The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Memoir)

The Glass Castle

Jeannette Walls (Memoir)

Jeannette Walls’s earliest memory was when she was just three years old.  She was living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town with her parents and two siblings.  She was on a chair cooking hot dogs.  She was wearing a pretty pink dress bought for her by her grandmother.  And she was on fire.  She was burned so badly that she spent six weeks in the hospital and endured a series of painful skin grafts.  Yet quite unbelievably, things for Jeannette and her family would only go downhill from there.  Always one step ahead of the FBI, gestapo, or Mafia (cleverly disguised as bill collectors), Jeannette’s father Rex skeddadled his family across the desert from one little mining town to the next.  Dealing with bullying, squalor, hunger, a brilliant alcoholic father, and an apathetic artistic mother, this is Jeannette’s remarkable story, candidly and humorously told without fear or favor.  This is her early life presented as transparently as the glass castle that her father had always promised to build.

The Glass Castle is one of those stories that if it wasn’t true, you’d scoff at the bizarre storyline and ridiculous lengths the author puts her main characters through.  As I turned page after page, the one sentence I kept repeating to myself was, “How did this woman ever survive childhood?”  Walls was severely burned at three (and ironically developed an unhealthy fascination with fire after that) and by the time she turned four, she not only survived being thrown out of a moving car, but handedly acquired such “basic skills” as firing her father’s pistol, throwing a knife by the blade, and shooting her mother’s bow and arrow. On top of that, she conducted experiments with toxic and hazardous waste found at the dump, nearly drowned during her swimming “lessons” with her father, hunted for perverts in the dead of night with her brother, escaped several sexual deviants (many times due to her father’s lack of good judgement), and climbed under a fence to pet a cheetah at the zoo.  Growing up, Jeannette clearly had more luck than sense, but her ability to see the good in everything and her unfailing faith in her father often led to heartbreak and disappointment, but clearly made her the tough and grounded adult that she is today.

American game designer and sci-fi novelist Aaron Allston once noted that the difference between tragedy and comedy is that “tragedy is something awful happening to somebody else, while comedy is something awful happening to somebody else.” Indeed, there are parts of Jeannette’s story where you momentarily suspend the idea that this ACTUALLY happened and allow yourself to laugh at the sheer outrageousness of this family’s history (while secretly realizing that your own family and life REALLY aren’t so terribly bad). The only thing that will undeniably make you throw this book against the wall (repeatedly) are Jeannette’s insufferable parents: Rex and Rose Mary Walls.  These are two people who clearly should not have been responsible for the lives of other human beings.  Although their intentions MAY have been unselfish and well-intended, you just can’t get past their self-indulgent, self-destructive, self-righteous, and self-pitying behavior and how their actions caused unnecessary hardship to their situation and to the health and lives of their children.  Kudos to Walls for writing a book that immerses you so totally in her story that you often find yourself yelling at the characters and their misplaced ideologies and lofty platitudes of optimism.  Well done, Ms. Walls…although my wall is still cross.   

In one of Jeannette’s most humiliating moments (and that’s saying something), her mother candidly told her, “Life is a drama full of tragedy and comedy. You should learn to enjoy the comedic episodes a little more.” The life of the Walls family indeed had its share of comedy and tragedy.  Theirs was a family torn apart by alcohol and self-indulgence, but also held together by loyalty and love. Novelist Georgette Heyer wrote, “But it is only in epic tragedies that gloom is unrelieved. In real life tragedy and comedy are so intermingled that when one is most wretched ridiculous things happen to make one laugh in spite of oneself.” After finishing this book, I couldn’t imagine how on earth Jeannette Walls not only survived her childhood, but managed to emerge as a successful, happy, and fulfilled adult.  Attribute it to grit, willpower, or sheer obstinance, but I think Jeannette realized that sometimes Mother does know best and that the only way to navigate the broken promises, failed illusions, and mounting disappointments of life is to simply just laugh.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew

The Dry Grass of August

The Dry Grass of August 

Anna Jean Mayhew (Adult Fiction)

In August of 1954, we took our first trip without Daddy, and Stell got to use the driver’s license she’d had such a fit about.  It was just a little card saying she was Estelle Annette Watts, that she was white, with hazel eyes and brown hair.  But her having a license made that trip different from any others, because if she hadn’t had it, we never would have been stuck in Sally’s Motel Park in Claxton, Georgia, where we went to buy fruitcakes and had a wreck instead.  And Mary would still be with us.

