The Glass Castle -- Jeannette Walls
The memoir seems to be the publishing industry's favorite genre lately. Apparently, everyone and his brother has been busy at the typewriter. While many of them don't look like they're worth reading, a few stand out—The Glass Castle being one of them—as stories of extraordinary lives.
It has an super wonderful hook of a first sentence:
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.
Three pages later, she goes back to the beginning. Well, to the beginning of her memory. At age three, she burns herself so badly while making herself boiled hot dogs that she is taken to the hospital for skin grafts:
The nurses and doctors kept asking me questions: How did you get burned? Have your parents ever hurt you? Why do you have all those bruises and cuts? My parents never hurt me, I said. I got the cuts and bruises playing outside and the burns from cooking hot dogs. They asked me what I was doing cooking hot dogs by myself at the age of three. It was easy, I said. You just put the hot dogs in the water and boil them. It wasn't like there was some complicated recipe that you had to be old enough to follow. The pan was too heavy for me to lift when it was full of water, so I'd put a chair by the stove and pour the water into the pan. I did that over and over again until the pan held enough water. Then I'd turn on the stove, and when the water was boiling, I'd drop in the hot dogs. "Mom says I'm mature for my age," I told them, "and she lets me cook for myself a lot."
After her dad sneaks Jeannette out of the hospital to avoid the bill, the family skips town. Skipping town is a pretty regular occurrence in the early years:
Dad was so sure a posse of federal investigators was on our trail that he smoked his unfiltered cigarettes from the wrong end. That way, he explained, he burned up the brand name, and if the people who were tracking us looked in the ashtray, they'd find unidentifiable butts instead of Pall Malls that could be traced to him. Mom, however, told us that the FBI wasn't really after Dad; he just liked to say that were because it was more fun having the FBI on your tail than bill collectors.
Her father was brilliant, charismatic and charming. After Jeannette and her brother blow up an abandoned shed doing a chemistry experiment, he doesn't get angry:
He said it was an incredible coincidence that he happened to be walking by. Then he pointed to the top of the fire, where the snapping yellow flames dissolved into an invisible shimmery heat that made the desert beyond seem to waver, like a mirage. Dad told us that zone was known in physics as the boundary between turbulence and order. "It's a place where no rules apply, or at least they haven't figured 'em out yet," he said. "You-all got a little too close to it today."
The problem is that he spent all of his time dreaming up his big plans, drawing up designs for his various inventions or playing poker. And, as Jeannette's mother put it, he had "a little bit of a drinking situation".
I haven't even gone into what her mom was like. Or what happened when they left the desert to move to Welch, West Virginia, her father's hometown. Or how the kids finally got out. Or what happens when their parents follow them to New York. Or how things got to the point described in the first sentence.
[Later] Sarah was just in here, looking for books, and I was rambling on and on, talking about the book. I realized, that basically, what I got out of it was this: If these kids made it, anyone can. (It does help to be really smart, though).