Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Unattainable Goals

I just read Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle, which has been on my to-be-read list for about a year, ever since my friend Sarah recommended it to me. The idea of the glass castle, the house Jeannette's father was always going to build, is kind of like my to-be-read list, I'm afraid. It keeps growing beyond my reach, because every time I find a book I'm looking for, I find at least two more I want to read. Come to think of it, that's kind of like Samuel Johnson's definition of a "dullard" in his Dictionary: "a person who reads only the definition of the word he's looked up when he opens a dictionary." And it's a lot like the plot of Tristram Shandy, in which things keep happening and the narrator gets more and more behind trying to tell the story of his life.

I have a friend who tells me she's making some ungodly number of cookies today, and she's taking them to her church. This, on the first day after her husband's knee surgery, when her mother is staying with her. To her, and to all of you, I make this announcement: you can just say no. If you don't start saying no to more things, you'll have no time to read.

So finally I finished reading The Glass Castle, and I see why Sarah recommended it to me. It begins with a view of the author in her NYC apartment, seeing her mother, a homeless person, rooting through a dumpster outside. So I thought it would be the story of how they ended up at that point. Instead, though, it's the story of how her mother always had an alternative attitude on how to live her life, and how her father inspired and perpetuated that attitude for all of them. It's a real page-turner of a memoir, which was surprising to me because, in case you haven't noticed, I don't make a lot of time for reading anything but fiction and poetry (an attitude developed in reaction to the reading lists I made my way through in graduate school). Anyway, what is so mesmerizing about the way this story is told? Well, even though Jeannette's earliest memory is of getting badly burned from an accident cooking hot dogs at the age of three, she still admires the spirit of her mother, who was too busy painting in another room to help her toddler with the stove. In the acknowledgments to the book, she says she is "grateful to my mother for believing in art and truth" and to her father "for dreaming all those big dreams." That's what the book is about, not just the sordid details of how her parents often neglected basic needs in favor of what most of us would dismiss as pipe dreams.

Here is an example, appropriate to the season:
...when Christmas came that year, we had no money at all. On Christmas Eve, Dad took each of us kids out into the desert night one by one. I had a blanket wrapped around me, and when it was my turn, I offered to share it with Dad, but he said no thanks. The cold never bothered him. I was five that year and I sat next to Dad and we looked up at the sky. Dad loved to talk about the stars. He explained to us how they rotated through the night sky as the earth turned. He taught us how to identify the constellations and how to navigate by the North Star. Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he'd say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn't even see the stars. We'd have to be out of our minds to want to trade places with any of them.
"Pick out your favorite star," Dad said that night. He told me I could have it for keeps. He said it was my Christmas present.
"You can't give me a star!" I said. "No one owns the stars."
"That's right," Dad said. "No one else owns them. You just have to claim it before anyone else does, like that dago fellow Columbus claimed America for Queen Isabella. Claiming a star as your own has every bit as much logic to it."
I thought about it and realized Dad was right. He was always figuring out things like that.
I could have any star I wanted, Dad said, except Betelgeuse and Rigel, because Lori and Brian had already laid claim to them.
I looked up to the stars and tried to figure out which was the best one. You could see hundreds, maybe thousands or even millions, twinkling in the clear desert sky. The longer you looked and the more your eyes adjusted to the dark, the more stars you'd see, layer after layer of them gradually becoming visible. There was one in particular, in the west above the mountains but low in the sky, that shone more brightly than all the rest.
"I want that one," I said.
Dad grinned. "That's Venus," he said. Venus was only a planet, he went on, and pretty dinky compared to real stars. She looked bigger and brighter because she was much closer than the stars. Poor old Venus didn't even make her own light, Dad said. She shone only from reflected light. He explained to me that planets glowed because reflected light was constant, and stars twinkled because their light pulsed.
"I like it anyway," I said. I had admired Venus even before that Christmas. You could see it in the early evening, glowing on the western horizon, and if you got up early, you could still see it in the morning, after the stars had disappeared.
"What the hell," Dad said. "It's Christmas. You can have a planet if you want."
And he gave me Venus.

