Pearl by Tabitha King

Me again. Kim is taking the next two weeks. In fact, we have something special planned for next week so I went twice in a row to give her time. Anyway, today you’re going to hear from me again. This time? Pearl by Tabitha King.

I have to admit that I decided to pick up Pearl by Tabitha King after realizing she was Stephen King’s wife. I didn’t know about the book, didn’t know Stephen’s wife was also a writer, or anything. I was immediately curious what kind of writer she might be.

Pearl presents us with Pearl Dickenson, a woman who has inherited a home in a small New England community from a family she has almost no personal connection to. She knew her mother, and then only her grandmother when her mother died. No one else personally. This relates (in ways that may not be completely elaborated) to the fact that Pearl’s mother and grandmother were white, whereas Pearl’s father was black.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Pearl is capable and knows what she wants. She buys a diner in town and is immediately successful. However, there are parts of herself she is not completely able to control. Against her better judgment, she cannot resist getting into sexual relationships almost simultaneously with two very different men in the small town. The first is a rich and indolent young poet pretty boy named David Christopher:

Inside was all shadows and she could almost feel the house exhaling coolness. David Materialized out of them from somewhere, barefoot, in shorts and an unbuttoned crinkled gauze shirt, its long sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Despite the interior shadow, he wore sunglasses.


Solemnly he flung open the door. It cracked smartly against the siding and he caught it as it came back, sparing Pearl an ungraceful jump over the stoop to avoid the door spanking her calves. He led her through the dark entry hall past a galley kitchen.

Abruptly the house opened into the living room, three stories high, with a wall all of glass facing the lake. It was a breathtaking wedge of space that dwarfed the two of them, an alien intrusion of right angles into the natural world of forest, lake, and mountain, and yet in scale with the enormous old pines, the vast containment of the lake’s water, the leap of the land toward the sky that made the mountains reach.

and the second is a burly and laconic mechanic named Reuben Styles:

He knocked politely at the screen door.

“Come in, Reuben, it’s open.”

“Pearl, you’re up late,” he said, flashing her a grin that was just a wee bit slowed with legal anesthetic. He breathed a yeasty zephyr over her.

“You too. Excuse my dishabille. Thanks for the berries.”

“It was too hot to sleep,” he explained.

She struggled to keep a straight face.

“Actually,” he said shyly, “those are your berries. I picked ’em on your land.”

“Do tell. Sit down.”

He pulled up a straight-back chair, turned it around, and sat down with its back for an arm rest.

She offered him a berry and he popped it into his mouth with great relish.

“I shouldn’t. I ate a lot when I was picking ’em.

She giggled. “I remember picking strawberries at a farm as a kid and eatin’ too many.”

He grinned. She was looking at the way his mouth hitched up ironically when he did that, and not thinking about the box of berries, and she sat up. The box spilled and they both reached for it and came up with each other’s hands. Oh man, why couldn’t you have waited till the fall, when poets fall off the trees and get swept back to the cities? Her stomach tightened up, partly in panic, partly in a nearly hurtful arousal. It seemed David hadn’t satisfied her after all, but only awakened her to what she had been missing.

David is unbalanced, occasionally suicidal, still not over the murder of his sister as a child. Reuben has his problems too, a daughter running wild and a wife who ran off with a preacher. Either would make Pearl’s life complicated, but the combination of both is a sure-fire recipe for a crash. Pearl knows this better than anyone, but can’t stop herself and can never manage to tell each about the other.

Life in the town starts to get more complicated. Reuben’s daughter’s boyfriend brutalizes her and Reuben puts him in the hospital, giving Reuben’s ex wife a chance to try to take custody. David has episodes that disturb Pearl deeply. People start to notice the affairs. Pearl, against what she really wants to do, keeps juggling. Things will come to a head, though. That is the one certainty.

