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review 2016-07-10 23:28
#CBR8 Book 74: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith

Francie Nolan grows up in the tenements of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York in the early years of the 20th Century. The granddaughter of German and Irish immigrants, Francie and her younger brother Neeley (real name Cornelius) grow up dirt poor, but thankfully don't really realise it until they get older. Their mother, Katie, works hard as a janitress to make sure they have a place to stay and food on the table. Their father, Johnny, is handsome and charming, a gifted singer, and a drunk. He works as a singing waiter when he can, but is too unreliable to hold down a steady job. Francie and Neeley help out as best they can, collecting junk and selling it for pennies.


The daughter and sister of women who never even learned how to read and write, Katie Nolan values education above all, and is determined that both of her children are going to get educated, whatever the cost. Even before the children are literate themselves, she reads them a page from the Bible and from the collected works of Shakespeare. Francie is quiet and bookish and loves the local library, determined to read her way through every book on the shelves, from A to Z. She reads a book a day and does well in school, so well that the family lie about her address so she can go to a better school in a more prosperous part of town. 


Francie works hard to do well in school, but has to get a job rather than go to high school, or her family can't manage. She doesn't give up on her dream of going to college eventually, though, and through perseverance and determination, slowly manages to achieve her goals.


I'm sure a lot of American teenagers possibly read this book at some point during their school years. Written in the 1940s, when it wouldn't have been as much of a historical novel as it is now, it is a wonderful, if very sad and affecting, portrayal of what growing up poor in Brooklyn pre-World War I would have been like. It's a book that doesn't shy away from showing the harsh realities of being poor and hungry, but it's not an utterly miserable book, by any means. The Nolan children may not have a lot of money, but they are taught to be responsible, work hard and they have their pride. Katie Nolan doesn't take charity from anyone and when her husband, who she stole away from her best friend because Katie just knew she had to have him, turns out to be weak and unreliable, well, then she just shoulders more of the burden of providing for the family. Johnny Nolan may be a drunk, but he's never violent, abusive or cruel and he does what he can to take care of his wife and children.


As she grows older, it becomes very obvious to Francie that her mother will always love Neeley best, and she quietly resents her mother for this fact. At the same time, she herself admits that she loves her father more, as he seems to see her and understand her in a way her mother never could. She's a fairly lonely child, finding it hard to trust women other than her closest kin, having seen the judgemental nature of many of the women in the neighbourhood. Living mainly in her books, she nonetheless sees the realities of life and the frailties of human nature all around her in the tenements and in the marriages of her parents and aunts. 


Even with snatches of humour and the occasional hint of levity, the book really is very sad for a lot of the story, because there is nothing nostalgic or romantic about being the working poor. As Francie comes of age, she is fully aware how often she and her family are judged, and hard they must work just to make ends meet, let alone to put something aside for a rainy day. She comes to share her mother's opinion that education is the way out of poverty and does her very best to excel in school. 


This book made me smile, it made me sad, and towards the end, it made me actually sob, because I had been so engrossed in the story that I didn't want it to end. About two thirds of the way through, the story was getting so grim and I was so despondent that I spoiled the rest of the story on Wikipedia. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to read to the end if I didn't know that things were going to get better for the Nolans eventually. 


A wonderful coming of age story, chronicling a very real past, with a wonderful set of characters. Francie's immediate and extended family are all wonderful. This book is a beloved classic for a reason. It's a sad and emotional reading experience, but is not relentlessly bleak all the way through and there is hope and a promise of a better life for the surviving characters at then end of the story. 


Judging a book by its cover: The version I read has a simple and elegant cover, with the major colours being green (along the spine) and brown, towards the bottom of the book and reflected in the font used for the title. There is a faint sketch of a tree behind the title, also done in greens. It's a good cover, if nothing flashy or too exciting.

Source: kingmagu.blogspot.no/2016/07/cbr8-book-74-tree-grows-in-brooklyn-by.html
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review 2016-07-03 23:16
#CBR8 Book 68: Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis
Auntie Mame - Patrick Dennis,Paul Rudnick,Michael Tanner

After little Patrick's father dies, he is left to the care of his eccentric and adventurous aunt, Mame. His childhood goes from one of routine and order to one rather more unusual, and over the course of his adolescence and early adulthood, his colourful Auntie Mame keeps providing him with amazing anecdotes. Each chapter starts with the author reading about some saintly spinster from New England who took in an orphan, leading to his own recollections of his life with his aunt. Suffice to say, anything the spinster did in the Digest article he's reading, Mame did too, only more elaborately and with a lot more hijinks.


