‘Nomadland’ by Jessica Bruder: A Book Review


When you hear the word nomad, what do you think of? The Bedouin in the Arabian desert? Now, what about American nomad? Maybe John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) comes to mind, dust bowl families on a wagon heading to California to escape poverty. Or, maybe the famous image of the migrant mother with her children captured by photographer Dorothea Lange (1936). Or in more recent years, Jeannette Walls’ family when she was a child in The Glass Castle (2005).

Journalist Jessica Bruder has followed some modern-day nomads and chronicled their lives in her 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. These are van and RV dwellers in California, Nevada, Arizona and several other Western States. Many of them are fallout of the 2008 financial meltdown when they lost their homes, jobs and investments. In the book, Bruder stayed close with them for a year, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, LaVonne and many others, all in their 60’s and 70’s but still active as itinerant workers. What she has revealed in her book is eye-opening.

Linda is a sixty-four-year-old grandmother. She drives a salvaged Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. Towed behind the jeep is her home, a trailer she calls the “Squeeze Inn.”  It’s a “fiberglass relic” built in 1974. Inside dimension is ten feet from end to end and room enough for Linda to stand up straight. “It’s 5’3” inside and I am 5’2”… Perfect fit,” she says. A positive outlook is the sustenance of the nomads Bruder has come to know personally in her research in situ.

Linda has worked as a Camp Host, which pays $8.50 per hour for her to welcome campers, settle them in, clean toilets, maintain campground, and be a service person and problem solver at all hours. She also belongs to CamperForce, an Amazon labour source made up of mostly workers in their 60’s and 70’s living in vans and trailers parked on RV lots near Amazon warehouses. When not walking miles on the concrete field of these warehouses during her 10-hour night shift, Linda would find work at outdoor crop harvests or camp sites.

In 2011, United States Gypsum shut down its mine in Empire, Nevada. As a result, the USG company town was emptied as its whole population rented their homes from the company. Empire became a ghost town, its Zip Code discontinued. Seventy miles to the south of Empire was a convergence of a different kind of town around Fernley. They were itinerant workers living in RV, trailers, and vans parked on RV lots. They belong to a population described by the new term ‘precariat’: temporary laborers doing short-term jobs for low wages.

In her book, Bruder points to Bob Wells’ influence on many of these homeowner-turned vandwellers. For twenty years, Wells has been preaching anti-consumerism. The guru of modern-day nomadic life spreads his message of simple and mortgage-free living on his YouTube channel and website CheapRVLiving.com, bonus is staying close to the land and nature, but above all, being self-sufficient. With the 2008 economic meltdown, many saw the positive message Wells was preaching.

Wells also created RTR, Rubber Tramp Rendevous, which takes place every January in Quartzsite, Arizona. It is a popular annual meet-up of campdwellers coming together for support, camaraderie, and education. There are seminars and classes to learn all sorts of essential knowledge and skills related to RV living or just general living. Some of these courses include solar cooking, get out of debt, living in small cars, and the art of stealth parking (puzzled? Google it)

Bruder’s book is a detailed coverage of a marginal population. It’s full of relevant statistics, background information and interviews, all approached and presented to highlight their humanity as she followed and befriended the vandwellers. We come to know them as respectable human beings seeking an alternative way of living away from the rat race. Unfortunately, their toiling inside humungous Amazon warehouses could well be an inevitable but poignant irony. It might not convert you to become a vandweller, but Bruder’s matter-of-fact reportage could have its effects in loosening our grip on consumerism and the necessities of living.

Now, can such a non-fiction book be turned into a movie? It’s been done and the feature film has already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival which took place in their scaled-down, Pandemic mode. Indeed, Covid-19 has made us re-think many basic assumptions of life and modern day living. Nomadland the film has the power to shake us to the core.

Directed by Chloé Zhao (The Rider, 2017), a master in blending documentary and fiction, the film puts Bruder’s book subjects Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells onto the big screen. Two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017) mingles in with her self-effacing role as a vandweller, perfect casting in this inspiring docudrama. The cinematography is exceptional, the score soul-stirring. Look for it when it is released in December later this year.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, W. W. Norton, New York, 2017, 273 pages.

