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Author: Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terri Schlichenmeyer of "The Bookworm Sez" is based in Wisconsin.

“The Trick” by Emanuel Bergmann

The Trick by Emanuel Bergmann

c.2017, Atria
$26.00 / $35.00  Canada
378 pages

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

Alakazam.

Watch closely and see before – poof! – the hidden object is gone. Abracadabra, it reappears right in front of you. You know it’s all an illusion. The hand really is quicker than the eye but, as in the new novel “The Trick” by Emanuel Bergmann, the spell may take several decades.

Max Cohn’s best friend, Joey, knew all about the problem.

He’d been through his own parents’ divorce and so Joey told Max how things would go down at home. Sadly, everything happened exactly the way he said it would, and Max, who’d had a “fairly normal” life until then, knew that everything had changed.

He hated change.

He hated that his father was moving out, and that he had to stay with his mother and, well, pretty much everything. He felt hopeless, until he found a shiny black round thing that his dad had told him about once, something called a record from some old guy, a magician named Zabbatini. The last track on the record: a love spell.

Resourceful and excited, Max found a way to listen to the record but it was scratched. No big deal; he’d find Zabbatini and he’d talk him into doing the spell in person. By then, Max was sure that Zabbatini was the only one who could fix things. Alas, also by then, Zabbatini was a very old man…

The birth of Moshe Goldenhirsch was a marvel.

His parents had tried to have children but it didn’t happen until Laibl Goldenhirsch went away to war. When he came home, his Rifka was pregnant (a miracle!) and though he was suspicious of the butcher upstairs, Laibl raised little Moshe as his own.

When Rifka died, Laibl’s sadness boiled over and one thing led to another. Father and son argued, and Moshe left his father’s home to find fame, fortune, and love with the Zauber-Zirkus. At fifteen, he changed his name, his ancestry, his age, and his life. He found a home and a talent he didn’t even know he had.

And years later, after another war and more loss than one man should bear, he found a little boy who believed…

I’ve read a lot of novels this year. A lot of them, but I don’t think I’ve loved any of them more than I loved “The Trick.”

Written in alternate chapters that take you from Prague to Los Angeles, to the circus, an elementary school, Germany, and to a modern-day pizza parlor, author Emanuel Bergmann tells a tale that will keep you spellbound in its simple intricacy. There’s humor inside, and it’s subtle – the kind that sneaks up on you when you’re expecting a poignant moment. Likewise, the ache here is seasoned with drollness that mocks the pain of the characters. It works, all the way up to the twisty-surprise end.

This isn’t a cry-yourself-raw book, but it has its moments. It’s not an LOL kind of novel, either, but you will. No, “The Trick” is just a novel about goodness and life, and you’ll be enchanted.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin

“Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller

Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller

c.2017, Wm. Morrow
$25.99 / $31.99 Canada
371 pages

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

Packing stinks.

Wrapping up all your things, cushioning breakables, putting things where you won’t find them for months. Ugh. Is it worth it to have a new home? A new life?  As in “Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller, is the sacrifice worth a new beginning you’re not sure you want?

She loved him so.

Looking at her husband, Charles, Caroline Ingalls saw the light in his face as he spoke. She knew he’d heard that the government was selling Kansas farmland at reasonable prices, just as she knew how he wanted that, and an adventure. His eyes told her that he also wanted her permission, and she loved him too much to say no.

She hadn’t informed him yet that their family would increase by one, come summer. She barely knew it herself, and she couldn’t imagine giving birth without family nearby. Still, she could never deny her husband his hearts’ desire, so she said yes to making plans, to packing their belongings in a canvas-topped wagon, to estimate what supplies they might need for their travels. They’d depart from Wisconsin in late winter, when the river was still frozen solid. They would be in Kansas by mid-summer.

It was cold when they started: five-year-old Mary and three-year-old Laura needed mittens until they reached the southern part of Iowa . Caroline’s own quilts ensured the girls’ comfort; supper often came from an open-pit fire. They might go days without seeing anyone but each other and oh, how Caroline missed her sister! She missed her little cookstove, the rocker that Charles made for her when Mary was born, and the feel of solid floorboards. She missed everything there was to miss about Wisconsin , but the state was weeks behind her.

In front of her was a promise, and a husband who sang when he was happy. She imagined a garden, and crops spread beneath a big sky dome, family, new friends, and a new baby. She could also imagine danger…

Remember thrilling to tales from “The Little House on the Prairie”? If you do, then author Sarah Miller has this: there’s another side to the story and in “Caroline,” it’s no less exciting.

