I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am a book snob. I hate to read what "everyone else" is reading, to be "part of the crowd" ... I'm very picky about what I read ... I'm often (internally) critical of what other people choose to read. Shame on me, I know, but at least I'm honest about it. :)
When my book club chose The Glass Castle for this month's pick I was not thrilled. I have a rule against reading personal tragedy/childhood abuse memoirs. Add that to the fact that "everyone" is raving about this book and you can see where this is going. I do have another rule though: read whatever book the book club chooses, and (try to) do it with an open mind. It's a good thing that I have that rule because this is a great book!
*** The Plot ***
This book is hard to summarize. I say that because everything I'd ever heard about it gave me a clear idea of what the book would be about ... and my ideas were completely wrong. Be sure to keep reading past my plot summary because I'll attempt to explain the book so that you really get it.
Jeannette is the 2nd of four children born to parents who can only be described as clueless. Loving, but clueless. Brilliant and talented, but clueless. Jeannette tells the story of her childhood from the perspective of herself as a child. Her family was poor - dirt poor most of the time. Her father, a charismatic and highly intelligent man, was an alcoholic. Her mother was an artist. Both parents could work but usually didn't. Jeannette and her siblings are left to their own devices most of the time.
The family moves around a LOT. Dad calls it "doing the skidaddle" and it usually takes less than an hour to do. Most of their homes are in the southwestern United States, along the edges of the desert. Eventually they settle long term in the mountains of West Virginia where their lives go steadily downhill.
After many years in West Virginia Jeannette moves to New York City. Eventually the whole family moves there, albeit at different times. Mom and Dad are homeless pretty much by choice.
This is just the most basic plot outline. And despite my best efforts, just reading my own plot summary would make me not want to read this book!
*** What's So Great About It? ***
Before I go on, I have to say that I listened to the audio version of The Glass Castle. I did this in part because I enjoy audio books on my drive to/from work, but more because (like I said above) I just didn't want to read it. However, once I popped that first cassette in my old car radio I was hooked. In my opinion the narrator of an audio book can make or break the book; this narrator definitely made it. She did an excellent job and I highly recommend the audio version.
Now, about the book itself. The Glass Castle is definitely not a "oh poor me" memoir, nor is it one that horrifies you with details of unimaginable child abuse. If I had to describe what happened to Jeannette and her siblings I'd call it neglect. But that's not it either. That word conjures up images in my mind that don't match this book at all. Maybe "forced independence" would be a better choice. Or not.
What I CAN say for certain is that the book is enthralling. The narrator is Jeannette as a child and she tells her story just as she experienced it, without any analyzing from her adult self. In that way it reminded me very much of Alexandra Fuller's memoir, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (which I highly recommend - it's fantastic!). Both authors tell the story of childhoods that could be completely heartbreaking and painful to read if not handled well. Luckily for us, these authors get it right.
I think what I found most fascinating is the intelligence of Jeannette's parents and the things they taught their kids. All four children could read before they started Kindergarten. The entire family spent lots of time reading together. If someone came across a new word, Dad pulled out the dictionary and they'd discuss the meaning. Sometimes Dad and the dictionary didn't agree, in which case Dad would write a letter to the publisher stating his case, and a heated debate-by-letter would ensue. There are many more stories like this and for me, that's what made this book so enjoyable.
Despite the situation it was clear that the Walls family loved each other. Parenting skills and good decisions were always in short supply but love was never lacking.
*** Great Links To Check Out ***
My book club is meeting to discuss this on 11/15; I'll add a link to our meeting recap once it's up.
Jeannette Walls interview by Stephen Colbert
article on MSNBC
link to lots of videos about this book
Other bloggers are sharing their thoughts on this book ... want to join in?
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