Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Glass Castle

"How many places have we lived?" I asked Lori.
"That depends on what you mean by 'lived,'" she said. "If you spend one night in some town, did you live there? What about two nights? Or a whole week?"
I thought. "If you unpack all your things," I said.
We counted eleven places we had lived, then we lost track. We couldn't remember the names of some of the towns or what the houses we had lived in looked like. Mostly, I remembered the inside of cars.
"What do you think would happen if we weren't always moving around?" I asked.
"We'd get caught," Lori said. (p. 29)

I won't soon forget the accounts of Jeannette Walls' childhood that are shared in her book The Glass Castle. She begins at the age of three when she is accidentally burned by water on the stove while cooking hot dogs and continues through adulthood when she is finally on her own but still coming to terms with the lifestyle that her parents have chosen. Jeannette and her three siblings lived in many places and in very dire conditions. Her parents' behavior and ideas were unusual and often extreme. Living in desert towns, in the Appalachia's, and finally in New York City, their homes, schools, friends, and living conditions changed frequently. And their family's survival was a daily struggle throughout their childhoods. But one thing always remained stable throughout their lives: their father's dream of hitting it big one day as an entrepreneur and building a glass castle for his family.

One day Professor Fuchs asked if homelessness was the result of drug abuse and misguided entitlement programs, as the conservatives claimed, or did it occur, as the liberals argued, because of cuts in social-service programs and the failure to create economic opportunity for the poor? Professor Fuchs call on me.
I hesitated. "Sometimes, I think, it's neither."
"Can you explain yourself?"
"I think that maybe sometimes people get the lives they want."
"Are you saying homeless people want to live on the street?" Professor Fuchs asked. "Are you saying they don't want warm beds and roof over their heads?"
"Not exactly," I said. I was fumbling for words. "They do. But if some of them are willing to work hard and make compromises, they might not have ideal lives, but they could make ends meet."
Professor Fuchs walked around from behind her lectern. "What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged?" she asked. She was practically trembling with agitation. "What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?"
The other students were staring at me.
"You have a point," I said. (pp. 256-257)

As Jeannette Walls openly admits, she did not discuss her childhood and was ashamed of how she grew up as well as how her parents chose to live. But in her memoir The Glass Castle, she finally shares that story with others. I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Walking Taylor Home

Book: Walking Taylor Home by Brian Schrauger.
Finished: August 208
Pages: 270
A simply beautiful memoir of a father's fierce love for his cancer ravaged son, as he walks him "Home"
Here is my complete review.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


HERSHEY: MILTON S. HERSHEY'S EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF WEALTH, EMPIRE, AND UTOPIAN DREAMS by Michael D'Antonio was read for the In Their Shoes Reading Challenge.

From the book jacket:

HERSHEY. The name means chocolate to America and the world, but, as Michael D'Antonio reveals, it also stands for an inspiring man and a uniquely successful experiment in community and capitalism that produced a business empire devoted to a higher purpose.

One of the twentieth century's most eccentric and idealistic titans of industry, Milton S. Hershey brought affordable milk chocolate to America, creating and then satisfying the chocoholic urges of millions. He pioneered techniques of branding, mass production, and marketing and gained widespread fame as the Chocolate King.

But as he developed massive factories, Cuban sugar plantations, and a vacation wonderland called Hersheypark, M.S. never lost sight of a grander goal. Determined that his wealth produce a lasting legacy, he tried to create perfect places where his workers could live, perfect schools for their children, and a perfect charity to salvage the lives of needy children in perpetuity. Along the way, he overcame his personal childhood traumas as well as the death, after a short and intensely romantic marriage, of the one woman he ever loved...

Everyone knows Hershey chocolate bars, Hershey Kisses, Hershey cocoa. But do you know about Milton S. Hershey?

I grew up in Philadelphia and spent many a day at Hersheypark - my absolute favorite amusement park. I love the town of Hershey. The streetlamps on Chocolate Avenue are shaped like Hershey Kisses. There used to be a tour of the actual chocolate factory, where you could actually watch the candy being made. Now they have an attraction called Chocolate World outside the gates of Hersheypark, where you take a ride through the attraction, seeing pictures and hearing the story of the chocolate-making process. If I could live anywhere in the country, I think I'd chose the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania.

