The Glass Castle: A Memoir

By Jeannette Walls
Binding:Paperback
Publisher:Scribner, (1/9/2006)
Language:English



Average Rating:
Very Unleashable
4.00 out of 5 (11 Clubie's ratings)


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Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn't stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an "excitement addict." Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town -- and the family -- Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents' betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor.

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The author was born around the same time as I was so I was very curious about her story. I loved the quote about the Joshua Tree on p. 38 "struggle that gives it its beauty." I am hoping that the author in writing this book found the beauty in her struggle as her mother quoted saying about the Joshua Tree. Sadly there were few similar growing up events (like having to be home when the streetlights come on) that I experienced as most of the her accounts were of neglect and abuse. I am truly blessed for my childhood experiences. Though, she is probably smarter than me because I wouldn't have been able to do binary numbers for homework...even now! I would hope that we would have been friends and shared a big giant sweet tart together! Yes, it's a good read.

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"The Glass Castle: A Memoir"
By Jeannette Walls

Average Rating:
Very Unleashable
4.00 out of 5 (11 Clubie's ratings)


The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 
 
 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.
 
 
1. Though The Glass Castle is brimming with unforgettable stories, which scenes were the most memorable for you? Which were the most shocking, the most inspiring, the funniest? 

2. Discuss the metaphor of a glass castle and what it signifies to Jeannette and her father. Why is it important that, just before leaving for New York, Jeannette tells her father that she doesn't believe he'll ever build it?  

3. The first story Walls tells of her childhood is that of her burning herself severely at age three, and her father dramatically takes her from the hospital: "You're safe now". Why do you think she opens with that story, and how does it set the stage for the rest of the memoir? 

4. Rex Walls often asked his children, "Have I ever let you down?" Why was this question (and the required "No, Dad" response) so important for him -- and for his kids? On what occasions did he actually come through for them? 

5. Jeannette's mother insists that, no matter what, "life with your father was never boring". What kind of man was Rex Walls? What were his strengths and weaknesses, his flaws and contradictions? 

6. Discuss Rose Mary Walls. What did you think about her description of herself as an "excitement addict"? 

7. Though it portrays an incredibly hardscrabble life, The Glass Castle is never sad or depressing. Discuss the tone of the book, and how do you think that Walls achieved that effect? 

8. Describe Jeannette's relationship to her siblings and discuss the role they played in one another's lives. 

9. In college, Jeannette is singled out by a professor for not understanding the plight of homeless people; instead of defending herself, she keeps quiet. Why do you think she does this? 

10. The two major pieces of the memoir -- one half set in the desert and one half in West Virginia -- feel distinct. What effect did such a big move have on the family -- and on your reading of the story? How would you describe the shift in the book's tone? 

11. Were you surprised to learn that, as adults, Jeannette and her siblings remained close to their parents? Why do you think this is? 

12. What character traits -- both good and bad -- do you think that Jeannette inherited from her parents? And how do you think those traits shaped Jeannette's life? 

13. For many reviewers and readers, the most extraordinary thing about The Glass Castle is that, despite everything, Jeannette Walls refuses to condemn her parents. Were you able to be equally nonjudgmental? 

14. Like Mary Karr's Liars' Club and Rick Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin', Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle tells the story of a wildly original (and wildly dysfunctional) family with humor and compassion. Were their other comparable memoirs that came to mind? What distinguishes this book? 


