Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Glass Castle - Audiobook Review

The Glass Castle is the unforgettable and sometimes absolutely unbelievable memoir of Jeannette Walls, successful journalist, writer and past reporter for CNBC.  Jeannette, her older sister Lori, younger brother Brian, and baby sister Maureen survived a nomadic childhood reared by an alcoholic but brilliant father, Rex and artistic but psychologically damaged mother, Rosemary.

From Phoenix, Arizona to California to Battle Mountain, Nevada and finally all the way across the country to Welch, West Virginia, Jeannette's family struggled to survive.  Refusing to accept outside help but curiously also refusing to take advantage of resources that actually were theirs for the taking (Rosemary had a teaching degree and could and did get teaching jobs easily, Rex was a trained electrician and was given many chances to hold a job, Rosemary's mother was more than willing to help them, and Rosemary owned land in Texas worth a million dollars that could have easily been sold), Rex and Rosemary Walls saw their daily hardships and even their children's hunger and daily scrounging for food as "adventures" and valuable lessons in self sustainability.

The story begins with successful adult Jeannette Walls on her way to a party, spotting her mother digging through the trash in New York City.  This event sparks Jeannette's difficult childhood memories as well as adult memories of repeatedly trying to help her parents out of their homelessness to no avail. 

Jeannette's childhood memories begin with a 6 week stay in the hospital after burning herself while cooking hotdogs.  She was 3 years old at the time.
As Rex and Rosemary become more and more agitated with the nurse's questions and discussions with their daughter, Rex makes the decision to "check out Rex Walls style" with Rosemary waiting in an idling car for him as he runs through the hospital with Jeannette cradled in his arms.  A customary "skedadle" in the middle of the night to avoid bill collectors and question askers takes place not long after.

Thus begins a pattern of behavior that continues throughout the book.  Rex and Rosemary move to another town, both work for a while until Rex gets fired for being drunk or getting into a fight or Rosemary refuses to get out of bed in the morning because she wants to paint rather than teach. 
When there is no money coming in, their children scrounge leftover lunches from the garbage cans at school and are shunned by their classmates due to a lack of personal hygeine, the result of no running water or electricity most of the time.

Jeannette is the last of the 4 children to lose faith in her father.  Rex tries several times to get sober but fails.  Jeannette finally realizes just how far gone her father is when he allows a gambling buddy to try to take advantage of her at age 13 in exchange for $80.  Rex's only excuse for his behavior is that he "knew his Mountain Goat could take care of herself."

Even after Rex steals his children's "get out of Welch" money, Lorie escapes first.  After graduation Lorie babysits for a couple who are traveling and drop her and her design portfolio off in New York at the end of the summer.  Once Lorie gets a job and an apartment, she sends for Jeannette who leaves Welch High School at the end of her junior year, and Brian soon after.  After much discussion Lorie also is able to convince Rosemary to send much younger Maureen to finish school in New York.

Lorie becomes an artist working in graphic design, Jeannette is a part-time journalist while attending college, and Brian works to save money until he is old enough to enroll in the police academy.  Once all three of the older Walls children have re-established themselves in New York, they are surprised one day by their parents who have also relocated to NYC. 

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to reunite their family, the Walls children have to come to terms with the fact that their parents choose to live the way that they do and that they cannot "save" their parents from themselves.

My Thoughts:
The Glass Castle was my first foray into the world of audiobooks.   I'm a book snob...not in the sense of good literature vs. bad literature...but into the books themselves (notice how I personified books).  I love technology; I want all of it...but I want books too! 

I had to drive my oldest daughter across two states a couple of weeks ago so I decided to take the audiobook plunge in order to stay sane.  Our school book club read The Glass Castle a year or so ago, but I was unable to stay on track.  A colleague of mine still had the audiotapes in his office so I grabbed them on the way out the door.  I wasn't sure how I would feel about someone reading to me.  I love the written word, the smell and feel of a book...yes, books have smells :) 

Barely five minutes into the story I completetly forgot that I was not actually reading the book.  I quickly became engrossed in Jeannette's experiences.  A three year  old child cooking her own hotdogs and having intelligent conversation with the hospital staff hooked me immediately.

Walls storytelling abilities are absolutely incredible; her ability to describe a scene and the personalities of her siblings so that I felt as if I knew each of them personally made the experience of listening to this story possibly even more intense than reading her words myself.  Just as soon as I was ready for social services to race in and save the children from their insane parents, Walls would describe another episode that made me realize that Rex and Rosemary really did love their children and believe that what they were doing for them was for the best. 