I had known some about the Milton Hershey School, but never realized how important this school was to M.S. Hershey. He left his entire fortune to the school, and the profits of the chocolate factory (and other holdings) belong to the school. Enrollment in the school is open to children between the ages of 4-15, and provides housing, clothing, medical care and education from pre-school through Grade 12 - at no cost. The children eligible to attend this school are selected from applicants from low-income families who show social need and a willingness to learn. You can learn more about the school here.

This book chronicles the life of Milton Hershey and his experimentation to find the perfect chocolate. It tells how he planned the town of Hershey (and a similar town in Cuba near his sugar plantations) to provide a place for his employees to live. And it tells how he developed his school.

Milton Hersey did not have a great childhood. His father neglected him; his mother worked hard to provide for her children. He was never a good student.

As an adult, Milton fulfilled his father's dream of success and acclaim by building a great industry. With the creation of his utopian town he heeded his mother's admonitions about serving something higher than the accumulation of personal wealth. Then, when it came time to consider his legacy, he invested his fortune with a poignant flourish. He would save himself symbolically - by rescuing little boys in the straits he knew as a child - over and over again in perpetuity.

Milton Hershey was quite a man. I think I'll go have a handful of Hershey Kisses in his honor.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Maus I & II

By Kim L
Maus I & II by Art Spiegelman
Rating: 5/5

Also posted at Bold. Blue. Adventure.
Also posted at Graphic Novel Challenge

How does a writer describe horrors that are undescribable? Write a fresh story about a period of history that's been so dissected and analyzed it seems every story that can be told has already been told? And most of all, how to write about the Holocaust without being completely overwhelmed by the telling?

Art Spiegelman chose to write his story in a comic book format. It is unlike any other comics I've read before. The illustrations are all in black and white. Different nationalities are different kinds of animals. The Jews are mice, the Poles, pigs and the Germans, cats. Spiegelman never goes into detail as to why he chose to use animals to represent the characters, but it works visually by letting the reader know immediately what nationality particular character is. On a deeper level, there animals can be taken metaphorically; the Jews have to play a cat and mouse game to survive, or mice are seen as vermin, much as the Jews were.

That Vladek managed to survive the Holocaust at all is nothing short of miraculous. His story is full of brushes with death, incredible luck, and a sixth sense for danger that keeps him alive. While in Auschwitz, he finds ways to be resourceful. When needed, he tutors a guard in English, passes himself off as a tinsmith and then as a shoe mender. He finds a way to pass messages to his wife and keep her close by.

Vladek survives, but along the way he is forced to watch nearly all the members of his family die. Each day, he might talk to someone who the next day will be dead of a guard's bullet, or gassed in the chambers, hanged, or simply disappeared. Finding enough food to live to survive the next day is the only thing on anyone's mind.

(You can click on the image to the left to see an example of one of the pages.)

This book is not just about Vladek's Holocaust experience. Framed around it is the story of how Art set out to record and process his father's story. He finds his father at best difficult and at worst downright impossible to be around. His father's overwhelming stinginess is embarrassing (They sneak into a hotel to play bingo for free because it costs $.25 a card to play at the bingo hall; Art cringes in shame when his father tries to seal up a box of cereal and return it to the grocery store, to name a few examples).

There is a particular scene in Maus II where Spiegelman tries to explain to the reader what it is like to write about the Holocaust, what it cost him to write his father's story.

Vladek started working as a tinman in Auschwitz in the spring of 1944... I started working on this page at the very end of February 1987. In May 1987 Francoise and I are expecting a baby... Between May 16, 1944 and May 24, 1944 over 100,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz. In September 1986, after 8 years of work, the first part of Maus was published. It was a critical and commercial success. At least fifteen foreign editions are coming out. I've gotten four serious offers to turn my book into a T.V. special or movie. (I don't wanna.) In May 1968 my mother killed herself. (She left no note.) Lately I've been feeling depressed.

Spiegelman always presents the story in an honest manner, never covering up his conflicts with his father, or his father's volatile relationship with his second wife, but this particular passage struck me as particularly honest. His disjointed thoughts, flitting from his own personal life to the cold facts of the Holocaust and back again, could have easily come across as a distraction to the main story, but Spiegelman incorporates them in such a way that they only enhance the story by showing the reader what it means to be the child of a Holocaust survivor.

