Saturday, June 21, 2008

Merry Monteleone's Celebrate Reading Pick: A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith

Today, we welcome Merry Monteleone as our Celebrate Reading Month Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Merry Monteleone recently completed her first middle grade novel. She lives in the Chicagoland area where she is raising three children, four if you count the husband type person, and one lovely dog.

A Roundabout Review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for Moonie

Where to begin? First, I was so reticent to post a review of the book that’s most impacted me that I did my own little version, instead paying homage to my favorite author, to avoid an actual decision. But, as Moonie asked, and I’ve gotten more than a little from being part of her ratty pack, I found that I had to play.

The thing is, I can’t tell you that this is my favorite book or even the one that’s had the most impact. I think the answer to those questions lies in your state of mind at the time. It would be like picking a favorite taste or smell, or child if you’ve got ‘em... great literature, passable literature, hell, even swill occasionally has its moments – it speaks to you at the right time, in the right terms, with the most profound message... or maybe it just makes you laugh. Yes, I’m still trying to get out of it.

I originally thought, “It’s got to be Shakespeare” – Shakespeare’s particularly special to me, because it was so impressive, only the intellectual elite should be able to master it... the first time we read Shakespeare it was Romeo and Juliet in my Eighth grade year, and I got it... I liked it... how the hell did that happen? It’s the first time I realized how easy words came to me, how much I savored the varied meanings and history behind phrases – it’s also the first I realized that I was a word geek... so are you, own the weirdness... wear it like a badge.

But it couldn’t be Shakespeare because it’s not the same as fiction. It’s meant to be savored on stage, in company, with others. It’s best dissected en masse, rehashed and revisited in classroom settings, and watched on screen or in person. But it’s not as enjoyable as a solitary pursuit – at least not for me...

Then another book came to mind. One I read about fifteen or sixteen years ago, called Salt Creek. I don’t even remember the author’s name now and I couldn’t find it by googling, and I tried. It was just a little paperback I picked up somewhere and read on my breaks when I was waiting tables, and I don’t think I even liked it that much... the fact that I don’t particularly remember should say it’s not the one with the most impact... but then, it had some of the best, most quotable lines, it just tickled me... there was a scene where the character was in his father’s office. His father was a professor, and the character was waiting there alone, getting ready to tell his dad that his girlfriend was pregnant and they were getting married. Profound scene, but the only thing I remember about it is the character (whose name even escapes me) opened his father’s desk drawer and saw a moon pie sitting there and said, “The professor is wise. The professor eats moon pies. Moon pies make you wise.”

I don’t know what it is about the twisted logic that extreme young angsty stress will give you, but I quoted that line forever – no one knew what the hell I was talking about, but I swear if there was a cafĂ© press back then, I’d have had a tee shirt that said, “Moon pies make you wise”. Fifteen years later, I remember the line – Impact.

Okay, on to the pick. My mood today says, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. You’re going to love this: I first heard the title watching Bugs Bunny – don’t ever say cartoons don’t teach you anything. In my sophomore year of high school, I ran across an old battered copy in the school library and checked it out. I can remember looking at the title on the spine and thinking, “Oh, yeah, Bugs Bunny...” – Own your weirdness, I say!

Anyway, I stood there in the isle of our tiny, cramped little library and opened up to the first page. This is what I read:

Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.

Eureka! Holy hell, there’s another word geek and she wrote a book just for me! I took it home and devoured it. Francie Nolan and her little spot on the fire escape, with her nose in a book or dragging rags and rubage down to the junkie. Her whole family just entranced me and the wide sweeping drama of her life unfolded for me, foreign yet familiar, poignant and full of sorrow... with hope.

I took this book out of our library no less than three times that year before deciding I needed my own copy. One I could dog ear (yes, I’m terrible that way with my own books). One I could underline my favorite lines in or highlight or write notes in the margin... So I ordered a hardcover copy all my own from Waldenbooks and I paid for it with my lunch money, which usually went for such essentials as cigarettes and the big cookies in the lunchroom.

I’ve read it, probably three or four times since buying it, though not in a long time now. It was sitting up on my good bookshelf, with my leather bounds and classics. Surprisingly enough, when I took it down to gather the quote for you all I realized something odd about my copy. I never did highlight a passage or bend a page – I think I had too much reverence for the whole to pick just one line....

