I've largely been reading non-fiction this month. Flying from Detroit to Montego Bay, I started J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. Vance is a great storyteller, something that was probably enhanced by listening to it in audiobook format (he narrates). This book came out around the time of the 2016 election - a time when many were struggling to understand why so many people voted for djt. The working poor are an often misunderstood group to people on the outside - we make assumptions and assign blame, projecting the context of our lives onto their problems.
I think he garnered that understanding to a certain extent. In telling his story, he brought to life the reality of many of the white, working class in Appalachia. But his narrative can lean narcissistic. I realize that this book is a memoir - he is entitled to write solely about his experiences and how they affected him. However, he turned this book into one that has sociological tendencies, and in that context, he missed an important opportunity to discuss the intersection of race and class.
Sure, maybe there weren't many ethnic minorities in the towns he came from (I struggle to fully buy this). But in drawing conclusions about the parallels between the working poor and black america, there was an opportunity for dialogue that he dropped.
After the latest shooting in Florida, I decided to pick up Columbine from my shelf. It had been sitting there for around three years. Dave Cullen's novel covers events that took place in 1999, but remove the dates and it could have easily taken place today. This is the shooting that shaped much of the school shooting protocol still in practice today.
The shooting at Columbine was so endlessly heartbreaking, but Cullen recounts the story and its aftermath with respect - not trying to speak on anyone's behalf. How can one empathize with something so horrific? In an effort to reveal the truth, Cullen paints a full picture of what happened at Columbine: in the months before, on the day of, and in the years that followed.
After the fact, there were a lot of misconceptions about why the shooting occurred (many said it was the result of bullying). Cullen finds a way to cut through the noise and hysteria of that time to really examine the killers as people, uncovering the things that motivated them and excited them, made them angry or depressed. There are a lot of things preceding Columbine that could and should have been done differently, but there were just as many factors that were out of anyone's control.
As with the shootings today, the Columbine community lost their sense of security in a matter of hours. Twenty years later, it is infuriating that we are still a country that holds second amendment rights over the lives of school children. No parent, spouse, or sibling should ever have to say "see you later!" and wonder whether they really will.
We flew south, but drove north with my in-laws (I really hate that title). Starting from the Keys, we used all 20-some hours to listen to Jeff Guinn's The Road to Jonestown. We had plans to take shifts sleeping but I'm not sure any of us did.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Jim Jones was a socialist disguising himself as a religious figurehead who ultimately led his congregation to participate in what became the largest murder-suicide in American history.
Part of what makes this book so compelling is the build-up to the massacre. When hearing about Jonestown, you wonder how so many people could go through with ending their lives, and the lives of their children. Guinn helps us understand. Following Jones from his early life as a minister, you get a sense for the good that he did. For instance, I had no idea about the role he played in advancing race relations in Indianapolis. You can see why people would want to follow this man who preached about equality and offered solutions to their problems beyond prayer. His progression into madness was seemingly slow - hindsight is 20/20, after all.
Like Columbine, The Road to Jonestown was painstakingly researched. Guinn read FBI files, visited Jones's Indiana hometown, spoke with survivors, and even traveled to the site of the massacre in Guyana. There are so many components to this story and so many conflicting emotions, but Guinn brought it all together in a way that did justice to the people of The People's Temple.