Friday, August 31, 2012

Reading With My Kids: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Source of Book: I purchased this since our local library didn’t see fit to carry it.


I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know.


Reading to Know - Book Club

This month’s selection was chosen by Bluerose’s Heart. I cannot find her review on her site, but it is reproduced at Reading to Know.

I hesitate to describe this book as a modern fairy tale, because that comes with certain assumptions that do not hold true for this book. A fairy tale it is, and one published just last year, which would make it “modern” in a sense. And really, it is in the tradition of fairy tales written in the modern era, rather than those passed down in oral tradition from time immemorial. And yet, it has a kinship with the ancients as well.

Like any good fairy story, it transports the reader to an imaginary land, populated with memorable and fantastic creatures. The protagonist, in this case, a twelve-year-old girl named September, must complete a quest, and learn about life and herself in the process. Like any book, the concept itself is only as good as its execution, and I thought the author did a fine job in balancing the elements of the story and the deeper truths she wished to convey.

My kids definitely loved the story, and reminded me to read it whenever we had time - and looked at me wistfully when we couldn’t. The older three in particular were able to appreciate the humor and general absurdity of the book, and understood things better than I expected.

In trying to find some more familiar works to use as comparisons, I decided that this book shares a certain kinship with Lewis Carroll, particularly in the use of the unexpected absurdity, the anthropomorphization of household objects, and the upending of fairy tale cliches. Similarly, I thought of Douglas Adams, who also was able to mix zany humor with a unsettlingly dark outlook. I would also draw the somewhat obvious connection to the Narnia tales (which are name checked in the book) and other “modern” fairy stories: Tolkien and MacDonald, for example, are also obliquely referenced throughout the narrative.

Fairy tales throughout history have not been intended only or even primarily for children. There is a certain edge to the yarns, whether old or new. A certain menace, and a darkness, and a feeling that life is often cruel and bitter. When someone says of another that he or she is living in fairyland, certainly the fairyland of stories is not in mind, as to absorb the lessons of the fairy stories is to have one’s imagination firmly planted in the danger and ugliness that is in life.

This book certainly goes to some dark places. There were a few times I caught my breath, and looked at the kids. The author pushes beyond the zone of comfort on several occasions, and lets injury and near death hit hard. There is no candy coating.

On the other hand, this may well be our modern fantasy of happiness speaking. We live a fairly charmed life, in which the vast majority of children reach adulthood, and we can pretty much count on our next meal and a hot shower the next morning. We think to shield our children from pain, sorrow, ugliness, but it is there, and they will experience it sooner or later. Books like this (and, let’s be honest, Lewis and Tolkien are plenty dark too) contain inconvenient truths about existence that are better faced than denied.

In that sense, the fairy story serves a certain purpose. It invites children to consider “adult” themes. By “adult” I do not mean smut (which is more the province of the immature) but ideas that require more than a simplistic solution. Dilemmas to which there is no perfect answer. Pain and sorrow that do not go away with a kiss. Hard choices. The sweet sorrow of saying goodby.

This is why the very best “children’s” books are engaging for adults as well. There is fun and adventure for the kids. There is also food for thought for those of all ages.

A few of the zingers that I liked:

“Is she [the Marquess] very terrible?”
The Green Wind frowned into his brambly beard. “All little girls are terrible,” he admitted finally, “but the Marquess, at least, has a very fine hat.” 

Ah, we fathers of daughters know this only too well.

All children are heartless. They have not yet grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one.

September ends up losing her heart (and her shadow and one shoe) in Fairyland - how and why is part of the fun.

I also found the scene where September is washed to be interesting. She has three things specially washed: her courage, her wishes, and her luck. This choice of the authors was interesting food for thought - and imaginative.

Like Bluerose, my kids thought the bicycle migration was hilarious. Particularly the food involved. (Tire jerky and axle grease whiskey?)

The philosophical high point for me was the scene where September meets her death. No, she doesn’t die, but she gets to meet her death, in person.

“Who are you?”
“I am death,” said the creature. “I thought that was obvious.”
“But you’re so small!”
“Only because you are so small. You are young and far away from your Death, September, so I seem as anything would seem if you saw it from a long way off - very small, very harmless. But I am always closer than I appear. As you grow, I shall grow with you, until at the end, I shall loom huge and dark over your bed, and you will shut your eyes so as not to see me.”

