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Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls

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?
What Was I Reading?
The Book Lady's Blog
Rebecca Reads


Ti said...

I've heard of this book before but for some reason I thought it was fiction.

Glad you enjoyed it! There should be a lot to discuss at your meeting.

Anonymous said...

It took me a long time to get around to reading this because I had a lot of the same reservations you did. I thought it was wonderfully done, and I reviewed it here.

Florinda said...

I read this with my book club a few years ago. We all thought it was amazing (and since we were all moms, we were scandalized by some of the parenting). Walls seems able to find a lot of value in her unconventional - to say the least - upbringing, and yet be able to move well beyond it. It's a fascinating story, and you're right - in other hands, the same facts could have produced a complete downer.

Michele said...

I read this back in May 07 and have it flagged as a top read. I gave it 4.5 stars on library thing. And for me, one who doesnt' read hardly any non-fiction, that's a great rating!

Anonymous said...

I thought this book was great. I think the lack of parenting was caused by alcoholism (father) and mental illness (mother). It was a heartbreaking way to grow up but the kids learned how to take care of themselves.

Anonymous said...

I also found it similar to Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight...I think because neither one of the authors had a pity party in their book.

They are both wonderful reads...and I tend to stay far away from memoirs. Unless, of course, there's travel involved.

Amy said...

oh, sounds good!:)

Rebecca Reid said...

my review is here.

I usually dislike memoirs because of the "poor me" or "look at me!" attitudes. But I loved this one because it was matter-of-fact and fascinating.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see your review. I've always passed on this book for the same reasons you listed at the beginning of your post, but now, I'll give it a chance.

Dreamybee said...

I thought this was a great read too. The author did an amazing job of not making her parents out to be monsters, which would have been a very easy thing to do. Her parents would do so many things that made me just want to hate them, but then her father would do something that would just bring tears to my eyes because, *sniff*, he so clearly loves his little girl, and he's doing the best he can! Those parts always made me cry, which was bad because I did the audio thing in the car too!

Susan Elliott said...

This book really made me think about parental LOVE. I have never liked abused childhood books as a genre either (remember Oprah's first book club year? Ugggghhh111) but I too loved this book. My book club read it a few years back and I don't think I would have read it either without them. I particularly loved the part where the Dad didn't have any money to buy birthday presents so they laid on the ground and looked at the stars and asked each kid to pick one out for their birthday and he gave it a special name...not sure if I remembered it exactly, you probably will remember it better. Enjoyed your review.

Literature Crazy said...

I find my book club does great things for me in regard to getting me to read books that I wouldn't have otherwise picked up (especially this month with The Sparrow).

I did a full review of The Glass Castle which you can read here.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Heather; this is not a "poor me" memoir, which it certainly could have been, considering the material Jeannette Walls had to work with!

I do think there is still a lot of denial in the book - she never says she was angry or resentful of the (bottom line: abusive) way she was raised. Yes, her parents loved her and her siblings in they ways they were capable (and her father was brilliant, if mis-guided), but I would have liked a one-page postscript that says "I'm glossing over a lot and finding the bright spots because I just can't face how tough it was"

I read *The Glass Castle for a book group 3 years ago, then again for another group about 3 months ago. I didn't want to re-read it the second time, but I was glad I did. Those kids were strong!

Beth F said...

Thanks so much for this review. I often don't like the books that others are raving about. I have had the audio of this for about a year and just keep skipping over it when it comes time to pick my next book.

I'll give it a try. Maybe I'll be surprised.

Framed said...

I totally agree with your review. Wallis' matter-of-fact narrative never asks for pity or reciminations. Even though I was appalled at the way the parents neglected their children, I was impressed with how strong those children were and what they accomplished.

ChristineMM said...

Glad you enjoyed it. It is on my TBR pile, near the top. LOL.

I heard Walls speak a month ago and she was great.

She said she reads every Amazon customer if you want her to hear your thoughts post your review there too.

Clicked through from Semicolon's Sat Review of Books...

Literary Feline said...

What a brilliant review! You really captured what it was I liked about this book.

Anonymous said...

I want to be in the "in" crowd on this book! I've seen nothing but great reviews for it and recently bought it. Hope to read it before the end of the year.

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