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The Glass Castle (2006)

The Glass Castle (2006)

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4.21 of 5 Votes: 5
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074324754X (ISBN13: 9780743247542)

About book The Glass Castle (2006)

It's no secret that I get to read on the job. I proofread for a financial publisher, which means that I spend my days getting lost in the lilting legalese of prospectuses, trustee meeting results, shareholder reports, highlight sheets – it's riveting stuff, trust me. But we're a small operation with only a few clients and the fiscal schedule is defined by a feast-or-famine work flow: While the numbers are still being tabulated, portfolio managers are polishing their semiannual interviews and style redesigns are being approved before the work descends in avalanches, I’m usually catching up on my reading with on-the-clock me-time.Since it’s almost instinctive to dislike the person whose job it is scrutinize and correct everyone else’s work (especially when said person has one of the few oh-so-coveted offices with a window overlooking the bucolic charm of two parking lots and a heavily traveled roadway), I have spent the better part of my three years there endearing myself to my coworkers to soften the blow when I literally cannot hack through a report because it’s so choked with errors. My efforts have mostly paid off and a number of my mom-aged coworkers have grown rather maternal with me, as it’s also not a secret that I stopped speaking to my parents more than two years ago.When a coworker recently came into my office brandishing an almost-finished book and saying that she kept thinking of me while reading this memoir she couldn’t put down, I assumed she was referring to the way I always have my nose in some kind of reading material at work. And then a little bit of research revealed that “The Glass Castle” was about growing up under the rule of parents who clearly had no business accepting the responsibility of parenthood, which was when I realized that this was my coworker’s way of reaching out to me.A couple of days and maybe about 100 pages (and a lot of wincing because, holy crap, the Walls kids are tiny troopers) later, I got into a car accident during my commute home via a road that sees about seven or eight accidents a day, most of them during rush hour because it is a totally good idea to have a direct route to and from Philly narrow down to two lanes in one of the area’s larger suburban oases. Long story short, I escaped the ordeal with my admittedly low expectations of humanity exceeded by miles. As I watched the tow-truck driver (who was totally cool with my nervous habit of asking a thousand rapid-fire questions as he drove both my car and me to the auto-body shop) load up my beloved, battered car with minimal fanfare, the last sigh of relief I heaved tasted something like “At least I don’t have to explain this to my parents.”The thought resurfaced throughout the evening, like when my husband met me at the mechanic's and I just lost whatever composure I'd been faking when he was right there to help me out of the truck before pulling me into a bear hug. And later when my in-laws, who live right next door and treat me like the daughter they’ve always wanted, greeted me with open arms, said that Mom’s car was all ready for me whenever I was ready to go back to work (as they all but told me that I was going to stay home for a day or two) and reiterated that “A car can be replaced but you can’t” every other sentence and meant it.By the time I was going fetal on my couch and started to feel the damage that a seat belt and steering wheel are capable of (which is surprisingly extensive when you’re a small-statured, large-chested woman who always knew she’d pay for leaning too far forward while driving), still marveling over how I received neither a single verbal evisceration nor a ticket after two of the most emotionally draining hours of my recent existence, I blurted some garbled admission to my husband about not knowing how to stop expecting someone to punish me, which is about when I realized that I’ve spent my adult life bracing myself to be torn down for every misstep as if the fate of the universe relied on me not fucking up, which isn’t entirely unlike the way my parents reacted to the staggering majority of the things that came naturally to me. I called out of work for two days not because my boobs were bleeding (they were) or because it hurt to move my neck (it did) or because pulling open doors made me feel like my chest was on fire (holy crap, did it ever), though my collection of minor injuries eased the terminally itchy conscience that won't even be appeased by having a valid excuse for calling out and leaving other people to pick up my slack unless I accept a load of Catholic-sized guilt in exchange lest I give myself a few justifiable recovery days without the appropriate reciprocal suffering. I needed some time to consider how much an inherently lousy experience opened my eyes to damage I didn’t even know I was still carrying around (what the hell, surely talking about going to therapy is just as good as actually going, right?). My coping method of choice? Alternately napping like a champ and juggling three books, including this memoir of the girl who was born to a bitterly brilliant drunk she idolized and an indifferent, self-involved artist who she tried so hard to understand, only to become the person she was meant to be with little support from the two people who should have been there to cheer her on all the way. Like I’d said, I knew I wasn’t going to be unbiased in how