What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Hunger Makes Me a Modern GirlI can’t seem to get it together to write a full post about any one thing, so I thought I’d just jot down a few thoughts about what I’ve read over the last few weeks. (I guess, technically, one does not “jot” using a keyboard, but whatever.) Lately fiction is not doing much for me, which is highly unusual. I’m much more likely to set aside something nonfiction to start a new novel, but these last few weeks I’ve started four or five novels and stopped because I felt sort of bored. I picked up a stack of books at the library on Friday, so I felt pretty hopeful about that. I read one book right away, not a novel but Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. I resisted picking it up when it was published in 2015 because I was worried about it being too…I don’t know. Gossipy? Self-aggrandizing? Navel-gazing? (It’s none of these.) The truth is I’m not big on celebrity memoirs, but a couple of weeks ago I read Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band and enjoyed reading about Sonic Youth, so I thought I’d give Brownstein’s book a chance. I really like Sonic Youth, but Sleater-Kinney is one of my favorite bands. Both Gordon and Brownstein talk some about their childhood and their families and how those things shaped their worldviews and desires (Gordon had a schizophrenic older brother; Brownstein’s mother battled anorexia and left the family when Brownstein was 14, and her father eventually came out as gay), but in both cases they focus primarily on the evolution of their bands and of making music. Gordon’s book is more bittersweet, especially given her split with husband and band mate Thurston Moore, and she seems to still be working through much of her heartache on the page, yet without becoming maudlin. Brownstein is often laugh-out-loud funny and self-effacing, especially when discussing her childhood:Girl in a Band

The dance I choreographed—and I use the term “choreography” loosely, the way you’d call adding milk to cereal “cooking—was a combination of marching and punching, and probably resembled aerobics being done by a penguin.

Still, most of the book is about the band. She clearly loves and admires Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss. Amazing some of the hits these women take in reviews of their books, especially for revealing that much of the time they don’t feel particularly cool, that they landed on things like a look or a sound more by trial and error than through some innate sense of fashion or sound. Yet other reviewers go after them both for being too intellectual, too distanced, not emotional or gossipy enough. And then in Brownstein’s case there are a slew of reviews from people who’ve never heard of or never liked Sleater-Kinney. Sorry if this is a spoiler, but Brownstein barely talks all about Portlandia, the show she created with Fred Armisen. Some reviewers were clearly disappointed that the show didn’t feature more in the book, because that was primarily how they knew her. I thought that was kind of odd—why would someone write a memoir about doing a few years on a cable television show? (Okay, six years, but Sleater-Kinney has been around for more than 20 years, so whatever)—until I remembered that it’s 2017 and if you’ve made it to the age of 22 and appeared in a commercial for a local tire store, you’ve probably written a memoir.

Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American SpaceflightAnother memoir (!) I read and enjoyed was Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Dean Lazarus. Lazarus becomes interested in spaceflight after doing a bunch of research for her first novel, which is about a girl whose father works for NASA and the Challenger disaster. She continues researching even after publishing the novel, reading everything from astronaut autobiographies to early journalistic accounts from Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. She befriends a NASA employee on Facebook and eventually decides to write about the final flights of the three working space shuttles. The book is as much about the history of spaceflight as what it means to write about it, to stand outside and experience other people responsible for making something truly otherworldly happen. If you’re looking for an objective history of the American space program, this might not be your book. Mostly, Dean spends a great deal of time (rightly) worrying about the future of NASA. She has serious doubts about private space programs like SpaceX (which, since the book’s publication, has launched multiple rockets headed for the International Space Station, and just recently successfully re-used both rocket and launcher, something that was also intended for the shuttle program). She spends a lot of time discussing something I wonder about a lot myself, which is how and when America fell out of love with the idea of space, of getting to Mars, of creating something that transcends petty earthly “accomplishments.” (Seriously, I’ve seen The Martian at least ten times, and I cry every time, not from joy but because of the alternate present and all the lost opportunity it represents. Don’t even get me started on Star Trek.)

Finally, I read a terrific personal essay collection, Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio, which definitely left me wanting to read more personal essays, so I picked up Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterniti, which I’m looking forward to reading. On the fiction front, right now I’m reading Louise Penny’s second Inspector Gamache book, A Fatal Grace, and I’ve got C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings and Samantha Hunt’s The Seas out from the library, so who knows? Maybe my fiction slump will end.

