Forgotten Book: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

Reading When Books Went to War, about the armed forces editions during WWII, I discovered this was one of the most popular books among troops. I’d heard of it, of course, but never had read it, so I found a copy at the library.

Not really forgotten, instead this is a well-known and enduring classic story of poverty in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn. The story of Francie Nolan, her parents, and her brother Neeley begins in 1912.

Mary Frances “Francie” Nolan is the protagonist. The novel begins when Francie is 11 years old. The rest of the novel tells of Francie’s life until she goes to college at 17. Francie grows up in Brooklyn in the early twentieth century; her family is in constant poverty throughout most of the novel. Francie shares a great admiration for her father, Johnny Nolan, and wishes for an improved relationship with her mother, hardworking Katie Nolan, recognizing similar traits in her mother and herself that she believes are a barrier to true understanding. The story of Francie traces her individual desires, affections, and hostilities while growing up in an aggressive, individualistic, romantic, and ethnic family and neighborhood, though it also represents the hopes of immigrants in the early twentieth century to rise above poverty through their children, whom they hope will receive an education and take their place among “true” Americans. The book’s title, symbolizing Francie, is the “Tree of Heaven” that flourishes under the most unlikely urban circumstances.

I had no idea what to expect of this, not having read it or seen the movie, but I found it well worth reading and got very involved with the characters. It deserves to be considered a classic.

Posted in Books & Reading, Friday Forgotten Books | 14 Comments

Current Reading: Born To Be Posthumous – the Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey

Born To Be Posthumous – the Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery, Little, Brown, 2018 hardcover, biography

I like the artwork of Edward Gorey a lot, so I thought this would be an interesting, even fascinating book. I was wrong.

The author seemed to have his own agenda, and was obsessed with the fact that Gorey was gay, more than any other aspect of his life or work. Yes, finally about halfway through (after I’d done a goodly bit of skimming) there comes discussion of his books and their publication, but the reader will have had to wade through all the other biographical this-and-that before getting there, and while some of the discussion is interesting, the dearth of illustrations makes the discussion hard to follow at times.

For me, as a fan of the artwork this was a letdown in every way. I gave up at the two-third point. I’m glad I got this from the library instead of buying it. Unless this kind of thing is your cup of tea, save yourself the time and don’t bother.

Posted in Adventure, Books & Reading, current reading, Fiction | 13 Comments

Forgotten Book: Chicken Every Sunday

Chicken Every Sunday by Rosemary Taylor, with Donald Mackay, illustrator. Blakiston, 1944. Hardcover.

Reading When Books Went to War, about the armed forces editions during WWII, I discovered this was one of the most popular books among troops. I’m not sure I’d ever heard of it, let alone read it, so I found a copy at the library.

It’s a memoir of a family living in Tucson in the Thirties and early Forties. The father is a wheeler-dealer, often quite successful, always looking for his next business venture. The mother, always remembering her hardscrabble early years as the daughter of plantation owners ruined by the Civil War, makes her own money by taking in boarders and catering, often with what was then considered Mexican food for various parties, groups and charities. Their three children, including the author, contribute to the various family enterprises with varying degrees of enthusiasm and skill.

The tone of the book is lighthearted, the contrast between the big-dreamer father and the penny-pinching mother is funny, rarely bitter. The various boarders and their peculiarities are described with amused affection. There were school teachers, people connected with the mining business, Easterners sent to Arizona for the healthy climate. The author’s family took them in and made them part of the family for a couple of weeks or months, in a strange mixture of hospitality and commercial acumen. There are some really funny episodes, such as the time when Mother and the maid suspect that one of their boarders might be a German spy, or when a retired Easterner decides to go on a mine-prospecting trip with Father.

It’s important to remember that in the early 20th century, Tucson was still a brand-new city, and that many people had personal memories of the Civil War. People were still trying to get gold out of abandoned mines, and the city was developing and growing. So although there is a lot of hustle and bustle in the book, there are moments where the sense of connection with the past is marked.

Some modern readers may find common expressions of the time offensive, such as referring to a black cook as Mammy, but enlightened readers should be able to accept such. Sure, the book is dated, but that’s part of the fun. I’m glad I read this one.

Posted in Books & Reading, Friday Forgotten Books | 11 Comments

Current Reading: Zorro

Zorro by Johnston McCulley, Volume 1 of The Complete Pulp Adventures by Johnston McCulley, Bold Venture Press.

Let’s face it: Zorro is cool. I first encountered him in a movie, though I’m not sure which one, and then there were the Disney-produced Zorro episodes shown on ABC when I was a kid, which I loved. Then, not a decade ago, I finally got around to reading The Mark of Zorro, which is contained herein. I loved it. I made an effort to get my hands on more of the books Johnston McCulley wrote, but it was difficult. I did get one, from a German publisher, who promised to reprint all the books, but that didn’t happen. Too bad.

Until now. In recent years Bold Venture has been reprinting the books, starting with this Volume 1, and there are now six volumes:

The Story:
In the early 1800s, California was still under Spanish rule. Some of the military commanders plundered and won riches at the expense of the peace-loving settlers. Against these agents of injustice the settlers were powerless, until one man arose whose courage stirred the hearts of Californians. He alone gave them the spirit to resist tyranny. That man was Zorro!

Each book, and the short stories, contains the tale of Zorro fighting against the evil Spanish rule, as well as against outlaws and other bad guys.

Contents of Volume 1: 
Zorro’s California by Sandra R. Curtis (with map)
The Mark of Zorro
“Zorro Saves A Friend”
“Zorro Hunts a Jackel”

Pulp Page to Silver Screen by Ed Hulse

My Take: As you can see, we have a novel and two longer short stories, plus an informative introduction and in this case a look at Zorro on film. These pulp stories are a lot of fun, and having them all available is a Very Good Thing. These are available in both hardcover (expensive!) and softcover trade editions, still a little pricey at $20 each. There are niggles to pick, if you like, the print is a little larger than need be in the first few volumes, and there’s a typo here and there. So what?  For the fan, having these as a set will be worth it. It is to me.

Posted in Adventure, Books & Reading, current reading, Fiction | 16 Comments

The Heinlein Juveniles

The Heinlein juveniles are the young adult novels written by Robert A. Heinlein. The twelve novels were published by Scribner’s between 1947 and 1958, which together tell, in a way, the story of space exploration. The dozen novels are not a true “series” in that they do not share any characters and do not form a strict chronological series; the later novels are not sequels to the earlier ones.

A thirteenth, Starship Troopers, was submitted to Scribner’s but rejected and was instead published by Putnam as an adult SF novel. A fourteenth novel, Podkayne of Mars, is often listed as a “Heinlein juvenile”, although Heinlein himself did not consider it to be one.

A word about endings. Heinlein seems to have his problems with them while writing these books. Of the twelve novels here, Between Planets is the worst offender. It just plain stops, when it should have had at least one more chapter, two more would have been better. Heinlein just couldn’t seem to wrap things up in many of these books. Also, if you really want to speak of endings, there is the one for  Podkayne of Mars, which Heinlein eventually re-wrote after a storm of protest from both publisher and readers. You can read all about that here.

Without further ado, here are my rankings of Heinlein’s juvenile novels:

Rank Title Publication
order & date
1 Starman Jones #7, 1953 HERE
This was an early favorite that stayed that way through reading all of them. I admit I like kid-in-space-service stuff, and that’s what this is.
2 Citizen of the Galaxy #11, 1957 HERE
A favorite of many, and with good reason. One of the most “adult” of the juvenile novels. Lots of scenarios as the main character progresses.
3 The Star Beast #8, 1954 HERE
This one is lots of fun and Lummox is a great character, and the story a good one. I admit I have a soft spot for this one.
4 Have Space Suit—Will Travel #12, 1958 HERE
This was the first Heinlein juvenile I ever read, maybe the first thing by him, and I loved it then. I’d forgotten much of it until I reread it for this survey. Yes, it’s good, I just happen to like the ones I ranked above it better.
5 Between Planets #5, 1951 HERE
I liked almost everything about this novel. This one would have been ranked higher if it had an ending – which it doesn’t.
6 Farmer In the Sky #4, 1950 HERE
I had some trouble ranking these 6-8 places. You can’t go wrong with any of them. This is a really good one. If you’re wondering why this isn’t ranked higher, it’s only because I liked others better.
7 Tunnel In the Sky #9, 1955 HERE
This is also a really good one. Good ending.
8 Red Planet #3, 1949 HERE
A fun story with a satisfying ending, and the first appearance of Heinlen’s Ancient Martians.
9 Space Cadet #2, 1948 HERE
Now we come to the weaker of the novels. As much fun as this is, it’s just not as good as those ranked above it.
10 The Rolling Stones (aka  Space Family Stone) #6, 1952 HERE
Yeah, so the family jumps into a space ship and takes off from the moon to ramble around in space. Um, okay. Still, it’s better than…
11 Time For the Stars #10, 1956 HERE
…this one. I just couldn’t buy the idea of light-years distant communication through mental telepathy / psi power. Also, another poor ending.
12 Rocket Ship Galileo #1, 1947 HERE
The first and weakest of the books. It’s obvious Heinlein was new at writing juvenile SF.