At the outset of this novel, you know you’re in for something good. Miller makes this a love story, first: Charles and Caroline Ingalls are sweetly bashful and still courting, even though, as this novel opens, they’ve been married a decade. Caroline adores her husband and her girls, but Miller lets her be flawed: the title character is unsure of herself, prone to seethe silently, and there are times when she briefly wishes she was childless. Truly, that introspection drives this novel as much as does the new world Caroline encounters, making it a perfect addition to a beloved story.

In her afterword, Miller explains how she used Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books to make a “marriage of fact and fiction,” and fans are going to love it. If you grew up devouring “Little House” books, the covers of “Caroline” pack a great story.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin

“Never Curse the Rain: A Farm Boy’s Reflections on Water” by Jerry Apps

Never Curse the Rain: A Farm Boy’s Reflections on Water” by Jerry Apps

c.2017, Wisconsin Historical Society Press
$22.95 / higher in Canada
145 pages

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

Your eyes are on the forecast.

Depending on what it says, you’ll either approve or scowl. You don’t want your plans ruined but here’s the thing: you know that weather changes and you can’t do anything about it anyhow. So read the new book “Never Curse the Rain” by Jerry Apps, and learn to appreciate what comes from the skies.

Growing up on a farm in north central Wisconsin , Jerry Apps remembers the importance of water. One of his first memories of the liquid, in fact, was when his little brother was sick: there was an emergency rite performed and, because he was standing nearby, four-year-old Apps was conveniently baptized, too.

His father, knowing how essential moisture is to crops and livestock, always admonished Apps and his brothers to “never curse the rain.”  He understood, says Apps, that “the farm’s need for water must come before the family’s hopes and wishes.”

There were times when rain didn’t come.

Apps remembers when the windmill didn’t turn and the cows bawled their thirst. His father first hauled water from a neighbor’s farm; when that wasn’t enough, he purchased a second-hand gas-powered pump that, with “wheezing and kabooming,” saved the livestock until the wind and rains returned.

Theirs was an otherwise good well, 180 feet down and dug by hand in the late 1800s. The family was lucky; Apps says he knew of farmers who had to relocate their homesteads when wells went bad.

As for indoors, Apps recalls how he and his brothers hauled water from an outdoor pump for indoor use. Saturday was bath day and Monday was wash day, which meant multiple trips with heavy pails. Other days, they carried water for cooking, drinking, and washing-up. Apps says he was grown and gone before his parents had indoor plumbing in the house; the barn had it first.

But water wasn’t important just on the farm. Apps writes of fishing in local lakes, of visiting the water-powered mill, camping in the rain, after-chores swimming on hot summer days, and the blessed relief of a night-time thunderstorm.

Do April showers bring May flowers? They say it’s so. You have a few weeks before you’ll know for sure. In the meantime, might as well read “Never Curse the Rain.”

For the average reader, this book is like the literary version of comfort-food: put it in your hands, and you’ll feel as though you’re wrapped in Grandma’s hand-knitted afghan while sipping tomato soup on a grey day. Author Jerry Apps will do that to you; he’s a consummate storyteller who can sadden you on one page, tickle your funny bone two pages later, and astound you with facts in between. His memories evoke a time many readers have only learned about in books.

For those who share the memories, this book is like a handshake from a friend.

There are, therefore, two distinct audiences for “Never Curse the Rain”: 16-to-35-year-old readers, and anyone who’s 36-to-104. If you fit inside those basic groups, the forecast for this book is sunny.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin

“What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear” by Danielle Ofri, MD

What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear” by Danielle Ofri, MD

c.2017, Beacon Press
$24.95 / $33.95 Canada
242 pages

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

The examination wasn’t bad. The idea of it, perhaps, was worse.

Your doctor took your vitals, looked in your mouth, felt around your jaw, and thumped your back. He asked questions, you answered, got down from the table, got dressed, and got your prescription. In and out in fifteen minutes but what just happened?  After reading the new book “What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear” by Danielle Ofri, MD, the answer may be “not enough.”

When you’re sick, your doctor might order an MRI, CT, PET, EKG, good old X-rays, or any of dozens of new medicines. That alphabet soup of diagnostics may give you pause, especially when a simpler thing may work just as well.