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Amazon.com Review
Jeannette Walls's father always called her "Mountain Goat" and there's perhaps no more apt nickname for a girl who navigated a sheer and towering cliff of childhood both daily and stoically. In The Glass Castle, Walls chronicles her upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents--Rose Mary, her frustrated-artist mother, and Rex, her brilliant, alcoholic father. To call the elder Walls's childrearing style laissez faire would be putting it mildly. As Rose Mary and Rex, motivated by whims and paranoia, uprooted their kids time and again, the youngsters (Walls, her brother and two sisters) were left largely to their own devices. But while Rex and Rose Mary firmly believed children learned best from their own mistakes, they themselves never seemed to do so, repeating the same disastrous patterns that eventually landed them on the streets. Walls describes in fascinating detail what it was to be a child in this family, from the embarrassing (wearing shoes held together with safety pins; using markers to color her skin in an effort to camouflage holes in her pants) to the horrific (being told, after a creepy uncle pleasured himself in close proximity, that sexual assault is a crime of perception; and being pimped by her father at a bar). Though Walls has well earned the right to complain, at no point does she play the victim. In fact, Walls' removed, nonjudgmental stance is initially startling, since many of the circumstances she describes could be categorized as abusive (and unquestioningly neglectful). But on the contrary, Walls respects her parents' knack for making hardships feel like adventures, and her love for them--despite their overwhelming self-absorption--resonates from cover to cover. --Brangien Davis --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Freelance writer Walls doesn't pull her punches. She opens her memoir by describing looking out the window of her taxi, wondering if she's "overdressed for the evening" and spotting her mother on the sidewalk, "rooting through a Dumpster." Walls's parents—just two of the unforgettable characters in this excellent, unusual book—were a matched pair of eccentrics, and raising four children didn't conventionalize either of them. Her father was a self-taught man, a would-be inventor who could stay longer at a poker table than at most jobs and had "a little bit of a drinking situation," as her mother put it. With a fantastic storytelling knack, Walls describes her artist mom's great gift for rationalizing. Apartment walls so thin they heard all their neighbors? What a bonus—they'd "pick up a little Spanish without even studying." Why feed their pets? They'd be helping them "by not allowing them to become dependent." While Walls's father's version of Christmas presents—walking each child into the Arizona desert at night and letting each one claim a star—was delightful, he wasn't so dear when he stole the kids' hard-earned savings to go on a bender. The Walls children learned to support themselves, eating out of trashcans at school or painting their skin so the holes in their pants didn't show. Buck-toothed Jeannette even tried making her own braces when she heard what orthodontia cost. One by one, each child escaped to New York City. Still, it wasn't long before their parents appeared on their doorsteps. "Why not?" Mom said. "Being homeless is an adventure." 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From Bookmarks Magazine
"Being homeless is an adventure," Walls’s mom used to say. In her extraordinary memoir, Walls recalls her nomadic life with surprising affection—though she would not want to relive it. The title, which derives from her father’s dream house, serves as an apt metaphor for the Walls’ fragility. Yet Walls sheds no tears nor succumbs to self-pity—she probably learned early on they would get her nowhere. Instead of condemning her parents’ foibles, she unblinkingly examines how they transformed hardship into family romance and adventure. Sharing incredible, painful experiences in no-nonsense prose, Walls has, as The New York Times Book Review notes, "succeeded in doing what most writers set out to do—to write the kind of book they themselves most want to read."

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From Booklist
*Starred Review* Walls, who spent years trying to hide her childhood experiences, allows the story to spill out in this remarkable recollection of growing up. From her current perspective as a contributor to MSNBC online, she remembers the poverty, hunger, jokes, and bullying she and her siblings endured, and she looks back at her parents: her flighty, self-indulgent mother, a Pollyanna unwilling to assume the responsibilities of parenting, and her father, troubled, brilliant Rex, whose ability to turn his family's downward-spiraling circumstances into adventures allowed his children to excuse his imperfections until they grew old enough to understand what he had done to them--and to himself. His grand plans to build a home for the family never evolved: the hole for the foundation of the "The Glass Castle," as the dream house was called, became the family garbage dump, and, of course, a metaphor for Rex Walls' life. Shocking, sad, and occasionally bitter, this gracefully written account speaks candidly, yet with surprising affection, about parents and about the strength of family ties--for both good and ill. Stephanie Zvirin
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

Review
"Walls has joined the company of writers such as Mary Karr and Frank McCourt who have been able to transform their sad memories into fine art."--People

The Glass Castle is nothing short of spectacular."-- Entertainment Weekly

Memoirs are our modern fairy tales.... The autobiographer is faced with the daunting challenge of attempting to understand, forgive, and even love the witch.... Readers will marvel at the intelligence and resilience of the Walls kids."-- Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review, front page 



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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1: A Woman on the Street

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.

Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash while her dog, a black-and-white terrier mix, played at her feet. Mom's gestures were all familiar -- the way she tilted her head and thrust out her lower lip when studying items of potential value that she'd hoisted out of the Dumpster, the way her eyes widened with childish glee when she found something she liked. Her long hair was streaked with gray, tangled and matted, and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, but still she reminded me of the mom she'd been when I was a kid, swan-diving off cliffs and painting in the desert and reading Shakespeare aloud. Her cheekbones were still high and strong, but the skin was parched and ruddy from all those winters and summers exposed to the elements. To the people walking by, she probably looked like any of the thousands of homeless people in New York City.

