Recent reading Nov 2020

The upcoming Netflix release of Hillbilly Elegy prompted me to finally read the book. I first attempted it a year ago but put it down. This time I struggled to put it down. It’s a remarkable story. It illustrated a few things to me that I’d previously thought about.

Firstly, people are complex – neither black nor white, but grey, sitting on a spectrum, trying and sometimes failing, some more than others. The characters in the book, whether it be J.D.’s mum or his grandparents, had both great and terrible traits. While the mother was more the villain and the grandma the hero, both were flawed, imperfect people. J.D.’s mum made terrible choices with drugs and her love life, but also deeply valued education, and was a good student. She loved her son but also struggle to be a solid, functional person in his life. Similarly, Mamaw, J.D.’s grandma, was the rock in his life, a tough, inspirational and caring woman who nonetheless lived a volatile life. These characters were real people, far more interesting than those in most fictions books.

Secondly, the value of self-esteem shone through brightly. Self-esteem – that you have the ability to do something and that you deserve the fruits of that something – is critical in rising from your situation and achieving success. Combined with hard work and good guidance, a person can defy the statistics and expectations.

Third, culture matters. Culture transmits from one generation to the next – albeit to varying degrees, as J.D. himself shows – shaping the character you become. Culture is difficult to address with policy, and while a lack of economic opportunity doesn’t help, a poor culture sees people turn down legitimate economic opportunities. It was also interesting to note the rising expectations of the newer generations, which influenced the type of work they would be willing to accept as respectable.

Overall, the book was highly readable, shocking, funny, sad, and illuminating. Fingers crossed for the film adaptation, especially Glenn Close as Mamaw.

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The Devil in the White City is a 2003 non-fiction book about the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago. It focuses on the frantic preparations to stage a world-beating fair in a very short period of time. Amid the preparations, a serial killer worked his evil ways nearby, taking advantage of the flock of single women that came to the city in search of opportunity and excitement, and who quickly disappeared.

Many things jumped out at me from this book. The menace of acute illness and the lack of sophistication in medicine, which aligns with what I understand about the state of medicine at this point in history. The fear of building fires. Pollution. The crime, the murders, the accidents, the risk of going to work, and the vice. The industrial city was a relatively new thing, norms and behaviours were still adjusting to a big, anonymous city where individualism could go relatively unchecked. The police were relatively unsophisticated and poorly funded. People could simply disappear. What a different time. Things were still very much a work in progress. History had not ended, it was still being made. Medicine was still developing, as was architecture, policing, and learning how to live on top of each other in a city. It was a time of massive change. A time that desperately needed competent people to build and invent things, but it was also a time of charlatans, crooks and opportunists.

The serial killer of the story could pass as a normal person, indeed, a normal person with extraordinary charm and powers of persuasion. Serial killers come in all shapes and colours. But he had a compulsion to kill that he could not fight.

The lobbying for, and the design and building of, the fair required persuasion, collaboration, determination, long hours, many hands, and big sacrifices. It’s as if the country and its leaders had something to prove – they had pride, confidence, optimism, skill, and because of these attributes, were able to stage something on a grand scale. It begs the question whether, in modern times, we in the West could pull off such a feat.

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