Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty SmithA Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
Arrow Books, 2000

Originally published 1943

This is one of the few books on my shelves today that I bought pre-blogging and was nevertheless recommended over the internet. Ah, the old livejournal days. Or perhaps it was the Silverchair forum? Who knows. What I do know is that people have repeatedly told me that I needed to read this and that I would love it. No pressure, or anything. I often put off reading a book that everyone loves because I am so scared I will not appreciate it as they did. Lucky, then, that I did love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

This is the story of the Nolan family, who live in Brooklyn. Poor like the rest of their neighbourhood, the family tries to survive week by week, while Katie and Johnny also hope to offer their children a better future through education. Although the reader gets to know the whole family, Katie, Johnny, their son Neeley, their parents and sisters, this is really the story of Francie. Francie is the protagonist of the book, the oldest child of Katie and Johnny, who loves her drunkard father and wishes her mother would love her more, who we follow from age 11 to 17, and who flourishes, despite the difficult circumstances in which she grew up, like the Tree of Heaven to which the title refers and that grows in the most difficult circumstances.

One of the things I loved about this book was the nuanced characterisation of almost everyone. From the moment Neeley is born, it is established that Katie loves her son more than her daughter. Despite the unfairness of her preference, Katie is nevertheless a very admirable character. She steps up as the main provider of the family, because her husband is often off drunk. She works until her hand are rough and painful from working, she runs the household, she trains her children in doing the grocery’s, and the reader is invited to feel sympathetic towards her despite her preference, when her trials in childbirth are highlighted. Johnny, though a drunk, and at times all too good at running from his responsibilities (Arg did I want to shake him in one of the childbirth scenes, when he talked about his hardships instead of his wife’s), he deeply cares for his children, and often helps them to chase their dreams and to respect themselves. Likewise, Sissy, who is portrayed as straying from the norm of one marriage, and instead has a chain of lovers, and remarries without obtaining a divorce, stands up for them when Francie is bullied in school and her mother is too busy to care.

Betty Smith makes it hard not to care about any of the characters she introduces, and yet, Francie will always have a particularly special place in my heart. Francie is a reader, and I think any book bloggers would find it hard not to  feel sympathy for her.

Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.

Apart from a resolution to read a book a day, Francie also assign herself to read every book in the library starting from the letter A. When I read that, I had a brief flashback to my own ten-year-old self, reading about Matilda who had read the local library from A-Z. I wanted to be her. Had I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was younger, I am sure I would have felt the same.

It’s not just Francie’s fondness for reading that made me feel for her. It was her survival through all these circumstances thrown at her. It is her care for her brother, despite knowing their mother favours him and his easier life being a boy. It is her love for her father, despite the way in which he disappoints his family. It is her standing up for herself and her dreams, but still being able to give them up to take care of her mother and brother. Her strength and her survival are inspiring. They are also part of what could be called the American Dream aspect of the novel, a theme I am not always fond off since the idea that riches and poverty are of your own making often skips over the difficult circumstances some people start with. However, in this book the central theme seems to be making the best of your circumstances. There is no glossing over the difficulties of growing up in poverty. Smith’s descriptions can be quite brutally direct, but there also is no loss of hope, without judging those who do in some ways give up.

Betty Smith is incredibly respectful and honest in her portrayal of the circumstances and lives of the poor immigrant community in the United States. Besides the coming of age story of Francie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also a portrait of the decade between 1910 and 1920.

Originally, Eva and I meant to read this book together, but Eva decided to stop reading about halfway through, because she didn’t enjoy it much. One thing she said stuck with me, and that is the fact that Smith seems to favour telling over showing. I was loving the atmosphere of the book, I was loving the descriptions, and I had written down a ton a quotes. When Eva mentioned this aspect though, I could not help but notice it a little too. In part, this may have been because the third part of the novel became a little slow to me at one point. Nevertheless, I can’t help but love this novel. And to feel for Francie. And to want to hug this book close.

And so I will repeat what everyone has told me all those years: if you have not read this yet, you should give it a try. I think you might just love it.

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Starters by Lissa Price

Starters - Lissa PriceStarters – Lissa Price
Delacorte, Random House Children’s Books, March 2012
Review Copy from Netgalley


This book is probably going to explode on the blogosphere soon. Perhaps it has already. Given the hype on GoodReads, I’d say its safe to assume that there are many more posts about this book coming up. I was actually kind of glad that I started reading this book before I noticed all the enthousiasm on GoodReads. I came to this novel with my usual expectations when it comes to dystopian novels: a little apprehensive, a mixture of high hopes and fear of disappointment. You never know what you’re going to get. Starters was, by and large, a pleasant surprise.

Starters is about Callie, a girl who has lost her parents in the Spore Wars; a war that wiped out every adult between twenty and sixty. In a world with teens (starters) and people ranging from age 60 to 150 (enders), teens who are unclaimed by any enders hide out on the streets, fighting for a scrap to eat, or get rounded up to work as slaves. Callie is hiding, and trying to take care of her little brother Tyler, together with her friend Michael. Tyler is sickly, and Callie is forced to go to Prime Destinations in an effort to make a comfortable home for her brother. Prime Destinations is an institution that lends out bodies of starters to enders, so that they are able to experience youth again. Although Callie finds the idea creepy, she thinks it will enable her to save Tyler, Michael, and herself. However, throughout the book she finds out that both her renter (to whom she donates her body), and Prime Destinations, are not what they seem, [when her chip malfunctions and she wakes up in the life of her renter].

Overall, Starters is a fast read. And it is creepy. So creepy. I felt highly uncomfortable and on edge while reading this book. That feeling was enhanced by the knowledge that I could not find any spoilers to make me feel more at ease, because the book hasn’t been officially released yet. The pacing is just right, especially in the first and latter part of the book. In the middle, things felt a little more stalled, and many plot points were a little too convenient: the introduction of characters, the resolution of problems, some of which had me question “why didn’t you think of this before? why wasn’t this possible before? why is it suddenly an option now?”

There is a lot of potential in Starters, not all of which came out. I would have liked a little more background information to the world building: What exactly are the spore wars? Why are there so many unclaimed starters in a world where people are able to age past 100? How come people act as if they are not aware, or do not care, about the unclaimed starters? I also would have prefered more of a glimpse into the questions of aging, immortality, and the pros and cons of it. There is a hint of discomfort on both sides, but it could be explored more. I have high hopes that some of these questions will come up in the second installment, that I am looking forward to.

Overall, Starters was an enjoyable and thrilling read, and I am sure it is going to be a hit. Nevertheless, I felt it could have been more, which kept me from outright loving it.

Other Opinions: Minding Spot, Killin’ Time Reading, Books With Bite, Book Twirps, Presenting Lenore.
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The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

The Diary of a Provincial Lady - E.M. DelafieldThe Diary of a Provincial Lady – E.M. Delafield
Virago Modern Classics, 2008

Originally published 1930

After loving Consequences so much last year, and hearing so much praise about this book from other bloggers (although not everyone loved it) I just *had* to read it. I very much enjoyed reading The Diary of a Provincial Lady, though my love for it is not as strong as that of some others. I feel that, perhaps, it was overshadowed a little by my love for Consequences.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy this. Nor could I help but fall for the provincial lady’s way with words and the cadence of her diary entries, which, as Thomas pointed out, “brilliantly capture the episodic, shorthanded cadence so typical of how one thinks about things. Not always in lovely complete sentences, but short bursts of thought, like thousands of brain synapses firing directly onto the page.” The book is humorous and had me laughing repeatedly. I can imagine this working as quite a good “pick me up” book on days when you need a little comfort.

What I enjoyed about The Diary of a Provincial Lady is that it is funny in a sympathetic manner. It manages to poke fun at the characters without losing the reader’s sympathy for the Lady or the other characters. It reminded me a little of Henrietta’s War in the gentle mocking of neighbours, while Delafield, like Joyce Dennys, does not shy away from laughing at the Provincial Lady herself.

