A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

In a strange way, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been part of my life as long as I can remember. It’s good that I actually got around to reading it. Of course, I should probably explain that.

(Just as a preliminary note, you’ll notice that I went two weeks in a row. Kim and I decided to switch things up. Kim will take the next two weeks.)

I’ve been consciously aware of this book since I was at least three or four, but I knew little more than the title. In fact, I’d formed an impression about what the book would be and didn’t seem to feel the need to read it, despite that impression being totally wrong. Truth be told, I blame Bugs Bunny.

You all remember, I’m sure, A Hare Grows in Manhattan. Like most of the canonical Looney Tunes classics, this cartoon played endlessly (other than the extremely racist ones, as opposed to the more incidentally racist ones, that somehow managed to get dropped as time went on). I must have seen it hundreds of times. Click on the link about and I’m sure you’ll remember.

Anyway, at the climactic scene in the cartoon (as Bugs relates the story of his youth), Bugs is surrounded in an alley by a group of dogs that intend to do him in. He grabs a book with which to fend them off. Suddenly, the dogs all turn and run…heading off over the bridge to Brooklyn. Bugs looks at the book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. That was my experience, a pee joke.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Jennifer Weiner.)

So, finally, I decided to actually read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Instead of a pee joke (though I did keep hearing Bugs singing The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady as I read), we have the story of a young girl (Francie Nolan) growing up in an impoverished section of Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century. Her father is a drunk (though she loves him), her overworked mother loves her brother better (though her mother loves her as well), and she knows little other than want. However, Francie flowers with the sort of hope that is the right of every child:

            Francie held the books close and hurried home, resisting the temptation to sit on the first stoop she came to, to start reading.

            Home at last and now it was the time she had been looking forward to all week: fire-escape-sitting time. She put a small rug on the fire-escape and got the pillow from her bed and propped it against the bars. Luckily there was ice in the icebox. She chipped off a small piece and put it in a glass of water. The pink-and-white peppermint wafers bought that morning were arranged in a little bowl, cracked, but of a pretty blue color. She arranged glass, bowl and book on the window sill and climbed out of the fire-escape. Once out there, she was living in a tree. No one upstairs, downstairs or across the way could see her. But she could look out through the leaves and see everything.

            It was a sunny afternoon. A lazy warm wind carried a warm sea smell. The leaves of the tree made fugitive patterns on the white pillowcase. Nobody was in the yard and that was nice. Usually it was preempted by the boy whose father rented the store on the ground floor. The boy played an interminable game of graveyard. He dug miniature graves, put live captured caterpillars into little match boxes, buried them with informal ceremony and erected little pebble headstones over the tiny earth mounds. The whole game was accompanied by fake sobbings and heavings of his chest. But today the dismal boy was away visiting an aunt in Bensonhurst. To know that he was away was almost as good as getting a birthday present.

The main thrust of the story is Francie realizing things about herself and her world as she gets older. She realizes that her father is a hopeless drunk. She discovers the cruelty of others, the hatred teachers can have for children and how the children can turn that hatred upon each other instead of banding together. She puzzles over the differences between morality and goodness.  In short, we follow Francie as she painfully grows up:

            After the exercises, the turkey foot and corn were thrown into the wastebasket. Teacher set aside the apples to take home. She asked if anyone wanted the little pumpkin pie. Thirty mouths watered; thirty hands itched to go up into the air but no one moved. Some were poor, many were hungry and all were too proud to accept charitable food. When no one responded, Teacher ordered the pie thrown away.

            Francie couldn’t stand it; that beautiful pie thrown away and she had never tasted pumpkin pie. To her it was the food of covered wagon people, of Indian fighters. She was dying to taste it. In a flash she invented a lie and up went her hand.

            “I’m glad someone wants it,” said Teacher.

            “I don’t want it for myself,” lied Francie proudly. “I know a very poor family I’d like to give it to.”

            *****

            Francie ate the pie while walking home that afternoon. Whether it was her conscience or the unfamiliar flavor, she didn’t enjoy the pie. It tasted like soap. The Monday following, Teacher saw her in the hall before class and asked her how the poor family had enjoyed the pie.

            *****

            “Oh, very poor. The didn’t have anything to eat for three days and just would have died, the doctor said, if I didn’t bring them that pie.”

            “That was such a tiny pie,” commented Teacher gently, “to save two lives.”

            Francie knew then that she had gone too far. She hated whatever that thing was inside her that made her invent such whoppers. Teacher bent down and put her arms around Francie. Francie saw that there were tears in her eyes. Francie went to pieces and remorse rose in her like bitter flood waters.

            “That’s all a big lie,” she confessed. “I ate the pie myself.”

            “I know you did.”

This is where I found this book to be the most magical: the way that I felt about Francie’s journey. Francie and her world are painted with amazing vividness, but (even beyond The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady) I couldn’t help but think of things while I thought about Francie. Not everyone grew up in a Brooklyn tenement, but everyone who survives to become an adult has been a child. Whoever they are, they remember learning how cruel other children can be. They knew the pain of learning that their parents are fallible. They felt the shame of finding out that others look down on them. They realized that good people die.

Francie has a very particular set of experiences, but those experiences remind the reader of similar moments that happened to them. At least, this is what happened to me. I cannot help but think that this is what happens to other people as well. Walking with Francie, we recall the sweet but traumatic moments when we changed from being a child.

            Growing up spoiled a lot of things. It spoiled the nice game they had when there was nothing to eat in the house. When money gave out and food ran low, Katie and the children pretended they were explorers discovering the North Pole and had been trapped by a blizzard in a save with just a little food. They had to make it last till help came. Mama divided up what good there was in the cupboard and called it rations when the children were still hungry after a mean, she’d say, “Courage, my men, help will come soon.” When some money came in and Mama bought a lot of groceries, she bought a little cake as a celebration, and she’d stick a penny flag in it and say, “We made it, men. We got to the North Pole.”

            One day after one of those “rescues” Francie asked Mama:

            “When explorers get hungry and suffer like that, it’s for a reason. Something big comes out of it. They discover the North Pole. But what big thing comes out of us being hungry like that?”

            Katie looked tired all of a sudden. She said something Francie didn’t understand at the time. She said, “You found the catch in it.”

I really can’t grasp why somebody didn’t recommend this book to me sooner. People recommend me a lot of books, but no one even mentioned A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My MFA thesis focused on child voice and no one brought this book up…and they really should have. I can only shake my head and wonder.

Really, I think this should have been one of the books that we were made to read in school. The stark beauty of Francie’s growing knowledge of the world, the way that readers can see their own youth reflected in her experiences, it really is a book that everyone should read. But, I know few that have. Of those few, I only learned that they had because they were excited when I started reading.

Regardless, I’m going to have to put this on my list of books I consider to be the most beautiful I’ve ever run across. What else can I say? It really is that good. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is right up there for me with The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and Steppenwolf. It haunts me…and everyone deserves to be haunted like this.

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day

I imagine that it is never easy when one attempts to compare the life one has lived with one’s principles. Personally, denial is my policy on this sort of thing. I try to avoid thinking about it. It is certainly not noble, but does can anyone consider such a thing and truly come to the conclusion that he or she has lived well according to the convictions he or she started out with? After all, life does not seem to think much of our plans or beliefs. Life just happens. I don’t mean to be so quasi-philosophical right now, but I just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Melissa Bank and 2nd for T.C. Boyle)

At the outset, The Remains of the Day seems simple enough. Mr. Stevens (the perfect example of an English butler) is preparing to take a trip. Life is not what it once was for Stevens, having served a distinguished lord and presided over a large staff at Darlington Hall for thirty-five years, now serves a rich American who bought the hall when the lord died. The class system he once served, indeed the entire profession to which he committed his life, is virtually gone. Still, he carries on. In fact, the trip he intends to take, suggested by the rich American who won’t be at Darlington Hall for a time, includes the side purpose of sounding out whether or not a former housekeeper who has written him would be interested in being again employed by the hall:

            It is of course tragic that her marriage is now ending in failure. At this very moment, no doubt, she is pondering with regret decisions made in the far-off past that have now left her, deep in middle age, so alone and desolate. And it is easy to see how in such a frame of mind, the thought of returning to Darlington Hall would be a great comfort to her. Admittedly, she does not at any point in her letter explicitly state her desire to return; but that is the unmistakable message conveyed by the general nuance of many of the passages, imbued as they are with deep nostalgia for her days at Darlington Hall.