My review of Nomadland the movie is now published on the film website Vague Visages. Free to read one day only Monday, September 28, 2020.

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Related Posts:

The Rider is Poetry on Screen

Don’t Just Drive Past Three Billboards

The Glass Castle Book Review

The Glass Castle from Book to Screen

Turning: A Year in the Water by Jessica J. Lee, Book Review

“There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.”  ––  George Eliot

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Turning - Canadian edition

The above quote comes to me as I read Jessica J. Lee’s memoir Turning: A Year in the Water. From the beginning, I’ve an inkling that what she intends to say isn’t just about swimming but something deeper. I’m not disappointed. Swimming in fifty-two lakes throughout one year in Brandenburg in itself is a fascinating idea. What more, I’m much gratified with the candid revealing of her interior journey as she describes the physical terrain she treads. Often, the two mirror one another.

At twenty-eight, Lee goes to Berlin from Canada to do research and complete her doctoral dissertation on environmental history. She brings with her trunks of emotional baggage of hurts and loss from broken relationships and a transient existence,  traversing between Toronto, London, and Berlin.

Born in Canada to a Chinese mother from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee has been straddling multiple worlds all her life, first learning Mandarin at home, then English, then French in school. The multiplicity of languages reflects the challenges of growing up bicultural. The divorce of her parents further shakes up the fragile psyche of a teenage girl’s search for a sense of self. As a young adult she looks to other relationships and experiences to find anchor but only reaps disappointments. A move to London, England, later leads to deeper personal loss. By the time she arrives in Berlin, accrued pains and hurts have left indelible marks in her life.

To find strength and healing in a new land where she has to learn yet another language and culture, Lee decides on a venture to come to terms with her predicament. Her plan is to swim in fifty-two lakes near Berlin in the Brandenburg vicinity through every season of one year.

In short chapters under each of the four seasons, Lee captures succinctly her experience carrying out this plan, interspersing a swimming log with the back stories of her life.

Perhaps it was a drastic response. In depression, I had become someone I hadn’t wanted to be, emptied and hardened. I felt that I had to respond to it in kind, as if lake water might blast away my sadness and fear. So, I decided to swim for a year, in the hope of finding some reserve of joy and courage in myself. (6)

This unique resolve of hers fascinates me. Lee’s memoir is a log of a brave yet quiet venture through the seasons. Not only that, she has introduced me to the natural beauty of the Brandenburg landscape and the travelogues of the German writer Theodor Fontane (1819 – 1898). I read with interest the German socio-political situations she shares, also lap up tidbits on the environmental history of lakes, glaciers, and the etymology of terms associated with her experience.

Limnology is the study of lakes. Originally from Greek, but with the German overtone of Schwelle, it refers to an in-between space, an apt metaphor for Lee’s liminal identity between cultures.

Fragments of Chinese slipping out between English and German, as I press new words and places into place. Return. Home is as much in a language as it is in a landscape. (9-10)

In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at the border, as if constantly searching for home. (14)

The term ‘Turning’ refers to the movements of the water in a lake. In lakes, there’s stratification of water and overturn, with the different layers of water in constant vertical movement. This action creates ‘cycles that keep the lake alive, ever-changing, breathing oxygen into every part of the lake.’ Isn’t that, too, a beautiful metaphor for our very existence, the essence of life?

Lee’s metaphors are fresh and relevant, akin to her academic field of environmental history. Here are two other ones I’ll remember for a long while. Lakes are markers in time in the glacial retreat:

In Lakes the present history of our world contracts and intensifies, urgent and shrinking like the ice… I take my parents’ divorce to be a marker, a line drawn between childhood and adulthood… For a girl on the cusp of teenhood, there was never going to be a good time. (56)

And this one is another apt description of so many being called diaspora: Glacial Erratics. The word erratics has the Latin root errare meaning to wander, to roam, to be mistaken, to go astray.

