Wednesday, May 13, 2009

No Book Today

We are in the midst of moving- not far- about 11 miles to the East and over the County line. I started 4 or 5 books this week- from Mike Wallace's memoirs to a deep philosophical tome on Descarte and a couple of light things in between. But with all the packing etc I just couldn't get into any of them enough to do them justice.

So I turned, as I often do, to rereading some of my favorite books. Like old friends they provide comfort in the familiarity of the characters I have come to know and love over the years. They, in turn, remind me of some of life’s lessons learned from some of the reading I have done.

Nowadays I read almost exclusively Non Fiction. But until about 20 years ago I was an avid fan of fiction by Clive Cussler, John McDonald, Herman Wouk and many others. But my real love was always with the so called "classics"- Dickens, Melville (is there anything more perfect than Moby Dick?) Twain, etc.

But one book that keeps coming around to provide me with solace is "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith. Although not a prolific writer (aside from "Tree" she has written only one other major book- Majorie Morningstar) Ms Smith writes with a charm and elegance that will make you weep in joy or sadness and have you laughing at descriptions of people you have known in your own life. But most of all, her book rings true in relation to the human spirit.

In telling the story of an Irish immigrant family in 1912 Brooklyn, Ms Smith creates a true and compelling portrait of social issues as well as the human dramas we all face in life. This is not the story of just one girl coming of age- but the tale of an evolving immigrant society and their desire to assimilate and become something more. Even Johnny Nolan, with his character flaws and short comings, has dreams of something better coming down the pike. The book is bristling with optimism and even as the characters face some devastating events there is always the belief- not hope- but belief- that better days are just ahead.

The principal character, Francie, has an overworked mother, an alcoholic father and a pesky brother. But she also has an Aunt Sissy, as flamboyant a person ever introduced into a novel. The book draws a realistic picture of a long gone era when horses pulled milk wagons, cops walked a beat, kids were free to indulge their childhood passions and allowances were made for those that followed the beat of a different drummer. (It is interesting to note that the book was originally written as an autobiography and then rewritten at the suggestion of an editor.)

Life doesn't change that much over the years- just the "window dressing" of style and taste- but the core issues of morality, education and hard work never change.

And that is the great thing about this book- the challanges faced by the Nolan family in 1912 are largely the same as those faced by later groups of immigrants as they struggle to make a new life.

This is one of my all time favorite "comfort books" and alongside of "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee (an even less prolific author than Ms Smith!)stands the test of time and can be revisited now and again to reinforce or even to rethink some of my own positions on the issues that confront us all as humans.

So, onward with the packing and hopefully the reading will resume as usual once I settle in at the new house.

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