Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Cry the Beloved1948. Scribner. Paperback. 316 pages.

In a nutshell:

Cry, The Beloved Country is the story of an elderly minister, Rev. Stephen Kumalo, who travels from his drought-stricken Zulu village to Johannesburg, the city that has swallowed up his sister, his son and most of the young people of the country villages. It is also the story of racial oppression in all its complex layers, described through the lens of Kumalo’s quest.


I’ve known of Paton’s novel since I was in high school, but never had much interest in reading it, because I had this suspicion that it was a classic solely because it was “important” at the time of its publication. I’m so glad, then, that my cousin gave it to me for my birthday last year, so I could realize that it is a classic not for being a time capsule, but because much of it is timeless.

Cry, The Beloved Country starts off with a somewhat flowery, poetic introduction that made me wary, but once Rev. Kumalo reaches Johannesburg, the story really picks up and the poetic sections felt more organic. Each character that Kumalo meets along his search for his family illuminates an aspect of the unjust situation in South Africa. But this isn’t a polemic screed. Through his characters, Paton captures a discussion, rather than a monologue, of how to understand, even improve, the state of South Africa.

It is amazing that so much of what Paton writes is still relevant to today’s discussion of racial injustice.

She put the paper down on the table, and showed the other women the headlines. ANOTHER MURDER TRAGEDY IN CITY. EUROPEAN HOUSEHOLDER SHOT DEAD BY NATIVE HOUSEBREAKER.

They were shocked. These were the headlines that men feared in these days. Householders feared them, and their wives feared them. All those who worked for South Africa feared them. All law-abiding black men feared them. Some people were urging the newspapers to drop the word native from their headlines, others found it hard to know what the hiding of the painful truth would do.

Aren’t we still having this moment? Where an act of crime is used to harden, even justify, existing lines of prejudice? Where we grow impatient with the media’s tendency to simplistically characterize the news with its choice of labels?

Paton not only has a keen eye for the nuances of racial oppression, but he also takes on economic injustice, mainly in the form of the South African mines, but written in such a way to apply to many arenas of economic exploitation.

As insightful as the novel is in racial matters, the book was clumsier with the status of women. Kumalo is harsh to a young teenaged girl because she has had many “boyfriends”. He soon repents of his harshness, but the book struck me as a little blind to systemic sexual and economic oppression of women. It’s a blindness I have seen before in otherwise progressive mid-century writing.

Overall, I greatly valued the resonance of the novel’s themes of injustice, but in saying that, I don’t want to downplay the characters and the story. In Stephen Kumalo, Paton has created a good man, but not a saintly one, and he is the heart of the novel. Even while he is on a road of suffering, he still finds new friendships and new family in Johannesburg.

It’s ultimately a story that reaches toward the hope of reconciliation for a small set of characters, even while acknowledging their pain, even while acknowledging the majority of South Africa is not reconciled. It is scary that Paton saw the situation so clearly, and that the book was so popular, but that apartheid didn’t end in South Africa until the 1990’s.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

BookLust – “Paton is one of those rare people who can write a story populated by flawed characters without passing judgment; rather, he makes the reader see just how much suffering a person goes through, and just how much impact a small kindness can have.”

Vulpes Libres – “The line that has been running through my mind from these writings has been ‘We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under’. And, despite this book being written in 1948, for me, this resonates with modern ‘developed’ society.”

Worthwhile Books – “Cry, the Beloved Country is a book that comes close to describing this mysterious relationship between suffering and grace in our world.”

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Honeymoon in Tehran by Azadeh Moaveni

Honeymoon in TehranHoneymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran

2009. Random House. ebook. 370 pages.

In a nutshell:

In this memoir, Azadeh Moaveni, journalist for Time magazine and author of the book Lipstick Jihad, describes life in Tehran from 2005 to 2007. The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Moaveni was raised in California, but had more or less been living in Beirut since 2003, taking a number of trips to Iran during that time. But for the events covered in this book – both personal and political – she calls Tehran home.

The book starts on the eve of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as President of Iran, a change of leadership which surprised nearly all observers. It is at this time that Moaveni meets the man who she will later marry, and she also has a child during the two years covered by this memoir.


