current world.

    I didn’t get very far into White Trash, though, as it reminded me of my sociology textbooks from back in the day, and I am not ready for a reread. Maybe at some point.

    I liked A Man Called Ove, and was leaning toward Beartown…and even though hockey is one of the sports I don’t mind watching (or playing, back in the day), I don’t like repetitive books…or voiceovers telling me how to feel. LOL.

    I just finished Episode 6 of The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’m glued to the screen while watching. I have my fingers crossed that you-know-who is impeached before he turns our life here into something resembling the landscape in this book (and show).

    Enjoy your week, and here are MY WEEKLY UPDATES

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Laurel, thx for your comments. Not sure if I know about the book White Trash but I will look at it. Beartown was so-so for me — some good, some bad. We finished #4 of Handmaid’s and it’s a bit hard to turn away. I too am worried about the U.S. landscape these days.

  5. Carmen says:

    I’m intrigued by the series The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know what it is about because I haven’t read the book yet–perhaps next year I will–, but I don’t want to know much to prevent me from taking in the whole experience. I’m salivating over, waiting for Season 6 of Homeland to come out digitally. I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m curious to see what happened to Quinn; I was pretty sure he was dead when Season 5 ended. I haven’t heard anything about Season 6 in the entertainment news, so I thought the series had dropped the ball regarding its production value. Apparently not.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Carmen, I’m glad you are a Homeland fan. Me too! Some people have liked the last couple seasons less than the first few seasons, but I still find the show addicting. I won’t say what happens in #6, but it’s worth getting! I think you will also like this series of The Handmaid’s Tale; I haven’t read it yet, but find it compelling.

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    As you know, I was glad I read Hillbilly Elegy. It gave me a lot to think about.
    I have not read any YA in a while and was thinking lately that I would like to. I am taking your review of The Sun Is Also a Star as a recommendation.
    I read The Handmaid’s Tale in 2000. I am a huge Atwood fan. Somehow I will figure out how to watch the adaptation. Since I don’t have a TV connection, that is always a challenge. But yes, bleak indeed.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Yeah Judy, I reread your Hillbilly review; I don’t see Trump helping those of the white working class who voted for him: with the tax code or the healthcare plan or education etc. Hmm. YA is a bit tough for me to get through but I try every once in awhile; I like children’s classics though! Maybe you can watch the Atwood show on the internet via Hulu.com. Get a free 30 day trial, watch the series & then cancel, hmm. We get it thru Bravo on TV in Canada.

  7. Hillbilly Elegy was nowhere near as political as expected, but I enjoyed it. Strangely, I finished reading it on Election Day. I was surprised to find the author on an ABC news panel that night. He’s very well spoken.

    Have not read Fredrick Backman yet, but A Man Called Ove has been on my kindle for ages.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi JoAnn, that’s wild you finished the Hillbilly book on Election Day; apparently we have that voting bloc to blame, hmm. But I was glad I read the book. I admired the guy for overcoming what he did. I know a friend who’s struggled like that. I’m not sure I need to read Backman again, though I could read Ove sometime. His writing is pretty light.

  8. I also listened to the audiobook of Hillbilly Elegy and thought it was very thought-provoking. It’s such a foreign culture to me and I think it helped me to understand and maybe sympathize a bit more with people from that neck of the woods. I do think it was helpful in [indirectly] explaining why so many people voted for Trump. At the same time though, I still have a hard time understanding why people made that decision. I mean, his policies seem to hurt poor people even more, so I don’t really understand the logic behind that vote.

    I also enjoyed The Sun Is Also a Star…even though the insta-love scenario is totally unbelievable. Like you, I thought the dialogue was great. Yoon is definitely a talented writer.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Kate, yeah I am also perplexed why the working class voted for Trump — ultimately it seems like his policies will hurt them, but I agree the book helps try to understand the people struggling in the Rust Belt. And I agree on Yoon’s talent; I will likely read whatever she writes next — if she doesn’t go too overboard, ha.

  9. I loved Hillbilly Elegy. I read it just after the election and felt like without intending to the book explained a lot about how/why Trump one. Those were his people!

    I’m with you on Fredrick Bachman. I like A Man Called Ove, but his next book was a DNF for me and I’ve not been interested in trying anything else.

    Love Homeland!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Susie, thx for stopping by. I think you’re right about the Hillbilly book, though I don’t think many of Trump’s policies will repay the favor to his working-class voters, hmm which is a bit perplexing. And I agree with you on Backman; I don’t think I will return to his books, too much else to read. I’m glad you’re a Homeland watcher! It’s an excellent show.

  10. Michelle says:

    I was less impressed with Hillbilly Elegy than many others. I found it yet another rags-to-riches story, which is fine, but I did not finish the novel with a better understanding of the blue collar Trump voters like I expected. I also may have been a bit biased because I lived in Middletown, Ohio for seven years and know exactly what he was talking about regarding locations and attitude.

    I really want to watch The Handmaid’s Tale. I need to look into getting Hulu just so we can watch it!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Michelle, yeah I can see how if you once lived in Middletown you could have a whole different perspective — you’d know more about what he’s referring to and might see things differently. I’ve never been to Ohio so I’m just going by how it’s been portrayed. His analysis of the working class in the book was less successful perhaps than just being a memoir about his family. Hmm. I think you’ll like The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s creepy scary. Hope you get it.

  11. Naomi says:

    Beartown sounds so different from his other books (only from what I’ve heard, because I have’t read any myself). I don’t know if I’m interested in that much hockey.
    I’d like to read Hillbilly Elegy, but I don’t know how high it is on my list of priorities – there are a lot of books I’d like to read!
    I’ve been skeptical about the love story in Yoon’s new book. But it sounds like there’s more to it than that. Hmm…
    I’m nervous to watch The Handmaid’s Tale – does it stick well to the book so far? I’ve been burned by the new Anne series.

    Enjoy your long weekend bike ride! I hope the weather is nice for you!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Naomi, the weather is looking good (so far) for the long weekend! Not sure if the Handmaid’s TV series sticks closely to the book — as that is one of Atwood’s novels that I have missed but I plan to remedy & read soon. It’s quite a series so far. There was even a short cameo by Atwood which I believe comes in episode #1. I recognized her right away. I hope you enjoy your long weekend. Yoon might be a YA author to try.

  12. Excellent reviews! I’m so glad you read The Sun is Also a Star, and yes, the target audience would be teens. I also preferred this one to Yoon’s debut. I can’t imagine a series darker than the Road! I loved the Handmaid’s Tale, but at least the book felt more hopeful.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Sarah, Yeah I’ve listened to both of Yoon’s novels as audios and she seems talented with the dialogue and teen details. I need to read Code Name Verity for YA now. I will keep at YA occasionally — even though the genre can be a bit out of my comfort zone — since some of the books are quite good. I’m hoping that the Handmaid’s TV series becomes more hopeful as it goes along.

  13. Vicki says:

    I absolutely loved A Man Called Ove, so when I saw Bear Town by the same author I got the audiobook before eve seeing what it was about. I’ve never done that before. I plan on listening to it soon.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Vicki, I look forward to hearing about what you think of Bear Town. There’s quite a bit of hockey to it and it seems quite (overly) long! Cheers.

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