The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I have to say, I was expecting to find that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was the original idea for Dead Poets Society. After all, iconoclast teacher shapes students to be exceptional certainly sounds like that. I thought was going to find that Muriel Spark had anticipated Dead Poet Society by twenty years, and that it was a story of young women not young men. However, though there are a number of similarities and there may have been an influence, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is more complicated than that.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for A.L. Kennedy and 3rd for Alexander McCall Smith.)

After all, Miss Brodie is not pursued by students eagerly coming towards the world, ending up then dramatically shaping who they become as people. Rather, she seeks them out…intending to cultivate a select few into the “crème de la crème.” She’s unconventional and individualistic, but she’s also somewhat blindly opinionated and has highly subjective views of what is cultivated or not, far from perfect. She’s also a bit ridiculous in endlessly talking about how she’s working “in her prime” (the phrase “her prime” must be referred to hundreds of times within the space of this relatively short novel, both by Miss Brodie and the girls) to lead these young women out of themselves:

Miss Brodie stood in her brown dress like a gladiator with raised arm and eyes flashing like a sword. “Hail Caesar!” she cried again, turning radiantly to the window light, as if Caesar sat there. “Who opened the window?” said Miss Brodie dropping her arm.

Nobody answered.

“Whoever has opened the window has opened it too wide,” said Miss Brodie. “Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar. One should have an innate sense of these things. We ought to be doing history at the moment according to the time-table. Get our your history books and prop them up in your hands. I shall tell you a little more about Italy. I met a young poet by a fountain. Here is a picture of Dante meeting Beatrice—it is pronounced Beatrichay in Italian which makes the name beautiful—on the Ponte Vecchio. He fell in love with her at that moment. Mary, sit up and don’t slouch. It was a sublime moment in a sublime love. By whom was the picture painted?”

Nobody knew.

“It was painted by Rossetti. Who was Rossetti, Jenny?”

“A painter,” said Jenny.

Miss Brodie looked suspicious.

“And a genius,” said Sandy, to come to Jenny’s rescue.

“A friend of—?” said Miss Brodie.

“Swineburne,” said a girl.

Miss Brodie smiled. “You have not forgotten,” she said, looking round the class. “Holidays or no holidays. Keep your history books propped up in case we have any further intruders.” She looked disapprovingly towards the door and lifted her fine dark Roman head with dignity. She had often told the girls that her dead High had admired her head for its Roman appearance.

She’s also a fascist.

She molds her girls as she wants them, even trying to get one of them to become the lover of the art teacher, whom she herself loves but cannot have because he is married. The school wants her out and relentlessly tries to force her retirement, but she skillfully avoids this until one of her own students deliberately betrays her…simply to overcome Miss Brodie, to put a stop to her seemingly unstoppable influence.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a wonderful novel for both the characters and the interpersonal complexity. You have to love how vivid and differentiated each of these people are. More than that though, you have to adore how they interact across time. It’s certainly not all good, but it is rich and complex. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a marvelous book, and unsettling in many unexpected ways.

F250 by Bud Smith

Kim suggested recently that we take a brief break from the list in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books and talk about some of the other books we’ve been reading recently that we think people should know about. Kim did that last week and discussed a few, and now it’s my turn. The moment she suggested it, I knew I was going to be talking about F250 by Bud Smith.

Right before the kid with the bloody face appears, a glass smashes in the kitchen. Someone shouts. I do nothing. I barely live here. My things are still in the pickup. Seth is trashed. I’m still horribly sober.

This is my first day back. There’s a purple Post-it note lying dusty on Seth’s coffee table. The note is dated months earlier, when I was probably in Idaho or Utah or Arizona or on the moon. It says, simply, “Call Natalie.”

Sure. That’s exactly what I want to do with my life, call Natalie. But here I am, on the back deck, alone, in-between calling her and not calling her—a state of telephone limbo. I should be getting trashed with everyone else at the party at this dilapidated house.

Lee Casey is at a stuck point in his life. He’s back at home after cruising the countryside aimlessly, doing small stonework jobs that do at least make him happy, off the track of those around him who’d started to grow up and go to college. He’s among friends similarly shipwrecked in a house that was supposed to be torn down months ago. It’s cool though, because they’re going to take their band to L.A. They’re going to really get going…except Lee knows they aren’t. He knows it isn’t going to happen, and it doesn’t.

He’s grounded and honest, taking pleasure in the solid things he has, but there aren’t really enough of those. His truck is the best metaphor for his life, a beat up monster he uses for hauling stone and cement with a tremendous amount of force…but little to no brakes:

There were a lot of crashes—into people, places, things, whatever was around. The truck was too heavy, I was weighed down, springs sagged, hills were too steep, roads were too slick—I couldn’t control it.

Too heavy, weighed down, couldn’t be controlled. Not the best idea, but not really one about which there was a whole lot of choice. You could just as accurately say these things about Lee’s life as his truck.

Still, though there is a lot Lee cannot control (a girl who cheats on him, a friend OD’ing, the trajectory of the band, and so on), there are some things that Lee simply does not control. He gets hung up on the big picture and doesn’t always take what control he can. You can’t really blame that; many people’s lives go that way.

When I think of Lee Casey after reading, I’m reminded of that ‘beaten yet blessed’ thing Kerouac supposedly said to describe the beat generation. I don’t know whether Kerouac really said what I think he did, but it fits the main character of F250 so well that I’m going with it. Beaten yet blessed, that’s Lee Casey in a nutshell. He’s had some pretty bad things happen for him, but some pretty good things too. He’s a good guy and doesn’t have a whole lot, but he can appreciate what he has and a certain kind of light seems to shine on him. It’s cool, and it’s delivered in some wonderful prose.

F250 often comes across quiet, though there is plenty of noise, but it moves with the relentless force of that F-250 with bad brakes. To some extent, we’re just fooling ourselves that there is any control…but we still need to take what control we can without sweating the rest. Lee Casey has a lot to say that you need to hear, but it’s not something he can say direct. You got to read the book; then you’ll get it.

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.