A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

I have been wanting to re-read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for a long time. It’s one of treebrooklynthose books from my childhood that has stayed with me and that I often recommend to students in my class, based solely on my hazy memories of having loved it. So, now, 45 years after reading it for the first time, I have finally finished spending some more time with one of literature’s most beloved characters, Frances (Francie) Nolan.

Betty Smith’s most famous novel tells the story of young Francie, who comes of age in Brooklyn during the early part of the 20th century. She is the daughter of Katie and Johnny, and older sister to Neeley. Francie’s entire adolescence is captured in Smith’s un-embellished prose (not to say that the writing isn’t beautiful, because it is). The Nolans are poor and they live in a time where every penny counts. Katie is a hard-working janitress and Johnny a singing waiter, when he can get some work (and he often cannot). He’s a beautiful, dreamy man, who mostly drinks. It’s impossible not to love Johnny who believes “how wonderful [it would be if] everything you talked about could come true!” Francie idolizes her father and, in some way, resents her mother.

When the novel opens, Francie is just eleven. Francie and her brother are already industrious children. She and Neeley

collected rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk and hoarded it in locked cellar bins or in boxes hidden under the bed. All week Francie walked home from school slowly with her eyes in the gutter looking for tin foil from cigarette packages or chewing gum wrappers. This was melted in the lid of a jar.

I remember, as a kid, being fascinated with how the Nolans stretched every single penny. How the pennies Francie earned by bringing her junk to the junkman gave her the privilege of going into a store and “What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface [because] her nickel gave her this privilege.” I probably read this book for the first time in the early 1970s and I remember feeling awed by the fact that Francie had nothing. Although my parents weren’t rich, we were always warm and fed and Francie’s poverty was remarkable to me.

But I think what makes Francie such a remarkable and beloved character is her resilience. And her capacity for hope. Although her circumstances were often dire, she is a girl who believes in limitless possibilities and isn’t afraid to work hard to achieve them. I admire that about her. As a kid, I loved that Francie was a reader and a writer because I loved both of those things, too. When Francie read she was “at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy and all alone in the house.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those books that captures a simpler time. It’s anecdotal in that sometimes we have little glimpses into the lives of other characters, and there are pivotal moments in Francie’s life that are beautifully rendered. It’s also a modern book, given when it was published (1943). In one instance, after Francie meets and falls in love with a young soldier, but declines to spend some private time with him, she asks her mother if she should have gone with the young man.

As a mother, I say it would have been a terrible thing for a girl to sleep with a stranger – a man she had known for less than forty-eight hours. Horrible things might have happened to you. Your whole life might have been ruined…. But as a woman…I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once that you love that way.

Yes, the book is dated. Yes, there are moments of racism and sexism. But it is also a time capsule. It is a full-hearted look at a time and place that no longer exists and captures the life of a girl who, like a tree growing up through the cracks in cement, reaches for the light.

 

 

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

littlefires“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over,” Mia tells Izzy in Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires EverywhereI read Ng’s first novel Everything I Never Told You a couple years ago and I love that book. So much. Little Fires Everywhere is also excellent. There is no doubt that I will buy and read whatever Ng writes going forward.

Shaker Heights, Ohio is America’s first planned community with rules determining what colour your house can be painted and where schools are placed so that children don’t have to cross any major streets.

The underlying philosophy being that everything could – and should – be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.

Elena Richardson believes in the defining principles of Shaker Heights and, in fact, that’s the way she runs her household and her life. Her three oldest children Lexie, Trip, Moody seem to tow the family line. Her youngest, Izzy, is more of a problem child and when the novel opens “Everyone was talking about […] how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”

What would compel Izzy to commit such an act?  Meet Mia and Pearl. They’ve just moved into the Richardson’s rental property. Mia is an artist and Pearl her intelligent fifteen-year-old-daughter. When Pearl and Moody become friends, the two families’ lives intersect. In the Richardsons Pearl sees “a state of domestic perfection” and in Mia Izzy has someone who understands her and listens to her.

