Monthly Archives: October 2009

New Books

Last night, started reading Flawed Dogs by Berkeley Breathed (his first novel) on the way home from work.  I hated it (review coming next week) and about 50 pages in, started looking around for something else to read.  The N train is usually slim pickings, whereas more than half the people on the R usually have a book in hand, but I spotted Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America across the car.  I’ve put a hold on it at the library and, until it arrives, I’ll be sticking to The New Yorker.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This book is absolutely enchanting.  It spoke to me on so many levels that I ripped through 500 pages in just 5 days of commuting.  It also feels apt to have been prompted to read it by seeing it on the subway.

Betty Wehner Smith was born in 1896 and her heroine,  Francie Nolan, is a few years younger than her author, making her only a half dozen years older than my own grandmother, who also grew up Irish and working class.  Like Francie, she and her siblings left school to work and she was a young woman in the war years.  Reading the novel made me feel connected to my grandmother, to the clothes she wore (with hats! and gloves!), to the shows and the dances she enjoyed, to the worries and hopes she had.

And then there are the ways Francie reminds me of myself – as a voracious reader, as a big sister to a little brother, as an internal monologist.  And now, living in Brooklyn, just like Francie, I can marvel at the multiple cultures I traipse through each day, perfect my technique for weaving through the Manhattan crowds and revel in the beauty of a rooftop view of the bridges.

The writing style of the novel is a charming blend of Francie’s voice and an omniscient narrator’s gentle and plainspoken statements.  In another author’s hands, it could easily be didactic or faux-naive, but somehow it rings true.  The only thing I don’t get is assigning this book to kids – I could never had appreciated the book’s emotional depth until I had some of my own.

Tipperary by Frank Delaney*

If I weren’t enjoying A Tree Grows in Brooklyn so much, I’d be wondering if I’m just too picky about novels.

The narrative structure of this book is complex – long passages from the purported papers of protagonist Charles O’Brien, with commentary by the “discoverer” of the papers.  As the book progresses, diary entries and letters of others also get layered in.  As I noted early on, I found this layering off-putting, but continued reading.

To Delaney’s credit, the various sources have distinct voices, but they can be irritating, with breathlessly grand statements about the importance of what they’re experiencing (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn does the naive narrator much better).  The characters also comments on each others’ personalities and writing in a way that seems to be strong-arming the reader into agreeing (Charles’ writing displays “fluid lyricism”, the discoverer of his papers tells us).

The discoverer is an amateur historian and his passages are an excuse to dump enormous chunks of Delaney’s research on the place and period into the novel.  That place and period is intrinsically interesting – Ireland’s struggle for independence – but Delaney over-reaches and has Charles meet nearly every key player of the period, from Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats (who encourages him to go for the girl he loves) to Charles Parnell and the founders of Sinn Fein.  It deepened my understanding of the era, but at great cost to the believability of the novel.

Since this book came out only last year, I won’t give any spoilers about the ending, but I will say I found it impossibly pat.  It’s a bit underwritten (after 450 pages, what’s a few more?) and a sprawling account of Irish history, covering over a century, should not end with the feeling that every loose end has been tied up.

*No one noticed I’ve had him as Frank Dougherty in the Reading List for the past month?  Oops.

Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot

So I’m not a big conspiracy theorist – I’m pretty comfortable with the idea that I (we) don’t know the truth about some significant events in history.  But I do love history, so if the truth is out there, I’m interested.

Talbot doesn’t really have any truths, at least not about the biggest questions, but he pulls together a mostly convincing portrait of Bobby Kennedy (despite the title, he’s the clear focus) as troubled crusader for law and order whose principles take their first hits in getting Jack elected, and then must bend to the exigencies of leading a country deep in the midst of the Cold War, the cruicble for many unlikely alliances.