How about you? Have you read any of these? Any good nonfiction to recommend? Happy reading!


Reader’s Journal: Lab Girl

Lab GirlIn my other life, I’m a scientist. When I say, “my other life,” I don’t mean my life outside the blog; I mean my life in an alternate universe. I do things in a lab that involve other scientists, and also math. I do whatever kind of science I’m interested in at the moment, obviously. Mostly, I work on things that  have to do with going into space. You know, it’s rocket science. But sometimes I am in a lab looking into space through a large telescope, or else looking through a microscope at rocks or plants. I may or may not wear a lab coat. I am always taller. Always.

In this life, I was in my third year of college before I realized that I was not bad at math or science. In fact, I was borderline good at it. But by the time I figured that out, I had already switched majors too many times (five: drama, communications, drama again, fashion merchandising—don’t ask—and English) to believe that my parents would happily support me through an additional year or two of college because I wanted to switch from English to, say, geology. Alas, I after getting an MA I ended up leaving academia and entering the “real” world as a technical writer, and it was in that job that I realized I should have been a computer science major. But life and finances and reality being what they are, I also realized that was probably not going to happen.

So what does my little sob story have to do with Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl? It’s simple. I’m illustrating how completely unfair it is that I, a former English major and current “content creator,” cannot just wake up one day and decide to “do science”—but Hope Jahren, who spent most of her life in a lab studying plants, can just pick up a pen (or a laptop) and write a really fantastic book. Honestly. Where does she get off?

In Lab Girl, Jahren tells the story of her childhood, her struggles as a student and trying to establish herself as a woman scientist, her experience with mental illness, and her remarkable relationship with her best friend and lab partner, Bill. Between more personal chapters, Jahren also includes interesting shorter chapters about plants and trees based on lectures she has delivered to her classes over the years. All of this could really be so much blah blah blah, but Jahren has a terrific way of connecting her passion for science with the narrative of her life without resorting to hokey metaphors:

Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something more important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.

I stood and absorbed this revelation as my life turned a page, and my first scientific discovery shone, as even the cheapest plastic toy does when it is new.

I suspect this is a book that many parents might hand off to daughters in their early teens who are already showing a budding interest in science, but if that’s the case then the parents should read it, too, because there’s a lot to discuss. She writes openly and honestly about her mental illness (bipolar disorder) and how she tried to deal with it on her own before finally getting help. She also does not shy away from the difficulties of being a research scientist—especially one who is female:

Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.

And in explaining how the National Science Foundation funds (or fails to sufficiently fund) research scientists:

…$7.3 billion sounds like a lot of money. Remember that this figure must support all curiosity-driven science–not just biology, but also geology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology, and the more esoteric forms of engineering and computer science as well.

[Six million dollars for the NSF’s paleobiology program] still sounds like a lot of money. Perhaps we could agree that one paleobiologist from each state in the country should get a grant. If we divide $6 million by fifty, we get $120,000 for each contract. And this is close to the reality: the NSF’s paleobiology program gives out between thirty and forty contracts each year, with an average value of $165,000 each. Thus, at any given time, there are about one hundred funded paleobiologists in America…Note also that there are a lot more than one hundred paleobiology professors in America, which means that most of them can’t do the research they were trained to do.

The heart of the book, though, is about her longtime friendship with her lab partner, Bill, who is unconventional, antisocial (er, maybe misanthropic would be a better word), stubborn, humorous, intelligent, and hard-working. In Bill she finds a true (non-romantic) partner to support her work and really, her heart. This part of the book gives it strength by rounding out the story, but it’s also the book’s only real flaw. Most likely Jahren’s preservation instinct is to blame; she’s clearly aware, even in terms of their friendship, of crossing any boundaries that might be too personal or reveal too much. While I appreciate that instinct, about halfway through the book the anecdotes involving her relationship with Bill start to become repetitive. Some of the action drives the story along (i.e., now we are here in this place, researching this new thing), but the exchanges between her and Bill start to seem like a couple of people performing a vaudeville act. I think this is less a function of the writing than the probably very real way they interact, but if you’ve ever spent time with two people who seem to have a shorthand or very particular way of interacting, you know it can be exasperating after a while. The good thing is that it’s very clear that they care for and support each other a great deal, even during the worst of times.

