Monday, March 30, 2009

Book number 6 for this year is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

Now, a little bit of background as to why this book was chosen... I am a regular watcher of Jeopardy. I'm (not to brag) actually pretty good at it and so I like watching it and feel especially S-M-R-T when I get the Final Jeopardy answer and none of the contestants do. Yes, I take my victories where I can. Anyway! One of the categories a few weeks ago was American Literature, and over two separate questions, two contestants kept trying to give the answer 'A Tree Grows In Brooklyn'. I'd never heard of the book, but didn't think too much of it as my knowledge of American Lit isn't that great, having only had to take one half-credit in American Lit for my degree. So, when I was at the library a couple of weeks ago and spied the novel there, my curiosity was piqued and I picked it up.

First published in 1943, the book is a thinly disguised autobiography, but still, it works. It is the tale of Francie Nolan and her family, who are pretty much dirt poor, struggling to make ends meet in turn of the century Brooklyn. It's not a romanticized tale about being poor, it is pretty unflinching at what the family has to do to survive, and it is this realism that is one of the book's strong points. It is realism told in a beautifully crafted way and I think that's what makes this book just sing.

The female characters in this book are particularly strong, they are the ones who basically make the decisions, get things done, do what they have to do for the family to survive. Francie's mother Katie is the main breadwinner as Francie's father Johnny is an alchoholic and a dreamer. He's tries and he means well, and he is a good father, but he never... succeeds. Katie Nolan, works hard and quickly realizes that education is the key to her children having a better life than hers, and this is something that Katie's immigrant mother tried to instill in her a long time ago. Francie's aunts are also strong women, although you might not think so at first, and her Aunt Sissy is a completely fascinating character in her own way.

When I got to the ending, I at first was disappointed that so many of the strong women characters seemed to be being 'rescued' by men. But after a few thoughts, I realized that wasn't true. Katie Nolan accepts a marriage proposal from a long-time admirer and won't have to work as hard as she did. And I realized that it wasn't a rescue, but something that she deserved. I doubt Katie could ever stop completely working, it didn't seem to be in her makeup to be idle, but it meant she could stop worrying, she found someone who could share her burden and be a partner in the way Johnny Nolan couldn't have. And Francie, off she went to college, where she should be, with a sort of marriage proposal of her own in her future, but I also got the idea that she wouldn't just blindly accept the proposal because she needed a man to take care of her. She would accept it if the proposer still suited her. So basically, all the characters did end up in places that made sense for them and didn't diminish them.

I could go on and on about this book actually, but I won't :) Betty Smith's prose is gorgeous. She also seemed to be a bit of a feminist before her time. I understand why this book resonates so with people and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ack. So bad with updating... Too much stuff happening what with new house and, since getting new house, have also learned that I am pregnant. Which may mean I'll have more time to write during the summer, when I'm up at all hours, struggling to stay awake. Or not. Who knows.

So, what have I read since my 'year end' post in February?

Books #1 and 2 were cheesy romance novels because my brain just wasn't up for anything taxing just after moving. Surprisingly, one of them was pretty good, even though I can't remember the name of it right now.. The other, Once A Rebel, pretty standard romance stuff, but with pirates, so that's a bonus.

Book #3 was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. It's a gorgeous book, a throwback to such tales as "The Turn of the Screw, Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. A 'ghost' story without being a ghost story, and also a love letter to books and reading, I highly recommend this one and should really do a more in depth analysis of it. Truly gripping.

Book #4 was Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt. This book is a fabulous companion to Bill Bryson's Shakespeare because it is the complete opposite. Where Bryson's book pointed out how little we actually know about Shakepseare, Greenblatt's book takes what little we know and extrapolates from that. It is essentially historical fiction, but it works. There's long been (silly) questions about how a not increadibly educated man from rural England could've written all those marvelous works, but Greenblatt does a superlative job of taking what we know about Shakespeare and logically extrapolating how he could've written all those marvelous plays. A bit of a heavy read, but an extremely interesting one.

Book #5 was Wicked by Gregory Maguire. I thought this was a very interesting idea, and I generally like famous works told from another view point (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), but there was something about the execution of this novel that I just found... off. I liked the politicizing of Oz, and Elphaba was made fairly sympathetic (but perhaps not enough so?), but once the story did meet up with the actual Wizard of Oz events, I found it really didn't work. Somehow, Elphaba's actions as the Wicked Witch that Dorothy met didn't match the actions of the person we'd been reading about up till then and I found that jarring. Not a great book, but not too bad either.

I've done a bunch of re-reads as well at this point, but now with having a library right down the street, I'm aiming on going there regularly and so being able to up the new reads this year. Hopefully.