A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Bettie Smith

Recommended by Rory Dowd

The tree is an ailanthus, a variety that is found all over Brooklyn, and is known for its resiliency. The narrator says “It grows in boarded up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly, survives without sun, water, and seemingly earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.” The metaphor for the poor immigrant family that struggles to make it in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is obvious, but powerful. It’s a metaphor for the children running around Brooklyn and for the struggles that are so difficult but so common in impoverished communities.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn feels disproportionately old at this point when the narrator describes Williamsburg, Brooklyn as something other than a haven for Hipsters and Hassidic Jews. It’s hard to imagine Williamsburg, Brooklyn to be anything like Bettie Smith’s version of it and harder still to see the connection between the way it feels today and the way it did in the early 20th century.

But the neighborhood and the streets themselves are irrelevant – it’s the poor immigrant community that is the persisting center of the story, as expressed by the refreshing and idealistic innocence of Francie, who guides us through this world. It’s the metaphor that the novel starts with that I love most though – the resilient tree that can crack through cement and survive without sun or water, the most basic nutrients and elements of growth and life. There is something wonderful in this metaphor and the way that the author weaves it into the personalities of various characters. The use of a single metaphor that shadows an entire novel or story is a great American literary trait – from the green light and eyeglasses of The Great Gatsby to the rain in Farewell to Arms – and Smith employs it so powerfully here. I had no idea this would be such a great novel and was even more surprised that it would feel like such an American novel. Great American novels are always my favorite and this is no exception.

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Night Fall by Demille

NightFall by DeMille

Recommended by: Don Marsh

All I knew about Night Fall going in was that it’s about the TWA plane crash of 1996 that was determined to be a mechanical malfunction so I decided to read the book on a few flights across the country to confront my flying fears. Turns out, however, my fear of plane explosions was nothing compared to the fears of the things Demille suggests.

The investigative mystery thriller is a genre I am not familiar with, but I have been told it is a wonderful medium that entertains while discussing grander issues, sometimes psychological or cultural, but in this case current events and national security. Demille’s book is fiction in every way, but it is rooted in conspiracy and theory that like all good conspiracy reflects the truth that the possibility for corruption and deceit is entirely plausible even if the theory is false. It doesn’t matter if TWA Flight 800 was destroyed by a missile or a mechanical failure, what matters is, the latter could just as easily be the truth and the truth could just as easily be disguised all these years.

Night Fall, it turns out, is an early September 11th novel, as Demille leads us from the events surrounding the aftermath of TWA 800 towards September, 2001. The Septemeber 11th novel is a developing genre consisting of a plurality of voices, from children describing the aftermath, to corporate executives watching from the 2nd tower, to immigrants in Hell’s Kitchen thrown into national crisis. Many September 11th novels focus on the tragedy of the day or the themes of moving forward but Demille forces us to look backwards. And his contribution to this genre is important because it reminds us that the day in question was not an abstract singular disaster but the worst in a string of horrific world events. Whether TWA 800 is a part of that string is beside the point – the point is that it easily could have been.

East of Eden

East of Eden (Centennial Edition) East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Recommended by Ben Bartlett

I am ashamed to say that East of Eden is my first Steinbeck novel. My young and ignorant failed attempt at Of Mice and Men soured me for years, and lately, with rising unemployment numbers and Southern droughts I’ve resisted his depression era novels. East of Eden, however, is far more important than I could have imagined, and is another in the line of books that justify this project for me.

This Cain and Abel story embodies local and temporal themes while demonstrating immortal ones as well. The clashes between Cal and Aaron, embodying two varied but recognizable personalities from the same town, are as old as the Bible stories they reflect, and as enduring as the Montagues and Capulets.

This novel’s achievement is the sense of place it creates. The plot at times seems only an excuse for detailed passages on Salinas Valley and its inhabitants that Steinbeck weaves in and out the action. It is an enviable skill that Steinbeck possesses, so aware and confident of his location that it emanates through the text like a poetic travel book. I’ve driven through Salinas hundreds of times and while it doesn’t seem as interesting or complex as Steinbeck describes it – neither in culture nor landscape – the Salinas of East Eden is fascinating and intricate and full of complex beauty. But I don’t know the place very well, I only know there is nothing I could write to bring life to a specific place and there are very few people I have ever read who could. Read East of Eden to experience place in its grandest sense, just don’t wait as long as I did.

Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie

Bound for Glory (Plume) Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie

Recommended by Jay Mollica

Bob Dylan said that Bound For Glory had a similar but much stronger effect on him than Kerouac’s On the Road. Can anything more complimentary have ever been said about a book? So affected by Guthrie’s book, Dylan famously went to visit the ailing activist and folk singer suffering from Huntington’s Disease in a New Jersey hospital.

Guthrie embodies an America too often forgotten in historical narratives too often preoccupied with wars, presidents, and scandals. The traveling storytelling artist is not as strange as many would imagine, and in Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie details his life and the lives of many others who also traveled through America, meeting people, singing songs, working when necessary, and promoting freedom. The ills of capitalism and the struggles for TRUE freedom are often taught and promoted in America’s ivory towers, but Guthrie (along with Wendell Berry today) reminds us that our most liberal and freedom-loving Americans often exist within the middle of the country and struggle every day to maintain human dignities in an industrial society.