Ultimately, I felt like Jahren brought the same passion to her story about science and friendship that Patti Smith brought to her memoir Just Kids. Both books are about a bond, and about discovering a life’s passion (plants on one hand, poetry on the other). “Love and learning are similar in that they can never be wasted,” writes Jahren. Truer words were never spoken.

Top Ten Tuesday: With Love, From Me to You

For today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, we’re asked to list our favorite top ten romances (or top ten literary crushes, or something similarly Valentine’s Day themed). I don’t read romance or chick lit, and I don’t get crushes on characters in books (although I do get crushes on books themselves, for whatever that’s worth). I also realize that for many people Valentine’s Day is just another commercial joke, and for other people it’s just another reason to feel shut out of a culture that’s obsessed with couples. Instead of worrying about all that, I offer you ten books I love that are about love of all kinds.

Our Souls at NightOur Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. Addie Moore and Louis Waters are neighbors. They are also both widowed, with grown children who live elsewhere. They live in a small town in Colorado with people who are prone to judge and talk, but despite that they form a touching relationship. Heartfelt and heartbreaking, like all of Haruf’s work.

Just KidsJust Kids, Patti Smith. This book isn’t just about Smith’s relationship with her love and best friend Robert Mapplethorpe—it’s a love letter to a culturally revolutionary place and time, and to self discovery.

The Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. Several years ago, I had this to say about The Art of Fielding: “It tells a timeless story of love, the ways we’re interconnected, whether through love or friendship or what we sometimes even think of as destiny.” This is most definitely a book about how love—not just romantic love, but that too, shapes our lives. One of my favorite books ever.

You Are One of ThemYou Are One of Them, Elliott Holt. Sometimes we hang on to romantic ideas, because they infuse everyone and everything with interest, including ourselves. Sarah Zuckerman believes her fascinating childhood best friend Jenny is dead, but a mysterious letter makes her think otherwise. As I said in my short review in 2013, “it also considers the mysteries of friendship, why we are drawn to certain people, why we often rely so much on others to define who we are.”

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History, Donna Tartt. Narrator Richard Papen looks back to tell a tale of murder, and of the people and place he loved that changed him irrevocably. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I never reviewed it here, but I did create a soundtrack that speaks to all that love and loss.

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. Rosemary Cooke is heartbroken. Her beloved sister Fern is missing. Her beloved brother Kevin is wanted by the FBI. To mend her heart she must confront an awful truth. This book is one of a kind.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild, Cheryl Strayed. To recover from her mother’s death (and all her own subsequent personal little deaths of the heart), Cheryl Strayed hiked most of the Pacific Coast Trail. Some people called this book (and Strayed) self-indulgent, but I thought it was a beautiful account of love and grief and imperfection all together.

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. Friendships, especially those from childhood, are probably some of the most intense relationships we have, because we are in the process of discovering who we are and who we are not. Elena and Lila are sometimes friends, sometimes almost enemies, but no doubt their lives are entwined and their feelings for each other are strong.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore. In this wistful and slim novella, Berie recalls her best teenage friend Sils and the summer they were both fifteen.

World Citizen Challenge: Falling Leaves


fallingleavesFor my first book in the World Citizen challenge, I selected the memoir Falling Leaves: The True Story of An Unwanted Chinese Daughter, by Adeline Yen Mah. Someone gave this book to me eight or nine years ago, quite oddly in response to the fact that I was then reading (and enjoying) Memoirs of A Geisha. She told me that Falling Leaves was “better.” I assumed for a long time that Falling Leaves must be about a Chinese concubine. Now that I’ve read both books, I’m more puzzled than ever by her strange pronouncement, as the books could not be more different. 

Where Memoirs of A Geisha is a fictional account of a Japanese geisha, Falling Leaves is the true story of a Chinese woman’s struggle to overcome years of neglect and abuse by her family, set against the Communist uprising in China. Adeline Yen Mah was born in 1937 in the city of Tianjin, during the Sino-Japanese War, as the youngest of five children that included Lydia, the eldest and only sister, as well as three brothers: Gregory, Edward and James. Her mother died of infection two weeks after Adeline’s birth. Around a year later, Adeline’s father remarried, choosing as his bride a seventeen year-old French-Chinese woman whom the children were instructed to call Niang, one of the Chinese terms for mother. Adeline’s father and Niang quickly had children of their own, a son, Franklin, and a daughter, Susan, bringing the number of children in the household to seven. Completing the extended family were her father’s father, Adeline’s Ye Ye (Grandfather), and her father’s sister, her Aunt Baba.