With the advanced technology that hospitals have, simple might seem contrary but Ofri says that listening, from a doctor’s standpoint, is not just a matter of hearing a list of complaints. It’s “a diagnostic tool and… a therapeutic tool…” requiring the work of two to be effective. Because body language can speak volumes, listening is also sometimes done by the eyes.

But listening goes both ways and the words a doctor says and they way she says them “can have a potency comparable to the medications we prescribe…” Patients must closely listen to what their doctor says in order to self-care and heal at home. Here, Ofri believes, is where body language comes in: sometimes, patients may give nonverbal clues or reasons for “noncompliance.” Perhaps they are embarrassed, fearful, can’t afford care or don’t have access to it, can’t read instructions or don’t understand them enough. They may not know their diagnosis, or even their doctor’s name.

Listening, Ofri says, can help when conflicts arise and mistakes are made. It can give patients a better outcome (although note-taking helps!). Good communication will ensure that everyone understands what is about to happen, and it helps a doctor break bad news. “Taking a history” is one of the first things physicians learn in med school. And, says Ofri, “It can sometimes mean life or death.”

“What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear” is a book that makes you want to hang on to every word.

Obviously, author Danielle Ofri, MD is good at communicating, even though she admits here that there were times when she wasn’t. That’s one of the best parts of this book: Ofri not only uses herself as an example, but she spent months interviewing doctor-patient pairs in order to understand the importance of listening in a medical setting. Readers get real-life stories to illustrate the points Ofri makes, told in language that’s authentic but that doesn’t require a PhD to grasp. We’re also given subtle advice on getting (and giving) the best care possible through listening and communicating.

This is the book you want to read in the waiting room at your next doctor’s appointment. It’s the one you’ll want to take to the next medical conference. In both cases, it could make a difference: with “What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear,” it’s your listening skills you’ll be examining.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin

“Boomer’s Bucket List” by Sue Pethick

Boomer’s Bucket List” by Sue Pethick

c.2017, Kensington
$9.95 / $10.95 Canada
256 pages

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

You always wanted to jump from an airplane.

It’s something you dreamed about doing, just as you’ve always dreamed of walking the Appalachian Trail, seeing the Great Pyramids, and visiting China. So will you take the leap and fulfill your lifelong wishes someday or, as in “Boomer’s Bucket List” by Sue Pethick, will time and patience run out first?

She didn’t choose him. It was the other way around.

That’s what Jennifer Westbrook always recalled about the day she saw the squirming litter of Golden-Labs for sale. Each of the puppies was adorable, and choosing was impossible but when the seller suggested patience, Boomer picked Jennifer.

He was her best friend, her roommate, and she adored him, so when Jennifer learned that five-year-old Boomer had a fatal illness and that he had just a month to live, she was heartsick. She instantly knew that she needed to make every moment count for her dog, so she told her boss that she was taking a month-long vacation.

Jennifer was taking Boomer on a road trip.

Once upon a time, Nathan Koslow was Chicago ’s most-read newspaper columnist. That was before budget cuts and downsizing, before Nate lost his beat, and before he’d take any job his editor tossed his way. Desperate for an assignment, in fact, he agreed to fold a brotherly favor into a feature story on U.S. Route 66 and, along the journey, Nate met Jennifer.

He liked her instantly, but he always said the wrong things and she was prickly. Boomer seemed to love Nate, but Nate wasn’t sure about Jennifer…

When the favor for his brother fell apart, Nate was surprised, then, that Jennifer invited him along on Boomer’s road trip. Both were surprised that strangers were so very helpful; people everywhere went out of their way to pet and talk to Boomer, which didn’t make sense.

And then Jennifer learned about a website, and a contest, expensive prizes, and her PR firm all over it. She was angry – how dare they benefit from her private pain? – and it got worse when she learned that Nate was somehow involved.

Jennifer wanted to finish the trip without Nate – but what would Boomer want?

I spent a lot of time heavy-sighing at the opening chapters of “Boomer’s Bucket List.” Beautiful woman, check. Handsome stranger, check. Accidental meeting, Golden-Lab dog, romance, major misunderstanding, check, check, check, annnnnd check. Yawn.

Ah, but then a side-story that author Sue Pethick throws in – the one that seemed out-of-place at first – changes everything: the whole tale’s tone, its pace, and even the path it seemed to be on. That side-story perfectly tosses the predictability aside which makes this entire book a lot more fun to read, even though we sense that happily-ever-after will contain a very sad note.