And later in the conversation:

“Death, I don’t know what to do.”
“It’s very brave of you to admit that. Most knightly folk I happen by bluster and force me to place chess with them. I don’t even like chess! … And it’s the wrong metaphor entirely. Death is not a checkmate...it is more like a carnival trick. You cannot win, no matter how you move your queen.”

Perhaps this is heavy stuff for kids, but my second born has been asking pointed questions about life and death since she was two. The author does better than most at facing the issue bluntly, starting a conversation rather than ignoring the implications. And too many of us like to think we would win that chess game, whether with cryogenics, health fads, or self delusion of whatever sort.

Finally, I was gratified to read another modern book that grants the possibility of a quest and an adventure, to a girl. Consistently, throughout history, there have been hero tales featuring boys. Occasionally, a girl or a woman will get a shot, but more often than not, they are the inspiration for the quest, content to sit at home and wait. This was nowhere more true than in the Victorian ideal, where the woman who failed to keep her place typically came to no good. Even now, far too many works of fiction (and most of popular culture) teach girls that their worth comes from their ability to get a man. That becomes the whole focus of existence. The girl gets her prince and that is the zenith of her life. From then on, adventure is a thing of the past, if it ever existed.

One hopes, at least, that the days of Elsie Dinsmore are over. C. S. Lewis in many ways threw that door wide open with Lucy as the brave and sensible one of the bunch. As the father of three daughters (and two sons), I wish for them to learn to be strong, to be active rather than passive, to take responsibility for themselves and their choices. As September noted, she hated a certain movie princess who had a high, breathy voice. I concur totally with this sentiment, I confess. Strength and competence are more attractive to me than a fainting “feminine” helplessness.

And really, if we are to be honest, life has the potential to be a quest, an adventure. Or it can be a frustrating and confining humdrum. The difference is in perspective and attitude. As this book reminds us, adventures are uncomfortable. They are downright unpleasant at times. They are exhausting, and sometimes we are desperate for a nap. (Can you tell I have kids?) But one must still get up, lick the wounds, make a ship if necessary, strap on our magic wrench like September, and fulfill our quest.



Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Opium of the Intellectuals by Raymond Aron

Source of book: I own this.

It is difficult to even decide where to begin a review of this insightful and important, but somewhat difficult book. I took three pages of notes while reading it; and, unlike most of my reading notes, I intend to place them in the book itself for future reference. However, to actually quote all of the piercing statements would make this more of a dissertation than I have time and desire to make it.

Perhaps I can start with the means by which I discovered Raymond Aron. I was reading Clive James’ excellent work, Cultural Amnesia, when I ran across this pithy quote: “’Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron’ is still meant to be a slogan testifying to political seriousness, rather than to intellectual suicide.” I already knew that I found Sartre’s philosophy to be personally and morally distasteful, so my interest was piqued. Reading on further, I discovered that Aron had addressed one of the great mysteries of modern political thought. Why are modern intellectuals so quick to condemn the slightest misstep by the democratic states, while making excuses for the true atrocities committed by the communist nations? It is as if the intellectual class is somehow able to ignore the reality that thoughtful dissidents were among the first to be liquidated by Stalin and Mao and their counterparts.

The Opium of the Intellectuals was written in 1955. Aron was then part of the French Right, which needs some explanation. The very terms “left” and “right” stem from the French Revolution, when members of the National Assembly that supported the king sat on the right and those that opposed him on the left. Thus in France (and eventually elsewhere), the “right” came to mean the party of the status quo, and the “left” the party of action. As Aron points out, these terms and their assumed meaning are highly inaccurate now, but they persist. Although Aron was considered “right” in terms of French politics, he would have been considered fairly leftist if he had been an American. He was an atheist, and supported a substantial welfare state. However, he was vehemently opposed to communism, particularly in its ideological form. As the “left” in the United States gradually drifts toward a more Marxist philosophical center, it is possible that even here, Aron may once again be considered to be “right wing.”

Aron wrote this book as a response to the writings of the mainstream of French intellectualism advocating for a communist revolution in the West. The title itself is a reference to Marx, who claimed that religion was the opium of the masses. (As Bill Watterson pointed out, Marx never experienced television.) Again, the scope of this book is too broad to easily summarize in a short review. However, I will endeavor to give an idea with broad brushstrokes.

