Friday, November 23, 2012

At the end of the day you're another day older

I'd never heard of Jeannette Walls, but her memoir joined my reading list when I was adding NYT bestseller books to it.

The Glass Castle details Walls' family life, focusing on how she and her siblings coped with hunger and poverty and an alcoholic father and an indifferent mother.  Their parents moved frequently, every few months or so, across towns throughout the Southwest until eventually settling with relatives in West Virginia.

Amazingly, the siblings all move to New York City and manage to escape the utter penury their parents made their norm.

Parts of it were painfully and personally familier -- an alcoholic father who frequently uprooted the family on "adventures" -- and so maybe that was why I kept reading. There's a camaraderie of sorts in seeing part of your own story in someone else's.  It's odd, the reviews on the back of the book discussed how it was a touching tribute to her parents, but I didn't interpret it that way. I think her most heartfelt moments are for her brother and sister: the book poignantly captures the strong bond between them, forged out the usual sibling shared experiences but also out of the absolute necessity for survival.

I was a little disappointed in the pace set for the last few chapters, though. Where Walls spends the vast majority of the book going over her childhood memories within a span of a few years, she basically glosses over her teenage and adult life as she made the transition to independence and self-sufficiency. As an autobiography, the closer she got to the present, it seemed liked she wanted to keep more things private. The detailed descriptions of social situations from her childhood did not carry over to details in her adult life -- situations that must have arisen more frequently than mentioned, especially for a Barnard student hiding the fact that she has homeless parents and grew up going days with no food. In my opinion, that detracted from the story and made it a teensy bit less powerful.

On a related note, I watched The Blind Side in my post-turkey haze on Thanksgiving.  Mi Hermana, Mi Cunado, and the sobrinas y neffy were all laid low with the stomach flu, and there was little to do but watch TV.

I have a hard time understanding how Sandra Bullock beat out four other women for Best Actress with this movie. I know it's based on a true story as well as a book, but it's still a predictable rags-to-riches tale about an inner city black boy with a crack addict mother who is given a chance at success by rich white people, perseveres and does well in school against the odds, goes on to get an athletic scholarship to college, and then becomes a celebrated pro football star.

It had its moments, though. There were some funny scenes, some touching scenes, some thought-provoking scenes.  But if falls so neatly in line with the American bootstrap narrative, I think that's the only reason it did so well in theatres and received so many accolades. Otherwise, it's not that great a movie.

To be sure, The Glass Castle also falls into the rags-to-riches American mythology. But the blatant racialized components are absent, as are the tangible class dynamics. I think The Glass Castle would make a better movie because the specifics that Walls shares about her life are so unpredictably destitute and heartbreaking. Her family's struggles also do not end with her becoming a famous writer; there would be no glorious epilogue rolling during the credits.

But of course, The Blind Side was the blockbuster.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Another yellow moon

The Gaslight series has become immensely addictive.

After finishing the fourth, fifth, and sixth books in the series with Sarah-the-mystery-solving-widow-midwife, I've come to the conclusion that the mysteries themselves are not what draws me in; it's the side plot involving the deaf and formerly crippled son of her friend and crime-solving partner.  (I'm shockingly indifferent to whether or not the two of them get beyond their Victorian class divide to develop a romance, or whether or not Sarah's husband's murder is ever solved.)

Having said that, Murder on Washington Square sees a significant development in the socially unacceptable friendship between the Knickerbocker-turned-midwife and the Irish police captain. And Murder on Mulberry Bend has a significant development in the mystery around Sarah's husband's murder years before.

The other aspect of the series that recently dawned on me is that Thompson always takes some . The climactic scenes where the murderers are revealed tend to be dramatic, over-the-top, socially shocking scenarios (everything from an incestuous couple running out to the rooftops in a thunderstorm, to a cross-dressing actor pulling a Norman Bates). In a way, the underlying sensationalism complements the prim and proper veneer of 19th century society rules.

Bizarre and lurid as the endings can get, however, I was a little disappointed that I picked up on the clues and guessed the identity and motives for the culprits in Books 4 and 5 long before the middle of the story. Murder on Marble Row, however, had an unexpected conclusion. So I can rest easy that I won't get bored with the rest of the series!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

On track

Though I love reading Ann Patchett, after reading Run I've realized a trend in my reactions to her books: I get very engrossed in the characters and scenarios from page one, and then feel like the ending is always too neatly and swiftly wrapped up, and feel a little cheated of important character developments.

Run was no different. Though I liked the first 95% of the book, the last chapter glosses over the lives of the characters after a tragedy that necessarily changes them. Then the epilogue picks up years later, with the same characters in very different lives.  (The endings to Bel Canto and Patron Saint of Liars were similarly disjointed and disorienting, after the beautifully crafted, compelling character maps of the rest of the books.)

Run takes place in Boston, over a period of 24 hours after a car accident. The characters are neighbors in that way that worlds collide on every other street in Boston: rich and poor, black and white, Catholic and irreligious, academic and skilled worker. The story itself is cute, though improbable: the privileged former mayor takes care of the young girl whose mother has been injured. His two adopted sons are forced to think about the mother who gave them up for adoption, and his biological son contemplates a car accident years before that altered his relationship with his father.

What left me unsatisfied, however, was the lack of character depth for the girl's mother: though her actions explain a lot of the book, the reader never quite gets into her head. Then there's the reality of Boston, a city (like many old cities with centuries of privilege and inequality) where identity and opportunity are often synonymous. Half the time while reading, I kept thinking "This could never happen in Boston." And yet there's a grain of believability because it couldn't happen anywhere else. (But maybe the part that's believable is really just the buried hope that one day, America can give children of every race and class a good education and an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams.)

The absence of overt racism also added to the book's unbelievability.* I think Patchett did a wonderful job of highlighting the gulf between the clueless (but highly educated) privileged echelons and the working class families struggling to stay out of poverty. She also showed how class and race can be intertwined in a city with very real historical and enduring segregation. However, for a story about worlds colliding (and one in which half the main characters are black), there were remarkably few instances involving racism.

In short, the book is a very different take on that "great" old American favorite, the rags-to-riches tale. It's really cute and magical if we suspend belief and social realities. We want it to be possible  because it ignores the injustices we've created and can't solve.

* Yes, I'm still jealous that a ton of my friends got to go this year's Facing Race conference, where Junot Diaz gave an amazing keynote speech (or so I could infer from the Twitter hashtag stream I was following from home on a Friday night).