Adeline’s story reads like a cross between Shakespeare and the grisliest of fairy tales. Even without the Communist revolution in the background, this would be a heart-wrenching and complicated tale of the inexplicable hurt family members can inflict on one another. Niang, Adeline’s stepmother, is jealous, controlling, and manipulative on such an astounding scale, one almost wonders if these tales haven’t somehow fused with fiction in the writer’s memory. If she were only looking back to recount her childhood, I would believe that was possible, but, sadly, the manipulation and control Niang exerted carried all the way through the book and Adeline’s life, until Niang’s death in 1994.

Throughout her childhood, Adeline suffers abuse from every member of her family except her Ye Ye, her Aunt Baba, and her youngest half-sister, Susan. Her Aunt Baba does everything she can to encourage Adeline to do well in school, knowing that it’s her only way out:

“She made me believe I was brilliant. Her pride in my small achievements was truly inspirational. She filed each report diligently in a safe-deposit box and wore the key around her neck, as if my grades were so many priceless jewels impossible to replace. When things were bad, she consoled us by taking them out and looking at them. ‘See this one? First grade and all of six years old and getting As in everything already. My! My!’ Then ‘I’m certain nobody going to university could have a more perfect record.’ or ‘We’ll be the most successful banker yet, just like your grand Aunt, and we’ll work together in our own bank.’”

Adeline is eventually sent to England to study, to follow her father’s plan for her to become a doctor. Eventually she comes to live in America, in California, with an abusive husband. She sets up an anesthesiology practice and has a son, eventually divorcing her first husband and marrying her second husband, to whom she is still married. With all she accomplishes, and even after having her own family, she continues to struggle to gain love and acceptance from her father, Niang, and her siblings–something that simply never happens.

Most of the discussion around China’s political situation occurs as a backdrop to what’s happening in her family. While her father and Niang manage to escape to Hong Kong, her eldest sister and her Aunt Baba remain trapped in Communist China. Most of the rest of her family ends up in Hong Kong, America, or Canada, like so many Chinese who escaped Communist rule. One of the most interesting chapters deals primarily with what happened to her Aunt Baba during the years she spent in Shanghai under Communist rule:

“…Aunt Baba was made to move into a single room at a neighbor’s house immediately behind her garden. Meanwhile, many other families moved into her house which was designated off-limits to her. Her abnk account was frozen and mail from Father not delivered. She was allotted fifteen yuan per month by the government for living expenses and instructed to wear a piece of black cloth on her chest with the characters hei liu lei (six black categories) clearly labeled. She was now a despised ‘black’. The blacks were the capitalist , landlord, rightist, rich peasant, counter-revolutionary and criminal element. They were given the most menial jobs and were invariably the last to be served in food lines and other queues, especially when there were shortages. Some were left to suffer and even die while lying on hospital floors waiting for medical attention.

All schools were closed. Buses and trains were crammed with Red Guards who traveled for free all over China. Mail was not delivered and private telephones were disconnected. Buddhist temples and Christian churches were destroyed. Books were burnt. Many city dwellers were sent off to the countryside ‘to reform their thoughts through hard labor and learn from the peasants’.

After many years and as China begins to open during the 1980s, Adeline recovers the family home in Shanghai and reinstates her Aunt. 

This book was difficult to read on many levels, but definitely worth the time. Much of Adeline’s life, even with the few privileges she’s accorded, seems so bleak, her pain unyielding. She wants so badly to be accepted by her horrible family that at times I wished I could reach through to her on the page and shake her and tell her to stop. Of course, the times and the vast cultural differences made relinquishing such a goal impossible for her. And although what she covers of the political activity in China is mostly a backdrop to her own story, it helped me to understand the difficulty and made me wish I knew more. At this moment in our country, we believe we are facing such difficulties, but they are not one-tenth of what the Chinese suffered under war with the Japanese and the rule of the Communists. It seems worthwhile to know more about that great nation and its history. As Adeline’s Aunt Baba tells her: 

“ ‘The way I see it, the nineteenth century was the British century. The twentieth century is an American century. I predict that the twenty-first century will be a Chinese century. The pendulum of history will swing from the ying ashes brought by the Cultural Revolution to the yang phoenix rising from the ashes.’”

