The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Summary ~ Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor.

CRAZY!  This memoir is CRAZY!  Crazy bad but wicked good.  The Glass Castle is a memoir that reads like fiction because you keep saying to yourself this is too horrible to have really happened.  Well, Jeannette Walls and her three siblings, Lori, Brian and Maureen lived it and you can read all about it in Jeannette Walls’ disturbing memoir. 

What did they live through?  Their parents crazy antics, irresponsible parenting (really no parenting when it counted), gypsy lifestyle and hellish living conditions around the country.  My eyes hurt from rolling them in annoyance at Rose Mary & Rex Walls!  Continuing to have children but no sense of civilian responsibilities or even a desire for a “normal” life infuriated me.  Subjecting their children to a life of scattered “homes”, taking them in and out of schools and “skedaddling” from town to town in the middle of the night because of Rex’s conspiracy theories and not addressing sex abuse when their children were honestly reporting serious situations just made me more upset. 

It’s hard to really “review” The Glass Castle because it’s not a work of fiction but true accounts of a family’s life.  All I can say is The Glass Castle is worth the time it takes to read it (a fairly quick read really) and I promise you it will disturb you if you are a functioning citizen of American society and have any lick of common sense and ethic compass. 

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

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Book Review ~ The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Summary ~ In this stunning follow-up to the global phenomenon The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown demonstrates once again why he is the world’s most popular thriller writer. The Lost Symbol is a masterstroke of storytelling–a deadly race through a real-world labyrinth of codes, secrets, and unseen truths . . . all under the watchful eye of Brown’s most terrifying villain to date. Set within the hidden chambers, tunnels, and temples of Washington, D.C., The Lost Symbol accelerates through a startling landscape toward an unthinkable finale.

Whew! Class is FINALLY over.  That is how I felt when I finished the last page of The Lost Symbol last night.  I felt like the story of Robert Langdon and the Ancient Mysteries could have been told in 300 pages instead of 500+.  Most of the time the “lecturing” got in the way and distracted from the somewhat suspenseful story. 

The story had some very interesting points throughout.  The idea that God is in us and that our brain is the “higher power” interest me.  As a species we are always evolving and learning about ourselves as well as the universe around us.  I took that message from The Lost Symbol but for the most part I was simply disappointed with the story.  I never felt a sense of urgency while reading about Robert Langdon trying to beat the clock in D.C. like I did with Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons.  It was pretty cool to read a book that is set in our Nation’s Capital which is only twenty-five miles north of my house.  However I continued to figure out the “secrets” that Dan Brown was filling his book with way before the secrets were divulged tot he reader.  That was frustrating for me because I kept wondering when Dan Brown was going to announce the twist and put me out of my misery.  That was not fun. 

I really wanted to like The Lost Symbol and though I did find some of the history of our founding father’s (still haven’t fact checked everything) interesting and something kept me drawn in with a desire to find out what happened to Robert Langdon, his friends and the future of the Masons.  I liked small parts of The Lost Symbol but for the most part I could have lived without reading one of the most hyped books of the last so many years.  I do look forward to filming in D.C. if Hollywood makes a movie of The Lost Symbol.  It would bring new jobs to the city as well as bring in even more tourism, which isn’t a bad thing at all.  If The Lost Symbol sparks has and continues to spark interest in America’s history than that means the book is a success.  It made me Google some things to learn more about. 

{Rating ~ 3 out of 5}

Book Review ~ The Help by Kathryn Stockett

From Publishers Weekly:

Starred Review. What perfect timing for this optimistic, uplifting debut novel (and maiden publication of Amy Einhorn’s new imprint) set during the nascent civil rights movement in Jackson, Miss., where black women were trusted to raise white children but not to polish the household silver. Eugenia Skeeter Phelan is just home from college in 1962, and, anxious to become a writer, is advised to hone her chops by writing about what disturbs you. The budding social activist begins to collect the stories of the black women on whom the country club sets relies and mistrusts enlisting the help of Aibileen, a maid who’s raised 17 children, and Aibileen’s best friend Minny, who’s found herself unemployed more than a few times after mouthing off to her white employers. The book Skeeter puts together based on their stories is scathing and shocking, bringing pride and hope to the black community, while giving Skeeter the courage to break down her personal boundaries and pursue her dreams. Assured and layered, full of heart and history, this one has bestseller written all over it.

