Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

"There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself 'Do trousers matter?"

"The mood will pass, sir."

"I don't see why it should.  If you can't think of a way out of this mess, it seems to me that it is the end." 

For the 2019 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic comic novel, I went with The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse published 1938.  P. G. Wodehouse is one of the great humorists of the 20th century.  He is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster series.  Bertram (Bertie) Wooster is the narrator of these books.  He is an upper class young English gentleman and Reginald Jeeves is his trusted valet.  Jeeves is the smarter and more mature of the two but as admirable as Jeeves is, Bertie is the standout.  He has a way of putting things that defies description.  Here for example is Bertie at the start of The Code of the Woosters drinking one of Jeeves' hangover remedies after a night of partying:

"He returned with the tissue-restorer.  I loosed it down the hatch, and after undergoing the passing discomfort, unavoidable when you drink one of Jeeves' patent morning revivers, of having the top of the skull fly up to the ceiling and the eyes shoot out of their sockets and rebound from the opposite wall like raquet balls, felt better.  It would have been overstating it to say that even now Bertram was back in mid-season form, but I had at least slid into the convalescent class and was equal to a spot of conversation".  

As to what proceeds in The Code of the Woosters, It's a plot involving a number of eccentric and wealthy characters with too much time on their hands.  But the gist of it is that Bertie's friend, Gussie Fink-Nottle, is engaged to Madeline Bassett but old Pop Bassett, Madeline's father, is not keen on Gussie as a son-in-law. Meanwhile, Stiffy Bying who is Pop Bassett's neice hopes to marry Rev Pinker but Pop Bassett isn't wild about him either.  One thing Pop Bassett does care about is his antique cow creamer. Stiffy Bying asks Bertie Wooster to steal the cow creamer so that later when Rev Pinker retrieves it and hands it back to Pop Basset, he'll be a hero in Pop Basset's eyes and Stinky and the Rev Pinker can be married.

As to why Bertie would go along with this we come to the notebook.  Gussie Fink-Nottle to feel less intimidated around his soon to be father-in law decides to write down all of Pop Bassett's shortcomings in a journal.  But then Gussie loses the notebook which Stiffy Bying finds.  She tells Bertie that if he doesn't steal the cow creamer she'll give the notebook to Pop Bassett and the wedding between Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett will be off and if Madeline Bassett can't marry Gussie she will start looking at Bertie as potential husband material and he definitely doesn't want that.

Granted, the plot of The Code of the Woosters is a bit ludicrous and Bertie and his eccentric friends are not where you go for character development.  Therefore, a steady diet of Wooster and Jeeves, reading one book right after another, would be a mistake.  But these novels are very funny and the reason once again is Bertie Wooster.  He is a marvelous comic creation and Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster series is top of the line when it comes to British humor and that's saying alot because when done well, British humor is unrivaled.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith published 1943 when I was in high school and it made quite an impression on me.  But I wonder if I were a young person growing up today would I know of this book or have a desire to read it?  I ask because nowadays the young adult book market is booming with so many choices and so why seek out a coming of age classic written seventy five years ago?  But now having reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn all these many years later I would say that this is a novel that readers of any age will enjoy and the issues touched upon in this book are as relevant now as they ever were. 

So, when A Tree Grows in Brooklyn begins it is 1912 and Francie Nolan, the young girl around whom the book centers, is eleven years old.  It's a typical Saturday morning in Williamsburg.  The kids in the neighborhood including Francie and her younger brother Neeley are carrying the junk that they have been collecting all week (tin foil, bottle caps, cigarette packages, rags etc) to sell to the junk dealer.  The junk dealer gives each kid about eight or nine cents.  The kids give most of what they earn to their parents.  The remaining money they can use to buy penny candy and then head off to play.  For Francie though the highlight of each Saturday is her trip to the library and her arms loaded with books she heads home:

"Home at last and now it was the time she had been looking forward to all week: fire-escape-sitting time.  She put a small rug on the fire-escape and got the pillow from her bed and propped it against the bars.  Luckily there was ice in the icebox.  She chipped off a small piece and put it in a glass of water.  The pink-and-white peppermint wafers bought that morning were arranged in a little bowl, cracked, but of a pretty blue color.  She arranged glass, bowl and book on the window sill and climbed out on the fire-escape.  Once out there, she was living in a tree.  No one upstairs, downstairs or across the way could see her.  But she could look out through the leaves and see everything.  

The Nolan family is poor.  Katie Nolan, Francie's mother, works cleaning apartments.  She has a no nonsense practicality about her because Francie's father, Johnny Nolan, works sporadically as a singing waiter and he drinks.  He goes on a bender for example the night Francie is born.  The pressure is too much for him and so Katie asks her mother what can she do to get her children out of poverty and her mother who never learned to read or write advises her daughter that every night she must read to her children a page from the Bible and a page from Shakespeare.  Reading and education factor big in this novel.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn introduces us to a number of memorable characters.  Katie's sister Aunt Sissy, for example, who is a bit scandalous but also fun and kind.  She helps Katie as much as she can and is a second mother to Francie and Neeley.  The tragedy is that Sissy's own pregnancies have ended in miscarriages and she so loves children.  We are introduced to a neighborhood boy age nineteen dying of tuberculosis.  It was tough living back then and Betty Smith knows the specifics about what the years prior to the first World War in Williamsburg were like.

We learn about Tammany Hall and how milk back then was delivered by horse-drawn wagons, apartments had yet to receive electricity.  We learn about how the poor were looked down on and when Francie and Neely arrive at the clinic to get vaccinated the doctor and nurse make condescending remarks.  They don't even have the decency to lower their voices.  Francie so looks forward to school but it's a tough place with poor kids bullying even poorer kids until Francie's father figures out a way to get Francie into a better school. 

It's beginning to sound like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a depressing book but it's  not because the novel revolves around Francie.  We watch her grow from an eleven year old girl to a seventeen year old when the novel ends.  We realize how far she has come, thinking things through for herself and getting an education.  Francie is the tree in the book's title, a tree that can grow through concrete.

"She sat on the El train on her way to the office, clutching the two textbooks ... Francie started to feel sick.  She felt so sick she had to get off at the next station even though she knew she'd be late for work ... It couldn't have been anything she ate because she had forgotten to eat lunch.  Then a thunderous thought hit her.  "My grandparents never knew how to read or wtite.  Those who came before them couldn't read or write.  My mother's sister can't.  My parents never even graduated from grade school ..but I Frances K. Nolan am now in college.  Do you hear that Francie? You're in college".

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the sixth book I have read for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) - choose a classic set in a place you've lived.