Sunday, October 31, 2010

The big mural

This is part of Diego Rivera's mural at the National Palace, which is mentioned early in the book:
"They say he's making a huge painting on the stairwell of the National Palace, the long red building on the Zocalo with windows like holes in a flute" (p. 68).
I haven't (yet?) found a picture that shows what the boy Harrison Shepherd describes on the next page of the book (p. 69):
"A beautiful lady lifts her skirt, showing her tattooed ankle.  Maybe she is a puta, or a goddess.  Or just someone like Mother who needs an admirer.  The Painter makes you see that those three kinds of women might all be the same, because all the different ancestors are still inside us and don't really die."
Signing their marriage license in 1940
Photos help me visualize what the boy heard about the fat painter and his tiny wife.
"...her face was very startling, an Azteca queen with ferocious black eyes"
(p. 65).  "He was as fat as a giant and horribly ugly, with the face of a frog and the teeth of a Communist"
(p. 66).
Have you started reading the book yet?

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Lacuna (TL) ~ November discussion

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1932
We'll discuss The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009) in November, so it's time to start reading.  The first chapter is found on the author's web site.  Synopsis:
Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. The Lacuna is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.

Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico — from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City — Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Lev Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.

Meanwhile, to the north, the United States will soon be caught up in the internationalist goodwill of World War II. There in the land of his birth, Shepherd believes he might remake himself in America's hopeful image and claim a voice of his own. He finds support from an unlikely kindred soul, his stenographer, Mrs. Brown, who will be far more valuable to her employer than he could ever know. Through darkening years, political winds continue to toss him between north and south in a plot that turns many times on the unspeakable breach — the lacuna — between truth and public presumption.
I have the book already and have read to page 34.  That's not very much, but I already feel sorry for the boy who doesn't quite fit in, yet discovers a world of exotic fish beneath the surface of the sea around the island where he and his mother are living when the book opens.  Are you ready to start reading with me?

Monday, October 25, 2010

TGB ~ second set of DQs

1.  In a particularly revealing chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie's teacher dismisses her essays about everyday life among the poor as "sordid," and, indeed, many of the novel's characters seem to harbor a sense of shame about their poverty. But they also display a remarkable self-reliance (Katie, for example, says she would kill herself and her children before accepting charity). How and why have our society's perceptions of poverty changed - for better or worse - during the last one hundred years?
2.  Some critics have argued that many of the characters in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn can be dismissed as stereotypes, exhibiting quaint characteristics or representing pat qualities of either nobility or degeneracy. Is this a fair criticism? Which characters are the most convincing? The least?

3.  Francie observes more than once that women seem to hate other women ("they stuck together for only one thing: to trample on some other woman"), while men, even if they hate each other, stick together against the world. Is this an accurate appraisal of the way things are in the novel?

4. The women in the Nolan/Rommely clan exhibit most of the strength and, whenever humanly possible, control the family's destiny. In what ways does Francie continue this legacy?

5. What might Francie's obsession with order -- from systematically reading the books in the library from A through Z, to trying every flavor ice cream soda -- in turn say about her circumstances and her dreams?

6.  Although it is written in the third person, there can be little argument that the narrative is largely from Francie's point of view. How would the book differ if it was told from Neeley's perspective?

7.  How can modern readers reconcile the frequent anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiments that characters espouse throughout the novel?

8.  Could it be argued that the main character of the book is not Francie but, in fact, Brooklyn itself?

(These questions came from the publisher and can be found at several sites online.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Extra set of questions

I found a site that quizzes readers about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and then gives the correct answers.  Obviously, it's about facts in the book, rather than our usual questions about what we thought of the book.  Give it a try.  I missed three of the questions.  See how you do by clicking this link.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

TGB ~ first set of DQs

Butcher shop ~ 1912
I'm overwhelmed by the Nolan children's hunger and their lives in general.  I stopped reading in order to feed my cat and, though I felt like Old Mother Hubbard finding the cupboard bare when I saw only three cans of cat food left on the shelf, I realized my cat eats better than Francie and Neeley did.

1.  What indications of poverty stood out for you in the early part of the book?

2.  Which of Francie's activities come to mind when you think of her childhood?

3.  Which characters interest you the most, and why?

Friday, October 15, 2010

The ailanthus tree

With a long weekend because of Fall Break at Chattanooga State, I hope to catch up on both reading and sleep.  It's time.  I taught my two writing classes at Chattanooga State this morning, came home tired, ate lunch, and stretched out to start reading.  (Yes, I'm that far behind.)  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published in 1943, but Anna Quindlen's Foreword was copyrighted in 2001.  I flipped the pages, deciding I could read Quindlen's five pages plus the six short chapters of Book One, a mere 54 pages, but I fell asleep before finishing the first page, which has only two paragraphs!  Must be tired, huh?  I'd say so, since I napped a solid six hours.  I made supper and read all the way to the second page of the Foreword, where I found Quindlen's remarks about the tree, the one that grows in Brooklyn:
"All of this takes place in the life of Francie Nolan, who is eleven years old when her story opens in the summer of 1912, in a third-floor walk-up apartment in the shadow of the hardy urban ailanthus tree..." (page viii).
I stopped to get online and look it up.  The ailanthus tree, also known also as the Tree of Heaven, is "native to Asia and northern Australia.  It was introduced into England from China in the mid-18th century as an ornamental, migrating to the United States in 1874."  I found pictures of the tree and decided to get online to share them with everybuddy.  So here I am at 8:00 in the evening, and I've managed to read a whole three-and-a-half paragraphs of the book.  The Foreword, actually.  I haven't even gotten to Francie yet.  With just under 500 pages to go, I'd better finish this post and start reading!

Friday, October 1, 2010

October ~ A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943

Our book for October is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1896-1972), published 67 years ago.  Synopsis:
Francie Nolan learns early the meaning of hunger and the value of a penny. She is romantic and hungry for beauty, like her father.  She is also deeply practical and in constant need of truth, like her mother.  And like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive.