Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls and her siblings grew up with a childhood you wouldn’t believe. Their freewheeling parents almost never held down jobs, were constantly on the run from child welfare agencies and the snooping nose of the government, and didn’t feel compelled to do much in the way of parenting their four children.

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The scope of their risks makes for a harrowing read for modern parents. In one episode, the parents drive a moving van and put their four kids in the back, telling the three school-age kids to watch over the infant. When the doors of the van swing open, the kids are clinging to furniture, screaming for the van to stop, and trying to keep a hold on the baby.

In another scene, Walls is cooking hot dogs at age three, pulls the pot of boiling water down onto herself and is so badly burned that she requires skin grafts. She is hospitalized for several weeks, which she remembers as a pleasant and happy time, because of all the attention (and chewing gum) the nurses lavish upon her.When it dawns on the Walls parents  that child protection might come sniffing around, they bust Jeannette out of there and hit the road, running to another town. And when the mother sees Jeannette trying to boil another hot dog a few days later, she praises this: Way to get back on the horse! (By this point, I was almost getting desensitized to the idea of the BOILING WATER and moved on to, How many hot dogs is this kid eating?)

Yet Walls writes a surprisingly fond memoir of her first eighteen years, remembering the time her father, flat broke, gave her stars for her birthday; the way their family lived on books and art, the way, when things were good, they hiked and collected rocks and played cards all afternoon.

Such memories are nice, yes, but as a parent — especially one who’s currently up to her eyeballs in this whole raising-of-small-children gig — the whole thing made me squirm. Now, I know it’s hardly literary criticism to read with an eye for moral judgment, and I’ll admit that this will not be my most insightful book review. (The Glass Castle is not my usual type of book — I read it for a neighborhood book club, and we had quite a lively discussion.) But while I found the story fascinating and the resiliency of the Walls children inspiring, I could not get past the horror of these parents. It was 288 pages of cringe for me.

However, the book was a #1 New York Times bestseller, and I can see why. It’s like a train wreck — you can’t look away — and Walls is a good storyteller. She describes her parents as compassionately as she can, which is a feat, and she conveys the pluck of the amazing Walls children. (Jeannette actually makes her own braces in high school, out of paper clips and a large rubber band, and they work! My kids, listen up: you will save us thousands of dollars by constructing your own othodontia. And she and her siblings move to New York City together – without their parents — when the youngest is 12!)

Yet there is very little attempt at reflection, and that troubled me, as if Walls is saying that her parents were grossly irresponsible but she’s alright now. It’s only casually mentioned that the youngest sibling, Maureen (who doesn’t have the benefit of running in the “pack” with her older sisters and brother) becomes addicted to drugs and actually stabs the mother (by this point I was also ready to stab the mother), and no attempt is made to understand how Jeannette herself might feel about her childhood now that she’s an adult. Her writerly voice feels almost misleadingly positive and innocent, which works in one sense because we are able to see these events the way she saw them, as a child. Perhaps this was the only way she could write such a memoir without bitterness. But it also makes the story deceptively simple, and I don’t think it’s a simple story at all.  After a time this childlike voice made me feel slightly manipulated, as if the book were a compilation of bizarre wrongs committed by adults against children, and she was just setting them out there to see how we felt about them. Like, “All this awful stuff happened, and my parents hardly cared about us, but I loved them! What do you think? Should I be angry?”  I felt that she should be angry, but there was no real insight into her feelings, and despite how impressed I was by the young Jeannette Walls, the writer Jeannette Walls remained a mystery to me.

 

Jeannette Walls

The fiction writer in me wants more — wants to understand more about Walls now, and about the fallout from a childhood like this. I don’t think a fiction writer could have gotten away with ending the story where Walls did. Maybe that’s more an essential difference between fiction and creative nonfiction — fiction has to push things deeper, wrangle with meaning, because the possibilities are endless and finding the right track is the name of the game, whereas sometimes nonfiction gets off the hook by saying, “Well, this is what happened and that’s how I remember it.” Now, the best creative nonfiction will push for meaning as far as it can, too, but Walls — perhaps because her mother is still alive when she’s writing; perhaps because it’s simply not her style — gives you the events of her childhood, The Education of Jeannette Walls, and it’s definitely a riveting tale, but for me it didn’t go quite deep enough, and it ended too soon.

a little mid-week roundup: the light and the heavy

Hey, there’s good and interesting stuff around the web. Some items of interest….

