Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy Cover

This review contains SPOILERS:

J.D. Vance is the 3rd generation out of Appalachia. His grandparents left the holler of Jackson, Kentucky when they were teenagers, escaping the poverty and despair that surrounded them AND running away because J.D.’s then 14-year-old Mamaw was pregnant. The settled in Middletown, Ohio and J.D.’s Papaw got a job at a steel mill.

Papaw was a drinker and Mamaw was a spitfire. The two made for some interesting times! At one point before J.D. was born, Mamaw tells Papaw not to come home drunk or she’ll kill him. Always being a woman of her word, when he comes home drunk and passes out, she proceeds to pour gasoline over him and set him ablaze! Fortunately, he was not seriously injured (a miracle in itself) and, later, Papaw quits drinking, cold turkey.

Papaw and Mamaw were a huge influence on J.D. As the son of their youngest daughter, J.D. lives in a very difficult world. His mom is an addict who starts with pain pills and ends up using heroin. J.D. watched her get arrested more than once. His mom also is a serial monogamist….she has to have a boyfriend/husband. When one relationship ends, another begins immediately. She was married at least five times and lived with many men in addition. She dragged J.D. and his older sister (half-sister from a previous relationship) with her to live with these men. J.D.’s biological father surrenders him for adoption to J.D.’s second husband, who then leaves and doesn’t want J.D.

Surrounding the story of J.D.’s tumultuous life is a commentary on the plight of the white, poor, working-class and their social environment.  Middletown sounds a LOT like the city I live in (it is less than 2 hours away). They are both rust belt towns that have seen the manufacturing that once kept the city alive disappear. With that disappearance came a lack of high-quality work for the citizens. Those who were smart opted for something referred to as “brain drain”…the well-educated, well-trained, or well-connected citizens went elsewhere to work — and never came back.  The people left behind were truly disadvantaged, having no good job prospects and little social support (most had left rural communities where families were connected albeit generally dysfunctional). This dearth of opportunity created a sense of hopelessness and despair which resulted in increasing rates of substance abuse. In turn, the schools lost their best teachers and parents, with little education themselves, and less interest in their children’s education, resulted in decreasing rates of high school graduation, more drug abuse, more single parents, and (for some) jail time as a result of never having been given a moral compass.

J.D. recounts a story of a young man who quits his job because he doesn’t like getting up early and then, on Facebook, bemoans Obama’s policies as the cause of his joblessness. J.D. states that the thing he’d most like to change about the white working-class is “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.” He also says, “somehow your mind confuse(s) lack of effort for inability.” J.D. Vance had several things in his favor. One was his Mamaw. She is quoted as saying, “You can do anything; don’t be like those fu&*ers who think the deck is stacked against them.” She pushed him and believed in him. Another thing was the fact that his grandparents provided the stability that he needed to study and concentrate on his school work. Then there was the US Marine Corps. Vance enlisted and he says that the 4 years he spent in the Corps taught him many things that aren’t taught to the typical young person in Middletown: balancing a checkbook, getting up early, and “giving it your all.”

This isn’t to say that all lower-middle-class working whites have problems with drugs, alcohol abuse, violence, laziness, discouragement, or lack-of-motivation. That isn’t the case, and Vance doesn’t make that argument at all. He does, however, latch on to a pattern that I see around me every day (especially at ‘the Walmart’) where people dress and behave in ways that ought not to be seen in civil society. They aren’t bad people. They’re just living the generational life they’ve been raised to live.

I wasn’t raised in a rust belt town, but rather a large metropolitan city in Texas, yet, I see some of the traits Vance mentions in my own family. I am the adult child of a violent alcoholic who abused my mother. I’ve seen my father too drunk to get out of his car, or so drunk that he managed to get out of his car but came inside and fell over when I went to kiss him and passed out there on the floor where he fell. I have extended family with substance abuse or psychiatric issues. An aunt (by marriage) was incarcerated.

These issues aren’t unique to the white working-class, but they are more common for them than they are for upper-class families. The question J. D. Vance proposes — but does not answer — is how do we fix it?

