A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.

Reason read: I needed a book for the Portland Public Library 2022 Reading Challenge in the category of “A book that makes you feel hopeful for the future.” I don’t know why, but this one does.

It was pointed out that in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn nothing happens. There is no over-the-top drama involving sex, violence, or rock and roll. Instead, A Tree is a simple and honest story about what it means to be human. Harsh realities about poverty, crime, alcoholism, life, and death are not ignored or sugarcoated. I would argue that something does happen in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. A little girl comes of age. In the summer of 1912 Francie Nolan was a scrappy eleven year old. At the time, her best friend was a tree that seemed to like poor people. By the end of the story, Francie has lost her father, gained a baby sister, managed to find her way to college, and started to date. It is a story of hope.
One of my favorite moments was when Francie understands for the first time she can read and the fact she would never be lonely again. Books would be her companions for any circumstance. Another favorite scene was when Francie graduates and she receives roses from her deceased daddy. It broke my heart.

Confessional: The scene when Katie is playing the piano with the children bothered me. Neely starts to sign and it is noted his voice is starting to change. It is then that Francie remarks, “You know what Mama would say if she were sitting here now?” Where did she go? She was just playing the piano. I think Smith meant Johnny. Johnny was the one who was missing from the scene.

Signs of the times, “He was a boy, he handled the money.” The candy store was a boys store and Francie had to wait outside while her brother bought her candy.

Phrasing I adored, “ground-down poor” and “helpless relaxation.”

Author fact: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has such clarity it is impossible to ignore its autobiographical nature. Rumor has it, Smith originally wrote the story as a memoir but her publishers urged her to fictionalize it to reach a wider audience. Could they not handle the truth?

Book trivia: My edition had a foreword by Anna Quinlan. She compared Francie to Jo March, Betsy Ray, and Anne of Green Gables. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was also published in an Armed Services edition. The wartime copy was specially sized to fit in a soldier’s rucksack.

Playlist: because Francie’s father is a singing waiter there were lots of great tunes mentioned in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: “There are Smiles That Make You Happy,” At the Darkstrutters’ Ball,” “When You’re a Long, Long Way From Home,” “My Wild Rose,” “Hello, Central, Give Me No Man’s Land,” “You’ll find Old Dixieland in France,” There’s a Quaker Down in Quaker Time,” Ted Lewis’s “For When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (a song I can remember my mother singing while she vacuumed), “Molly Malone,” “The Soldier’s Chorus,” “When I Get You Alone Tonight,” “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” “She May Have Seen Better Days,” “I’m Wearin’ My Heart Away for You,” “Ave Maria,” “Beautiful Blue Danube,” “At the Devil’s Ball,” “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon,” “Kerry Dancers,” “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” Harrigan, That’s Me,” “The River Shannon,” “Holy Night,” “Star Spangled Banner,” “Schubert Serenade,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon,” Handle’s “Largo,” Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” Verdi, Walter Wildflower, “O, Sole Mio,” “Some Sunday Morning,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “Silent night,” “Annie Laurie,” “Last Rose of Summer,” “Sweet Adeline,” “Down By the Old Mill Stream,” “A Shanty in Shantytown,” “When You Wore a Tulip,” “Dear Old Girl,” ” I’m Sorry I made You Cry,” “Over There,” “K-K-Katy,” “The Rose of No Man’s Land,” “Mother Macree,” and “The Band Played On.”

Nancy said: Pearl called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a “classic coming-of-age” story.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Girls Growing Up” (p 101).


Tangerine

Bloor, Edward. Tangerine. New York: Scholastic Signature, 1997.

Reason read: I needed a one-word title for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge.

