The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Title:  The Glass Castle

Author:  Jeannette Walls

Hardback:  288 pages

ISBN:  9780743247535

Dad came home in the middle of the night a few months later and roused all of us from bed.

“Time to pull up stakes and leave this shit-hole behind,” he hollered.

We had fifteen minutes to gather whatever we needed and pile into the car.

…An hour passed before we finally tied Mom’s paintings on the top of the car, shoved whatever would fit into the trunk, and piled the overflow on the backseat and the car floor.  Dad steered the Blue Goose through the dark, driving slowly so as not to alert anyone in the trailer park that we were, as Dad like to put it, doing the skedaddle.  He was grumbling that he couldn’t understand why the hell it took so long to grab what we needed and haul our asses into the car.

“Dad!” I said.  “I forgot Tinkerbell!”

“Tinkerbell can make it on her own,” Dad said.  “She’s like my brave little girl.  You are brave and ready for adventure, right?”

“I guess,” I said.  I hoped whoever found Tinkerbell would love her despite her melted face.  For comfort, I tried to cradle Quixote, our gray and white cat who was missing an ear, but he growled and scratched at my face.  “Quiet, Quixote!”  I said.

“Cats don’t like to travel,” Mom explained.

Anyone who didn’t like to travel wasn’t invited on our adventure, Dad said.  He stopped the car, grabbed Quixote by the scruff of the neck and tossed him out the window.  Quixote landed with a screeching meow and a thud, Dad accelerated up the road, and I burst into tears.

“Don’t be so sentimental,” Mom said.  She told me we could always get another cat, and now Quixote was going to be  a wild cat, which was much more fun than being a house cat.  Brian, afraid Dad might toss Juju out the window as well, held the dog tight.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, pages 17-18

This incident haunted my mind throughout the whole book.  I couldn’t help think, “If they could just toss the cat out without a thought, telling me we could just get another, who’s to say they wouldn’t do that to me, as well?”  Later in the book when Jeannette takes a tumble out of the moving car, the same thought occurred to her as she watches the family disappear down the road.  “What if they decide I’m too much trouble to come back for?”  It had to be a terribly difficult uncertainty to grow up with.

Not only is there the impermanence of home and things, there are virtually no rules nor supervision, as the Rex, Jeannette’s father, spends much of his time “researching” at the local tavern and her mom, a narcissistic enabler with some sort of mood disorder fritters her time and money away escaping reality in books and painting.  Too many times to count, the kids are forced to go hungry… or worse, dig through garbage to find food… while Dad drinks and smokes the money away and Mom sneaks nibbles of Hershey bars hidden under her covers. 

On the rare occasion the mother works, it’s the kids who have to force her out of bed and onto school where she’s a teacher, then clean her classroom after school, grade her papers and make out her lesson plans in the evenings.  After spending 8 weeks away from Rex and the kids, living in a dorm, eating regularly and taking classes to keep her teaching licence up to date, she comes home to report she’s had an epiphany.  She tells her teenage daughter who has been handling the bills, working and feeding her siblings, that she’s spent her whole life taking care of everyone else and now she’s gonna live life for herself… say WHAT?!

yeah….. m’kay.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a shocking and heartbreaking memoir of growing up with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother.  Over and over, I was stunned and even angered by the so-called adults complete and total lack of parenting skills.  At one point, Jeannette, who was 7 or 8 at the time, wakes up to find a strange man touching her beneath her covers, and when she tells her parents maybe they should shut and locked the doors at night so as to keep the creeps out, they tell her some crap about fresh air and not letting fear get the better of you.  In her teens, when Jeannette tells her mom that her uncle has been inappropriate with her, her mother tells her he’s just lonely and that “sexual assault is a crime of perception.”  Time and again, these two genetic donors (calling them parents is going too far, to be honest), show a complete lack of common sense and sheer laziness to step up to the plate.  I am amazed that the kids lived to adulthood, let alone to be anything close as successful as they nationally syndicated columnist and regular contributor to MSNBC.  Brian and Lori also made good despite their upbringing.

One thing I can say about reading this book is that I can say with 100% certainty that I’m not that bad as a parent.  It’s done a lot to make me feel better as a parent… at least I shut the doors at night and feed my kids and make sure they bathe regularly.  I make sure they’re fed before I feed myself and I’d damn sure have food in the fridge AND pantry before gnawing on a Hershey bar.  I feel guilty if I decide not to share my candy bar.. or Lindt truffle balls, nom nom nom…  but that’s because they’ve ate plenty and had dessert, and By GOD, this is ONE thing I kept for myself.  And I feel guilty for THAT!  I can’t imagine the utter self-centeredness, truly clinical narcissism, the mother wallowed in.  Also, I can say with certainty to my kids that they’ve never gone hungry.  They may not like what’s in the cabinets, but there IS food… it’s just not ready-made junk for them to snack on. 

I read a few reviews of The Glass Castle, and one reader dinged the book because the author conveys such neglect and abuse in a very unemotional manner.  How could anyone suffer such a life without feeling a sense of indignity and injustice?  To this I must point out that Walls is a professional journalist, and relaying information in an objective, matter-of-fact way is part of the job, so I wasn’t surprised by that at all.  Also, I think it’s a normal part of the coping skills of an abuse survivor to learn to be able to talk about it with some distance and disconnection.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a great story of resilience and survival.  I don’t recommend it to be read in one sitting, as it can get emotionally overwhelming, but definitely a worthwhile read.   If I could ask Walls one question, I’d want to know how she thinks her life might have turned out without public libraries and books to turn to.  At times, it seems the only escape the kids had and a part of her best memories.  I give The Glass Castle 4 out of 5 stars.