I approached Jeannette Walls’s coming-of-age story: No matter how sympathetically she painted her parents (which she did quite well), I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from resenting them for failing their children. But then the little-girl hero worship Jeanette felt for her tortured, misunderstood genius of her father just struck every raw nerve I have and just poked and poked until I had to physically distance myself from the book. The killer was that I’d stew in whatever calamity last befell these children to the point of needing to know how things were resolved (or avoided entirely). It's distracting to be doing other things and thinking about the book you'd rather be reading. Not even the blatantly narcissistic ravings of Jeannette’s mother sounded enough alarms to keep me from venturing back to this book if I’d stray too far for too long. And I’d’ve thrown the book across the room at Mrs. Walls’s “I’m not crying because you’re leaving me for New York City; I’m crying because you’re going and I’m not!” outburst had I not already been forced to corral all my determination to return this borrowed book in acceptable condition after Mama W -- whose “Oh, I don’t believe in discipline because children need to learn their own lessons” philosophy barely disguised the maternal disinterest and selfish absence that I know all too well – wailed that she has sacrificed so much for her children when the scamps had demonstrated time and again that they’re more responsible for their family than the matriarch is. I, uh, may have transferred a lot of my own lingering anger at my emotionally damaging mother onto Mrs. Walls, which makes me question how justified my screaming dislike of her is. The less said about Papa Walls, the better. My father might not have been a hopeless drunk but I kind of wish he had some kind of excuse for routinely breaking promises to the children who thought the sun rose and set on him. An absent mother is easy to hate while growing up and even easier to pity once you’ve come of age. That simpering animosity is something you get used to after a while and, if you’re like Jeannette and a better person than I am, you simply accept that your self-involved mother has constructed such an elaborate alternate reality around herself that nothing real can get through to her if she doesn’t want it to, that she can even turn homelessness into an enviable adventure. But an idolized father’s fall from grace? The older you get, the harder it is when you finally realize the one person you’ve told yourself can do anything is the person who's let you down with the least remorse. That first hard look at how helpless and broken the man behind the curtain is.... that is not easy to come back from. That’s how little girls grow up to become giant messes.When Jeannette found her way to the school paper and sampled her first taste of print journalism's sweet, sweet escapist nectar.... oh, my heart went out to her younger self in eagerly over-earnest ways. Being a half-consumed whiskey bottle rolling around an otherwise empty desk away from calling herself a true-blooded journalist at such a young age would have won me over if the entire book preceding such a moment hadn't already made me want to see Jeannette find her place in the world. Newsroom nostalgia will always be the easiest way to my too-soft heart.I am amazed that this isn’t one of those “Oh my God, so let me tell you about my super-sad story so you’ll feel just awful about the craptastic childhood I had and then you’ll be totally amazed at how far I’ve come and how functional I am hey, why don’t you love me yet please love me and feel sorry for me I need your sympathy give it to me” memoirs, thank bouncing Baby Jesus. It’s a documentation of these things that happened to the four Walls children and how at least three of them embraced responsible independence and sibling camaraderie. Walls describes what she sees, reporting the facts and supplying exposition as needed like any good journalist. Also like a good journalist, emotions get minimal face time here. Jeannette is the perfect narrator because it seems as though she is the most willing to accept her parents for what they are. Even though I selfishly wanted to know how her adult self dealt with the fallout of her turbulent childhood (because every little adult grows up to be a big child, let's be honest), I found myself admiring how Jeannette was in no way reliant on cheap feelings to maneuver the story to its conclusion. Jeannette and her siblings are the heroes of this story. They get themselves out of a bad situation one by one, fishing out each younger sibling as the means become available. Because what’s a better introduction to a new life of stability after years of only knowing that what comes next is an obstacle you can rely on exactly yourself and your equally young siblings to overcome?Christ, I still have two more reviews to catch up on and a stack of pumpkin pancakes that are clearly not going to eat themselves (unless they plan to fight me for the privilege). In short, this book was fucking great but it struck far too close to home in ways I may have overly personalized. It didn't make me laugh like it did my coworker but it sure as hell did make me appreciate how Jeannette Walls turned out. I've had a lot of people recently and unknowingly demonstrate that humanity might not be as awful as I've always thought it to be, and witnessing a grown child forgive her parents for their many crimes against her certainly made for the kind of book that confirmed it's probably time to fix my perspective. Maybe we're not as fucked of a species as I've feared all along.