Tangerine, Florida seems like a strange and dangerous place to live. Constant lightning strikes in the afternoons, continuous underground muck fires, and resulting sinkholes plague the community. That’s not all. Prized koi fish are mysteriously disappearing from the community pond. Swarms of mosquitos are so thick, trucks with choking pesticides spray daily as if on war patrol. Multiple houses need fumigating because of termites. Then the robberies begin…and the vandalism and graffiti.
Paul Fisher and his family have recently moved to this unstable area and all middle-schooler Paul wants to do is make the soccer team. Despite having a disability (he is legally blind), he is an excellent goalie. He just needs a chance. Since all eyes (pun totally intended) are on Paul’s older brother, Eric, the high school football star destined for greatness, that chance seems slim. Everyone adores Eric so why does Paul fear his brother so much?
Tangerine stuns the reader with harsh realities usually missing from young adult novels. Publishers Weekly said “it breaks the mold” and I agree one hundred percent. Confessional: some scenes were so harsh I found myself catching my breath.

Line that gave me pause, “Eric was as phony as he needed to be” (p 57). Little did I know how telling that line would be.

Author fact: Bloor has written a bunch of books but I am only reading Tangerine for the Challenge.

Book trivia: Tangerine is Bloor’s first novel. My edition has an introduction from Danny DeVito.

Playlist: “Try to Remember.”

Nancy said: the only thing Pearl said specifically about Tangerine is that it is more appropriate for boys than girls.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Best for Teens” (p 23).


Monkeys

Minot, Susan. Monkeys. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2000.

Reason read: Even though Monkeys isn’t about animals, I am reading it in honor of the television series “All Creatures Great and Small” first airing in the month of January. In addition, I needed a one-word title for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge.

Monkeys was the term of endearment Rosie Vincent called her large brood of seven children. Cheerful and sometimes silly, Rosie was the glue that held this chaotic family together. When she is tragically killed the children are left to deal with their grief. Sometimes they are forced to parent an alcoholic father who can’t focus on his responsibilities (but manages to remarry in a year). As a stand alone novel of vignettes Monkeys may seem disjointed and fuzzy; not very well thought out, but when you consider Monkeys as a transparent autobiography, it makes way more sense. Minot herself has six siblings. Her mother was killed at a train crossing, exactly like Rosie Vincent. The first story (told in first person) could very well be Minot herself reliving her childhood memories. The rest of the stories are in third person and might be true events about her siblings.
As an aside, it would be interesting to read Monkeys along with with the works of her sister (The Tiny One) and brother (The Blue Bowl) for comparison.

One quote to quote, “One evening, Mum asked her to promise she wouldn’t commit suicide until she was eighteen” (p 81).

Author fact: At last check, Minot lived in Maine.

Book trivia: Monkeys is Minot’s first fiction.

Playlist, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”

Nancy said: Pearl said that Monkeys was one perspective on growing up in a large, dysfunctional New England Catholic family.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “All in the Family: Writer Dynasties” (p 5).


The Sound and the Fury

Faulkner, William. Novels 1926 – 1929: The Sound and the Fury. The Library of America, 2006.

Reason read: December is Southern Fiction month. Luckily, this is the last Faulkner I have to read.

I wish I could say I adored The Sound and the Fury. I feel like I have an obligation to at least like Faulkner’s writing style because it is so close to another author I actually love, James Joyce. Faulkner appears to be heavily influenced by the Irish author.
Even though Sound got easier and easier to read as I went along, I couldn’t like the characters. Getting into the minds of the three Compson brothers didn’t help. Benjamin, Quentin, and Jason’s narratives all blur together and become one complicated and tangled stream of consciousness. I learned early on that the trick to Faulkner is to remember chronology is of little importance, the duplicity of names can be confusing, and for The Sound and the Fury, you must be comfortable with themes of mental illness, incest, and suicide. Virginity is a commodity in southern fiction. The moral of the story is every tree has a few secret nuts.

Lines I found myself liking: “She approved of Gerald associating with me because I at least revealed a blundering sense of noblesse oblige by getting myself born below the Mason and Dixon, and a few others whose Geography met the requirements (minimum)” (p 947), and “Honeysuckle is the saddest odor of all, I think” (p 1007). Not a line, but I liked the random illustrated eye.
As an aside, I would like to see the Sound and the Fury movie. I think I might understand the plot a little better if I did.

