Review Round-up: Memoirs and Personal Essays

This is the last of my review round-ups for 2009!

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005, 288p, paperback)

I loved, loved, loved The Glass Castle.  The book opens memorably with a snapshot story of Walls as an adult.  She is going to a party in New York City, sees a homeless woman digging through a dumpster and realizes it’s her mother.  From that ‘wow’ start, Walls takes the reader through her childhood. She and her brother and sisters are neglectfully raised by her parents as they constantly move their brood from town to town and state to state: Arizona, California, and finally in West Virginia.  This is a past that Walls has been ashamed to tell for years and she finally gets it all down in this heartbreaking, but rallying, memoir.  I love the fierce loyalty between Walls and her siblings.

Jeannette Walls spoke at the National Book Festival in D.C. and she was my favorite speaker by far.  She seems a very warm and down-to-earth person.  Walls described the various reactions she’s received to the memoir.  A privileged teenage girl came up to Walls, having read The Glass Castle while on vacation in the Caribbean.  The girl said to Jeannette, “There is this girl at my school and we make fun of her because she is poor.  You know, I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore.”  Walls described her internal reaction to this girl’s resolution as, “Well, the Lord can now strike me dead!  My mission on earth is accomplished!”

Walls also related a story a teacher from the South told her about a student’s reaction to the book.  This teacher observed a boy who never read books, carrying around The Glass Castle.  The teacher said to him, “I thought you didn’t like books.”  The boy said, “I don’t.”  The teacher said, “Well why do you like this book then?”  The boy said, “That there is a fine white trash story.”

Ditched by Dr. Right: And Other Distress Signals from the Edge of Polite Society by Elizabeth Warner (2005, 256p, paperback)

I heard about this book through Entertainment Weekly some years ago, and had to interlibrary loan it for reading this year.  Elizabeth Warner is a New York City-based writer and this collection of essays tells stories of her life in New York as a copywriter and other ventures, a stint in L.A., as well as growing up in an upper middle class Philadelphian suburb.

I find it odd that Warner portrays her upbringing as something very strange and almost exotic.  I suppose we all think that way though at times.  As children, we typically do not think our world is weird.  It is only when we grow up and move into wider circles and hear of others’ backgrounds that we begin to see our backgrounds in a new light, through others’ eyes.  And then we see the weirdness.

Warner is a decent enough writer.  I read aloud parts or even whole essays to my friend and we laughed out loud in moments.  My favorite story was one from Warner’s childhood when she and her siblings inadvertently lead to a big police bust of some local sports players.  Her essay about L.A. was also rather amusing.  However, there is nothing must-read about this collection, unfortunately.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (2004, 252p, hardcover)

Sedaris’ book was in danger of over-hype from the get-go.  I hadn’t read anything of his before, but I had heard his name spoken or written with great adoration and awe.  So I finally checked out this book from the library and was unsurprisingly, underwhelmed.  The book was certainly had wit and humor and poignancy, but it didn’t really have the ‘wow’ for me that it does for others.  I suspect it is because Sedaris is best taken in audio rather than written format, so I think that the next time I check out his work it will be for listening.  My favorite story from this book has to be the one about his sister and how his writing about the family, including her, has affected their relationship.  I’d like to listen to him read that essay because I would think it would be even more powerful then.


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays, Year in Review

2 responses to “Review Round-up: Memoirs and Personal Essays

  1. I love it when David Sedaris writes about his sister, Amy, since she’s such a delightful actress. Is this the collection where he relates the story of Amy walking around in battered makeup from a job, telling people “I’m in love!” when they notice all her fake bruises?

    • I had to double-check but the story I referred to is actually about his sister Lisa. I don’t think the story about Amy that you reference was in this collection. Do you prefer to listen to or read Sedaris?

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