"A Tree Grows In Brooklyn"

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This is yet another one of those books I've been hearing about all my life but never got around to reading. No real reason, it just never fell into my path. When I started reading book blogs, it was everywhere. It always got good reviews so I found a copy at a used book store and threw in in my pile.

I finally got around to reading it a couple of weeks ago, and oh my it was really good. I couldn't put it down. The story hooks you and reels you in with writing so good that you don't even notice it. That's so refreshing. Description and dialogue flow naturally so both story and characters develop at a good pace.

The setting is Brooklyn, NY, 1912. Francie, the main character, is 11 years old when the story starts and 17 when it closes and is one of the more memorable characters I've read in a while. I guess this is a "coming of age" story, but I hate to use that term. I don't know why I dislike it so much, but I tend to not read a book if that's how it has been described to me. Just one more of a long list of reading quirks I seem to operate by.

Francie's story is enjoyable to read because she doesn't waste any time feeling sorry for herself. She and her brother, Neely, make the best of whatever comes their way. They live in poor and always unpredictable circumstances but they live, really live, every moment, and they live it with hope. It's that hope that is never lost or abandoned that makes Francie and her family so very endearing. Francie is smart, funny and vibrant. I love her tenacity, her refusal to let life break her spirit and her quiet acceptance of all the little (and the big) idiosyncracies of her family members.

I like that the tone of the book stays positive through all the hardships yet never becomes sappy. It is realistic, neither a fairy tale nor fatalism. I'm finding so many books, old and new, that have nothing to offer but hopelessness. Pointlessness. Sometimes it seems like the more jaded or cynical the author, the more the book is esteemed. On the other end of that spectrum are books that are nauseatingly sweet. Characters are one dimensional, the plot never thickens, and everybody lives happily ever after. I don't like those any better than the hopeless ones. I like them like this one, real, sometimes even gritty, but still finding good in people and beauty in the world.    

I think this is one book I will read again one day. It's a great choice for anyone looking for a good story and a positive outcome. I most definitely recommend it.

"A Homemade Life"

A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

 What an enjoyable book to read! The friend who loaned it to me is one of a handful of people whose recommendations I always read, and I don't recall ever being disappointed. This is one more I'm glad she told me about.

This is a memoir, and a recipe book, and it's successful at both. The stories the author tells about her family and friends are well told and interesting enough that you really want to know more. Well, except for that one story about how and to whom she lost her virginity. I didn't need to know that. Call me old-fashioned but I still think private things are best left private.

There are a lot of impressive recipes here. As I read each one (they are scattered throughout the book at chapter endings) I made a note of the ones I wanted to try for myself. Then I realized I was actually making a note of every single recipe in the book. They sound that good. And that's without pictures.

The ones I finally settled on are: Blueberry and Raspberry Pound Cake, Fresh Ginger Cake with Caramelized Pears, Jimmy's Pink Cookies, Cream-braised Green Cabbage and Caramelized Cauliflower. Just writing the words makes me hungry. The one I'm most looking forward to is the Caramelized Cauliflower (strange I know. Not the recipe, me, for anticipating cauliflower more than Fresh Ginger Cake with Caramelized Pears). I love cauliflower, but let's face it, it's boring. Unless you bury in it cheese sauce and most of the time that's just too much work/too many calories.

Molly Wizenberg writes a blog that I haven't had a chance to check out yet. It's at www.orangette.blogspot.com. You can probably get a good idea of what the book is like from the blog. All in all I found it a lovely read and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves cooking and/or memoirs.

"Never Cry Wolf"

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

I have no idea why I haven't read Farley Mowat before, but I am sure I'll be reading more. Very well written and entertaining as well, "Never Cry Wolf" is the story of Mowat's Arctic adventure as a biologist with the Canadian Government. He was sent to study the wolves the government believed were responsible for the diminishing caribou population. His assignment was to find a solution for "the wolf problem".

One of the review blurbs on the first page says "...even if you don't give a hang about wolves or the arctic you will enjoy this book...", a sentiment I can wholeheartedly agree with. I don't particularly like either the Arctic climate or animals (don't condemn me, I do rather enjoy kittens), especially wolves, but I loved this book.

The only reason I picked this book up is because in July I signed up for the Canadian Book Challenge and in choosing books for that, my guilt over never having read this well-loved Canadian author was stirred up. I did my duty, read the book...and fell in love. Now I want to read everything Mowat has written.

He's interesting, honest, easy to read and he has a delicious sense of humor. Interested in wolves or not, I found myself fascinated by his story. So fascinated, in fact, that I forgot to make notes and underline quotable passages as I read, so I don't have much to offer except to say it's a delight to read.

I may not be a convert to the Arctic or to wolves, but I am definitely a convert to Farley Mowat. I loved this book and can recommend it to pretty much everyone of any age.