It’s 1954 and Jubie Watts, her mother, brother, sisters, and their maid, Mary, are embarking on the ultimate road trip from Charlotte, North Carolina to Florida.  They’re traveling without father and there’s talk of the Klan in Georgia.  “We’ll be fine,” Mama assured.  She needed this trip and nothing was going to change her mind.  So with that final word, the six of them headed out in the family’s Packard for a journey that would have unforeseeable impacts on them all.

Several reviewers noted that fans of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel The Help (I read it and count myself as a fan) would also enjoy this book.  “A must-read,” one went so far as saying.  But other than the story being set in the South during segregation, the parallels stop there.  Mayhew’s story does deal with the atrocities of racial and social injustice, but—through the Watts family—she also delves into the darkness of infidelity, alcoholism, and physical abuse.  This is a story about both a country and a family being torn apart from the inside out.  The ugliness of racial disparity and the effects of substance abuse are on full display and is authentic in their depiction and raw in their detail.  What’s perhaps most disturbing is the fact that in this place and time in American history, these behaviors were indeed the status quo and viewed as socially acceptable.

In the back of the book, there is an author Q&A section where Mayhew is asked if her novel is young adult fiction given that her protagonist is thirteen years old.  Mayhew answers, “My novel is literary fiction; however, I hope young adults will read it, because it’s set in a time long before their lives and can give them a look into history through the eyes of someone of their age.”  I searched Penguin Teen for iconic YA heroines and pulled up such descriptions as “sharpshooter, ancient beast tamer”, “futuristic Resistance fighter”, “post-apocalyptic survivor”, “female gladiator”, and “dress-wearing demon destroyer”.  After reading The Dry Grass of August, it was refreshing to see just an ordinary young girl standing up for principles she feels are worth defending and standing beside people she feels are worth protecting.  Jubie Watts is such a person and a heroine that any reader—young or old—can learn a thing or two from.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

Brady Udall

“If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head.  As formative events go, nothing else comes close.”

Seven-year old Edgar Mint is what you might call a “miracle boy”.  The son of a drunk, heartsick mother and absentee, wannabe cowboy father, he survives a near-fatal accident only to live a life in reverse.  His early years are filled with heartache, hard choices, and terrible consequences while later on he enjoys the sheltered, unfettered, and uncluttered life of a child.  Throughout his entire life, Edgar is always being saved and, quite frankly, he’s getting pretty sick of it.  But once he finds religion, Edgar finally realizes what his God-given purpose is: to find and forgive the man who nearly killed him.

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is undoubtedly one of the most entertaining and immersive books that I’ve read in quite a long time.  Udall doesn’t waste a single word on frivolous details or superfluous backstories.  Instead, he gives us a rich story that neither lags, stalls, or grows tedious.  Every chapter is thoughtful, engaging, and provocative, and Udall takes great care in introducing us to Edgar and slowly allowing us to care about this peculiar and resilient little outcast.  Throughout his journey, Edgar meets his share of heroes and villains, teasers and tormentors, bullies and a best friend.  He survives physical, verbal, and emotional abuse and faithfully captures every thought and memory through an old Hermes Jubilee typewriter: “I typed because typing, for me, was as good as having a conversation.  I typed because I had to.  I typed because I was afraid I might disappear.”

I can’t remember the last time when a book so deeply transported me into a fictional world or when I felt so drawn to a character.  Edgar’s story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  All too young, he accepts misfortune as his constant companion yet attempts to turn every bad situation into a learning experience.  Edgar’s comical take on either the harshest of circumstances or the cruelest of individuals is both pitiful and inspiring.  Thankfully, hope runs eternal for our miracle boy and when he finds someone who truly loves and cares for him, Edgar realizes that being saved might not be such a bad thing after all.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com