Monday, October 28, 2013

"The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls

I. forgot. to. review. a. book!  I knew there was one I had read during the busy part of summer that I never wrote about! I recently asked for memoir/biography recommendations on Facebook and my cousin said "The Glass Castle" in a comment, then it hit me like a flash of lightening!  The title I forgot to review!  I'm glad she brought it up, because it really was a moving read.  It's just that my mommy brain has too many holes in it.

"The Glass Castle" is a memoir.  One of Walls' earliest memories is boiling hot dogs for herself for lunch on a gas stove top.  At the tender age of three.  Let that sink in for a minute--a three-year-old handling gas flames and boiling water, unsupervised.  Her little dress catches on fire and her mother rushes in from the other room, where she had been painting.  She puts out the fire but recognizes little Jeannette is in need of medical care.  She borrows a neighbor's car to rush her to the hospital, where she is treated for a few weeks for her burns that cover much of her torso.  Until her father decides he's fed up with doctors and their western medicine.  He decides to check Jeannette out of the hospital "Rex Walls style," grabbing his daughter from her hospital room and heading to a get-away car.  Just one of the anecdotes of Wall's unconventional upbringing.

Unconventional?  Certainly.  Neglectful?  Absolutely.  Abusive?  Too a degree, I'd say.  Many readers would argue that the intensity of the neglect inflicted upon Walls and her three siblings was abuse.  But the children were never beaten by their parents, however, they were put in countless compromising situations that put their mental, emotional, and physical well-being at risk.  Story after story in Walls' arsenal of personal history left my jaw scraping the floor.  I cannot fathom any parent putting their children through the conditions the Walls children had to endure:  not enough food, inadequate clothing, parents splurging money on booze and art supplies instead of providing for basic needs, moving frequently to avoid run-ins with authority, a house so poorly insulated that icicles formed on the inside walls, using a bucket for a toilet inside the kitchen.  It goes on and on and on.  

I was constantly expecting a diagnosis of some mental or emotional disorders for the parents, but it never reached that point.  The children lived with their parents' illogical and selfish choices until they were old enough to fly the coop.  One by one, they left home and went to New York City, where they scraped a living for themselves and finally got to live in a way they chose.  Just when they thought they're getting control of their lives again, Rosemary and Rex follow their children's lead and come to New York, also.  Jeannette has to learn how to deal with her parents in her new life and the new roles she's adapted to.

This book will constantly surprise you.  Truth is stranger than fiction in this case.  And the story-telling is so comfortable for the reader to dive into.  Despite the horrific tales, you can also cheer when Jeannette overcomes her obstacles.  I can't overemphasize how impressed I was with the almost objective way Jeannette recreated her childhood experiences.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith

When I saw this book at my September book club, my first reaction was how thick it was.  It was nearly 500 pages!  As of yesterday, I was only 150 pages into it, so the past two days have been a whirlwind of flipping pages and ignoring my kids (to a degree).  My 3-year-old's encounter today with an inky stamp left her looking like Ronald McDonald.  Mom's a book addict and hates going to book club with the book unfinished:  guilty as charged.

This title is one I have always heard of, but knew nothing about.  It's the story about little Francie Nolan, a girl who grows up in the slums of Brooklyn, collecting gum wrappers and other rubbish off the streets to trade in for pennies to put in a little tin can bank hammered into the floor of the closet.  The story is largely biographical of Betty Smith.  It follows Francie starting at age 11, and following up through her 16th birthday, shortly after the start of WWI.  I adored the glimpses into life of the Nolan family, despite their constant hardships.  Franice's mother, Katie, had to clean houses to earn their rent, and when her father, Johnny, happened to get a gig as a singing waiter, there was sometimes enough to eat.  But Johnny was an alchoholic and undependable for steady income.  You'll meet Francie's eccentric Aunt Sissy, as well as other Nolan and Rommely family members who probably act a lot like people you're related to.

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is more than a "coming of age" story.  It's a snatch of American history, a story still touching readers 70 years later.  I appreciated the window into Francie's life from nearly 100 years ago.  So much has changed, but so much has remained constant.  I guess when it was first published in 1943 it was considered scandalous, but those "shady" aspects of the book are something I can relate to, because reading these passages echo of controversies my generation sees every day.   Not only could the story be eye-opening to the past and still feel familiar, Smith's writing style is simply classic.  Her gift of story-telling pulls in the reader.  It was comfortable, humorous, heart-breaking.

I told myself I was going to make note of passages as I read this one.  The writing was so lyrical and pictorial I wanted to remember it.  But it was a library book and I read it so fast, that I only wrote down two passages.  So, here they are, two token lines to represent the heart of this treasured book.

"Katie had the same hardships as Johnny and she was nineteen, two years younger.  It might be said that she, too, was doomed.  Her life, too was over before it began.  But there the similarity ended.  Johnny knew he was doomed and accepted it.  Katie wouldn't accept it.  She started a new life where her old one left off" (97).

"'You married him.  There was something about him that caught your heart.  Hang on to that and forget the rest'" (102).