Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Book 3 of 100 on the Great American Read list.

A few years ago, I decided to read the classic American children’s books that my bookseller colleagues had read when they were young and when I lived in another country. I began asking around for what should be on the list. It varied considerably, E B White and Lloyd Alexander, A Cricket in Times Square and Tuck Everlasting. But one title that came up again and again was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My female friends were especially enthusiastic, as one said “I’m jealous that you get to read it for the first time”.

Well, now I’ve read it and I know what she means.

This is the story of Francie Nolan, as she grows up in Brooklyn during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Her family are poor, her father is a drunk and her mother is harried but proud. She has a brother who is her protector and friend and later she has a baby sister. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is her impressions of the world and her journey toward understanding more of it.

The writing is extraordinary, one particularly atmospheric passage evoked my early memories of the local public library, a Victorian building not unlike a church which, like Francie, I treated with greater reverence. While I was reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn I repeatedly found myself stopping to cry or write down a perfectly crafted sentence. I also enjoyed looking up the slang and archaic language 23 Skidoo was a particular favorite.

What I find extraordinary is that the reader gets a glimpse into the heart of every female character in the book. Francie has a wild aunt, a funny aunt and an aunt who is a nun and I loved them all at least a little bit. The women talk like actual women, the hazing Francie gets at her first factory job is a masterclass in female-centric politics. And I never found myself questioning a female character's motives, because the women are complex but open books.

Why is this book on the list? It was published in 1943 and although it never won any awards, it’s been a popular read ever since. There are only two bestselling books from the 1940s that made the 100 Great American Read list. One is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the other is The Grapes of Wrath, although that stayed in the top ten for fewer years. At various times A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a movie, a musical and a tv show. It was even printed as an Armed Services Edition during the Second World War.

I think another secret of the success of this novel is the target audience, because A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a YA Book. Long before anyone thought of young adults and possibly before teenagers were invented, here is a book which covers the life of a girl between the ages of eleven and sixteen and a half. And it isn’t a charmed life either, it’s hard, angry, bloody and sad. Francie struggles against her upbringing just as it informs her aspirations. She must find out who she is, without rejecting her family. Exactly like the heroine of every YA novel published today. And Francie is a reader, a prodigious reader, reading is her escape, her education and eventually her job. There is nothing that young readers like better in a character than a bookishness to match their own.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also the most American book I’ve read to date. I began this undertaking to better understand American culture, I didn’t expect to find everything right here in the third book I read. The whole Brooklyn community is a mess of immigrants, religion plays a huge role, but so does hope and aspiration. Francie counts every penny when she’s poor and tells us about every dollar when she starts working. There’s even a gun and some expectedly corrupt politics. This is America. But I might not even stop there. It’s also a semi-autobiographical story, told 30 years after the fact. We must assume that it is at least a little rose-tinted. The way it should have been. So what does that tell us about America’s pride in it’s white working class and the American Dream. Perhaps that it never really existed?

I loved this book. I'm glad I've read it and I look forward to reading it again.

Friday, May 25, 2018

1984 by George Orwell

Book 2 of 100 on the Great American Read list

In 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, we first heard the phrase “Alternative Facts” and the classic dystopian novel 1984 became a bestseller once again. According to Amazon 1984 was the 17th bestselling book of 2017, in 2016 it was the 94th best selling, in 2018 it has yet to show up on the 100 bestselling books. Maybe now we’re all too busy living in 1984 to read about it.

At the time, I remember thinking that reading 1984 wasn’t the best choice of preparation for resisting Trump and his party. I’d never read the book, but I knew it was based on the paranoid semi-socialist ideology of Stalinist Russia. I felt that there were more pertinent dystopias out there, either The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hunger Games would have been closer to the oppressive despotism we had been promised by the president’s campaign speeches.

But now I’ve read it and I’ve lived under the Trump administration for a while and I can definitely see some parallels. Mostly in the use and abuse of the facts. Donald Trump has a famous disregard for the truth. If a lie suits his current narrative then he will not only use that lie, but repeat it and defend it. And his supporters will repeat that lie too. The truth no longer matters, what’s important is the belief in the lie. Which is exactly the point of 1984.

Winston Smith lives in an oppressive society under the control of The Party and Big Brother. His life, like the lives of all his comrades, is closely watched for loyalty and conformity. But he privately questions the reality presented by The Party of constant war and successful three year plans. He finds a temporary escape through an elicit relationship with a young woman called Julia. Almost a third of the book deals with his arrest, torture and reprogramming to make him a loyal party member who believes every lie of The Party.

Is it any good? The short answer is yes, it’s compelling, disturbing and an accurate indictment of humanity at it’s worst. Orwell also managed to invent some terms in 1984 that are now commonly used in the English language and that’s no small feat. Big Brother, Room 101 and SexCrime are all with us now because of this book. However, 1984 does have flaws, the biggest being that it’s a work of political philosophy wrapped in an adolescent love story. So, perhaps not the best novel ever written.