The book begins by debunking the three great myths believed by the Marxists. First is the myth of an historically unified “left.” The original left stood for the abolishment of the aristocracy, and for freedom, particularly the freedoms of thought and speech and dissent. The chapter traces the threads of this idea and shows that Marxist authoritarianism is contrary to these original “liberal” values. The second myth is that of the revolution. In France in particular, leftists have claimed to be heirs of the French Revolution. Further, the eventual communist revolution would be a continuation of the same process. Aron is able to show the difference between the means (revolution) and the ends sought thereby. I also thought that he brought out the reason that revolution is perennially popular: the alternative, which is reform, is boring, hard work. Revolution seems, well, revolutionary, and thereby exciting. It is more fun to blow up everything that exists than to build and maintain institutions. Finally, Aron destroys the idea of the “proletariat.” To a Marxist ideologue, the American factory worker is oppressed, while the Soviet factory worker is liberated, regardless of actual working conditions, standard of living, freedom of action. The mere fact of the communist state changed the essential fact. This is, from a practical point of view, ludicrous. Few if any of us would willingly trade places with a worker living under Stalin’s regime.

The second part of the book the Marxist view of “history.” At this point, I was reminded again that most of those in my generation have no idea what Marx actually said. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is about as far as it goes, and a high percentage think this is in the Bible, oddly enough. (Interestingly, President Obama seems to know his Marx very well. His major gaffes have come when he has paraphrased Marx. “You didn’t build that,” for example, comes from an 1846 letter to Annenkov.) The Marxist view of history has been forgotten by most. In Marx’ view, history inevitably would lead to a communist revolution. It would be the “end of history” and mankind would be redeemed through the dictatorship of the proletariat. Essentially a heaven on earth that would overcome all evil and suffering.

This leads to the third and final part of the book, which discusses the Marxist philosophy as a secular religion. I was startled after reading this section to run across Aron’s declaration that he is not religious, because he identifies the parallels between the Catholic view in particular and the communist orthodoxy. It really is in this sense that Aron is able to explain the willingness to excuse Stalin’s purges and the ongoing repression of dissidents. Just as the true believer once excused the torture of Jews and Protestants, the true believer in the salvation of mankind through the revolution will excuse the liquidation of all who stand in its way.

I had intended to offer a plethora of quotes from the book, all of which are very good. However, I feel like I have just begun to process my thoughts on the subject, and it would really be overwhelming. Aron’s writing style is not helpful in this matter. As far as I can tell, the English version was written by Aron himself, not a translator. If so, his command of vocabulary is astonishing. However, while the writing is correct and language is used with pinpoint accuracy, it lacks flow. The ideas are densely packed, and often a paragraph will contain so many ideas that one has to re-read and attempt to draw the connections. This is why it took me more than two months to finish this book, even though it is under 400 pages. That said, I think that it should be mandatory reading for those who wish to understand the infatuation of the intellectual classes with doctrinaire Marxism. The United States is in some ways where France was 55 years ago, and I believe that the present debates on policy would become more substantive if both sides were better educated about what Socialism, Marxism, and Communism really are. We would be slower to confuse the welfare state with socialism, and yet more wary of talk of revolution.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts by Clive James

Source of book: I own this.
Date originally published on Facebook: August 4, 2010

This review is one of my early ones, and has been a jumping-off point for the discovery of other works. (Thy Hand, Great Anarch is one.)  I would say that Cultural Amnesia remains one of the top five non-fiction books I have ever read. I highly recommend it to all who care about freedom, totalitarianism, history, morality, or the arts.


This book has been my non-fiction project for the last 6 months. I originally discovered this book because Slate.com published a few excerpts. I was fascinated, and decided to buy the book myself. I was certainly not disappointed, but have enjoyed the journey, discovering a significant list of books to read in the future.

What kind of book is this? An unusual collection of essays? What is the theme? That is harder to say, as any attempt to do so would leave out at least one key facet. Perhaps it is best to say that it is Clive James’ musings on the totalitarian disaster of the 20th Century, as seen through key figures in thought and art. But even that falls short. An Australian by birth, James has spent the better part of 40 years writing and reading in numerous languages, and perhaps exemplifies the modern international renaissance man. He doesn’t just write about historical figures, he has read their works in the original language, and more often than not succeeds in linking them by ideas and history across borders of geography and era.