If you want something squeaky-clean to share with any teen or adult you know, this is it. No profanity, no steamy scenes, no problems – just a nice romance with a few curves. That’s “Boomer’s Bucket List,” so jump on it.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin

“Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story” by Alexandra Wolfe

Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story” by Alexandra Wolfe

c.2017, Simon & Schuster
$27.00 / $36.00 Canada
261 pages

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

Here. Try this.

Take a sip. Give it a whirl. Do a taste-test. A preliminary trial, it won’t take long. Here, see what you think. We’re asked to sample things every day, from products to ideas but, as in the new book, “Valley of the Gods” by Alexandra Wolfe, is everything worth a try?

College costs money.

For millions of high school grads, that’s a fact of which they don’t need reminding. It’ll cost most of them a lot, and for years to come – unless they’ve got a better plan, such as PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s “20 Under 20.”

Alexandra Wolfe was friends with Thiel before she learned about his program, then offering twenty young adults, all under twenty years old, a whopping $100,000 to “stop out” of college. Take a gap year or don’t go at all, Thiel said. Instead, come to Silicon Valley , create a start-up, work your revolutionary idea, and change the world.

Prior to 1971, there was no “ Silicon Valley ,” says Wolfe; only after the many silicon chip manufacturers moved in did the area get its moniker. Today, the largest industries all have “massive bases there” and it’s “one of the biggest concentrations of billionaires in the world.” It’s a place where failure is success, and success is stratospheric.

In 2009, by invitation from Thiel, the program was launched and twenty new high school graduates came to this frantic-for-the-next-big-thing business community with their near-genius ideas: John Burnham, who wanted to explore asteroid mining. Laura Deming, believer in immortality. James Proud, app builder. John Marbach, who hoped to revolutionize education.

As Wolfe learned while following them, Silicon Valley “tech giants” wanted workers who were “self-taught,” and Thiel’s 2009 group was the very essence of that. Still, the program wasn’t the fast-track to riches everyone hoped: many of The Twenty lived in dorm-like buildings, obsessing about coding and aimlessly part-time-job-hopping with little-to-no distinction between work and life. Their eyes were opened to polyamorous lifestyles, social isolation, and gender inequality.

For them, “Climbing corporate rungs was so ten years ago,” says Wolfe. But particularly when you’re “Under 20” and trying your wings, dreams die hard.

It’s quite easy to trot out the old You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry cliché, but it’s true in “Valley of the Gods.”  You’ll also get confused an awful lot.

The good news is that author Alexandra Wolfe delves into a world that few have seen up-close: her book takes place in hallowed businesses that many of us only know by their online presences, and it’s an eye-opening look. And yet – while reading about this one elite group of would-be entrepreneurs and the extraordinary lengths that those tech companies go to woo them, there’s a lot to digest and it often comes at a breathless, almost relentless, name-dropping pace. Ctrl-alt-delete.

Less of that and more about the Twenty, perhaps, would’ve been nice but I still liked this book. If you want a good peek into tech businesses and, possibly, the future, find “Valley of the Gods” and give it a try.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin

“Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation” by Alan Burdick

Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation” by Alan Burdick

c.2017, Simon & Schuster
$28.00 / $37.00 Canada
301 pages

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

Your last vacation was really fun.

Those seven days felt like ten minutes. And then you were back to work, where ten minutes can seem like seven days. Why is that?  How come enjoyable things whiz by fast and why do you wake up seconds before the alarm goes off?  Read “Why Time Flies” by Alan Burdick, and just watch…

What time is it?  Chances are, you ask that question many times a day, even sometimes when you already know the answer. But how do you know the time without looking at a clock?  How does time speed and slow?  Better yet, how do tasks seem to exactly fit the allotted time you’ve got to finish them?

To find out, Burdick started at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, near Paris . That’s the place where time is set, “uniform and equivalent across national borders,” and where the most exact time in the world is kept – a time that’s so accurate that it’s not set until next month.

Time, you see, is a conundrum.

It started – and remained through most of history – as an Earth-based thing, though early humans didn’t have the same sense of “time” that we have now, “now” being a slippery thing in itself. Ancient timekeeping used a sundial to indicate morning or afternoon; we generally use computerized systems run by exquisitely accurate clocks that “register 13 billion pings from computers around the world” each day.

Even so, there is no such thing as a completely accurate clock, just as there is no such thing as accurate time. Time is set because we implicitly agree on it, although some countries are off by 30 or 45 minutes from the rest of us, not counting time zones, which were first encouraged in the U.S. by railroad companies.