It’s a good book, a fantastic story, and one I would recommend anytime to anyone. But I still can’t pick one that’s most impacted or is my very favorite... the idea almost seems like blasphemy to all the others, or maybe it’s just too final. Like making a decision as to my most favorite means closing the door and allowing that I’ll never hope to read a new work as profoundly moving to my senses.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've heard a lot about this book and am not sure how I got all the way through school without having to read it. You're so right about how one's current situation has much to say about what someone will put down as their most influential book.

moonrat said...

Merry, I ADORE this book. I read it the first time the summer I was 14. My friend Rose told me I had to read it; she was shocked I hadn't read it before. I read it twice that summer and at least three times since then.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Charles,

If you like a book that will draw you in completely, and make you breath in the pages, this one's for you... honestly, every time I read it, I hated coming to the last page because it meant the journey was over.

Hi Moonie,

Thanks so much for including me in your reviews - it's rather humbling to be included in such a notable list of professionals who've been participating.

I am one of those that will read and re-read favorites... those very rare books that take you in, and no matter how many times you've read them, they never grow tiring - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of those that showed me something new with every reading... embarrassing to admit, but I didn't quite understand what they'd stolen from their aunt that irked their mother so much until later readings... and then I laughed my head off.

Bernita said...

I'm with you about the difficulty of choice among so many, about those odd resonating lines, and even about the husband-type person.
This is a lovely post.

Conduit said...

I guess this must be a classic in America - I think the first time I heard of it, it was Moonrat praising it in this blog. Like Charlotte's Web, I think it's one of those books that has imacted young readers on the other side of the Atlantic, but not journeyed over here.

Merry Monteleone said...

Glad you liked it Bernita.


You know, it's funny, but that didn't even occur to me at all! Today the world seems so much smaller that you almost take it for granted that everyone's had access to the same books, etc... If you can get a copy of this one, I think you'll really enjoy it. Mary Witzl mentioned that her husband doesn't see any pull in Twain, which almost seems blasphemous to me, but then, I think Twain is another more US taste... especially considering the way he'd go out of his way to tweak the noses of the British literary.

ChrisEldin said...

I've heard of this book somewhere--probably here on Moonie's blog, or BookBook. And I remember thinking that I wanted to read it.
Thanks for the great review!
But now I have a funny feeling I'll be associating eating moonpies with "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."

JES said...

Lovely review, Merry. I'm familiar with the story because of the movie. But now (he said, with a weary sigh) I realize that this book, too, must be added to the yard-long list I've already got from Moonrat's extravaganza. (I'm subconsciously thinking of it as my "And You Thought You Were a Reader..." list.)

Thank you!

Mary Witzl said...

I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the summer after I turned 15. I remember loving it, but for some reason, the one detail I remember (I only read books once back then as opposed to now when I read them over and over) is her aunt and all the knicknacks she had. I seem to remember that her mother had a lot of children and owned one maternity dress that she hated having to put back on every time she got pregnant. Maybe I need to read it again...

cindy said...

it is so hard to choose, isn't it? thank you for sharing and i'll be looking into this book soon!

Colorado Writer said...

This book is on my Top Ten lists. The movie really doesn't do it justice.

Linda said...

What a wonderful book. I'd forgotten about this story, but remember I'd read it many times as a tween. Thanks for such a superb review - brought up many memories. Peace, Linda

Anonymous said...

I like your style Merry Monteleone.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Chris,

Moonpies are a good association... after all, moonpies make you wise.


I know, my to be read pile is growing by leaps and bounds this month! And I've been hanging my head in shame at all the classics I haven't yet read... and I thought I was rather literate before this :-) I never saw the movie, but the book is definitely worth the time.

Hi Mary,

I was the opposite, I was more likely to adore a book so much I had to read and re-read it when I was younger... I still occasionally page back through old favorites, but there are only a handful that I've read for the first time in the last ten years that I've re-read.

The aunt did have knicknacks, but I don't remember the maternity dress thing... yay, an extra reason to re-read it.


I have been lurking on your blog lately - I'll probably comment soon, but I'm loving your posts... congratulations again on your upcoming novel - I can't wait to read it! Definitely add this one to your list, I think you might really enjoy it.

Hi Stephanie,

Like I said, I didn't see the movie, but I think there are relatively few movies that live up to the books.

Hi Linda,

Reminiscing about books is almost more fun than real life events - glad you liked it.



Tessa said...

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