 There aren’t enough positive, glowing and loving words that I’m aware of describe Kathryn Stockett’s touching, eye-opening, powerful and memorable novel, The Help.  And that’s my review!  Just kidding.  But seriously, I loved, love and will always recommend The Help to anyone looking for a good book to sink themselves into.  The story is deeply involved with wonderfully detailed character development.  As you read The Help you get to know stong and weak women alike.  Aibileen and Minny are two housekeepers, child raisers and in Minny’s case, psychologists/mother to her employer.  Miss Skeeter is the young lady who brings their stories to light, or more specifically to paper.  She is a graduate from Ole Miss and wishes to be a writer and to live in New York City.  So after an idea of a book partly supported by a publicist in the Big Apple, Miss Skeeter begins secretly meeting with Aibileen, Minny and a few other maids in their hometown of Jackson, MS to get their stories of working in the family homes of white women on paper. 

The other characters we get to know (like them or not) are the white female employers who are, for the most part, a disturbing reflection of the time the story is set in.  1962 Mississippi and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement is where The Help is set.  I’ll tell you what, this book has a villain like I haven’t read in a very long time.  If they made a film adaptation of The Help I would be very interested in seeing who is cast to play Miss Hilly.  I HATED her and all her beliefs.  Miss Celia (Minny’s boss) was fun, hopeless and the most alone of all the characters but still was one of my favorites. 

The Help is full of great twists, edge of your seat suspense and heartbreaking moments as well as laugh/gasp out loud ones.  The topics will make you think and if they don’t then this isn’t the book for you.  Though The Help is fiction, I would call it historical fiction.  Author Kathryn Stockett grew up in Mississippi and is said to have based a few of the characters on her own family’s maid and Stockett has written her story through and around true historical events in this nation’s history.  We just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and are getting closer and closer to February which is Black History Month.  Please take a few days to read this gem of a book and reflect on where our country has come from and where we are going.   

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

At one point in The Help, Miss Skeeter catches a brief listen of Bob Dylan’s “Times, They Are A Changin’.”  Here is that song followed by Sam Cooke’s amazing tune, “A Change Is Gonna Come” performed by Lauren Hill & The Fugees.

Book Review ~ The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

the-school-of-essential-ingredientsSummary ~ The School of Essential Ingredientsby Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients follows the lives of eight students who gather in Lillian’s Restaurant every Monday night for cooking class. It soon becomes clear, however, that each one seeks a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. Students include Claire, a young mother struggling with the demands of her family; Antonia, an Italian kitchen designer learning to adapt to life in America; and Tom, a widower mourning the loss of his wife to breast cancer. Chef Lillian, a woman whose connection with food is both soulful and exacting, helps them to create dishes whose flavor and techniques expand beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of her students’ lives. One by one the students are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of Lillian’s food, including a white-on-white cake that prompts wistful reflections on the sweet fragility of love and a peppery heirloom tomato sauce that seems to spark one romance but end another. Brought together by the power of food and companionship, the lives of the characters mingle and intertwine, united by the revealing nature of what can be created in the kitchen.

Having recently re-located back to the DC area and wanting to create a book club with my friends, I thought that The School of Essential Ingredients would be the perfect first selection.  I think I hit the nail on the head folks!  Lit & The City ladies, what say you?  What a wonderful, fun, interesting, educational and cozy book author Erica Bauermeister has gifted the reading and cooking community with. 

The core of the story is about eight people coming together to take a cooking class at a local restaurant in (I think Seattle) the Pacific Northwest under the instruction of the restaurant owner and head chef, Lillian.  What we get when these people come together from all different backgrounds for one common goal, to cook, is nothing short of a wonderful, memorable and inspirational book.  There’s Helen and Carl, a married couple in their sixties or so, who though they have faced crisis in their marriage are stronger for it and have rekindled their romance.  The observations they make to each other about their fellow classmates are made from experience.  There’s Chloe, who at first is a lost soul looking for romance and a home in the wrong places but then finds love and family where she least expects it.  Claire, a young mother who is loosing herself in her daily life, has the shortest back story of them all but may have gotten the most out of the actual process of cooking.  Antonia is a woman who has left a life of peace, familiarity and family for a new adventure on a new continent but finds herself grounded by her past.  Then there is Ian.  A great character in and out of the kitchen and who finds himself in search of the next culinary challenge to take on. 

Of course I had some favorite characters because of their back stories.  My absolute favorite character was Isabelle and the metamorphosis that took place within her after the exit of her husband and she found herself.  Though now she suffers from memory loss and mix-matched memories, her life was rich with relationships, children and then the adventures she made for herself. 

Tom was my second favorite character because of the depths of his love for a woman and the sorrow that replaced that love.  Food played a huge roll in his relationship with the love of his life and attending the cooking class is equal parts difficult and therapeutic for him.  The curiosity and dread of finding out the details of Tom’s back story made his part of the book extremely effective for me. 