King lays down solid, literary lines. Pearl reminded me of John Irving or Richard Ford a bit, but still a distinctive voice over them. The characters are full and tangible, the storyline is engaging, and the descriptions are vivid. I can’t understand why Pearl isn’t still in print, because it is very good. It isn’t one of my all time favorites or anything, but King is definitely an accomplished author.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Those of you who are paying attention may notice that I, Dave, am going two weeks in a row. Kim is still working on Steinbeck’s East of Eden and in the interests of giving her sufficient time to really give a good look at that one (because I think it really deserves full attention), I offered to go again this week. No worries, though, Kim will be on for the next two weeks.

Anyway, I’d heard good things about The Handmaid’s Tale, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of it. To be honest, I tend to prefer Atwood’s more realistic work. I loved Cat’s Eye, but was a little colder on The Year of the Flood. Still, The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood, right? You can’t really go wrong. I knew I’d hit it eventually.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Chitra Divakaruni and 10th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Of course, the book is good. Dystopianists everywhere surely have this book on their master lists. Just think about it, the United States has been violently taken over by a theocracy that has stripped women of most rights (property, work, even reading) and instituted a bizarre system when fertile but politically unconnected women are forced (by one means or another and by varying degrees of one kind of force or another) to bear children for the childless elite:

            Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed.

            My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus of the product. If any. The rings of her left hand cut into my fingers. It may or may not be revenge.

            My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.

Even worse for the narrator, Offred (not her real name, the name assigned to her as a handmaiden when her identity and everything else about her as a person was removed), she remembers when it wasn’t always this way. She once had a career, an independent life, even a husband and child. However, all that is gone. Stolen. She lives a hollow, bare existence. She either produces a child, if the Commander can even sire one, or she dies. Even if she has a child, it won’t be hers. If you are looking for dystopian literature, this is certainly it.

Granted, this world Atwood paints is far worse for women than men. However, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t disturb me. If you are a human being, this book should bother you. If it doesn’t bother you, then I might ask you not to stand too close to me.

This Republic of Gilead (the setting of this story) is dark and inconceivable, but like the best of dystopian literature…one can unfortunately see modern tendrils suggesting how we might end up there from here. I wouldn’t malign anyone existing now by saying that they would want a Gilead type world, but things rarely end up where they are aimed.

Dystopian literature needs this. It needs to frighten us and seem an impossible world, but it needs to contain that germ of a threat that our world could lead there if people aren’t careful. For me, The Handmaid’s Tale definitely contains that germ.

In the end, The Handmaid’s Tale still isn’t my favorite Atwood. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though. Atwood has simply written such marvelous things that, as good as this book is, it still isn’t my favorite.

After all, The Handmaid’s Tale is a captivating story. It is dark and threatening and I was definitely on the edge of my chair with worry for Offred. The world is horribly unpleasant, but I still had a good time reading. It may not be what I consider the best of Atwood, but I don’t think it is one that should be overlooked. The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely a book that needs to be read.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

To be honest, felt a little pressure when I picked up A Prayer for Owen Meany to ponder it for this blog. Kim wanted to see what I thought about it in relation to The World According to Garp. Also, I’ve got friends who are seriously pissed about the apparent situation where literary people shake their heads at you if you say writers like John Irving or John Steinbeck (whom I adore) are among your favorite writers. That just felt like a lot of pressure.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Jennifer Weiner)

But, let’s set all that aside for a moment. Let’s get down to A Prayer for Owen Meany.  The story is told by a character named Johnny Wheelwright and relates to his memory of, and how he was changed by, his friend Owen Meany. Though most of the important events happen to, or involve, Owen, the story really centers (at least to me) on how this all effects Johnny.

Owen is a peculiar child, excessively small and possessing an extremely odd voice:

            In Sunday school, we developed a form of entertainment based on abusing Owen Meany, who was so small that not only did his feet not touch the floor when he sat in his chair–his knees did not extend to the edge of his seat; therefore, his lefs stuck out straight, like the legs of a doll. It was as if Owen Meany had been born without realistic joints.


