Adventures in Reading

Fiction: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943

In a previous post I mentioned copyright information and thanks to an NPR radio show I can say one of my favorite (and nerdiest) games involves the copyright page. For example: “1. Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)–Fiction. 2. Poor families–Fiction. 3. Girls–Fiction. I. Title.” Now, guess the book. Give up? It’s Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. (I admit it was a tough one.) For years I had been reading books and entirely ignoring the copyright material unless I was citing for a paper, but once you get beyond the legal jargon there are at least a few interesting tidbits.

I finally finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn today and I do not think I can say I love it enough. As I previously mentioned (I believe), I read the book some time in high school though upon finishing the book I must assume I never actually finished the book. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Betty Smith’s (I keep wanting to say White!) classic 1947 coming of age novel about Francie Nolan. Smith’s story revolves around the Nolan family and equally provides a socio-political look at Brooklyn, New York at the turn of the century. White was born and raised in Brooklyn, which offers an intimate look at the Williamsburg neighborhood the story occurs in. While Francie is our narrator her father Johnny Nolan and her mother Katie Rommely (and her sisters) play equally important parts in the book.

The perspective that White chose allows us to experience the time period from Francie’s childhood experience as well as through her parents struggling to make ends meet. Throughout the novel, Francie’s father experiences different phases of alcoholism and as a result the family can seldom depend on him. This becomes a defining character of the Rommely (Francie included) women: you may sexually desire a man but you will still have to rely on yourself.

Now what stops me the most when thinking about this book is the term classic. Perhaps I’m simply running around in the wrong circles but when people list American classics seldom have I heard A Tree Grows in Brooklyn mentioned. But in many ways I would say this novel is just as important as The Grape’s of Wrath or The Jungle. I admit part of me wonders how much it has to do with the feminine streak of the novel. Obviously a woman wrote the book and the main character is a girl but women’s experience in this period and in Williamsburg is clearly represented. We experience birth, death, work, suffering, happiness, love, sex, violence, etc all from a woman’s perspective and interpretation. Admittedly something more tender seems to exist in this novel than the other two classics I have mentioned.

The final few pages of the book also notified me about the other novels and plays that Betty Smith had written. For whatever reason I always assumed Smith wrote the one book (a la Harper Lee) and retired. However, now I must check out Joy in the Morning and Maggie-Now.

And another review at Trish’s Reading Nook.


The Oxford American College Dictionary

Repeatedly through my life I have heard remarks like, “The more you read the better your writing will be.” In retrospect I feel this is somewhat misleading. Reading allows you to become familiar with grammar, spelling, and punctuation but it never actually teaches it (or at least not in my own experience of struggling with grammar). At least, that is, if you passively read a book. This is a somewhat new idea I had bouncing around in my head at work and I still have not developed any clear definition. However, I suppose what I mean by active reading is that you take your time to understand the text and look up words, phrases, and punctuation you are unfamiliar with (even if you assume you know what it is).

This is something I have done off and on during my adventures in reading (particularly after my English lit 2 professor started giving pop quizzes on unfamiliar words). Today I would like to share some of my most recent troublesome words and phrases:

inveigled v. persuade (someone) to do something by means of deception or flattery. to gain entrance to (a place) by using such methods

cock a snook A gesture of derision or defiance, as in the idiom, “cock a snook” meaning “thumb one’s nose”. (Source.)

madrigal n. a part-song for several voices, typically arranged in elaborate counterpoint and without instrumental accompaniment

cerise n. a bright or deep red color adj, of a bright or deep red color

I began reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn last evening and made it through part one this afternoon. I first fell in love with the 1945 movie by the same name and some time around my sophomore year in high school I got around to reading the book. Upon rereading the novel, I never realized how poignant it was in discussing the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. Additionally, my naive 15-year-old self must have been entirely oblivious to the multitude of sexual occurrences in this book!