There are a total of 107 essays, all on individuals, arranged alphabetically across 851 pages of fairly small print.

The names range from the familiar: Louis Armstrong, G. K. Chesterton, Sigmund Freud, John Keats; to the infamous: Trotsky, Hitler, Mao; to the names you probably should know: Anna Akhamatova, Raymond Aron, Miguel de Unamuno; to the truly obscure: Sophie Scholl, Golo Mann. There are heroes, such as Albert Camus, and villains such as Sartre. All the essays include at least one memorable quote from the individual.

The essays are not biographical sketches, nor do they stick strictly to the topic. They use the person, an idea, a quote, as a leaping-off-point for a discussion which rarely fails to draw the reader in, leaving him with a new perspective.

A key element of the appeal of this book is James’ command of the language. He writes well, very well: the book would perhaps be fun to read for the language alone, even absent the ideas. However, the ideas themselves are the heart of the book.

James recognizes that civilization itself survived two great threats in the last century: Nazism and Communism. What shook James to his core was that many of the figures of culture, learning, and art not only failed to see the threat, but cooperated with it. In most of those cases, the end was the destruction of the art and usually the person with it. Such a despicable character as Sartre survived only because the Allies rescued France.

I feel that words fail me to describe this book in a way that makes it sound as good as it is. I would list it in the top 5 non-fiction books I have ever read. I quoted sections to my long-suffering wife on nearly a nightly basis.

Here are few of the quotes, both from the subjects and the writer:

“[M]ore recently, there have been rap lyrics distinguishable from the “Horst Wessel Song” only in being less well written.” (From the introduction)

“When we talk about the imponderables of life, we don’t really mean that we can’t ponder them. We mean that we can’t stop.” (Introduction)

“Solitudeinem faciunt, pacem appellant.” ~Tacitus (They make a desert and they call it peace.) Perhaps one of the best statements of the results of totalitarianism ever written.

“Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes” ~Albert Camus

“’Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron’ is still meant to be a slogan testifying to political seriousness, rather than to intellectual suicide. (From the essay on Raymond Aron)

“In the course of the last forty years, the only part of the world that has enjoyed peace is the continent divided between two zones of political civilization both of them armed with atomic bombs.” ~Raymond Aron, in The Last Years of the Century.

There is much, much more, including whole paragraphs to lengthy to quote here on the philosophy of art, music, and so much else.

I will end with the opening of his excellent essay on Trotsky.

“After being murdered at Stalin’s orders, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, alias Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), lived on for decades as the unassailable hero of aesthetically minded progressives who wished to persuaded themselves that there could be a vegetarian version of communism. Trotsky could write, orate, loved women, and presented enough of a threat to the established Soviet power structure (admittedly showing signs of rigidity by then) that it should want to track him down to his hiding place in Mexico and rub him out. It followed, or seemed to follow, that Trotsky must have embodied a more human version of the historic force that sacrificed innocent people to egalitarian principle: a version that would sacrifice fewer of them, in a nicer way. Alas, it followed only if the facts were left out. “

Buy or borrow this book. Read it, and see if your perspective on the 20th Century is not expanded and enlightened.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Listen to This by Alex Ross

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library, but I would love to own it.

Alex Ross’ first book, The Rest is Noise, is, hands down, the best book I have ever read on Twentieth Century classical music. Even though I have played semi-professionally for sixteen years, I never really grasped the connections in thought and technique that united and divided the composers of the last century. This book was revolutionary to my thought, and sparked an interest in these “modern” works. Since I was not reviewing books at the time I read it, this will have to suffice for a recommendation.

This second book by Ross is not exactly a book about a topic, but a collection of essays that occasionally intersect. With the exception of the first chapter, all of the essays were originally published in The New Yorker, although the author did revise several of them for the book. This is not a bad thing, as Ross is interesting to read about anything music related.

Ross makes an interesting confession at the beginning of the book. He was not exposed to popular music until age twenty. Up to that time, he had been steeped in classical and nothing else. (I can identify to a degree: I was a mostly classical listener during my minority, and listened to nearly nothing from my own generation.) Several of the essays give some of the author’s story as he discovers the world of music he had not known. Thus, there are interesting articles on Bjork, Radiohead, and a few others. No one else could have made an entirely apt parallel between Kurt Cobain and John Donne on the subject of suicide, but Ross makes the connection in a startling yet fitting way.

