Francie Nolan thinks that Brooklyn has a sort of magic. It’s unlike any other place in the world, even better than New York City. She lives in William...moreFrancie Nolan thinks that Brooklyn has a sort of magic. It’s unlike any other place in the world, even better than New York City. She lives in Williamsburg at the turn of the century with her beautiful but stoic mother who makes a living as a cleaning woman, her kind but often-drunk father who works intermittently as a singing waiter, and her younger brother Neelie who is her partner in adventure and misfortune. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of Francie’s childhood, but also purely captures a long-ago moment in history. It’s the story of a poor immigrant family slotting pennies into a tin can bank in hopes of one day owning a piece of land. Francie’s mother invents a game called Arctic Explorer, in which the children pretend they’re lost in the far North waiting for rescue care packages to arrive when there’s nothing in the house to eat. But there are many moments of happiness as well. Francie loves to sit perched on her fire escape with a book in her lap, visiting the library every day to borrow a book. She loves the good days spent with her father, waiting up at night to hear him singing “Molly Malone” in the hallway and racing to the door to open it before the final note.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those classics that somehow fell through the cracks of my reading history and I’m only getting around to now. I am glad that my first reading comes while I’m living in New York, because it adds an extra dimension to Francie’s life to know what’s become of the neighborhoods she describes and to read about the city in a bygone era. Pre-WWI New York is fascinating in its differences from today and Betty Smith seems to know just the right scenes to convey everyday life in a way that’s compelling and endearing. I found myself engrossed in scenes that described how Francie’s mother would go about paying for dinner and which shops they would visit and how they would haggle. These details might have seemed mundane at the time, but to read them now is truly a treasure. Smith has a beautiful voice that adds weight and dignity to the smallest daily concern.
You also care passionately for her characters since they are so uncompromisingly real. Francie loves her father more than anyone else in the world, but also is completely aware that he can’t support the family. A child’s love and adoration is mixed up with an adult understanding of the world. Francie and Neely are adult-children, all too familiar with hunger, poverty and unfairness. But their youth also gives them resilience and they turn out just fine.
Would I recommend? Yes! In the same vein as I Capture The Castle or Little Women, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of a girl growing up and evokes a particular place and time with stunning detail. A must-read American classic.
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Sometimes we have a longing for something that is simple. There are two kinds of simple I suppose. One is mindless and easy, while the other is poigna...moreSometimes we have a longing for something that is simple. There are two kinds of simple I suppose. One is mindless and easy, while the other is poignant and sweet. Cannery Row is the latter. A short novel by John Steinbeck, the book tells the simple story of the California town of Monterey, a center of sardine tinning. Despite the title, none of the main characters are involved in the canning industry. Doc is a marine biologist who acquires animals for laboratories. He has a special fondness for classical records, burgers, and beer. Across the road is Lee Chong’s grocery store and next to that the local whore house. Up the hill live Mack and “the boys,” a group of drifters who take up odd jobs to earn enough for whiskey and food each month. Mack and the boys get it into their heads that something nice should be done for Doc, and resolve to throw him a party. But the execution is shakier than the conception. The boys set out on a frog collecting expedition to gather the money for the festivities and though their intentions are good, the outcome is likely to be a disaster. The whole cast of characters fall into the preparations for Doc’s celebration, for better or worse.
Cannery Row might be seen to follow in the view of Steinbeck’s most famous portrait of America, The Grapes of Wrath. Row is much shorter, however, and necessarily more focused. Mack and the boys are certainly funny–swerving only slightly off the road to run over a loose chicken, trading frogs for bottles of whiskey at Lee Chong’s, employing so many methods of training their hound that she never learns a thing. They are meant to be both a cautionary tale and an ideal. They are truly the heart of the story though. Their devotion is sweet and intentions are good, even if on the surface they are just a group of bums whose actions are likely to result in property damage and spoiled goods.
Would I recommend? Maybe. Steinbeck’s style won’t appeal to all. If you liked Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, you’ll certainly enjoy this and find it a much quicker read as well. If you’re new to Steinbeck, this book might actually be a good gauge as to whether you should dive into any of his more well known novels. It doesn’t have any of the dark gravity of the books I’ve mentioned, but it certainly has his voice and it’s a great showcase for his humor.
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Let’s start out by saying that there is a lot of debate over whether One Hundred Years of Solitude is a great book. Critics almost unanimously say it’...moreLet’s start out by saying that there is a lot of debate over whether One Hundred Years of Solitude is a great book. Critics almost unanimously say it’s a masterpiece; after all, it did win the Nobel Prize. But many average readers I’ve spoken with find it boring, or give up several chapters in. I’m in the first category, though I understand why some people not might be moved by the book. It’s an acquired taste, a different type of literature than we’re used to. To me, Márquez is a modern Dickens. The appeal of his story lies in the characters, and just as in Dickens, his story is complex and spans huge amounts of time. Not everyone has a taste for Dickens; his books require a commitment on the part of the reader, and Márquez’s masterwork is no different. That said, I am officially moving this book into my Top 10 of All Time, a coveted position that I do not give away lightly.
