Book Review: Blankets by Craig Thompson (2003)

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Review #81

Craig Thompson lives a lonely life in rural Wisconsin. The son of incredibly devout Christians, his early life is defined by love for God combined with the sense of shame that he will never be pure enough to earn God’s love in return. He has an ongoing sibling rivalry with his younger brother Phil and constantly feels both protective and smothered by their relationship. When Craig is in high school he attends a Christian Bible Camp. There he meets Raina, and a budding romance springs up between them which causes Craig to begin questioning his faith.

The early parts of Thompson’s novel deal mostly with his relationship with his little brother. Since Craig is constantly bullied at school because his family is poor and highly religious, he is incredibly lonely. But instead of turning to his brother for friendship, he belittles Phil and tries to make himself seem smarter and more powerful than his sibling. At the same time, Blankets is interspersed with memories of he and his brother as they play together, draw together, and bicker with one another. Sibling relationships are always a strange mixture of love and irritation, and Thompson depicts that dichotomy with humor and humility.

The bulk of Blankets is dedicated to Craig’s relationship with Raina, and the emotional highs and lows that accompany a first love. Thompson portrays their budding romance as a whirlwind of new experiences, new hormones, and new revelations that will test their tenuous bonds. We as readers know how incredibly rare it is for people to end up with their first loves, and yet I found myself hoping against hope that things would somehow work out for the two of them. Thompson shows that he has a poetic soul in these sections, and the way that Craig sets Raina on a a pedestal of perfection is beautifully written. She is highly idealized, and often represented as a goddess or an angel with a halo upon her head. There is also a running undercurrent of fear since Craig does not believe himself to be worthy of anyone’s love, and he lives in a state of anxiety that Raina will one day realize how deficient he is.

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The writing in this novel was poignant and powerfully honest. One of the reasons that memoirs can leave such an indelible impression is that they require the author to bare their soul entirely.  Thompson draws upon that extreme confusion that all teenagers feel at some point. A crisis of faith, a feeling of shame for his own desires, a realization that a love for God does not always have to mean an attachment to organized religion are the cornerstones of Blankets.

The illustrations in this book are wonderfully expressive, and I was continually impressed by the amount of detail that Thompson was able to cram into the small panels of this novel. He draws the harsh winters of Wisconsin with a deft and loving hand that make me eager for the first snowfall of the season.

If I had to make a criticism of Blankets, it would be that there were certain aspects that Thompson left too vague. At one point he suggests that he and his brother were molested by a babysitter. This is given about two pages early in the novel, and revisited with two pages towards the middle. I kept waiting for the author to explain more about what happened with the brothers and the babysitter, but he never touches on it again. This is one example of a plot line that is never followed, and I was frustrated by the fact that Thompson would drop such a bombshell on his readers but never lead it to any conclusion.

This is the second graphic memoir that I’ve read this month, the other being Persepolis. I find myself increasingly drawn to this niche genre because of its stark and beautiful honesty, and the talent by the author to expose their innermost pain and joy to strangers. Reading Blankets was looking straight into the soul of a fellow human, and seeing myself reflected back.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Blankets here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)

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Review #33

 

In rural Utah, a nine year old girl and her family are driving back to Idaho on a dark night. The girl’s brother falls asleep at the wheel, loses control of the car, and crashes into a utility pole. All members of the family suffer injuries, including her mother who sustains major head trauma. None of them go to the hospital because of their father’s belief that doctors are evil figures put in place by the Illuminati. They will instead rely on herbal remedies and the power of their Mormon faith to heal their injuries. The girl’s mother suffers significant brain damage and is never the same again.

This event happens early on in Educated, a memoir by a girl who is raised by religiously fanatic family isolated in the mountains of southern Idaho. Tara Westover was seventeen years old before she ever entered a classroom. Her lack of formal education left her vulnerable to the manipulations and abuse of her mentally ill father and elder brother. What follows is an account of the struggle between one person’s desire to fulfill themselves and their duty to their family. It is also about the price that sometimes must be paid to extract oneself from a potentially destructive situation.

