Posts Tagged ‘Jeannette Walls’

I discovered ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeannette Walls during one of my random browsing sessions at the bookstore. I read the outline of the book on the back cover and it immediately grabbed my attention. Though I was on a self-imposed book-buying-ban at that time, I couldn’t take my mind off this book and so I couldn’t resist getting it. I finished reading it today. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below a summary of the book as given in the back cover of the book.

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory book into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.
The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.
The Glass Castle is truly astonishing – a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family. Jeannette Walls has a story to tell, and tells it brilliantly, without an ounce of self-pity.

What I think

I liked ‘The Glass Castle’ very much. The book starts with Jeannette Walls going to a party and on the way, finding her mother picking through the garbage bin, and being shocked with it. The book then goes back in time and Jeannette Walls tells her story from her childhood till a time closer to the present day. It is an unbelievable story and it made me laugh, cry, frustrated and angry. Jeannette Walls seems to have lived an unbelievable life. The book is as much a story about Jeannette Walls’ parents as it is about her and her brother and sisters. The book has many beautiful descriptions of the unconventional life that the Walls family led – which makes us envy Jeannette Walls and her siblings for having such wonderful, unconventional parents – a dad who knows everything about everything, who is adventurous and who inspires the children to be adventurous and a mom who is unconventional and inspires them to be independent from a very young age and dream big (not from a materialistic sense but from the sense of living a rich life). The book also describes events which make us frustrated and sad and sometimes makes our heart burn with anger at the irresponsible behaviour of Jeannette Walls’ parents – because they don’t worry about putting food on the table and their children go hungry when times are bad, because they don’t like working in regular jobs which makes it tough for their children, because Jeannette’s dad gambles away the money which is part of the monthly budget for food, which puts the family in a quandary. It is difficult to believe that parents can be so irresponsible at times.

I personally feel that the root-cause for this is that some people want to live a rich life – painting, reading, writing, travelling, camping and watching the stars, eating delicious food and fine wine, going to concerts and operas and plays, watching the sunrise and the sunset, playing with their children – but don’t want to really put in the hard yards. For example, before being able to play with children or having a mature conversation with them, children have to be educated in a good way and parents should have spent a lot of time with them in nurturing them emotionally, physically and intellectually. Not doing any of this, and keeping one’s distance away from children when they are growing up and then suddenly trying to be part of their lives and trying to become friends with them and have conversations with them is not going to work. In such cases, the concerned children will probably reject their parents’ attempts at friendship. The hard yards are what bring joy later. I think that wanting to experience only the joy without the hard yards is not possible. It is difficult to have the cake and eat it too 🙂 This applies to not only children but also to everything else in life. (For example, if one wants to eat delicious food, one has to cook it. Cooking takes a lot of time and the art of cooking needs to be learnt for years before one becomes a passable cook, while eating is easy and takes less time. If I don’t want to learn cooking and put the hard yards in the kitchen, I cannot eat delicious food. Of course, I can hire a cook, but then I have to spend time managing the cook. Or I can get food from the restaurant, but then I have to fork out money for that.) I felt that Jeannette Walls’ parents were very talented, had interesting and unconventional views on life and reared their children unconventionally, but unfortunately, they didn’t want to put in the hard yards but wanted the beautiful things in life. Unfortunately, unless one is extremely lucky, this is an impossible thing to get and so their family suffers as a result. Fortunately, the Walls children, by hardwork, luck and pluck manage to survive and do well in life.

I am giving below the picture of Jeannette Walls’ parents as given in the book – so beautiful and handsome and so unpredictable! (Pardon me for the quality of the picture. I must be one of those guys who, even after the advent of the digital camera, still doesn’t know how to take pictures!)

I found Jeannette Walls’ writing style quite plain and it was tempting to compare her to Hemingway. But her style worked quite well for the story she wanted to tell.


I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book. My most favourite passage is about getting a star as a Christmas present. You can find it here.

