Archive for September 16th, 2008

“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls

Yes, memoirs of dysfunctional families and abused children are quite popular among adults now as they are among teens. “The Glass Castle” could be grouped into this genre, but it is set apart by the fact that Walls’ parents are not overtly abusive—they seem to love their children—but they are so neglectful that it defies imagination. How the Walls children managed to grow up and escape a life of poverty is a great read.

Walls’ father was an alcoholic and her mother was an (unsuccessful) artist. Both are completely impractical and have no parenting skills. They allow the kids to do as they please and to raise themselves. Jeannette severely burns herself when she is three because she catches fire trying to make herself a hotdog. The dangerous mix of children and fire still doesn’t sink in for the parents, and there are several close encounters throughout the book.

Mrs. Walls has a teaching certificate, but is rarely employed because she doesn’t like the routine or getting up in the morning. She has an excuse for everything about her life and nothing seems to bother her too much. If the family doesn’t have the money to feed its pets, then all the better—the pets are learning survival skills. Rex Walls is very intelligent, but he always has pie-in-the-sky schemes and resorts to alcohol and arguing on the job, which routinely get him fired. He seems to make more money playing poker than he does working. Thus the kids have to learn survival skills just as the pets do. They sleep on cardboard boxes and cover themselves with a plastic raft to keep the rain off when the roof leaks. They scrounge for food and eat out of the schoolyard trashcans. If the family accumulates too much debt—or just gets the itch to move—they ‘skedaddle.’ They don’t pay to have the garbage collected, and it ends up in a large hole the kids had dug in the yard—a hole that was supposed to be for the fountain of the ‘glass castle,’ a dream house that Rex is always modifying plans for and never building.

While the kids are young, they are able to believe in the glass castle of their future. Their father has sometimes delightful ways of disguising his negligence—such as the Christmas when the kids will get no presents, but he takes each of them outside to name a one of the stars in the night sky as their own. However, ultimately, the children must place themselves in reality.

September 16, 2008

“Running with Scissors” and “A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father” by Augustine Burroughs

As I watch students pick out biographies for class assignments, it always occurs to me that there are books you’d like better if you just knew what they were about. It seems that the same few subjects are always selected—Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana. Even when students choose Martin Luther King, Jr., I know it is because they already know a lot about his life from reading about him every year from fourth grade on.

I’ve asked your teachers if you can read memoirs when assigned biographies and, happily, the answer is yes. The hard thing about finding a memoir is that it won’t be cataloged with the biographies. It will be found wherever its subject is found. So a good book about a boy soldier in modern-day Sierra Leone is cataloged with books on Africa—and you’ll probably never find it. To get some of these good books into your hands, I thought I’d review some of my favorites. So I’ll start with one I just read, “A Wolf at the Table.”

Augustine Burroughs has written several memoirs, the most famous of which is “Running with Scissors,” which was made into a movie. “Running” is one of those crazy books that should make you weep for the terrible life of an emotionally and psychologically abused child, but that makes you laugh out loud as well. In it Burroughs discusses his childhood. His mentally ill mother hands him over to her (rather crazy) psychiatrist who adopts Burroughs. He describes his life in the doctor’s home as a mad house. The family never cleans anything and keeps a Christmas tree up all year. The wife of the psychiatrist is also a psychologically beaten woman who eats dog food as a snack. Though Burroughs is only thirteen years old, he is encouraged in a relationship with a man in his mid-thirties—a relationship that any normal person would regard as child abuse. The psychiatrist arbitrarily offers medication (drugs) to Augustine and makes predictions about the future through ‘Bible dipping” and reading the angles of his stool in the toilet.

Burroughs emerges worse for the wear. He has a second memoir “Dry” in which he discusses his alcoholism. “A Wolf at the Table” is Burroughs’ most recent best seller. Here he goes back in time from his other memoirs to remember his father, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts. Professor Robison is psychologically cruel. He will never show Augustine affection, and in fact, seems to enjoy watching others suffer. Burroughs makes a ‘father’ out of clothes and pillows. His real father kills Augustine’s guinea pig and turns his dog into a violent attack animal that must be euthanized. He calls his son and tells him that he is going to kill him. The fact that Burroughs survived and remained sane, even funny, is a testimony to the human spirit.