Chronology is the primary driver of Moaveni’s narrative, both through her own life’s course of events, as well as the progression of events in Iran and the world. Within this loose framework, topics range from encounters with her government minder “Mr. X”, the common past-time of making homemade wine, the prevalence of c-section births in Iran, and the elusive answer to the question of who is actually in power in Iran. In a way, Honeymoon in Tehran has the spirit of a book of essays if not the format.

Honeymoon in Tehran succeeds in providing a nuanced portrayal of Iranian life – it is not just lives dominated by fear, though there is fear especially for prominent dissenters like lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who Moaveni meets with periodically. But there is also a culture Moaveni calls “as if” – “a mode that involved behaving ‘as if’ most of the regime’s rules did not exist.” According to Moaveni, Iran is divided “between a minority of religious militants . . . and the majority of moderate Iranians, who longed for stability and prosperity.” One of my favorite stories from the book is the following:

When I first moved to Tehran in 2000, this love of irony struck me as one of the most charming aspects of Iranian life, though I knew its purpose was to ease the pain of being ruled by heartless, inept, and hypocritical mullahs. During one of my first afternoons driving in the city, I struggled to execute a three-point turn across lanes of chaotic traffic. Halfway through the turn, my veil slipped off, and I froze, uncertain whether to clear the road or adjust my covering. As a man passing by surveyed the traffic jam I had caused, he noticed me fumbling with my scarf, grinned, and yelled, “Islam is in danger!”

I appreciated how Moaveni paid due attention to economic matters. Corruption in the government stifles innovation and economic sanctions further hamstring Iranian professionals. In Tehran, young people struggle to support themselves and usually cannot afford to live on their own. This state of economics affairs is a critical piece to understanding Iran.

As for the possibility of widespread political rebellion, Moaveni writes:

That [Iranian youth] were willing to shout down a police officer or flirt during a public Islamic ritual meant mostly that they were concerned with freedom in their immediate ten-foot radius . . . many young people envisioned their futures abroad, and were unwilling to compromise those hopes for the sake of somehow changing Iran, a notion they considered chimerical, costly, and best left to a future generation.

Of course Moaveni wrote this, at the latest, in 2008, and this portrait should not be considered as necessarily accurate today, but still I found it an insightful assessment of the mood of a nation.

As for the titular “honeymoon in Tehran”, I found Moaveni and her husband’s inclusion of traditional Persian and Zoroastrian elements in their wedding to be intriguing (and so do their guests, who are surprised and pleased when the ceremonial text is read in Farsi and not in Arabic, which few understand.) In fact, throughout the book, Moaveni makes reference to Iran’s pre-Islamic Persian culture and how vestiges of it still remain, despite the government’s efforts to suppress it by writing it out of history books and forbidding certain Persian and Zoroastrian baby names. It makes me want to learn more about traditional Persian culture.

In the end, increasing restrictions and unsettling incidents – paired with Moaveni’s concern for her son’s upbringing – lead Moaveni and her husband to relocate to London. That move itself is a tricky cultural adjustment which she describes briefly in the epilogue.

I read most of Honeymoon in Tehran on a snow day, home from work. I’ve seen other reviews that found the book too slow-moving and meandering for their tastes, and I can see how that could be. I may have benefited from having an unexpected pocket of time to read much of this book nearly in one sitting. In any case, I really enjoyed this memoir and the complex picture it provides of Iranian life.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

The 3 R’s Blog – “I learned a bit about Iranian life without feeling like I was being “educated,” and I was able to relate to much of her story, even though the details of our lives are very different.”

Devourer of Books – “Iran is depicted in a way that is very relatable and easy to grasp for any Americans – and certainly other Westerners as well – who are willing to discover the people of Iran, not just its administration.”

Sophisticated Dorkiness – “Moaveni’s second memoir is slow to start, but once it picks up provides an optimistic and honest look at what it’s like to live inside one of the world’s most unknown countries.”

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Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Saplings Streatfeild1945. Persephone. Softcover. 377 pages.

Recommendation from: A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore


Several years ago, Frances of Nonsuch Books gave me this book as part of a Persephone Secret Santa exchange. She actually gave it to me in-person because we lived so near each other at the time. I am remiss for not reading this book sooner – I’m often distracted from the books I own by library books.

Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings covers several wartime years in the life of one middle-class English family: perceptive father, Alex; self-centered mother, Lena; and their four children: Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday. The story begins as the family is on a beach vacation, on the eve of World War II. The family will soon be separated as the children are to be evacuated out of London, and stay with their paternal grandparents in the country.

All of the characters in Saplings – particularly the children – have distinct but not simplistic personalities. Besides the parents, the children are surrounded by a constellation of adults who range from caring but constrained former governess Ruth, to the children’s aunt Lindsey, who would rather not be bothered. Streatfeild writes with psychological depth, but the prose isn’t dense with it, thanks to the author’s good sense of pace. Streatfeild is like a judicious film editor with her narrative: scenes are well-chosen and do not drag on.

It is an enjoyable book, though not generally a happy one in its trajectory. In the constant background is the war, which takes away some of the adults from the children’s lives and doesn’t always return them. Still, it is a pleasure to read a book for adults that understands children’s nature so well. Streatfeild captures how adults can unthinkingly slight a child, and how that unintentional slight can grow and grow in the child’s mind. There are a couple poignant moments in the book that near about made me cry, when an adult finally is able to intuit the source of a child’s pain and heal it. The following excerpt did not make me cry, but it is thematically of a piece with those that did. The excerpt is set on the day that the eldest girl, Laurel, is departing for boarding school. At this point in the book, Ruth is still employed as a governess by the family.

It was not by design that Ruth was alone with Laurel. They had gone to the brook to wash. Laurel, in her green tunic and crested cardigan, looked unlike herself. She made Ruth’s heart ache and gave her courage to say what in recent days she had not risked in case Laurel snubbed her, and the bloom was brushed from their friendship.

‘Oh, Laurel, my pet, I am going to miss you.’

Laurel looked up from the water. There was a moment when it seemed that a snub was on her lips. Then she was up, her arms around Ruth’s neck, sobbing.

‘It was always my bedroom – even Tony never speaks to me, he’s always playing with Albert and Ernie – Gran’s glad I’m going to school, she doesn’t pretend she isn’t – everybody’s glad I’m being sent away – Dad promised we’d have a lot of riding, we haven’t ridden once – it’s extra awful me going to school, I’m ugly and I’m not good at anything – ‘

Ruth surreptitiously looked at her watch. It would do the child good to say all that was in her mind, but she could not plant her in a railway carriage filled with strange girls with her face swollen from crying. She gave Laurel a kiss.

‘Mop your face. I can’t hand you over to your housemistress, or whoever it is, looking as if you’d got mumps.’

p. 83

I definitely recommend Saplings to anyone who likes books that depict children in credible, insightful ways, and who have soft spots for scenes where kindly grandfathers, uncles and headmistresses take the time to listen to the troubles of children.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Novel Insights – “She paints such clear characters, that a few days after finishing the book they are all still vivid in my mind. Although the book has a central story, I did feel that it was more of a sketch and I do think you need to sort of settle into it rather than being in a rush.”

Stuck in a Book – “Structure may not be [Streatfeild’s] trump card, but there is still a lot to love in the novel. Chief amongst these is the way in which she demonstrates the damage done to families and children by war.”

things mean a lot – “The Wiltshire children are sensitive, especially Laurel, and it is a mark of Noel Streatfeild’s great skill that their pains and concerns never seem silly, not even when played against the backdrop of the war.”


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Five things that stuck with me from The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project is a popular memoir / self-help book about the author’s year-long “experiment” at trying to be happier. She presents research on happiness throughout the book and she also seeks to make changes in her own life. Each chapter represents a month of the project and each month is focused on a particular goal, though as I recall, she tries to be cumulative with her goals, so that she’s not abandoning January’s resolutions when she hits February. An example of the book’s organization: February’s chapter title is called “Remember Love” and focuses on happiness in marriage; March’s title is “Aim Higher” and focuses on happiness at work.

I really enjoyed Rubin’s book as I felt that while some goals were particular to her life, others were quite applicable. I finished the book in late November last year, and spent some time on a Saturday writing down all the things that struck me, and what goals I was inspired to consider or act upon. Now that it’s been two months, I thought I’d share five things that stuck with me:

We tend to overestimate how much we can accomplish in an hour or a week and underestimate how much we can accomplish in a month or a year, by doing just a little bit each day.