And, then I would feel even more conflicted about this story. 

No doubt that these children's experiences with their parents were not examples of how children should be raised, but I can see how each of the children grew up to be who they were through those experiences.  Their experiences actually made them stronger.  So, does that mean they would have been different people altogether had they not grown up the way they did?  Was it all worth it? 

I can't believe I just asked that question.

What I think Walls does best is description.  She doesn't tell the reader that life was hard; she paints a picture for the reader to see how hard life was.  She doesn't spend chapter after chapter about the sociological and psychological ramifications of her family.  She describes her experiences, and the reader gets to figure all that part out.  

One example that I am still carrying around with me is when Jeannette's professor from prestigious Barnard College asks her which of two textbook causes are the main reason for homelessness.  Jeannette is chastised by her outraged professor for her response that "choice" may in fact be an overlooked cause of homelessness and angrily asks Jeannette, "What do you know about homelessness?"  Jeannette silently endures the professor's outrage and chooses not to explain her response. 

Over and over again, Jeannette chooses not to be a victim.

I was still listening to The Glass Castle when I arrived to pick up my firstborn.  When the first bus pulled up, I begrudgingly turned off my car and went outside to wait on my kid.  When I realized she wasn't on the first bus and was assured that she would be there a few minutes later on the 2nd bus, I jumped back into my car and cranked the story back up.  Even more than halfway through the story, my firstborn was drawn in on the way home.  We are still using phrases such as "checking out Rex Walls style" or making references to dysfunctional families and how our family must really be ok despite all of its intricasies. 

The Glass Castle is a story of survival and an example that what we think we see and know about the rest of the world outside our own experiences and comfort zone is not always what it seems.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire - Book Review

The 2nd book in the Lisbeth Salander trilogy opens with Lisbeth still abroad after leaving Sweden with a broken heart at the end of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  After allowing her emotions to get the best of her, as much as she is capable anyway, Lisbeth realizes that she has been a fool and closes herself off even more completely than before from those who care about her the most, without so much as a goodbye, information of her whereabouts or even if she is dead or alive. 

In true Salander style she finds herself right in the middle of the attempted murder of a battered wife (an heiress of course) by a selfish, sick, abusive husband.  In the middle of a hurricane, Lisbeth and her newfound island friend risk their own lives making sure the wife survives and the husband never harms anyone again.

Back in Sweden, while trying daily to contact Lisbeth, Mikael Bloomkvist is working on a new project with researcher Mia Johannsen and journalist Dag Svennson, a project with epic consequences for quite a few high ranking politicians, policemen, judges, etc...a media storm about to hit.  Despite laws specifically created to control sex trafficking, the problem is out of control in Sweden, and many of its high profile "johns" are about to be exposed.  As Dag continues to dig deeper and confront several of the "johns" who are going to be exposed, he hits a nerve when he gets too close to the monster behind all of it and stumbles upon a connection to Lisbeth and a known Russian spy named Zala. 

After returning to Sweden, Lisbeth reviews information provided to her through her hacked networks and realizes just how close Dag is to discovering the secrets of her entire existence and the man behind All That Evil.  She decides to visit Dag and Mia one night.  Less than an hour later Dag and Mia are murdered execution style.

Thus begins the hunt of a lifetime for Lisbeth Salander, branded a psychotic serial killer with a violent background who has finally lost it.  Lisbeth hides in plain sight using her wits and incredible aptitude for surviving even in the most dire and dangerous circumstances.  Except this time she must also prove herself innocent to a country that has already convicted her.  She must also learn again to trust those who have shown themselves trustworthy and loyal to her in the past and who still believe in her despite her past and despite evidence to the contrary.  Finally, Lisbeth must finally put to rest the terrible secret behind All That Evil and the man who has held the strings of her life from the beginning. She peacefully decides to end his hold over her once and for all or die trying.

My Thoughts:
I am, without a doubt, a Lisbeth Salander fan.  She is tough, damaged, vulnerable, incredibly smart, and a survivor, all at the same time.  What a gal!  The level of violence escalates in this book, but it never feels fortuitous.   Violence against women is the theme of the 2nd book and it plays out in the main story as well as in Lisbeth's past.  Once again Larsson handed me a shocker about 3/4 of the way through the book and I actually gasped out loud.  Never would have guessed it...