Why is it on the list? I think the main reason 1984 is here is High School reading lists. The book is short, packed with teachable content and there’s a wealth of resources to help bring the book to life for teenagers. But it’s worth thinking about why this is such a popular book with American teachers. The Party is modeled on soviet Russia and this ideology has long been in opposition to all that America stands for. It’s important to remember that 1984 was published in 1949, just in time for McCarthyism and the Red Scare when the US government went after anyone who might have any communist/socialist/non-capitalist sympathies, in a way that would put Big Brother to shame.

America’s relationship with socialism may continue to be fraught and complicated. America’s relationship with 1984, seems to be much more comfortable.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Book 1 of 100 on the Great American Read list.

(In which I begin this endeavor with something I know very little about.)

When I first came to America ten years ago, I worked for a charming neighborhood bookstore in San Francisco. Over time I started to know which authors were popular and which classic books sold well. What I couldn’t figure out was why a book by a prominent Third Reich Nazi was such a popular title.  So I googled “Siddhartha Hesse” and discovered that Rudolf Hess and Hermann Hesse were NOT the same person.

And while I’m sharing embarrassing misconceptions. I always thought this was a book about Buddha in his youth, when he was Prince Siddhartha. Turns out I had that wrong too.

It’s actually the story of a lifetime’s spiritual journey, undertaken by a man named Siddhartha. It begins with Siddhartha as a boy learning Hindu teachings and rituals with his Brahman father, then he hitches a wild ride with the aesthetics as a traveling pilgrim, giving all that up for a rich life of sex and money and finally finding peace in a simple middle way as a ferryman who listens to and understands the river. Along the way he often interacts with his best friend from boyhood Govinda and tangles with Buddha himself.

Is it any good? Yeah, it’s alright. It’s stacked high with flowery imagery and as a fictionalization of a religious ideology it does a great job getting across the central idea of Buddhism that the enlightened must live in the world, without becoming consumed by it. It’s also got some good sexy bits in it.

Why do I think it’s on the list? Well, it’s definitely a favorite for AP World Literature lists and I think that’s important. High school students with their futures ahead of them might read this and identify with the protagonist who searches for spiritual answers while he also searches for a physical place in the world. I understand why this would leave a lasting impression on students.

There are some obvious cultural issues here which I can’t ignore. Siddhartha is a work of fiction based on teachings and legends from the Buddhist religion, but it was written by a white European author. Religious texts are not included in the Great American Read list, otherwise perhaps we’d see The Sutras or The Bhagavad Gita in this list. But this is the only example of Eastern philosophy on the list and it isn’t written by someone native to that culture. I think Siddhartha is an excellent example of Orientalism, a long-standing tradition in the West to use Eastern culture as inspiration, in a mostly patronizing way.

A more generous interpretation is that Siddhartha makes Eastern philosophy accessible to Westerners, particularly Americans, because the book is vastly more popular in the US than in the UK. There are only 16 editions of Siddhartha available on Amazon in the UK, but 35 in the US (normally there are similar numbers of editions published in the two countries). I think this popularity can be explained by the American inclination toward religion and self-determination.

According to the Pew Research Center 3% of Americans identify as Atheist and although new research shows that the actual figure may be higher, it’s still lower than the roughly 50% of non-believers in the UK. I think it must be difficult to be an American atheist. Perhaps Westernized Buddhism as described in Siddhartha serves as an actual middle way between organized religion and nothing. Mindfulness and meditation are incredibly popular and can be arranged into a loose set of philosophies to attract those who want to be spiritual (because spirituality is important in America), but want to determine their own path to enlightenment (because self-sufficiency is also a key American character trait).

I might be making this too complicated, so here’s something simple Siddhartha sells in California. It promotes the idea of self-discovery through experience of life and nature, which aligns happily with the hippy and surfer cultures for which California is famous.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Great American Read

I am a Brit. I'm also an immigrant, non-citizen living in California and I spend way too much time trying to understand America and Americans.

What does it mean to be American? I have no idea and a million ideas:

Apple Pie, cowboys, racism, Independence, Hollywood, freedom of speech, guns, social justice, Disney, country music, confidence, straight teeth, eagles, slavery, ignorance, innovation, incarceration, money, Jesus.

That doesn’t answer the question. But it does demonstrate that America is all things to all the people living in it and those people are massively different.

So when I saw that PBS had commissioned YouGov to poll Americans and find their 100 favorite books I was instantly intrigued. The resulting list is the basis of a tv show called The Great American Read which producers hope will spark reading and conversation about books. This is a noble cause and one for which (as a bookseller), I am grateful.

Then I read the list.

The list makes NO sense at all. British and Russian classics sit next to contemporary YA series while second tier works by great contemporary authors vie with Christian and Buddhist morality tales. And then there’s Ghost, by Jason Reynolds. I love it, but I don’t know how it got here. The list is exactly like the random list of Americana above.

I have a degree in English Lit. from a UK university and I’ve been an bookseller for 15 years, but at the time the list was published I’d only read 24 of these 100 titles.

So I’m going to read the list, (or at least most of the list).

This isn’t an attempt to enrich my life by reading more. I already read 10-20 books per month. Instead I hope this will help me understand America through reading what Americans love, or at least, what they claim to love.

Every time I finish reading a book from the list, I’ll write a little something about my gut reactions to it and my thoughts about how it got on the Great American Read list.

Wish me luck, I’m going in.