During his trip, for once not harried constantly by duty, Stevens thinks back over his career and his life. He reflects on how the profession has changed and remembers his own commitment to duty. However, it is not merely duty that obsesses him. In order for a butler to be great, Stevens believes that he must dedicate his life to serving a great man. He repeatedly insists that this is what he has done, but this is not the case:

            ‘I’ll tell you this, Stevens. His lordship is being made a fool of. I’ve done a lot of investigating, I know the situation in Germany as well as anyone in this country, and I tell you, his lordship is being made a fool of.’

            I gave no reply, and Mr Cardinal went on gazing emptily at the floor. After a while, he continued:

            ‘His lordship is a dear, dear man. But the fact is, he is out of his depth. He is being manoeuvred. The Nazis are manoeuvring him like a pawn. Have you noticed this, Stevens? Have you noticed this is what has been happening for the last three or four years at least?’

            ‘I’m sorry, sir, I have failed to notice any such development.’

Stevens himself, though he does not believe the rumors that are spread about Lord Darlington, at least believes that the man led a misguided life. What can that mean for Stevens? After all, if his conviction is to only serve the greatest of men and the man he served lived a misguided life, did Stevens not waste his life? He dedicated himself, putting duty above family and his own chances for a life (often to an appalling degree):

            Behind me, Miss Kenton’s footsteps came to a sudden halt, and I heard her say”

            ‘Are you not in the least interested in what took place tonight between my acquaintance and I, Mr Stevens?’

            ‘I do not meant to be rude, Miss Kenton, but I really must return upstairs without further delay. The fact is, events of a global significance are taking place in this house at his very moment.’

            ‘When are they not, Mr Stevens? Very well, if you must be rushing off, I shall tell you that I accepted my acquaintance’s proposal.’

            ‘I beg your pardon, Miss Kenton?’

            ‘His proposal of marriage.’

            *****

            ‘Am I to take it,’ she said, ‘that after the many years of service I have given in this house, you have no more words to greet the news of my possible departure than those you have just uttered?’

            ‘Miss Kenton, you have my warmest congratulations. But I repeat, there are matters of global significance taking place upstairs and I must return to my post.’

Really, though, what can Stevens do as he looks back? He can’t attach himself to a better lord. He can’t reclaim his family, or Miss Kenton. All he has is his work. This is what he must come to terms with. Shall he recognize the difference between his ideals and his life? Will he mourn what he has given up? Or, will he refuse to acknowledge what he has realized and stay fast to the only life he has ever known?

After reading, I have to say that I’ve seen few things that I would classify as the truly English novel quite as much as this book. Formal in tone (and perfectly so), it moved me with quiet dignity. It is both a marvelous depiction of the changing post-WWII England and of Stevens passing judgment on his entire life. Really, I found it to be quite beautiful.

Thoughts on reading. This blog. And oh yes, I read Jane Eyre.

So, I read Jane Eyre this week.  I love Jane Eyre.  I think it’s one of the easiest “classic” novels to read.  But I decided I didn’t want to talk about that today.

C.S. Lewis said “We read to know we are not alone”.

I wanted to talk about my history of reading.  I wanted to talk about why I read.  I wanted to talk about why I wanted to do this project with Dave.

If you’ve read Dave and I’s bios on here, you know that I began reading at an early age.  I started reading everything my parents put in my hands or that I can get into my hands, I loved the Trixie Belden mystery series.  I loved Archie Comics, and one of those family tales began when I told my dad that I wanted to get a “Double Digest” (pronounced dig (as in making a hole) and then est).