So there it is, my personal opinion of the books and their ranking. Keep in mind these are favorites, I make no judgement as to which is the finest, most literary, best written or most impactful at the time of their publication. This is what I liked, in order.

You’re thoughts?

Posted in Books & Reading, Friday Forgotten Books, Science Fiction | 20 Comments

Current Reading: Under the Cold Bright Lights

Under the Cold Bright Lights by Gary Disher, Soho Crime 2019 mystery novel.

In this very nicely written mystery novel, Disher brings us former homicide detective Alan Auhl, who has come out of retirement to handle cold cases. His small team look into the discovery of a body found under an old concrete slab in a rural area near Melbourne, Australia. Discovered when it’s necessary to tear up the slab questing for a copperhead snake, the snake is recovered and the body is found.

Their first task is to identify the “Slab Man”, as the press calls him, a shooting victim, then to figure out who killed him and why. Another case for Auhl centers on a self-important doctor whose first and second wives died mysteriously, and who now believes his third wife wants him dead. Meanwhile, Auhl is managing a strange household of lodgers, including a fearful young mother involved in a bitter custody dispute over her 10-year-old daughter.

Auhl crosses all kinds of lines to help people. The focus on such crimes as child abuse and religious scamming serves to show how justice is rarely gotten through institutional means. Though I thought the story dragged in places, Disher tells a good story with an very interesting character. I hope we see more of Detective Auhl.

Meanwhile, what are you reading?

Posted in Books & Reading, current reading, Mystery | 12 Comments

Forgotten? Heinlein: Have Space Suit–Will Travel

Have Space Suit–Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. Scribner’s & Sons, 1958. Juvenile novel # 12 in the series. Published in both hardcover and paperback that year by Scribner’s as part of the Heinlein juvenile series.

Continuing my survey of Robert Heinlein’s set of twelve juvenile science fiction novels, we now reach the last one*, number twelve.
* see note in “My Take”.

The Plot
Clifford “Kip” Russell, enters an advertising jingle writing contest, hoping to win an all-expenses-paid trip to the Moon. He instead gets a used, decommissioned space suit. Kip puts the suit (which he dubs “Oscar”) back into working condition.

Kip reluctantly decides to return his space suit for a cash prize to help pay for college, but puts it on for one last walk. As he idly broadcasts on his shortwave radio, someone identifying herself as “Peewee” answers and requests a homing signal. He is shocked when a flying saucer lands practically on top of him. A young girl (Peewee) and an alien being (the “Mother Thing”) flee from it, but all three are quickly captured and taken to the Moon.

Wormface, their kidnapper, is a creature who contemptuously refers to all others as “animals”. He has two human flunkies who assisted him in initially capturing the Mother Thing and Peewee, a preteen genius and the daughter of an eminent scientist. The Mother Thing speaks like birdsong, yet Kip and Peewee have no trouble understanding her.

Kip, Peewee, and the Mother Thing try to escape to the nearest human base by hiking across the lunar surface, but they are recaptured and taken to a base on Pluto. Kip is thrown into a cell, later to be joined by the two human traitors, who have apparently outlived their usefulness. Before they later disappear, one mentions to Kip that his former employers eat humans.