My sister saw The Glass Castle on my coffee table and said, “Oh, I read that. It’s kind of . . .” then she paused and we both were awkwardly silent for a minute. “Well, I was going to say, it’s kind of like us, a little bit, but not –““Yeah,” I said. “I wasn’t going to say it – because not all of it – ““Yeah, not all of it.”We didn’t talk about it again. When I first saw this book, I think I died a little inside because of the cover. I didn’t hate The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood like I hated The Mermaid Chair or (*shudder*) Bastard out of Carolina, but when there’s a little girl on the cover of a book, looking all innocent, it’s like a movie with the word “Education” in the title. You just know you’re in for a published trip to the psychiatrist’s couch. Kiddy-sex and soul-searching. I’m not saying people shouldn’t tell their stories (I mean, look at me, I’m all up in your website telling my stories), but I do think people should get a handle on what their story is before they try to tell it. Or at least before they make me read it. Sorry, that’s kind of asshole-ish of me to say, but I just think a lot of books with innocent little girls on the cover are really arrogant. They have this sense that since some man did something horrifying, everything that women do, including dancing around a fire with girlfriends or taking exotic lovers, is just part of the loving circle of nature’s healing. I am such a fan of women, and so I take it personally when we look like morons. This book has absolutely nothing in common with its cover. I haven’t written a review of it before because I think it is a perfect book, and how do you review a perfect book? I’m like Wayne and Garth when they meet Alice Cooper. This book is my Alice Cooper. I’m sure it wouldn’t be everyone’s Alice Cooper, but to me this is exactly what a book should be. Everything about the book is simple, concise, and action-packed. It makes me laugh and it makes me cry. The people are incredible, but deep and smart and human. In some ways, I think this book is the Great American Story, but it’s the story none of us talk about and all of us live. In other ways, the book is so specific and personal to the Walls family that I never would have imagined the stories if I had not been told them. Virginia Woolf and Rainer Maria Rilke, two of the wisest people I have read, both ask when and how women will be able to tell stories without being self-conscious that they are women. How can we write, or even live, not as reactions to men, but as separate masters of our own experiences? I don’t know where the genders are on the space/time continuum of respecting each other, and I think there are probably gender-related specifics to any story (maybe that’s just natural and not even bad), but there is something about this book that is just human and strong. It is compassionate and unflinching. Oh, I hate adjectives. Just, read the first chapter of this book, and if you don’t think it’s compelling, don’t keep reading because it’s probably not for you. My family was nomadic, like Jeannette Walls’s family, but, like I say, all of her stories, and my stories, are unique. When I last lived with my parents, it struck me that we never really understand other people’s relationships with each other. I grew up, probably as many of us did, thinking that my parents never really got along and that my mom was a victim of my dad’s anger and wild scheming. But, later, I realized they probably both got something that I never understood out of their relationship. I think a lot of this book is about how we know the people we are close to and, also, never really do – how it is useless to hold other people to our own standards of what love or responsibility looks like. But, still, it is about holding each other responsible. Or, maybe the book is just about her family with no real moral lesson at all. Walls is so loyal