Also because we agree that we can, we bend and twist time. Shift workers push their circadian rhythms to the limits. Speeding jets can, in an Einsteinian way, slow time (by nanoseconds, but still). Time seems fleeter when you’re older for a good reason, and yes, time flies, but mostly when you’re not really looking.

Here it is, February, and it feels like Christmas was both yesterday and a million miles ago. That’s all in your head, says author Alan Burdick, and in “Why Time Flies,” he explains.

We can’t touch time, but we know what it is. It’s sometimes hard to define it, however, but Burdick’s research helps as he takes readers around the world, to the top of the Earth, and below-ground in a search that speeds through deep science so quickly that grasping some ideas can be a challenge. Fortunately, that’s balanced by eye-popping tales of experiments gone wild, lovelorn scientists, work-time, and Burdick’s personal stories of how infants learn concepts of time and its passage.

That makes this science-y book readable as well as enjoyable, so job-holders, parents, the science-minded, or anyone who says “Look at the time!” should look at this book. Read “Why Time Flies” and you’ll be having fun.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin

“Ray & Joan” by Lisa Napoli

Ray & Joan” by Lisa Napoli

c.2016, Dutton
$27.00 / $36.00 Canada
353 pages

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

To go.

Whoever put those two delicious words together really knew what they were doing: order your food, ask for it “to go,” save yourself time, and eat wherever you want. You might not even have to get out of the car. Yes, “to go” are magic words but, as in the new book “Ray and Joan” by Lisa Napoli, there are still things you can’t take with you when you do.

It all started with oranges.

“Millions of oranges… dotted” the southern California hills in the pre-Depression years and, with newly-affordable automobiles spurring Americans to travel, brothers Mac and Dick McDonald saw a golden opportunity. They’d studied the way hamburger joints were run then, and they devised a better way. One of their new ideas was to hire an agent to sell franchises, which is where Ray Kroc stepped in.

Born in 1902 to Bohemian immigrants, Kroc had always possessed charisma, the gift of gab, and love for the limelight, eventually parlaying those strengths into a sales job that took him around the country. When he discovered what the brothers McDonald were doing, Kroc knew he’d seen the future and he persuaded them to hire him. Though financing was never quite secure in those early years, it wasn’t long before McDonald’s restaurants were seemingly everywhere.

And so, of course, was Ray Kroc. Part of his job was to approve new “store” openings and it was on one such trip that he met Joan Smith, who was playing piano in an upscale Minneapolis lounge. Though both were wed to someone else, they were smitten with one another; he asked her twice to marry him and she finally did.

But blissful happiness wasn’t to be. Kroc was volatile, and drank too much, while Joan was bored with merely being a billionaire’s wife, and she restlessly searched for projects. When Kroc died in 1984, she mourned, then seized her chance – but not in any conventional way.

Says Napoli , “She wanted to make a difference, but serving on a corporate board, on any board, wasn’t what she had in mind.”

Have you ever become so captivated by a story that you felt unmoored when it ended?  Yep, I could have read “Ray & Joan” all day.

Yet, undoubtedly, as author Lisa Napoli indicates in her book, if Joan Kroc had had her way, we wouldn’t know the rest of the story. Kroc, says Napoli , wanted her philanthropic actions to be anonymous, even though she enigmatically left plenty of clues. Between tales of both Krocs and their contemporaries, Napoli follows those hints to leave readers wondering what we don’t know. This bit of mystery, inadvertent as it might have been originally, feels like the plot of a book of intrigue, and serves to leave readers hungry for the next page, and the next…

This book will likely be found in the business section of bookstore or library, but it’s really so much more. “Ray & Joan” has shades of history, pop-culture, biography, and finance inside – and doesn’t that sound delicious?

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin

“Cradles of Power” by Harold I. Gullan

cradles-of-power

Cradles of Power” by Harold I. Gullan

c.2016, Skyhorse Publishing
$27.99 / $42.99 Canada
379 pages


B
OOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

Your parents had such high hopes for you.

You were going to make it, and make something of yourself. You’d have a better life than they had: more wealth, stronger health, bigger home, more opportunities. You were going to be somebody even if, as in the new book “Cradles of Power” by Harold I. Gullan, it took everything they had.

Walk through any bookstore or library and you’ll learn that over the last 240 years, a lot has been written about America ’s presidents. We know what history says about those men, but what about the people who raised them?

