Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and a Home Depot Grows in the Bronx


Book Club Friends,
You can still read this because I'm not revealing plot in this reflection. Let me know what you're thinking about the book.

This past weekend we drove to the Poconos for a family party, and I read through a good chunk of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith on the way there. We never go through Brooklyn to get to P.A., but we do pass through the Bronx. I was snapping pictures in an effort to get a nice shot of an interesting tree and I looked like a tourist just to get a picture for this post. All the trees I found were boring, or came out blurry because the car was moving. I did get a great shot of a Home Depot sign in the Bronx, and it got me thinking about the metaphor in the title of this novel. As I understand it, the tree represents the character Francie, and the idea that despite one's environment or social economic class, a person can still reach his potential. Smith emphasises through the thoughts of the adult characters that education is the key to the American dream.

A tree may grow in Brooklyn, but a Home Depot grows in the Bronx. As I sat in the passenger seat delighted over this silly sign, I started wondering about the way the American dream is shifting, and the aspects of it that remain timeless. Just like the tree next to Francie's tenament, the billboard rises above the Bronx, in clear view of all passing over the bridge. Francie's story does the same. Then my mind wandered into a comparison with another classic book I love to pieces that is also set on Long Island, New York: The Great Gatsby. Meanwhile, the princess was screaming to stop the car so she could visit all of the potties in the tri-state area. Perhaps this billboard could be a metaphor for industrialization, I thought, while walking her into a McDonald's at a truck stop. Maybe it reflects the monopoly of super stores over the small business. Anyway, that's another book, as is our Potty Expedition.

There is so much I love about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, so far. The setting gives me a better idea of what life was like in New York in the early 1900's, but the characters are timeless and even modern in the struggles they face. It's the kind of book that makes you forget the time while you read, and you aren't tempted to count the number of pages until the end of the chapter. First of all, I have to say,

"Damn, this lady can write!"

I am fascinated by this author's fluid writing style. She makes it look so easy. The description pulls you into the minds and hearts of the characters, "showing you," not "telling you" the story, which is the mark of great writing. The dialogue is dead-on realistic, and very easy for my imagination since I live on Long Island and it reflects home for me.

The characters are endearing, and the story is littered with bits and pieces of universal life experiences. I love Francie, and her whole family. I understand both of her parents, her aunts, and grandparents in ways that bring tears to my eyes. I can sympathize with Francie's mother in her struggle to pull her children up out of poverty. Her resentment of Francie's father is mixed with a passionate love for him. She mourns his faults, but hers are just as great. I can see why she favors Francie's brother over her and understand why she neglects both her children in some respects, even though it disgusts me. Also, I love Francie's father for all of his charm and talent. I mourn his inability to reach his potential with him. Francie says that growing up she didn't realize that she was supposed to be ashamed of her father. I think she was right to not be ashamed, to see him purely for what he was minus what Addiction stole from him. He is a loving, good soul, a deeply sad character.

I thoroughly enjoy the character Sissy, Francie's aunt. I think she is such a fire cracker and I love how she advocates for her niece. I picture her being sort of like a Betty Boop. The characterization of Francie's maternal grandmother is also expertly done. I can really hear the accent in her voice when she talks; I can see her clearly in my mind's eye. The only characters I dislike so far are some of the teachers, the butcher who sells bad chopped meat, and Francie's maternal grandfather because he is a hateful man. Also, I don't really like Neely. I feel bad for his predicament and wonder if he'll ever live up to his mother's expectations, but at the same time I see him as a bit of a brat. However, even in the mist of my disdain for these characters, I am blown away by the way Smith crafts a scene. It is genius.

Since there are saltine crackers all over my den floor right now, I will end here, and write again when I finish the book. I'm about half way through just because I like it so much. Sorry I'm being such a nerd, maybe being so far ahead will make up for not finishing Les Miserables. Let's wait until July to start another one so everyone has plenty of time to really enjoy this book and read slowly. -Loren

31 comments:

Sandra said...

I went and checked it out at the library today. I'm starting on it tomorrow! :)

Loren Christie said...

Hi Sandra,
Sounds good. You're gonna love it too.

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

I agree with everything you said here! Except we should choose our next selection because I want to order a nice edition.

Loren Christie said...

Alright, let me know what ideas you all have about a July book. Is there something you've always wanted to read, but haven't yet?

rhymeswithplague said...

