Read One, Skip One: Hillbilly Elegy and Cruel Beautiful World

Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. VanceHillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released June 28, 2016)
272 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Harper)

Plot Summary: Vance’s hybrid memoir of his childhood growing up poor in an Ohio town (Middletown) / social analysis of the plight of poor Appalachians.

My Thoughts: Before reading Hillbilly Elegy, I’d heard it compared to Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle (which I loved) and I agree that the memoir portion does bear some resemblance. But, Vance takes Hillbilly Elegy to the next level (5 star level for me!) by seamlessly blending in social analysis of why the poor, white working class is failing to achieve upward mobility. This blend of life story and social analysis is tough to execute well (I’m looking at you, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts) and Vance made it work. Vance’s social analysis is brave and articulates hard-to-swallow truths, even about his own family, which make this book almost a plea to his fellow hillbillies to take some responsibility for their lives. 

But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

Through a combination of hard work, a supportive grandmother, a clear vision, a driving ambition to “get out”, and a bit of luck, Vance served in the military, then graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law School (a rarity for folks from his town). His success enables him to portray the difficulties (i.e. countless unwritten social rules) working class people that do make it face as they try to assimilate into the white collar world. Hillbilly Elegy is the perfect combination of entertaining story (including Mamaw, a fantastic trash-talking grandma with a heart of gold who Vance credits with saving his life) and commentary on a specific segment of the population that has become more visible in this election…making it a great discussion starter for book clubs.

Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline LeavittCruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt
Historical Fiction (Released October 4, 2016)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Algonquin Books) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: When sixteen year-old Lucy runs away with an older man in the early 1970’s, the family she left behind tries to piece together what happened while her new life doesn’t turn out quite how she imagined.

My Thoughts: Amid September’s back to school chaos (see my review of A Gentleman in Moscow), I craved reading that didn’t require too much concentration and Cruel Beautiful World fits that bill. Upon reading this first line, I thought Cruel Beautiful World would hit the spot perfectly:

Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat.

Though I wasn’t highlighting much (i.e. the writing wasn’t making a huge impression), the first half of the book was decently entertaining, if not particularly memorable. However, the ending included a couple eyeroll-inducing surprises and one that I saw coming a mile away, turning my mild enjoyment into annoyance. And, Lucy’s so-called obsession with news of the Manson murders felt forced and unnecessary…like Leavitt just needed some vehicle to highlight that the book is set in the early 1970’s because the time period didn’t shine through the story otherwise.

Get Weekly Email Updates!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. I want to read both books, even though Cruel Beautiful World didn’t work for you. Hillbilly Elegy sounds right up my alley.

    Posted 10.11.16 Reply
  2. You’ve convinced me I need to give Hillbilly Elegy a try since I also loved The Glass Castle. Maybe in November? And, of course, I totally agree with Cruel Beautiful World.

    Posted 10.11.16 Reply
  3. Naomi wrote:

    Now I want to read Hillbilly Elegy just for Mamaw!
    Nice review of both books! Your last sentence has me wondering about how writers get their time periods to show. It’s one of those things you notice more when it’s not done well enough.

    Posted 10.11.16 Reply
  4. Oh both of these are on my TBR and i’m hoping to get to them by the end of the year. That’s a bummer that the ending of Cruel beautiful World fell flat because I was hoping it would be the perfect contemporary book to read this winter but maybe not!

    Posted 10.11.16 Reply
  5. Amanda wrote:

    That reminds me I still need to read The Glass Castle too. So many books. Maybe I’ll try to get Hillbilly Elegy on my Nonfiction November list.

    Posted 10.11.16 Reply
  6. Lindsey wrote:

    I was just talking about Hillbilly Elegy. It sounds like a great one to read, especially in these few weeks before the election!

    Posted 10.11.16 Reply
  7. So glad to read your review of Hillbilly Elegy! I’ve got a hold on both the ebook and physical book… we’ll see which one arrives first.

    Posted 10.11.16 Reply
  8. Rachel wrote:

    I listened to Hillbilly Elegy last week, and I agree that it was a fantastic combination of memoir and social commentary!

    Posted 10.12.16 Reply
  9. I loved Hillbilly Elegy and am encouraging my friends from home (a town very close to Middletown) to read it!

    That is a great first line for Cruel Beautiful World. Not sure I’ll rush to read it though!

    Posted 10.12.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I would love to hear what people from that area think about it! Do they agree? No? I’m not, so don’t have that perspective.

      Posted 10.13.16 Reply
  10. hillary wrote:

    I am from central Appalachia. I am one of those who has escaped. I need to read this book. There are so few of us that make it out of that hellhole, and I want to know why.

    Posted 10.13.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I would love to hear your perspective on this book – do you agree with his points? Consistent with your experience? I’m not from that area, so didn’t have that experience.

      And kudos to you for getting out 🙂

      Posted 10.13.16 Reply
  11. My best friend in high school recommended The Glass Castle as one of her favorite books, but I’ve never read it. Books about economically depressed, small towns are something I have a hard time making myself pick up. They just seem like such downers!

    Posted 10.13.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      They’re downers in some ways, but I’ve found a couple where the people are so eccentric that there’s humor in there too.

      Posted 10.14.16 Reply
  12. Lauren wrote:

    I remember not being able to get into Leavitt’s Taking Pictures (I think I got that right, it was several years ago), but for some reason her books always catch my eye and make me want to give her another chance some day. Maybe you’ve now thankfully saved me that effort. 🙂

    HE sounds like my kind of read, though, and it wasn’t even on my radar, so thanks for the great heads up!

    Posted 10.15.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      HE is fascinating and entertaining and sad all at once – hope you try it.

      And this was my first Leavitt and the premise completely enticed me…but the style just wasn’t there for me.

      Posted 10.17.16 Reply
  13. Michelle wrote:

    I haven’t heard of the first one, but I will definitely be looking more closely at it. SO disappointing about the Leavitt novel though. I have a copy of it and was looking forward to reading it.

    Posted 10.19.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I first heard of it a few months after it came out and now have been seeing it mentioned everywhere (in traditional media outside of blogger world…haven’t seen much about it in blogger world).

      I know..the premise seemed so promising 🙁

      Posted 10.20.16 Reply

Get Weekly Email Updates!

Join our mailing list to receive all new blog posts in one weekly email. Plus, news of special updates and offers!

You have Successfully Subscribed!