I’d like to pass this book along. If you’re interested, let me know in the comments, and I’ll draw a name on Saturday, March 7.

*image from powells.com

Reading Challenge: World Citizen Challenge

Last year, I tried a couple of reading challenges, but I petered out sometime in the late spring. That’s not going to stop me from trying again! The first challenge I decided to sign up for this year is the World Citizen Challenge, hosted by Eva from A Striped Armchair, and I chose this one to get outside my comfort zone. I buy a lot of non-fiction books, but I don’t necessarily read them, so this will also help me attack my to-be-read pile.

For this challenge, I’m joining at the Major level, which means I must read five books from three different categories. The categories are: politics, economics, history, culture/anthropology/sociology, world issues, and memoir/autobiography. I’ve settled on the following books from my shelves (I think I have the correct categories):

History Mary Queen of Scots, by Antonia Fraser
World IssuesThe World Is Flat, by Thomas Friedman
Memoir Falling Leaves, by Adeline Yen Mah
Culture/Sociology/AnthroA History of God, by Karen Armstrong; A Perfect Summer, by Juliet Nicholson; How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill

I’ll be posting my reviews here, so stay tuned!

*image/challenge button provided by Eva at A Striped Armchair

My Life in France

Originally published June 23, 2006.

I finished this book last week, and I’ve been trying to find the time to write a little review of it, but I keep getting pulled away by other things.

I remember The French Chef being on the television when I was a very little girl (it came on either just after or right before the shows that interested me: Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Zoom), but I never watched it when I got older. To me, French cooking was too much of a complicated affair (still is), and it involves the handling of way too many animals. I am not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat a lot of meat, and when I do it must be boneless and skinless (no preservatives, no antibiotics, etc.) and in no way recognizable as an animal of any sort. One Christmas I made chicken tetrazzini for my family, following a recipe that called for me to boil a whole chicken. Of course, you can’t just slide the thing out of a wrapper and into a pot of water. You have to reach in and take out the bag of stuff, of parts, and then wash the…uh, body. Carcass. Ew. *Shudder*

It took me about an hour to get the chicken out of the wrapper and into the pot. Handling a chicken while wearing rubber gloves—the old-fashioned, yellow, rubber kind that you wear while washing dishes—isn’t exactly a piece of cake. Chickens are slippery, and then when you factor in the drinking (I had a glass of wine to calm my nerves) and the fact that I had to keep putting the chicken down (“Bad chicken! Terrible chicken! You suck!”) so I could go in the living room and collect myself, well, you can see where I might have struggled.

Old Julia, though, is afraid of nothing. I jest, but cooking isn’t easy, and I think to prepare French cuisine in particular, one has to be pretty fearless. She was 37 when she moved to France along with her husband, Paul Child, and learned to cook. Many of the animals she handles still have things like feathers and heads and fur.

Wait. I’m going about this all wrong. Because really My Life in France is not about cooking at all, but about a person who found her calling, and all the attendant passion that follows. So many of us have half-assed jobs, where we like a part but not all of it, and we sit in our offices or cubicles and wish we were doing something else. Julia Child simply fell into cooking—before France, she basically had no interest in it at all, but she loved food, and she fell in love with France, so things fell into place. What I found remarkable about her story, besides the fact that the book is in her “voice” and so friendly and compelling, is how she never considered anything an obstacle.

While her wonderful stories, her curiosity, and her joie de vivre don’t exactly make me want to, oh, say, pluck a chicken and stuff herbs under its skin, she does inspire me to stay open to experience, to keep my chin up and my eyes open. So many memoirs are “poor little me” stories, this book is refreshing for all its happiness and plucky (pardon the pun) go-get-’em attitude. I’ve already recommended it to several people at work, and I’m thinking of recommending of for my real-life book club. And now I’m recommending it to you…but vegetarians, beware. On the one hand, in post-war France, she’s dealing with animals fresh off the farm, so at least there’s no corporate cruelty. But on the other hand, she does go into great detail about cooking different animals, and her approach is very French—pragmatic. If you are easily upset by that sort of thing, then you might want to stay away.