Sadly, the answer for many of the working poor in 2016 (when this book was published) was a vote for Donald Trump. He was going to fix it all. Unfortunately, he’s not fixed much for the working-class. His tax program, while front-loaded to help the middle-class, take those advantages away quickly, and replaces them with tax policy that will hurt the middle-class (and help the top 10%). I see no more hopefulness in the people of my rust belt town now than I did in 2015.

Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating book. The portion of the book that is strict ‘memoir’ is fabulous. The memoir is sandwiched between (and sprinkled with) scholarly commentary from sociologists psychologists, political scientists, and economists. I think the book would have been better split into two books…one the memoir, and the other a commentary on the plight of the working poor.

I recommend Hillbilly Elegy. It is interesting and thought-provoking.


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Filed under Autobiography, Non-Fiction, politics, Sociology

Breaking Cover


Michele Rigby Assad is a former CIA counterterrorism specialist. Not what you’d expect for a CIA operative (by her own admission), Michele was a petite, southern, homecoming queen. Her interest in the Middle East was sparked when she had the opportunity to study abroad, and her husband, Joseph, also a former CIA agent, is from Egypt.

As a woman in a male-dominated field, Michele faced many obstacles, but she ultimately found that the obstacles served to make her stronger, and a better officer. The challenges in her CIA career were, in retrospect, all training her for the mission that the Lord had for her and her husband in leading teams to rescue Iraqi refugees and help them resettle in other countries.

Michele prayed that she wouldn’t be stationed in Iraq, yet it was there that the Lord taught her much about herself and also lessons she would use later in her work as a security consultant and in resettling refugees. She states, “By the grace of God, I discovered that struggle could become a skill builder, pain could become a motivator, and confusion could serve as a clarifier.”

I really, really admire Michele Assad. I really, really wanted to like her book. I just couldn’t ever get into the pace of the book, as it seemed disjointed to me. There were sections where I wished for much more detail, and sections where I felt there was too much detail spent on things that weren’t that pertinent or interesting.

Michele has a great story. I wish she had told it and had someone else write it. I read Jack Barsky’s book Deep Undercover and kind of expected this book to be similar. It wasn’t. If you want to read a riveting book about the life of a spy (in this case, a KGB spy), read Deep Undercover.

Tyndale House Publishers provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. 

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Filed under Action-adventure, Christian, Non-Fiction, Uncategorized, women

Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness & Peace


A story full of pain. A story full of hope. A story full of anger. A story full of forgiveness. Does this sound like your life? It certainly sounds like mine! It also sounds (in the extreme!) like the story of Kim Phuc Phan Thi. You may have seen her picture. She’s the famous “napalm girl” whose picture was snapped by a young photographer as she ran naked, screaming, and severely burned down a Dang Trang Vietnam road. The photographer who took the iconic photograph scooped Kim up and rushed her to a nearby hospital where, initially, they refused to treat the girl. After some arm-twisting and showing of credentials, he convinced the hospital to take her in and they arranged her transfer to Saigon. When she arrived, unconscious, at First Children’s Hospital she was deemed hopeless and taken to languish in the morgue.

It is from these horrors that a story of survival, hope, and peace rose like a Phoenix. Her survival from burns was only the beginning of Kim’s remarkable story. Living under the oppressive system of Communism, Kim continued to suffer loss after loss. She had been introduced to the Christian religion but had stopped attending services regularly. She was so despondent that she planned her own death, but somehow she found the will to cry out to God…a simple prayer. With that prayer, and action she took in faith that God had heard her petition, things began to turn around for Kim Phuc.

Her book, Fire Road, tells the remarkable and inspiring story of redemption and grace in Kim’s life. I found myself writing down quotes and thinking of applications to my own life as I read her words. Kim is an inspiring role model. Her story teaches lessons that are hard to forget because they were lived, not just preached. I can’t recommend this book enough!

*I was provided with a complementary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.


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Filed under Autobiography, Christian, Non-Fiction, women