Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

“There had to be the dark and muddy waters so that the sun could have something to background its flashing glory.” Page 165

There is much “muddy water” in Francie Nolan’s life. Born in poverty in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Francie’s life is in many ways a tragedy. Her father is a drunk and her mother doesn’t love her; there’s often not enough money for food and the community around is depraved to say the least. And yet, like the tree mentioned in the title, Francie’s spirit can’t be killed. She presses through the hardest of circumstances to survive.

 

A “Tree of Heaven” in an urban yard

What do I talk about from a book of nearly 500 pages that has thoroughly captivated me for the past month? This novel is beautiful. It is hard, very hard. But it is also beautiful. To quote the book itself, when Francie is quested by her teacher about the dark subject material of her writing compositions:

“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.

“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.

“What is beauty?” asked the child.

“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: Beauty is truth, truth is beauty.”

Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”

“Nonsense!” exploded Miss Gardner. (page 321)

While Miss Gardner wasn’t convinced, I am. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a true story, based on the life of the author Betty Smith. Like Francie, she was born in Williamsburg and bounced between multiple apartments with her hardworking mother and drunken father. Like Francie, and the Tree of Heaven, she sunk roots into the concrete and strived to reach the sky. And like Francie, when she was a young adult she made her way out of the clutches of poverty to study in Michigan and lay a new path for her life.

As I was reading I jumped off on rabbit trails many times to do additional research into the setting. I’m a Midwest girl (and now a Florida transplant). Building over 3 stories have been rare in my experience – especially block after block after block of raw humanity stacked together like sardines. It’s amazing how landlords/architects will follow the letter of the law (“ventilation”) while completely missing the point (livable conditions for tenement residents). You can search for “dumbbell tenements” if you want to learn more.

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Modern aerial view of tenements described in the novel

This book is sad. There isn’t any other word to summarize it. From the beginning pages, we hear about children being exploited and tormented. One young single mother is even stoned (not to death, but to injury) and a child is murdered. There seems to be little joy to be found, and yet, I found it in these many pages. It is a very engaging book. You have to look hard for the hope, but it is there, and by the end the characters have found it as well. I think one of the most poignant things is how *normal* this book is, and yet beautiful in the normal. Crazy things happen (like Sissy’s baby) but the events don’t feel forced or fabricated the way they do in many novels.

This is one I will revisit again after I’ve had time for the ideas to soak into my mind.

This is my 4th book for the Back to the Classics challenge, category: Woman Author

Reading Round-Up: March 2017

How are we a quarter of the year through 2017 already? I thought the past couple years had flown – I’m thinking things have accelerated yet again.

After finally dragging through The Mysteries Of Udolpho in February, I got through far more books this month, including my first Kindle read for the year. I don’t usually read on my Kindle – I have the Fire tablet and it’s far too easy to get distracted by apps and notifications. But for those occasions when a paperback is unavailable or cost prohibitive and the digital copy is free, I’m glad to have it around.

COMPLETED:

Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges

Litany of the Ordinary, Trish Warren

These two theological books were both quick reads yet very deep in their short pages. Both kept coming back again and again to the idea of preaching the gospel to yourself. This was a dominant theme in Tripp’s Parenting I completed in January as well. As a believer in Christ, this is a theme I need to never get tired of, for it is the source of all my strength.

“When the day is lovely and sunny and everything is going according to plan, I can look like a pretty good person. But little things go wrong and interrupted plans reveal who I really am; my cracks show and I see I am profoundly in need of grace. But here’s the thing: pretty good people do not need Jesus. He came for the lost. He came for the broken.”

Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain

Miss Mackenzie, Anthony Trollope

ONGOING:

The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald

Since this is the end of the quarter, I’m going to do a full update as well. Here’s where I am on all the challenges. Titles are linked to the reviews on my blog, the rest can be found on Goodreads.

Christian Reading Challenge  – Light list 7/13 (Titles in italics are also on Back to the Classics)

  1. A biography
  2. A classic novel: Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
  3. A book about history
  4. A book targeted at your gender
  5. A book about theology: Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges
  6. A book with at least 400 pages: The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe
  7. A book your pastor recommends
  8. A book about Christian living: Parenting, Tedd Tripp
  9. A book more than 100 years old: Miss Mackenzie, Anthony Trollope
  10. A book published in 2017
  11. A book for children or teens
  12. A book of your choice: Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren
  13. A book about a current issue: America the Anxious, Ruth Whippman

Back to the Classics Challenge 3/12

  1. 19th Century: Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (1876)
  2. 20th Century
  3. Woman author
  4. Translation
  5. Published before 1800
  6. Romance: Miss Mackenzie, Anthony Trollope (1865)
  7. Gothic: The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe (1794)
  8. Number in title
  9. Animal (About or in title)
  10. Place you’d like to visit
  11. Award Winner
  12. Russian

Book Review: Miss Mackenzie

At the insistence of a few friends, I can no longer say I’ve never read an Anthony Trollope novel!

Miss Mackenzie was first published by Trollope in 1865. Margaret Mackenzie has spent her whole life in isolation. Taken from school at age 16, she first nursed her dying father and then her ill brother Walter. After his death, Margaret finds herself at age 36 both free to discover herself and with the income required to do something about it! She moves to Littlebath (a fictional town based on Bath) and begins to determine if she will be a sinner in the crowd of Miss Todd or a saint following the teachings of Mr. Stumfold, a prominent pastor in the place.

Several proposals by various potential lovers later, Margaret finds her fortune in crisis. At this point her true character begins to shine through as she navigates the waters of both the legal and social systems of the time. And that’s all I can tell you without spoiling this delightful book. From here on, read my thoughts at your own risk 🙂

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Book Review: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom SawyerHaving lived in the Midwest most of my life, I’m quite familiar with the world Mark Twain paints in his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I’ve even visited Hannibal, MO on multiple occasions. And yet, somehow or another, I’ve made it to almost 30 years old without ever reading this book. I read a Great Illustrated Classics version once, but seriously, those are so bad all they do is kill a desire to read the original. This deficiency in my education is at long last corrected!

First published in 1876, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer paints the picture of a group of rowdy boys living in a quiet river town. Tom, Joe, and Huck are perpetually enjoying such boyish activities as running away, fighting, digging for treasure, and sneaking out at night. He seeks to win the love of his classmate Becky the way many young boys attempt: gymnastics and crazy antics in the classroom. Many of these crazy activities lead them near to, or even into, major trouble.

I feel that one of Twain’s real skills as a writer is to capture children in writing. The description of the little boy playing steamboat early in the book is spot-on. The description of Tom and Joe playing Robin Hood in the woods was captivating. Tom’s mischievous mind made me laugh out loud more than once, from nearly the first page. The infamous whitewashing scene sets the tone for the whole book:

“Oh, come now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

He had a nice, good, idle time all the while – plenty of company – and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.

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This was a quick and pleasant read, filled with laughter. I greatly appreciated finishing a book in less than a week after the massive investment of time Udolpho turned out to be. And now, I’m missing my Midwest home only minutes from the Mighty Mississippi as I sweat it out here in Florida.

This is my 2nd book for the Back to the Classics Challenge, in the 19th Century category.

Book Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann RadcliffeThus had she been tossed upon the stormy sea of misfortune for the last year, with but short intervals of peace, if peace it could be called, which was only the delay of evil. (619)

So goes the year that changes Emily St. Aubert’s life. Raised in peaceful, pastoral comfort by parents who adore her, Emily’s life alters dramatically when first her mother, then her father pass away. She is given to the care of her selfish aunt who is only kind when the kindness will benefit herself. Through the actions of her aunt, Emily is removed from everything she knows – her home, her lover, her country – at the mercy of her aunt’s new husband, the Italian Montoni.

Practically every dramatic plot point possible in the history of dramatic plot points is tossed into this 693 page behemoth of a novel, written by Ann Radcliffe in 1794. Considered one of the most popular novels of Gothic literature, The Mysteries of Udolpho sports a massive cast of characters all connected by various forms of villainy. We find no less than 3 crumbling castles, 2 presumed ghosts, 1 veiled image to horrible to describe, more murderers than I can count, weeping on every page, kidnappings, sword fights, secret passages, subterranean burial chambers (which seem to only be used at midnight), shipwrecks, madness, love found and lost again, and even pirates. It’s a bit of a mess, but through the mess, I have to say I was entertained. It’s quite sensational.

Udolpho is like one of those daytime TV shows that has been on for 20 years. Every time you think that the plot is finally, FINALLY about to wrap up, a new cast of characters brings a new twist onto the scene. Out of the 693 pages, everything is described in excessive detail except the conclusion: it is really quite rushed after the abundance of earlier chapters. I suppose there is little drama to be found in “happily ever after”.

Gothic literature isn’t my thing. The mysteries, the drama, the weeping, the excessive use of commas, the word “sublime” yet again… I’m not one for horror films at all, either. Give me a Jane Austen any day! Actually, that’s why I read this – although I enjoyed Northanger Abbey, I knew there was a lot I was missing due to my unfamiliarity with the Gothic genre. Now that I’ve read Udolpho, Northanger may make its way back into my pile. I’m sure I’ll understand it better this time around.

This is my first book for Back to the Classics 2017, in the Gothic category. LINK UP here

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Back to the Classics 2017

It’s the last weekday of 2016. I’m spending the day getting prepped for 2017 – reorganizing homeschool stuff, resetting our family budget, and much more entertaining, setting up my reading challenges for the year!

Below is my plan for the Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Books and Chocolate. In 2016 I completed 9 categories; this year I’m aiming for all 12. We don’t have anything major planned for the year so I should be able to do it… right? I created a simple checklist that I printed and punched for my day planner to track this challenge. If you would find that useful, it’s available on dropbox: https://www.dropbox.com/s/etig93atotr1933/Back%20to%20the%20Classics%202017.docx?dl=0

In addition, I’m doing the Christian Reading Challenge hosted by Tim Challies. I like the idea of diversifying my reading in addition to reading classics. I’m aiming for somewhere between the Light and Avid plans. I don’t want to rush through books; I want to savor them and be changed by them. Completing wo books a week would definitely require rushing in my life.

Back to the Classics 2017 PLAN (Written in pencil. Blanks will be filled as others start linking up. I need ideas!)

1.  A 19th Century Classic – something Mark Twain

2.  A 20th Century Classic – Their Eyes were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

3.  A classic by a woman author. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)

4.  A classic in translation.

5.  A classic published before 1800. Beowulf (Old English)

6.  An romance classic. 

7.  A Gothic or horror classic. The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe (1794) – I’ve wanted to read this ever since reading Northanger Abbey. I’m pretty excited! 

8.  A classic with a number in the title. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859)

9.  A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title.

10. A classic set in a place you’d like to visit. A Passage to India, Forster (1924)

11. An award-winning classic.

12. A Russian Classic. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)

Back to the Classics 2016 Wrap Up

It’s the end of the year, so finished or not, here’s what I’ve completed for the Back to the Classics Challenge! I’m actually content with my results. I completed 9 challenge books plus a pretty decent stack of non-challenge books despite moving cross country and having to restart most parts of our lives. Next year nothing major is planned so MAYBE I’ll get through all 12! See the links for all the challenge wrap up posts HERE – what a great source of book suggestions for next year!

Links to each review, 9 total:

2. 20th Century Classic: The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

https://gabisunshine.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/book-review-the-wind-in-the-willows/

4. Classic in Translation: The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

https://gabisunshine.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/book-review-the-little-prince/

5. Classic by a Non-White Author: Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

https://gabisunshine.wordpress.com/2016/03/30/book-review-things-fall-apart/

6. Adventure Classic: Treasure Island, Robert Lewis Stevenson

https://gabisunshine.wordpress.com/2016/01/25/book-review-treasure-island/

7. Fantasy Classic: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis

https://gabisunshine.wordpress.com/2016/03/02/book-review-the-lion-the-witch-and-the-wardrobe/

8. Classic Detective Novel: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie

https://gabisunshine.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/708/

9. Classic with a Place in the Title: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

https://gabisunshine.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/book-review-alices-adventures-in-wonderland/

10. Banned Classic: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

https://gabisunshine.wordpress.com/2016/10/31/book-review-the-grapes-of-wrath/

12. Classic Short Stories: Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling

https://gabisunshine.wordpress.com/2016/12/29/book-review-just-so-stories/

Skipped 1 (1800s), 3 (Woman author), 11 (Re-read)