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"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Borrowed family memoirs: one too healthy, one too dysfunctional, and one just right (book reviews, video)

If I were a great writer like these three people, I'd write about my family, too, because it was quite a ride. (Probably, most families are.) These three memoirs were eerily reminiscent of my own family life: one family way more functional than mine, one way less, and the third close to how it was for me sometimes, from the inside. For those of us who lack the talent to tell such large and complex stories, other people's can be a great way to understand our own.

Here's  the video that sparked this train of thought. It brought back key memories of  my own in that "just right" way, and reminded me of both books reviewed below. Gaimon captures wonderfully that quality of adolescence in which we were an adult one moment and a child the next. (Also what it's like to be one-too-many.) However, I can see from this that at 16 he was already in some ways in a place where it took me another ten years to reach. (And then of course he just kept going, to a stellar career.)

The family in my own Goldilocks memoir that's "too good" is the one in Searching for Hassan by Terence Ward. Same time (almost) same places, same countries (more or less), same kind of work, a very similar kind of people ... but these folks just don't seem to have the kind of mental booby traps that, well... made my life's work just keeping my head above water, rather than having the brilliant career my mother always thought I should have had. But if we'd met them on our travels, our parents would really have hit it off and perhaps become lifelong friends (while their children raced on ahead of me and soon out of sight, becoming successful and accomplished while I kept making the same mistakes and finally barely learned to cope). My parents did go back to revisit old friends too, but we never could have united in this way as adults as a family for such a joint quest. It's a wonderful story. I posted a review of that one earlier, here.

And finally, the one that's "too dysfunctional"in my little fairy tale is The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls. In an interview, Walls said that the word "dysfunctional" never came to her mind as she wrote the book, and I can understand that. Our families and our stories are just what they are, and only outsiders put labels like that on them. (One of my favorite quotes from my mother--which she must have had many occasions to say, or I woudn't remember it so well--was "Don't worry what they think. They don't know you.") My parents didn't end up like the ones in this book, thank goodness, and never would have, as they were not delusional at any point (just rather more idealistic, adventurous, and stubbornly optimistic than most) but much of their journey on the way to where Walls's family ended up conveys something of the quality of our life, too. In this version of my borrowed memoir, the parents ultimately failed but the children succeeded, flipping my own story arc. Here's how I reviewed it in a local paper:

In any competition for "Best First Sentence in a Book of Any Kind," this would have to be strong contender: "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." How did the mother and daughter come to such a pass? It's a fascinating story.

The author's mother is seen as a romantic, a would-be artist with a tendency to become seriously depressed; her father is an abusive alcoholic, amoral and delusional much of the time, but scraping by thanks to his extraordinary charm and intelligence. They are dropouts without a commune (except for thieir own isolated family), Bohemians without friends, protesters without a cause, dreamers without real conviction. Their theory of child-rearing, as their mother often reminds them, is "what doesn't kill you will make you strong." Thanks to their neglect, the children suffer so many close calls that the book sometimes feels like a horror story. If, as a reviewer quoted on the book cover asserts, "Memoirs are our modern fairy tales," this one is Brothers Grimm, not Disney.

The parents do, however, have some extraordinary qualities that they pass on to the children, among them intelligence, creativity, resilience, and the ability to make an adventure of adversity. Actually, the author's first memories are relatively happy, and certainly interesting, times in Arizona and California. Her mother sets up a studio, while her father dreams of strange inventions and draws up plans for a glass castle in the desert. (As a child, the author stubbornly believes in the castle, and through various permutations it serves as a gauge of her relationship with her father as she grows up.) But as the family's economic fortunes decline they slip further into poverty, eventually coming to the end of the line in a dank shack in a dark hollow in a dying town in West Virginia, the poorest people in what might well be the poorest town in the country.

As the parents retreat further from reality, somehow the Walls children do grow stronger, and ultimately, as the book's first sentence foretells, the author travels a long way from the shack in the hollow. So do two of her siblings: leaving the folly of their parents behind, they escape one by one, each helping the next one along in the traditional way of emigrant families looking for a better life in a different country.

So why is the mother still nearby, now in the city, rooting in dumpsters while her daughter rides in taxis? This is a rich reading experience, well told with wit and vivid imagery. A friend recommended it to me, and I pass it on to you.
Another fine family memoir that really touched me, though not in quite so personal a way:
Burnt Bread and Chutney

and other memoir-related posts.

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