— A fantastic piece in the New York Times, “The Things She Carried.”

I’ve stood next to my uniform-wearing brother, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, in a grocery store while three separate strangers approached to thank him for his service. Women veterans are rarely stopped by people who want to shake their hands. Even wearing fatigues and boots and carrying duffel bags standing in bus stations or at the airport, somehow they go unrecognized as returning warriors.

 

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— Also, here’s George Packer on The New War Literature.

(Quoting Hemingway: I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.)

— And in that vein, some really good questions about what war literature is meant to do — by Peter Molin of Time Now.

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On a lighter note: ARE YOU READING ENOUGH? Here’s “How to Squeeze in More Reading” from Army Amy.

Former Army wife Jessie Knadler shares some books she read (and how she liked them) in this post on her funny blog, Rurally Screwed.

Book Review: Life After Life By Kate Atkinson

For most fiction writers, the decision to kill off a character (or not) is a big one, something undertaken reluctantly (unless you are George R.R. Martin). Writers tend to become attached to their major characters, spending hundreds of hours with these imaginary people, and their entire investment in their craft is predicated upon whether or not a reader somewhere  in the world will care if their character lives or dies.

 

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In Life After Life, however (Kate Atkinson’s eighth novel), Ursula Todd is killed off early — upon her birth, in fact — and then again and again. It’s not that Atkinson doesn’t care for her protagonist; she seems to be quite fond of her. Rather, Atkinson is exploring the notion, expressed by Ursula’s beloved brother, Teddy — that it would be wonderful “if we had a chance to do it [life] again and again, until we got it right.”

Whether killed in childbirth, or from a seashore drowning on vacation, or from the Spanish influenza, Ursula dies “early and often” (the way they vote in Chicago!), but she always comes back. The reader is tipped off to this fact from the outset, but what hangs in the balance are the lives of the other characters, whose deaths may or may not be permanent. We can only read on to find out. This may be the real source of tension in Life After Life, because Atkinson skillfully endears us to her characters at the same time that she feigns disregard for them (sometimes through the persona of Ursula’s intelligent but dissatisfied mother, Sylvie):

“She never knows where those girls are,” Sylvie said [of a mother whose child had been abducted and murdered]. “She just lets them run wild. Now she’s paying the price of her carelessness.”

“Oh, Sylvie,” Hugh said sadly. “Where is your heart?”

What’s interesting about Ursula’s lives is that none of them are, in a traditional sense, perfectly “right,” just different from one another, with some being better and others being worse. Ursula never meets the love of her life or bears surviving children; she doesn’t achieve fame or fortune and is always viewed as slightly odd by her own family. But in some lives she meets an untimely, grisly end, or suffers a rape and subsequent abortion, or marries an abusive husband, while in others she has meaningful friendships, enjoys the company of her brother Teddy, has romantic entanglements (none ultimately lasting) with desirable men. Eventually it becomes evident that Ursula can have an impact on future events: if she knows that something might have a bad outcome, she can reverse it. This renders her behavior strange to normal people, who don’t know what she’s trying to accomplish (as when she pushes a housekeeper down the stairs out of a sense of dread, thereby sparing the woman from going out into London and contracting the Spanish flu that weekend, then spreading it to the entire household).

kate_atkinsonone assumes Atkinson made it safely down this particular flight of stairs

Sometimes Atkinson’s plot minutiae is hard to understand (is Ursula the only character with this power? Can only she save and spare the others around her?). One curious character is her psychotherapist, Dr. Kellet, who after the War speaks sadly about his son Guy, “lost at Arras.” In a later incarnation Ursula glances around his office and, without thinking, blurts, “Where is the picture of Guy?” Dr. Kellet looks at her blankly and asks, “Who is Guy?” It’s a disorienting moment for the reader, who has grown to associate the doctor with his beloved lost son. Surely Ursula has had no influence on Dr. Kellet’s family and whether or not he has had a son, leaving the reader to wonder if Dr. Kellet, as someone tapped into this world, understanding reincarnation, has the power of multiple lives as well. But if so, wouldn’t he be somewhat aware of it, as is Ursula (particularly because he is older, and studies such ideas for his career?).