Bon appetit!

*photo from powells.com

The Glass Castle

Originally published June 10, 2006.

I just finished reading The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls for my “real-life” book club. Every month a different person picks the book, and this was not my month to choose. I probably would have chosen Julia Child’s new book, or perhaps a novel. These days, everyone has a memoir. In fact, just this past week, a woman I work with was telling me about how one of her ex-boyfriends had left her to go back to his ex-wife (I don’t think I would advertise that fact, but maybe that’s just me). This woman’s always sharing tidbits about her life with people at work, so I jokingly told her that she should write a memoir. She turned to me with all seriousness and said, “I have. Self-published.”

Hrm. We used to call those diaries.

You can read a synopsis of The Glass Castle at Powells.

The memoir genre is tricky, as we all saw a few months ago when James Frey was outed for fictionalizing much of his life story as related in A Million Little Pieces. I didn’t read that book, but I’ve read plenty of others, both novels and memoirs, that walk the fine line between reality and fiction. Part of the problem is memory, and part of the problem is the act of writing itself. Memoirs about someone’s childhood or someone’s drinking or drug problems are bound to walk that line, mainly because we don’t accurately remember our childhoods, and people under the influence most likely have memories that live on the boundary between their own fuzzy experience and secondhand accounts of their behavior. And as we cannot write in real time, and because we have an audience’s attention to hold, we must edit as we go.

The Glass Castle walks this fine line for several chapters at the beginning of the book. I don’t think Walls makes up any events from her very early childhood, but they are rather detailed and the dialog is a little overblown. For example, after a serous accident when she is three, she’s in the hospital for several weeks, until her father decides to remove her without the doctor’s permission. When he comes to get her, she asks “Are you sure this is okay?” She’s three. What does she know of the law, or of the rule of the hospital, or any of these things? To a three-year-old, Mom and Dad rule the world, don’t they? This seems like a question and older child or adult would ask…or an adult who’s finally getting the chance.

In these first chapters, sometimes Walls’s dialog and descriptions are more sophisticated, and other times her sentence structure is simpler, more childlike, and the words she uses to describe things are more like those a small child might use. I bring this up only because I think this beautifully illustrates the fact of how difficult it is to try and remember and recount childhood without having adult experience and understanding and knowledge laying over the top of it. I suppose the reason I noticed this is because for those several initial chapters, the voice that was sometimes adult and sometimes child distracted me from the story itself.

As she gets older in the book, the dialog and descriptions seem more realistic, and things start to move. The story of this woman’s life is both vivid and stunning. Her writing is quite solid but not overly poetic, which is important because the book is all about the stark reality of life in a family that gives new meaning to the word dysfunctional. Other writers, like Mary Karr in her book The Liar‘s Club, can describe scenes so beautifully that their stories have the patina of romantic tragedy. Walls doesn’t do this, although she does have some fine moments, and it works in her favor because (other than at the beginning) the language never distracts from the story—and it is quite a story.

What’s most interesting about The Glass Castle to me is that Walls never gives in to self-pity of any kind, nor does she use her story as some kind of mark that makes her special. I find it funny (peculiar) that there are so many memoirs out there about dysfunctional families, and each one seems to be competing with the other for who had it worse. (Forget about the talk shows full of these people, too. Feh.) I don‘t think many people had it worse than this woman‘s family. What makes The Glass Castle so compelling–and slightly disturbing–is her lack of whining, along with the fact that she still seems ever-so-slightly entrenched. Her parents could easily be labeled “toxic,” not necessarily because they are unloving and abusive (although her father is sometimes violent when he drinks, and her mother is rather negligent), but because their personalities are so malformed that it probably would have been better if they’d never had children at all.

Yet Walls manages to show them as people instead of just parents, which gives this book its strength. She’s not trying to comfort her inner child, and she never raises the question “Why me?” After reading about how they struggled and the true squalor in which they lived, I wouldn’t have blamed her one bit if she showed a little righteous indignation, but she never does. While she understands from an early age that something is seriously wrong, she also seems to grasp the pure complexity of the problem, not just for herself but for all of them–not a typical vantage point for a book like this. From an outsider’s perspective, I think her parents both suffered from some form of mental illness, but Walls seems to find a way to draw a line between who they are and who she is, and say “Okay.”