to her stories in an almost scientific way. None of the adult outrage that contaminates so many stories of children creeps into Walls’s. She tells you what happened, and maybe how she felt about it at the time, but she doesn’t impose emotion on the reader. Here’s just a small part (well, actually, half . . . I couldn’t resist) of the first chapter to give you a little taste:Mom was sitting at a booth, studying the menu, when I arrived. She’d made an effort to fix herself up. She wore a bulky gray sweater with only a few light stains, and black leather men’s shoes. She’d washed her face, but her neck and temples were still dark with grime.She waved enthusiastically when she saw me. “It’s my baby girl!” she called out. I kissed her cheek. Mom had dumped all the plastic packets of soy sauce and duck sauce and hot-and-spicy mustard from the table into her purse. Now she emptied a wooden bowl of dried noodles into it as well. “A little snack for later on,” she explained.We ordered. Mom chose the Seafood Delight. “You know how I love my seafood,” she said.She started talking about Picasso. She’d seen a retrospective of his work and decided he was hugely overrated. All the cubist stuff was gimmicky, as far as she was concerned. He hadn’t really done anything worthwhile after his Rose Period.“I’m worried about you,” I said. “Tell me what I can do to help.”Her smile faded. “What makes you think I need your help?”“I’m not rich,” I said. “But I have some money. Tell me what it is you need.”She thought for a moment. “I could use an electrolysis treatment.”“Be serious.”“I am serious. If a woman looks good, she feels good.”“Come on, Mom.” I felt my shoulders tightening up, the way they invariably did during these conversations. “I’m talking about something that could help you change your life, make it better.”“You want to help me change my life?” Mom asked. “I’m fine. You’re the one who needs help. Your values are all confused.”“Mom, I saw you picking through trash in the East Village a few days ago.”“Well, people in this country are too wasteful. It’s my way of recycling.” She took a bite of her Seafood Delight. “Why didn’t you say hello?”“I was too ashamed, Mom. I hid.”Mom pointed her chopsticks at me. “You see?” she said. “Right there. That’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.”“And what am I supposed to tell people about my parents?”“Just tell the truth,” Mom said. “That’s simple enough.”It’s been a while since I read this book, so a lot of the stories aren’t fresh in my mind, but some are so vivid to me that I think of them whenever I see a trash can or think of the desert. In high school, I thought that American history was the most boring topic imaginable. Then, in college, I took a class called the History of Women in the U.S., and I realized that I think the history of industry and conquest is mind-numbing, but the history of actual people is riveting. The Glass Castle is a real, honest history (or as honest as histories can be) of people in America. It is so close to me and so foreign in just the way this country is. It is also, in a way, a tribute to family oral histories. My dad has a . . . loose . . . relationship with the truth, as I’ve probably mentioned on this site before. In the past couple of years, every time I see one of my siblings, we sit around and tell stories from my dad or about my dad, trying to weed out what actually happened, what got a nice polish in the story factory, and what is an outright lie. I get that same feeling from this book – of siblings sitting around and saying, “Do you remember . . .” and “You weren’t there this one time . . .” or “No, that’s just what Dad said happened, what actually happened was . . .” I’m sure someday, my siblings and I will put together a history of our own, since every one of us seems to have inherited the storytelling gene. Whatever I write will be in some way inspired by this book.