While little Patrick's father wanted him raised with a proper, conservative education, Mame tries to enrol him at an experimental school, which enrages the head of his financial trust enough that he's sent off to boarding school. Mame eventually marries a fabulously wealthy Southern gentleman and does her best to become a proper Southern Belle, and where ordinary mortals may have broken their necks, she impresses the entire neighbourhood by staying on the back of an absolute monster of a horse throughout a long hunt.


When she is sadly widowed, Mame is nonetheless left wealthy beyond imagining, and sets out to write her memoir, until her mousy assistant elopes with her ghost-writer. Said assistant is then left pregnant and distraught, with Mame showing up shortly before Patrick's graduation from St. Boniface's Academy, absolutely careless of any danger to his academic record or reputation, determined that together they will help bring forth the unfortunate child to the world.


During his college years, Mame's lavish parties greatly impress Patrick's college chums, and as he grows older, his free-spirited and outrageous aunt does her best to try to help him smoothly through the vagaries of romance. During the war, she nearly kills both Patrick and herself trying to foster displaced war orphans, who sadly turn out to seemingly be demons in child form. Once Patrick finally does find a wife and beget a child of his own, Mame returns after multiple year abroad to tempt her great-nephew with tales of adventure and promises of journeys to exotic locations.


Growing up in Norway, I was entirely unaware of Auntie Mame, the 1955 novel that was turned into a movie, a Broadway play and a musical (which was also filmed). My best friend Lydia gifted me the book several years ago, and I have to admit it languished on my shelves until now, when I finally picked it up and was absolutely delighted. While some of Mame's escapades had me sympathising greatly with Patrick and rolling my eyes at her more outrageous turns of phrase and crazy schemes, I was also mostly entertained throughout. The book, which is more like a collection of short stories with a common framing device, that a continuous narrative, suggests that if Dennis, who based Auntie Mame on his real life aunt, experienced even half of the things he writes about in the book, he had a very eventful coming of age, indeed.


Apparently there is a sequel as well, about Patrick and Auntie Mame's travels around the world after he graduated St. Boniface and I suspect I am going to have to read that too. Having now had the joys to finally get to know Auntie Mame, I can't wait to see what she'd get up to travelling around Europe and possibly beyond. Thank you, Lydia, I'm terribly sorry it took me so long to read the book.


Judging a book by its cover: I absolutely love the cover for this book. The cover artist, John Fontana, did SUCH a good job. The yellow background has a textured pattern, evoking a brocade wallpaper, with the decadent Mame to the right of the cover, wearing a stunning gown and dripping in pearls and jewelry, as is only right and proper for a woman of her formidable wealth. Her darling boy, Patrick is clearly only a young child, wearing his school uniform, complete with short pants and a cute little red cap. On the back cover, which is mostly red, the lovely Mame is lounging at top of the page, resting on one elbow with a martini glass in her other hand. It's a lovely touch.

Source: kingmagu.blogspot.no/2016/07/cbr8-book-68-auntie-mame-irreverant.html
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review 2016-04-10 14:52
#CBR8 Book 35: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen,Juliet Stevenson

After their father dies and leaves pretty much everything to their older half-brother, the three Misses Dashwood and their widowed mother have to find a new place to live, which isn't exactly easy with the meagre income they have. After some searching, a cousin of Mrs. Dashwood's offer them lodging in a little cottage on his estate in Devon. The eldest daughter, Elinor, admonishes them to make the best of it, but the middle sister, Marianne, is determined to be miserable. Then she meets the dashing John Willoughby, and Devon suddenly becomes the only place in the world she wishes to be.


Elinor too has a prospective suitor, Edward Ferrars, the eldest brother of her sister-in-law, but he seems most reluctant to declare himself before they leave for Devon and she comes to believe that she may have misread the situation entirely. Elinor worries about Marianne's behaviour with Willoughby and how heedlessly she throws herself into her infatuation. When he suddenly has to leave Devon, without any good explanation, she fears the worst for Marianne. 


The kind, yet frivolous Mrs. Jennings invites the eldest Dashwood girls to come to London with her, and Marianne is delighted, as it means she may be reunited with Willoughby. Elinor, on the other hand, having learned why Edward never made any real advances towards her and seemed so reticent, dreads going, because it means the possibility of having to see him and interact with a man she can likely never have.