September 16, 2008

“Year of Impossible Goodbyes” by Sook Nyul Choi

I guess August was the ‘month of impossibly short reads’ for me because here’s another little book that I thought was deeply moving. It’s shelved with children’s fiction in the library, but I hope that won’t keep you away from it. It’s a beautifully told, heartbreaking story with at least some happiness at the end. I know your teachers are often asking you to think about what life is like in other parts of the world—and this is a great account.

The narrator is ten-year-old Sookan. She relates the experiences of her Korean family near the end of World War II. She—and all of Korea—is under Japanese occupation—and this has been going on a lot longer than WWII—more like thirty years. The Japanese occupiers are cruel just for the sake of cruelty and use the war effort as an excuse for all of their behaviors.

Sookan’s family runs a ‘sock factory’ which employs young women and older teen girls. They must work long, grueling hours for low wages (sometimes they are not paid at all) to make socks for the Japanese war effort. Sookan’s mother and gruff aunt care deeply for the girls and try to keep them fed and protected. When Sookan’s grandfather extends some kindness to one of the girls, the Japanese military come to the house and cut down his beloved pine tree. After this, grandfather is tired of life, and Sookan learns of the physical torture he had endured by the Japanese. The sock-factory girls are later taken away to be ‘spirit girls’ for the Japanese troops. They cry out “I’d rather be dead!” and I wondered if younger readers would understand that this meant the girls were being taken into forced/enslaved prostitution.

Just as we hope things will get better with the end of WWII, North Korea is occupied by the USSR (Russia), and Sookan’s family must escape to get beyond the 38th parallel. Their efforts—guided by a double agent—are both exciting and heartbreaking. A wonderful read!

September 16, 2008

Bad Boy: A Memoir by Walter Dean Myers

Another quick book that I read this summer was “Bad Boy: A Memoir” by Walter Dean Myers. Myers is a well-known (and well-loved) author of young adult fiction and has written several books that are popular here at COHS including “Monster,” “Fallen Angels,” and “Slam!” “Bad Boy” is the story of Meyers’ childhood and young adult years. It’s a good, quick read for anyone with a biography assignment or anyone just interested in the author of some of their favorite books.

Myers grew up in Harlem in the 1940s. His memoir gives us a sense of place and how much Harlem meant to Meyers as a boy. His upbringing is unusual: though his parents are alive, he is adopted by the ex-wife of his father and her husband—the Deans—when he is just a small child. “Mama” read to him daily, and this was the seed of Myers’ love of reading and writing.

Though his experiences as a child are limited, as Myers grows and sees more of the world outside Harlem, he experiences racism. In addition, he has a speech impediment, and because he is often teased, he fights on a regular basis. His friendship with a white boy falls apart as they grow old enough to go to clubs where Myers is not allowed because of his race. Though Myers is a gifted child and attends an accelerated junior high, by high school he is frequently truant. He cannot reconcile himself the fact that he is receiving a good education just to be a manual laborer. Some of his classmates are applying to colleges that, again, are closed to Myers because of his race.

Thank goodness Myers finally found his writing voice and listened to an English teacher who told him, “Whatever happens, don’t stop writing.”

September 16, 2008

Jip: His Story by Katherine Paterson

Jip is a quick novel that packs, if not a punch, at least quite a few surprises at the end. I read it this summer and think that it could work for some Junior Projects—but get the teacher’s OK first as s/he may tell you that the book is too short or easy. Outside of the length of the book, the theme is perfect as a fictional starter for research into this period of American history.

The novel takes place in Vermont in the 1850s. As far as Jip knows, he fell off a wagon as a baby in 1847 and was found on the road and taken to the town poor farm as an orphan. He has swarthy (dark) skin which reminds the town folk of a gypsy—thus the name Jip. Though the caretaker of the poor farm and his wife are too lazy to make the farm work, they have Jip who is hardworking, has an unusual ability to deal with animals (an animal ‘whisperer,’ if your will), and is very nearly running the farm himself. Nevertheless, his life is a sad one; he wonders always how someone could have a baby fall off a wagon and not notice, not return to claim it. His secret longing is to be claimed by loving parents.

Jip finds a friend in Put (Putnam Nelson), a ‘lunatic’ for whom Jip builds a cage. Put is an intelligent man and helpful on the farm when he isn’t experiencing a spell of delirium. Eventually, Jip also has the opportunity to attend school, where he discovers that he’s an avid reader. When the truth of Jip’s parentage begins to surface, it is his teacher and her sweetheart who try to help him.

September 16, 2008


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