Saturday, May 22, 2010

Book 15 – The Glass Castle

By Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle came to my attention thanks to Kate’s review . I almost picked it up when looking for something to read at the airport (I ended up getting Shutter Island instead), but I’m glad I refrained since I found a cheap copy at my reliable neighbourhood thrift shop Chainon!

I wholeheartedly agree with Kate that this is an excellent memoir. “What I found most moving about this book was the fact that Walls was able to write so openly and honestly about such horrific events in her childhood, but in a way where she was not asking the reader for pity or sympathy. Her life just was what it was, and the events that she survived were heart wrenching, but also freeing and deeply moving.

Indeed. This is also the best memoir I’ve ever read only because it’s the ONLY memoir I’ve ever read. So I’ll have to be quite discerning if I’m going to read another one! Walls’ story about her family and childhood was compassionate and inspiring and it opened my eyes a little more about the resiliency of people, especially children. I can totally see how this book stayed on the NYT bestseller list for a hundred weeks.

The bulk of the book is about the author’s childhood, the first one-third comprised of when she was between 5 and 7 years old. There is some preternaturally precocious insight, which is likely due to projected hindsight. Which is why memoirs can be so suspicious. It can be difficult to immerse yourself in a self-proclaimed memoir because you suspect some measure of fabrication or embellishment. Or the author must have had a remarkably photographic memory for a child that age, as many of her recollections are quite detailed. In interviews, Walls’ admits she had many reminiscing sessions with her brother Brian, who has “a steel-trap memory”. She also reveals how she left details out of some events because her brother and mother remembered them differently, ie. petting the captive cheetah at the zoo. Since all her family members have read TGC (with the exception of her late father), I would wager that the events in Jeannette Walls life is as true as she could make it out to be.

I think if Olman were to read this, he’d quite admire Rex and Rose Mary “I’m such an excitement addict!” Walls, as they share uncannily similar world views, esp. opinions on parenting. Mama Walls always thought people worried about and fussed over their children too much, which only reinforced their negative behavior. In a sense, she was of the extreme laissez-faire style of parenting - to the point of serious neglect!

And Papa Walls had zero patience for "namby-pambies" - the kind of people who drive everywhere in air-conditioned cars or coddle their kids. He's the kinda dad who throws his own kid in the deep end of the pool and yells "it's either sink or swim, kiddo!". Instead of protecting his children from harm, he taught them to confront their fears on their own. When the Walls lived in Phoenix during summer, the parents insisted the windows and doors be kept open when they slept to let in the fresh air, even when drunks came in to molest 7 year old Jeannette in her bedroom at night! Instead of locking down the house, Rex took the kids out on a Pervert Hunt. Or Jeannette and her brother Brian resorted to chasing out the pedos with a baseball bat.

Despite some deep psychological scarring, the Walls children did grow up to be pretty tough and fearless individuals. They also got fed up with ransacking garbage bins at school, living in a rotting shack and having their alcoholic dad steal their escape money when he needed booze. When barely out of high school, the eldest child, Lori, escaped to New York City (she eventually became a successful illustrator of fantasy books and gameboards). Then when they were old enough, Jeannette and the remaining two siblings followed suit.

Trauma and scarring aside, there was still plenty of love and a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Walls wrote her memoir as really a homage to her parents. Despite their atrocious parenting skills, they were intelligent, open-minded individuals. Rose Mary definitely thought outside the box. And Rex Walls was an almost brilliant, self-taught engineer. They in turn home-schooled all they knew to their children, and taught them a lot about life, things that you’d never learn at school.

We might enroll in school, but no always. Mom and Dad did more of our teaching. Mom had us all reading books without pictures by the time we were five, and Dad taught us math. He also taught us the things that were really important and useful, like how to tap out Morse code… He also showed us how to aim and fire his pistol, how to shoot Mom’s bow and arrows, and how to throw a knife by the blade so that it landed in the middle of a target with a satisfying thwock. By the time I was four, I was pretty good with Dad’s pistol, a big black six-shot revolver, and could hit five out of six bottles at thirty paces… It was fun. Dad said my sharpshooting would come in handy if the feds ever surrounded us.