            In Sunday school, when we held Owen up in the air–especially, in the air!–he protested so uniquely. We tortured him, I think, in order to hear his voice; I used to think his voice came from another planet. Now I’m convinced it was a voice not entirely of this world.

            “PUT ME DOWN!” he would say in a strangled, emphatic falsetto. “CUT IT OUT! I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS ANYMORE. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. PUT ME DOWN! YOU ASSHOLES!”

However, Owen is far from meek. Indeed, he indeed becomes a most amazing individual:

            Directly opposite the Main Academy Building, the headmaster was getting into his camelhair overcoat; his wife, Sam, was brushing the nap of that pretty coat for him, and kissing her husband good-bye for the day. It would be a bad day for the headmaster–a FATED day, Owen Meany might have called it–but I’m sure Randy White didn’t have his eyes on the future that morning. He thought he was finished with Owen Meany. He didn’t know that, in the end, Owen Meany would defeat him; he didn’t know about the vote of “no confidence” the faculty would give him–or the decision of the Board of Trustees to not renew his appointment as headmaster. He couldn’t have imagined what a travesty Owen Meany’s absence would make of the commencement exercises that year–how such a timid, rather plain, and much-ignored student, who was the replacement valedictorian of our class, would find the courage to offer as a valedictory only these words: “I am not the head of this class. The head of this class is Owen Meany; he is The Voice of our class–and the only voice we want to listen to.” Then that good, frightened boy would sit down–to tumultuous pandemonium: our class raising their voices for The Voice, bedsheets and more artful banners displaying his name in capital letters (of course), and the chanting that drowned out the headmaster’s attempts to bring us to order.

            “Owen Meany! Owen Meany! Owen Meany!” cried the Class of ’62.

Owen may be small and have a strange voice, but he is indeed ‘fated’ to do great things. He is chosen by god, though perhaps not like you might think. Still, even though Owen is the one chosen and the book details his life minutely, the book is still about Johnny. Or rather, his observation of Owen and how Owen impacts his life and his faith in god.

Well, that’s all fine and good…but that’s all just summary. I suppose the real question, the question I feel all the pressure about mentioned above, is: what do I think?

Frankly, I liked A Prayer for Owen Meany a great deal. I think I may have even liked it better than The World According to Garp. It has a great story with great characters and great description. There is also a real touching pull to it.

However, personally, I still only liked it so much. It is still the style you should expect from Irving, and Irving is more of a maximalist than is my taste. A Prayer for Owen Meany just seemed thicker than it needed to be, and that made the pacing different than I would have wanted. It also seemed like there was a little bit of loose-end tying toward the end as opposed to natural development of events.

Of course, that’s all personal. It is still a good book, even if there were things I didn’t like about it. How’s that? I think I’ve managed to answer the people above about A Prayer for Owen Meany in a way that probably satisfies no one, other than perhaps me. I call that a job well done.

The Stand by Stephen King.

I have a confession.  I _didn’t_ read the Stand in the last week.

However, I feel eminently qualified to talk about it here, as I have read it at least 12 times in my lifetime.  You tend to remember a lot about a book when you read it that many times.  Yes, it is a favorite.  I read it for the first time at 12 years old and probably read it last a year or two ago.

Apparently David Foster Wallace and Jennifer Weiner also felt it was worth it.  They listed it in their top ten.  They might have read it 12 or more times too but maybe not.

I was ecstatic that at least one of King’s books made it in this book.  I personally think The Shining should have also been in here, but eh, I wasn’t asked for my top ten.

Today, I will be covering three areas.  My prior debate partners will be thrilled I’m sure at the three areas and my forecasting of them.  First, I will cover The Stand itself and a couple of brief notes on the mini series made from the book.  Secondly, I will cover why I personally feel this is some of the best apocalypse literature out there.  Finally, I will cover people’s misconceptions about Stephen King and people’s close minded views on him and his career.