If you did go through Brooklyn to get to Pa., Pa. would end up being about 24,950 miles away.

rhymeswithplague said...

Sorry, I thought you lived in Manhattan, and Brooklyn would have been east instead of west. But now I see you live on Long Island, so I suppose you could get to Pa., by either the great northern arc route or the great southern arc route....

rhymeswithplague said...

Nothing makes up for not finishing Les Miserables.

Loren Christie said...

I just can't finish that Miserable book, Mr. Brague. :(

Brooklyn is a bit out of my way, being that I usually take the Throgs Neck to the Tapan Zee to get to my grandmother's. I made my own song about it and it goes like this:
"Over the Hudson and through the Bronx to grandmother's house we go."
My kids are too little to realize how uncool I am.

Loren Christie said...

Elizabeth, Candi, Sandra, and anyone else who wants to join us,

What do you all think of reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison in July? It's the coming of age story of a young African American man in the 1950's. Great writing.

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

Hmmmm, I generally don't read anything written after about 1920, for casual reading, but I'll look into it. I hope you read the SparkNotes for the end of Les Mis, please don't trust the movie to have gotten it right. The Anna Karenina movie I watched from 1997 got alot of things wrong including the ending, and even made it look like she lost her child when she didn't!

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

These come off the Easton Press list and look like good titles that we women can relate to:
42. Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
51. Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Sandra said...

I'm up for anything in July. It will be good to be introduced to good books that I've never read. I'll go along with whatever y'all do!

Loren Christie said...

Elizabeth, Why won't you read anything written after the 1920's for fun? There is a lot of good stuff! Both of the novels you mentioned revolve around affairs and adultery is boring me right now for some reason. {Now that sounds funny!) What do you think about Joyce Carol Oates? She was born around 1938 and her work is genius American literature. I'll read anything by her, but I have been interested in a book she published in 2004 called The Tatooed Girl. Check it out and tell me what you think of her. Out of the two you mentioned, Madame Bovary looks better to me. My difficulty with reading is if I can predict the outcome, or get bored, then I can't finish the book. I guess I'm the Book Club Pain in the Rear.

Loren Christie said...

Hi Sandra!

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

Well I said generally... For fun I have read several thrillers by Dean Koontz and Steven King and others but I can read those in a night and there is not much to really discuss. I really loved the writings of Ayn Rand but in general have been disappointed in the quality of writing of most modern authors I have picked up. I also love to be thrown into another time and place and feel like I am really learning something. I also have always felt like it was part of my self-education to read the Canon and have been working at it since I was little. I will look into Oates. Why do you say you're a pain? We all have to want to read the book or it won't be a good club. You're right, after I read the descriptions of both those selections and thought about it a little I thought maybe it was a little too much like Anna Karenina and we should have some variety. I read the description of Invisible Man and know I would not be interested. The whole existential philosophy of Albert Camus was so flighty to me when I read it in high school. But I would torture myself with it if you finished Les Mis :)

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

Oh gosh, I just read the description of Tattooed Girl and don't think it's for me. I am a little prejudiced just because of the title, to begin with. I think we discussed reading Brideshead Revisited once?

jen said...

I bought this book 20 years ago, but never finished it. I've read the Great G twice, and Loren, I just don't like it. I don't know why! Tell me, what am I missing? I hated the tragedy...

rhymeswithplague said...

It can now be revealed that I lived in Poughkeepsie (Dutchess County) for three years from 1965 to 1968, so Tappan Zee and Throgs Neck Bridge are familiar terms to me.

I once stayed for three nights at the Marriott in Uniondale or Islip or wherever it is when I taught a class at AT&T in Queens. There must not be any hotels in Queens.

Before Joyce Carol Oats, I would recommend Flannery O'Connor.

Loren Christie said...

Hi Jen, What I love about The Great Gatsby is the language, the metaphors, the characters as horrible as most of them are. I just think it's a great story that accurately reflects a societal attitude.
Hi Elizabeth,
Okay, Bridehead Revisited is an option I'm interested in. I'm interested in knowing what Candi and Sandra think about that one. What's so bad about The Tattooed Girl? I think it deals with very interesting and modern topics: racism and abuse, stereotypes and forgiveness, just like Invisible Man. Elizabeth, I love you and most 19th century writers, but I disagree about modern writers not being of the same caliber. There is some great modern writing out there. I think Ayn Rand is very insightful. The play Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller is my favorite piece of writing of all time. I'm one of those readers who falls in love with great lines.