It had been months since I laid eyes on Mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she'd see me and call out my name, and that someone on the way to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out.

I slid down in the seat and asked the driver to turn around and take me home to Park Avenue.

The taxi pulled up in front of my building, the doorman held the door for me, and the elevator man took me up to my floor. My husband was working late, as he did most nights, and the apartment was silent except for the click of my heels on the polished wood floor. I was still rattled from seeing Mom, the unexpectedness of coming across her, the sight of her rooting happily through the Dumpster. I put some Vivaldi on, hoping the music would settle me down.

I looked around the room. There were the turn-of-the-century bronze-and-silver vases and the old books with worn leather spines that I'd collected at flea markets. There were the Georgian maps I'd had framed, the Persian rugs, and the overstuffed leather armchair I liked to sink into at the end of the day. I'd tried to make a home for myself here, tried to turn the apartment into the sort of place where the person I wanted to be would live. But I could never enjoy the room without worrying about Mom and Dad huddled on a sidewalk grate somewhere. I fretted about them, but I was embarrassed by them, too, and ashamed of myself for wearing pearls and living on Park Avenue while my parents were busy keeping warm and finding something to eat.

What could I do? I'd tried to help them countless times, but Dad would insist they didn't need anything, and Mom would ask for something silly, like a perfume atomizer or a membership in a health club. They said that they were living the way they wanted to.

After ducking down in the taxi so Mom wouldn't see me, I hated myself -- hated my antiques, my clothes, and my apartment. I had to do something, so I called a friend of Mom's and left a message. It was our system of staying in touch. It always took Mom a few days to get back to me, but when I heard from her, she sounded, as always, cheerful and casual, as though we'd had lunch the day before. I told her I wanted to see her and suggested she drop by the apartment, but she wanted to go to a restaurant. She loved eating out, so we agreed to meet for lunch at her favorite Chinese restaurant.

Mom was sitting at a booth, studying the menu, when I arrived. She'd made an effort to fix herself up. She wore a bulky gray sweater with only a few light stains, and black leather men's shoes. She'd washed her face, but her neck and temples were still dark with grime.

She waved enthusiastically when she saw me. "It's my baby girl!" she called out. I kissed her cheek. Mom had dumped all the plastic packets of soy sauce and duck sauce and hot-and-spicy mustard from the table into her purse. Now she emptied a wooden bowl of dried noodles into it as well. "A little snack for later on," she explained.

We ordered. Mom chose the Seafood Delight. "You know how I love my seafood," she said.

She started talking about Picasso. She'd seen a retrospective of his work and decided he was hugely overrated. All the cubist stuff was gimmicky, as far as she was concerned. He hadn't really done anything worthwhile after his Rose Period.

"I'm worried about you," I said. "Tell me what I can do to help."

Her smile faded. "What makes you think I need your help?"

"I'm not rich," I said. "But I have some money. Tell me what it is you need."

She thought for a moment. "I could use an electrolysis treatment."

"Be serious."

"I am serious. If a woman looks good, she feels good."

"Come on, Mom." I felt my shoulders tightening up, the way they invariably did during these conversations. "I'm talking about something that could help you change your life, make it better."

"You want to help me change my life?" Mom asked. "I'm fine. You're the one who needs help. Your values are all confused."

"Mom, I saw you picking through trash in the East Village a few days ago."

"Well, people in this country are too wasteful. It's my way of recycling." She took a bite of her Seafood Delight. "Why didn't you say hello?"

"I was too ashamed, Mom. I hid."

Mom pointed her chopsticks at me. "You see?" she said. "Right there. That's exactly what I'm saying. You're way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it."

"And what am I supposed to tell people about my parents?"

"Just tell the truth," Mom said. "That's simple enough."

Copyright © 2005 by Jeannette Walls 


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Jeannette Walls was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and grew up in the southwest and Welch, West Virginia. She graduated from Barnard College and was a journalist in New York City for twenty years. Her previous book was the memoir The Glass Castle. She is married to writer John Taylor and lives in Virginia. 


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