Based on the best selling memoir by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy started streaming on Netflix this week to both acclaim and criticism. In the movie, an urgent phone call pulls a Yale Law student back to his Ohio hometown, where he reflects on three generations of family history and his own future. If you’re dying to watch Hillbilly Elegy but don’t subscribe to Netflix, you can borrow an Apple TV or Ruku streaming device and use our subscription.
If you’ve already seen the movie and want more, you can borrow Vance’s book or find something similar.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
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Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett
Mikel Jollett’s story opens in an experimental commune in California, which later morphed into the Church of Synanon, one of the country’s most infamous and dangerous cults. Per the leader’s mandate, all children, including Jollett and his older brother, were separated from their parents when they were six months old, and handed over to the cult’s “School.” After spending years in what was essentially an orphanage, Mikel escaped the cult one morning with his mother and older brother. But in many ways, life outside Synanon was even harder and more erratic.
In his raw, poetic and powerful voice, Jollett portrays a childhood filled with abject poverty, trauma, emotional abuse, delinquency and the lure of drugs and alcohol. Raised by a clinically depressed mother, tormented by his angry older brother, subjected to the unpredictability of troubled step-fathers and longing for contact with his father, a former heroin addict and ex-con, Jollett slowly, often painfully, builds a life that leads him to Stanford University and, eventually, to finding his voice as a writer and musician.
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Sugar Run by Mesha Maren
In 1989, Jodi McCarty is seventeen years old when she’s sentenced to life in prison. When she’s released eighteen years later, she finds herself at a Greyhound bus stop, reeling from the shock of unexpected freedom but determined to chart a better course for herself. Not yet able to return to her lost home in the Appalachian Mountains, she heads south in search of someone she left behind, as a way of finally making amends. There, she meets and falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother living in a motel room with her children. Together they head toward what they hope will be a fresh start. But what do you do with your past—and with a town and a family that refuses to forget, or to change?
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Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. One of her relatives was shot. Another was poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more Osage were dying under mysterious circumstances, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered.
As the death toll rose, the newly created FBI took up the case, and the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including a Native American agent who infiltrated the region, and together with the Osage began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.
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Evicted by Matthew Desmond
In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.
The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.
Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.
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Educated by Tara Westover
Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Her family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent. When another brother got himself into college, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
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An American Summer by Alex Kotlowitz
The numbers are staggering: over the past twenty years in Chicago, 14,033 people have been killed and another roughly 60,000 wounded by gunfire. What does that do to the spirit of individuals and community? Drawing on his decades of experience, Alex Kotlowitz set out to chronicle one summer in the city, writing about individuals who have emerged from the violence and whose stories capture the capacity—and the breaking point—of the human heart and soul. The result is a spellbinding collection of deeply intimate profiles that upend what we think we know about gun violence in America. Among others, we meet a man who as a teenager killed a rival gang member and twenty years later is still trying to come to terms with what he’s done; a devoted school social worker struggling with her favorite student, who refuses to give evidence in the shooting death of his best friend; the witness to a wrongful police shooting who can’t shake what he has seen; and an aging former gang leader who builds a place of refuge for himself and his friends.
Applying the close-up, empathic reporting that made There Are No Children Here a modern classic, Kotlowitz offers a piercingly honest portrait of a city in turmoil. These sketches of those left standing will get into your bones. This one summer will stay with you.
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The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams
That Julie Yip-Williams survived infancy was a miracle. Born blind in Vietnam, she narrowly escaped euthanasia at the hands of her grandmother, only to flee with her family the political upheaval of her country in the late 1970s. Loaded into a rickety boat with three hundred other refugees, Julie made it to Hong Kong and, ultimately, America, where a surgeon at UCLA gave her partial sight. She would go on to become a Harvard-educated lawyer, with a husband, a family, and a life she had once assumed would be impossible. Then, at age thirty-seven, with two little girls at home, Julie was diagnosed with terminal metastatic colon cancer, and a different journey began.
The Unwinding of the Miracle is the story of a vigorous life refracted through the prism of imminent death. When she was first diagnosed, Julie Yip-Williams sought clarity and guidance through the experience and, finding none, began to write her way through it—a chronicle that grew beyond her imagining. Motherhood, marriage, the immigrant experience, ambition, love, wanderlust, tennis, fortune-tellers, grief, reincarnation, jealousy, comfort, pain, the marvel of the body in full rebellion—this book is as sprawling and majestic as the life it records. It is inspiring and instructive, delightful and shattering. It is a book of indelible moments, seared deep—an incomparable guide to living vividly by facing hard truths consciously.
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