Author fact: Faulkner skipped the second grade and his surname used to be spelled without the ‘u.’

Book trivia: the appendix includes 46 years of Compson history, some helpful and some not so much.

Nancy said: Pearl called all of Faulkner’s novels “enduring.” Just how they endure, I don’t know.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Southern Fried Fiction” (p 205).


Spartina

Casey, John. Spartina. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Reason read: Read in respect for the December storms that batter the New England coastline.

Rhode Islander Dick Pierce suffers from a throat-strangling envy of the rich people who flock to his touristy seaside town of Narragansett every summer. His mistress calls it “class-rage.” Money, or the lack of it, makes Dick an ornery man. Most of the time he is able to control his disdain for the wealthy nonsense, but every once in awhile his temper will flare. It is difficult for him, as a year-rounder, to make a back-breaking living as a commercial fisherman while watching his neighbors folic in the house his family used to own. With a wife and two sons to support Dick knows he needs to captain his own vessel to bring in a better profit. He can’t make ends meet crewing for someone else. His saving grace is a 50-foot boat he calls Spartina he has been slowly building in the back yard. Now all he needs is an engine. Desperation to put Spartina in the water leads Dick down a dangerous path of foolish choices and regrettable actions. Drugs, adultery, theft. Nothing is off limits when a man is driven.
Confessional: I couldn’t decide if I liked the main character.

Author fact: Casey has a very intimate knowledge of boats, down to the very last detail. He is from Worcester, just down the road from me.

Book trivia: the history of Rhode Island is threaded through Spartina. It was unexpected to get a little lesson on the Narragansett tribe and their intended use of wampum.

Playlist: “Autumn Leaves,” “Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Maybe, Baby,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison.

Nancy said: Pearl said “You could do far worse than spend a reading life perusing books by Iowa’s distinguished MFA alumni…” (Book Lust p 107).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust twice. First in the chapter called “Ecofiction” (p 78) and again in “Growing Writers” (p 107). Even though Pearl included this in a chapter called “Ecofiction” it didn’t rule the plot.


Unsheltered

Kingsolver, Barbara. Unsheltered. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

Reason read: I needed a book for the Portland Reading Challenge in the category of “A book you have yet to read by an author you love.” Kingsolver is it.

Contrary to the title of the book, this is the story of one particular shelter – a house called Vineland that sheltered two different families over 140 years apart. A house that stood the test of time until it couldn’t.
Modern day: Willa and Iano’s marriage is unsheltered from harsh realities. Behind Willa’s every thought of Iano is a trace of disappointment. He doesn’t respect her privacy. He is hardly the breadwinning husband even though she is the out-of-work journalist. As a professor with adoring students and a history of infidelity, Willa cannot trust him. Adding to the stress Iano’s very ill father has come to live with them in their condemned (no longer sheltering) house. Then there is Willa’s son. Zeke has his own share of trouble. His live-in girlfriend has committed suicide, leaving him with a newborn son and a pile of debt. Helene was the one with the income while Zeke was a student at the Harvard Business School. Guess who is left to care for the newborn? This is the opening shot across the bow for Unsheltered. Kingsolver delves into so much (so much!) more as the story unfolds. Historical plot follows the life of real-life naturalist Mary Treat and her quest to study the world around her. Charles Darwin has page time and even the nomination of a tyrant for a President of the United Sates gets a mention. I don’t want to say anymore except that Kingsolver is a master of words.

Lines I loved, “The silence has extended beyond her turn to speak” (p 2), “Marriages tended to harden like arteries, and she and Iano were more than thirty years into this one” (p 37), “The dangerous allure of novelty might have sparked this torment, but in the eye of the storm they held on hard to the world they knew” (p 242).

Author fact: I follow Kingsolver on the insty and she takes breathtakingly beautiful pictures.

Book trivia: Despite loving this book it took me a really, really long time to read.

Playlist: Nikki Minaj, Beyonce, Steely Dan, David Bowie, Keith Jarrett, “Tea for the Tillerman,” “Into White,” “Moonshadow,” “Hard Headed Woman,” and “Wild World” by Cat Stevens.