1. The quote above has really stuck with me and is the idea I’ve shared most often with other people when discussing this book. In my own life, it helped get me back on track for transcribing my ancestor’s journal, as I reminded myself that if I just do a little bit regularly, even if just a half hour here and there, eventually it will get done.

2. I don’t have children, and I don’t work with them in my job either, but I was fascinated by Rubin’s chapter on parenting. She wrote a phrase: “Acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings,” particularly children’s. I remembered this concept while helping out at my church’s preschool. The service was nearly over so we were encouraging the kids to help put the toys away, but one toddler was determinedly opening up the costume bin and taking out the fireman hat and other props. I tried to gently tell him that it was time to put things away but he wasn’t listening. So I said, “I know, it’s hard – you want to play with these costumes because they look like so much fun!” I followed it up by emphasizing that I see that his family comes nearly every week so I knew he’d have a chance to play with the costumes in another week. And it worked! He stopped trying to take the costumes out. And I did feel that my sympathizing with his desire to play with the toys was key to communicating with him at that moment.

3. Another concept that stuck with me from the book was the encouragement to “Spend out.” Don’t save things for a rainy day. I was already putting this into practice somewhat before I read the book. For instance, when I was in Prince Edward Island last summer, I bought three jars of specialty preserves. My tendency with specialty, shelf-stable foods is to keep them for some undetermined special occasion. But this time, I used them right away, in my ordinary PB&J sandwiches I brought to work. It did give me pleasure to eat my sandwich at my desk and be like: “Yum, raspberry champagne preserves!” Rubin’s emphasis on the “Spend out” just makes this idea more of a mantra in my head, as I come across gifted body lotion or a gift card in my apartment. Don’t save it forever, use it!

Counter with open preserve jars on four or five turntables, each jar with a spoon sticking out.

PEI Preserve Company sample counter

4. Rubin talks about a “one-minute” rule: don’t put off anything that takes less than a minute. I haven’t remembered this specific rule as much as the general idea of trying to take care of nagging tasks that really don’t take much time to get accomplished. And one similar idea: not putting off buying something that will really help solve a nagging problem. For instance, I wanted to try running at least once a week, but every time I ran I got shin splints. I tried altering my gait according to a running book and a running video I found online but was feeling discouraged. So I did something else encouraged by The Happiness Project: I asked for help. I posted on Facebook. Several people said, “Get proper running shoes. Don’t try to change your gait at this stage.” So I bought running shoes, and lo and behold no more shin splints! I haven’t transformed into a daily runner or anything, but most weekends since then, I’ve gone for a run, and that is a good start for me. Now of course none of this advice from the book is new, but Rubin has a way of presenting them that makes them something I internalize and want to implement.

5. Similar to not putting off nagging tasks, I’ve also tried to be proactive about nurturing friendships and introducing variety, novelty, and little projects to my life. In December, I reached out to a friend who had just moved back into the greater D.C. area and we met up to play board games at her house. My latest idea for a project has been to memorize songs from “The Great American Songbook” as I’ve had moments in my life where I’ve wished I had whole songs memorized instead of just snatches. So far, I’ve just memorized one: “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” an Irving Berlin song from Top Hat.

There are so many other ideas and quotes from The Happiness Project that I’ve stored away. I like the concept of taking pleasure in “an atmosphere of growth”. I like Rubin’s division of clutter into types: nostalgic clutter, aspirational clutter, bargain / freebie clutter, etc. I appreciate the reminder to not think about the return when committing acts of love and generosity.

And of course there are other goals that I’ve articulated but not yet made progress on. I’m still bad about getting the amount of sleep I should. I have some nagging tasks I still haven’t resolved. I still read the comment sections online. Rubin makes it clear that her resolution chart was key to keeping her resolution. I tried to do a soft version of this, by writing notes in my day-planner but that hasn’t stuck. So I may need to look into my own version of a resolution chart for my more challenging changes.

One final note: I think Rubin makes a strong defense of the pursuit of happiness. It isn’t self-centered to pursue happiness because true happiness arises from love, generosity and positive relationships with others. Happiness isn’t easy, or a product of blissful ignorance:

Of course it’s cooler not to be too happy. There’s a goofiness to happiness, an innocence, a readiness to be pleased. Zest and enthusiasm take energy, humility, and engagement; taking refuge in irony, exercising destructive criticism, or assuming an air of philosophical ennui is less taxing.