The Mother Thing, meanwhile, makes herself useful to their captors by constructing advanced devices for them. She manages to steal enough parts to assemble a bomb and a transmitter. The bomb takes care of most of the Wormfaces, but the Mother Thing freezes when she tries to set up the transmitter outside without a spacesuit. Kip is barely able to set up and activate the distress beacon, but help arrives almost instantly. It turns out that the Mother Thing has survived and though Kip suffers severe frostbite and is kept in a state of cryopreservation while the Mother Thing’s people figure out how to heal him.

Kip and Peewee are transported to Vega 5, the Mother Thing’s home planet. While Kip recuperates, “Prof Joe” learns about Earth from Peewee and Kip. Once Kip is well, he, Peewee, and the Mother Thing travel to a planet in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, to face an intergalactic tribunal, composed of many advanced species which have banded together for self-protection.

The Wormfaces are put on trial first. They promise to annihilate all other species, and are judged to be dangerous. Their planet is “rotated” out of three-dimensional space without their star – effectively an act of genocide dooming them to freeze to death.

Then it is humanity’s turn. Peewee’s and Kip’s recorded remarks are then admitted into evidence. In humanity’s defense, Kip makes a stirring speech. The Mother Thing and a representative of another race argue that the short-lived species are essentially children who should be granted more time to learn and grow. It is decided to re-evaluate humanity after “a dozen half-deaths of radium” (19200 years).

Kip and Peewee are returned to Earth with devices and equations provided by the Vegans. Kip passes the information along to Professor Reisfeld, Peewee’s father. Reisfeld arranges a full scholarship for Kip at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Kip wants to study engineering and spacesuit design.

My Take
This may have been the first of Heinlein’s juvenile novels I read as a kid, and I still remembered parts of it clearly, especially the trek across the moon in an attempt to reach Moonbase and help. Other parts I’d completely forgotten. This reading I soaked it all up and enjoyed it very much.

Note: In the opening paragraph I said this is the twelfth and last of the juvenile novels Heinlein wrote. Well, yes and no. The author intended Starship Troopers to be another one, but that was rejected by his publisher. Also, Podkane of Mars is sometimes considered one of the juvenile novels, though not intended to be one by the author. It does have an early teen protagonist, and adventures on Mars and Venus, as well as a controversial ending. More on that another time.

So that concludes my rereading of the Heinlein juvenile novels. Next week I’ll have a summing up with my favorites and least favorites, and a last few thoughts. See you then.

Posted in Books & Reading, Friday Forgotten Books, Science Fiction | 18 Comments

Current Reading: Becoming Superman

Becoming Superman by J. Michael Straczynski, Harper Voyager (Harper Collins) 2019 hardcover, 457 pages. Autobiography.

J. Michael Strazinski had an especially grim childhood. His family was very poor, his father was a hateful, racist alcoholic who expressed his lifelong hatefulness by beating his wife and son almost daily. He was too parsimonious to pay for doctors or dentists, so his family suffered while he spent his time in bars drinking with his buddies.

All this resulted in many psychological problems for Straczynski, but being a very good writer somehow brought him through.

I like Straczynski’s comic book work, especially Rising Stars, and I liked the space series Babylon 5, which he wrote, produced and directed, but this book is more about his tough times than his successes. As I said, this one  is grim. I cannot recommend it.

Meanwhile, what are you reading?

Posted in Books & Reading, current reading, Mystery | 13 Comments

Forgotten? Heinlein: Time For the Stars

Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein. Scribner’s & Sons, 1956. Juvenile novel # 10 in the series. Published in both hardcover and paperback that year by Scribner’s as part of the Heinlein juvenile series.

Continuing my survey of Robert Heinlein’s set of twelve juvenile science fiction novels, we now reach number ten. Since I started reading these out of order, there will be just one more after this, followed by a summing up.

The story is an exploration of the Twin Paradox, which explains how relativity works. If you had identical twins, and one of them accelerated away from Earth and the other stayed home, so much more time would pass on Earth than in the spaceship that the Earth twin would be a hundred years old when the space twin came home, only a few years later. Heinlein took this concept and made it a real story with characters — and he made the twin thing relevant by using twin telepathy, which is instantaneous, as a means of communicating between Earth and ship.