Little Fires Everywhere is a book about motherhood and it asks important questions about what it means to be a mother. Are you a mother because you’ve given birth? Is it a choice? Is a relationship between a mother and their child automatic or is it something that must be cultivated beyond mere biology? What happens if you give up a child? Do you have the right to change your mind?

Free-spirited Mia worries that her daughter is perhaps being unduly influenced by the Richardsons and wonders “if it was right for her daughter to fall under the spell of a family so entirely.” She and Pearl have always been vagabonds, moving from place to place in search of inspiration for Mia’s photography. Now she has promised Pearl that they will stay put.

In Mia, Izzy finds a sort of surrogate mother, someone who listens to her complaints about the state of her world and asks her what she intends to do about it. “Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury” but Mia encourages her to consider her options.

This is a book that is very female-centric. We don’t spend a lot of time with the men, but that’s okay, the women are fascinating. Their hopes and dreams, some derailed by circumstance, others by choice, are worthy of close inspection. I loved my time in Shaker Heights. Little Fires Everywhere  is filled with stymied, passionate, damaged, beautiful and complicated characters, and like Everything I Never Told You  there is something about the way Ng tells a story that just keeps you turning the pages to get to the end. Then, you want to start all over to spend more time with her magnificent characters.

Highly recommended (and not just by me. The accolades are endless.)

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli

simonBecky Albertalli’s YA novel Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda won the William C. Morris Debut Award, but the accolades don’t stop there. The book has been praised or recognized by everyone from ALA, Carnegie, Oprah and Lambda. Although this book has been on my shelf for a couple years, as soon as I knew the movie was coming out – I knew I had to read it…and I am soooo sorry I waited so long.

Simon is a junior in high school. He lives with his younger sister, Nora, and his parents. His older sister, Alice, is away at college.

Simon is all kinds of awesome. He’s funny, self-aware, smart and gay. The problem is that he hasn’t told anyone yet – about being gay. Everyone knows the other stuff. Well, there’s one person who knows Simon’s secret. His name is Blue. He and Simon have been exchanging emails and those emails are what set Simon’s story in motion. When he forgets to log out of his Gmail account at school, another kid, Martin, sees the emails and uses them to blackmail Simon into helping him hook up with one of Simon’s friends, Abby. It’s kind of a ridiculous premise, really, but let’s remember the cesspool that is high school.

…the whole coming out thing doesn’t really scare me.

I don’t think it scares me.

It’s a giant holy box of awkwardness, and I won’t pretend I’m looking forward to it But it probably wouldn’t be the end of the world. Not for me.

Simon’s blackmailer is “a little bit of a goober nerd”, but Simon doesn’t want to out Blue and so he does his level best to match make, but the problem is that Abby likes someone else, Nick, who is one of Simon’s best friends. And then there’s Leah, Simon’s other bestie, who may have feelings for Nick herself. It’s a tangled web, but maneuvering through these relationships is part of the high school experience.

Watching Simon and Blue’s relationship unfold via their emails is really beautiful. Despite attending the same school, they don’t know each other’s true identity and so they speak freely about their insecurities and hopes. They fall in love without meeting and, I have to say, it’s pretty damn romantic.

The other awesome thing about Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is that it’s funny. Like laugh-out-loud funny. And also heart-felt without being schmaltzy. Even Martin has his moment of redemption. There are no bad guys in the story, but there are plenty of opportunities to learn (sans didactics).

…people really are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows. And maybe it’s a good thing, the way we never stop surprising each other.

High recommended.

//players.brightcove.net/823022174001/0de3ded5-8290-49c7-b25d-fcddec46dfb3_default/index.html?videoId=5713014172001

My Sunshine Away – M.O. Walsh

My-Sunshine-AwayJust when I thought my reading slump was never going to end, I read M.O. Walsh’s compelling debut novel My Sunshine Away. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I loved this book – start to finish.

The unnamed adult narrator is recalling the time between ages 14 and 16, when he lived with his mother on Piney Creek Road, in an affluent area outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He’s obsessively in love with Lindy Simpson, the beautiful fifteen-year-old track star who lives across the street. After Lindy is raped, our narrator’s life is irrevocably changed. Through his eyes we try to unravel the mystery of who hurt Lindy and so, in that respect, My Sunshine Away is a total page-turner. But it is so, so much more than that.

First of all, Walsh evokes a sense of time and place that is both exotic (I have never been to Louisiana, although I would love to visit once Trump is no longer in office) and familiar. Set in 1989, the book’s sense of time and place is practically nostalgia now. The children on the street get together and play football, go fishing, wander the woods, gather piles of moss. It’s pre-Internet and so reminiscent of my own childhood despite the fact that it’s 20 years later. You know, back when kids played outside. With each other.

The main character is completely authentic. From his vantage point as an adult, he spills both the varnished and unvarnished truth about those two turbulent years when he watched Lindy so closely that readers might actually believe he could have had something to do with her attack. He even admits that  he was “one of the suspects”,  but then begs the reader to “Hear me out. Let me explain.”

There was something about My Sunshine Away that reminded me of Thomas H. Cook.  This is a compliment. Really. At his best, Cook writes literate mysteries that often plumb the complicated depths of family and memory. I couldn’t help but think of Cook while reading Walsh because Cook’s characters are never stereotypes. They are so fully realized that his novels always feel like  much more than just a straight-up mystery. This was true of My Sunshine Away, also. Like our narrator, we want to find out who had hurt Lindy, but we also want to come to terms with the narrator’s relationship with his father who has left the family home, and his wife and son bereft. We want to see him work his way through his awkward adolescence. This is  a bildungsroman done so well that your breath will literally catch in your throat.

The narrator’s self-awareness is so profound that it takes My Sunshine Away to another level entirely.

And it is not until times like these, when there are years between myself and the events, that I feel even close to understanding my memories and how the people I’ve known have affected me. And I am often impressed and overwhelmed by the beautiful ways the heart and mind work without cease to create this feeling of connection.

I highly and wholeheartedly recommend this book.

 

That’s amore

Listen here.

Boy meets girl – it’s the oldest story in the book, right? And now, thankfully for modern readers, we can also add boy meets boy and girl meets girl.

A couple of years ago I talked about love and the sorts of stories that make my heart skip a beat, or more often than not, break…a feeling I have to admitting I like just a little more than is probably healthy. You can read about what I said here.

I am a romantic at heart. Sappy, even. I’m not sure I grew up believing that a handsome prince was going to ride in on his white stallion and save me, but I did believe in happily-ever-after, although I am currently on the fence about that now.

My most favourite kind of love story is the one where the couple overcomes tremendous obstacles to be together – sacrifices are made – or, even better, that they love each other deeply but just can’t be together. Angst, baby. Buffy and Angel. Hello.

So since Valentine’s Day has just passed, I thought I would talk about romantic books.

I cut my teeth on my mom’s bodice rippers – Rosemary Rogers type stuff. Sweet Savage Love. You know, wild men who can’t be tamed and the virginal women who tame them.

Clearly romance novels have changed over the years – like 40 of them – when I first starting reading them. Some argue that modern romance novels are actually empowering because they are mostly written by women for women, women are generally the hero – or should I say heroine – of the piece and then there’s the s-e-x. In the modern romance novel, women are often in charge of their own pleasure, something I doubt Rosemary Rogers would have acknowledged back in the day.

All that said – I still have a soft spot for romance between two people who have to overcome horrible odds…and if they can’t actually overcome them – even better. Clearly, I have a type and it’s all about the doomed love. I am the person who still blubbers like a baby watching Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet.

Ultimately, though, I think there should – at the very least- be the potential for a happy ending, even if it never actually happens.

So, if you are feeling the love – or you want to feel the love – or, you just want to curl up in a ball and cry…I have some recommendations for you.

The Lost Garden – Helen Humphreys lostgarden

The link to my musings about this book predate this blog, but what you’ll find if you follow the link is an entry I did for Book Drum.

Humphreys is a Canadian writer and The Lost Garden is the story of Gwen Davis a young horticulturist in 1941 London. She gets a job leading a team of Land Girls at a neglected estate in Devon. They’re going to be growing crops for the war effort. While there she meets Raley, a Canadian officer waiting to be posted to the front. She also befriends Jane, a young woman whose fiancé is MIA. From these two people – in these fraught circumstances, Jane comes to understand the meaning of love. I was so enchanted with this book that when I was in England in 2007, my kids and I spent the day at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, an estate which is very much like the one Gwen works on in the novel.

IMG_0834 IMG_0838

Can I just share a little bit from the beginning of the book?

We walk the streets of London. It is seven years ago. We didn’t meet, but we are together. This is real. This is a book, dusty from the top shelf of a library in Mayfair. The drowned sound of life under all that ink, restless waves breaking on this reading shore. Where I wait for you. I do. In a moment. In a word. Here on the street IMG_0846corner. Here on this page.

But it is shutting down, all around me, even now, this moment that I stopped. The story disappears as I speak it. Each word a small flame I have lit for you, above this darkened street.

The Lost Garden is a really lovely, and surprising love story.

So, I asked my eighteen-year-old daughter why she reads romance. She was pretty quick to point out that most of the love stories she reads are unrealistic and that she realizes that. However, that doesn’t get in the way of her enjoyment. She counts books like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook or The Last Song among her favourites. Nicholas Sparks definitely offers readers a heaping helping of schmaltz.

If you’re looking for schmaltz, you can’t go wrong with Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel The Bridges of Madison BridgesOfMadisonCountyCounty. You could read this book in an afternoon, it’s short. I don’t mean to suggest that Waller is a wordsmith, but this book broke my heart when I first read it. Francesca is a war bride and she lives with her husband and her kids on a farm in Iowa and one afternoon – while her family is away at a state fair or something – she meets a photographer named Robert who is in the area to photograph covered bridges. The encounter changes her life and his, too. Sacrifices must be made. Their story is discovered by her adult children after her death and they are shocked to realize their mother was more than the woman who made their meals and washed their clothes. People might know the movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood and it’s a decent version, but the book is pretty good if you have a couple hours and a box of Kleenex.

So clearly, I’ve just outed myself – if a book can make me cry the writing doesn’t even have to be stellar.

Now – how about a YA romance?

easyEasy – Tammara Webber

This is for mature teens…it kind of just crosses the line, but it’s about a second-year university student named Jacqueline who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. She meets Lucas and he’s – I suppose – the proverbial bad boy, but he’s not really. This book hit all my guilty pleasures and then some. There’s tension galore, there’s a likeable minor cast and the two main characters are smart and kind and when they finally reach their happily ever after, you’ll be swooning.

Yep – there’s something super satisfying about a love story. Check out these:

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

I cried so hard when I read this book, I couldn’t even see the pages.

The Banquet – Carolyn Slaughter

Henry meets Blossom at Marks & Spencer. He’s a conservative architect; she’s a young shop girl. There’s is an all-consuming love affair. Carolyn Slaughter is one of my all-time favourite writers.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Two boys, true love. So beautiful and life-affirming.

Me Before You – JoJo Moyes

Just in time for the movie. Plain Jane meets handsome paraplegic.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

My first-ever romance. And you never forget your first, right?

What’s your favourite romance novel?

 

 

 

Everything I Never Told You -Celeste Ng

everythingLydia is dead.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had such a visceral reaction to a book.  I read the bulk of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, on my snow day (a gift for a teacher, even if it’s only because we get to catch up on  marking/yearbook/planning – and, yeah, reading). I don’t think I will ever  be able to adequately explain how I feel about this book or these characters.

Lydia is just sixteen when she is found at the bottom of the lake across the street from her home in small-town Ohio. It’s the 1970s, the decade in which I, too, was coming-of-age. On the morning she is discovered missing (and it is this “innocuous” fact that sets the story in motion) we see the Lee family dynamic.

As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks.

Hannah, Lydia’s younger sister is “hunched[ed] moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one.” Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is sitting on the stairs trying to wake up. James, their father, has already left for his job as a professor at the local college.

Lydia is never late. She is never anything but compliant. She is a “yes” girl, the favoured daughter. It is only after her body is found that her story, and that of her family, begins to unravel. And yes, you will want to know what happened to Lydia, but trust me, it’s just one of the many things that will break your heart in this magnificent novel.

While every family has their own secrets and burdens, the Lee family is further set apart because Marilyn is white and James is Chinese. Their story is integral to Lydia’s story. Marilyn herself was a gifted student, earning a scholarship to Radcliff, and there – while she heads towards a degree in medicine – she meets James, a fourth year graduate student in history. She is ‘other’ because she is a woman studying in a field that is dominated by men; he is ‘other’ because he’s Chinese. All Marilyn knows is that “she wanted this man in her life. Something inside her said, He understands. What it’s like to be different.”

Marilyn’s career plans are pre-empted when she gets pregnant. She and James marry and move to Ohio.  Of course, their union wouldn’t be quite so problematic now (I’d like to think, but there are always some people….), but it’s the late 50s when they marry. Another world, another time. And life, fraught as it is, moves on. But why is it fraught? Because James grew up attending private school for free because his mother worked there as the cook and his father the janitor? Because he never fit in anywhere?  Because Marilyn didn’t want the life her mother had? Because of dreams deferred? And what happens when our parents’ lives are complicated and damaged by their own childhoods? Ah, we all know the answer to that question, right? It all trickles down.

Everything I Never Told You is an astounding, complex and heart-breaking look at the secrets we keep, not only from our families but from ourselves. Why we keep them, and the damage caused because of it, is just part of what happens in Ng’s book. The horrible longing we feel to crack ourselves open, the desire for true communication and intimacy, is another part. There wasn’t a single character in this novel I didn’t want to hug – I loved them all. That they were so fabulously human and fragile is a testament to Ng’s talent.

Highly (times a billion) recommended.

Velocity – Kristin McCloy

velocityA couple of days ago on Information Morning, I talked about how I wished that I could carve out some time to revisit some of my favourite books. I mentioned three in particular: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Kristin McCloy’s Velocity. All three of these books had a profound impact on me, the first two when I was much younger and McCloy’s book when I first read it as a twenty-something. Of those three, I have actually already re-read Velocity numerous times and I just finished reading it again.

I think I am going to have a difficult time articulating exactly why I continue to find Velocity so compelling, but I do want to honour the book and its place in my personal canon here, especially because I recently had the very good fortune of exchanging a couple emails with the novel’s author, Kristin McCloy. (Insert fangirl squee here.)

When it was first published in 1988, Velocity caused quite a stir and earned copious praise. I am not sure what year I picked up my copy, perhaps 1989, but I definitely purchased it at The Strand in NYC. I devoured the book then for reasons that will surely become apparent a little further on.

So, what’s the book about?

Twenty-five-year-old Ellie Lowell has returned to her backwater North Carolina hometown to scatter her mother’s ashes. Ellie’s an only child and she’s been living in New York City for the past six years, so she’s finding it difficult to connect with her taciturn father, a local cop. They share the family home like two strangers might share a taxi ride to the airport – making small talk, but never really connecting.

Despite the awkwardness, Ellie decides to stay home for the summer, leaving her fledgling career in the film business and her boyfriend, Dec, back in the Big Apple. She gets a job at a local diner and before you can say two eggs over easy, she’s hooked up with Jesse, the half-Cherokee biker who lives down the road. Ellie knows he’s trouble. She says

…it occurs to me, a thousand woman, he’s had a thousand women, and every one of them has fed him everything she had.

Even though Jesse isn’t much for talking, Ellie finds herself pulled into his orbit. The attraction is sexual, of course, and she remarks that his “crazy height and that straight hair down to [his] shoulders, even from the shadows of [his] porch, the way [he] stared at me would’ve burned a hole in a blind woman’s side…”

When she’s with Jesse, she doesn’t think about anything else and that’s a good thing because what Ellie doesn’t want to think about is that her mother is dead. She can’t avoid the knowledge that “Everything crumbles. The walls, the rooftop…every structure will fall. Everything known, all that is so familiar, will vanish. Including myself.” What she can do, however, is push that knowledge away and although she is “aware of [her] grief waiting for [her], patient and thick,…right now it is remote.” Jesse is in its path.

At her age I was doing much the same thing, which is, I suppose, why Velocity struck a chord with me when I first read it all those years ago. I don’t recall what I was running from, but I sure knew what I thought I was running to. My guy, let’s call him S., was crazy tall, mostly silent, beautiful, at least to me, and he’d often disappear for days at a time, throwing me into a frenzy of longing, and then reappearing like an apparition. Like Ellie, I read into the smallest of gestures – a moment of tenderness could sustain me for weeks. S. wasn’t a criminal, but he definitely had his own demons and he was in no position to give me what I so desperately wanted. Our relationship was doomed from the start, but that didn’t prevent me from showing up where I’d know or hope he’d be or using sex as a bargaining chip. Our whole relationship was just fraught. And the weird thing is, 30 years later, I still feel that little electric charge on the rare occasion that I see him around.

When I read this book back in the day it was ALL about Jesse and Ellie’s relationship. I believed that Jesse did, in his own way, care for Ellie. I excused his bad behavior because Ellie excused it. I wasn’t blind to Ellie’s grief, but I hadn’t experienced real grief yet and so, although I could sympathize, I couldn’t personally relate to that part of her story. I knew exactly how she felt with Jesse, though. I knew that “electrical current” and the “pleasure like mercury.”

So, how does the book hold up upon rereading? Um – it’s still freaking fantastic. And here’s why. McCloy is a beautiful writer. That has always mattered to me. From the book’s opening line:

Sometimes in my dreams you rise up as if from a swamp, whole, younger than I remember, dazzling, jagged, and I follow you into smoky rooms, overwhelmed by the sense of being in the presence of an untamed thing, full of light, impossible to control.

…until the final pages, McCloy’s writing is fluid and evocative and painfully honest. But we readers know that beautiful writing only goes so far; we have to care about the characters, too. From this vantage point (on the slippery downward slope), I want to tell Ellie what I’m sure she already knows: he’s not the right guy. But I never wanted to shake her and say “Ellie, you’re acting like an idiot.” Her grief is palpable. I feel it like she feels it “a fist, hard-knuckled and small.”

She is so clearly out of control and there is no one able to ease her pain. Her father is caught in his own. Dec is helpless in New York and when he arrives unexpectedly, his presence just muddies the waters. It’s easy to see why Jesse becomes the center of her universe. He doesn’t ask questions that she can’t answer. He doesn’t ask anything of her at all, he simply “hunted down [his] needs – simple and precise – and in those days, it was me.”

Velocity is a novel about loss. And grief. It just so happens that it also has some incredibly erotic sex scenes; trust me, you’ll feel it in your knees. But here’s something interesting about my reread: this time, for the first time ever, I cried.

Now I understand. Since the last time I read this book – and it’s been a few years – both my parents have passed away, my mom in 2006 and my dad in 2009. I get Ellie’s frantic desire to sublimate her grief. Everything about her journey seemed organic and honest to me. I ached for her. I missed my parents. I also missed, strangely, that feeling of being so crazy in love with someone that you can’t think straight. All those things are lost to me now.

Velocity is a special book. Thanks, Kristin, for writing it.