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Title:  Fahrenheit 451

Author:  Ray Bradbury

Paperback:  191 pages

Date published:  1953

Publisher:  Del Rey (div of Random House)

ISBN:  9780345342966

Miscellaneous:  This book was first published in 1953, and has since won the National Book Award and the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.  The copy I have is a 50th anniversary edition, and has an interview with Bradbury in the back of the book.

“With schools turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.  You always dread the unfamiliar.  Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him.  And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours?  Of course it was.  We must all be alike.  Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal.  Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.  So!  A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.  Burn it.  Take the shot from the weapon.  Breach man’s mind.  Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?  Me?  I won’t stomach them for a minute.  And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world… there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes.  They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior:  official censors, judges, and executors.  That’s you, Montag, and that’s me….  You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred.  Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all?  People want to be happy, isn’t that right?  Haven’t you heard it all your life?  I want to be happy, people say.  Well, aren’t they?  Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun?  That’s all we live for, isn’t it?  For pleasure, for titillation?  And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these….  Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo.  Burn it.  White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Burn it.  Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs?  The cigarette people are weeping?  Burn the book.  Serenity, Montag.  Peace, Montag.  Take your fight outside….  Burn all, burn everything.  Fire is bright and fire is clean.”

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, pages 58-60 (emphasis added)

In the first line of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury,  Guy Montag tells us, “It was a pleasure to burn.”  Guy is a fireman who loves setting fires and watching things undergo change via the flames.  He aims his firehose and sprays the kerosene over the contents of a house and lights the match.  A permanent smile is plastered to his face from the hundreds and hundreds of fires he’s set over the ten years he has spent in service to his city.  Life for Montag is good and makes sense.

Then a series of events occur that rocks his world.  He meets Clarisse McClellen, who is “seventeen and crazy” as she says.  She’s been labeled “anti-social” for asking “why?” instead of “how?” and for wanting to connect to people instead of merely co-existing with them.  She likes to go on hikes and collect butterflies, and is forced to see a psychiatrist for such odd behaviours.  Clarisse’s innocent questions and simple, romantic views on life awakens some long-comotosed awareness in Montag’ssoul.  With the question, “Are you happy?” Guy is forced to re-evaluate himself and the world around him.  His wife attempts suicide, then goes on pretending it had happened and, in fact, refusing to believe Guy. 

The crisis moment for Montag happens when he’s at a house to burn and the older woman chooses to set herself on fire with her books, rather than leaving them.  He is forced to question whether it is morally right to destroy something of such value that people are willing to die for them.  And if such an act is wrong, what can he, MUST he, do about it?

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradburywill have to go on my top 10 list… just not sure which book to bump for it.  First off, I love dystopic books, it’s probably my favorite genre.  My definition of Dytopia is:  Someone’s Utopia is another’s HELL.  Second, Fahrenheit 451 speaks to the time it was written, but also has something to say to future generations of readers.  It’s a cautionary tale of a possible future, barely imaginable when he wrote it nearly 60 years ago, and frighteningly close to life today.  And as I read this, I couldn’t help but feel we did not listen to the warning.

For instance, when Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, wallscreen and battery operated televisions weren’t around.  Black and white television itself was in its infancy, but the love of Mrs. Montag’s life is her parlor wallscreens that allow her to be surrounded by her “family”, virtually live and in color.  A device allows the people on the shows to insert her name and even look like they’re saying it.  A device called a Seashell is worn in the ear, and allows a person to hear music, without disturbing those around them, and Mildred Montagwears hers so often that she’s become a proficient lip-reader.  I immediately thought of MP3 players… Sam wears hers so much that she had a meltdown the other day when I told her she couldn’t take it to church with her.

Truly, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was prophetic.  The society found in within the pages of the book bear a lot of similarities with our culture today.  Disconnected from one another, they/we go about with our devices in our ears (Seashell, MP3 player, cell phone, etc) and no longer take the time for conversations with our neighbors and others we meet in passing, and if we do happen to “chat,” it’s shallower than a pie pan. 

They/we are so afraid of offending others that the thought police (Firemen or Political Correctness) have made it socially unacceptable, and in some cases  criminal, to express ourselves, even monitoring our own self-talk.  Free speech?  HA!  Congress is doing everything they can to eliminate that little inconvenience.

They/we are so obsessed with instant gratification that they/we no longer want to take the time to think about what they/we read, to let it distill in our souls.  So books are flatter and more “pastepudding,” as Bradbury calls it, and the average person is no longer able to read and comprehend a newspaper article… not that they actually have the patience to read a whole one, just the headline and first paragraph, then onto the funnies (and even they are getting too long).  Supermarket tabloids, Harlequin romance novels, car and sports magazines are the only books found in some homes, and to be “intelligent” is to be reviled.

I don’t say this often, if I’ve ever said it at all, but Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is a MUST READ.  It should be taught in schools and read every year.  Oddly enough, this book was actually challenged as part of a school curriculum… A parent wanted to ban a book that is a warning against book banning!  How ironic.  

Obviously, I give Fahrenheit 451 5 out of 5 stars.  READ IT!

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