Tara Westover’s Educated will inevitably draw comparison to The Glass Castle, the  memoir by Jeannette Walls that I reviewed earlier this year. Both feature young women with highly unconventional childhoods who fight to rise above the circumstances of their birth. Both feature the importance of education and family solidarity. And both deal with the idea of having to sever the bonds of that same family in order to survive.

Compared the The Glass Castle, Educated tells the more bitter story. Some of this may have to do with the immediacy of the events detailed in Westover’s memoir. While Jeannette Walls was writing about her childhood through the tempered and nostalgic lens of decades, the events that Westover is describing bring us to the right up to the present day. Time has not been allowed to heal her suffering and create scars. The pain and grief that is still being felt by Westover is palpable. Because of this, we feel the catharsis present in every page, as if the writer is attempting to draw poison from a wound. While reading The Glass Castle, I found myself chuckling every once in awhile. There is not a single moment of joy present in Educated, and I felt my own bitterness rising as I continued reading.

Your opinion on Educated will be strongly connected to your feelings on homeopathic and alternative medicines. My personal feeling is that the creation of antibiotics and vaccinations are the most important advancements in human history since the printing press. The idea that people are resisting vaccinations and antibiotics is utterly baffling. However, if you are one of those people who believe that the government is holding the cure for cancer hostage in an underground bunker so that they can continue to exploit profits from sick people, you will probably be more likely to sympathize with Tara’s father. If so, make sure to get your tinfoil hat on nice and snug before picking up this memoir.

See what I meant about the bitterness?

My rating: 4/5

You can find Educated here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Communion by Whitley Strieber (1988)

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Review #11

 

“Mister Mulder, why are those like yourself, who believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life on this Earth, not dissuaded by all the evidence to the contrary?”

“Because, all the evidence to the contrary is not entirely dissuasive.”

“Precisely”

The X-Files (1993-2002)

Reading Whitley’s Strieber’s Communion, this quote from The X-Files kept flashing into my mind. According to the preface, this book was considered highly controversial when it was released in 1988. However, thirty years of science fiction in the form of the aforementioned TV show, as well as other television programs such as Falling Skies and V, films such as The Fourth Kind and Dark Skies, and even children’s books such as the Animorphs series have all prepped my imagination to accept the idea of alien abduction and invasion with a far more open mind than would have been normal at this time of this book’s publication. I did not find anything particularly “shocking” between the pages of Communion.

Instead, I was left wondering how many of the alien abduction tropes that pop up in so much of pop culture originated, or were at least fueled by Strieber’s memoir. The running theme of anal probing makes an appearance, as does the idea of owls as a screen memory for the alien visitors. The unnaturally thin aliens with huge black eyes that are depicted here are the same ones that people have been describing for decades.

Communion is split into roughly three parts. The first segment details the events that forced Strieber to wonder if he was being taken by “visitors”. (Note: he rarely uses the word “aliens” and instead offers up several theories that these beings aren’t from outer space at all). Strieber is able to give an immense about of detail about the physical appearance of these visitors and everything that was done to him one night in December of 1986. These early chapters are probably the most interesting, but also read the most like fiction.

The second segment deals with Strieber trying to figure out if he is losing his mind. He visits hypnotherapists and discovers repressed memories of these visitors from his early childhood. There are full transcripts offered from these hypnosis session, which are stream-of-consciousness in style and incredibly difficult to follow. (Note: We also know now that hypnotherapy is an incredibly imprecise branch of psychiatry, and can often result in the placing of false memories inside the mind of the patient). Strieber then wonders if he has epilepsy, and explores that route through a variety of medical professionals. Strieber adamantly wants his readers to believe that he explored every viable medical and scientific option to explain away his memories before he was forced to admit that he truly was being taken against his will by visitors. (Note: The now popular explanation of sleep paralysis is never explored, possibly because it was not fully understood in the late 1980’s).

The third section of Communion is the gathering of witnesses. Strieber convinces his wife to undergo hypnosis, and her transcripts seem to corroborate his account. We are then presented with transcripts from group sessions, wherein Strieber and other self-proclaimed abductees compare and contrast their various stories. This part was actually very interesting, and the strange similarities between the stories are worth a second look.