I must emphasize that there may be eight students and a teacher that make up this wonderful book but they are all held together by the tenth, and at times, most important character of all.  The food!  Erica Bauermeister had me salivating and my stomach growling throughout her intimate and divine descriptions of the class dishes and other recipes being prepared here and there.  It really was cruel and unusual punishment for me since our house with our new gourmet kitchen won’t be ready for another two weeks and then we still have to wait for our household goods shipment to arrive and be unpacked.  Erica’s talent for food writing is spectacular and at times I could smell the ingredients and the dishes as the characters prepared them in class and at home waft off the page and up to my nose! 

I look forward to discussing The School of Essential Ingredients with my book club, Lit & The City, but I also hope if you have read Erica Bauermeister’s masterpiece that you will share with us here at Planet Books your thoughts on it.  Erica Bauermeister’s website can be found HERE.

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

I Haven’t Forgotten You

I know it seems like I have neglected Planet Books a bit but I promise you, I have a real reason.  I started a receptionist temp gig last Monday and it was a very tiring and quick week.  This is my first full-time job in four and a half years and my body was not ready for the long schedule.  I have been reading though.  I received an ARC of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen and have been able to read some during the quiet times at the front desk as well as before drifting, actually crashing, off to sleep at 9:00pm every night.  The White Queen will be available in stores on Tuesday, August 18th.  So far I am really enjoying it! 

This weekend was a whirlwind.  Hubby and I started things off by checking out the house and wow, are things coming along.  The painters were in on Saturday to start painting, the fireplace and the granite surround and mantel were complete, and the cabinets were in their boxes in the dining room waiting to be installed today (Monday).  Things are moving so quickly and the end of the month will be here before we know it.  We just may be all settled in and enjoying our new house with all our stuff in it by mid-September!

Saturday night we went to the Dave Matthews Band concert at Nissan Pavilion along with twenty-five thousand other avid fans.  I had not seen DMB live in concert since 2002 and Hubby had never seen them before.  I was a little disappointed with the set list this time around.  I sat for half the show as did many people and I have never done that.  The tunes they chose to jam on were not the liveliest of songs so I felt bored at times.  Over all I’m glad we went but I felt like the show lacked a special joyful vibe that DMB’s live albums over the last couple of years have displayed.  It’s not because we are all getting older that DMB was more mellow.  I know that they can rock it out hard core at Fenway Park, The Gorge and numerous other venues which I have live recordings of.  Why not Saturday in Bristow, VA? 

Sunday marked the beginning of my new book club here in the D.C. area.  I am keeping with the same theme as my book club I ran in Okinawa which was titled “Lit & the Island.”  Here I have named it “Lit & the City” and everyone loves the name.  Our members include friends of mine from many different chapters of my life who I have discovered all love to read and discuss books.  We had a lovely “Meet & Eat” event yesterday at a tapas restaurant in Maryland and though only six of us out of thirteen were able to make it, it showed that at least five or so members will always make it to our “Books and Brunch” meetings.  We will meet every fifth Sunday at a restaurant of the book selector’s choice.  We will take turns choosing books/restaurants and that person will also be responsible for discussion questions and leading the conversation.  I presented our first reading selection and gave away a copy of the book to one lucky winner at the table.  We are reading The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister and everyone is very excited.  If you have read this book please share what you liked or didn’t like about it.

To wrap things up this weekend, Hubby and I saw “Julie & Julia.”  What a wonderful glimpse into the life of Julia and Paul Child!  I loved Meryl Streep’s portrayal of America’s first celebrity chef.  We laughed and drooled our way through the film.  Amy Adam’s did a great job of playing an annoying and whiny Julie Powell.  I read her book, Julie & Julia ~ My Year of Cooking Dangerously, which was based on her blog a few years ago and enjoyed it in the written word much better than on the silver screen.  I will give the book some credit though because it inspired me to cook for pleasure.  I do want to read Julia Child’s memoir now and have downloaded a sample of My Life In France so I can check it out when I have the time.

What have you been up to?  Reading anything good this week?  Did you see “Julie & Julia” or another film?  Please tell us!

Book Review & Book Club Discussion ~ The Great Man by Kate Christensen

The Great Man by the Pen/Faulkner Award Winning author Kate Christensen was the July/August Planet Books reading club selection.  It is the story of one man, deceased, and the amazing, complicated and loving women he surrounded himself with in life.  Oscar Feldman was a “renowned figurative painter” who led multiple lives.  One as a husband, another as a lover and a third as the famous painter who seduced his models with his hands and his paint brush. 

“Oscar, Oscar, Oscar,” said Maxine.  “Look at us, four smart old bags with plenty to think about, fixated on my putz of a brother, who’s been dead for five years and wasn’t especially nice to any of us.”