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Excerpts from my ancestor’s journal: January – February 1890

I’ve taken up my transcription project again and have some excerpts to share.

Context for the first entry: Emma’s husband Frank worked for Oscar Frommel & Bro., a produce dealer based out of New York. He traveled by train all over New England, and appeared to have oversight responsibilities over the transport of apples, pears, etc. In the entries preceding this one, Emma expressed some concern that Frank had not yet arrived home from New Haven.

Monday, January 20, 1890                                Rainy and foggy. Frank came in the night. He hired a man to bring him from Palmer. He left New Haven on the night express train expecting to get off in Springfield, but he went to sleep and got carried over nearly to Worcester before the conductor woke him up, then he had to pay his fare and get off. He had .10 left and over a hundred dollar in checks and his r.r. pass book but those did not do much for him in a strange place, so as soon as daylight he started out to see how far he could walk in a day. He arrived in Palmer in the evening, then drove the rest of the way. Mr. Haywood and Frank slept until nearly noon, then they had dinner and Mr. H. started on his way back again.

I basted an apron for Susie and cut out a dress for Mother W. Grandpa walked home from the village this P.M.

Emma and Mattie went to school. Mrs. Cooper is having fiery trials with Mrs. Wheeler. Everyone has about all they can stand up under, of some kind or another. “Grit and Grace” need to be in bountiful supply.

The distance between Worcester and Palmer is over 30 miles according to my quick Google search. Long walk.

Image of Oscar Frommel & Bro letterhead taken from a digital collection at Columbia University Libraries:

Oscar Frommel letter head

The next excerpt doesn’t need much context to understand what is happening:

From Thur. February 20, 1890 until March 1, 1890

Cloudy – snowstorm this P.M. and eve with the wind blowing fearfully. I did not go about the house to do anything all day. Mrs. Cooper went to New Haven on the 10 o’c train. Her daughter is quite sick. Mr. C. borrowed 2.25 & telegram was .50 – I have been quite busy doing the last things.

Ruby Elma was born at half past ten at night. Frank went for the Dr. and carried him home again. The wind blew fearfully and the snow flew but he had to go in a wagon. Dr. Perry is not very agreeable at such a time but I came out of it all right – and felt stronger than usual. Ruby weighed 4 ½ lbs.

Very cold, nearly down to 0.

Fri. morn Frank took a sleigh and went after Mrs. Hiram Graves. She was quite surprised to receive a call so soon.

Sun Prescott, Mattie and Emma rode down to church in a sleigh. P. looked quite manly with a sister on each side.

Mrs. Graves stayed with us ten days. Charged $7.50 for her services.

Ruby was called by Aunt Ruby’s name because she arrived on her birthday. She would have been 88 yrs. old.

Elma is after my mother.

Ruby appears to have been born prematurely – based on the weight and Mrs. Graves’ surprise at being called so soon. I am going to assume that Mrs. Graves was a midwife. Does anyone know what services she would have provided since she was not present at the delivery itself? The late 19th century was apparently a transition time, as doctors began to more widely practice obstetrics and midwives’ role in the general population began to decrease. Emma doesn’t appear to be a fan of Dr. Perry’s bedside manner though.



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Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Orange is the new Black

Orange is the New Black: One Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

2010. Spiegel & Grau. ebook. 322 pages.


In case you haven’t heard of this book before, Orange is the New Black is Piper Kerman’s memoir about her experience in a women’s mininum security prison in Danbury, Connecticut. It inspired the Netflix TV show by the same name, of which I have watched both seasons. In 1993, Kerman helped transport drug money for her girlfriend at the time. In 1998, she pled guilty to the crime, but didn’t serve her sentence until 2004.

I found Orange is the New Black a worthwhile read. While it was fun to spot the inspirations for characters, plotlines and scenes used in the TV show, the memoir is really a completely different story than the show. Kerman never sensationalizes prison life. For the most part, the inmates really look out for each other, and Kerman is both the recipient and giver of touching gestures and gifts. In an interview included at the back of the book, Kerman states that her book “is really about finding that value in humanity and warmth in a setting where we’re constantly told there’s none to be found.”

