Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.07

I’m only reviewing two books in this edition of the Book Blather. I did read a third book in July, but it’s thematically similar to the one I’m reading now, so I’m planning to put them together in a special blather sometime in the first half of August.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith. Honestly, I’m having a bit of a hard time figuring out how to review this book. Partly, it’s because I should really write the review of each book soon after I finish reading it, perhaps giving it a few days to digest, but not waiting to get through another few books and then write it up at the end of the month. Since finishing Brooklyn, I’ve read another powerful book that I have lots to say about, and now I’m finding this one almost too far gone. I try to write the reviews promptly, but sometimes that’s harder than others. However, on the other hand, part of the reason I didn’t start the review right away is that I wasn’t sure what to say even at that early point.

I enjoyed Brooklyn. It was a great way to learn about the social context of living in poverty in the immigrant slums of Brooklyn at the turn of the last century. The book is primarily a coming of age story about Francie Nolan, but we also learn so much about lives of her immigrant grandparents and first-generation American parents and aunts.

Although they live on the edge for most of Francie’s childhood, without much to eat, few personal possessions, and sometimes without heat for the apartment, the Nolans are never homeless thanks primarily to Francie’s mother Katie, who works hard as a cleaning woman, securing a room in a tenement as payment for that work. Johnny, Francie’s father, is a beautifully-hearted young man, but an alcoholic who can’t hold down a job and makes money as an occasional swinging waiter. His will be a short life.

Although Johnny is not dependable and is, in many ways, a failure while Katie keeps the family going, both parents teach Francie and Neeley, her brother, valuable, though different, lessons. Katie teaches hard work and discipline, perseverance and making the most of what you’ve got, while Johnny teaches joy and compassion, beauty and empathy. I think one prime example of this is the role of music in the book. Upon moving into a new building, the Nolans inherit a piano that the prior tenants can’t afford to move. Katie notices a pair of spinster sisters downstairs give piano lessons and she barters with them to get lessons for herself in return for her cleaning services. Katie has Francie and Neeley sit in the room with her while she has her lessons, then they all practice, with Katie trying to impart all she’s learned, once the formal lesson is over. The piano teacher isn’t fooled by the 3-for-1 attempt, but allows it to continue. Through these machinations and efforts, Katie and her children learn to play the piano.

Meanwhile, music comes easy to Johnny who simply lives with it in his soul. It is a part of his world, and he sings to announce his arrival home in the evenings. His singing is a predominant memory in Francie’s childhood. It is a simple gift that brings joy and beauty to an otherwise harsh existence.

The juxtaposition of working hard to better oneself through learning, and recognizing and creating the beauty in your own existence pretty much sums up the twin lessons Francie takes from her parents.

Johnny also teaches Francie to feel compassion and empathy for others and not to judge them. Once when a prostitute approaches Johnny, Francie asks if she was a bad lady because she looked bad. Johnny told Francie, “There are very few bad people. There are just a lot of people that are unlucky.”

The structure of the book is a little strange. It begins with an in-depth detailing of a day in the life of young Francie, then moves into a section that seems primarily like a series of vignettes, barely woven together, or even necessarily chronological, as the years pass and Francie becomes a young woman. Perhaps this is intentional since memories of childhood may be more about moments than about having a through line.

Francie has to leave school after middle school so that she can get a job when her father dies, and here the book turns back into a more chronological telling of the story. She has to pretend to be 16 for 2-3 years before her 16th birthday in order to get those jobs, but she is able to support her family and they live more securely than they ever have before, as Francie moves into white collar office work thanks to the education on which her parents always placed value. Working full-time on the night shift, Francie helps take care of her baby sister during the morning while her mother cleans the tenement, then takes classes through the local college’s summer program in the afternoon. After failing the exam that would allow her to officially enroll in college without her high school diploma, Francie studies Neeley’s high school textbooks, learning all she now knows is on the test so that she can pass it later and continue with her schooling by the end of the book.

Brooklyn is the quintessential novel of the American Dream. Poor immigrants who can’t speak English raise their first generation American children, who live a poor, but slightly better, life due to the minimal education they’ve been able to get in the public schools (minimal because they had to leave early to start working). The grandchildren of the immigrants then find a path out of poverty through their own access to education and the hard work they all exhibit throughout. It’s one of those great American stories that you read and wonder if it’s still possible today.

Access to education through the public school system is obviously an incredibly important theme in the book, but so is the acknowledgement that not all schools are created equal. To allow Francie to enroll in a better school than the one in her neighborhood, Johnny writes a letter to her principal saying that Francie needs to transfer to a school a couple of miles away because she’s going to live with relatives at a random address they’ve selected near the new school. Francie walks back and forth to the school every day, including coming home for lunch, and never gets in trouble so that the school will never have a reason to send a letter to that address. It’s a small fraud on Johnny’s part, and one which is easily perpetrated in those days before report cards being mailed home and databases tracking students. As Smith writes, “It was a good thing that she got herself into this other school. It showed her that there were other worlds beside the world she had been born into and that these other worlds were not unattainable.”

In all of this, it’s a very worthwhile book, but I had a hard time feeling really connected to any of the characters. Yes, I got a little teary-eyed when Johnny died, but there were no really intense feelings and, honestly, the effect of a papa’s death on a little girl should have me sobbing. Somehow the book held its distance from me. It almost felt like I was watching a documentary. Perhaps Smith spent too much time describing the life the Nolans were living rather than the thoughts and feelings they had about it.

Definitely worth reading, but I didn’t find it carried a huge punch.

The Prince of Tides – Pat Conroy. This book selection was made at the overwhelming recommendation of my parents, who have described their love of Pat Conroy books and asked if I’d read one yet multiple times since I started my reading commute. Well, honestly, meh.

I spoke with my parents one weekend when I was about a third of the way into the book and my mom told me she had started reading the Ann Patchett book I blathered on about back in the May post. Her main comment was that Patchett would never use one word if five would do.

I literally laughed out loud, because that is my exact perception of Conroy, except instead of five words, he’ll use five sentences. There were pages and pages of descriptive paragraphs that just seemed to go on and on without adding much more to the feel of the scene.

As for the characters, I loved Luke and Tolitha, their grandmother, but I found the adult Savannah (as told through Tom’s remembrances) to be pretty annoying, actually. It’s certainly not that she was a victim. It’s that she was a holier-than-thou martyr, constantly telling Tom how much better she was than him since she’d moved to New York, and dismissing him as someone who didn’t know how it was “to be a woman in this world”. Tom was fine.

I did enjoy reading the stories about the family’s past and Tom’s childhood, and found those sections flowed very well and the dialogue worked. However, the dialogue of adult Tom and the characters in “present” day felt rather contrived.

I always knew what the big reveal was since I had seen the movie, but it was so many years ago that I remembered very little else, including having no memory of Luke’s unfortunate end – was that even in the movie? All that’s to say that I don’t think I was much influenced by the fact that I saw the movie first.

Well, to each their own I guess. Patchett for me and Conroy for my parents!