The Blog's Mission

Wikipedia defines a book review as: “a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit. A book review can be a primary source opinion piece, summary review or scholarly review”. My mission is to provide the reader with my thoughts on the author’s work whether it’s good, bad, or ugly. I read all genres of books, so some of the reviews may be on hard to find books, or currently out of print. All of my reviews will also be available on I will write a comment section at the end of each review to provide the reader with some little known facts about the author, or the subject of the book. Every now and then, I’ve had an author email me concerning the reading and reviewing of their work. If an author wants to contact me, you can email me at I would be glad to read, review and comment on any nascent, or experienced writer’s books. If warranted, I like to add a little comedy to accent my reviews, so enjoy!
Thanks, Rick O.

Thursday, August 31, 2017


Betty Smith’s entertaining 1943 novel is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ novels of the mid 1800s. Both wrote poignant stories about the poor and the downtrodden, but their characters managed to rise above their difficult environments and find ways to appreciate life despite the dire circumstances. Of course a character in a Dickens’ novel faced more troublesome situations, especially in Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. Betty Smith’s protagonist, Francie Nolan, almost seems okay with being poor, finding new ways nearly everyday to earn a penny or two. Some of the pennies found their way into her mom’s tin can bank that was nailed to the floor of their apartment closet...some were spent on candy or a pickle. A pickle could be a joy for eleven year old Francie, “She’d take a penny and go down to a store on Moore Street that had nothing in it but fat Jew pickles floating around in heavy spiced brine.” She said, “Gimme a penny sheeny pickle.” The Hebrew looked at the Irish child with his fierce red-rimmed eyes, small, tortured and fiery. “Goyem! Goyem!” he spat at her, hating the word sheeny...the pickle lasted all day. Francie sucked and nibbled on it. She didn’t exactly eat it. She just had it. That reminded me of when Charles Dickens’ character, Oliver Twist, said, “Please, Sir, I want some more” to the cruel master of the workhouse at supper time. Anyway, both writers wrote about the poor, although Smith’s characters weren’t treated as badly as Dickens’ were. In the foreword by Anna Quindlen, she said, “The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human.” That’s almost as spontaneous as George Costanza (Seinfeld show, episode 43) coming up with the idea of a show about nothing. So be it! Nonetheless, the novel and the show were praiseworthy.

The novel is divided into five books encompassing the years 1902 through 1919 in the impoverished section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY. It tells the story of the Nolan family and the Ailanthus tree (Tree of Heaven) growing out of the cement sidewalk. Katie Nolan is the janitress for three tenement houses (they live in one) and mother to Francie (11) and Neely (10) and the wife of Johnny, a singing waiter and drunk. They were poor, but seemed to tolerate life regardless of their status. On Saturdays, Francie and her brother, Neely, collected rags, paper, metal and rubber from the dumbwaiter shelves in the cellar of the tenements their mom cleaned. They dragged all their junk in a burlap bag to Carney’s for pennies profit. If Francie let Carney pinch her cheek, she got a extra penny. One half of the pennies earned went into the tin-can bank in their apartment closet. Francie loved the old shabby library in her neighborhood, “Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world. She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones.” Francie and her family lived on stale bread all week. “She and Mama planned what meals they’d make from the stale bread in the weeks to come. The Nolans practically lived on that stale bread and what amazing things Katie could make from it! She’d take a loaf of stale bread (don’t you think that Betty Smith uses the word stale too often?), pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven...what was left over, was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.” Now, if you are wondering when this story (493 pages) is going to get doesn’t. Remember in the first paragraph I implied that this might be a novel about nothing. That hasn’t stopped the novel from becoming an American classic.
One of my favorite sidebar characters was Katie’s older sister, Sissy Rommely. She was illiterate because she never went to school, but she had street smarts. She was a beautiful woman who had many lovers and marriages. Even though Sissy had ten stillborn children, she always kept her chin up. She had a crush on Katie’s husband Johnny and had a habit of calling all her lovers and husbands “John.” My other favorite secondary character was Mary Rommely, who emigrated from Austria with her very disagreeable husband, Thomas. Mary is the mother of Sissy and Katie. When Francie was born, Mary had many guidelines for bringing up baby Francie. She told Katie, “The secret lies in the reading and writing (by the way Mary can’t read). Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child.” Katie asked, “What is a good book?” “There are two great books. Shakespeare is a great book.” Katie inquired, “And what is the other great book?” “It is the Bible that the Protestant people read.” Don’t even ask me why she picked these books. Do you want to hear the other rules for bringing up Francie? Okay, “And you must tell the child the legends I told you - as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. And the child must believe in the Lord God and Jesus, His Only Son. Oh, and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six. The child must be made to believe in heaven.” Katie asks, “And then, what else?” Mary says, “Before you die, you must own a bit of land - maybe with a house on it that your child or your children may inherit.” Now you know the reason for the tin-can bank in the closet that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Anyway, let’s get back to the exciting Nolans. The last thing that I’m going to tell you about is the search for weekend meat (then you will have to read the final 446 pages on your own). On page forty six, Neeley came home and he and Francie were sent out for the weekend meat. This was an important ritual and called for detailed instructions by Mama... “Get a five-cent soup bone off of Hassler’s. But don’t get the chopped meat there. Go to Werner’s for that. Get round steak chopped, ten cents’ worth, and don’t let him give it to you off the plate. Take an onion with you, too.” So off they go, Francie and Neely on their important mission: Francie and her brother stood at the counter a long time before the butcher noticed them. “What’s yours?” he asked finally. Francie started the negotiations. “Ten cents’ of round steak.” “Ground?” “No.” “Lady was just in. Bought a quarter’s worth of round steak ground. Only I ground too much and here’s the rest on the plate. Just ten cents’ worth. Honestly. I only just ground it.” This was the caveat emptor Francie had been told to watch out for: Don’t buy it off the plate no matter what the butcher says. “No. My mother said ten cents’ worth of round steak.” Furiously the butcher hacked off a bit of meat and slammed it down on the paper after weighing it. He was just about to wrap it up when Francie said in a trembling voice, “Oh, I forgot. My mother wants it ground.” “God-damm it to hell!” He hacked up the meat and shoved it into the chopper. “And mama said to chop up this onion in it.” “Jesus!” the butcher said explosively..."And-a-piece-of-suet-to-fry-it-with.” “Son-of-a-bitchin’ bastard,” Whispered the butcher bitterly. This was only Francie’s first stop on her meat mission...on to the next store! I thought these pages were funny and reflective of the times (early 1900s) in the slum section of Brooklyn.