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"The Glass Castle" is a memoir written by gossip columnist Jeanette Walls, which details her unconventional childhood growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who seems to be mentally ill. Walls begins the book by explaining what has prompted her to write about her family: after she has "made it" and become a successful writer living in New York, she comes across her mother picking trash out of a dumpster and, in shame, slinks down in her taxi seat and pretends not to see or know her. Later, Walls confronts her mother, asking what she is supposed to tell people about her parents, and her mother replies, "Just tell the truth. That’s simple enough."Of course, "The Glass Castle" is anything but simple, as Walls attempts to come to terms with her upbringing. The first third of the memoir deals with her young childhood on the west coast, as her parents live as nomads, moving frequently between desert towns, always seeking the next adventure. Walls' mother is the key figure we meet here: an artist and a writer, she seems to live in her own world and doesn't express much concern in the practical realities of raising her children. In a key passage, Walls' mother takes the kids with her to give them art lessons, as she paints and studies the Joshua tree. Walls tells her mother of her plan to dig up the tree, replant it, and protect it so it can go straight. Walls' mother admonishes her, "You'd be destroying what makes it special. It's the Joshua tree's struggle that gives its beauty." This appears to be Walls' mother's philosophy of life – looking for the next struggle – as the family willingly gives up its nice residence in Phoenix that Walls' mother had inherited from her family to move to the father's home town – a depressed coal town in West Virginia.The family's time in West Virginia makes up the next third of the story and depicts a depressed life in a depressed town. It is in West Virginia where the family seems to drift apart, particularly Walls' father, who up to this point, had been worshipped and revered by his daughter. Like Walls' mom, her dad has a lot of imagination; while he takes odd jobs that never last long, his real dream is to strike it rich with one of his inventions. He promises, once he has found his gold, that he is going to build a "glass castle" – his most special project – a great big house for the family to live in. Once in West Virginia, Walls and her brother figure they will make the best of the situation, and they spend a month digging a hole in the ground to serve as the foundation for the glass castle. But because the family can't pay for trash collection, their father instructs them instead to use the hole for the family's garbage. Although she has always been her father's defender, Walls grows disillusioned with her father, eventually telling him he will never build the glass castle.Determined not to end up like her parents, Walls moves to New York, where the last third of the book transpires. It is here that Walls "makes it," graduating from college, gaining employment as a writer, marrying a rich husband, and settling into a Park Avenue apartment. Interestingly, while Walls has rejected her parents' lifestyle, it is now their turn to reject hers. Her father refuses to visit the Park Avenue apartment, while her mother, after visiting the apartment, asks Walls, "Where are the values I raised you with?" At this point, it is a mystery what values Walls actually possesses. By crafting the memoir around stories of her childhood, we as readers are often troubled, not just because of the content of the stories but because the stories don't provide much in the way of reflection or introspection. It is, in fact, unclear what Walls actually does value – will she continue to identify success with the material trappings of her "normal" life in New York, or will she ultimately reject the conventional life, as her parents did? Without more reflection from Walls, particularly in this concluding section of the book, readers are left to their own interpretation of "the truth" about her parents – are they just a drunk father and a lazy mother, or is there something more to it? The "Glass Castle" is an addicting page-turner that should captivate any reader. However, without this reflection and introspection from Walls about her childhood, the book misses an opportunity to make a more lasting impact on readers and ultimately fails to reach the level of a work like "Angela’s Ashes." In the end, it is up to readers to make up their own minds about "the truth" of Walls' parents and her upbringing and what it all means. I chose to discount some of her parents' flaws and instead read this book as an homage to her parents. To me, the key passage in the book is when Walls visits a classmate's home in West Virginia and sees the empty walls in the house (in stark contrast to her own home, which is cluttered with paintings and books and decorations) and rejects the notion that her classmate's father, passed out on the couch, bares any resemblance to her own father. After Walls recounts the story to her family, her mother replies that she should show compassion for her classmate because not everybody has "all the advantages you kids do." Although the statement is ironic on its face, as the family fights over the crumbs of a chocolate bar, the distinction is clear: Walls' family may not provide her with much in the way of tangible goods, but they give her things that are more lasting – a belief in herself, a passion for reading and writing, an appreciation for things a lot of us take for granted, and most of all love. In the end, it was not important whether her parents actually built her a glass castle. It was that they gave her the idea of a glass castle. By overcoming her shame for her parents and writing this memoir, Walls seems to recognize this truth about her parents – that, like the Joshua tree, there was beauty in their struggle.

Jeannette Walls has achieved many things in her life. Unless you've read this absorbing memoir of her childhood, it is impossible to appreciate how remarkable her accomplishments have been. She is the second daughter of parents who were mentally unstable. Her mother came from a comfortable, upper middle class background in Arizona, but she appeared to have bipolar disorder. Her father grew up in poverty in a small, mining town in the Appalachians, the brilliant and, probably, sexually-abused son of alcoholic parents. At first, it seemed that her charismatic parents were simply practicing a parenting style based on benign neglect, but as her story enfolds - and engulfs us - we realize that there wasn't anything benign about her upbringing.Her mother's futile artistic pursuits left her little time - and zero interest - for nurturing her kids. Her father's drinking and dreaming deprived them of basic necessities like food and shelter. At first they lived a nomadic lifestyle, sometimes camping-out in the open, and having to "skedaddle" whenever they were threatened by the establishment. As a couple, they demonstrated a peculiar sense of pride, as they struggled to uphold non-traditional values, without ever assuming the basic responsibilities of parenting. When they had any money, it was squandered on art supplies or booze. After a brief respite in Phoenix, living off an inheritance, they all ended-up back in West Virginia, hoping for economic assistance from the Walls. While this provided some permanence and allowed the kids to enroll in school, the grinding poverty, and increasingly bizarre behavior of both parents, motivated all the kids to flee to New York City. It didn't take long for their parents to follow them. The kids mostly achieved some measure of success, while their parents became street people, before "squatting" in an abandoned building. This harrowing tale of neglect and deprivation is told in a straightforward, unsentimental way. Ms Walls finds both humor and affirmation in unlikely places. This may explain her continued compassion for her unfortunate parents. For her it seems that the kindred ties that bind were also the wings that set her free. If for no other reason, read this to marvel at the resilience and adaptability of these exceptional people as they demonstrate the power of unconditional love.
—Gary the Bookworm

This is the first memoir I've read in a long time and I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. The author (Jeannette Walls) tells the story of her upbringing, beginning at the age of three and continuing until she's an adult. Her family (2 parents and 4 children) begin moving from state to state as soon as the father has stirred up enough trouble or incurred enough debt to have to flee. Their living conditions seem to grow worse and worse throughout the story. The father (Rex) is an alcoholic who is also in his own way lovable and intelligent, while being destructive and aloof. He's the character you don't want to like but end up feeling tenderly towards despite yourself. The mother (Rose Mary) is possibly mentally ill (though to my disappointment, her motivations for doing or NOT doing things is never fully fleshed out) and doesn't feel the need to provide for her children in any way. They go hungry. They are scavengers. Both parents turn a blind eye to sexual advances made towards at least 2 of the children by extended family members. This was a good book, but it was maddening. I almost want to say the events seem so bad as to be unbelieveable, but both parents seemed realistically flawed (for use of the nicest phrase) enough to remind me of familiar characteristics driven to an extreme and making this book what it was. I had the hardest time coping with Rose Mary. Two of the kids found a diamond ring which they gave to their mother, excited because they thought this meant they'd have enough money to have food that week. Instead, Rose Mary kept it because she thought wearing it would, "help (her) self-esteem". I have a hard time understanding a mother who thinks her own self-esteem is more important than providing her children with a meal. I have a hard time understanding a mother who would rather have her children go hungry than go on welfare. She also was depicted in a scene hiding and eating a chocolate bar while her children went hungry. This made me twitchy throughout the book and I personally found it hard to understand how they could love such a person. Both parents, in spite of everything, still come through as loving the children in their own (selfish and sometimes skewed) ways. The volatile relationship between Rex and Rose Mary serves as a very obvious picture of Rex's instability and Rose Mary's unrealistic optimism and narcissism. They're painted as intelligent, creative, almost bohemian characters who would have a lot to offer any children if they were mentally able to provide the essentials like food and shelter. All of that said, Jeannette Walls didn't write this with a "woe is me" tone, which was impressive. The story wouldn't have been readable had she done that. It just stayed descriptive. Throughout her narrative, she managed to still come through loving her parents and being especially fond of her father. The thing I liked most about The Glass Castle was that her transition from innocent child who trusted her parents unconditionally to an intelligent teenager who saw how selfish her parents were and how dire their lives were was subtle. In some books, that kind of revelation takes place in one or a few pages page, which for me feels contrived. I have a hard time rating this book for several reasons: my disapproval of the parents, the straight-forward writing style which in any other book might have felt lacking or overly-simplified, and the quick summation of things at the end. Overall, I'd say it's a good read if you want something that isn't challenging and will undoubtedly make you feel like you've had a decent life.

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