Classical music is still Ross’ first love (and mine too), and he distills the paradox of the music into an insightful thought. “The music attracts the reticent fraction of the population. It is an art of grand gestures and vast dimensions that plays to mobs of the quiet and shy.” In so many ways, music was an outlet for me as an introverted boy. I found my emotional connection in my music: I could communicate with others in a way that I never could through words.

The chapter on recorded music was also thought provoking. John Philip Sousa called them “infernal machines,” and they certainly did change the nature of music listening and performance. While many lament that the participation in the music making process is no longer an integral part of our culture, Ross also notes that recorded music allowed African American artists to break into the mainstream in a way that they never could have done without recording devices.

I would also note that the chapters on Verdi and Brahms were excellent and enlightening in many ways, whether for the seasoned musician or for the casual fan.

I also enjoyed the chapter on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s former music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. These days, Gustavo Dudamel is all the rage. He is young, charismatic, and talented. Salonen never really received the publicity. Ross is able to draw out his personality and make him seem more human and revolutionary in his own way. As an introvert myself, I loved the adage that Salonen, a Finn, was apt to quote: “A Finnish introvert looks at his own shoes, while a Finnish extrovert looks at other people’s shoes.”

Another observation that struck me is found in the epic chapter on the Chacona (which I will discuss further). The battle between the old and the new in sacred music is timeless. Some would have you believe that all was well until Rock and Roll burst onto the scene, and that prior to that was an era of harmony and concord when all agreed on good taste and “godly” music. Not so. From the dawn of recorded musical history, there have always been two fights. On the one hand, each generation has disdained the new forms and asserted that the old forms were best. On the other, there has been a tension between a concept of “exalted” music and “vulgar” music. Whether it was the question of Latin versus the vernacular, or polyphony attainable only by professionals versus popular, singable melodies; the issues have divided the church for centuries. Nay, for millenia! Again, Ross captures the issue in a pithy quote about the use of the Chaconne (a popular music form). “Dance fads such as the chaconne indicated the growing vitality of the vernacular. The Church, shaken by the challenge of the Reformation and its catchy hymns of praise, saw the need to make its messages more transparent...”

As a musician myself, I must also praise Ross for his chapter on the Marlboro chamber music festival. I have played in string quartets for more than half my life, and it is my dream (like most string players) to spend a retirement making music with a few friends. The legendary Emanuel Ax describes chamber music as a state where “no one leads and no one follows.” This is completely true about an ensemble that has attained that magical state where all hearts beat as one. Where the music takes on a life of its own. When this occurs, joy, sorrow, passion, and music become tangled up, and one emerges as from a trance, certain that one will never be the same. I feel that this is also a good representation of a truly successful marriage. No one leads, and no one follows, because the music becomes all. As in a quartet, once the focus becomes leading and following, it becomes earthbound and sodden, and the music becomes elusive.

Finally, I want to mention the extraordinary chapter entitled “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues.” There is no room to reiterate the entire chapter, and Ross does it better anyway. Suffice it to say that I would buy this book for the one chapter alone. Ross has generously posted a youtube video that introduces the concept.




This figure (essentially the notes A  G  F  E) is laced throughout classical and popular music, much like the Dies Irae, the doo-wop chord progression of G  Em  C  D, or G  D  Em  C (warning on a few lyrics not appropriate for small children.) The musical language transcends time and place, and can elevate even a mediocre song to a place of emotional resonance.


While Ross (rightfully) cites and discusses Bach’s monumental Chaconne for solo violin, which thrills and torments violinists to this day, my favorite Chaconne is one that I loved when I first heard it as a beginning violinist, the Chaconne attributed to Vitali, but probably written, at least in part, by the violinist Ferdinand David. Regardless of who wrote it, it still gives me the shivers today. Enjoy.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thoughts on my Thirty-sixth Year

Last week, I turned thirty-six. The last year or so - perhaps the last two years - have been filled with events that have given me plenty of food for thought.

First of all, I have had three friends, including one near my age, fight cancer. The husband of another friend has terminal brain cancer, and will eventually leave behind teenage children. A longtime friend at church passed on to glory last year in her nineties, while the wife of another friend died unexpectedly at a relatively young age. Several colleagues are with us no more, and and already this month, we lost two more volunteers in senior care that I knew and respected. As I get older, my parents’ generation has started to have health issues, and even those of my own age have had increasing signs that we aren’t what we used to be. I am feeling my own mortality a bit right now. None of us really know how much time we have left, but that fact is less apparent when one is a twenty-something. "For all the flesh is as the grass."

