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.

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