Unfiltered Coming of Age: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – by Betty Smith

Classic Literature, Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Romance

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows Francie Rommely as she grows up, living in an immigrant community in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. Her family are poor, eating a limited diet and keeping to a frugal lifestyle. Like so many in their neighbourhood, Francie’s father takes his Sunday suit to the pawnbroker’s every week, and Francie dreams of someday buying a book for herself rather than borrowing one from the library. A Tree, however, does not urge you to pity the poor or feel guilty about your affluence, nor does it romanticise poverty. Francie’s mother, Katie, exemplifies that dignity and hard work are far more precious to many than free hand-outs or sympathy; the strong woman is driven by the desire to better herself and her family, and would never accept charity. This book is about growing up, facing challenges and hardships, and coming to your own conclusions about life and the world. Francie, in all of her flawed, human self, is intelligent, honest and thoughtful; I dream to be half the person she is and becomes.

When I started A Tree, I was distracted, and was not hooked; I forced myself to read it when I had nothing else to do. The book became more engaging once Francie began to experience difficulties – her mother’s evident favouritism for Francie’s brother, Neeley; the death of her beloved father; the teacher who told her to write about beauty rather than her complex life in poverty. (These mentions do not spoil the book, either, as it’s no thriller – A Tree moves at the natural pace of life and memories, and there are few plot surprises.) I found myself moved by Francie’s realisations about how life is passed on and enriched through inheritance of traits and looks, and was inspired by her experience with her teacher and consequent discarding of all things deemed ‘beautiful’ and quaint. These, coupled with her profound and honest insights about life, make Francie wise, insightful and rounded.

For the most part, she lives an ordinary life. But her experiences are richly depicted so they seem real yet fascinating, reminding me of Francie’s comments on story-writing and ’embellishing’ the truth (although I don’t believe that this is what the author did, especially as the story is semi-autobiographical). Some ideas are naive and idealistic, but they’re also heart-warming, hearkening to the nostalgia and familiarity of the American Dream; I don’t believe there is any real harm in believing in the unlikely, especially as Francie herself (and the author) grows up to be successful.

In the old country, a man is given to the past. Here he belongs to the future. In this land, he may be what he will, if he has the good heart and the way of working honestly at the right things.

If you’re looking for a captivating book, do not read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; the power of this book is in its authentic characters and the universal experiences they share. This book is equally suitable for a child as for an adult – enjoy!

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Medium/Slow

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

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Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)

Buy on Amazon (US)

Far from the Madding Crowd – By Thomas Hardy

Classic Literature, Romance

This book is about how the lives of four people – Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdene, William Boldwood and Frank Troy – with different backgrounds and aspirations intertwine, charting their relationships through different circumstances.

I have never felt so relieved to have finished a book – Far from the Madding Crowd is ‘thick’ and heavy, despite its short length. Although it isn’t too slow-paced, or wordy, I struggled to maintain an interest in it. The cause of its insipidity is its topic: despite the beautiful romantic story suggested by the blurb, this book is about everyday life, and love, in rural England. Bathsheba Everdene, the centre of so much attention, has ordinary thoughts and feelings, most of which are self-absorbed. Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer – and my favourite of Bathsheba’s ‘suitors’ (or hopeful admirers) – is humble and understated in the way he lives his life. The only characters that seem somewhat fantastical come to their tragic ends through the course of the story. Perhaps this suggests the underrated value in living an ordinary, honourable life – sometimes, the most safe, boring option is the one that will make you happiest.

I felt compelled to read this book, knowing it to be a largely beloved classic; there is something distinctly rewarding in reading a ‘respected’ book, despite this being a poor reason for reading one. Nevertheless, I started it, determined not only to read it, but enjoy it. But frankly, I was disappointed: I tried to like it, but as I wasn’t gripped, I found it hard to pick up. I forced myself to read a couple pages every day, ploughing through it slowly and reluctantly. It wasn’t until the end that I finally began to enjoy it, when the plot gained momentum and exciting events occurred in succession. If it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t recommend the book at all: more than once, I came close to putting it down.

Far from the Madding Crowd is Marmite: some rave about it, whilst others think it tedious. I’m not sure which I fit under – I found a lot of it hard-going, but by the end wished I had savoured it. Overall, it’s a great, well-written book, but must be read with patience: eventually, it is rewarding. It’s good for people who like old classics for their language and history, but don’t want too long a book (and don’t mind a drawn-out, sometimes monotonous plot).

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAA

Pace: Slow

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Harper Lee’s New Book: Go Set A Watchman

Classic Literature, Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Legal Fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird is an outstanding book. Exquisitely written, it is a book that saddens and yet heartens concurrently, leaving a warm, contented feeling, despite its less-than-happy ending for underdog Tom Robinson. However, the book’s uplifting effect on the reader comes at the expense of its realism: it touches on, yet mostly leaves unresolved, the issue of racism.

Go Set a Watchman, conversely, attempts to tackle racism; to explain it. Set 20 years after To Kill a MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman is again narrated by Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, at the age of twenty-six. She’s returning home from New York to visit her ageing father, Atticus. Set amidst the civil rights movement and the political unrest transpiring in the South, Jean Louise’s routine visit becomes regrettable when she learns jarring realities about her family, the town and the people she loves. Scout continues her narrative – written before, yet set after Mockingbird – resolute in her sense of right and wrong. She discovers to her horror that her father – until then revered as her beacon of morality – holds the same bigoted views that he had seemed to castigate. As Jean Louise loses grasp of her values, and assumed truths, she looks to her past for signs of what she had been blind to all along: that her father was not the ‘perfect’ person she thought he was.

Despite its mixed reviews and reactions, I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman. It’s a well-needed ‘wake-up call’ from the dream-like, simplistic world of To Kill a Mockingbird; Scout matures, and Watchman is the grown-up, ‘real’ story. It is said that much of To Kill a Mockingbird is a product of Lee’s editor, who knew that a more fantastical book based on the same story would sell better than a more ‘realistic’ one: perhaps he realised that people like reading something that makes them feel better about themselves. Who can say if this rumour is true, but I do think that the books seem completely different: Watchman is less a sequel, and more an elaboration on Mockingbird.

As the book progresses, Jean Louise’s disturbed and confused reaction to the news that her family is, in some ways, just like every other in Maycomb (their town), is an empathetic coming-of-age disillusionment with the world; disenchantment with childhood role models that many readers – myself included – could remember themselves feeling, despite different circumstances. Go Set a Watchman tries to make sense, to portray the experience of living in a small town in the South; it explains how hard it was to speak up, and stand up for what they think is right. Without excusing their guilt or sense of wrongdoing, it explores the intent behind their actions: it is natural to oppose political change. The book offers a comprehensible perspective of the South.

Watchman failed to explain conclusively the South’s opposition to the Civil Rights Movement – but perhaps this was intended: there is no simple, ‘correct’ answer; rather, one can only presume their mind-sets. This is a great book that offers context, depth and nuance to a beloved classic.

I commend this book to all, but particularly if you have read To Kill a Mockingbird. You would enjoy both of these books if you are interested in the Civil Rights Movement in America, from the viewpoint of a liberal, white Southern young woman. It’s a little slow-paced, because of all the flashbacks, but hardly hard to read. In fact, it’s incredibly readable, especially for the sequel to a classic.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAAA

Pace: Medium/Slow

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Buy at Waterstones

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)