Sunday, November 25, 2007

Book Review: The Glass Castle

November 25, 2007

Entertainment Weekly calls this memoir "Nothing short of spectacular"; the back of the book says it is "truly astonishing." Spectacular, astonishing, brilliant, intense, fascinating---I could go on and on. Jeannette Walls today is a regular contributor to MSNBC. She lives in a beautiful home and rubs shoulders with the rich and famous. But for years she avoided speaking about her family, even to her closest friends. Her husband finally got the whole story out of her and urged her to write her memoir. And, wow. What a memoir this is.

Walls's family was incredibly dysfunctional. Her father was brilliant man who embraced learning of all kinds, from physics to history and everything in between. Her mother was a free-spirited artist who believed that children should take care of themselves. Completely. Life for Rex and Rose Mary Walls was all about adventure; life for the four Walls kids was all about survival. Though brilliant, Rex was an alcoholic who constantly lost his jobs and got into trouble with the local law enforcement or the loan sharks. Moving every few months, they lived in absolute dumps or sometimes lived out of their car, if they had one. Occasionally Rex would bring home a few bags of groceries which would be gone in a couple of days. Rose Mary told the kids that food was over-rated and just to look on the bright side of things. Walls' memories of digging through trash cans at school for tossed-out sandwiches would be heartbreaking, except that she tells it all in such a matter-of-fact way.

Ultimately the family heads from the west back to Rex's hometown in West Virginia, where their life rapidly deteriorates. Most folks in the coal-mining town are impoverished, and the Walls are at the absolute bottom of the barrel. Without running water or electricity and usually without food, each family member manages somehow to survive, in spite of being ostracized by the community. The resilience of the four kids is unbelievable, and through absolute grit and determination, they all manage to escape the cycle of poverty and alcoholism.

Jeannette Walls is a powerful storyteller. She does not make judgments about her parents but just tells what happened. One can't help but wish warm baths and clean clothes for all the Walls siblings for the rest of the lives. There are two great websites featuring Jeannette Walls. This one is an interview with her; and this one has a video clip of Walls and her mom today.

Having recently read Into the Wild, I have to say that the contrast between Chris McCandless and Jeannette Walls is striking. McCandless was a rich, privileged kid who goes into the wild and dies. Walls was a dirt-poor, hungry, dirty kid who escaped from the wild and survived. And my admiration goes entirely to Walls.

If you read nothing else this year, please read this book.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Book Review: How Strong Women Pray

November 23, 2007

Motivational speaker Bonnie St. John has conquered amazing challenges in her life, including having her leg amputated when she was 5 and being horribly abused by her step-father as a little girl. But in spite of her harsh introduction to the world, she won Paralympic medals in skiing, graduated from Harvard, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and served on the White House National Economic Council.

But St. John's biggest struggles began when she became a mother and gradually remembered her abusive childhood. Forced to deal with decades of memories she'd unburied, St. John found her emotional life unraveling, and she turned, bit by painstaking bit, to God. Prayer came slowly to her, and as she began her own quest to understand prayer, she began to wonder about the prayer life of other women she knew. Who prays? How do they pray? Where and when and why do people pray? Her ponderings became interview questions, and the result is this book that mixes St. John's own life story with snippets of stories of other women's prayer lives. As St. John writes in her introduction, "This book is a spiritual quilt of women's lives you can wrap around yourself."

About two dozen women were interviewed for this book. Some of them spoke powerfully of prayer, like Colette Branch, who packed up 100 severely disabled people and 200 employees and evacuated just a day before Katrina demolished New Orleans--in spite of being laughed at by others who thought she was over-reacting. And Janet Parshall, a radio talk-show host, really stands out as a woman who knows the voice of God through prayer. Unlike many of the women in the book, she writes, "I've gotten over the idea of ritualism in prayer. There's the ABC approach and the method that models the Lord's Prayer. I think it's important to go deeper than the formal prayers that we've been taught. Above all else, He listens to us and He wants to communicate with us."

I think many of the women interviewed for the book are stuck at ritualistic prayer. And some seem to mix up prayer with some kind of transcendental state or as a gimmick. Amy Domini writes that she uses "prayer to get to that place where problems can solve themselves overnight." She says, "I realized...that I could put myself into 'the zone' by praying, and actually lower my heart rate." I don't really get that. It seems more like praying for prizes than spending time with God.