First thing about The Stand.  It is long.  I don’t think it’s quite as long as Les Miserables, but it might be.  However, it is infinitely easier to read.  There are no sections on The Battle of Waterloo for the sole purpose of using the last two lines to introduce characters.  There are no sections on argot.  King isn’t interested in making long, involved meanderings from the narrative to make comments on poverty.

King covers a few different main characters from start to finish.  King describes the characters, not by description per se, but by narrative involving them.  For instance, Stu, one of the main characters is in a gas station in a small Texas town in the beginning.  King manages to give you more about his character by showing his reaction to a car plowing into a pump than by the description of him.  Larry, another main character, has a hit that climbs the charts (he’s a musician).  King shows his downward spiral as he throws the longest and hugest party in a long time.  King shows his character by describing his walk onto a beach with an acquaintance who wants to give him the hard truth, then his resulting actions, and his arrival back in New York City and his mother.  He describes Fran, by showing her reaction to a pregnancy and a confrontation with her mother.  He describes Harold, a neighbor of Fran’s by the clothes he wears, the language he uses, his actions of resourcefulness.  He describes Nick, a deaf-mute by the beating and resultant jailing and resultant friendship with the sheriff, more than by his descriptive words of him.  This is one of the things I love about King, he may use a lot of words, but in the end you feel you know the characters almost or better than you know yourself.    The story is about what happens when the government accidentally releases a “super-flu” with a 99% transmission rate and a 100% fatality rate.  The flu works by constantly shifting.  Like if you have the influenza virus, your body creates antibodies to fight it.  The super-flu works by constantly shifting antigens, basically the type of flu you have.  King describes the trail of the beginning of transmission, which I always have felt is neat.  He describes different people as they contract it and die from it.   The main characters (of which I only listed a few) all are immune, as you might have guessed.  At the beginning, before they too are infected, the government does try to find a vaccine (because apparently they weren’t smart enough to have developed it to keep themselves safe) by taking people from Stu’s town to isolate them, then figure out why Stu doesn’t have it.  Eventually, all of the people are dead except those that were immune.  King then takes a few pages to describe the people that die from a second wave of events, like a child falling in a well, a woman firing an old gun that backfires and kills her, a man jogging himself to death due to grief.  The next section of the book describes them making their way across the country (the survivors).  They have been having two dreams, one of an old black woman in Nebraska and one of the “dark man” or Randall Flagg.  The black woman represents security, goodness.  The dark man, terror.  They eventually find Abigail Freemantle, a prophet and seer, who says she has dreams to go to Boulder Colorado.  In the panicked days, a rumor had started that the flu was originating from a source in the city.  There was a mass exodus, leaving the city strangely empty.  They settle there, survivors keep trickling in.  They implement a government of sorts.  Then the battle of good versus evil (side of Abigail vs. the side of Flagg) begins.  This is where I will end, in order not to spoil the ending.

I believe this to be one of the great apocalypse stories for a couple of different reasons.  Unlike a nuclear apocalypse, King derived a way to keep the world intact, if empty of people.  King also describes in great detail the things that the survivors do, like canned food, siphoning gas, etc. etc.  I love how he describes both during and after.  I always think apocalypse stories leave too much out.  It’s probably why I like The Walking Dead so much too.  He does have characters die during the story, but it fits in perfectly into the story he weaves.  I can’t think of any other concrete reasons I can put down here.  I have read a lot of apocalypse stories and this one remains my favorite.

Finally, I get tired of people’s misconceptions and refusal of Stephen King.  There are those that refuse to read him since he got away from the bloody horror stuff.  I know, I know, there are probably straight genre readers of horror and King’s genre readers didn’t like where he has gone.  However, if they bothered to read, they would find many of his stories still carry a tone of horror, a tone of the supernatural.  Many people like this stopped reading way before Bag of Bones, one of King’s greatest horror stories in my opinion.  And they refuse to read it.