One of those (at least according to Talbot), among the Mafia, anti-Castro Cubans and the CIA, was to orchestrate JFK’s assassination.  Apparently, the Kennedy brothers’ back-channel overtures for peace with Castro threatened each of these groups enough to justify the immense risks that must be involved in such an enterprise.  The explanation for RFK’s death is a bit more brief, apparently the Secret Service was in on it, but this is not well fleshed out. (Overlap note: Pete Hamill witnessed RFK’s assassination.)

Talbot’s personal commitment to his subject is never in doubt – he was a 16 year old campaign worker for RFK at the time of his death.  As the founder and long-time editor of Salon.com, his writing shouldn’t be in question either.  But his writing was often distractingly awkward, perhaps because of that emotional component or maybe he didn’t get enough editing pushback.  Not everything is ironic!  His reliance on that word, especially where “apropos” would have been apt, really undermined my faith in in the strength of his conclusions.  After all, if the man can’t be trusted with the English language, how can I trust him to read the documentary evidence?

I enjoyed learning about the personaities surrounding a dramatic period in American history, but the truth is still out there.

Oops!

Tell me I’m not the only one – you sometimes miss your stop when you’re reading something good, right?

Tonight, I read the first 50 or so pages of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, then looked up to find myself about 20 blocks past my usual stop.  I read a few more pages on the local platform headed back the right way, then thought about the book the whole way home – it’s striking a chord with me on several levels that I can’t wait to write about.

Of course, it’s not the first time a book has made me miss a stop, though usually it’s from laughing too hard, like the day, on my way to Bleecker Bar to meet a friend for a few rounds of pool, I found myself in Brooklyn – thanks Yarn Harlot! (I think it was Knitting Rules!)

So what’s done it for you?

Vacation Reading

One of the things I love about vacation spots, especially condos, is the collection of used books, mostly paperbacks, that builds up over time.  The selection here is appropriately eclectic or even bizarre, though it can’t necessarily all be blamed on prior visitors – there’s a sign saying some of the books were purchased from the local Humane Society (your joke here).  Still, I can’t imagine any buyer on behalf of the resort choosing “One Heartbeat Away: Your Journey into Eternity”, which promises to tell me what the afterlife will be like “in a logical, interesting and straightforward manner”.  I was disappointed to find it appears to be just standard evangelical Christian literature – lots of anecdotes and Bible quotes, a little evolution bashing.  I was hoping for something more out-there.

Mixed in with the Stephen King and James Patterson are the requisite handful of romance novels, and a volume entitled “Everything You Pretend to Know and Are Afraid Someone Will Ask”.  This last one had promise – I’m a big fan of the Imponderables series (“Do Penguins Have Knees?” was an early gift to the Writer) and Schott’s Miscellany – but it’s somewhat dated.  The focus on financial terms (“what’s the Fed?” “what’s a cartel?”) feels very 80s, though the book was published in 1996.  Even if I didn’t deal with finance a fair amount at work, the last couple years has educated all of us quite a bit about discount windows and movements in the prime rate.

Most disappointing, however, is that there’s no local guidebook or fish identification guide.  We left our Caribbean Reef ID book home in New York, so we’re relying on folks on the boats and the Internet to figure out some of the odd stuff (the lettuce leaf sea slug looks exactly like you’d expect, but what’s the kinda camo little fish with red dots? my best guess is a red-spotted hawkfish).

I’d like to make a contribution to the place, but Tipperary is a library book and Brightness Falls is on loan from the Writer, so neither is mine to give.  I only brought two books, and have read little of either, because I can only handle so much input in a day.  Diving is sensory overload so a lot of my “surface intervals” are spent napping, catching up on some blogs or making little trips around the island.  Hope to see the blue iguanas on this visit.

No subway, no review

I’m currently on an island with no subway, but I am spending plenty of time below the surface – I’m on a diving vacation in the Cayman Islands all week!

No review today, but I do hope to post a little piece in the next few days about the odd amalgam of used books that builds up in rental condos.