Both this book and the last one (Nervous System) were books that other people loaned me, saying “I think you might like this.” It’s always interesting to see what other people think you might like. Kind of a glimpse into how they perceive your interests. This one was loaned me by my boss, and it’s a memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional family. Since our workplace is basically “Dysfunctions R Us,” I guess Tim was safe in assuming I’d enjoy this sort of book.
Memoirs about dysfunctional childhoods are practically a sub-genre these days, and I’ve read quite a few of them — from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes to Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors. Jeannette Walls’ story of a nomadic childhood being dragged around the US by her brilliant but alcoholic father and her free-spirited artist mother, living in artistic and intellectual freedom but grinding, gut-wrenching poverty, is one of the most enjoyable examples of the genre. There is a bit of that, “Oh my goodness, how much worse could their lives get?” kind of fascinated horror here for the reader, but there’s also some real insight, and warmth, and tenderness. One gets the impression that Jeannette Walls knows perfectly well that her parents did a terrible job of being parents and that she and her siblings did well to get out of their childhood alive — but there’s also a strong sense of love and respect. She honours her father and mother for what they did well, even if it wasn’t much. As for what they did wrong — well, that’s the stuff great memoirs are made of. I really found this book fascinating and kept turning the pages quickly. The ending is bittersweet but affirming, just like it should be.