Erratics carry their origins with them, telling the story of where a glacier has been and how the ice deposited the erratic in the landscape. An erratic is a rock that doesn’t belong to the geology in which it is planted; instead, it’s a record of another place… Like an erratic, I was carrying past places with me. I felt mistaken. (170)

Above all, I’m mesmerized by a determined mind and body as I read how she adheres to her personally-set rules: no cars, no wetsuits. She bikes to her destinations, carries her bike on public transit when needed, most of the time pedalling for hours. She prepares a light lunch and a change of clothes in her backpack and sets off in the morning, sometimes with a friend, but mostly alone.

Every lake has its own features, the water has its own feel, the sensation swimming there can be different from another, but it doesn’t stray far from calming and revitalizing. In winter, she brings a hammer from home to break the ice on the lake surface before slipping into the frigid water. There’s numbness and pain, surely, but she has developed the courage and the tenacity to face the dark mass and not withdraw.

In solitude, she finds strength; in conquering her fears, freedom. The ghosts of the past might still be there, but she has learned to face them.

Simple yet poetic, honest and mindful. Reading Turning is like dipping slowly into the lake of empathy, gradually getting attuned to the chill to find the water soothing. And you’d want to stay there just a while longer.

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

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Turning: A Year in the Water A Memoir by Jessica J. Lee, Hamish Hamilton publisher, NY, May 2, 2017. 304 pages.

Canadian Edition (book cover image in this post): Penguin Random House Canada, April 7, 2020. 304 pages.

My thanks to Catapult.co for providing me a pdf version.

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Reading the Season: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Click for ‘Silence’ movie review and thoughts.

For this year’s Reading the Season, I’ve chosen Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece Silence. Unlike previous years, it’s not as pleasing and exulting a read at Christmas time.  Rather, it’s unsettling and disturbing. It will interfere with your festive mood. It presents an excruciating dilemma that we hope we may never need to confront, and a question that more likely for us to face: Where is God during our suffering?

silence

Why so unpleasant a read at this time? We’re all busy with our festivities. Who would want to think about such a somber question? Director Martin Scorsese thinks it’s seasonal; Dec. 23 is the day his adaptation of Silence will be released in North America. Mind you, before showing here, it will first premiere at the Vatican. What a diversion of Christmas over there.

Thanks to Scorsese, I dug out Endo’s book and reread it. This time around, it’s even more disturbing for me. However, I also see the light seeping through the cracks of a broken human scene. I sure hope Scorsese’s film — twenty-five years brewing in the director’s heart — can lead to some quiet meditation amidst the cacophony bombarding us these days.

Historical Note

First off, very crucial before reading Silence is to establish a frame of reference; this is furnished by the Historical Note at the beginning of the book. Christianity was introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier in 1549. It was very well received at that point, despite an expulsion order later in 1587 by the Shogun Hideyoshi and the subsequent crucifixion of twenty-six Japanese Christians and European missionaries. By 1600, there were an estimated 300,000 Christian converts living in Japan.

By the time the second expulsion order was issued in 1614, however, the Christian Church in Japan was driven underground. Warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu was resolute in wiping out all traces of Christianity that from 1614 to 1640, an estimated five to six thousand Christians were killed. He later found out martyrdom wasn’t as effective an eradication measure as forced apostasy, especially with leaders of the faith, so torture was widely used towards that end.

crucifixion

In 1632, the Catholic world was shocked to learn that the stalwart leader of the Jesuits mission in Japan, Father Christovao Ferreira, had disavowed his faith and become an apostate after being tortured at ‘the pit’ in Nagasaki. No news of him came after that.

Upon this setting Endo begins his story. The historical novel describes the journey of one fervent young priest from Portugal, Father Sebastian Rodrigues, who has had the privilege to be taught and mentored by Father Ferreira years before. Upon hearing Ferreira’s apostasy, and with the reluctant approval of the Jesuit Superior, Rodrigues and fellow priest Father Francisco Garrpe board a ship and sail all the way to Japan to look for their beloved teacher and to investigate the situation. They have been forewarned, the magistrate Inoue is ruthless.