Since I've just been talking about this author's honesty, I'll be honest with you, the reader. I avoid most Holocaust novels because they just make me so damned depressed. The organized, methodical way that the Nazis invented new ways to torture fellow human beings, how many people bought into the lie that some people are superior to others... it just sickens me to read about it. So even if you are like me and would rather read the entire dictionary than another Holocaust book, let me tell you why this one is worth your time.

The first thing it's got going for it is that it's a quick read. You could breeze through both books in a couple of hours. Secondly, although it describes the familiar horrors of the overcrowded cattle cars, the shower stalls, the death chambers, this retelling brings something new to the table because the format is so different than anything else you've read on the Holocaust.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Resistance: A Woman's Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France by Agnes Humbert (Jill)

Resistance: A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France
By Agnes Humbert
Completed August 8, 2008

In her memoir, Resistance: A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France, Agnes Humbert spelled out her acts of resistance and eventual imprisonment during German-occupied France in the 1940’s. Humbert was a 43-year-old art historian when the Nazis invaded Paris, and she and her fellow intellectuals refused to be complacent with German occupation. Together, they created the short-lived Resistance newspaper – an underground publication devoted to undermining Nazi propaganda. After five months, the Gestapo detained Humbert and her allies, and for five years, she survived harsh imprisonment for her crimes, including serving time in a German work camp.

Through Humbert’s writing, readers learned about the interrogation and punishment of French nationalists, and how strenuous German work camp life was for its prisoners. Humbert’s style was easy and clipped, only containing the essential elements about her comrades and their activities. Humbert described her involvement in the Resistance as inconsequential, but historical sources (according to the book notes) showed that Humbert was a very important player. This inconsistency left me unsettled: was Humbert really insignificant or just humble?

It’s important to note that Resistance was written primarily after Humbert’s liberation. However, Humbert still wrote it in a diary-style (each entry was marked with a date), as if she had a journal and pen in prison with her. This was not the case. She worked feverishly on her “diary” for nine months after her release, and she had a solid memory because she recalled details such as times, dates, people’s appearances and the weather. Her eye as an art historian probably helped, but I wondered how one could remember such intricate details. For me, Humbert’s account would have been stronger if she had written it as a chapter-to-chapter memoir.

With that said, Resistance is a primary resource for readers interested in World War II history. Undoubtedly, Agnes Humbert was a brave, smart woman who loved her country (she also had a wicked sense of humor). While I disagree with the format of the book, the historical information gleaned from it was worthwhile and illuminating. ( )

Petite Anglaise

I have a bit of a history of reading expat memoirs, and France is a popular place for expats to write about. One of my favourite expat memoirs is Paris to the Moon. In fact, I think I've read more memoirs of living in Paris than any other. Which is to say probably a handful. I think it's mostly a habit now that if I hear of a decently written memoir about living in France, I'll read it. Though the reason I picked up this book was not only because it was an expat memoir, I knew of Petite Anglaise, as with many people, through her blog. I read it first in 2005 or late 2004 (definitely before she left Mr. Frog). While I was never a regular reader or commentator on her blog, I remember reading several of the posts and comments alluded to in the book. Even in blog format, I admired her openness in writing for her life. It is funny reading the book with things you've read about online or in a blog. It seems to be another perspective, and indeed, Catherine Sanderson seems to differentiate herself and Petite. I enjoyed this memoir because the question is elicits in personal blogging. How much do we or should we reveal? Do a lot of us blog when we are unhappy as a creative and cathartic outlet? Overall, I like how this memoir posed these questions about online dating, personalities or public writing. I think Sanderson writes in a clear style and voice.


Laura's Review - Paula

Isabel Allende
330 pages

At the age of 28 Isabel Allende's daughter, Paula, was stricken by porphyria and lapsed into a coma. Paula was written at her bedside as a way to work through emotions and unfinished business. Allende re-tells the tragic story of Paula's illness and treatment, while simultaneously recounting her life story.

I cannot begin to imagine the strain of caring for someone with a long-term illness. Allende approached the situation with fierce devotion and drive, doing everything within her power to help Paula. She rallied other family members even during the darkest times, and turned to her writing for emotional release.

Isabel Allende is one of my favorite authors, so I found it quite interesting to learn about her childhood, the family members who inspired her writing, and her escape from Chile's political unrest. In turn, she inspired me as a feminist, a mother, and a deeply spiritual woman. ( )

My original review can be found here.