Saturday, March 30, 2013

331 (2013 #15). A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith,
read by Anna Fields 

This classic coming-of-age story was the selection of my local book club for March.  I'm a little surprised I never read it before.

The main character is Mary Frances "Francie" Nolan, born in December, 1901, of Irish and Austrian second-generation immigrant parents, Johnny and Katie Rommely Nolan.  Johnny has a drinking problem and trouble holding a job, so Katie is the primary breadwinner, cleaning apartments to earn free rent.  The family (which also includes younger brother Cornelius, known as Neeley) lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York.

The story covers a period from 1900, when Johnny and Katie meet, to the fall of 1918.  The book was originally written as a memoir (author Elisabeth "Betty" Wehner Smith Jones Finch was born on the same date as her protagonist, but five years earlier).  It was "reconfigured as fiction at the request of an editor at its publishing house," according to Anna Quindlen in her foreword to the 2005 print edition (pictured below).  Francie is Betty, and it is pretty clear that the Ben Blake in the book is Betty's first husband, George Smith.

I really enjoyed learning about life for poor working-class people in this part of Brooklyn in the early 20th century.  There are references to neat old stuff like spats (page 392) and a sulky (page 483) and a photostatic copy in 1917 (page 414) that I had to look up. The family manages to get by on very little money, but as the children get older and begin to work, their situation improves a bit.
The tree of the title is an invasive species common in vacant lots in New York City.  As it regrows and sprouts even when cut back, it is a metaphor for the family's ability to overcome adversity.  Another theme is the need for education to make this happen.

There is a lot of humor in this book.  I especially loved Katie's illiterate older sister Sissy, with her numerous husbands and lovers (all of whom she calls "John," ironically funny), who manages to stay positive about life despite experiencing ten stillbirths.

However, I didn't care much for the unfriendly librarian who never looked at Francie (pages 24 and 486), who gives a bad name to my profession, nor for the story of  Little Tilly and her brother Gussie (chapter 29).

The book is not without controversy.  There's an undercurrent of criticism of the Catholic Church. Katie's sister Evy takes "her children out of the Catholic Sunday School and putting them in the Episcopal Sunday School," because "She had gotten it into her head that the Protestants were more refined than the Catholics" (page 67).  When Francie is born, Katie's mother encourages her to read to Francie every night from the Protestant Bible, because "the Protestant Bible contains more of the loveliness of the greatest story on this earth and beyond it" (page 83), which I find odd, because the Protestant Bible is just a subset of the Catholic Bible.

There was also a remark on page 113 that "Most Brooklyn Germans had a habit of calling everyone who annoyed them a Jew," which I found interesting given that this novel was published in 1943.

The audiobook is narrated by the incomparable Anna Fields, who manages to make all the characters sound a little different from each other.  The 2005 print version, besides Quindlen's forward, has a section at the end with the author's biography and other information about her and her works. 

Smith's daughter states in an article here that her mother "wrote interchangeably between narrative and drama....The forerunner of 'Tree' is an early three-act play called Becomes a Woman.  The character of Francie was developed in a play called Francie Nolan.  Chapter 33 of 'Tree' first appeared in a one-act play dated 1940 called Fun After Supper."  Smith studied at Yale Drama School and was involved with the Living Newspaper unit of the WPA's Federal Theater Project.

If you haven't already read this work, I'd definitely recommend that you do so.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were both borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Friday, March 22, 2013

330 (2013 #14). The World's Strongest Librarian

by Josh Hanagarne

The title of this book certainly caught my eye when perusing my choices in the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program last month.  I'm a librarian, this book is by and about a [former] librarian, what's not to like?

Subtitled, "A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family," it's about a 6'7" (whoa, an inch taller than my son!) Mormon librarian who suffers from Tourette Syndrome, and lifts weights and participates in strongman events in an effort to control it.  Josh Hanagarne has been blogging under his book's title since April 2009.

So what did I really like about this book (besides the title and cover art)?  I got a kick out of the table of contents, where each chapter uses the Dewey Decimal Classification system (used in most public libraries) to give you some idea of what the chapter is about. The Dewey numbers and descriptions were repeated at the beginning of each chapter.

Most of the chapters, as well as the introduction, begin with a vignette of an experience Josh had in his former work as a public librarian, mostly in Salt Lake City.  He relates some of the weird encounters so typical for big-city public librarians, who deal with the homeless, the mentally ill, and unsupervised (or poorly supervised) children on a daily basis.   I have the utmost respect for my public library colleagues (I worked in a large suburban system for over six years as a paraprofessional, but have been in an academic library since getting my degree).  I'm all for more exposure of the issues public librarian deal with routinely.

I also liked Josh's honesty about his struggles with Tourette's, as well as his wavering Mormon faith.  I learned a lot I didn't know about Tourette's, as well as about the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).   It was especially interesting to read about the whole mission process for young Mormons.  I could certainly understand his frustrations with the LDS church, especially after his negative experiences trying to adopt under their Family Services program.  I liked the "power of family" part of his book, reading about how supportive his parents and siblings and wife and in-laws were and are, and how his mother in particular promoted his love of reading and libraries.

I also liked how Josh paid attention to what was happening with his Tourette's and tried out some non-drug ways to attempt to control it.  I could see in general how the weightlifting helped.  I couldn't completely follow what he was learning from Adam, but I definitely respected his trying new things.

The one part of the book that I didn't like was on page 203 of my advance reader edition.  Josh has some not-so-nice things to say about his library school, which I also attended, although he didn't start until after I graduated.  Now granted, I'll be among the first to admit my mostly-online program was not perfect.  Some classes and instructors were terrible, but some were quite good.  The program, like ALL the other online or mostly-online programs out there, has grown too big and churns out more librarians than there are jobs for them, and not inexpensively either.