Here’s why I loved One Hundred Years: It’s like reading a beautiful and sad dream. It’s extremely atmospheric, simply written yet emotionally complex. The breadth of the story is astounding, following the lives, loves, and deaths of six generations of the Buendía family and the town of Macondo, founded by the family’s patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendía. At first the most prominent family in town, over time the Buendías fall into decay until their great history is all but forgotten. It would be almost impossible to describe the twists and turns that the narrative takes, but the story is utterly captivating. It’s also one of the greatest examples of magical realism, which is what gives the story its dreamlike quality. Yellow flowers fall like rain, a woman ascends body and soul into heaven, rain falls for four years, a man is followed everywhere by swarms of butterflies, and men die from the intoxicating scent of the most beautiful woman in the world, but these are facts, not fantasy. It’s all part of life in Macondo and no one there would recognize these events as any more fantastic than sweeping the front porch.
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I first read Little Women as most girls do sometime between the ages of 10 and 13 and, like many others, I’ve always remembered it fondly. I’ve seen t...moreI first read Little Women as most girls do sometime between the ages of 10 and 13 and, like many others, I’ve always remembered it fondly. I’ve seen the movie versions and even a community theater production many years ago. So when I unwrapped my new Kindle at Christmas, it was one of the first free downloads I made. Rereading this classic has been extremely interesting and worthwhile, I think. There are some scenes I literally recall word for word, but some elements that I have no memory of at all. I also find myself thinking of the characters and their struggles great and small much differently so many years on.
I’ve read what a few others have thought when reexperiencing the book as an adult, and two feelings in particular seem to be common. 1. The book is far more moralistic than I remember. 2. While I actively disliked Amy as a child, I quite like her now.
In terms of the first point, the book is quite strongly vocal about Protestant morals of the time and goes beyond just “teaching lessons” with each event. Jo advises Teddy never to drink and he shakes hands on it, a promise that Alcott tells us he will never regret. Jo takes to writing “sensation” stories to make money, which seem to just be what we would call fiction today, but these tales begin to weaken her morally and something terrible might have happened had not Professor Baehr admonished her against them. Some of the lessons of the time do not mesh with how we’d want a girl to behave today. Amy prepares an art table for the fair and a rival demands that Amy let her run the table. Instead of defending her work and being proud of it, Amy gives up her table and the lesson is that she should turn the other cheek.
But speaking of Amy, I found her to be a much different girl than I remembered. The fault may lie with the film versions, which make her out to be very vain and spoiled. But though the Amy of the book begins a bit silly, it must be remembered that she is the youngest and will of course say and do the most childish things. As she grows up, Amy is not vain or spoiled at all; rather, she is quite grateful to others, and seeks to make them happy. While I remembered Amy’s trip to Europe as a slight to Jo, the actual event is quite different. In reality, Jo is rude and snobbish to her aunt, while Amy is appreciative, kind and patient, so her aunt chooses her for the trip. I also remember feeling quite let down that Jo didn’t marry Laurie, but in my rereading I now agree with her feeling that they are too alike. I think this is a lesson of age. At 12 or 13, I would have been just like Laurie and nothing would have pleased me more than to fall in love and marry a childhood sweetheart. It would have been poetic and romantic. But now, I see things Jo’s way and understand her choice.
Meg’s character also surprised me as some of the qualities I had given to Amy are actually hers. I remembered Meg as almost motherly, as a demure girl who marries the sweet tutor next door. But Meg is the one who longs for riches, who lets herself be dressed up in finery and paraded like a doll at a friend’s ball until she is shamed by comments behind her back. Meg is also described as the beauty of the family, where I had always imagined her as plain and Amy as the beauty, perhaps because of the old blonde v. brunette trope. I send my apologies to Amy; you are exonerated and Meg, rather than being ruined by these realizations, is actually given dimension and humanity.
All those things considered, there are still so many moments that shine bright, especially the dynamics of the four March sisters. Despite each being a “type,” you still find them endearing and all too human. Their struggles are quite relatable, if occasionally put quite bluntly. What young girl doesn’t wish to be rich, famous, beautiful and loved by all? The turning point for me in the book is the crisis of their father and Beth falling ill simultaneously. Before this, the book’s greatest traumas are those of children—Amy wasting her money on a bag of limes only to have the teacher throw them out and send her to the corner; Jo learning to deal with her hot temper. Even Amy’s near-death drop into the ice falls lightly and the lesson is quickly learned and passed over. But Beth and Mr. March mark a turning point, after which the girls must quite truly become “little women.”
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