This is my 6th book for the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by John at Book Mine Set

"Christmas Treasury"

Christmas Treasury by Louisa May Alcott

I know it's a little early for Christmas books, but our book club chose this for our November selection so here we are. And besides I'm accumulating such a collection of "read this every Christmas" books that there isn't time in December for all of them anymore. I'm going to have to start earlier or give some of them up.

If you loved "Little Women" then you will probably love this collection of Christmas stories too. They are each centered around a young girl, and are sweet, wholesome and altogether lovely. Each one delivers a moral lesson, but it's done gently and isn't preachy. It's everything we know and love about Louisa May Alcott.

Unfortunately I don't think this was a good time for me to read this one. I simply haven't been in the right frame of mind and so didn't enjoy the stories as much as I should have.

I will make a point of reading them again, closer to Christmas, and I know I'll find them as touching and satisfying as I ought to then. I'll let them convince me that right always wins, that good always comes to those who do good, and that hard work is always rewarded. I want to believe those things and it's easier at Christmastime. The beautiful music, the sentimental movies and stories all tend to soften our hearts and for a few weeks we believe in a world that sparkles and shines. We know that come January we will go back to the real world, where good things do happen, but not all the time and people are good, but not all the time. It's fun to take a break from those realities in December and let down the walls we build to protect ourselves. At Christmastime we open up and let life be what we want it to be all year round. The stories in this book will be perfect then.

"Christmas Treasury" would be a lovely gift for any reader. It has a very nice red hard cover and a beautiful glossy dust jacket. From little girls to grandmothers, I think any girl would enjoy reading this collection.

"Of Human Bondage"

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

After finishing this book I feel the way a marathon runner must feel when he crosses the finish line. It took every ounce of perseverance I could dredge up to stick with it to the end.

The first thirty or so chapters were rather dull. For a long time, a very long time, none of the characters seemed to grow or learn anything or change in any way. They lived by their feelings, consequences never considered, thinking only of their own instant gratification.  For a while I thought I was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray again. Then, happily, the setting changed to France and that piqued my interest for a while longer.

At this point, Philip Carey, the main character, begins a series of strange relationships and makes so many bad decisions he should have won a prize for the sheer volume of them. He falls passionately in love with the most unsuitable woman on earth and allows that passion to rule him for years. The woman, Mildred, uses him viciously and breaks his heart over and over again. She is one of the most selfish characters I have met in literature. 

Maugham doesn't have much good to say about women. At one point a friend of Philip's says:"I don't think that women ought to sit down at table with men. It ruins conversation and I'm sure it's very bad for them. It puts ideas in their heads and women are never at ease with themselves when they have ideas."

Later he makes this statement about women in hospitals (attributed to Philip, but it sounded more like the author's own voice): "Like everyone connected with hospitals he found that male patients were more easy to get on with than female. The women were often querulous and ill-tempered. They complained bitterly of the hard-worked nurses, who did not show them the attention they thought their right and they were troublesome, ungrateful and rude."  Well, ok then.

I got frustrated waiting for Philip to grow up. He kept shooting himself in the foot then wringing his hands in despair over his own bad judgment. By then I was wringing my own hands in despair and questioning how much longer I wanted to read disappointment, discouragement and misery.

Then....ta da!....Philip began to look within himself, waxing philosophical and gleaning some wisdom from life. I also found some great lines which helped considerably. About three quarters of the way through these seven hundred and sixty pages, Philip began to grow on me. He had hit rock bottom, often the place where humans begin to grow up, and the book took on a more positive tone. Once it became more fun to read, it ended.

Just as your children only leave home after they get through the roller-coaster teen years and become pleasant, functioning adults you like having around, so this book ended with Philip's life changing for the good as he matured. The reader is given every sad detail of his misery, then is left alone with the assurance that things would be better now. So unfair. I wanted there to be another chapter or two about his life now that the future held some promise. I wanted to experience happy Philip. Alas, it was not to be.

I thoroughly enjoyed Maugham's writing. I wondered at times if he was a tad pretentious, or maybe he does just actually have a formidable vocabulary and know how to use it. These gave me pause and sent me running for the dictionary: "With the spring, Hayward grew dithyrambic." and "...he found an unexpected fascination in listening to meta-physical disquisitions."
Really? Dithyrambic?

Some of the great quotes I will take away from this book:

"He formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading; he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life. "

"One mark of a writer's greatness is that different minds can find in him different inspirations."

"But he had a feeling that life was to be lived rather than portrayed, and he wanted to search out the various experiences of it and wring from each moment all the emotion that it offered."

And my favorite:

"Kant thought things not because they were true but because he was Kant."  I love it.

Of Human Bondage is worth reading. It may take some patience as it did for me, or maybe you'll be able to get into it from the very beginning. Either way I think you'll find it worth your time in the end. I'm glad I read it. And I'm glad it's over.