While still on the ship, the priests encounter Kichijiro, a sly, cowardly, and ambiguous figure who later will wade on shore ahead to guide them to some hidden Christians. For a while, the two Fathers have to hide themselves in a hut on a mountain during the day, and minister to the needs of Japanese believers who, despite the danger, come to seek them out for spiritual matters at night.

Later Kichijiro leads them to a nearby island to meet with more hidden believers. To the welcoming relief of the villagers, the fathers secretly conduct mass and baptism despite the risks. The evasive Kichijiro hangs around like a phantom nemesis.

The people suffer greatly under the rule of magistrate Inoue, yes, that Inoue who Rodrigues was forewarned. He extracts from the poor peasants harsh revenues and infuse the utmost fear into those of the Christian faith with his deathly measures. Rodrigues observes that “The persecutions of Christians make their faces expressionless. They cannot register on their faces any sorrow —nor even joy. The long years of secrecy have made the faces of these Christians like masks. This is indeed bitter and sad.”

Never before has Rodrigues felt so deeply about the meaningfulness of his mission:

“… like water flowing into dry earth … For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.”

But such a firm conviction begins to shatter when Rodrigues comes closer and closer to the reality of persecution. No, not just of his own, but those of the Japanese peasants, his flock. Many are faithful to the end. When discovered, they would be tied on trees in the shape of a cross at the seashore, the rising tide slowly consumed their bodies after two or three days.

The ultimate punishment is ‘the pit’. Believers are tied up and suspended upside down above a pit. Blood would flow out of their eyes, ears, nose and the slits on the neck. They would be literally drip dry into a slow death through several days.

fumieA way out of such torture is to trample on the fumie. The fumie is a wooden plaque with a copper plate on which the image of Christ was artfully engraved. A person’s willingness to trample on the fumie is Inoue’s way of testing if one belongs to the outlawed Christian religion. It is also a convenient way to turn a believer into an apostate upon the threat of torture and death. One only needs to put one’s foot on the fumie, trample or even just step on it, then one can be released immediately, a most easy and convenient ‘formality’ to show one’s denunciation of faith. This was what happened to Father Ferriera.

The officials would say: “I’m not telling you to trample with sincerity and conviction. This is only a formality. Just putting your foot on the thing won’t hurt your convictions.”

To a believer, this may sound like a temptation, or self-deception. Or, is it a necessary choice to survive?

In this historically based novel, Shusaku Endo (1923 – 1996), a Japanese Catholic, paints a vivid picture of the crisis of faith in the face of extreme suffering, the doubts that often lie hidden even in the most devout. In the midst of persecutions, where is God? Why is He silent?  Endo is not depicting so much about the hubris of foreign missionaries coming with the hope and optimism to preach and convert, but just the opposite, he has exposed the lowest state a believer, let alone a priest, can possibly experience, the utter humiliation of being the one to denounce and betray his God, albeit under duress.

The duress is horrific indeed. The priest sees no glorious martyrdom but is witness to unbearable torture of these peasants. For several nights, the screams and moans of five Christian villagers accompany him in his sleepless nights. Father Rodrigues is thus being dragged into the ultimate dilemma: He only needs to place his foot on the fumie and all five of these suffering peasants will be released right away.

In a court of law, a statement or action made under duress cannot stand as evidence to lay blame, as the subject is under threat and coercion like Father Rodrigues is here. But in the court of the priest’s conscience, it is an ironclad verdict: Apostasy!

As he is struggling with this painful dilemma, trample on it and denounce his faith or five peasants will be suspended in the pit till death, Father Rodrigues seems to encounter an epiphany. Seeing the well-trodden, blacken face of the Christ image on the fumie, the priest hears a voice breaking through the silence:

“‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”

Indeed, the allusion to Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crows points to Christ’s forgiveness, the light that sheds through the cracks of human failure. After his denial, Peter later served his Lord with transformed fervency and love. Yes, even the Rock, upon whom the Church was to be built, had once denied Christ.