I was not a fan of the Mikael Bloomkvist/Lisbeth Salander romance.  A relationship between two consenting adults with no strings attached would have been fine and would have, in my opinion, been more Lisbeth's style.  But, Larsson had Lisbeth fall for Bloomkvist...I just didn't see it...while Lisbeth is vulnerable, it was unbelievable to me that she would be that vulnerable, that quickly, so I didn't like thinking of her off somewhere licking her wounds.  It was more like Lisbeth's character to return to Sweden and cut herself off from everyone, not ask for help, count on herself and herself only for her own survival and be perfectly fine by save herself.

In this book, we learn about All That Evil, an experience from Lisbeth's childhood that was her breaking point.  I do not see Lisbeth as an adult ever being able to have a "normal" relationship with anyone given her childhood experiences as well as those she endured as a ward of the court.  There is no better end for this book than the one Larsson wrote.  While I wished Lisbeth did not have to fulfill her ultimate destiny, at the same time, I knew it was necessary for her to have some kind of closure.  I'm not proponent of murder...but adults who take advantage and hurt defenseless others deserve some kind of punishment.  In a perfect world, their victims would get to carry out that punishment.

I'm ready to begin the 3rd and final Larsson/Lisbeth Salander book.  I'm axious but at the same time sad because I know that when I reach the end, it's really the end.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Professional Ph.D. or Panicky Mom?

As much as I enjoy the teaching part of my job, I also enjoy the times that I get to be just Mom...or Mommy...depending on the circumstances.

This past week has been quite an overwhelming week of Momminess.

My firstborn set up a marathon 12 days of soccer camps...crossing several states in the process.  On top of the normal worries of sending your child off to camp, the heat index in the South this summer has been off the charts.  My firstborn decided to overheat on the first day of practice...8 hours away from me.  The Head of My Household thankfully had not left the state yet when he called to let me know.  After a medical check and taking it easy during the first night's practice, my firstborn was on the mend.  The Head of My Household stayed 2 nights just to make sure she (and me) were ok. 

While my firstborn was away, my middle child and I had a incredible weekend together...the youngest was at her Granny's, which gave my middle child and I much needed time...just the two of us.  We saw the newest Twilight movie and went couponing together as well as several meals out where we just sat and talked like old buddies.  I began to see a light at the end of the tunnel for my middle child and me.

In the midst of my middle child and I having a great weekend, my youngest decided that she wanted to come home from Granny's.  This was not normal behavior for her, but I just chalked it up as a normal part of childhood.  After reassurances from my mother-in-law the next day, I let my youngest stay an extra night.  I thought the Head of My Household would be joining her that night, but he unexpectedly had to stay the extra night with our firstborn.  It wasn't until late Sunday afternoon that my sister-in-law called to say that there had been a problem between her daughter and mine.  Of course, my daughter, the youngest of the two, was at fault and her child blameless and traumatized.  Aren't families fun??  They must be...or why would we keep them around? 

I then drove a bazillion miles again back across several states to pick up my firstborn.  I had a couple of nights of my chickens all back in the nest until we had to take our youngest for oral surgery this past Friday.  My youngest is 6...this was the first time I experienced her being wheeled away from me to go into surgery...the first of very few times I hope.  For an hour and a half, the pediatric dentist worked on my baby's teeth...I felt as if I had no sense left in my brain at all. 

The dentist called after an hour to let us know that he was not going to be able to save one particular tooth...

*******WARNING******** Graphic image ahead!

The little tooth in the upper left corner is a baby tooth that was already loose and fell out as the dentist/oral surgeon was working on my youngest's other teeth. 
The big hunk of bone next to it is the tooth that has been causing my baby such trouble for several months.  We visited 3 dentists for opinions on how to handle such dental issues with a 6 year old.  One of those dentists tried to fill my baby's tooth WITHOUT ANESTHESIA!!!!!!! 
Hence, her need to be put completely under before she would ever open her mouth again. 
I feel like sending that blankety blank dentist our hospital bill.

This tooth had so much decay that it was only anchored by 2 roots...the other 2 had disintegrated.
Please keep in mind that this horrible looking piece of bone and cartilage came from a 6 year old's mouth.
Please now also imagine the amount of discomfort my youngest has been dealing with while at the same time refusing to let anyone look in her mouth thanks to the scheister dentist who thought he'd cut a few corners. 

The tooth fairy left my baby a few extra prizes for this dude.

My youngest still hasn't been able to eat solid food...we tried spaghetti (her favorite) tonight, but her teeth are still too she's eating as much yogurt, pudding, mashed potatoes, etc. as her little tummy can hold.

Have I mentioned how much I dislike that dentist?

Being a mommy is the hardest job I've ever had.