Mr. Brague: An ex-New Yorker?! Imagine that! Well, it must be true since you can spell Tappan Zee correctly. I mispelled it before in my comment.

Loren Christie said...

Oh, and Flannery O'Connor is my writing hero. I agree with Mr. Brague and will read anything by her. I'm in the middle of
re-reading a large collection of her short stories right now. I'll look into Flannery novels. Elizabeth, What do you think of her? Sandra, you might enjoy the setting of her works, since she is a Southern writer. Candi, what do you think?
Jen, do you want to finish A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Our goal is to be done by July 1.

Mr. Brague, they have some motels and hotels in Queens. Did you teach a class in the Islip area? That's near me. I'm on the South Shore of Long Island. It looks nothing like Manhattan. There are quaint buildings on main street and super stores on the highway. It's rural suburban. I can get on the train and arrive at Penn Station in about 40 minutes.

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

I also read Great Gatsby twice - once in high school and didn't really like it and once this past year and still didn't like it. It is just a matter of taste. I think there is alot of ugliness in modern America, although some pluses such as advances in civil rights and in medicine, and that is why I like to spend some time steeped in the past. Flannery O'Connor looks good and we do need 2 selections for the summer - why not pick one of hers and consider Brideshead for the other?

Loren Christie said...

Brideshead Revisited is good and O'Connor either has collections of short stories or two novels: Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. Both novels started off as short stories in the first chapter, which really fascinates me because you get a glimpse of how she evolves the story into a novel.

Bear Midnight Miller said...

I'm back:) (It's me Elizabeth, signed in under my dog Bear's name still.) P.S. about Great Gatsby: there are many things I admire about the book; I just don't like the scenery if that makes any sense! I am really fussy about whom I spend my time with and tend to like old books, old movies, and old music just like I like old friends. There are many things that will make me put a book down within the first chapter and I can't always put my finger on what it is. But I CAN tell you what I like about the authors I do love. And I will pick up a modern author if it is well-recommended by a friend; but there are so many out there I don't know whom to take a chance on! Any way you pick the Flannery book (since I don't know anything about her) and see what the others say about it and B.R., and which one they want for July and which for August. Maybe in the Winter we can cozy up with a Dickens novel that none of us has read.

Sandra said...

I've just barely got a good start on the book. I don't have a lot of free time to read, but I'm trying to get better at finding some. I love your take so far on the characters. I have "met" a few of them already, so I will have a heads up when I meet the others to see if I get the same feeling about them as you. I'll let you know.

Loren Christie said...

Sounds good Sandra! YOu can go over to Elizabeth's blog for her thoughts on the novel so far too.
Oh and Happy Wedding Anniversary!

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

Hi, thanks for referring your readers over Loren! For those of you who might be coming over to my blog for my thoughts in the book and don't want any plot points given away, look at the menu on the right-hand side for the titles of my posts. So far my posts go up through Book 3. They will say what chapters the post is about. I keep my thoughts focused on those chapters so as not to ruin it for those who don't like to know what it happening. Although I do think in this particular book that the suspense part is not that important - it is the actual telling of the story that is so absorbing.

Sandra said...

I'm not sure which of these I would like best. I looked through a lis of the 100 Greatest Books in History and "Wuthering Heights" peaked my curiosity.

Y'all go ahead and pick whatever you would like for July. If it's something I'm interested in, I'll join in. If it's not, then I'll try to catch up with y'all in August.

I am enjoying "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn." It is one that I have always heard about, but never read. This is the kind that I am interested in. I just like to find out for myself what all the fuss is about.

Sandra said...

I remember reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in high school...or college. I don't quite remember which, just that it was in a school setting! :) But I do remember enjoying the story and the writing. Anything from her has possibilities...

Sandra said...

So, after all that, I say just pick one and let whomever chooses to join in do so. It will be hard to always get one that EVERYONE is gonna agree on. This is supposed to be for fun. I don't want you and Elizabeth stressing out over it! :)

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

Sandra, I just re-read Wuthering Heights recently. If you read it and want to discuss it let me know!

Sandra said...

Elizabeth, I will be glad to! But, I've got to get done with "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" first! I'm also trying to finish up "Breaking Dawn", so everything is slow-going right now. I'll definitely let you know when I get around to reading "Wuthering Heights".

Dear Internet Traveler,

Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.

Fondly,

Loren Christie

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