George Washington, for instance, loved his mother very much but, according to Gullan, she was a bit of a nag. She also embarrassed her son by complaining so much about a lack of money that the Virginia House of Delegates granted her a pension.

Thomas Jefferson also loved his mother but “he wrote next to nothing” about her. When her home burned to the ground in 1770, Jefferson ’s main concern was not Mom, but the loss of his personal library.

When he was just a child, James Madison’s father lost his father. Because there was a plantation to run and his mother couldn’t do it, the nine-year-old future father of our fourth president stepped up to the plate.

Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson had three sons. The eldest was killed in battle; the younger two promptly joined the cavalry and were captured by the British. “Betty” rode horseback to the prisoner’s camp, bargained for the release of Robert and Andrew, brought them home, and the following summer rode back to broker the release of her neighbors’ sons. The second trip resulted in “the fever,” and she died that fall.

Martin Van Buren’s father was a tavernkeeper. John Tyler’s father raised eight children and twenty-one wards. The only president not to marry grew up “at the center of a circle of adoring females.” Chester Arthur’s parents had “Canadian connections” that caused a stir when he ran for office. And, perhaps significantly, a number of Presidents used their mothers’ maiden names as their own.

Sick of politics, you say?  That’s fine; “Cradles of Power” is really more biographical in nature anyway.

From George W. to George W. and the guy after him, author Harold I. Gullan writes of the influences that shaped our presidents, for better or worse, going back sometimes for generations. Because the new nation (or the journey here) could be a hardship, we clearly see how outside forces shaped early leaders and how modern times led to different issues. Gullan does the occasional comparison between sets of parents, which is a viewpoint that becomes quite fascinating, and he doesn’t gloss over negative aspects of our Presidents’ childhoods. That offers a nice balance and a great peek through history.

Perfect for parents or grandparents, this book might also be enjoyed by teens who are just gaining an appreciation for the past and its players. And, of course, if that’s you, then “Cradles of Power” is a book to hope for.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin

“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance

c.2016, Harper
$27.99 / $34.99 Canada
264 pages

hillbilly-elegy

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

Home is where the heart is.

It’s where folks take you in because they love you, and put up with your nonsense for the same reason. It’s where you go when there’s nowhere else, a haven both for body and soul. Home is where the heart is – and, as in the new memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance, it’s also where troubles begin.

At first glance, most people would say J.D. Vance had a pretty good bringing-up.

Vance was born in Middletown , Ohio , sometimes referred to as “Middletucky” because, like him, many residents’ roots lay in the Bluegrass State . Kentucky ’s Appalachian hills, in fact, were where Vance remembers spending the best of his childhood, running wild with cousins while his grandmother, Mamaw, visited kin. Her brothers – Vance’s beloved uncles – taught Vance how to be a man.

Such information didn’t come from the men his mother brought around.

There was a succession of them: five husbands, various boyfriends, in a roulette-wheel of homes. Vance mistrusted his Mom, barely knew his father, and was raised to believe that the man didn’t want him; he grew to rely instead on his older sister and his Mamaw, whose home was a shelter.

She lived close-by, often just a block away, and he stayed with her more than he lived with his mother. A heavy smoker who spewed profanity, Mamaw was tough as nails but tender with babies. She demanded that Vance excel in school, and she protected him from “the worst of what [the] community offered,” though there were times when he was ashamed of her.

He was ashamed of his mother, his behavior, and the poverty that surrounded him at home, too, but as Vance matured, he learned a few truths: his mother tried to do her best, but drug addiction was stronger. Anger and yelling were not keys to a successful relationship. Education was the strongest way out. And “…Mamaw was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Let’s face it: a happy-happy memoir is, well, it’s no fun. We want to see some pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap sentiment but there’s a better surprise inside “Hillbilly Elegy.” It comes in author J.D. Vance’s words.

With a sense of the poetic, Vance writes of the beauty of the place of his kin: deep hollers, green rolling hillsides, and people who live by a fierce code of honor. But we learn a different story, too: that of hopelessness, early pregnancies, addiction, and the sense that poverty is a life sentence. These are the things Vance says he grew up with, and he takes readers on a tour that rises and curves like an Appalachian mountain road. He then explains why this is relevant to the entire rest of America , including everyone who voted on November 8.

This is a book that’s easy to dive into and hard to forget. It’s perfect, if your concern lies with those who are marginalized, even just a little bit. To see how The Other Half lives, “Hillbilly Elegy” is the book to take home.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin