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

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 Little Prince

Memes are a thing these days, have you noticed? Some are funny, many are horrid, and once in a while you stumble across a gem that perfectly explains something in your life. This meme basically sums up The Little Prince:

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The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is a short novel originally published in French in 1943. It chronicles the meeting of a pilot crashed in the desert and a strange little man who wants him to draw a sheep. Over the course of the novella we learn that the little man is a prince – not only a prince, but one from another planet. He’s had an incredible journey through the stars (by a flock of birds, no less) and much to say about “matters of consequence.”

I first read this book when I was in first grade. As a child myself, I found it an amusing story. To live on a planet the size of a house with only a rose as a friend? It was delightful. But there is so much more! When I was a senior in high school, I read the novella in French, followed by 2 or 3 essays also written in French. Because Honors French 4, right? I began to grasp some of the deeper life lessons. I also appreciated the beauty in the flow of the writing, some of which is lost in translation (French is an exceptionally beautiful language). My essays focused on the different grown ups the prince met in his travels and how empty their lives were. I’m pretty sure my teacher was trying to prepare us for college without saying trite things herself 😀

This time, while reading, I wept. I  wept over the narrator’s lost art career (Can’t you tell it’s a boa?). I wept over the idea of taming each other – for “one only understands the things that one tames” (pg 85). I wept for the baobab seeds infesting the soil, and for what happens if you put off for tomorrow the work of removing them. And I have wept for the times I have been too much like the grown ups.

For of course, this book has tamed me, and “one runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed…” (p 99)

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This is my 8th entry in the 2016 Back to the Classics challenge, for the category of “Books in Translation.” The link up can be found here.

Book Review: The Grapes of Wrath

Book 6 for my Back to the Classics Challenge: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. Officially the most depressing book I’ve ever read. It took me 3 months to drag my way through it because I couldn’t read more than a handful of pages at a time.

200px-johnsteinbeck_thegrapesofwrathThis book fulfills the Banned Books category. Why was it banned? From Wikipedia:

At the time of publication, Steinbeck’s novel “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national talk radio; but above all, it was read.”[13] According to The New York Times, it was the best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940.[2] In that month it won the National Book Award, favorite fiction book of 1939, voted by members of the American Booksellers Association.[2] Soon it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[3]The book was noted for Steinbeck’s passionate depiction of the plight of the poor, and many of his contemporaries attacked his social and political views. Bryan Cordyack writes, “Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The most fervent of these attacks came from the Associated Farmers of California; they were displeased with the book’s depiction of California farmers’ attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a ‘pack of lies’ and labeled it ‘communist propaganda’”.[9] Some accused Steinbeck of exaggerating camp conditions to make a political point. Steinbeck had visited the camps well before publication of the novel[14] and argued their inhumane nature destroyed the settlers’ spirit.

The book begins hopeless as Tommy Joad returns home from prison to find the family home pushed off its foundation by a tractor – the family lost the farm to the bank. They’re at Uncle John’s down the road planning and packing up to head to California. They kill the last pigs and salt them down for food on the road. From this depressing beginning, they set off with varying degrees of optimism about their new life in California. The newlyweds (with baby on the way) dream of a house and a fence and a steady job; the older folks a little more subdued but still expectant.

What follows is 479 pages of misery. People die. People starve. People are treated like animals. People are cheated. More people die. Glimmers of hope come but they’re always balanced by hopelessness: at the government camp the migrant workers find humanity but no work; at the other camps there’s work but no humanity. Pick your misery.

The only redeeming part of this book is the character of Ma Joad. Although she suffers along with (and probably more than) the rest of the family, her strength is the only thing that keeps them alive and sane. It’s said beautifully early in the book (pg 81):

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended on. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty.

This beauty carried through all the way to the last page when even in conditions far beyond what most of will ever see, much less experience, Ma continues to guide, love, care for, and provide not only for her blood relatives but for those others who have become part of the migrant family.

Maybe it’s just too fresh; even as I’m writing this I’m pondering more how Ma influences Rose of Sharon and imagining what kind of woman she may grow into, after the book closes. I wonder at what the anger that has risen within the migrant family will lead to. I wonder what influence Casey’s words will have on them as they struggle to survive the workless winter. I wonder.

This is my Banned Book for the Back to the Classics Challenge. The link up for this category can be found HERE.

Book Review: Things Fall Apart

I finished reading this book almost a month ago and am only now writing it up. Why? First, life is crazy. We’re only a few weeks away from our cross country move – I’ve been in a flurry of sorting and decluttering so we don’t pack things that we don’t actually need. Second, this book is one of the most thought provoking I’ve read in a long time. I haven’t resolved all my thoughts about it; I continue to ponder. Let me fill you in a little.

Let me start with a summary. Things Fall Apart is a novel by Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author. The novel is focused on a traditional man living in a traditional village… until things fall apart. Okonkwo is a wealthy man with 3 wives, a bunch of kids, a sturdy compound, and a very successful farm. He has fought for all this on his own strength because his father was lazy and, in his eyes, worthless. Okonkwo makes most of his decisions with the motivation of proving he is not like his father. An accident ends Part 1 and sends Okonkwo and his family fleeing from his village to his mother’s ancestral home to live out a seven year banishment. During this time, English colonists and missionaries move into the region, bringing it under their control. They bring churches as well as government structure. This structure is firmly held by massacres and unfair courts. In Part 3, Okonkwo has completed his banishment and returns to his home in Umuofia with great expectations of picking up where he left off – powerful marriages for his daughters, social status for himself. Yet things have changed too much under the colonial government and he is faced with a crisis: adapt or die.

According to Sparknotes (Yes, I’m well aware this is not the most excellent source, but I returned the book to the library and can’t spell on my own, and ended up clicking around a bit): “Tired of reading white men’s accounts of how primitive, socially backward, and, most important, language-less native Africans were, Achebe sought to convey a fuller understanding of one African culture and, in so doing, give voice to an underrepresented and exploited colonial subject.” Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in respond to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, seeking to give voice to the indigenous people he identified with. The Igdo people are portrayed as complex, full people, with the divisions and complications found in every society. This shouldn’t be noteworthy. Unfortunately in much of Western literature, indigenous people are not full characters but only tools used by the author for minor purposes – or worse, foils showing how good the main characters are.

Okonkwo is not a likeable character. Although Achebe writes beautifully – often poetically – the things he is writing about make me uncomfortable. Okonkwo beats his wives. He speaks horribly about others in the community and his family. He kills his foster son because it was expected by the tribe and he values his position most. Even his closest friend warns him not to kill the boy Ikemefuna but he does it anyway lest anyone call him a coward. Every action reeks of pride. Although he is the protagonist of the book, I have yet to decide if Achebe is holding him up as one to be respected or just one who *is*.

One element of the book I continue to wrestle with is the handling of Christian missionaries. These men sweep into the communities without respect for the established community structure. They enforce their beliefs without love – in one town, with a massacre. Achebe presents the missionaries as negative overall; though, I can’t gauge his opinion on the kindness they show the social outcasts. As a missionary, this book challenges me to be very careful. Our organization does church planting within tribal cultures, but from what I’ve observed and the people I know, we all seek to be as respectful as possible. When we have been rejected by communities and even martyred in the past, the response isn’t retaliation. We desire to see indigenous people first and foremost as real people living real lives within a real culture. The last thing we want is to forcefully take over, crushing people. And yet, we must be very careful.

I don’t have a lot of clear thoughts after reading this. But I do have a lot of thoughts! There is a lot I still don’t understand even a little, such as the witch doctor’s midnight hike with Okonkwo’s daughter Enzinma on her back. Many parts of the novel don’t seem to tie together. In that way, it’s more of a journalistic style – this is what happened, compared with a more story based novel. Maybe I just need to read it again for the pieces to fit.

This is my 4th book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016. I’m linking this up to category of Classics by a Non-White Author – follow the link to see other reviews within this category. And after this, I’ve decided to do a little lighter reading while we move. I’ll get back on my challenge reading this summer. Most of my book list is heavy lifting!

Book Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Trapped in a train stuck in a snowy bank in the middle of Yugoslavia, an unlikely cast of characters discovers an unlikely murder in their midst. It will be hours or days before the police are able to arrive. But never fear – celebrated detective Hercule Poirot just happens to be on board! With a small pile of clues and a large dose of logic, he riddles out the solution to the crime.

And that’s all the summary I’m going to share – as a mystery novel it would be far too easy to tip off a clue if I gave you more. Know that I did read the whole thing and it had me laughing and guessing the entire way through.

For me, this novel falls into the pure entertainment category. Some of Christie’s characters are brilliantly funny. Mrs. Hubbard is completely ridiculous and over the top in every way. M. Bouc’s main purpose is to stand by Poirot dramatically saying, “No! Surely not! How ever will we figure it out!” Christie’s not-so-subtle jabs at Prohibition throughout the novel are amusing as well and a reminder of the context of the novel: it was written in 1934 when the whole world was in need of some entertainment. There are economic depressions worldwide, the Nazi party is on the rise in Germany, Austria and France experience political crises, and various natural disasters rock the globe including the Dust Bowl in America. I appreciate the camaraderie of the cast of characters – it is very much, “We will all get through this together.”

Compared to a lot of classic novels, Christie’s mystery is definitely a light read. It’s funny but there aren’t many big moral lessons. The characters don’t grow and change. There is a problem, the solution is riddled out, then everyone goes on with their life with justice being served (depending on your definition of justice, and who you consider it being served to). My only real take away is “Everybody lies.”

Would I read another Agatha Christie mystery? Probably. I enjoyed it. But I won’t be grabbing another right away. This is my second read for the Back to the Classics challenge (series intro here), completing category 8. Classic Detective Novel. The category link up is HERE, in case you are looking for other detective book reviews for your own reading!