I found myself skimming the stories toward the end because for me, the real meat of the book was Bonnie's own story. I would have been perfectly happy just reading her memoir and her journey into walking closer to God, because she is wonderful. I like her honesty and her moments of realization, like when she realizes during one of her interviews that people actually thrive on coming together and praying together: "Apparently, I was doing it the hard way...I thought I had to do it all by myself. I didn't understand that seeking support in prayer would make me stronger and better as a mother, as a motivator, as a business owner, and as a friend."

This is where St. John starts, as she writes in her introduction: "Conversations about prayer are rare. People can go to church together every day and never talk about how they pray. Husbands and wives can pray separately for a lifetime and never share the experience. Even in a prayer group, most people talk about what they are praying about, not how they actually pray." This statement really jumped out at me because, well, I do have conversations about prayer with my friends. I can't imagine a sermon in which our pastor didn't discuss the power of prayer at some point. It's only been a few months since we completed a women's Bible study about women and prayer. My friends regularly tell me, "I'll be praying for you." And wow. I was struck yet again by the blessedness of my life. Kind of like Dorothy and the red shoes, I've had prayer all my life, surrounding me and protecting me. I forget sometimes that what has been handed down to me by my parents is something that others, like St. John, find only after years of struggling and searching. I am certain that by the time St. John finished this book, she came to a whole new place in her relationship with Christ.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Book Review: Ellen Foster

November 21, 2007

What took me so long to read this book by Kaye Gibbons? I really have no idea. I went through a Kaye Gibbons reading spree several years ago with A Virtuous Woman, A Cure for Dreams, Charms for the Easy Life, and On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon. I think maybe Ellen Foster had recently been a Hallmark movie when I discovered Gibbons in a collection of short stories by Southern women, and I suppose I gravitated toward her works that were not yet movies. Anyway, last week Kaye Gibbons came to speak at our local college, so we thought it appropriate in our Book Club that we would read Ellen Foster. (Amazingly, none of us had read it already.) Well, we are all hopeless procrastinators and didn't read it before the program, but she was a wonderful speaker anyway.

But I did pick up the book as soon as I got home (and discovered that it had arrived in the mail) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Enjoyed it, that is, as much as you can enjoy the story of a young girl who has, at age 11, experienced nothing but pain, trauma, and heartbreak. It is only when she finally becomes an orphan that she is able to find a family who will truly nurture and care for her. Reading this novel after hearing Gibbons speak was especially enjoyable. I could hear her very distinct Southern drawl narrating, and I could even picture her writing the novel. She told us that she wrote this while literally nursing two babies at a time.

Ellen Foster
was definitely not my favorite Gibbons novel, but it is an excellent read along the lines of (but nowhere near as painful as) Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Book Review: Into the Wild

November 16, 2007

This book by Jon Krakauer has been on my "to read" list for years. Krakauer is an excellent storyteller. Both Under the Banner of Heaven and Into Thin Air are mesmerizing accounts; and, while I didn't find Into the Wild as compelling as the others, it's still fascinating.

The story: Chris McCandless, a recent college graduate from a wealthy family, hitchhikes to Alaska and heads into the wilderness with a bag of rice and little else. Chris takes the name Alexander Supertramp and survives off the land, eating mostly squirrels and other small game. By the end of the summer, Chris is dead. Some Alaskans and wilderness experts claim he was stupid, cocky, and careless; Krakauer seems to believe that he was the victim of a series of unfortunate events.

The question of Into the Wild for me, as the reader, is much the same as Into Thin Air: What makes one risk everything to taste--to embrace--ultimate danger? What is inside a person who needs to be swallowed up in nature--whether by the Everest or by the Alaskan wilderness? Krakauer obviously understands, being a wilderness seeker/conquerer himself, and I appreciate his careful research and painstaking piecing-together of the events and motives that lead one to shed his self and walk into the wild.

The movie is now playing, and now that I've read the book, I am eager to see it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Book Review: New Mercies

November 6, 2007

This is my third book by author Sandra Dallas, and I've enjoyed them all (Alice's Tulips and The Diary of Mattie Spenser are the other two). Dallas' novels are quick reads, perfect for in-between heftier works but not light as to be considered, well, fluffy. New Mercies takes place in 1933 in Natchez, Mississippi, where Nora Bondurant is summoned upon learning of her aunt's murder there. In Natchez she uncovers all sorts of juicy family secrets and discovers new ways to deal with her own hurtful past. Many of the characters are stereotypical and the dialogue sometimes borders on silly, but Dallas is great for a good story with a happy ending. And sometimes that's just what we all need.