It seems that one of the worst aspects of prison is how the inmates are at the mercy of the correctional officers’ moods, prejudices and caprice. While certainly there need to be rules and order in prison, some COs seem to indulge in power trips and withholding information unnecessarily from the inmates. I have a friend who works as an addiction counselor in the prison system. In her first prison job, most of her difficulties arose from conflicts with correctional officers, not with the inmates. (I haven’t asked her lately if that dynamic is the same.) As Kerman describes in an NPR interview:

KERMAN: [A] small kindness from a prison officer, or a staffer, can sometimes really mean the world. There were also a very, very small number of folks – men, in my experience – who really made it their business to make life miserable for prisoners. And one prison guard can make hundreds and hundreds of prisoners’ lives unbearable.

GROSS: There’s a lot of times when you’re frisked, when you’re in prison. And for one of the guards, that’s an opportunity to feel women up – one of the male guards. Is that something you experienced in prison, or is that something that was written for the Netflix series?

KERMAN: I – like, I think most of the women that I knew in Danbury frequently experienced, you know, that really simple and straightforward groping, which is a total violation. It’s really low-level sexual abuse, but it is really persistent and pervasive. And so that would happen all the time and generally, that would happen in the course of going in or out of the visiting room. So it’s particularly jarring to sort of have that kind of a violation happen just as you’re about to go and try and have a really positive experience with your loved ones.

I’m really glad Kerman has been able to shine this spotlight on the life of prisoners in the United States. I can think of several instances when I’ve seen or heard people regard prisoners as less than human. This past Christmas, a friend of my sister’s posted on Facebook about her church congregation’s decision to send 32,000 gifts to inmates in their state prison system. The first comment on her post: “Why inmates and not children or families in need?!” (My sister’s friend and another person responded very graciously that inmates are people in need as well, and that the church also has funds dedicated to children and needy families.)

Kerman’s critique of the prison system should not lead to the conclusion that Kerman denies her own culpability in her situation. Kerman states from the start that her jail-time was deserved: she broke the law and received the consequences of that action. She is also aware of her own privilege – that she had a supportive fiance, plus supportive family and friends throughout her jail-time, and that her sentence was relatively short.

Also, as friendly as fellow inmates could be, prison should in no way be construed as some sort of summer camp. Kerman makes it clear that prison is emotionally punishing and the lack of freedom is not an abstract concept but something deeply felt on a daily basis. The boredom, the lack of privacy, the separation from family and friends, from the world and its beauty, are all part of the experience. Do the prisoners come out of their sentences prepared to re-enter the world? Kerman’s opinion is that they largely do not. She also specifically criticizes mandatory drug sentences, which have led to more, and more lengthy incarcerations than seems beneficial to society.

There are a couple other prison or prison-related memoirs out there that I may read, now that I’ve read the most currently famous one. I’d particularly like to read Ted Conover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, about how Conover, a journalist, applies to become a prison officer.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Leafing through Life – “Kerman has a vivid, honest voice that doesn’t drift into self-pity but instead keenly observes the people around her both good and bad.”

The Novel Life – “While I’ve never been a fan of a memoir, Orange is the New Black reads like a fiction novel. Piper is conversational, a bit sarcastic at times, and a character that, while you may not feel relatable, you will at least find yourself immersed in her story.”

Reading through Life – “It was interesting to me, in particular, to read about the way that she adapted to the rules and routines of being in the system, and how she managed to deal with knowing that she, unlike quite a few of the others around her, was there for the first time and probably the last. I think this is what makes her story both unique and less valuable as an “insider’s look at prison”: Kerman isn’t the “typical” American prisoner.”



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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (re-read)

glass castle  The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

2005. Scribner. Paperback. 288 pages.


I first read The Glass Castle five years ago and absolutely loved it. I had no trepidation when I picked it up again. I knew it would hold up to a re-read and it did. I like that Walls’ tone throughout the book manages to be matter-of-fact without distancing the reader. My emotions were always engaged, but not manipulated, by her writing.

Also, the narrative she constructs for her childhood is very compelling. The book memorably begins with Jeannette Walls as an adult, taking a taxi to a party in New York City, and then she looks out the window to see her mom digging through a dumpster. The book soon transitions to an early memory of how Jeannette was badly burned while trying to boil a hotdog at three years old. She captures a child’s journey from accepting her parents as normal to the slow realization that something is wrong. In one of these turning points, Jeannette and her sister Lori have just finished off eating margarine with sugar, for lack of other food options.