When I first read Silence a few years ago I could not accept Rodrigues’s action. This time around, I’ve come to see that Endo is not discussing theology here, but depicting an imaginary scenario. In the darkest hour of a believer’s journey—likely Endo’s own as well—when a devout is entrapped in an excruciating dilemma like being suspended in the deep pit of spiritual conflicts, Endo draws our attention to the response of a compassionate Christ.

As to the seeming silence of God, Endo lets us hear these internal dialogues:

‘Lord, I resented your silence.’
‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’

At the humble manger some two thousand years ago, God had spoken, with a birth that pierced the darkness of that silent night.

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Reading the Season of Christmas Past:

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

Before I Go to Sleep47 year-old Christine has lost her memory for twenty some years due to trauma. She wakes up every morning to a forgotten past. She spends her day piecing together a life, who and where she is, her personal history, and, who her husband Ben is. Upon the advice of Dr. Nash, she writes it all down in a journal before she goes to sleep at night, for she’ll wake up the next morning wiped clean of her day old memory once again.

The book deals with some interesting issues. If the past is horrible to recall, would it be better if one does not remember, or, would one be better off knowing the truth despite pain? Is one made more vulnerable by knowing or not knowing? Further, if mental images conjure up, how can one be sure they are memories of actual happenings and not one’s imagination?

Author S. J. Watson leads the reader into a maze of intrigues, teasing us with an unreliable narrator Christine, casting shadows of imminent dangers, and trying to capture us with her vulnerability. So memory loss is an effective plot device, keeping us in the dark guessing, creating suspense, and revealing ever so slowly what really had taken place that caused the amnesia to set in, and how she could ever escape.

The book starts off with a most interesting scenario as Christine wakes up to an unknown world, but towards the middle it seems like it has forgotten that it is just the protagonist who has amnesia, not the readers, as it repeats the facts and descriptions with Christine’s journal entries. The last part is a page-turning thriller, albeit with a relatively improbable ending. The last pages explaining everything with a neatly wrapped up ‘here you go, see how logical it is’ kind of finish.

Memories… such a thematic element can be exceptionally gratifying to explore with deeper characterization. Surely the author has brought up the idea that memory defines us, a reader seeking for a more contemplative rendering of such a concept would be disappointed however, for Watson has chosen to use this interesting thematic material to craft a suspense thriller and not an idea-driven literary work. So what we have with notions relating to memories, to the nature of our identity and personality… etc. are merely used to build up a suspenseful plot. As a thriller, the book aims to lead on and not delve in.

Am I being a bit harsh here? Why, I just caught myself. I could well have been more lenient if I were not reading it along with Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past). Am I being fair to make comparison? It’s like comparing apples with oranges. Yet the coincident is too fascinating… both deal with remembering and sleeping, albeit one trying to fall asleep while the other trying not to. Just thinking… even the book covers that I have are similar.

Lots of ‘I love you’s’ are uttered, but none that can stir up any emotions in me the reader. Several films kept conjuring up in my mind as I read… Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Vow, and I must say the latter two managed to stir some affective resonance in me while exploring the topic of amnesia and a love relationship. But with this book, I just wanted to race to the end. For some, this might well be proof of an entertaining read.

And that is why I have high hopes for its film adaptation. Yes, I must applaud Watson for his strong debut. This novel published in 2011 has gained awards and accolades, on the bestseller lists in several countries, and translated into 30 plus languages. Its film rights has been snatched up by Ridley Scott. Filming now, it features the impressive cast of Nicole Kidman as Christine, Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) as Ben, and Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) as Dr. Nash; Anne-Marie Duff (Nowhere Boy) is also on board. This is definitely a film I want to watch, not just because of the actors, but the screenwriter Rowan Joffe, who will direct as well. Joffe has shown us, with his script for The American (George Clooney stars) that yes, sometimes the film can be better than the book. Let’s hope this is also the case.