In a way, the Walls children enabled their parents to also find themselves... when Mom and Dad followed their kids all the way to NYC! They promptly resorted to their old habits, eventually becoming homeless (Rex & Rose Mary lived on the street for two years) and ending up as activist-squatters. In contrast, this was right when Jeannette was living in a swank Park Ave. apartment and married to a safe and steadfast guy. Her parents always refused her offers of financial help, and they eventually found their own community of like-minded counterculture types. When it boiled down to it, Rex and Rose Mary had always stayed true to themselves and never compromised their values. After her father died, Jeannette finally found what was true within herself and this memoir gradually came out of that.

And what a wonderful memoir it was.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Book 14 – The Flying Troutmans

By Miriam Toews

My desire to seek out dysfunctional family fiction in books or movies is pretty limited. First, there’s no need to if you already have one in real life (har har). Second, when you do feel a need, it’s usually because it’s comforting to know there are families out there that are way more dysfunctional than yours. Third, it’s hard to find dysfunctional family dramas that are both good and funny. So I was curious about The Flying Troutmans due to the fairly positive reviews it’s been getting.

After the death of her parents, Hattie Troutman managed to escape to Paris to make a life for herself. One day she gets an emergency call from Winnipeg. It’s her 11 year-old niece, Thebes, calling to say that her mother, Min, had another breakdown and is back at the psych ward. This time it’s serious: Min doesn’t want to see her kids anymore and she wants to die. Hattie comes back home to become the reluctant guardian of Thebes and Logan, her 15 year-old nephew. With Min institutionalized and her length of stay indeterminate, Hattie is more than a little freaked out by her new responsibilities. Impulsively, she embarks on a road trip with her niece and nephew, driving across the States in their beat-up Ford Aerostar in search of their estranged father.

TFT reminded me of another Canadian novel called Skinny . Both stories are about a family torn apart by mental illness (be it anorexia or depression), and both stories focus on the relationship between two sisters: the older being the afflicted one and the younger struggling to get away from the big sis's destructive influence and have a normal life.

Where Skinny was self-conscious, serious and unsympathetic, I found TFT to be fairly heartfelt, engaging and even outright hilarious. There were self-conscious moments for sure, but my overall enjoyment overcame some of its flaws. TFT’s humour also reminded me very much of the Spellman series by Lisa Lutz. You know, the kind of hilarity spawned from an eccentric family dynamic that’s deeply dysfunctional yet also loving at heart. The comedic bantering was so familiar, I wouldn’t be surprised if Toews was already acquainted with The Spellman Files (FYI, Isabel “Izzy” Spellman is also a not-quite-grownup 28-year-old woman).

That being said, Toews nevertheless has a distinctive writing style which can be described as quirky but not annoyingly so. However the technique of using no quotations for dialogue seems to be proliferating amongst contemporary authors, and TFT is no exception. I don’t really mind it so much, but as a trend it’s starting to get a little worn.

I gave her a nudge under the table and passed her a paper bag to wipe the stuff off her face. She put it over her head and drew a face on it, blind. Big cartoon eyes and a mouth where the nose should be. I told her to go get the Frisbee, and without removing the bag she stumbled and weaved and crashed her way to the van. She finally took the bag off her head and she and I threw the Frisbee around for a while before Logan joined in… he decided that we should play Frisbee through the van, with both side doors open and Thebes sitting on the seat in the van. She was entirely down with that and Logan had a blast whipping the Frisbee inches from her face, until he accidentally hit her and her nose bled, she cried, he apologized, said she was stand-up for playing the game, apologized again, and again, she forgave him with a karate kick to the ‘nads, which he handled with an off-hand grace, said he deserved it, the old people shook their heads like bobblehead dolls and we all hit the road once again.

TFT definitely isn’t for everyone. Reviewers from major rags generally disliked TFT mainly because they found the characters and situations improbable and/or trivial. One NY Times reviewer blames “the disagreeable company and the vapid conversation.”

Toews’s penchant for summarized dialogue becomes tedious and distancing, turning scenes into virtual digests, and her inability, or unwillingness, to describe or contextualize — or even to gaze long upon — the passing countryside, is a real handicap when you’re writing a road novel. ‘I drove through the park as fast as I could, which was excruciatingly slowly because the road was narrow and curvy and park rangers were all over the place. It was all desert and sky and scrubby bushes and some oddly shaped trees.’ And that’s it for the spectacular Joshua Tree National Park.