Three Junes

Glass, Julia. Three Junes. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.

Reason read: November is National Writing Month so I chose Three Junes in honor of the category of debut novel.

You start Three Junes by following widower Paul McLeod on a guided tour of Greece where he meets a woman who will change the course of his life. Six years later Paul’s passing brings his sons, Fenno, and twins, Dennis and David, to Scotland for his funeral. Fenno, a normally reserved New York West Village gay man, faces a family he barely knows while remembering a father he has always wanted to know better. Both of his brothers are married and living very different lives. The mourners who approach Fenno present difficult choices. For a good chunk of the book Fenno’s story is told in first person, bouncing back and forth in time as we follow his complicated relationships with cerebral friend, Mal, dying of AIDS and sexy photographer, Tony, who remains uncommitted despite near daily sexual encounters.
Speaking of Tony, he appears in the last chunk of the book as Fern’s lover. This relationship circles the story back to Paul, as Fern was Paul’s chance encounter in Greece. Artfully written, Glass plays with chronology and people’s emotions. You want unreachable resolutions and conversations that don’t or won’t happen.

Quote I liked, “There the letter ends, as if he wrote himself over the cliff” (p 55).

Author fact: Three Junes is a debut novel for Julia Glass.

Book trivia: “Collies,” the first section of Three Junes was originally a novella and earned Glass the 1999 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Medal for Best Novella.

Playlist: “Flowers of Scotland,” “Gone Away,” Gome to the Ground,” “Skye Boat Song,” Lotte Lehman, Pavarotti, Streisand, Bee Gees, Gershwin, Porter, Jerome Kern, Gene Kelly’s “‘S Wonderful,” Kenny Rogers, Stravinsky, Copeland, Hendrix, Holiday, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” by Bob Dylan, Elton John’s “Daniel,”, Maria Callas’s “Violetta,” Bette Midler, Van Morrison, Lyle Lovett, “100 Years From Today,” and “And If I Were Like Lightning.”

Nancy said: Pearl included Three Junes in her list of “wonderful books.”

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Maiden Voyages” (p 158).


House of the Spirits

Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2005.

Reason read: read in honor of the ghosts…just in time for Halloween.

The House of the Spirits begins with a letter to a hundred year old grandfather. Meet the del Valle family. Clara del Valle has paranormal powers as every magical realism book must have. Clara predicts her sister’s death by poison and is traumatized into muteness by the autopsy (wouldn’t you if you saw your sister cut open?). The generational story goes on to include more crimes against humanity in the form of adultery, rape, whippings, curses, maiming, and murder. Balanced with all that grief is an undeniable love story. Passion abounds between the harshness.
As an aside, my favorite character of them all was Rosa de Valle. Born with green hair she is thought to be a mermaid and was murdered early in the story.

Author fact: Allende write a letter to her 99 year old grandfather and The House of the Spirits was born.

Book trivia: I always find it really interesting when novels (or art of any kind) that end up being huge successes are at first rejected. Allende and Van Gogh have that in common.

Nancy said: Pearl said The House of the Spirits offers “a picture of Chile that’s suffused with love (and a bit of magic)” (Book Lust To Go p 115).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Magical Realism” (p 148) and from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “It’s Chile Today” (p 114).


Everything That Rises Must Converge

O’Connor, Flannery. Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York: The Library of America, 1988.

Reason read: September is Southern Writers Month.

Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are like the crack of the whip dangerously close to your head. Sometimes humorous, sometimes peculiar, often times violent, but always breathtakingly true. Imagine the nervous laughter that bubbles up when you realize that whip has missed your face. You laugh because you want it to be a skillful miss as opposed to a clumsy mistake. Imagine the quirkiness of characters who are dangerously misunderstood. There is always something a little sinister about O’Connor. She enjoys the abrupt turn of events that take her readers by surprise. She holds us witness to the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity.
Everything That Rises Must Converge is a compilation of nine short stories:

  • “Everything That Rises Must Converge” – we start with the discomfort of a mother’s obvious prejudice.
  • “Greenleaf” – a fight over property and propriety.
  • “A View of the Woods” – a punch to the gut when you least expect it.
  • “The Enduring Chill” – another tale about an overbearing mother.
  • “The Comforts of Home” – mother and son disagree about taking a brash girl into their home.
  • “The Lame Shall Enter First” – a widower tried to take in a second son with horrible results.
  • “Revelation” – another story heavy on the racism.
  • “Parker’s Back” – a man obsessed with tattoos
  • “Judgement Day” – an elderly and racist father is terrified of dying in New York City.

Quotes I liked, “There was a continuous thud in the back of Asbury’s head as if his heart and got trapped in it and was fighting to get out” (p 565), and “Behind the newspaper Julian was withdrawing into the inner compartment of his mind where he spent most of his time” (p 603), and “In addition to her other bad qualities, she was forever sniffing up sin” (p 655).

Author fact: Flannery O’Connor died too young at the age of thirty-nine. Imagine the books and stories she could have written had she lived to a hundred!

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Everything That Rises Must Converge in “Growing Writers” or “Southern Fiction” but she did mention O’Connor as a great fiction-writer and a classic.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust twice. Once in the chapter called “Growing Writers” (p 107), and again in the chapter called “Southern Fiction” (p 222).


Dicey’s Song

Voigt, Cynthia. Dicey’s Song. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.

Reason read: to finish the series started in July in honor of Kids month.

When we catch up to the Tillerman family (after reading Homecoming) they are in Maryland living with the grandmother they never knew they had. Dicey is a teenager starting to come of age with homework and budding, albeit reluctant, friendships. Her two younger brothers, James and Sammy, are in thriving in school. Her only sister Maybeth is a musical prodigy. Her family is becoming self-sufficient. Everything should be great for Dicey as the eldest sibling. Her family is not on the run. They have a roof over their heads every night. They have food on the table at every meal. They have someone to look after them. They are all in school. But, for Dicey something is intrinsically wrong. For the longest time she had control over her family. Keeping them together and safe was all she knew. It is what she did best. When her siblings start exercising independence Dicey isn’t sure how to feel about it. Throughout the story she struggles to learn to let them go their own ways, together but apart. At the same time Dicey deals with the internal confusion of becoming a young woman without her mother’s guidance. My favorite moments were whenever Gram’s hardened exterior softened as each child reached for her love.

Author fact: Voigt has written over a dozen young adult novels.

Book trivia: Dicey’s Song is a Newbery Award winner.

Playlist: “I Gave My Love a Cherry,” “Amazing Grace,” “Who Will Sing for Me?” “The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” “Pretty Polly,” “Amazing Grace,” Beethoven, and even though they didn’t name the song, I recognized the story of “Matty Groves” (thanks to Natalie Merchant).

Nancy said: Pearl said nothing specific about Dicey’s Song.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Best for Boys and Girls” (p 169).


Infinite Jest

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. New york: Back Bay Books, 2009.

Reason read: I picked this up in honor of Wallace’s birth month. Take note of the date.

To be honest, the sheer size of this book was daunting even before I cracked it open. Add to its heft four complicated subplots, over 380 footnotes, corporate sponsorships, and a futuristic timeline and I waved the white flag. I didn’t feel bad about my decision after I came across a YouTube video of Bill Gates explaining why he couldn’t be bothered either. the one element of Infinite Jest I thought I was missing out on was all of the references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I think I would have enjoyed teasing out those details.
Plot One concerns a group of radicals from Quebec who plan a violent geopolitical coup.
Plot Two centers on a group of students in Boston all suffering or coping with substance addiction.
Plot three takes place at a tennis Academy in Connecticut.
Fourth plot is the history of the Incandenza family. All plots are connected by the movie “Infinite Jest” by James Incandenza, but are not in chronological order.

As an aside, when Bill Gates says he can’t be bothered to read Infinite Jest it makes you wonder why you’re reading it.