My dad was military.  We moved all the time, the first time after learning to read, I was seven years old. We moved from Germany to Illinois.  Imagine, being seven years old and making that move.  Reading helped me through.  It continued to.  It became where the library was the one place I could rely on.  Libraries, even when they looked different, were the same.  My constant friends lived there.  It didn’t matter where I lived, it didn’t matter who I knew or didn’t know, it didn’t matter who hated me and who liked me.  In the library none of that mattered.  I could read about Victorian England.  I could read about Atticus Finch, Boo & Scout.  I could read about Anne of Green Gables.  I could read about Mrs. Piggle Wiggle (if you know about her, please let me know, those were amazing books and very few people know them!).  Not only could I read about them, I could know them, I could play with Scout.  I could be in a spelling bee with Anne, I could be in Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s house.  The smell of books came to mean home, whenever home was an unsure concept from moving.

Sometimes life got rough.  Life always gets rough.  Books provided refuge from the pain and from the roughness.  As C.S. Lewis pointed out, we read to know we aren’t alone.  When I couldn’t find anyone who understood me, books showed me that people were out there whom understood.

A memory that shows the anchor and the escape reading has provided for me.

In 1999, I was 23, and had been with a guy in Florida (I was in Nebraska, met through the internet etc) whom I had visited in October of 1998.  I travelled back to Florida in January.  The guy had a new job, which he was working 50 plus hours a week, and was either unable or as I later thought, unwilling, to take time off for my visit.  This meant he left me alone at his apartment.  All day.  Except for a short time when his roommate would drive me over to the gym he was managing.  I devoured Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood.  I vividly remember parts of the books, which must have been the times I needed to escape the most from my thoughts.  He seemed to think I should have been doing more while there, all by myself.  I’m not sure what he wanted me to be doing though.  I’m not entirely sure what happened, but a couple of weeks later after I returned home, he dumped me.  That memory has been on my mind recently for some reason.  I think it’s partly where this blog entry comes from.

My mind sometimes is a morass, it’s a confusion of ideas, of thoughts.  Reading calms them, reading focuses my head.

My father said in the last few months, a snide comment about how maybe they were wrong on encouraging my reading (I don’t remember the exact words but it was the same meaning).  I know he meant that maybe I wouldn’t waste so much time.  But, thinking on it, I realized that by giving me the gift of reading, my parents gave me a place in a changing universe.  They gave me a touchstone.  They gave me something that has become an integral part of my marrow.

I found the Top Ten book in the clearance section of 1/2 Price books.  Bookstores are another favorite haunt of mine.  It looked really interesting, and I often look for ways to find something new to read.  Dave and I have been friends since 2006, and we often talked about reading and books.  Dave actually reads more than I do (even before I had Amelia).  I had the idea of starting a blog with him.  I knew I needed motivation to actually read the books in there.  I talked to Dave, he bought his own copy and we discussed how we would do it.

The reason I started doing this was that I wanted motivation to read more of the classics that were lacking in my reading history.  The reason I continued is because the books I’ve been reading for this have stronger stories than most books.  The characters linger longer.  The language floats in your soul.  I think there is a reason these books have been listed on authors’ top ten lists.  These are books that linger with you.  I’m excited to keep reading.  Not just the standard classics are on this list, but unexpected ones.  The Shining by Stephen King is in there.  Which makes me grin, as years ago I said that The Shining could be taught in a modern novel class and fit right into the whole thing.

I know, even if Dave decides he’s quits with the whole thing that I will probably keep reading on the lists.  Without him it’ll of course take me longer, so I must throw myself at his virtual feet and beg his continuation of this.

Some quotations to leave you with.

“I find television very educating.  Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book”  Groucho Marx

“Read in order to live”  Gustave Flaubert (which if you remember, is the author of Madame Bovary which I read a few weeks ago)

“Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes from us everywhere”.  Hazel Rochman

“There are worse crimes than burning books.  One of them is not reading them” Joseph Brodskey

And last, because it made me laugh is:

“Everyone probably thinks that I’m a raving nymphomaniac, that I have an insatiable sexual appetite, when the truth is I’d rather read a book.”-Madonna 1991

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I’ve been a big fan of Charles Bukowski for a good number of years now. He didn’t seem real enthused about many of his contemporaries, which was a shame since I like to bounce from author to author to see what I can find. However, one author he always made sure to mention was Carson McCullers. For years, I intended to check McCullers out based on this.