At a later Christmas, Jeannette asks her dad to stop drinking, and he ties himself to a bed and shakes for several days, before going off the wagon eventually, as he always did. Much later, when Jeanette's older sister gets burned trying to keep herself warm inside their house, this is her mother's response:
"Just remember," Mom said after examining the blisters, "what doesn't kill you will make you stronger."
"If that was true, I'd be Hercules by now," Lori said.
Only children could be so forgiving, remembering the dreams that always underlay their parents' neglect. By the end of the book, of course, it was clear to all the children that their parents were less mature than they were, continuing to believe in things much less likely than stories about Santa Claus, which they always dismissed as "silly myths."

Reading The Glass Castle made me think about what we're doing when we dismiss other peoples' dreams as foolish and illusory. I've done this--I still laugh at the thought of a friend who lived for years in a largely vacant house because he thought he was going to "make furniture" for it. I've also been on the receiving end--someday I want to live right beside the ocean, and I don't like it when anyone ridicules the idea or tries to scale it back by saying that it would be cheaper and more practical to live "just a little" inland. That gets my back up, as it would one of Jeannette's parents, and makes me want to echo Blanche Dubois saying "I don't want realism. I want magic."

The charm of Jeannette's book is that she and her siblings end up saying "you know, it's really not that hard to put food on the table if that's what you decide to do," without reproving the parents who decided to do other things.

Of the many interviews that Jeannette, evidently a well-known gossip columnist, gave after her book was published, this one is my favorite. I love that in more than one interview she says that the response to the book is often someone saying "well, you think YOUR parents were weird..."


Cschu said...

I've had this book on my amazon list for a couple of years, as I had also heard it was very good. However, I have been a little reluctant to read it because the descriptions remind me a bit of "Finding Fish"---a book that I read a few years ago. This was the memoir of a young man who suffered mightily in foster care as a child. The amazon review says, rightly, of that book "Thank goodness Antwone Fisher's story has a happy ending--otherwise, his searing memoir would be nearly unbearable to read." I thought that "Finding Fish" was fabulous. It was a powerful story of the resilience of the human soul, but it was hard to take, and I have to have some "reserves" to read a book like that. It sounds like this may have some of the same ups and downs as "Finding Fish." After your review, maybe I will put "The Glass Castle" back near the top of my list

Anonymous said...

I read the book a while ago, so I can't remember the details exactly, but my impression during and after reading it was that her parents had damaged her even more than she realized -- that she reported things they had done, and she seemed accepting of those things, but that I, reading the book, saw that they were worse than she seemed to even notice. Her sister seemed angrier, and may actually have a better grip on just how selfish and crazy they were. The book is powerful because it's told from the viewpoint of the kid, who isn't really judging, but the reader is in the position of the nurse, when the 3 year old Jeannette is in the hospital after the cooking disaster -- it really isn't okay for people to be painting in another room while their three old cooks. I think even as an adult, she doesn't quite see what a reader sees. Her parents were worse than she knows.

Jeanne said...

readersguide, you're right about the over-reading aspect; we do see the parents in a harsher light than Jeannette does.

Jeanne said...

...or so it seems. I wouldn't discount the possibility that Jeannette included the reactions of her sister and the nurse to offer readers alternative points of view.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding like a flake, I do say no...and I also set unattainable goals. I want to say that I am getting better, but I think that's a lie I tell!

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure -- I'd have to look again. To some extent, I'm sure she did include, say, the nurse to offer a sort of rational viewpoint. And clearly her role in the family was to be the one who didn't think her dad, in particular, was as crazy as the rest of them did. But to some extent I think it was real. Well -- I think I should find my copy and be more specific. It sort of made my skin crawl, to tell you the truth. Ugh.

Luanne said...

Thanks for pointng me towards this one Jeanne - I really enjoyed your review.