Such questions are not unexpected in a novel that plays fast and loose with time and space, and they don’t interfere too much. While I definitely preferred some sections to others (I loved most everything set at Fox Corner, because I became so fond of Ursula’s parents, Hugh and Sylvie; I detested the whole bit with the nonsensically abusive Derek Oliphant and was relieved when Ursula died there so we could get on with her next life), I found almost all of her characters very well-done. Atkinson’s skippy, parenthetical writing style can get a bit distracting at times, but it does give the impression that the author herself has known these characters, can recall with affection the time they said this-or-that, the time(s) they had the hated veal a la russe for dinner, and so on. (So dry-witted and British are some of the characters that you almost get the sense that a character can become larger-than-life, obtain immortality,  simply by delivering  a particularly wry, spot-on one-liner.)

Occasionally, the author seems to be avoiding sentimentality so stringently that her characters exist at a distance (when Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, dies, for example, Ursula never reflects on this major event, never expresses anything but the most oblique sadness). A stiff British upper lip? Even that explanation can’t quite suffice. (One wonders if Atkinson is gun-shy at the mere thought of writing “chick lit,” if she’s avoiding the overtly feminine realm of affection and feeling.)

But overall, for its fantastic characters, experimental framework, and historical details, Life After Life is a satisfying read, perfect for book clubs.

Coming soon….

My reading has slowed this week, due to busy kids’ school schedules, a parent in town, and an upcoming small trip. But I have lots of books taxiing on my reading runway, and a few other military spouses will be joining in with reviews, too.

In book news, in case you like to follow such things, two books reviewed here have been making headlines: “Ready for Air” by Kate Hopper was nominated for the Minnesota Book Award, and “Astonish Me” by Maggie Shipstead has received some glowing reviews, including this one from the Washington Post.

As for here at the Mil Spouse Book Review, stay tuned for upcoming reviews of…………
the glass castle“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls (a tale of negligent parents!)

 

Americanah-Chimamanda-Adichie-Book-Review-FAB-Magazine-6

“Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian woman moves to United States)

snow child“The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey (I don’t know what this one is about! — but the cover is lovely….  another reader, a former Army Corps of Engineers wife, will be reviewing this one)

brothers_forever“Brothers Forever” by Tom Sileo and Tom Manion (I received an advance reader’s copy from the publisher, and this looks like a fascinating, terribly sad story)

… and an interview with Shannon Cain, editor of the collection “Powder: Writing By Women in the Ranks.”

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Happy Reading!

Time Now

I’ve been reading a blog lately that I wanted to share with you. Time Now: The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Art, Film, and Literature is written by Peter Molin, an Army Lt. Colonel and current professor at West Point. It’s a phenomenal blog, fascinating, scholarly, and comprehensive, and I’ve learned from every post I’ve read. The latest two, about the G.I. Film Festival and “Graffiti of War,” are so interesting — he goes above and beyond what most of us are likely to encounter in daily life, and his personal experience in Afghanistan (over a year in Khowst and Paktya provinces, as an advisor to Afghan National Army forces) allows him to contribute insight into everything he discusses. He generally posts about once a week, so I encourage you to subscribe to his blog so you can get an update via email when he posts something new. (I’ve also added a link to “Time Now” here in my blogroll, under Personal Favorites, so you can get there that way as well.)

what mil spouses are reading

Military Spouse: Tiffany Silverberg

Branch: US Navysilverberg3

Top Books of All Time: Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, “and all my dictionaries and thesauruses!”jane austenlittle womenjulia

What’s Next on her Nightstand: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything

Tiffany Silverberg is a professional copywriter and editor, a UC Berkeley graduate, and a Navy wife. She’s managed to blend a career of her own within this military lifestyle, which is no small feat.silverberg1

On her web site Tiffany writes:

I love words… a lot. I collect dictionaries. I have a penchant for Oxford commas and I vehemently defend the passive voice. I formalized my love for words  at UC Berkeleystudying theoretical linguistics and digging into how and why we communicate – and how Deaf kids naturally develop vocabulary and grammar. In the meantime, a certain Naval officer swept me, with my armful of dictionaries, off my feet. After dabbling in journalism, I returned to my first love — words — and my lifelong passion for entrepreneurship.

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Military Spouse: Rachel D.

Branch: Air Force (Wisconsin)

rachelCurrently reading: Rumsfeld’s Rules by Donald Rumsfeld

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Next on her list: Something Blue by Emily Giffinsomething blue

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Also of interest:

“Fearless” by Eric Blehm, reviewed in Military Spouse Magazine