Monday, April 27, 2009

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls


One of my favorite books that we read in my book club is a memoir by Jeannette Walls named The Glass Castle. The book begins with the author in a New York City taxicab all gussied up to go to a fancy schmancy event. When the cab took a shortcut through an alley, she saw a woman rooting through a dumpster. When she realized that this woman was her own mother, Walls slid down her seat and asked the driver to take her home. The Glass Castle then goes on to explain how her life ended up in this scene of contrasts.


Saturday night I saw Jeannette Walls speak at the Marin Center. By a strange coincidence, I happened to be the one who let her in the building when she arrived one hour before show time. I only had a chance to say that I was pleased as punch to meet her and that I loved her book before the official Marin Center person came to greet her. What I really wanted to do was steal off to have a cup of tea with her. She was already impeccably dressed with full stage make-up. Did she really need a full hour to do a sound check? I knew we would get along because we had so much in common.

Early in The Glass Castle, Walls relates the story about how she burned herself at age three when she was cooking a hot dog for herself. At around age three, I too burned myself. We were living in Lawang on the island of Java in  Indonesia where my parents ran a small satellite factory for my grandmother. The factory produced bottled tropical fruit syrups similar to the Torani fruit syrups used to make Italian sodas. The floor had just been mopped and, while I was running, I slipped and fell into one of the large, low vats of molten sugar that were lined up along the gangway. The right side of my torso, my right arm, and part of my face were immersed. I did not need skin grafts like Walls because I was fortunate that my mother knew of a very good German doctor in Lawang. He gave me a shot, no doubt for the pain, and dispensed a white cream in a tube to rub over my burns. I wish I knew what this salve was because everywhere my mother applied the medicine, there is no trace of the burn. The only place where I have a scar is behind my ear where my hair obscured the wound from my mother. Whenever I go to a new hairdresser I get to explain this story because there is an ugly scar and no hair growing behind my right ear. I often think how different my life would have been if my mother had not known of this doctor.

I dislike author talks that only rehash stories already contained in their book, though I do appreciate hearing a passage or two read in the author's voice. Walls only related stories from her book to give context to her anecdotes. She quickly told the story of her burning accident in order to explain how accepting her husband is of her skin graft scars by referring to them as interesting and textured, not smooth and boring. I now know what to say the next time I see my hair dresser.

Another way my life was like Walls' is that our fathers were both dreamers. Where Walls' father "skedaddled" from city to city and state to state, my father skedaddled us from country to country, continent to continent chasing the dream for a better life. . I was a teenager when my father made noises of pulling up stakes to move to Canada or Australia, but this time we were older and more independent so we told him to go without us.  We were no fools; we knew it didn't get better than California. My father chose to stay.

Like Walls, it was education that catapulted us into a new life. It is doubtful that my sisters and I would have gotten the same quality education as we got at UC Berkeley for $212.50 per quarter had we lived elsewhere.

Walls told of a young reluctant reader who carried The Glass Castle around with him everywhere. When his teacher asked him what it was about that book that he loved, he said, "That there is a fine white trash story." Then she talked about a young privileged cheerleader that she met in the Carribean who said that Walls' book convinced her to never make fun of a classmate again. Walls then exclaimed in her charming Southern drawl, "The Lord can strike me down right now!" because she was able to connect with people from both ends of the spectrum.

I sincerely hope that the Lord will keep you around for lots longer because we like the likes of you and look forward to reading your next book in October.

For a clip of Jeannette and her mother, click below:


For the Simon & Schuster reading guide, click here.

11 comments:

Ruth said...

I'm the worst reader ever, and I still haven't read this book, even though it was our one book one community book and incoming freshmen read it a few years ago. I need to read the one book books at the very least!

This post and clip pulled me in, so thank you.

Problem is, with my limited book reading, I just received in the mail two books - my favorite Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, and her new one Winter Vault. Which will take priority reading?

Thanks for this!

Jemm said...

I've heard really good things about this book. It's on our list to read this year in book club. We're a little slow at times :)

dutchbaby said...

Dear Ruth,
I haven't read any Anne Michaels books but I can tell you that "The Glass Castle" is worth reading. It's a very easy, quick read.

Dear Jemm,
Your book club will have many points of discussion with this book. I added a link to the Simon & Schuster reading guide at the end of the post. Let me know how your book club liked the book.

Rebekah said...

Oh, this is a wonderful book! How extraordinary to meet her and to realize how much you have in common. I think you should have linked arms and just walked right out to the nearest coffee shop and shared and shared. She would surely love to be your friend!

dutchbaby said...

Dear Rebekah,
I wish I thought of that; I would have loved it! There are many more similarities but I didn't want to drone on.

Elizabeth said...

Never heard of the book but it sounds fascinating. Have to see if it is in the library. Thanks for this post.

Relyn said...

Synchronicity again. The last time I was at Barnes and Noble I began reading this book. It's listed in my journal with "must read" scrawled beside it. It nearly killed me to leave it behind that day. I'm on the waiting list at my library right now. I'll be even more impatient for it now that I've read this wonderful post. I can't wait to talk to you about it once I've read it.

Anonymous said...

I note with glee your reference to the $212.50 tuition cost at Berkeley when we were there. I have that number memorized (even better than Avagadro's number) and I still am amazed (as I was then) at how cheap it was. What a deal!

dutchbaby said...

Dear Elizabeth,
The book is fantastic - I think you'll enjoy it.

Dear Relyn,
I bet you had a hard time putting it down. Write me when you've finished the book!

Dear Anonymous,
Isn't it amazing how this number is seared in our memories? All through college I wrote that check three times a year. I don't think I ever used Avogadros' number in real life. Thanks for your note and welcome to dutchbaby!

Scarlet said...

This is one of my favorite books and one of our book club selections as well. We had a wonderful discussion afterwards where we all opened up and shared more about our past.

The way JW overcame adversity and made a name for herself is admirable and inspirational! It must've been exciting to meet her, and I agree, it would've been great to chat with her over tea! :)

dutchbaby said...

Dear Scarlet,
Excited to meet JW? Yes, in fact, I was a blithering fool. Embarrassing really. Thank you for visiting dutchbaby!

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