The thing is, you need this master's degree to get a (higher-paying) librarian job in most libraries (most definitely in most academic ones), and Josh fast-tracked through the program in one year.  He was kind enough to respond to my e-mail about my concerns about his criticisms, and he said, "if I were doing it again I'd need to try a different school."  I don't think he'd have any different results in another mostly-online program, and I don't think he could have done a program that usually takes 18 months to two years in only one year (and continued to work full-time in a library) in a program that was mostly face-to-face.

It's a tradeoff.  Because of that, I feel he was a little too harsh with his criticism of our library school, particularly with an instructor who might have just been having a bad day herself.   (He did tell me the incident in question made it into the final book; I had e-mailed to ask because I did not want to criticize something that might no longer be there.)

So the bottom line:  I would most definitely recommend this memoir to anyone with Tourette Syndrome or a loved one with Tourette's, or anyone who wants an inspiring story on how to deal with any disability or medical disorder. 

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I received this advance reader's edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviwers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Sunday, March 10, 2013

329 (2013 #13). Lessons in French

by Hilary Reyl

Thank goodness this book had short chapters, as reading just one or two of them each night put me to sleep.

Unfortunately, there were 61 such chapters (337 pages in all), and if I hadn't needed to write a review of the book, I never would have finished it. 

Set in Paris in 1989, the protagonist, Katie, a 20-something who actually spent time in France growing up while her father was dying, goes to work for a famous American photographer, Lydia Schell.  A Yale art graduate, Katie thinks working for Lydia will somehow help her make connections and pursue her dream of painting.  Instead, Katie performs all sorts of menial tasks for Lydia and her dysfunctional family.  It takes Katie a LONG time to come to her senses and learn anything about herself from this process.

I found nothing likeable in this book.  Katie is a wimp.  Lydia is overbearing and duplicitous.  Her husband, Clarence, and children, Portia and Joshua, are just as bad.  Katie's boyfriend Olivier (formerly Portia's) and friends Claudia, Bastien, and Christie, are vapid.  Even her cousin Etienne only seems to be in the story to highlight the growing awareness of AIDS in that era.  The book is full of name-dropping, as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Umberto Eco, and Salmon Rushdie all seem to be friends of Lydia.

Paris itself is a major character in this story, as descriptions of the city and its food abound.  Like Kate, author Hilary Reyl lived in France as a child and took a job in Paris after college.  She has a doctorate in French literature, is married to a Frenchman, and even has a French agent.  She herself describes the book as a "love letter to Paris."  Unfortunately, if you've never been to Paris, nor are particularly fond of things French, the book may hold little appeal for you.  That was the case for me.  The liberal use of untranslated French phrases did not help.

The description of the novel sounded far more interesting than the book turned out to be.  I was intrigued by Lydia being a photographer, but that was a very small part of the story.  I also think the final cover art (besides being rather ugly) is a little misleading.  The black strip with numbers on the left implies that it is a contact print from a roll of film (still used in 1989!), but it would have been more accurate to use multiple images as in a REAL contact sheet, given the multiple numbers in the black strip.

I'd recommend this book only to someone who loves Paris or France, and then only hesitantly.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I received this advance reader's edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else - who preferably loves Paris or France - to enjoy.]

Monday, March 04, 2013

328 (2013 #12). The Giver

by Lois Lowry,
read by Ron Rifkin

This 1994 Newbery Medalist has become a classic - one of the most popular Newbery winners, and one that is frequently challenged in schools and libraries, for reasons ranging from “contains graphic themes,” and  “contains blasphemous ideas and content,” to “depicts ideas and actions that are inappropriate for young readers,” and “inappropriate for [elementary] grade level.”

In a nutshell:  Main character Jonas learns his utopian world is really dystopian.

In his community, everyone lives a regimented life.  Birth mothers produce children for other families, which created by matching compatible men and women.  Medication is taken to eliminate sexual desire.  Old people, babies that don't thrive, and other misfits are "released." No one - except Jonas, and he only a little - sees color.  And twelve-year-olds - which is what Jonas is about to be - are given "Assignments," matched to a career or more menial job best suited to their abilities and temperament.

Jonas is selected to be his community's next Receiver of Memory.  All memories of past events and sensations have gone to one person - and he is now the Giver (who can also see color), and will pass these on to Jonas.

In a 2004 interview, author Lois Lowry said she got the idea for The Giver when visiting her parents in a nursing home. Her father was still in good physical health, but his memory was failing. Her mother was physically ill, but her memory was intact.

"I would travel home with that in my mind, and I began to think a lot about the concept of memory. When it was time for me to begin a new book, I began to create in my mind a place and a group of people who had somehow found the capacity to control memory," Lowry said.

Many other events in her life influenced the plot, and Lowry talks about them in her Newbery acceptance speech.  I found interesting that the old man on the cover of my audiobook and print copy is actually a photo Lowry took of artist Carl Nelson when she wrote an article about him in 1979.  She described him as a man whose "capacity for seeing color goes far beyond" others - and he later became blind.

Some people don't like the book's ambiguous ending, but I'm fine with it.  I think it fits perfectly with the whole theme of memory.  For those who don't like it, though, Lowry has since written three companion books (I've read one, Gathering Blue), the latest published just last year.

Broadway, movie, and television actor Ron Rifkin was okay as the audiobook narrator, better voicing male characters than female.  The background instrumental music played to emphasize important scenes was often too loud and distracting.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  A paperback copy for reference was obtained secondhand.  It is signed by the author, "with love to those who read - remember - and GIVE," and dated 1994, so I'll be hanging on to it.]