The publication of J.D. Vance’s memoir could not have been more timely. In his account of growing up in a so-called hillbilly family, Vance offers a deeply personal, loving but clear-eyed view of his people, poor whites of Scots-Irish descent, endangered not only by economic forces beyond their control, but by their own fierce insularity and resistance to outside influences. Vance writes of his grandparents’ relocation from Kentucky in a wave of migration north to find work in the steel mills of Ohio, and the family’s subsequent struggle to hold on to middle class stability amid the decline following the closure of those same steel mills. Vance also gives us indelible portraits of family members: a mother struggling with addiction, an absent father’s strict adherence to conservative Christianity, and, most movingly, of his grandmother, known as “Mamaw,” an awesome, gun-owning matriarch who provided the only real stability he knew. Hillbilly Elegy is an engrossing, readable memoir, as well as a necessary perspective on the failure of the promise of American prosperity.
While best known for his commitment to Zen Buddhism and nonviolence, Thich Nhat Hanh is also a prolific author. His latest is presented to us as his memoirs, but readers will soon discover that the book is less a straight-ahead autobiography than his accumulated 90 years of wisdom through vignettes of daily life and lessons learned. Thich Nhat Hanh takes us from his childhood in Vietnam and his days at a monk novice to the establishment of Plum Village in France and his international travels and meetings with Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton. However, these events themselves are always tangential to how they deepened his practice and furthered his commitment to building a true, lasting peace in the world. During a time where many of our customers have come in sharing feelings of deep anxiety over the recent political developments and in society’s collective ability to take care of all its members, many readers may appreciate the deep well of compassion and knowledge contained herein.
Like a plant’s, the life of a research scientist is subject to conditions she can’t fully control: funding, adequate equipment, successful experiments. But while a tree has to stay put, a geobotanist like Hope Jahren is mobile. As long as she has a lab of her own, whether in California, Georgia, or Hawaii, she can set down roots and thrive. A woman in a notoriously male-dominated field, Jahren, aka Lab Girl (Knopf, $26.95) often feels insecure, but she’s a dedicated scientist, and always has been. “I grew up in my father’s laboratory,” she says. Now an award-winning Fulbright scholar and tenured professor, Jahren has had her share of failures. She tells lively stories of exploding glass tubes, of field trips ending in ditches, and anxiety severe enough to be clinical. But her warm and engaging memoir, interspersed with telling mini-essays on germination, soil, pollen, and roots is more than disasters, long hours, and meticulous measurements of leaf growth. Her lab partner and best friend is an endearing character somewhere on the genius end of the Asperger spectrum. He and Jahren share jokes and junk food in addition to a passion for plants, and their continual banter—and Jahren’s spirited prose—make this a compelling and funny story about friendship and adventures that belies the image of scientists as pale and asocial creatures in need of a life.