“This guitar kills Fascists” Guthrie had written on his guitar. To him, songwriting and story telling was both an active testament of freedom and necessary to freedom. I can make no claim about this book’s worth compared to Kerouac’s, but I can say, that along with On the Road and Bob Dylan’s own Chronicles, this book forms a triumvirate of the stories of traveling artists who are at the core of our American culture and and a testament to America’s artistic worth.

Beautiful Boy by David Scheff

Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Meth Addiction Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Meth Addiction by David Sheff

Recommended by: Brenda Coseo

Reading about addiction is a difficult to thing to endure, but like addiction itself, making your way through a book like Beautiful Boy is a reward seldom experienced. David Scheff’s son Nic is lying, stealing, and living on the streets to support his methamphetamine addiction at age 17. David must endure the trauma of watching his son dive into the spiral of addiction but his heroic struggle to escape it.

I want to say something like ‘this is not a book for those who are inexperienced with addiction and will be shocked by stories of drug use’ but perhaps those most inexperienced with addiction will be removed enough to appreciate the heroics and struggles of David Scheff and his son. If, however, one were to read this book with reference or memory to a personal experience with addiction (be it popsicles, aerospace museums or sandwiches), David Scheff seems to me like a true saint who provides intimate details of the successes and failures of his son barely surviving his addiction while connecting his condition to the national pandemic of meth addiction. However, I wonder if much of the poignancy and import of this book escapes those who are inexperienced with addiction (or perhaps parenting). David Scheff, a journalist by trade, perfectly re-creates his son’s struggle. He is knowledgeable enough to know the universal experience of the disease that is addiction, but aware also of the persistent importance of individual narratives of addiction, which he is willing to provide and in so doing contribute to the endless and very necessary storyline of addiction/recovery narratives.

Beautiful Boy is important for everyone because it warns against silence about drugs: silent parents not discussing drugs with children, silent teachers not educating students about drugs, and a silent society criminalizing and exiling into prisons those addicted to drugs. Beautiful Boy proclaims that the only necessary reward for the father for his struggle with his son’s addiction is his son’s recovery, his son’s return to himself, and in this proclamation the book forces us to explore the image of a society that would – like a father or mother – choose to care for and heal those stricken by meth addiction.


The Boat by Nam Le

The Boat The Boat by Nam Le

Recommended by Mike Valente

The Boat, a book of short stories published in 2008, is a participant in perhaps the greatest year of short story collections we have seen in a century. It is rare to find short story collections that amount to more than uneven attempts but still more uncommon to have a year with five or six collections that match brilliance of Hemingway, O’Connor or Chekov. What distinguishes The Boat and its fellow collections (Unaccustomed Earth, Better Angel, Diction, and Dangerous Laughter) is that they embody a consistent tone that subtly tells us these stories need to be told. This tone is a sign of confidence and assurance in Nam Le’s first collection and it’s coupled with his oddly familiar settings that build with urgency as our characters struggle with their own identities: cultural, ethnic, and professional.

Yet still, like all first collections, The Boat contains the apologetic, self defense of the writer that can be dangerously wearisome. Here it is in the first story of the collection where a character extremely reminiscent in name and personality to the author struggles through writers workshops being criticized as ‘too ethnic.’ This is not a new technique (think D.F. Wallace’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way or Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock) but still it’s much preferred to long tedious apologetic introductions or random and misguided author intrusions that often exhaust the reader. Nam Le is in no way wearisome, however, simply because his own self-criticisms are distant from the rest of his collection and in reading the remainder of his stories you realize his insecurities must have washed away soon after writing about them. In name and history he is writing about himself, but the faults Nam Le has in the story do not translate or even remain recognizable in the other stories.

Le is an immigrant, and his stories highlight the struggle of migration, immersion, and nationality. He never, however, starts his stories with these themes, but seems to have, like his fellow 2008 authors, an urgency to just simply write and to show, allowing his personal experiences and themes to ooze out along the way. This is not the best collection of short stories of 2008 (Adrian’s A Better Angel takes that torch for me), but it is a wonderful contribution to a year where literature and culture seemed poised to discuss identity and courageous enough to display it.

Carl Panzram’s Autobiography

Panzram A Journal of Murder Panzram A Journal of Murder by Harold Schechter

Recommended by Jake Chevedden

Carl Panzram writes; “”In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry.”

That’s not all either. He robbed William Howard Taft’s home in 1920, and stole his gun, which he then used to murder four or five people. He tried to rob several Army Barracks and U.S. Naval ships. He beat the brains of 11-year-old boys and would rape sailors’ bodies before dumping them in the Hudson River.

He was sentenced to 25 years in prison for several of these murders, but was then sentenced to death for killing a fellow prisoner. His last words to his executioner: “hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could hang ten men while you’re fooling around.”

There is a form of sociology that believes that societies should be studied by evaluating their extremes, abnormalities and fringes. Are we microwave equipped, car driving, Soprano loving, Hamburger eating Americans? Or are we a homeless, drug addicted, AIDS infected, schizophrenic, murderous and anarchic people tending towards destruction? Carl Panzram’s autobiography doesn’t aim to be universal – its simply a confessional document, but it is a reminder that the extreme is never far away and the breadth of this killer’s travels and the extent of his crimes, from African boys to U.S. Presidents, is a nice reminder that the fringes of society are never far from the center.