After learning Jeannette Walls would be keynote speaker for the ASJA conference this year, I picked up her book "The Glass Castle." I put it on top of the pile, planning to read it once I finished Steve Berry’s new book "The Alexandria Link" and Victor Davis Hanson’s "The Soul of Battle." When my husband is out of town, I read a book each night. I’m strolling through Daniel Hoffman’s "Zone of the Interior" and several of his poetry books concurrently because I plan to write about him.
So I selected Walls’s book the other day to occupy my mind while I had lunch. I wasn’t really excited about reading another memoir. There are many of them these days. But she was speaking at the conference and I aimed to be able to put her in context.
I regret starting her book. Because once I did, I didn’t want to put it down. After lunch I hurried through the piles of paper and assignments on my desk, hoping to finish the book before my husband’s plane arrived late last night. I finished "The Glass Castle" about 1:30 a.m. It’s the sort of book that makes you feel a sense of loss when you turn the final page.
Walls makes her memories come alive by means of strong characters. There’s plenty of action, but the unfurling of her family members’ life stories propels the action. Walls had what you might call an “alternative upbringing.” Her parents were brilliant intellectuals, but at times, their parenting skills horrify the reader. Both her parents were wanderers in life, choosing a lifestyle that on the one hand, offered the children a look at art, literature, science, mathematics and philosophy that few can experience. On the other hand, the family experienced hunger, poverty and no small amount of pain.
A particularly wistful moment comes in a college classroom as a professor is talking about homelessness. Walls is afraid to share her own history with the class but she gets across the point her parents chose homelessness, because she learns as an adult her mother owns land worth millions of dollars. The professor asks what Walls could possibly know about homelessness. It’s a priceless moment in the memoir.
Walls’s narrative style is rapid fire, like a series of punches to the gut.
At poetry readings, I often remark my childhood was gloriously dysfunctional. I think Walls would identify with that description.
I’d recommend this book to any reader. It’s an enlightening journey for the reader, and it is never dull. The book sets a benchmark for any memoir I might select in the future. I am definitely looking forward to hearing her speak.
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