I beg to differ. I actually found the LACK of descriptive flourishes refreshing! Not every writer can pull off prosaic descriptions of stunning landscapes without boring or annoying some readers and this style wouldn’t suit The Flying Troutmans anyway. I don’t necessarily want to be bogged down by exposition when I just want to enjoy the spirited misadventures of an ad hoc family unit and find out what happens next.

And a rather feeble-minded Telegraph reviewer wonders why “it never occurs to Hattie that she could help Logan and Thebes in far more practical ways than taking a road trip.” She found the novel amusing and fluently written, but felt manipulated because as a reader she was forced to “suspend disbelief until every imaginative muscle burns with the effort”. Does this person only read nonfiction and very dry literature or what?

But many open-minded reviewers were more positive, with some female readers absolutely loving it. Perhaps it’s similar to how women have a tendency to find the quirky talkativeness of The Gilmore Girls endearing while many men (and some close-minded women) find it grating. But if you’re one of those who do get TFT, it is a worthwhile read for sure.

As one Quill and Quire reviewer puts it: “This is a book that builds its complexity so subtly and imperceptibly that the inevitable sense of deep engagement feels almost like sleight of hand.” Cuz once you get past the charming humour and wacky veneer, there is also some real emotion to be found there.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Book 13 – Crime Scene Investigation

Crack the case with real-life experts

Edited & introduced by Cyril H. Wecht, MD, JD

A xmas gift from Olman (I don’t normally read Reader’s Digest publications), seeing how I watch those CSI shows somewhat slavishly. I admit it - I enjoy relaxing to the plethora of forensic procedurals available on the idiot box most week nights, such as CSI (I prefer NY over the original Las Vegas). Almost every single episode faithfully follows the same template:

* a grisly homicide is perp'd n’ portrayed
* elite and smartly-dressed forensic team arrives on the scene
* lead investigator makes pithy comment
* cut to opening credits
* back to crime scene where clues and DNA samples are discovered
* segue to sweet high-tech lab where forensic specialists individually   process and examine the evidence and/or
* segue to over-edited autopsy montage timed to trendy electronic   music where nerdy pathologist examines bloody stab wounds and/or   damaged organs
* witnesses and suspects then brought in and interrogated by stern-   looking yet hunky detective
* depict flashback of victim’s sordid past before he/she bit it
* depict chase scene and/or gun fight as police close in on suspect
* perp(s) gets caught and arrested

I find this very comforting.

After reading Wecht’s CSI book, which takes a step-by-step look at how a crime scene is undertaken by science and the law, I realize that the CSI and Law & Order type TV shows are merely emulating the sequential stages of an investigation: from the first responders to the crime scene to the inquiry and subsequent forensic analysis to the arrest and painstaking preparations for going to trial.

Wecht is a well-known and, at times, controversial forensic pathologist and coroner who consulted in some high profile cases, including the JFK assassination and the unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsay. He does a very nice job of gathering noted specialists from various fields across North America and the UK to make contributions, such as the “a day in the life” sections, where we get brief, first-person accounts from a detective inspector, a criminal intelligence analyst, a forensic photographer, a forensic odontologist, a toxicologist, a pathologist, a barefoot morphologist, a geographic profiler and a knot analyst, to name but a few!

Obviously the book is designed to appeal to the average reader who is into CSI, Law & Order, Criminal Minds and Bones. There are plenty of illustrations, as well as graphic photos of the requisite money shots, ie. crime scenes, dead bodies, bullet wounds. There are also fun little inserts featuring high-profile cases that bear some relation to the subject, ie how Ted Bundy’s dental cast proved that he inflicted the bite wound on one of his victim’s in the chapter called “The Autopsy”, or how profilers predicted that Paul Bernardo, then known as the “Scarborough Rapist”, would become progressively more violent in the chapter about the psychology of crime.

Though the final chapter about preparing for the trial was rather dry and ended rather abruptly, I found the book quite engaging and informative and as enjoyable as the best CSI shows out there!