With the penny almost obsolete in today’s world, I was surprised how much could be bought for a penny, nickel or a dime in the early 1900s. Wow, imagine if you had a five dollar bill! I obtained so much knowledge of what it was like to live in the slums of Brooklyn between the years 1902 through 1919 that it was well worth the price of admission. What were some trivial things that I learned? How about, “Most Brooklyn Germans had a habit of calling everyone who annoyed them a Jew.” The girls played Jacks and the boys played Potsy. You want to hear a good line? When Katie tells Sissy that “Johnny’s a drunk”, Sissy says, “Well, everybody’s something.” I remember a similar response on the Ed Sullivan Show when Myron Cohen (a very funny man) was telling a joke about a husband who unexpectedly comes home and finds his wife lying naked on their bed. He opens the door to their bedroom closet and finds a naked man standing there...and the naked man says to the husband (but first a pregnant pause a' la Jack Benny)...Well, everybody’s got to be someplace. Too funny. Betty Smith writes a lot of lines about the neighborhood stores. “Francie liked the pawnshop the best - not for the treasures prodigiously thrown into its barred windows...but for the three large golden balls that hung high above the shop and gleamed in the sun. There was the bakery store on one side of it which sold beautiful Charlotte russes with red candied cherries on their whipped cream tops. On the other side was Gollender’s Paint Shop. The most interesting store was housed in a little shanty which had been there when the Indians prowled through Williamsburg.” It was a old fashion cigar store (four for a nickel). “He had a wooden Indian outside his store which stood in a threatening stance on a wooden block. One of Francie’s favorite stores was the one which sold nothing but tea, coffee and spices. The mystery of mysteries to Francie was the Chinaman’s one-windowed store. The Chinaman wore his pigtail wound around his head. That was so he could go back to China if he wanted to, Mama said (haha). All he knew was tickee and shirtee. Oh, to be a Chinaman, wished eat all the lichee nuts she wanted and to paint those symbols with a slight brush and a quick turn of the wrist and to make a clear black mark as fragile as a piece of a butterfly wing! That was the mystery of the Orient in Brooklyn.” Can Betty Smith write or what? I highly recommend this piece of Americana.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Sometimes I get carried away writing a review...this was one of those times. It really was just a story, but it was also a history lesson. It’s like when I read Mark Twain - I learn so much about the south and its intricacies during the mid to late 1800s. The tree of heaven (hardly mentioned), which grows in the cement outside the tenement houses, is a sturdy tree of China origin. To me, the tree is really a metaphor symbolizing the hardiness of the Nolan family (and just maybe the perseverance of the neighborhood’s various ethnicities as a whole). At least that’s what I got out of it.

Betty Smith was a simple and unpretentious lady. Just read the following two quotes from Betty Smith, the first from her and the second quote from her protagonist, Francie. “I wrote about people who liked fake fireplaces in their parlor, who thought a brass horse with a clock embedded in its flank was wonderful.” Is that an endorsement for the average Joe, or what? “People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “Something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains - a cup of strong coffee when you’re blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you’re alone - just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

If you think the part about a man having a cigarette for contentment is chauvinistic, remember that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was written in 1943.

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