Then there are those that stopped reading after Gerald’s Game or some other book that they didn’t like.  Um, the man has written around 68 books as of 2013.  I’m sure that anyone that had written that many  (that wasn’t a franchise writer such as Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts who like to put the same character types in a different setting while trying to tell the same story) would have a dud or two.  I’m sure most of those that stopped reading have never written a thing on their own, so a judgment based on one book they didn’t like is asinine.  I personally disliked The Tommyknockers when I read it, and it was published in the mid 80s.  I still disliked it when I reread it in 2012.  However, there are many of those 68 books written since then that I have adored.  Bag of Bones and Duma Key to name just two.  So I urge those of you that gave up on King after one book you disliked to try again.  You might rediscover an author you previously loved.

I also want to address those “literary” types.  King has been criticized his entire career by critics, by other authors and by those readers that read a book because it makes them look intelligent.  Again, the man has written 68 original books (each story is different and unique, not formulaic at all), have any of those people done that?  I think a little bit of it is jealousy.  There seems to be a prejudice against an author that makes a ton of money and sells a lot of books.  Maybe they believe that only books that sell limited copies and make limited amounts are good, as your average reader doesn’t like great works of literary fiction.  King has won a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American letters.  Here is a list of the number of awards King has won since his career began.  It might be time for people to suck it up and read one of his books.

King tells a good story.  That is his main goal.  And that is what he achieves in most of those 68 books.  If you dislike horror, guts and gruesomeness, read his later works.  Some of them are almost not even close to horror.  If you like blood and guts, read the earlier books, then read the rest.

If you want to read what King himself thinks of “literary” types,  read the introduction of Full Dark, No Stars.  Which by the way has some very non horror fiction in it.

Thanks for listening to my rant 🙂  As you can tell, King ranks up there on favorite authors for me.  I grew up with him.  Well he was already an adult of course.  I read my first King novel, Firestarter at 10.  I’ve been reading him since.  I have re-read a lot of his books.  I read them so fast the first time that I want to find the things I missed.  And they are just as good as the first time.  Also, another note, King always, always makes sure his novels are unabridged when put on audio format.  He also reads Bag of Bones himself, which is amazing.  He finds the best audio book narrators.  If you don’t feel like reading one of his books, pick one up and listen.

Ok.  The end.

Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York by Gail Parent

Although I haven’t previously read most of the books we talk about here on the blog, it isn’t like I am exactly unfamiliar with the vast majority of them. Most of them I’d intended to read for quite a while, having heard a great deal about them, but just haven’t gotten around to it (BEFORE I read and talk about them). I mean, I knew about books like Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita, and so on. However, I had never even heard of Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York before checking out The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. This one was a completely new territory for me.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Frankly, I ran across the title and immediately knew I had to read it. The description only further cemented my decision. The subject? A young woman, Sheila Levine, has reached the age of thirty while living in New York and, despite her most desperate efforts, has been unable to get married. As such, she decides to kill herself. Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York is her suicide note.

Now, before you think I’m really dark here, this alone wouldn’t have sparked my interest. But, when you combine the above with the all-important line from the description I read that this is perhaps the funniest suicide note ever written, well…that changes everything. That’s what caught my attention.

But, let’s have Sheila herself speak on the topic:

Yes, I am going to kill myself. When they find my body in my small, overpriced one-room apartment, it will be slumped over this suicide note. My father will read it and nod his head. My mother will take it to bed with her and read a little each night with a glass of warm milk, slowly massaging wrinkle cream on her hands and face. My sister will skim through, and my friends…my friends? No, no real friends. Sorry.

My name is (was?) Sheila Levine. Sheila Levine? People named Sheila Levine don’t go around killing themselves. Suicide is so un-Jewish.