At first glance I wasn’t really enjoying this book but once I got to know the women in Oscar’s life, I was intrigued by the idea of forgiveness and tolerance that his wife, lover and even sister had for this unlikeable man who was nothing but a selfish painter who bucked the system on all levels.  As I finally got over the hump and got into the book, I discovered that the characters where written so well that I felt they may be real people and that this was actually a biography of Oscar Feldman but in reality it is the event of two biographies being written about the painter that brings Abigail (wife), Teddy (the mistress), Lila (Teddy’s best friend),  Maxine (sister), and numerous secondary characters together.  In their golden years, these women dredge up the past as they tell not one but two individual biographers about their lives with Oscar.  They discuss his work and I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the detailed descriptions of his approach to painting and the paintings themselves. 

We meet Teddy first.  The woman who Oscar carried on a forty plus year affair with that produced twin daughters.  She at first is rough around the edges but once I got past some personal dislike for the writing style in the book, I was able to submerge myself into the New York City boroughs where the characters live and listen to their stories.  At one point I felt that I related to Teddy the most out of all the female characters Christensen created.  She is strong but was in total love with Oscar and supported him the best she could though she was never able to do so as the official women in Oscar’s life.  Since Oscar’s death five years before this book begins, Teddy has moved from the large house she shared with Oscar and raised their daughters in to a small apartment that with time got away from her.  Things piled up and the idea of taking care of business overwhelms in her old age.  Two biographers have started calling to do research on the famous portrait artist, Oscar Feldman and Teddy finds herself entertaining both men over lunches at her residence and telling stories of life with Oscar, on the inside and on the outside. 

The same goes for Maxine Fledman, Oscar’s sister and a successful painter in her own right but part of the abstract art world.  She is a bitter old lesbian with many regrets and leftover feelings for two women in her life.  Her ex-lover from thirty years ago and her present day assistant.  Christensen wrote all the characters very well but Maxine was especially memorable.  A perfectly described lesbian, full of masculinity and lust.  Maxine was a tough woman with an even tougher personality that hid the tenderness and vulnerability at her core.  The relationships she has with Teddy and Oscar’s widow, Abigail are very different.  Maxine never cared for Teddy and always looked down on her for accepting the role of Oscar’s mistress.  She doesn’t acknowledge Teddy and Oscar’s twin daughters, her nieces, but does steal quick glances of Ruby who happens to take her dog to the same dog park that Maxine frequents with her faithful companion, Frago. 

Abigail was Oscar’s life long best friend and wife who cared for their autistic son Ethan.  The relationship between mother and son drove Oscar to jealousy because it was Abigail’s attention he desired so to spite Ethan he would just ignore the boy when he actually spent time with his first family.  Abigail is a lovely but timid character.  At first I didn’t think much of her myself but I soon realized that she was able to tolerate the situation that had entered her life instead of interrupt the smooth waters that had become her life. 

I asked my friend Nicole what her favorite points of the book were and I have to agree with what she said.  “I thought it was neat to get each woman’s perspective and that they were told as parts of the book.  It was the first time I read the first person perspective from such an older character and I felt that Kate Christensen did a really wonderful job with this book.  Also, I thought it was interesting that after hearing the story being told through Teddy, Maxine and then Teddy’s eyes to end the book from the perspective of a complete outsider looking in and observing Oscar’s women.  Henry, one of the two biographers who began to suffer form the same weaknesses that plagued the ‘great man’ himself.  One last thing I really enjoyed about The Great Man was how Christensen compared her analysis between cooking and painting.”  (You can listen to an interview with Kate Christensen on NPR HERE.  She shares the fact that she actually tried the recipes she described in her book and that they were pretty good.)

As the story moves along the interviews between biographers and women creates a fear in Maxine that a huge secret may be unveiled.  It is a major twist and with it the book took off and I finished it rather quickly.  The Great Man surprised me after all and I enjoyed it after all.  It gave great insight into the world of painters and the stresses they face in their line of work.  Insecurities that plague them just like any professional. 

What did you think of the book?  Were you able to enjoy it?  Which woman was your favorite, least favorite?

And The Winner Is…

… Lori Barnes!! 

The Great Man

Lori, you have won a copy of the Planet Books July/August book club selection, THE GREAT MANby Kate Christensen.  We will be discussing this book on this blog during the last week of August.  Lori, I will e-mail you today to get your information. 

Everyone, thank you so much for submitting your name for this giveaway.  Remember that we still have one more giveaway running right now.  It’s for Ellen Baker’s KEEPING THE HOUSE and the contest will conclude this Friday at Midnight, EST.  You can check it out and submit your name HERE.