In the end page Watson notes that his novel, though totally fictitious, is inspired by actual medical cases, particularly that of Clive Wearing‘s, the British musicologist, conductor and BBC music producer, who has the same condition as Christine’s, albeit his is an even shorter memory span, just a short minute or so. His real life accounts have been recorded by his loving wife Deborah Wearing in her book Forever Today: A Memoir of Love and Amnesia. While he lives in the constantly present, he does not forget music or his love for his wife. Now that would be one inspiring book to read.

***

Click here to watch a short clip on Clive and Deborah Wearing on YouTube. Does he not remind you of another real life character, a pianist, whose life had also been made into a movie?

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

When we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

How reliable is our memory? How accurate are our thoughts, analysis of situations, perception of people? Yet we live by them and interpret our experiences through their lenses.

The winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending plays with these subjective faculties and crafts a scenario that’s captivating and with a touch of surprise at the end. A man in his 60’s looks back at his life, focusing on what he can remember about his relationships and their aftermath.

In the first part of the book, we see three school buddies in the upper form, the narrator Tony Webster with his classmates Alex and Colin,  happy to befriend a newcomer, Adrian Finn. Obviously superior in brain, insight, and self-composure, Adrian soon becomes the model they look up to. Apart from the pretentiousness of youth in intellectual matters, Tony has to concede that Adrian is indeed  superior material. When asked by the teacher “What is history?”, while Tony gives the relatively pat answer “History is the lies of the victors”, Adrian articulates this thought:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.

With these words at the beginning pages of the book, Barnes has quietly laid the enquiry of his story.

Post-secondary life leads them to different paths. Adrian, not surprisingly, gets into Cambridge on scholarship, while Tony goes to Bristol to read history. There, he starts to go out with Veronica Ford. One weekend, Veronica brings him home to meet her family. In Tony’s memory, that is a humiliating episode. He leaves with bewilderment: Veronica’s aloofness, her father’s joking insults, her mother’s mysterious gesture, and her brother’s silent wink.

After that, Tony introduces Veronica to his friends. Naturally, she strikes up a good rapport with Adrian right away, with a common tie of Cambridge where her brother also attends. Later, Tony and Veronica break up.  Adrian soon starts to date Veronica. As usual, Tony seems resigned to his circumstances and  moves on with his own life, and assumedly, others too with theirs… until later he hears the shocking news about Adrian. Time flows by, Tony marries a less mysterious Margaret, has a daughter Susie, and years later, his marriage ends in divorce.

Tony is now retired in his 60’s, expecting a life that’s bland and uneventful. Retired life for him is a natural drift of time, flat and oblivious. But he’s roused by an unexpected letter from a solicitor one day, naming him to receive £500, a bequest in the will of someone he has only met once forty years ago, Veronica’s mother. What’s more intriguing is together with this money, he is to be left with Adrian’s diary.

Life to Tony now is a quest for finding out what had actually happened to these people. His investigation has cast fearful doubts on his own memory and sense of personal history. In his retirement, Tony is awakened to re-interpret his past.

… the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent.

It will take his whole remaining life to solve the mystery of how real his perceptions are, and what has taken place in the lives of those he once knew as close friends. Such queries only lead to a more taxing question: “Does he play a role in other people’s fate?”

In just 150 pages, Barnes has opened a floodgate of inquiries into our subjective mind, carrying us through with a tantalizing story, towards an ending that, I feel, is a tad bit sensational, however reserved the tone. Nonetheless, I come out of the reading experience marvelling at the power of the economy of words in the hands of a master storyteller.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes, published by Random House Canada, 2011, 150 pages.

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The Glass Castle: Book Review

For my 100th post, I’d like to share an extraordinary personal narrative by writer Jeannette Walls.

The opening of the book grabbed me right away as I was browsing in a bookstore. The author, a successful journalist and writer, was in a taxi, all dressed up for an evening event in New York City. As she glanced out the window, she saw a homeless woman scavenging a garbage bin. A closer look made her realize that was her own mother.

That is one dramatic opening of a book. Knowing that it is the telling of a real-life story intrigued me all the more.

Since its publication in 2005, the award-winning childhood memoir of Jeannette Walls has garnered high acclaims and been on the New York Times Best-Seller List for 100 weeks.

