Sunday, March 25, 2012

This One`s For You

When you write a blog about reading, people often come to you with suggestions about what books would make good fodder for your blog posts.  People mean well and I appreciate their enthusiasm both for reading and the blog itself.  No one has been a more diligent campaigner for a book than my friend Alysia.  For many years she advocated A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith with relentless passion and sentimentality for a book which she views as a beloved companion.  Needless to say, I was worried that I wouldn't like it for fear of her disappointment in my reaction.  

It turns out that I didn't worry for long.  The book is the coming of age story of Francie Nolan, an impoverished girl living in Brooklyn just prior to WWI.  Her family includes her father Johnny, an alcoholic singing waiter, and his long-suffering wife, Katie.  The family is rounded out by her younger brother Neeley who manages to inherit the best qualities of both parents.  Throughout the story, there emerges many other singular characters that people Francie's community, so many that it is difficult to mention them all.  These characters emerge through a series of of short vignettes which make up the story as a whole.  It is an atypical plot structure which allows the reader to learn about Francie's life through the stories of her family and neighborhood.  Therefore, unlike other books that  have discussed in my blog, the plot cannot be summed up within a few sentences and proves to make for a more rewarding reading experience. 

I feel like I understand what it meant to be a girl growing up poor in Brooklyn in that period of time, without the romanticism that usually colours the pages of coming of age stories.  Due to Johnny's personal foibles, the family lives in a crushing poverty which is constantly in the background of their lives like another character.  Alysia makes the astute point, that though the family lives on very little, there isn't an overwhelming sense of despair.  The kids have happy moments where they manage to have the unconventional brand of fun that poor children often experience, full of imagination.  Though the subject matter is serious, and I'm not sure how I would have reacted to the book had I read it at another stage in my life, but there is not the unrelenting melancholy of similar works. 

Though I can't get into what happens in the book in any sort of detail (because I'd be writing all day), it does tackle such controversial topics like premarital sex, infertility, and the general complexity of romantic love.  It delves into issues that many coming of age stories of this time period gloss over and author Anna Quindlen effectively makes this argument in the introduction to the edition that I read. She draws interesting parallels between this book and Little Women, a childhood favourite of many readers.  Quindlen asserts that Smith`s account differs from Louisa May Alcott`s tale because the Nolan family dwells in a more gritty realism than the noble poverty of the March family.  I see the truth of Quindlen`s observations, and though I love both books, I can relate more to Francie`s childhood than the experiences of Jo March and company.  

I would heartily recommend that more girls read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and would like to see it reach the same sentimental literary space that other books like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables occupy.  Because Alysia is right, as usual. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Vinyl Cafe: A Sunday Morning Staple

There are very few books, television shows, movies, etc. that bring out the sentimental streak in my otherwise overly critical soul, but somehow The Vinyl Cafe has done just that.  For those who aren't familiar with The Vinyl Cafe, I will elaborate.  It is a radio show which airs every Sunday at noon on CBC Radio One, and features musical guests and stories written by the host, Stuart McLean.  These stories feature an average family, that always seem to get into interesting scrapes, especially the patriarch, Dave. Along with his long-suffering wife, Morley, he bumbles his way through life with the best of intentions and the worst stroke of luck. Dave's two children, Sam and Stephanie round out the family along with Arthur the loyal hound dog. Every week, McLean tells another story of their adventures, with a puckish, yet wholesome delivery.  

I was first introduced to this show by my high school English teacher who impressed upon her students that some stories just sounded better read aloud.  We read McLean's stories to each and found ourselves chuckling along despite our attempts to appear aloof.  Though I can picture some other teenagers rolling their eyes, the stories really are ageless and they are richer through McLean's reading.  This show reminds me of the oral tradition of storytelling which predates the written word and how people would it for hours as a wandering troubadour would recite Beowulf or The Iliad from memory.  Similarly, The Vinyl Cafe travels all over Canada, rather than simply touring the larger cities, and McLean makes a point of talking about each individual place and supporting local musicians as well. 

Though my previous arguments about the quality of the stories, and the community involvement of the show are good ones, I think that the most compelling thing about the show is the hos himself.  McLean is charming in a folksy way with that typically Canadian self-effacing sense of humour.  In fact, there is nothing more Canadian than The Vinyl Cafe and it doesn't fall into the trap of over-the-top Canadian content like so many other productions.  A biopic of Laura Secord  told from the point of view of a Metis voyageur, for instance.  It mentions on The Vinyl Cafe website that their podcast was chosen by Apple as the best audio podcast of the year in 2011.  This is not surprising to me as a fan of the show, and I hope that you will take the time to follow the link I am adding to this post so that you can listen and judge for yourself.