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Book Thoughts

Hillbilly Elegy is an eye-opening memoir about Vance’s upbringing as a self-described hillbilly, or a member of the white working class of America in Appalachia descended from the Scots-Irish. It’s an inside look on broken families, toxic masculinity, toxic culture, Mountain Dew Mouth (children’s teeth falling out due to poor dental hygiene and diet leading to extreme pain and premature rot), regarding pie as health-food because it contains fruit, eating nothing but fast food as the norm, and the ailments that plague the poor white middle class of Appalachia. Vance has a unique perspective as he describes going from that side of the coin to the privileged world of Yale Law School, how vastly different the two were, and how he had only been so luck to get there due to some strokes of luck (such as joining the military) and good influences in his life (his grandmother). He describes how most of his hillbilly friends were ignorant of personal finances such as how to open a credit account, how to network to gain jobs, how to dress to interview for a white collar job. Hillbilly Elegy gave me a much better understanding of the effects of a broken home on the human psyche and how it causes people who have grown up in these environments to have involuntary reactions. That being said, the book also mentions that even growing up in a broken home does not excuse poor behavior, angry reactions, or the harm that comes from it. A lot of critics complain that this book does not represent them. I say, this is one man’s memoir and he has a right to his own story.

This memoir rose to fame because it offers an explanation as to why a lot of Appalachia whites voted for Trump and a look into their mentality. For example, the author describes why his neighbors who lived on welfare hated government handouts. Many of those who accepted welfare maintained strong cognitive dissonance and actually thought they were hard-working, even when they able-bodied and did not look for work. Those who did work were resentful of watching those who did not work possess nicer phones and eat better than they did, thus also growing resentful of government food stamps and aid, which is interesting given that the Americans who hated welfare and Obamacare the most were often the ones who benefited most from it. Vance also touches on the victim mentality that permeated hillbilly culture. When he was looking for work in his hometown before his start of law school, he found a job lifting roof shingles that paid decently well. The company owner was a kind man. Another employee at the company had a pregnant girlfriend. The owner asked if his girlfriend would like a job answering the phone. The girlfriend accepted and then proceeded to frequently not show up for work every third day. The man himself would be constantly late to work and took three hour-long bathroom breaks daily. When they got fired, the man blamed the owner and asked with indignation, “How dare you! Don’t you know I have a pregnant girlfriend?” It was eye-opening to see such a different perspective, even though we all live in America. This was definitely worth a read.

Nikola was a strange guy. The coolest thing about this autobiography was the feeling that you were speaking to the man himself. He was clearly an extraordinarily intelligent human.

Some of Nikola’s noteworthy traits were his vivid imagination, photographic memory, and his ability to conjure up detailed, realistic inventions and diagrams with perfectly accurate physics applied to them in his head. He was probably on the spectrum, and not great at reading people, which affected his ability to take care of himself financially, although thankfully not to his ability to contribute to humanity. Luckily, he had been born to an affluent Serbian family in Croatia that enabled his education, and his vast intelligence and its ability to generate profit was both recognized and funded by the business community. I was particularly impressed by his prescient ability to envision and predict the internet and smart phones we have today. The world is sorely worse off for not having his intellect.

There was a cool section where he elaborated on what some might think of as karma… but from a physical view. I found it extremely interesting that he equated cause and effect not just on a sociological or psychological level but began to think of it from a physics perspective. Unfortunately, he teased his thoughts but did not go into depth. I wonder to what extent he was talking about physical effects of our actions. He mentioned the butterfly effect, and how a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane across a different state. I don’t think he was speaking about the karma of our actions on the quantum level, because at the subatomic level things are governed by statistical probabilities rather than laws that determine with certainty, so to a large extent events are indeterminable. But on a physics perspective, there is much we don’t understand about cause and effect. I wish he had elaborated more, but now we will never know.

Savage Inequalities was eye-opening. Shocking in its details revealed. It’s not listed as one of my favorites, simply because it was an almost unpleasant read since it was so tragic, and also because I would have liked to see a balanced view of the distribution of inequality across America and how many U.S. schools are privileged v not and the extent of the severity. Neglected school districts were in America’s poorest and predominantly black/Latinx communities such as East St. Louis, in NY, etc. East St. Louis was by far the worst of the bunch, and could only be described as a hellhole. Students in East St. Louis lack textbooks, working facilities (e.g. some of the schools have broken stumps for toilets), good teachers, and so many other basic necessities to learn. Trash and sewage piles up in their backyards because of the lack of an adequate garbage removal system. The soil contains lead, which children play in, from its past as a toxic waste dump, and the inhabitants are at daily risk of inhaling toxic fumes from the Monsanto factory next door. The factory sounds an alarm and pays off those who have inhaled the toxic fumes with $400 to not sue. The city is known for its violence and vices – two of its chief industries are gambling and prostitution. An estimate of over 95% of their students drop out before high school, and those who make it to community college almost never matriculate. I searched for St. Louis to look up images for context and one Google image of a strip club caught my attention. I clicked on it, and it was a random man complaining that the strippers in a particular club in East St. Louis had obvious C-section scars from pregnancy, looked older than he liked, and had bullet wounds on their bodies, which were most likely either from actual bullets or intravenous drugs. This hurt because these women were the schoolchildren who had grown up in these schools, in a city full of lead.

I learned that most inequality stems from self-interest. It’s not that wealthy white families wish ill on poor black/Latinx families. They just want the best for their own children and their self-interest perpetuates inequality when they refuse to equally distribute public school funding amongst poorer districts, knowing that it will decrease the quality of their own. They hide behind the San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez court case that less is okay, so long as a minimum is kept, but the children in these poverty-stricken schools are not receiving an adequate education.

This book impressed upon me that we are oftentimes more the product of our environments and privilege than of our own skills. I’ve seen increasingly more through my life that intelligence and brilliance comes from all sorts of places, but the reason why we see it more in middle-upper class and predominantly white communities is because their children have been allowed to foster and grow their talent, and given immense privileges that many others could never dream of.

Bad Blood was shocking. When I got to the part where George Schultz didn’t believe his own grandson about the fraud that was occurring at Theranos and even turned on him, I realized my mouth was agape and a lady on BART was looking at me with concern. It’s amazing how manipulative and charismatic people with celebrity can influence people, but it’s unsurprising how magnetic they can be. By becoming a celebrity and recruiting other celebrities to endorse her, Holmes hacked the human mental circuitry. I learned that 1) people want to believe in and be a part of something bigger, something that gives their lives meaning and purpose, and 2) they will follow the person who provides that and even maintain shocking amounts of cognitive dissonance to allow it.

Holmes had a lot of strong skills, but she was a bully and most likely either a sociopath or an extreme narcissist, or both. Ultimately what Theranos did was unconscionable and illegal. It’s ultimately really not worth it to become great if you also become a complete asshole.

This book also enlightened me on how to spot a narcissist, and caused me to look deeper into what causes people to not have a conscience.

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