Author fact: Wallace attended Amherst College just down the road from me. The fact he committed suicide is a tragedy.

Book trivia: Infinite Jest has made an impact on pop culture with references in television and music.

Nancy said: Pearl called Infinite Jest an “excellent pomo book.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in one of my least favorite chapters called “The Postmodern Condition” (p 190).


Homecoming

Voigt, Cynthia. Homecoming. New York: Aladdin Press, 1981.

Reason read: July is National Kids Book month. Reading Voigt in honor of the month.

Picture yourself as a teenager with three younger siblings. What would you do if your mother left all of you in a car in a mall parking lot to never came back? Dicey Tillerman faces that dilemma after she realizes her mother has been “shopping” way too long. A full night and day too long. Looking back on the events leading up to this abandonment, Dicey understands her mother had been planning this escape from her children carefully, almost deliberately. Making them memorize the address to their great-aunt’s house; packing them bag lunches. The days before her departure were full of signs Dicey somehow missed or didn’t want to believe. Now, armed with bag lunches and a few dollars, she must protect her little family of siblings. Shepherding them along country backroads, hiding in bushes, camping on deserted beaches, and scrimping and saving only to buy the bare necessities, Dicey navigates her way down the coast of Connecticut from Peewauket, Massachusetts to their great-aunt’s house, hoping mother will be there. This is an all-too-real tale of a mother overwhelmed by life. Her children are fighters, though. Each child will warm your heart with their various personalities.

Quotes to quote, “A lot of people had little bits of her life now, and they were tied to her now, or she was tied to them” (p 306).

Author fact: Voigt went to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Book trivia: Homecoming is the first book in a series about the Tillerman family. I am only reading Homecoming and Dicey’s Song for the Challenge. Homecoming was also made into a movie in 1996.

Playlist: “Peggy-O,” “Water is Wide” by the Indigo Girls, “Greensleeves,” and “Who Will Sing for Me?” by the Stanley brothers.

Nancy said: Pearl did not say anything specific about Homecoming except to notate is is a good read for both boys and girls.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Best for Boys and Girls” (p 22).


Onions in the Stew

MacDonald, Betty. Onions in the Stew. Philadelphia: JB Lippincott, 1954.

Reason read: to finished the series started in April in honor of Humor Month.

In truth, Onions in the Stew can be read independently of any other Betty MacDonald memoir. All three are very different from one another. Onions in the Stew tells of the period in MacDonald’s life when she and her children, with her second husband, buy a house on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. It starts off as a humorous commentary on island living but morphs into the trials and tribulations of raising two teenager daughters who just have to rebel against everything you want for them. By the end of it, the reader can’t help but sigh. MacDonald blends just the right amount of laugh-out-oud funny with sweet poignancy. This was my favorite of the three memoirs by far.

Author fact: MacDonald might be better known for her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories for children, but Onions in the Stew was delightful.

Book trivia: Onions in the Stew is another memoir about Betty MacDonald’s life. The Egg and I and The Plague and I are two others. These do not necessarily need to be read in order to be fully enjoyed.

Playlist: “Tangerine,” “Rock of Ages,” “You’re Mine, You,” “Embraceable You,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” “Paper Moon,” Frank Sinatra, Frankie Laine, Billie Holliday, and King Cole.

Nancy said: Pearl mentioned Onions in the Stew as one of those books that will be so funny you will fall off your chair from laughing.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Tickle Your Funny Bone” (p 218).


The Blessing

Orr, Gregory. The Blessing: a Memoir. San Francisco: Council Oaks Books, 2002.

Reason read: April is National Poetry Month. Gregory Orr is known for his fantastic poetry.

