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“The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls: a book review

It’s probably a five star for direct and straight-forward writing, honesty and general flow, but the tale is heavy with dark twists and barely enough “light at the end of the tunnel” for me.

Yes, there’s redemption, but this isn’t a book you fly through in a few days. You should take it slow. There’s no reason to read this memoir, this terribly sad life spanning decades for Jeanette Walls, in a weekend. Why pump these wacky and awful memories in your own mind in a few days when she herself at least had the luxury of experiencing them slowly over time?

I enjoyed it at a 3 star level, but I know the writing is a 5.

It gets a four (4) because I don’t know how important this story is or how brave she really was for most of the tale. Some of you are going to hate me for saying this, but hear me out:

She happened to have the good fortune at a young age of being genetically capable of dusting herself off again and again where she could have easily been kidnapped or died of hunger or ran away and starved. I don’t know how much of her younger years were really any kind of learned bravery, but rather, something innate. Other kids in her shoes may have never been able to cope, somehow Jeanette just… could. I don’t know… as far as the critics of the book are concerned who say it’s the bestest, bravest thing ever — well, it’s like being proud of yourself for being 6 feet tall or being Latino or having hairy knuckles. Don’t have pride in what you have no control over. Pride should be for something you accomplish, not something you just happen to be born with. You can like it, and appreciate it, but for the critics or the author to have “pride” in something that just “is” strikes me as spiritually and philosophically questionable. On the surface, I’m a dick and this is a great triumphant and sad story. But I just want to play devil’s advocate. Some people’s lives are worth sharing. But can you not see how a reader could find the possible exploitation of a troubled life for the sake of book sales questionable? Someone with a nice life with not much conflict could write a book and it would never sell. People like the vicarious experience of other people’s lives that sucked worse than their own, and that carries a whole other conversation about the interests and entertainment values placed upon by your average American. It’s like that other book “A Stolen Life.” Is it really ethical we salivate for these titles of ruined, non-ficitional lives by consumers? Debatable.

Again, I’m not trying to disparage Walls’ tenacity, but cast some light on perhaps a more cynical view of how we all grow and deal with our shit. It is how it is. Walls’ kicks ass, but she surviving more than being brave in my opinion, and no, those thing s are not always mutually exclusive, though sometimes they are hand-in-hand.

Jeanette Walls DOES have a “triumph” story that she can tell, but it wasn’t because she was instilled with any great life lessons from an adult about “holding on” and working hard. It was almost fate. She just did it, and maybe that’s a cynical view and one that is surely in the minority, but she just happened to be who she happened to be and came out tough as nails. I know I sound like an asshole, but I want to point out that her success, and her “bravery” didn’t show up until her maturity came to fruition in the “Welsh” section of the book where she was 17, a junior in high school, and decided to leave for NYC. The end of this tale was a brave one, but most of the book is about a little kid getting the shit end of the stick.

I hate Jeanette’s asshole parents, and I feel terrible for Jeanette. But the real question is: should authors on a moral or philosophical level make profit from sharing a scarring life’s tale of themselves? Is an artful recollection of dark, personal events in one’s life ethical to sell books of, however cathartic or remedial?

I recommend this book to people who like fucked up lives or biographies/coming-of-ages where a milieu of awful, shameful, crooked, bastardly things happen to one family and one girl in particular. The family, Jeanette, and her siblings move from place to place in America, being dirt poor or homeless, unschooled, and Jeanette basically takes care of the whole family and herself from the age of 9. Jesus. By the time she’s in her 20s, she makes it to NYC, he siblings are for the most part okay, and her parents are still homeless drifters worth nothing with a fucked up view of the world. I would say it has to be read to be believed, but even then, you will not believe some of this really happened, and whatever “bad upbringing” you had will pale in comparison.

4/5

MH

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“The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green: a book review

My first John Green book. I will read more.

This is a depressing book that ponders big questions about how cancer is random, devastating, and can change lives. But it’s also hilarious. All the while it’s a charming romance swathed in dark humor with characters that were dying or are dying and worry about what their time spent on earth has meant and if they are going to be burdensome to those they leave behind. They want to be treated like normal teens and they wrestle with accepting or rejecting the perks that people have given them or the things that adults allow them to do because of their condition. Through snappy, intelligent, and sarcastic conversations, the main characters wonder about the afterlife, fall in love (and beautifully so), and discuss whether or not their lives should or should not mean something more or less just because they were unlucky enough to get cancer.

Does it mean anything? Am I angry or sad or both? Is it worth trying to make it count? How do we handle this? And then someone dies.

See what I meant when I said it was Heavy Stuff? But I loved it. And this is “Young Adult.”

All the while, it has some of the best-flowing, humorous dialogue (sometimes a little too much, in fact) and is minimally pretentious (which is a little John Green’s fault but also inherent to his designed characters I believe). I laughed out loud, cried a bit, and had moments where I needed to close the book, step away from it, and check my Facebook for ten minutes before continuing. It feels real and powerful, and it wasn’t a novel one should just slam through in one day (thought you could). John Green told his story in only as many pages as he needed—which I respect—which in this case is a just a touch over a modest 300 pages.

Some people will criticize that these teens are droppin’ lines that are too intelligent and witty unless they were twenty-seven years old. Well, no. Some kids are like this, and when you’re home schooled, or home a lot with cancer, I’d imagine that while some kids would just struggle everyday and be totally disinterested in delving into books, these characters clearly spent a lot of time online, in books, and reading about philosophical conundrums. Cancer is different for every person who has it, including the families, and the cancer itself can have many varieties. Just because a reader doesn’t know any teen who speaks this way does not mean that none do.

Some will say John Green is disingenuous or manipulative and will interpret the book as saying that the death of children and teens with cancer means more or should mean more, but I don’t think that’s what he is saying at all; furthermore, I find it presumptuous of readers to assume to know what Mr. Green was thinking while writing this. He crafted a book to entertain and move people. Make them think. It’s his job. He’s a freakin’ writer! The truth is that he left a lot up to the readers. Several ideas about love, youth, mortality, religion, and oblivion where discussed, and I think that some—not all—young people with cancer could relate to this book or at least have an opinion about it. People with and without cancer would find this one worth reading.

But again, this isn’t all about cancer either. The book is about how we all die. It’s true. So what are we going to do with it?

Some people have longer on this earth, but at what quality did you exist and enjoy it? Some lives can be just as grand in much less time, and if that’s all the time you have, it’s understandable advice that rather than wallow in it, which can be a choice for some and not for others, one should rather “seize the day.” There needs to be optimism in this meaningless suffering that we don’t understand, because life needs to be worth living. We are humans and that’s just instinctual.

Dissenters of the book will say:

“it’s so easy for a healthy person to expect someone with chronic health complications to find happiness in every moment. It’s much harder to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that sometimes there is no silver lining.”

Some readers will find this flippant of Green to write about, telling cancer kids to “find the silver lining.” Healthy or not, not everyone finds their purpose or their Great Romance. Okay. It’s not always there, sure, but it’s a brave novel doing many things that only a few readers will likely dissent over. This novel will pick up more people than put them down I would bet, with or without disease.

In closing, this is more than a cancer book. It’s a book about Great Love, young discovery, personal choice, and philosophy. It just happens to have main characters with cancer. Life is not easy, and clearly harder for some and sometimes unfair, but something here is worth fighting for and not giving up on.

That’s life. With or without cancer.

(This is a 2012 top 10 contender for me.)

4.25/5

MH

p.s. his first book is supposed to be great, so this summer, I’m hittin’ up Looking For Alaska.

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