Mom and Dad had already taught me nearly everything Miss Page was teaching the class. Since I wanted the other kids to like me, I didn’t raise my hand all the time the way I had in Blythe. Dad accused me of coasting. Sometimes he made me do my arithmetic homework in binary numbers because he said I needed to be challenged. Before class, I’d have to recopy it into Arabic numbers, but one day I didn’t have the time, so I turned in the assignment in its binary version.
“What’s this?” Miss Page asked. She pressed her lips together as she studied the circles and lines that covered my paper, then looked up at me suspiciously. “Is this a joke?”
I tried to explain to her about binary numbers, and how they were the system that computers used and how Dad said they were far superior to other numeric systems. Miss Page stared at me.
“It wasn’t the assignment,” she said impatiently. She made me stay late and redo the homework. I didn’t tell Dad, because I knew he’d come to school to debate Miss Page about the virtues of various numeric systems.

Once an old nail ripped my thigh while I was climbing over a fence at my friend Carla’s house. Carla’s mother thought I should go to the hospital for stitches and a tetanus shot. “Nothing but a minor flesh wound,” Mom declared after studying the deep gash. “People these days run to the hospital every time they skin their knees,” she added. “We’re becoming a nation of sissies.” With that, she went me back to play.

I asked about the property in Phoenix.
“I’m saving that for a rainy day.”
“Mom, it’s pouring.”
“This is just a drizzle,” she said. “Monsoons could be ahead!” She sipped her tea. “Things usually work out in the end.”
“What if they don’t?”
“That just means you haven’t come to the end yet.”

One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from that old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.
Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”

Dad missed the wilderness. He needed to be roaming free in open country and living among untamed animals. He felt it was good for your soul to have buzzards and coyotes and snakes around. That was the way man was meant to live, he’d say, in harmony with the wild, like the Indians, not this lords-of-the-earth crap, trying to rule the entire goddamn planet, cutting down all the forests and killing every creature you couldn’t bring to heel.

I loved him for all sorts of reasons : He cooked without recipes; he wrote nonsense poems for his nieces; his large, warm family had accepted me as one of their own. And when I first showed him my scar, he said it was interesting. He used the word “textured”. He said “smooth” was boring but “textured” was interesting, and the scar meant that I was stronger than whatever it was that had tried to hurt me.

“The fact is, I’m dying.”
He started telling me how he’d acquired a rare tropical disease after getting into a bloody fistfight with some Nigerian drug dealers. The doctors had examined him, pronounced the rare disease incurable, and told him he had anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to live.
It was a ridiculous yarn. The fact was that, although Dad was only fifty-nine, he had been smoking four packs of cigarettes a day since he was thirteen, and by this time he was also putting away a good two-quarts of booze daily. He was, as he had put it many a time, completely pickled.
But despite all the hell-raising and destruction and chaos he had created in our lives, I could not imagine what my life would be like – what the world would be like – without him in it. As awful as he could be, I always knew he loved me in a way no one else ever had. I looked out the window.
“Now, no snot-slinging or boohooing about ‘poor ol’ Rex’,” Dad said. “I don’t want any of that, either now or when I’m gone.”
I nodded.
“But you always loved your old man, didn’t you?”
“I did, Dad,” I said. “And you loved me.”
“Now, that’s the God’s honest truth.” Dad chuckled. “We had some times, didn’t we?”
“We did.”
“Never did build that Glass Castle.”
“No. But we had fun planning it.”
“Those were some damn fine plans.”
“Dad,” I said, “I’m sorry, I really should have asked you to my graduation.”
“To hell with that,” He laughed. “Ceremonies never did mean diddly to me.” He took another long pull on his magnum. “I got a lot to regret about my life,” he said. “But I’m goddamn proud of you, Mountain Goat, the way you turned out. Whenever I think of you, I figure I must have done something right.”
“‘Course you did.”

Final Thoughts

I remember that not many years back, the only memoirs which came out were those of famous people – politicians, sportsmen, movie stars and the like. I think in recent times, one of the earliest memoirs of a normal person, to become a bestseller was Frank McCourt’s ‘Angela’s Ashes’. Then many years later, James Frey followed with his phenomenal bestselling memoir ‘A Million Little Pieces’ and now memoirs seem to abound in places where books are. I think ‘The Glass Castle’ is one of the interesting memoirs around and I really enjoyed reading it very much. I don’t know whether I will read the whole book again, but I would definitely want to dip in and read some of my favourite passages again. If you haven’t read ‘The Glass Castle’ before, I would heartily recommend it.

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