Sense and Sensibility was the first novel Jane Austen ever published, anonymously as "A Lady". The Dashwood sisters experience loss, reduced finances, love, heartbreak and eventually happiness over the course of the novel. It was the second Austen I ever read, but unlike Pride and Prejudice and Emma, I had never re-read it as an adult woman. Obviously, one's perspective changes quite a lot in twenty years. I remember liking it a lot as a teenager (I read it during a skiing vacation with my family in the mountains, and seem to recall being told to put the book away more than once, so I could join the family in card games, rather than "being so anti-social" - story of my life), but I doubt I found Marianne quite so unbearable as I did now. Seriously, Marianne's drama-queen behaviour in this book almost ruined my enjoyment of the book. After some fairly considerable heartbreak and a life-threatening illness, she finally starts to see how self-centred and oblivious she's been, but to me, it was almost a case of too little, too late.


Elinor Dashwood more than makes up for her younger sister's impetuous and frustrating behaviour though, being a stoic and sensible rock no matter what horrible things befall her and her family. Forced to balance out not just her overly emotional sister, but on occasion her grieving mother as well, Elinor is almost superhumanly competent. In the absolutely amazing Ang Lee movie version from 1995, starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett, Elinor gets a proper emotional breakdown in one scene, which never fails to bring me to tears. Being an absolutely champion, she doesn't let it affect her for long, but picks herself up and goes on being the most capable you could imagine. In the book, the outburst is much less violent, which makes it feel as if Elinor bottles her emotions just a little bit too much than is entirely healthy. Thompson, who wrote the screenplay for the movie, allowing Elinor a proper venting of her feelings, makes the character more human and relatable. 


Much as I like this book and the lovely Elinor, Pride and Prejudice will always be my favourite. Nor do I think I can ever extricate the story from the movie version either, they are just so perfectly matched in my mind. While I was ill recently, I watched the film while in bed, probably more affected than ever before, because of the sad recent loss of Alan Rickman, who portrays Colonel Brandon so wonderfully. With him as my constant mental image of Brandon, it makes Marianne's continued failure to see his greatness even more baffling. 


I had also completely forgotten how many loathsome characters there are in this book. Really, the list is long. The girls' brother, John Dashwood, his horrid harpy of a wife, Fanny Dashwood. Her brother Robert Ferrars. Lucy Steele, and to a certain extent her sister (whose name escapes me). Willougby's aunt, although as the story progresses, her actions may be understandable. Mrs. Jennings is quite frustrating on occasion, but not really as bad as the others, and mostly, she means well and does what she can for the young ladies. She can't help being very silly, any more than Mrs. Bennett can. I seem to have repressed the number of awful people who make the Dashwood womens' lives more difficult. At least, with this being a romance, it all turns out happily in the end. 


Finally, I just want to note that I listened to this in audiobook, and Juliet Stevenson does an excellent job with the narration. She has a very arch accent that fits the story very well. I can highly recommend it as a listening experience. 

Source: kingmagu.blogspot.no/2016/04/cbr8-book-35-sense-and-sensibility-by.html
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review 2016-02-22 12:14
#CBR8 Book 19: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger

This review will contain spoilers, so if you want to avoid knowing all the details of the sparse and meaningless plot, maybe skip the first couple of paragraphs. 


Holden Caulfield is a self-important, spoiled and worthless little shit. At the start of the book, he is cooling his heels at the fourth boarding school he's been expelled from because he just can't be bothered to even try to apply himself (having failed four out of five subjects completely), and generally bitching about how phony his room mate, dorm mates and teachers are. Holden, ever heard of the pot calling the kettle black? You are that pot. Not content to waste his the money his parents spent on tuition, he also manages to lose all the fencing equipment belonging to the school before he's expelled. because apparently reading a subway map and keeping track of bags of equipment at the same time overloads the fragile little mind of special disenfranchised snowflake Holden.


Having spent a while internally bitching about some of his school friends and being jealous of their luck with the ladies, he picks a fight with his room mate and decides to leave school early, before his parents are alerted to his most recent failure. His grandmother is apparently overly generous, so he has cash to spare and goes by train to New York, where he books himself into a rather sleazy hotel. Here he proceeds to ruminate about girls he's known but never managed to hook up with (probably because they can tell a mile away that Holden is an emo narcissist with an inflated sense of his own self-worth and no apparent sense of humour) and gets beaten up by a pimp after paying a prostitute NOT to have sex with him. He also goes out drinking and hemorrhaging money all over the place. After a couple of days, when he's nearly broke, he goes home to see his little sister. Then he visits an old teacher who seems to have escaped Holden's go to judgement of being too phony, but said teacher may or may not make a pass at him, so Holden flees into the night. He then has some sort of mental breakdown and ends up in an institution, from whence he tells the entire story of the book.