Growing up nomadic is a succinct description of Walls’ childhood. At age four, she had already moved eleven times. Upon the direction of her eccentric father and idealistic mother, and often to escape debts or consequences of misdeeds, the four Walls children were herded across the United States from Arizona to California, across mining towns and even living out open in the Mojave Desert, moving on a whim and often given just minutes to pack up whatever meager possessions they had.

Afflicted with alcoholism, dad Rex had trouble holding down a job. But he was a man with a brilliant mind and a wealth of knowledge which he readily passed to his favorite daughter Jeannette. She learned from him science and engineering, mathematics and history. The glass castle is his promise to her, assuring her one day he would strike gold with the Prospector he had invented, and build the family a glass castle they could all live in. The glass castle remained a glimpse of hope, yet sadly proven to be one illusive dream.

Mom Rose Mary was an idealistic artist and writer. Besides teaching her children to appreciate nature, art and literature, she had taught them adaptability and instilled in them the spirit of resilience. Once driving through the Mojave Desert, they saw an ancient Joshua tree. Growing through the wind swept years, the tree was permanently bent and yet was still firmly rooted. Later, Walls found a sapling growing not far from the old tree and wanted to dig it up and replant it near their home:

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.

This book could well be named The Joshua Tree.

Rex’s alcoholism left the family in dire poverty. In this candid and personal account, Walls remembers that often she had to go without food for days. While in school, she would scavenge garbage cans for leftovers after lunch. Often they would have no electricity in the makeshift shack they called home, and took a shower once a week.

Mom was plagued by depression and often lived in a world of her own ideals. Her laissez-faire style of child-rearing often left her kids to fend and provide for themselves. Even if she found a job as a school teacher, she would soon grow tired of it and wouldn’t get up in the morning. The kids would have to drag her up, usually in vain.

I’m surprised the term “Dysfunctional” never occurred in my mind as I read the book. The Walls children were tenacious, resourceful, bold and confident. They were avid readers and did well in school.  What more, they were devoted to each other and loyal to the family. From an early age, they had to learn to handle an alcoholic father, a moody and depressed mother, and mediate their occasional fights and conflicts. The kids had to parent their own misfit mother and father. The Walls might be financially crippled, they were able to maintain strong relationships and an exuberant zest for life.

Walls’ account is candid and personal, poignant with cutting humor. One time in winter, when icicles were formed in their kitchen ceiling because the roof was not insulated and there was no electricity in their home, Walls describes her mom’s response:

All seasons have something to offer,” she said. “Cold weather is good for you. It kills the germs.

How we view the Walls parents of course depends solely on how their daughter presents them in her memoir. And this is precisely my point. Jeannette Walls has painted a loving picture of her parents depsite their failings. She is sympathetic to their struggles with their own demons. Through out the book, I am touched by her capacity to forgive, to persevere, to hope, and to plan for a better future, not only for herself, but for all her siblings.

The last chapters of the book detail how the author and her siblings pursued a new beginning by establishing an independent life in New York City, while still as teenagers. The story of resilience moved on to another phase. Readers are gratified to see a rewarding end to Walls’ years of perseverance.

Film rights have been optioned for the book.  If it is ever turned into a movie, from a visual sense, it is easy to illustrate the hilarious and sensational parts. However, my sincere hope is that the film will keep the integrity and poignancy of the memoir. Often, it is not what has happened that is worth telling, but how the narrator sees what has happened that makes the storytelling moving and memorable. In this case, both the what and the how are extraordinary and uplifting.

The following is a video clip of Jeannette Walls and her mother talking about The Glass Castle.

~ ~ ~½ Ripples

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, published by Scribner, NY. 2005. 288 pages.

NOTE: Here is the latest (April 23, 2012) regarding the film adaptation of the book. Lionsgate has bought the rights and Jennifer Lawrence is in talk for the lead. CLICK HERE to read more.

FOR A LIST OF UPCOMING BOOKS INTO FILMS, CLICK HERE.

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