There are moments when the age of the book shows. It shows in some of its charms, but also in its seeming acceptance of class and gender boundaries. There is the endless issues surrounding her overdraft and spending too much money, there are the complaints about a male servant, questions of how to maintain boundaries with servants, there are the times when the lady, through her minor complaints, seems to take her position and lifestyle for granted. However, I wonder if this isn’t part of the comedic nature of the book as well, is not the reader supposed to see the absurdity of some of these complaints? I don’t know. In part, these topics made me feel a little uncomfortable. On the other hand, the reader is often invited to laugh at them.

Besides humourous, the lady can also be very observant and reflective. There are hints of tentatively questions why it is accepted that servants will always be servants, there is many a time when she reflects on the absurdity of social standards and the pretence of her lifestyle, or moments when she questions her role as a woman:

“Query, mainly rhetorical: Why are nonprofessional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”? Answer comes there none.”

or:

“Lady B. at once adds that she always advises girls to marry, no matter what the man is like, as any husband is better than none, and there are not nearly enough to go round.
I immediately refer to Rose’s collection of distinguished Feminists, giving her to understand that I know them all well and intimately, and have frequently discussed the subject with them. Lady B. waves her hand–(in elegant white kid, new, not cleaned)–and declares That may be all very well, but if they could have got husbands they wouldn’t be Feminists. I instantly assert that all have had husbands, and some two or three. This may or may not be true, but have seldom known stronger homicidal impulse.”

The interactions between Lady B. and “The Provincial Lady” were particularly entertaining as they included many of the above type of back and forth, in which, somehow, Lady B. always manages to have the last word, using remarks on the other lady’s  being well-read or intelligent as a way to cut her off or make her opinion less important.

In short: there is much to love in The Diary of a Provincial Lady. I particularly enjoyed the comedy and observations in which no one is overlooked or “right”. At the same time, however much I enjoyed reading this, I think I may prefer Delafield’s more tragic Consequences to this comedy. They are difficult to compare, really, since they are so different in tone and style. Whereas that novel compelled me to keep on reading, I was more comfortable dipping in and out of Diary. I think it is just that sort of book: a book that you are able to read in one go, or quite comfortably read a few pages at a time.

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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Read Along: Part I

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke

Admittedly, it took me some time to get into this book, especially since its size kept me from reading comfortably in bed, but now that I have finished part I, I am impatient to read on, almost to the extent of wishing the next dates for volume II and III would be sooner.

I very much enjoy the language, it reminds me so much of Jane Austen (not a very original observation, I know). Some of the sentences read just like her, her ridicule of almost every characters’ better and worse qualities reminded me of Austen, and there was a moment when Arabella Woodhope is described in a manner that made me think that she could very well be a different take on Elizabeth Bennet:

“She was about twenty-two years of age. In repose her looks were only moderately pretty. There was very little about her face and figure that was in any way remarkable, but it was the sort of face which, when animated by conversation or laughter, is completely transformed. She had a lively disposition, a quick mind and a fondness for the comical. She was always very ready to smile and, since a smile is the most becoming ornament that any lady can wear, she had been known upon occasion to outshine women who were acknowledged beauties in three countries.”

More than this description of her looks, it was her gentle mocking of Jonathan Strange that reminded me of Elizabeth. I really hope Arabella will be a recurring character in part II and III of the book, because I think I will like her.

As for Mr Norrell, I am not sure I like him. He seems a little arrogant and self-protective, doesn’t he? Nevertheless, I find it very entertaining to read about him, which just shows that sometimes characters can be very unlikeable but still interesting subjects for stories. I think that for all the characters he meets, I feel the most sorry for the girl he raises from the death. The other people he interacts with all seem to be faulty to such a degree that I cannot feel sorry for them.

It are the magical touches to a “real world” that I find very interesting up to now. The footnotes perfectly contribute to that feeling, with the citation of fake sources that all belong to that world. It seems a rather interesting way to discuss “fact and fiction” in literature.