I lived, when I lived, at 211 East Twenty-fourth Street, formerly of East Sixty-fifth Street, formerly of West Thirteenth Street, formerly of Franklin Square, Long Island, formerly of Washington Heights. Which means there are only about a hundred thousand other Jewish girls like me. Exactly like me, all with hair that has to be straightened, noses that have to be straightened, and all looking for husbands. ALL LOOKING FOR HUSBANDS. Well, girls, all you Jewish lovelies out there, good news! The competition will be less. Sheila Levine has given up the fight. She is going to die.

In short, Sheila is sick of it. She was conditioned from an early age to aspire only to getting married and having children. She goes to college and wants to get a ‘creative job,’ but other than dreams from the movies (that involve marriage), she doesn’t even really know what that is. Anyway, all the jobs out there for young women involve typing and nothing creative. So, she does anything she can to land guys and get married. Instead, all she gets is guys she isn’t even interested in. Worse, even they aren’t interested in marrying her. She’s sick of it all and she is going to kill herself.

Looking back at that description, I expect that I would have been bored to tears by this book…but I wasn’t. Sheila herself kept me raptly interested from first page to last. Sure, she’s bitching the whole time, but she’s hilarious:

            “So, Sheila, how was your date?”

            “Boring, awful, disgusting.”

            “Did he ask you out again?”

            “Yes. I really can’t stand him. He’s so repulsive to me. There’s something wrong with him. He’s too Jewish.”

            “He sounds very nice. When are you going to see him again?”

            “A week from Saturday[.]”

Here is another fun one:

            “I don’t know, Mom. I’ll be home the first chance I get. [She must have thought I was Baby Jane Holzer.] Listen, Mom, could I borrow the car on Saturday?”

            “Where are you going?” (Mom, for God’s sake, I’m thirty years old. Can’t I once borrow the car without telling you where I’m going?)

            “I’m going up to Connecticut to Bingo Memorials to pick out my gravestone.” (I didn’t say that.)

            I did say: “I’m going up to Connecticut with this boy I met a few weeks ago. He said he loves Connecticut and I said I love Connecticut, so we’re going up there just for the day.” (I knew by now exactly the right thing to say.)

            “Very nice. Why don’t the two of you come out here first and pick up the car?” (She wanted a look-see at my fictitious beau.)

            “He would love to come, Mom, but he can’t.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because he doesn’t really exist. I made him up.” (I didn’t say that either.)

Now, I do want to consider possible feminist themes in the book. After all, I would assume that they would be there in a book about a girl who is conditioned to want marriage and is going to kill herself when such is impossible. However, and you’ll have to read the book for this, marriage seems to be what Sheila really wants. Sure, she wishes at one point that a girl could be happy AND single, but Sheila never really wants anything but marriage. I just don’t think this book carries an extremely feminist message as whether or not Sheila was programmed on the ‘Mrs’ track, that’s all she really and most deeply desires.

All in all, for me, Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York is about Sheila. Sheila is bizarre, fun, and going to kill herself. Perhaps it makes me look a bit morbid, but all that fascinated me. I didn’t want Sheila to die, but I was thrilled to listen to her go on and on about it. I have a feeling other people will be as interested in Sheila as I was. There just aren’t a whole lot of books like Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York.


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.

Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks

Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks is a book I’ve been intending to get around to for years. I’ve seen it in bookstores and always passed it up for some reason. I’d heard a lot of talk about the book, though nothing really that told me anything about the book, so I definitely intended to take a look. Well, now I’ve read it. Though I enjoyed myself, I do have to wonder what all the fuss was about.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Jennifer Weiner.)

So, what is the book about? Well, we have fourteen-year-old Bone, except that isn’t really his name. He takes that name on later, but we’ll just call him that for sake of clarity.

Bone’s life at the start of the book isn’t too pretty. He smokes a lot of pot. His dad ran off on him when he was really little, his alcoholic step dad molested him, and his mom isn’t worth real much. He ends up getting kicked out of his house (drugs, stealing his mothers coin collection for drugs, etc.) and goes to live with a friend who is pretty much a flunky for some dangerous bikers:

            Russ was my friend. And the bikers were my friends too, even though they were older and kid of unpredictable. Russ had hooked up with them because of his job at the Video Den, which he’d had since before he quit school and got kicked out of his house for doing drugs. But the job was only part-time days and he couldn’t afford the apartment over the store on his own so he offered to share it with this one guy he knew, Bruce Walther who was more or less a friendly biker in spite of how he looked.

