If You Build It 

It's not just where we live. It's a state of mind.

We can't go home again; instead we create Fantasy Islands of longing for the past or the future that muddy the present. In Jeannette Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle, an alcoholic father escaping a dead-end West Virginia childhood plans to build an elaborate Shangri-La of windows and beams for his artist wife and four children. Even as the six do what Walls calls "the skedaddle" from town to town, escaping the clutches of real or imagined troubles, the castle takes shape in talk and sketched-out plans. Meanwhile, pets are abandoned, the children don't attend school, and they're allowed to choose just one thing to carry along to the next place: in Jeannette's case, a geode from a rock collection she'd managed to amass at one stop longer than a month or so.

Yet this is no Mommie -- or Daddy -- Dearest. Even as the kids are eating out of trash barrels while Mom buys art materials, or Dad steals their piggybank money and disappears for days, Walls (perhaps best known as the MSNBC.com gossip columnist who broke the news that Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village was ghostwritten) portrays her parents without venom. Mom and Dad have cracks in their foundation, through which love and irresponsibility seem to pour in equal measure.

It's a near-perfect explication of the dangers of not living in the moment. The parents are suspended in a web of assumptions while their children free-fall through space: Land must be kept in the family, even as the family starves; art lives forever, taking precedence over more ephemeral life forms such as children; going out a magnificent failure is better than staying at a lousy job. Mom and Dad expect a great deal from their children. At age three, Jeannette is burned while cooking hot dogs. Later, home from the hospital after recovering from skin grafts, Jeannette is hungry and Mom is at work on a painting. "'Good for you,' Mom said when she saw me cooking. 'You've got to get right back in the saddle. You can't live in fear of something as basic as fire. '"

After a seminomadic existence, the family winds up back in Dad's hometown. Understanding that this is a catastrophe for Dad, Jeannette and younger brother Brian, both still in elementary school, begin to dig the Glass Castle's foundation, which Dad has laid out with twine and stakes. But the family can't afford to pay for garbage collection, so Dad starts filling the hole with trash. Later on, a boy accuses the Wallses of living in garbage. It is a charge Jeannette can't deny.

Needless to say, the kids escape ASAP to New York City. Is it any surprise that eventually Mom and Dad join them? As with nearly every memoir, the closer we come to the present, the less focused and interesting the story becomes, although Walls for the most part avoids this trap. Don't worry that you're signing on for horror upon horror. Raised to fend for themselves and make a home out of anything anywhere, the children perform amazing feats, and ultimately this tale of real and imagined homes is a must-read story about the human spirit, not about deprivation.

The chasm between fantasy and reality is also wide in Karen Houppert's Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military -- For Better or Worse. Raised an Air Force brat and more recently a writer for The Village Voice and Salon, Houppert notes that now that the military is increasingly desperate to keep experienced personnel, its focus is on meeting reenlistment goals, which often means convincing spouses to "reenlist" as well. Yet a 2004 survey found that only 36 percent of Army wives (Houppert does not focus on female-as-breadwinner families in this book) would encourage their husbands to re-up.

The dissatisfaction is unsurprising: Many on-base family housing units were built fifty years ago and are falling apart (the military is adding 138,000 new units over the next five years, so don't expect downsizing anytime soon). But in a new unit or an old one, being married to a soldier means that the military is in charge of your life. Among the cookie-cutter lookalike dwellings at upstate New York's Fort Drum, where Houppert did most of her research, each family is issued a 129-page rulebook that mandates lawn length, microchips for pets, the removal of holiday lights by the second week of January, and washing only full loads of laundry.

In a move designed to serve families better, and to offer a narrative of "tough wives are patriots too," the Army created Family Readiness Groups. Volunteerism is encouraged -- or demanded, depending upon the group. Sometimes these volunteer opportunities make sense: phone trees to inform wives when and where returning husbands can be met. Others, for endless bake sales, don't (it turns out the military does hold bake sales, but probably not to raise money to buy planes). These volunteer jobs are supposed to take the place of low-paying positions in depressed basetowns, where even military wives with good skills often are not hired because everyone knows they will be transferred elsewhere soon.

Much of what Houppert writes about is predictable: the impact on families of casualties; poverty; bad schools; the stultifying atmosphere on bases. She explores some issues the military would prefer to suppress, such as the incidence of domestic violence, minimized by official reporting methods: Only events that require overnight hospital stays are considered severe.

Houppert's up-close-and-personal look at several families reveals a great deal. Her opinions can intrude, and she tends to gravitate toward subjects who are complex, ambivalent, or outright opponents of the war. Still, she has amassed a wealth of material, and she organizes it deftly, weaving up-to-date statistics into her narratives. Her thesis -- that the military's response to complaints and hardship is to try to change people's attitudes rather than their circumstances -- is convincing. Many of these families are young, poor, hurting, and confused. Houppert believes that "blind patriotism [is] harder to come by" in 2005. Whether that will translate into a major problem for the military in a few years and drain the bases is worth following, and Houppert's book is a valuable start.

Such cannot be said for Close Encounters of the Cross-Cultural Kind: Seventy-Five Years at International House Berkeley. This slim volume is a tribute to a valuable institution -- a brand-new type of home -- begun in New York City in 1924. UC Berkeley's was the second International House, opened in 1930 and welcoming student tenants from around the world. Many Berkeleyans protested its presence on Fraternity Row, objecting to students of different races living together and fearing the reduction of property values. That's about the extent of the historical material: The rest of the book comprises former residents' remembrances, a few previously published articles, and snippets of speeches delivered on the occasion of the house's recent seventieth anniversary. It's a grab-bag that raises more questions than it answers. While some contributions do relay the positive impact of reducing the concept of "other," the book as a whole is a wasted opportunity. A little oversight and editing would have gone a long way.

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