Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Books of the Week: Room and The Glass Castle

One of the assignments I have for the semester is to read about two books a week, and to write a commentary about the use of some aspect of the craft of writing in at least one of them. I thought, since I'd be reading so much, I'd share with you each week one or both of the books. I always like to hear about book recommendations (most people now buy books by word of mouth, and I found that's true of me most of the time, too), and I'd love to know what you thought of them if you've read them as well.

So this weeks books:

Room by Emma Donoghue

Summary: Five-year-old Jack and his Ma live and eat and play and sleep in one room--an 11×11-foot space that is their prison--captives of the terrifying man Jack calls Old Nick. But as Jack grows older and more curious, it becomes clear that the room will not be able to hold him and Ma forever.

My Impression: This was one of the few books I've ever bought as a hardback as soon as it came out. I'd read about it first in Entertainment Weekly, and then later in other places, and the premise really drew me in, along with the high praises. I suppose, if you were an agent or editor, I can imagine this is the kind of unique idea that would immediately catch your attention. 

I have mixed feelings about this book, which is typical of any book I come to with really high expectations. The book is a little over 300 pages and there was a point in the first third in which I started to get a little bored and wondered if the entire book was going to be nothing but recounting, minute-by-minute, what this little boy and his mother do to entertain themselves in an 11x11 foot room. But there is a point right around page 100 where the book takes a rollicking turn that speeds up the heart-rate and becomes nearly impossible to put down. And you realize, somewhere along the way, that all that filler information in the first 100 pages is necessary to understand the last 200.

This book is written from the point of view of the 5 year old, a boy born into this prison world, who knows no other reality beyond their windowless room. And therein lies the brilliance of this story, and it's downfall. The brilliance is that, by seeing the world through his eyes, we as readers know the room is prison, but he sees it as safe. We know the world at large to be freedom, and he views it to be scary. It's a complete turn-around that forces us as readers to see everything from a point of view we'd never consider, and it adds such a depth to the story. Such a better choice for the author than choosing to tell the story from the point of view of the mom - a teenager when she was kidnapped.

On the other hand, reading from the point of view of a 5 year old can be tedious. The language the author uses, in my own opinion, can quickly get grating. Lines like this:

I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that's nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus.


Eggsnake is more longer than all around Room, we've been making him since I was three, he lives in Under Bed all coiled up keeping us safe.

The voice is certainly strong and distinctive, but it's hard to read with no breaks in this kind of talk, and often, it seemed to me that even a kid raised alone wouldn't talk like this. His only exposure to language is a mom who is clearly educated and doesn't use baby-talk with him, and the TV. He is also quite precocious, which is sometimes contradicted by the way in which he arranges his words.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, but I think the writing will put some people off. My advice is to read the sample pages on Amazon to make sure you like the style before buying it.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Summary: In The Glass Castle, Walls chronicles her upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents--Rose Mary, her frustrated-artist mother, and Rex, her brilliant, alcoholic father. To call the elder Walls's childrearing style laissez faire would be putting it mildly. As Rose Mary and Rex, motivated by whims and paranoia, uprooted their kids time and again, the youngsters (Walls, her brother and two sisters) were left largely to their own devices. But while Rex and Rose Mary firmly believed children learned best from their own mistakes, they themselves never seemed to do so, repeating the same disastrous patterns that eventually landed them on the streets. Walls describes in fascinating detail what it was to be a child in this family, from the embarrassing (wearing shoes held together with safety pins; using markers to color her skin in an effort to camouflage holes in her pants) to the horrific (being told, after a creepy uncle pleasured himself in close proximity, that sexual assault is a crime of perception; and being pimped by her father at a bar).

My Impressions:  This is one of the only non-fiction books on my list this semester, and I chose it to give me insight into a child raised in a neglectful, somewhat abusive family. The thing is, Walls never views herself as neglected or abused, and her spunk and lack of emotion about the horrors and poverty of her childhood make this book fascinating, and yet hard to attach to. It was hard, at times, to bond with Walls because I seemed to feel more strongly about the awfulness of her life than she did.

I vacillated between anger and disbelief while reading this. For several chapters I wondered if I was being hoodwinked by a Frey-like mix of fact and fiction. The truth is, even in memoir told brutally honestly, there is still an element of memories being filtered through a person's own perception and what they choose to remember and how they remember it, which might not actually be exactly as something happened.

In the end, though, I did believe life for Walls was very much like she explained, and so the anger at her parents prevailed as my overall emotion, and I was in awe for her and her siblings and their ability to escape the life they were raised in and become the people they hoped their parents would have been. 

I love memoirs, and if you do, I'd recommend this book. It's gritty and real and hard to read at times, but it's also engaging and well-written. Each family member is so well-drawn you'll feel you've met them, and their realities are so starkly real you'll feel cold, hungry, and sick. It's hard to believe sometimes that people live these kind of lives here in the US, and yet they do. Walls' story should not only be a reminder of that, but a call to compassion and action as well.


  1. Wow. Those are two intense reads right in a row. My husband is prosecuting a case right now involving three kids and a mom who lived with her then living husband (hence the case) in a 14x14 cabin. One room.
    Madness what some people live through.

  2. I keep looking at the ROOM. Everytime I go to Costco I pick it up but then put it back down not quite knowing if I could handle the subject matter.

    Maybe now I'll finally pick it up.

  3. I asked for book recommendations on Facebook and several people suggested the Room. But when I read the premise on Amazon, it was so disturbing, I couldn't order it!