BOOK REVIEW:—REFLECTIONS FROM A GLASS HOUSE: A Memoir of Mid-Century Modern Mayhem by Carol Sveilich
In this vibrant and innovative memoir, the memoirist calls home base a midcentury Eichler house, located in California’s Bay Area. But the house, while certainly nothing less than a marvel due to its rich architectural history, also encompassed lives––real lives inundated with real problems, all secreted behind inventive large glass walls. The author tells us first and foremost, this is a memoir about her own experience growing up in the sixties––early seventies, including the music, the politics, the war; about fitting in and not fitting in. It’s all there and a history lesson both on a small and large scale.
I enjoyed learning about The Eichler homes and the neighborhoods but relished, even more, reading about this particular author’s life. The cast of characters not only include her family members and neighbors, but her unique home of glass. It was filled with music and hilarity, but sometimes discomfort. With razor-sharp wit and refreshing brutal honesty, she surgically defines a childhood fraught with challenges: her father’s severe and often erratic OCD, her mother’s self-absorption and socially accepted negligence, her relationship with her brother and the other neighborhood kids, and later on, with the men in her life. She tells of her experiences of living in a home inundated with suburban expectations, the counter-culture/drugs, mass confusion, the fight for social acceptance, and of course, rock & roll. It was the sixties, after all.
Sveilich discusses the passages through school, adolescence, relationships with precision, insight, and fun, all easy to identify with and enjoy reading about. And not once during the read, did I ever get the impression that Sveilich shied away from truthfully delving into her family’s often rocky starts and faulty choices. Instead, with the wisdom of a sage and the tenacity of a survivalist, she showed through trial and error, how she learned to decode them––to decipher the red flags while consciously staying hidden from what could have potentially been used to consume her––a life skill most of us in adulthood struggle to maintain.
I particularly savored the delicious description in this passage and felt like, I too, was stuck sweltering in the backseat:
“Three out of the four riders in our posse are settled in their respective saddles. My mother sits in the front seat and stares out the window, humming a few notes of an imaginary and nameless tune. Mom’s humming feels incomplete, certainly not a finished product. Her fingers, sporting chipped pink nail polish, repose in patient prayer atop a suitcase-sized purse, her spirit seemingly filled with the sort of tolerance I’ll never possess. She checks the contents of her bag. “Carol, did you bring the Wash ’n Dri? We’re not going to be bathing for a while.” We’ll wipe our sweaty body parts, launder our sticky fingers, and cool our foreheads with soap-dampened Wash ’n Dri Towelettes.
My mother has packed some stale Chex Party Mix and my father’s blue and yellow can of Planters Peanuts. Three hours later, she’ll ask, “Who wants to nosh?” My brother, always on the verge of a taunt, is with me in the back seat. He’s wedged between two overstuffed suitcases. We are usually separated by something massive to discourage him from teasing me. Barriers do little good. We laugh too loudly and too easily and fight too ferociously during these long car trips.
The car is becoming a searing kennel, where the cage door is a roll-down side window. The only escape from this brutal humidity is visual freedom. I stare at our patchy front lawn and the small shrubs planted in each corner of the yard. I fidget impatiently as I wait for my father to back our car out of the driveway. Let’s go already! It’s been 45 minutes. My father is still in the house, triple-checking. Check, check, check. He’s moving out of the room where the cat bowls sit. Now he steps back in again … just in case he forgot to see if they’re filled properly. He’s cleaning, wiping, correcting, and checking again. That’s it! I jump out of the back seat and jiggle my legs, like drumsticks thrashing about in a Shake ’n Bake bag.”
Even as the author disclosed the dysfunction of her parents’ strange behaviors, she did so with impressive perception and gentle understanding about how mental illness led to many of these divisive behaviors and not mere cruelty or blatant unkindness.
Sveilich also uses a clever and brave gallows’ humor to delve valiantly into the many social ills she has encountered––including the devastation caused by sexual assault. But even with that said, don’t let me mislead you, this book isn’t all about doom and gloom. Neither is it a wild family thrashing either, but an honest and revealing account and recollection of past events as they unfolded, replete with imperfect people bound together by blood. Yet, through it all, they somehow still managed to salvage their relationship outside the arduous constraints of dysfunction.
REFLECTIONS FROM A GLASS HOUSE is a poignant, important, and entertaining read. One minute the author had me hysterical laughing, the next, eyes welled with tears, but through it all, I couldn’t stop turning the pages.
REFLECTIONS FROM A GLASS HOUSE: A Memoir of Mid-Century Modern Mayhem