I have found myself re-evaluating a few theological issues as a result. It is easy to be sure what you believe as a young person with little life experience - and I probably have been cocky and self assured. Life and death experiences make much of that seem trivial and counterproductive. My family spent some time in a highly legalistic cultic organization when I was in my late teens and early twenties. My wife spent most of her teen years in a similar group. The focus was on searching the scriptures for an ever increasing number of rules to follow and enforce on others. If a clear directive couldn’t be found, it was inferred from texts taken out of context and often in contradiction its own plain meaning. All this to earn God’s favor, and guarantee some form of material and spiritual success. What naturally came from this was the attitude of “Thank God I am not like other men.”

My journey away from this mess probably started in earnest after September Eleventh, when I realized that these ultra-conservative sects resembled radical Islam with its crippling rules, emphasis on authority and roles, obsession with women's bodies, and intolerance of other viewpoints. The last couple of years have pushed me further away as a result of the pain, grief, and tragedy that my friends have undergone. In the legalistic world, their suffering is the result of some sin or failure in their lives. If I still followed that path, I should be blaming those suffering for their own pain, and calling on them to repent. Instead, I believe that I am called to lend them a hand and try to help ease burdens, rather than increase them.

On a much lighter note, my increasing age has been the impetus for me to take advantage of opportunities while I still can. I have always enjoyed physical activity, despite my short stature and utter lack of athleticism. My brother encouraged me to take up soccer at age thirty, and I have played on his league team since then with enthusiasm, if not exactly with skill.

More recently, my lovely wife talked me into running. Our goal was to run the Volkslauf together. For those unfamiliar with it, the Volkslauf is a combination run and military style obstacle course race put on by the Marines each year here in Bakersfield. So, in my thirty-sixth year, we ran it together.

Other firsts include my first ten kilometer race back in July, and the hike to Half Dome. I think it is fair to say that I am in the best physical condition of my life, despite a few creaky joints. I am grateful for every day that I am healthy and able to work up a good sweat. And I am even more grateful for every hike in the wilderness with my children.

I also should mention a few birthday gifts that may later be featured in this blog:

1. The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman

This book, written in the 1840s, tells of the young Parkman’s travels on the first third of the Oregon Trail. My wife found this for me in a used hardback edition. (This is our favorite way to collect books. We rarely buy new.)

2. What to Listen For in Music by Aaron Copland

I am guessing from the description that this book is oriented toward the avid, but not musically trained listener. It will be interesting to read Copland’s perspective on the art of listening to classical music.

3. We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing by James C. Whittaker

My wife found this at the library for all of ten cents. (We love bargains.) It is the story of the survivors of an airplane crash in the Pacific Ocean in 1942. It should be an interesting read.

4. Hatchet, The River, Brian’s Winter, Brian’s Return, and Brian’s Hunt by Gary Paulsen

I read Hatchet some years ago, but have not read the others, which are essentially sequels. These quality hardback editions were a gift from my in-laws. Since these books are geared toward younger readers, I expect that I will be reading them with the kids. 












Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Source of Book: I own this.

When I was a child, I often looked for books with an exciting or at least interesting plot. As I have aged, I have found myself drawn more toward books that spoke to me through their characters. The very best books cause me to identify strongly with at least one character, and result in several moments where I see something from a new or clearer perspective.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those books.

I am usually a bit skeptical about books written in the early to mid 1900s, particularly those written by women. I blame early experiences with high school literature overviews for choosing the least interesting and most didactic works. I never liked Kate Chopin. I was disappointed by Edna Ferber, and so forth. I knew that this book was one that I should read for history’s sake, but did not imagine that it would be a deeply moving book to me.

I should give a little personal background. I grew up in a largely poor neighborhood (until age 16). My parents were “middle class” in terms of values and stability - we made sacrifices so my mother could stay home with us kids, and we lived below our means. Many, if not most, of our neighbors lived in true poverty. There were plenty with addictions to drugs or alcohol, many with unstable family structures, and others that were just living on the financial edge. Even my own parents went through a number of years where they didn’t always know where the next meal would come from. I don’t remember this, both because of my youth, and the fact that my parents kept the stress and worry from us. Nevertheless, I understand something of the dynamics of poverty from my youthful experiences, which made this book seem startlingly familiar to me.