The last twenty pages go completely off the rails. This was the only part of the book where I thought that Strieber may have been under the influence of a great deal of marijuana. He uses obscure Aztec, Hindu, and Sumerian poetry to discuss the importance of the duality and trinity of life. He uses the mystery of the Sphinx to talk about the idea of ascending to a higher state of consciousness. He throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and then tosses the kitchen sink in for good measure. While reading the final section of Communion, I found myself wishing that I too were under the influence of a great deal of marijuana.

It is completely impossible when reading Communion to leave your preconceptions at the door. If you are a hardcore skeptic, than the memoir will read as the ramblings of an attention-seeking man spouting nonsense. The fact that Whitley Strieber was a moderately successful horror writer before the publication of this book is a pretty damning black mark in favor of the skeptics. If you are an affirmed believer in UFOs and abduction theories, than this book will only confirm and intensify your previously held beliefs. Personally, I’ve always tried to maintain an open mind when it comes to the unexplained things experienced on the Earth. It is impossible to prove a negative, therefore I cannot state with any certainty that Earth hasn’t been visited by creatures from another world. Therefore, I left Communion with very much the same opinions that I entered with. Alien abduction is a possibility, but not a likely one.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Communion here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005)

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Review #8

 

Jeannette Walls is born to parents Rex and Rose Mary Walls somewhere in the desert in 1960. At the age of three, she is hospitalized for severe burns acquired from boiling water for hot dogs after her mother refused to make her lunch. Before she has had time to heal properly, her father snatches her out of the hospital, claiming that doctors cannot be trusted. Her family flees in the night. It is not the first nor the last time they will do a “skedaddle”.

So begins The Glass Castle, a powerful memoir of a nomadic childhood spent in the type of crushing poverty most of us cannot even begin to imagine. Jeannette is raised as the ultimate “free range” child, whose sporadic education and lack of stability are touted as a wonderful adventure by her parents. Rex Walls is a manipulative alcoholic who steals from his family while at the same time drawing them dreams of a “glass castle” that they will all live in once he’s struck gold. Literally. His plan is to strike gold in the deserts of Arizona. Rose Mary Walls is a monster of selfishness who feels smothered by the needs of motherhood and would rather watch her four children go for days without food than lift a finger from her “artistic ambitions” to help them.

The only thing I can say in support of Jeannette’s parents is that they ensured she was educated. Not in the conventional sense, but all of the Walls children are well read and are taught to think and understand science, history, and mathematics at an advanced level. Rex Walls, for all of his faults, seems to have been an extraordinarily intelligent man. Which begs the question, what’s more dangerous, a dumb drunk or a smart one?

“When the electricity was on, we ate a lot of beans. A big bag of pinto beans cost under a dollar and would feed us for days. They tasted especially good if you added a spoonful of mayonnaise. We also ate a lot of rice mixed with jack mackerel, which Mom said was excellent brain food. Jack mackerel was not as good as tuna, but was better than cat food, which we ate from time to time when things got really tight.”

This book left me drained. By the time I finished the last page and closed its covers, I felt like I had run an emotional marathon from anger to despair to wild hope and back to fury again. You could group this memoir into chapters labeled by the five stages of grief. We begin with a young Jeannette who loves her Daddy more than anything in the world and is his stalwart supporter even after he throws the family cat out of a moving car. We move with her through anger as she lashes out as her parents for their lack of support, to bargaining as she desperately tries to get her father to stop drinking. We then sink into depression when she realizes that her parents love themselves more than they could ever love any of their children. We finally reach acceptance, where Jeannette realizes that she needs to cut ties with her family if she is ever going to have any semblance of a normal life.

I don’t have children, but most of my peers do and I’ve heard countless stories about the amount of sacrifice required to become a parent. It is taken as a matter of course that a parent will have to put their own needs and ambitions on hold to ensure that the tiny humans they have created are well provided for. The Glass Castle is an example of two people who refuse to do that, and instead seem to view their children as small humans who just happen to live with them. It’s also the story of how Jeannette and her siblings refused to succumb to the cycle of poverty. The Glass Castle was equal parts depressing and uplifting. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can The Glass Castle here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. In 2017, it was also attempted into a film starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts.

Happy reading everyone!