I have read something about people finding it strange that for a book titled “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell”, the first named character is only introduced so late in the book. In a way, I can completely understand the feeling. However, I have been puzzling over the question if that is true, exactly. It is in the last chapter of part I that we first truly begin to learn of Jonathan’s character, but it is around page 160 that he is introduced as the son of his mean and stingy father. Furthermore, he is mentioned in footnotes from the very start, his biography being one of the main sources cited throughout the first part. Again, such an interesting structure!

There is one more thing that stood out to me, and that was the manner in which Susanna Clarke subverts expectations pertaining to categorisations such as male-female, white-black, upper-lower class. She does so in a manner that I found very interesting. At times she reifies expectations and then continues to mock them, or she outlines divisions between any of these categories, before having characters unite on other fronts. The divide between London and country servants is an example, who unite over their fear of magic. Or the discussion of who decides what “proper magic” is. Most interesting to me was the story about the servant Stephen. The manner in which the fact that he is allowed to lead the household is first described to mark the forward character of Sir Walter, before the fairy character then implies in which ways Walter only uses his treatment of Stephen as a way to further his own interests, while keeping him in the position of a servant. But then, the fairy-character offers him princedom in a manner that does not take Stephen’s own wishes into account, which is another manner of establishing dominance, perhaps? Also, the fact that Stephen in the neighbourhood gossip is established as a former prince was interesting [and admittedly, entertaining], I thought, since it appeals to the “noble savage” myth and reminded me of Oroonoko in some ways.

Anyway, enough of my own ramblings. What did you think?

How do you like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell so far? How do you feel about Mr. Norrell? Is there any character you are particularly interested in? How do you feel about the structure and style of the book so far?

Feel free to engage with my questions, or talk about anything else in your own posts/comments!

[For the sign-up post, see here. This post also includes a list of tentative participants and a reading schedule. You are still very welcome to join in whatever way you want! Have you posted your thoughts on part I, leave me a comment with the link and I will link up to your thoughts]

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Monsters of Men - Patrick NessMonsters of Men – Patrick Ness
Walker Books, 2010

Who expected anything other than me loving this book after my enthousiasm about the first and second installment of the Chaos Walking series? I thought so. And you are right, of course. I love this series. I want everyone to read it, but at the same time I am scared that someone will find fault with it, because I am not sure if I can remain impartial in that kind of debate. I may take it personally. I know, that sounds ridiculous, but, unfortunately, I really think it may be true. I will add that Monsters of Men did not surpass my love for the second book in the series, but then, what could top The Ask and The Answer? Actually, I think this may the book I liked the least of the series. And yet I loved it to death. There you have it, another glowing, gushing review from me, because I honestly couldn’t do anything but, because of how fiercely I feel about this story, its themes, and its characters.

In my post about The Ask and The Answer I said that I felt “war makes monsters of men” was the central theme of the series. To some extent, this is true, but at the same time the humanity that can be found in anyone, despite the monstrosity of war, despite how much you’d like there to be a “big bad”, may be more dominant in the book. If this series portrays anything, it is the ambiguity of any situation. How we would like to pick sides, and be right, but how no one is ever just “evil” or “good”. This perspective is underlined through the multiple narratives in this third installment, enabling the reader to get an even broader view of the situation than just having Viola and Todd as narrators in the second book. There are traces of good, and evil, and being caught up in circumstances and ideologies on “your” side, to every narrator of the story. The ambiguity of war is further underlined in many dialogues, in which the perspective of the people at hand is always an important factor. For example:

“…as far as any objective observer can see, the President is a mass murderer and Mistress Coyle is a terrorist.”
“I’m a general,” the Mayor says.
“And I’m fighting for freedom,” says Mistress Coyle.

On the personal interests tied up with any grander scheme of war:

“But you can’t make war personal,” I say, “or you’ll never make the right decisions.”
“And if you didn’t make personal decisions, you wouldn’t be a person. All war is personal somehow, isn’t it? For somebody? Except it’s usually hate.”
“Lee—”
“I’m just saying how lucky he is to have someone love him so much they’d take on the whole world.” His Noise is uncomfortable, wondering what I’m looking like, how I’m responding. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“He’d do it for me,” I say quietly.
I’d do it for you too, Lee’s Noise says.
And I know he would.
But those people who die because we do it, don’t they have people who’d kill for them?
So who’s right?