While I was in the process of reading this book, I also had a conversation with a friend, who experienced the book first-hand in two ways. She grew up in poverty, but also lived the family dynamics which play a central role in the book.

Betty Smith based much of the book on her own experiences, which may well explain why her characters seem so real. I felt that I knew these people, even though the setting was 70 years before my own childhood. In particular, I recognized the emotions of her characters. I really was affected by this book in an emotional and visceral way for this reason.

The central character, Francie, is the oldest child of Johnnie and Katie Nolan, second generation immigrants living in Brooklyn. The book flashes back to fill in the back story or her parents and grandparents, but Francie is really the focus of the book. I have generally identified well with both male and female characters, so I found Francie to be familiar and similar to me in personality in a number of ways. (See below for more on this.)

Francie is a voracious reader, taking home one book to read for every day of her childhood from her eleventh year on. She starts at the beginning and attempts to read through the entire library alphabetically. Presumably her library was smaller than the ones I grew up with, however, as I expect I would still be stuck somewhere in “D” at my age. However, I have always been a voracious reader, and looked forward to our regular library trips with great anticipation. I also noted that Francie was a sickly child, like I was, and to a degree was likewise more of a burden than a joy to her mother, who latched on to the younger brother as a favorite. (Now that I have kids, I can’t imagine what I put my poor mother through.)

Katie is determined that her children will avoid the poverty she experienced, so she starts reading them the Bible and Shakespeare every day. This starts Francie, at least, on her career as an autodidact, although her brother never quite catches the love of learning.

Johnnie is talented, but he is never able to cope with life, and drowns his feelings in alcohol. This prevents him from supporting his family, and eventually kills him. Despite the hardship and the tragedy, however, this is an optimistic book.

Like another book I read relatively later in life, The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has as a major theme that of sex and desire. I think I understood it better than I would have, had I read it in my teens. There are some things that make better sense at thirty-five than at fifteen. I must say, like the characters, Smith’s emotional analysis felt at once familiar and profound.

At this point, a digression might be in order. If one is to give any weight to personality tests, I tend to score further to the feminine side than average for a man, and also further than my wife. I have experienced love and desire in certain ways more toward that side of the (statistical) emotional spectrum. I have always been oriented toward commitment and emotional bonding as a necessary prerequisite to physical bonding. I need touch and communication to be happy. That is why there were moments of recognition throughout this book. Smith’s perspective really struck a chord. Let me note a few of these.

One of the early incidents in this book described Katie’s sister Sissy, who had several husbands and innumerable boyfriends before finally settling down. Another (very minor) character was described as being unhealthily “starved” for men, while Sissy was “healthily hungry.” I think this brings out a crucial difference. I can certainly sense the difference between the two, and it is easy to see who will find some sort of satisfaction.

Sissy is also the subject of one of the best lines (from the perspective of a lawyer, at least). Her first, legal husband dies unexpectedly. Her second (sort of legal) husband asks for a divorce, since he has since remarried and had children in another state. Her “third” husband, who wasn’t aware of the previous marriages accuses her of tricking him into living in adultery. She responds, “We’re not living in adultery. We’re living in bigamy.”

I also found the section where the various women living in the tenement comment on the birth of a child with their own fears and experiences of painful childbirth a bit peculiar. Perhaps in our modern medical age, we have less anxiety about the birth pains, or perhaps not. I’m not sure what Smith’s own experiences were like, but she doesn’t give much of a reason to desire pregnancy.

Smith’s description of the scorn and rejection heaped on a girl who had a baby out of wedlock was also interesting. Many women who had given birth only a few months after marriage were foremost in condemning the girl who didn’t succeed in dragging the man to the altar. Worse than that, it was the women in the family of the father of the child who made sure he didn’t get “trapped” by the girl - even though he was willing to marry her. I have done enough paternity cases to have seen this over and over again. The pregnant girl is looked on as the epitome of evil by the mother of the man, as if he would have been fine but for her charms. This is real life, and I understand why Francie at this point decides she doesn’t want to be friends with women in the future. (Obviously, not all women are like this, but enough are to make this an everyday occurrence.)