The Plot
The Long Range Foundation (LRF) is a non-profit organization that funds expensive, long-term projects for the benefit of mankind. It has built a dozen exploratory space ships to search for habitable planets to colonize. It is found that some twins and triplets can communicate with each other telepathically, and the process is both instantaneous and unaffected by distance, making it the only practical means of communication for ships traveling light year distances from Earth. Before announcing the discovery, the foundation first recruits as many of these people as it can. Testing shows that teenagers Tom and Pat Bartlett have this talent and both sign up. Pat, the dominant twin, manipulates things so that he gets selected as the crew member, much to Tom’s annoyance. However, Pat has a skiing accident at the last minute so that Tom has to take his place.

On board, Tom is pleased to find that his uncle Steve, a military man, has arranged to get assigned to the same ship. The trip is fraught with problems as trivial as an annoying roommate and as serious as mutiny. The ship visits several star systems, including Beta Hydri. Due to the nature of relativistic travel the twin who remained behind ages faster and eventually the affinity between them is weakened to the point that they can no longer communicate easily. Some of the spacefaring twins, including the protagonist, are able to connect with descendants of the Earthbound twins. Tom works first with his niece, then his grandniece, and finally his great-grandniece.

The last planet scouted proves to be particularly deadly. Unexpectedly intelligent and hostile natives capture and kill a large portion of the remaining crew, including the captain and Tom’s uncle. The reserve captain takes charge, but is unable to restore the morale of the devastated survivors. When he insists on continuing the mission rather than returning to Earth, members of the crew begin to consider mutiny. Shortly after he notifies Earth of the dire situation, they are surprised to hear a spaceship will rendezvous with them in less than a month and wonder how that can be possible.

Scientists on Earth have discovered faster-than-light travel, in part due to research into the nature of telepathy, and are collecting the surviving crews of the LRF torchships. The explorers return to an Earth they no longer recognize, and in most cases, no longer fit in. Tom, however, returns to family and makes the adjustment.

My Take
As with the other Heinlein juveniles, this is an enjoyable book, though the telling sags in places. There is good characterization, and a few twists. The plot mostly centers on Tom, who is on the ship, but there are sections on discovered planets, which are well done, and back on Earth, which are less interesting. Still, a strong entry in the series.

We now have just one more of Heinlein’s juveniles to go before I do a wrap-up. Next time: Have Space Suit–Will Travel.

Posted in Books & Reading, Friday Forgotten Books, Science Fiction | 15 Comments

Current Reading: A Liaden Universe Constellation Volume 4

A Liaden Universe Constellation Volume 4, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Baen Books 2019 science fiction short story collection, 324 pages.

The Liaden universe is the setting for an ongoing series of science fiction novels and stories written by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. The series covers a considerable time period, some thousands of years in all, although since it also covers more than one universe the exact chronology is…difficult. However the main timeline extends across only a few generations.

The central stories primarily concern Clan Korval, a leading house in Liaden society. The stories are primarily in the genre of space opera, with some incidental romance, intrigue, and even a small dose of psionics. The Liaden universe is chock-a-block with characters, planets, clans, politics and action. As of this coming November there will be 22 novels, plus the story collections, of which this is the fourth and latest. All are available as ebooks.

I have read only a small few of the novels. While they are good solid SF, I have a tendency to forget who is who and the complicated social structure of the setting. Last time I read one, I consulted an on-line primer to help me get up to speed (I have the same problem with the Expanse novels by Corey, though there are many fewer of those).

NOTE: There is a pretty complete article on Wikipedia on the Liaden books, HERE, including chronology, timelines and characters. If you’re interested, it’s worth your time.

But these story collections can be enjoyed without much bother about all that. I figure if the necessary background isn’t at least sketched out, it’s not important to the story, in my experience that has held true. So I have read each of the previous collections, and now have finished this one.

“Street Cred”  *
“Due Diligence”
“Friend of A Friend”
“Cutting Corners”
“Block Party”  *
“Degrees of Separation”
“Excerpts from Two Lives”

In this one, I enjoyed all (but the last) story, especially those I starred, which is a good percentage for a story collection. This has made me want to read another of the novels. Are you a Liaden universe reader?

Meanwhile, what are you reading?

Posted in Books & Reading, current reading, Science Fiction | 13 Comments