Ambiguity is caught in the characters and the development of them in this third book too. Todd, Viola, the third narrator (which I won’t name to avoid spoilers?) all make decisions that could be labeled “wrong”, and yet you manage to feel and sympathise with them. That is the power of this series, in showing that there is never an absolute right or wrong, that the personal may necessitate decisions that are wrong on a larger scale, or the other way around, that on both sides people believe, and hurt, and die. Ness manages to get the ambiguous nature of humanity and war across because he does not shy away from the more painful descriptions of casualties and full-on battle, but he also never forgets the personal side to the story.

Just a few things I loved about this series:

  • ambiguity; the creation of artificial divisions to enable discussion of them, to enable the portrayal of humanity across gender, class, and ethnic lines.
  • the role of love in any form: friendship, family, relationships that are just developing or that are old, and the portrayal of gay relationships as completely natural. No big fuzz surround them, no “pom-pom-di-dom, here comes the big reveal”, no need to discuss them, they are just there. I may love the fact that they are not made problematic even more, since they are part of what was originally a religious settler community.
  • Animals. I cannot get over the noise of animals. Manchee, the “boy colt” -s and “submit” from the horses that enable you to learn about the nature of the people taking care of them in just a few syllables…
  • It does not shy from the difficult, the painful, and the beautiful. Ness chose to portray a society in all its aspects, without sugar coating any of it because it was written for Young Adults.

[spoilers]

Two spoiler-y things that I would like to discuss. First, the return of Ben. There was a moment there, when he was re-introduced, when I was angry at Ness. “Why do you do this, now I need to worry about another person, and surely you will kill him off, and I do not need the extra drama, because there is so much here already!” But in the end, I appreciated his introduction all the more. Todd needed Ben to comfort him into knowing that despite his mistakes and misinterpretations, and the blame he will carry with him, he did the best he could. Furthermore, Ben’s position as a “bridge” between both societies, his ability to learn and adapt to the information overload in a non-violent way.. [Can I just add that I loved that for once, it wasn’t the “white, male, and dominant” society that won out, but it was shown that adaption and learning from eachother can be worthwhile, how perhaps, the “ethnic other” has a valuable lifestyle, that may be the healthier approach?]

Second, Todd. That ending. For once I am the optimist and I believe he will heal. He has to heal. But I do not blame Ness for another round of ambiguous endings. I think it was rather perfect to end on the note of division between hope and the loss of such an important character in the book.

[/spoilers]

I am rather afraid that this post does nothing but reiterate again and again how much I loved this series. As I said to Ana on twitter yesterday, my review can be summarised as:

Writing Monsters of Men post right now. It kind of looks like this “gush, gush, gush, loved it, loved it, write more plz mr. Ness”

But all of it is true. I firmly believe the Chaos Walking series is (one of) the best things that happened to Young Adult lit. It is also the series that I will remember for a long time as one of the most important and beautiful of the last few years in my personal reading life.

Now, if only we could start a lobby to have any Dutch publisher publish the translation of this series. I can’t believe that hasn’t happened yet!

Other Opinions: Vulpes Libris, Things Mean A Lot, Bart’s Bookshelf, Book Journey, Rhapsody in Books, It’s All About Books, Life With Books, There’s A Book, Jenny’s Books, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Presenting Lenore, Rat’s Reading, You’ve GOTTA Read This, Books, Time, and Silence, Book Addiction, Coffee Spoons, Page247, Bookish Blather, Book Harbinger, Stuff as Dreams are Made On, Sci-Fi Fan Letter, thebookbind, Alita Reads, Regular Rumination, Librarian’s Book Reviews, In Which Our Hero, Eclectic/Eccentric, The Written World, Lindy Reads and Reviews.
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