            But then Bruce’d started bringing his friends into the place.


            So they moved in, different ones, four or five of them at a time and sometimes their girlfriends who they called their old ladies or just split-tails or gash but the same ones never stayed long. The squat was this big funky apartment owned by Rudy LaGrande the guy who ran the Video Den with three bedrooms and a bunch of mostly broken furniture. The stove partially worked though and the refrigerator but I remember the toilet was stopped up a lot that winter. Russ still paid half the rent but only got the pantry off the kitchen for his room where he had a mattress on the floor and his old stereo from home and his heavy metal tapes and Playboy collection all of which the bikers used whenever they wanted so Russ kept a lock on the door.

Eventually, as one might expect, Bone and Russ get in over their head with the bikers. As such, they flee. Eventually, Bone hooks up with a cryptic Rastafarian man and even accompanies this guy back to Jamaica:

            After a while we ended up cutting off from the beach and went back into the bushes on a zigzaggy path I’d’ve never seen on my own if I hadn’t been following I-Man. Finally we came to this bamboo fence with a gate that had a red and green and gold lion’s head pained on it and when we went through the date there was this little sandy yard and then I-Man picked up a candle from a shelf beside a door and lit it and went through the door into a bamboo cave which was actually a house, this incredible house with high steep ceilings that were thatched like in Africa and walls built entirely out of bamboo tied together with vines and there were all these little circular rooms and hallways going off of each other in a hundred different directions like and ant farm I once made for school.

            The rooms had bunches of huge pillows placed around the walls for sitting on like in a harem and hammocks for sleeping in and low tables and curtains made out of beads hanging at the doors and pictures of Rasta heroes on the walls like Marcus Garvey who I-Man said was the first Jamaican to figure out how to get back to Africa and Martin Luther King who I recognized on my own and an African king in a suit named Mandela I-Man told me when I said who’s that and of course the head Rasta, Haile Selassie himself, Negus of Bathsheba, Emperor of Ethiopia, Jah Rastafar-i. I was learning a lot.

As one might expect, Bone does some growing up in the book. He goes through some bad shit, matures, and experiences some sadness when he realizes how far he has come from where he started. I won’t go through everything, since that would kind of spoil the book. I think you get the idea.

Now, the story is interesting. A lot of exciting and exotic things certainly happen. Also, the characters are well done. I thought Bone’s voice in particular rang really true to a fourteen-year-old who is something of a delinquent but means well. Still, beyond that, nothing about the book really sang to me. I just didn’t get into it very much.

I mean, what was all the fuss about? Sure, some exciting things happen…just not exciting enough to make this one of the best books of all time. Sure, Bone gets into stuff that no kid of his age should…but it’s not like he’s the first fourteen-year-old to do drugs and get in over his head with dangerous bikers (though the Rastafarians I am less sure about). Still, what is the fuss?

I do want to say, I enjoyed Rule of the Bone. It is very well written and is well worth reading. However, I just didn’t find it to be the life changing experience that all the hype had led me to expect. Being told someone thought it one of the ten best books of all time didn’t help either. It’s good, but it isn’t magic.

Frankly, I would have probably enjoyed Rule of the Bone a whole lot more if I hadn’t heard a word about it beforehand. It is not a bad little book, but I just don’t see why people have thrown all this other stuff on its shoulders. All that expectation kind of ruins the good things that Rule of the Bone has to offer.

Bottom line? Read Rule of the Bone, just don’t go into it expecting that it is going to be one of the best books of all time. Enjoy what it has and leave it at that. Not every book has to be on the list of the best books of all time.