Unsympathetic women are a veritable theme in this book. The librarian never looks Francie in the eye, and keeps recommending the same two books to her over and over again, not even noticing her age as she comes into womanhood. A teacher calls her stories of her life (written as school assignments) “sordid” due to their descriptions of poverty and alcoholism. Her own mother doesn’t seem to understand her. (Katie is otherwise admirable as a character - her view of Francie is her most conspicuous flaw.)

This comes to a head in a scene roughly three-quarters through the book. After Johnnie dies, Katie is left with only her own income and what the children can bring in. She decides that her son should be the one to attend High School, while Francie works to help support the family. This is particularly galling to Francie, as Neeley is not really all that interested - but she is, and she is the one that has to wait or find her own way.

The argument that ensues is devastating, in part because everything is understated. While I have not experienced this exact situation, Francie’s carefully chosen words are so perfect that I feel them at the depths of my own heart, in a way I cannot fully express.

“But I’m the one who’ll go away, and I won’t make a speech about it. When the time comes that you don’t need what I earn, I’ll leave.”

And the heart of the issue: “No, I can’t see. I can only see that you favor Neeley more than me. You fix everything for him and tell me that I can find a way myself. Someday, I’ll fool you, Mama. Someday I’ll do what is right for me, and it might not be right in your way.” And, “Yes, he’s a good boy, but even if he was bad, you wouldn’t notice it. But where I’m concerned...”

After this blow-up, there is a reconciliation of sorts, and life goes on, but, “But in their secret hearts, each knew that it wasn’t all right, and would never be all right between them again.”

It really is a powerful scene, and serves as the apex of the novel. I don’t want to create the impression that this book is a downer, because it really is full of hope, tempered by realism, and the argument is truly the moment when Francie comes of age, and becomes her own woman.

In several scenes, Smith carefully constructs a view of companionate marriage that I loved. First, as a negative example, the tavern keeper has become impotent due to a lack of personal connection with his wife. He wants to talk with her about profound topics, and connect with her on that intellectual level, but she really isn’t interested. As the author puts it, “Gradually then, because he could not share his inner self with her, he lost the power of being a husband to her, and she was unfaithful to him.”

Later, Francie has a deep experience while up on the rooftop on New Years Eve. She tries to explain it to her brother, Neeley, but he doesn’t quite get it. She thinks to herself, “I need someone. I need to hold someone close. And I need more than this holding. I need someone to understand how I feel at a time like now. And the understanding must be part of the holding.”
I have been there “on the rooftop” many a time. And I know exactly what she means.

As Francie grows toward adulthood, she has a brief romantic attachment to a soldier, who attempts to seduce her. She declines, but later, after he turns out to have married his fiance soon afterward, she asks her mother whether she should have slept with him. Katie’s answer is intriguing, as she splits it between what she would say as a mother, and what she would say as a woman. I am hardly the best person to give an objective response to this. Katie says, “I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once you love that way.” It’s hard to be objective here because I have only loved once. Sure, I had a crush or two in high school, but my wife is the first and only woman I ever dated. I was fortunate enough to have found her early in life; and also fortunate that she returned my love and desire. I have loved once that way, and I understand why I may well never love another like that again. That is why I can’t simply make a moralizing statement. Sure, I know the potentially devastating effects of a wrong choice. (I’m a lawyer. Mistakes end up in my office.) But there is a part of me that knows that I am unusually blessed to have found a true soul mate while I was still young.

Finally (on this subject), I completely identify with Francie in the aftermath of this heartbreak. She laments, “No! I don’t want to need somebody. I want someone to need me.” As I noted in regard to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Jane Eyre, the beloved must be desired and needed for his or her own sake, or it really isn’t love, but disguised selfishness. “Take me for longing, or leave me behind.” 


Note on the “Tree”: The tree itself plays a much smaller role than I expected in this story. True, Francie reads on the fire escape in the shade of the tree, and it serves at the end as a metaphor of Francie and her family when the landlord cuts it down, but it regrows. However, I suspect that an editor cut some of the material that would have tied the tree and the story together. 

 

The tree in question is a “Tree of Heaven,” an Asian import that is widely considered an invasive pest these days. It has a tendency to produce suckers, and has an unpleasant odor. (My Sierra Nevada guide mentions it as living in the foothills and occasionally crowding out native species.) This fact, if anything, heightens the analogy. Nobody wants it, but it survives and thrives in a variety of unfavorable habitats.