"And moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul...the soul that dares and defies."
-Kate Chopin, The Awakening

01 February 2011

Snowstorms, a book review, and James Joyce...(or, the post without an enlightening title)

I don't have the mind-capacity for a full post today (I blame James Joyce and a three-hour bus ride in the snow at 15 miles an hour), but I thought I'd pass along a recommendation for an author with whose work I've recently been re-acquainted.  The post is inspired by going to breakfast with one of my best friends, who feeds my book addiction by always asking me what I'm reading and passing along her recommendations.  Writers are always told books are our best teacher, so I figured reviewing books is just as constructive.  Besides, we're about to get a huge snowstorm, so those of you in the New England area will have plenty of time to catch up on a book or two.

If you haven't read Jeannette Wall's exceptionally entertaining memoir "The Glass Castle," run out to your local Barnes & Noble (or the less cozy Borders, if you're in Boston) or your friendly neighborhood public library or your tech-savvy online e-book store, and buy it.  Right now.

The first time I read this book was years ago, but I still remember falling in love with Walls' story-telling abilities.  The book recounts her youth, depicting the relationship she had with her alcoholic father and mentally unstable mother as well as her three siblings.  The book could have easily fallen into a woe-is-me first-person account of depression and self-pity, but it is anything but.  As a narrator, Walls is upbeat and smart, guiding the reader through this world, and giving them permission to laugh out loud.

Walls' childhood may have been unpredictable and wild, but her wonderful writing keeps the memoir cohesive, and allows the readers to not only sympathize with her, but empathize.  She knows how to keep her readers close enough that they begin to see bits and pieces of their own families coming through the bizarre abnormalities of hers (think a more intimate and heart-warming version of Burrough's Running with Scissors).

It is a generally fast read, but one that I have gone back to again and again because of its many layers.  It's the kind of book that seems to change as you grow older; a book that becomes new whenever you gain a new perspective on life.
Jeannette Walls' new book, this time called "a true life novel," is Half Broke Horses.  She shifts the focus off herself and onto her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, a woman whose independence and high spirits characterize the tone of this novel.  Walls takes on her grandmother's personality wholeheartedly, utilizing a first person point of view that allows Smith's characterization to flow out of each line of narration.  It is Smith's story, and Walls made the right decision in allowing her to tell it, even if she did have to give up the "memoir" standing.

It is the voice of this novel that kept me reading.  The plot lines are not as amazing or thought-provoking as that of The Glass Castle, but the narrator of Half Broke Horses is fearless and wholly honest; it was refreshing to read a character who was so full of determination and heart.  I read most of the book  in one sitting (a long sitting that lasted into the early hours of the morning, but nevertheless...), and it was Smith's gumption (and Walls' skill at personifying it) that kept me reading.  Her voice carries this story along, and welcomes the reader into her world seamlessly.

When I was growing up, my mom kept horses.  I knew how to ride from an early age, and learned a good deal about taking care of horses (mucking stalls included, which I usually complained about to anyone within ear-shot).  Still, I would have been wholly lost in the world of cattle ranching and wild horse breaking were it not for the pace and narration of Walls' novel.   The book is broken up into small vignettes (most only two or three pages, some more) that allow the reader to absorb this world slowly.  Whereas some works of literature are jarring in that they throw the reader straight to the wolves to force them to become acquainted with the world of the protagonist (think the language in A Clockwork Orange or, in a more physical sense, any Beckett play/novel).  While this is a great strategy for establishing the mood Burgess and Beckett were going for (I remember how excited I was when I started picking up on the misplaced terms in Clockwork Orange and finally started feeling comfortable reading), this affect wouldn't have served Walls' narrative in any way.  By establishing the world through tight, well-constructed vignettes, the reader is effortlessly eased into this strange world of ranching, and, without realizing it, begins to think in its terms.

Lily Casey Smith led a life of fearless determination (I would love to teach this book alongside Thoreau as the antithesis of "quiet desperation").  She left home to become a teacher when she was just 15 years old, leaving her family and trekking across the desert by herself, on her horse.  She set goals and didn't give up until she achieved them, learning from her mistakes and finding herself along the way.  In summary, it sounds like a Lifetime movie that I will watch in secret and deny ever having turned on.  But in practice, Walls is able to expand the details of her grandmother's life to include much of the eccentric tone and heart that is ingrained into The Glass Castle.  She is a skilled writer who knows, first and foremost, not to let emotion or wordiness cloud her ability to tell a great story (one of my favorite lines from The Glass Castle says, "One thing about whoring: It put a chicken on the table").

Even though Walls is more revered as  "memoir" writer than a novelist, I believe fiction writers can learn a great deal from her style.  It is refreshing to see a well-crafted story that succeeds so wonderfully without many bells or whistles, and I think that is a reminder to all fiction writers (particularly those in the vein of me, who have days where they become so attached to flowery, superfluous language that they suffocate the storyline).

So, if you've never read Jeannette Walls, put her on your list.  I know, your reading list is too long already, but just squeeze her in there for those days you've been so ambitious in your goal to read Ulysses that your brain is numb...which, for me, is right about now.

No comments:

Post a Comment