This is Gregory Orr’s painful memoir of not only the terrible moment when he shot his brother to death in a hunting accident, but the uncharacteristic way he and his family, tight lipped and stoic, dealt with the pain. Only one week after the tragedy the Orr children were back in school as if nothing happened. Gregory was in the seventh grade at this point. When Orr’s father uprooted the family and took them to Haiti, Gregory, as an adult, is able to look back at the episode and as delve briefly into Haiti’s turbulent political history and conflicting cultures (a mention of Castro and Papa Doc Duvalier) as a perfect comparison to his own family’s unsettled time. It is unbelievable, but even more tragedy followed the Orr family after arriving in Haiti. Once in full adulthood, Orr tries to make sense of his past and his responses to all of its shocking heartache. For example – when his mother died, none of her children were invited to the funeral. Father, a man Gregory once worshiped and wanted all to himself, is later described as having “not a nurturing bone in his body.” What father gives bottles of amphetamines as going away presents to his son while he carrying on a relationship with a girl barely older than Gregory? All of this sounds like a book unbearable to read. It is not. In the end, Gregory is able to find his way through the maze of mixed emotions and come out with the determination to become an accomplished poet.

Lines to ponder, “We were grateful to let something so mysterious and disturbing pass out of memory” (p 85), “Violent trauma shreds the web of meaning” (p 134), and “Poems are discrete artifacts of language that prove someone’s imagination and linguistic gifts have triumphed over disorder in a definitive, shaped way” (p 144-145).

Playlist: “Ti Oiseau,” “Greensleeves,”Somnambule Ballad,” “Keep Your Eye on the Prize,” “Aint Gonna Study War No More,” “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Birmingham Jail,” “We Belong to a Mutual Admiration Society (My Baby and Me),” “We shall Overcome.” Fats Domino, Chubby Checker, Bob Dylan.

To look up: To Die in Madrid: a documentary on the Spanish Civil War and the sculptor, David Smith.

Author fact: Orr also wrote The Caged Owl which is also on my Challenge list. It will be interesting to read the poetry now that I’ve read the memoir. Will I see hints of Orr’s personal life in his lines of poems?

Book trivia: There are no photographs in Orr’s memoir.

Nancy said: Pearl included The Blessing in her list of “beautiful and moving memoirs by poets.”

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Prose By Poets” (p 194).


Cheaper by the Dozen

Gilbreth, Jr., Frank B. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. Cheaper by the Dozen. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1948.

Reason: April 1st is known as April Fools Day. Cheaper By the Dozen is a foolish story.

The parents of Frank and Ernestine make an interesting couple. She is a psychologist and he is a motion study engineer. Together, they work to make processes more efficient for various business and by default, their twelve children are efficiency aficionados. Why twelve children? As Mr. Gilbreth explains, they were “cheaper by the dozen.” It’s a running joke in the family. Be forewarned, the family has a lot of running jokes.
An example of making a process more efficient: Mr. Gilbreth evaluated surgeons during operations to make their procedures go smoother.
While the bulk of Gilbreth’s story is humorous, it must be said that at the time of writing no one thought it politically or socially incorrect to call a Native American a “red indian.”
I don’t want to give too much away, but the birth control scene was hysterical. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud more than once. And I don’t think it is a spoiler alert to say that I loved the ending. Mother Gilbreth steps fearlessly into her husband’s shoes and carries on the family business. Brilliant.

Favorite dad line, “Some simpleton with pimples in his voice wants to talk to Ernestine” (p 220).

Author fact: Frank and Ernestine are siblings and wrote the book together.

Book Audio trivia: my copy of the audio book was narrated by Dana Ivey and had music before each chapter.
Book trivia: Cheaper by the Dozen was made into a movie more than once. Myrna Loy starred in the first version. My music connection: Josh Ritter has a song called Myrna Loy and the print version was illustrated by Donald McKay.

Playlist: “stumbling,” “Limehouse Blues,” “Last night on the Back Porch,” “Charlie, My Boy,” I’m forever Blowing Bubbles,” “You’ve got to See Mama Every Night or You Can’t See Mama at All,” “Me and the Boy Friend,” “Clap Hands, Here Comes charlie,” “Jadda Jadda Jing Jing Jing.”

Nancy said: Pearl said Cheaper by the Dozen remains one of the funniest books ever.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Humor” (p 166).