When I did eventually look into McCullers, I was a bit surprised at Buk’s choice (mind you, I hadn’t read any McCullers at that point). The material in her biographical pages I found just seemed nothing remotely like Bukowski. She didn’t seem the sort to write about bums and winos, whores or skid row motels. But, then I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (I also read The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories, but this review isn’t about that book) and it all made sense.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for G.D. Gearino.)

For me, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter focuses primarily on what is perhaps one of the most vulnerable and melancholily beautiful aspects of humanity, our inherent loneliness. Even in the crowd, we are ultimately alone. At the same time, we all seem to have a desperate need to have at least one person understand us.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter concerns a collection of extremely lonely people. Amongst others, we have Biff Brannon (a café owner whose marriage isn’t exactly the best), Mick Kelly (a little girl driven to music but surrounded by poverty), Jake Blount (a man tormented by the capitalistic injustices around him), and Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland (a black doctor tormented by the racial injustices around him).  All of these people, living together as they do in a Southern town that is seemingly sleepy but is actually sharply divided by race and money, find themselves irresistibly drawn to a mute engraver by the name of John Singer.

Strangely, all of these people feel an uncontrollable urge to talk to Singer and unburden themselves, tell the things they have never told anyone. Of course, Singer does not talk back, but they each (not knowing of each other) are convinced that Singer is the one person who understands them:

By midsummer Singer had visitors more often than any other person in the house. From his room in the evening there was nearly always the sound of a voice. After dinner at the New York Café he bathed and dressed himself in one of his cool wash suits and as a rule did not go out again. The room was cool and pleasant. He had an icebox in the closed where he kept bottles of cold beer and fruit drinks. He was never busy or in a hurry. And always he met his guests at the door with a welcome smile.

Mick loved to go up to Mister Singer’s room. Even if he was a deaf-and-dumb mute he understood every word she said to him…Except for her Dad, Mister Singer was the nicest man she knew.

When Doctor Copeland wrote the note to John Singer about Augustus Benedict Mady Lewis there was a polite reply and an invitation for him to make a call when he found the opportunity…This man was different from any person of the white race whom Doctor Copeland had ever encountered. Afterward he pondered about this white man a long time. Then later, inasmuch as he had been invited in a cordial manner to return, he made another visit.

Jake Blount came every week….Usually he carried a paper sack of beers. Often his voice would come out loud and angry from the room. But before he left his voice gradually quieted. When he descended the stairs he did not carry the sack of beers and longer, and he walked away thoughtfully without seeming to notice where he was going.

Even Biff Brannon came to the mute’s room one night. But as he could never stay away from the restaurant for long, he left in a half hour.

Of course, these desperate people are all reading things into Singer, as we all do. Singer is not the one person in the world who completely understands. He is polite and glad to have company to attempt to chase away his own loneliness, but sometimes he frankly has no idea what these people are saying. He just nods and smiles.

Interestingly enough, Singer had his own person to whom he poured out his heart just like these people, a mute named Spiros Antonapoulos who has gone somewhat nuts and been locked away in an asylum. These people help him deal with the absence of his friend, but definitely do not replace Antonapoulos. Of course, there is a certain chance that Antonapoulos may not have listened and understood Singer any better than Singer listens to and understands the crew above.

All of this is what I think enchanted Bukowski so much about McCullers, sounding such a similar chord to what I’ve seen in Bukowski’s work, and it enchants me as well. Some find The Heart is a Lonely Hunter depressing (and I will not argue that it has a good amount of tragedy in it). However, I found the striving of these characters or that one significant connection in the face of their loneliness and difficult lives to be extremely moving.

Without sentiment, without pity, McCullers brings us her characters at their most vulnerable and hopeful and ultimately, their most human moments. Whether you find The Heart is a Lonely Hunter to leave you feeling triumphant or depressed, you will be moved. After all, this is the difficultly in which we all live and the best that we can do is try to live it well.