Half Broke Horses and The Glass Castle

Have any of you read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls? If you haven’t, you must because it is an unbelievable (in all senses) autobiography of a girl and her three siblings growing up with parents who are so neglectful that it borders on child abuse.  Her parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls, drag their children around America from one small mining town to another; their father, brilliant when sober, drinks most of their money away, and their mother harbours artistic desires that prevent her from ever holding down a real job – “I’m an excitement addict,” her mother says. So the children bring themselves up against the most impossible odds, surviving by doing things like sleeping in cardboard boxes, eating margarine and cat food and hiding money away from their father.

Somehow Jeannette Walls manages even to bring humour into the story that left me with my mouth gaping open sometimes. She also somehow speaks of her parents with affection and most of all, she somehow managed to drag herself out of that situation and lead a normal life with a good job in New York when she grew up.

If for nothing else, read the book for the opening chapter. It gripped me straight away.

So back to Half Broke Horses – this is the story of Jeannette Walls’ grandmother, Lily Casey. Walls calls it a “true-life novel”, as it is her grandmother’s story, but she has fictionalised dialogue etc. As a novel alone, this is a wonderful story, but know that it’s based on someone’s life makes it more incredible.

I live a very boring life.  I didn’t start life in a mud dugout in west Texas. I didn’t learn to ride before I was 5 years old. I didn’t become a teacher and leave home to trek across states to a teaching job at the age of 15. I haven’t been a bootlegger, a ranch wife, a bush pilot, a horse breaker or a poker player. I haven’t driven across America with my dead father in the back, stopping to beg for petrol from truckers.

Lily Casey did all this – and have two children. I had two children and landed up in a clinic.

The book takes us as far as her daughter, Rose Mary, marrying Rex the Scoundrel. And those two are Jeannette Walls’ parents. It was very satisfying to finish a book and know how the characters carry on living. Often I’m left hanging, wondering what happens to characters I’ve grown to like while reading a book. And now I know the background of the very weird mother, Rose Mary, in the Glass Castle. Although I don’t think anything excuses her behaviour. Ever.

I think you can read the two books either way round; it doesn’t really make a difference to either story. Both are fascinating, absorbing reads.

The Pronutro Box

This isn’t the title of a book. This is the Pronutro Box. The one that I read when I’m eating breakfast and there’s nothing else for me to lay my hands on. The back of a Pronutro Box can be fascinating when there’s nothing else around. As can the back of the Coco Pops box. It amazes me how healthy the manufacturers claim their cereals to be. Balanced, nutritional and full of essential vitamins and minerals. Especially Coco Pops, which we all know are pure crap full of sugar and refined wheat and not much else; yet the blurb on the back manages to make me think that maybe they aren’t too bad for my children.

I have scrutinised every item of print of cereal boxes, as well as milk cartons and vitamen boxes. I have compared nutritional values, ingredients and endorsements. Did you know that there isn’t much difference between the fat content of full-cream milk and 2% milk? Did you know that reading the Woolies Ayreshire milk bottle is so much more interesting than the PnP no-name one, because the Woolies one has a story about the beloved cows who produce the delicious milk and it makes you feel warm and fuzzy before you’ve even started your day properly.

I used to think that I wasn’t too hooked on reading, until I was working my way through Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. Apart from really battling with writing morning pages (morning drivel), I reached a brick wall when I got to the exercise where you are not allowed to read for a week – a whole week. It’s supposed to free your mind up.  So I didn’t read books or newspapers, and that’s when I realised how often I read cereal boxes, vitamen boxes, milk bottles, yoghurt cartons, anything on the the kitchen table.

Needless to say, I didn’t do well that week. I was irritable, depressed, insecure and felt like I had given up smoking cold turkey. In fact, I couldn’t last a week without reading and I’ll never put myself through that test again. If I can see, why not read?

Tears while I read The Elephant Whisperer

I don’t often cry when I read books. I don’t often cry altogether. So it really took me by surprise when I found myself crying on Saturday night while reading The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony. Okay, I was on my own for the weekend and Saturday nights can be long sometimes, but I started reading the book on Friday night and finished late on Saturday night because I had to know what happened.

I can’t write much about it, because that’ll ruin the story for you. But it’s a short, easy- to- read book and a fascinating insight into animal communication. Lawrence Anthony is a South African conservationist who owns a game reserve in KwaZulu Natal called Thula Thula. He takes on a herd of “rogue” elephants that is going to be culled if he doesn’t. He has had no experience with elephants and these ones are traumatised and furious elephants, abandoned after most of their herd was killed. Everyone thinks he’s mad to take them; he thinks he’s mad to take them, but he does and so the story goes and I won’t tell you any more.

I heard him talking at the Book Fair – he’s a rough looking “oke” in his khaki shorts and shirt, a hairy white beard and big hands. But he is passionate about his elephants and reading his book is like listening to him speak. It is not scientific, he has no academic facts backing him up – he just tells his story and it is a wonderful, funny, sad and eye-opening book.

And I’m glad to tell you that my puppy-who-drives-me-mad came and put her head on my lap when I was crying, so there is something about animal/human communication that we don’t yet understand.

“So Much for That” by Lionel Shriver – an example of why I love words

I can’t live without words. They swirl around my head sometimes, my mind getting stuck on the particularly delicious ones. Like esoteric; or slumber; or balderdash.

And the best place to find words is in books, of course. Books are where words live, where they build homes: sometimes castles, made out of bricks of serious, pompous words; mansions of literary merit. There are words in dark caves, shivering in thrillers and murder stories; swooning words, crossing and caressing each other, in love stories. Words that skip across the pages in children’s books; sashay in chick-lit; and glide in erotica.

There are always books next to my bed, at least two, but more likely eight to ten. Sometimes they rest on the bedside table, but when the pile gets too big, it tends to fall over. So now I have a leather box on the floor, into which I put the books – initially in neat piles, which tend to slowly collapse over the month.

I can’t sleep without a book next to the bed. In fact, I feel worried and insecure if I haven’t got at least one there. Even if I don’t read before falling asleep, I like to know that I could if I wanted to. Preferably, though, I like to have a few so that I can choose depending on my mood.

I’ve just finished reading “So Much for That” by Lionel Shriver and so enjoyed it that I continued holding it in my hands for at least five minutes after finishing reading it. It was almost as though I could taste the words, their aftertaste lingering like the bittersweet memory of dark chocolate.  She’s the author who wrote “We Must Talk about Kevin”, which was a hectic, angry, scary book. This one is still hard-hitting and honest, but has a lighter touch in that she imbues a sense of humour into it, albeit dark and ascerbic. She writes  about cancer without romanticising it; her character Glynis is bitter and angry about having cancer – it doesn’t turn her into a nicer person. Flicka, a teenage girl with Dysautonomia, is sarcastic, rude and gaspingly honest about her condition. Shep, Glynis’ husband, had been hoping to escape the rat race to go and live on a carefree African island, when Glynis is diagnosed with cancer and Shep has to carry on working to get his health insurance.

Shriver uses the story to highlight the short-comings of the American health system, and how it screws the man in the street, by highlighting how Shep’s savings are rapidly depleted by the medical demands of his wife’s cancer treatment.

This is such a well-written book that I didn’t want to stop reading it and after I had finished it, other writing seemed childish or inept for a while. The story started flagging towards the end, and I felt that Shriver was trying to tie the whole story up too neatly, but it didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of it.