Monday, March 4, 2013

February Reading

My intention was to keep track of most of the books I read - or at least those that aren't 'junk food' but the death of my friend Marcia at the end of November sent me into a reflective state such that I had to put all my energy into not falling into depression. I managed that, but many things suffered, including both my reading and writing. However, three books really caught my attention. Both authors are just a few years younger than me (and Marcia), so fitted well with my time of reflection - my gosh, I had it easy! I have never liked reading biographies or autobiographies, but I think I've been converted after reading these, and previously, Roger McGough's Said and Done.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit 1985
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? 2011
by Jeanette Winterson

I read 'Oranges' first simply because it was written first, and think that was the best way to do it, even though, as it is written in the form of a novel, I found my constant wondering about which parts were 'true' and which parts were fiction somewhat distracting. Horrifyingly, it seems that not only was most of it true, it was also very understated. Winterson has said,
 "I suppose the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it."
Jeanette was born in 1959 in Manchester and was adopted out six months later. Mrs Winterson, as she calls her mother throughout, wanted a baby to raise in her Elim Pentecostal Church to become a missionary. She was beaten, she was often hungry, she was often left all night outside on the doorstep. Her mother was both excessively religious and very depressed. She was not loved for herself, but only for her fate - to become a missionary.

Jeanette started her writing career at the age of six - writing sermons! She was involved all the time in the church activities and evangelising, including the Gospel Tent - a once a year mission to other towns, preaching in the church's Gospel Tent.

Books were not allowed in the house except for the Bible and a couple of others.

In an interview from the Guardian, Jeanette says of Mrs Winterson:

"It was never going to work between us. I don't know what fate put me with her, or her with me, but at least I was able to use all that and make something of it. Whereas for her it was just purgatory. She was a very unhappy woman. And I was a happy child. In a way, the battle between us was the battle between happiness and unhappiness."

There is little overt bitterness, though my imagination filled that in. The books are not relentless misery; there are amusing anecdotes in both books.For example, Mrs Winterson says the lesbian sweet-shop owners deal in "unnatural passions", and the young Jeanette thinks it means they put chemicals in their sweets .  She tells of how Mrs Winterson "was one of the first women to have a heated corset. Unfortunately, when it overheated it beeped to warn the user. As the corset was by definition underneath her petticoat dress, apron and coat, there was little she could do to cool down except take off her coat and stand in the yard."

She left home at 16 after becoming openly lesbian, and went on to work her way through a degree in English, and become a novelist. Later in life, after discovering that her birth mother had not died, as she had been told, she searched for, and found, her birth mother, and found she got on well with her, and keeps in touch.
"Mrs Winterson had always insisted that my biological mother was dead. She also told me that my mother had been a drunk, a drug addict, a mental patient, and a woman who had exploded. I didn’t necessarily believe any of this, but it didn’t make me eager to start looking for her either.

"Then, in 2007, I found some yellowing paperwork hidden in an old chest of Mrs W’s. The papers revealed another name for me – but one violently scribbled out. I was troubled enough and curious enough to risk going further."
 This woman has lived a highly controversial life, has suffered misery, abuse and depression, yet writes of a life filled with, well, LIFE! I found her inspiring, not because I want her life, or to do the things she has done, but simply inspiring in this wonderful determination to live and be exactly who she is.

The Glass Castle 2005
by Jeannette Walls

Born in 1960 in Phoenix, Arizona, this Jeannette lived a very different life from Jeanette Winterspoon. Her parents lived a nomadic, sometimes homeless, life. The book opens with the appalling story of her being burned as a three year old, while cooking hot dog. The book tells of a life of poverty, as her father was sacked from one job after another. Sometimes they slept in their car; other 'homes' were broken down shacks, an abandoned railway building - but always there were the plans for the Glass Castle that her father was designing and going to build one day. On a couple of occasions out of utter desperation, the mother worked as a teacher, but not for long: she was an artist, she claimed, and it was an offence to her Art to work as the teacher her mother had insisted she trained as. They had little food, and were expected, in the main, to feed them selves - hence the hot dog incident. In one home, the father found some timber and made bunk frames, hung ropes across, and then put cardboard over the ropes, making 'real' beds - they usually just slept in the cardboard boxes.

The neglect unfolds gently, however, which makes it even more horrific, because Walls writes from the perspective of the child at what ever age she is writing about. Hence the hot dog incident is less about the horrific burns she endured, and more about the indignation she felt at the hospital staff's criticism of her having been cooking her own food.

She writes about the joys of the life they led. One Christmas, with no money for presents, her father took the children outside and told them they could each chose a star to be their very own for always. Walls chose one but was told it wasn't a star, but a planet. Then her father said, 'but it's Christmas, if you want a planet, you can have a planet.'

As she gets older, she starts to recognise the inadequacy of her parents and their way of living. Eventually her older sister leaves for New York, to find a job and live a better life - and she makes it. Then Jeanette follows at 17, found a job to support herself through her final year of school. Next, they fetch their brother, 13, and take him to New York, and support him through the rest of his schooling. The youngest sister ran off to California and they don't have contact with her. The parents eventually moved to New York too, and lived as homeless street people. Her mother is still alive.

Jeannette graduated from Barnard College with honours, and became a journalist, gossip columnist and writer. She moves in the rich and famous circles, and constantly feared that people would find out about her homeless, dumpster-diving parents, who refused to be helped into a 'better' life by their children. But eventually she decided to come out about her life, wrote The Glass Castle, and appeared on Oprah just before the book came out.

I found both books fascinating, moving, tear-inducing, and inspiring. I was amazed at how different their childhood days were from those of mine, lived on New Zealand farms and small towns, without the neglect and abuse, and yet how easily I could relate to these women. That in itself is a sign of the quality of their writing.

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