Mom got angry. She was saving it, she said, to butter the bread. We already ate all the bread, I said. Mom said she was thinking of baking some bread if a neighbor would loan us some flour. I pointed out that the gas company had turned off our gas.

“Well,” Mom said. “We should have saved the margarine just in case the gas gets turned back on. Miracles happen, you know.” It was because of my and Lori’s selfishness, she said, that if we had any bread, we’d have to eat it without butter.

Mom wasn’t making any sense to me. I wondered if she had been looking forward to eating the margarine herself. And that made me wonder if she was the one who’d stolen the can of corn the night before, which got me a little mad. “It was the only thing to eat in the whole house,” I said. Raising my voice, I added, “I was hungry.”

Mom gave me a startled look. I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.

p. 69

Another reason I love this book is the bond between Jeannette and her siblings, who look out for each other, in the face of their parents failure to do the same.

I recently read two thought-provoking reviews/comment sections around this book that I want to discuss a bit. Both reviewers admire the book, but as I interpreted from their writing, they experienced some unease regarding the book’s reception by readers – that is, how readers categorized the story, and what they took away from it.

The first is Jenny’s recent review from Shelf Love. In the comment section, blogger Litlove compared Walls’ story to a fairy tale:

The fairy tale critic, Jack Zipes maintains that fairy tales are as much for the parents as the children, a way of making them feel better about the stuff they may have done to their kids. And that’s the part of the book I struggle with – the thought of all the people who might read this and think: see, what I did wasn’t so bad after all.

The concern here, I think, is that the Hansel and Gretel aspect of the story, and Walls’ dispassionate tone may cause readers to gloss over the parental wrongs, and reinforce this idea that children can magically surmount anything if they just have enough guts and determination.

Here is a link to Litlove’s 2009 review from her blog, Tales from the Reading Room. She and those who discussed the book in that review’s comment section expressed unease about people who see the book as uplifting, who praise the author’s forgiveness and indeed, see it as a story about forgiveness.

This criticism of readers made me feel a little defensive, at first, as what stays with me about this book is how the siblings helped each other out of their situation. So yes, a big part of the reason I like the book is this one positive aspect to her story, in the midst of the harrowing details. I may not use the word uplifting, but I found myself rooting for these kids and feeling glad when three out of the four of them managed to free themselves from the situation.

In a funny way, the expressed unease of some commenters on Litlove’s blog made me feel uneasy, because it sometimes came across as: “Dear other readers: you’re reading it wrong.” But at the same time, I must admit that I have expressed similar unease when it comes to the popularity of books like Twilight. And I think the key here is the popularity of the work, because it is then that we start wondering why is this popular and we start connecting it to patterns of popular stories. One of the commenters on Litlove’s review remarked how Americans love the “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” narrative. If this narrative is overly favored, such favor may submerge narratives which describe the damaging generational cycle of poverty and abuse. Thus, The Glass Castle‘s popularity makes some readers uneasy, because it can be seen as inadvertently contributing to this imbalance.

Of course, such favor isn’t the fault of the book itself, especially in this case where it is a memoir describing actual life events. And I feel that I can love what I love about The Glass Castle without caveat, while acknowledging that it shouldn’t be the only type of narrative I read about poverty. And it hasn’t been: I’ve also read books like Adrian LeBlanc’s Random Family, a nonfiction book that captures the cycle of poverty among families in the Bronx. That said, I definitely welcome more suggestions for books about poverty, especially nonfiction and memoir.

Thanks to Jenny, Litlove and sundry commenters for stirring me to deeper thought on this topic, and I hope I haven’t mischaracterized your opinions!

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves – “I spent most of the reading of this book alternating between horrified and fascinated, and feeling a little bit like a voyeur watching something that I should probably stop.”

The Book Lady’s Blog – “This was a gripping, touching, ultimately very redemptive story that reminded me of all I have to be thankful for and inspired me to be more aware of those who have less.”

Tales from the Reading Room – “The book reads to me like a return to a time that has been frozen in the past, unexamined, unexplained, unexplored, preserved with the love and loyalty of the young child, who has no choice in the matter.”


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