As is hopefully clear from my rating of this book, I absolutely loathed this so-called piece of classic literature. I don't think I've ever seen a better example of the fact that it's not always the worthy texts that survive to become classics. I honestly have no idea how this book is lauded as a great novel or why it speaks to people even today. Holden is absolutely insufferable. He's a whiny, snivelling, spoiled and clueless little brat, who seems to think he is better than everyone around him, adults as well as kids his own age. The only hardship he's ever experienced is the death of his younger brother, apart from that, he's lived a life of ease and privilege and is determined to throw everything he is given away, because growing up is just so, you know, boring.


Not only is Holden absolutely insufferable, and very high on my list of fictional characters I want to knee in the groin and punch in the face (Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is probably still number one, closely followed by Cathy from that same book). He doesn't appear to undergo any sort of significant development over the course of the book. He starts out a horrible waste of oxygen, and ends the book the same way. The only nice thing I can find to say about him is that he loves his little sister Phoebe, who is about as great a character as Holden is awful.


I seriously, for real, do not understand what is supposed to be so great about this book. What purpose does it serve? Nothing of consequence happens. Holden is atrocious and likes to ramble on about nothing, thinking back to previous events in his life that are also fairly insignificant and amounted to very little. Like so many other teens, he feels alienated from his surroundings and doesn't fit in. Not that he does a thing to change that or to find some sort of purpose. All he does is complain and sulk, and I wanted to slap him so hard his teeth rattled. My colleagues in the English department have decided that all the higher level kids are to read this book when we're embarking on our current topic of Classics, and I just desperately hope that it reads better to teenagers than it did to me. As several of my colleagues seemed rather appalled at my vehement hate for the book, it can be their job to defend its worthiness on the curriculum. None have so far been able to explain in a satisfying way to me why this book deserves to still be read in schools or by anyone, anywhere. Sorry, Mr Salinger, your book is bad and if you weren't dead, you should feel bad. The only upside for me as a teacher that I can think of is that the kids reading the book won't be able to find a movie adaptation they can watch to cheat and thus escape the reading.


I can now tick this book off the list of "books to read before you die". I found it even more pointless and hard going than The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina (though at least, like Gatsby, it's a blessedly short book, not a massive brick like Anna), but don't loathe it with every fiber of my being like I do Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Although with all those books, I at least see what they bring to literature. This book - nothing. I'm pretty sure it's going to be the lowest rated book I read this year, so at least I got that out of the way early.

Source: kingmagu.blogspot.no/2016/02/cbr8-book-19-catcher-in-rye-by-jd.html
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review 2015-12-31 10:51
#CBR7 Book 151: Pride and Prejudice by Rosamund Pike
Pride and Prejudice - Audible Studios,Jane Austen,Rosamund Pike

Is there anyone, from barely discovered tribes in the South American rainforests, to nomadic tribes on the Mongolian steppes, who doesn't actually know the gist of the plot of this book? Just in case there are any people who have lived in a barren cave their entire life, I will attempt to summarise it the major plot beats.


Jane and Lizzie are the two eldest, prettiest and most sensible of the five Bennett sisters. Their mother is a silly and easily upset woman who wants nothing more than to see her daughters happily married. Their father would seem to mainly want to be left alone with his books (a household full of women, I can symphatize). There's also the stuffy Mary, and the boy-crazy youngest sisters, Kitty and Lydia. A rich and handsome young gentleman, Mr Bingley, moves to the area, and Mrs. Bennett is determined that he will fall in love with one of her girls. After he meets Jane, that seems very likely to happen, but after some promising encounters, the majority of the Bennett family make a dreadful spectacle of themselves at a ball and before anyone is even cured of their hangover, Bingley's two spiteful and snobbish sisters and haughty and supercilious friend, Mr. Darcy have convinced him that he imagined Jane's affection and persuaded him to return to London. Lizzie's none too surprised as she pretty much loathed Darcy at first sight.


Meanwhile Lizzie upsets her mother by refusing the proposal of the family's distant cousin, Mr Collins, who will one day inherit their house. He marries her spinster friend Charlotte Lucas instead. After some months of getting used to her friend choosing security and a home of her own at the price of being married to someone quite ridiculous, Lizzie comes to accept her friend's choice and goes to visit her at her new home. Here she runs into Mr. Darcy again and over the course of her six week long visit, she sees him quite a few times. She likes his cousin quite a bit, but is shocked speechless when Mr. Darcy proposes marriage towards the end of her stay there. He confesses that he does so against his better judgement and that he thinks her family are beneath him, but he loves her enough to overlook their difference in station. Lizzie, having recently discovered the truth behind his spiriting away Bingley and breaking Jane's heart, as well as believing Darcy financially ruined a childhood friend, wastes no time telling the man exactly how appalled she is and tells him to stuff his proposal. He's offended, but writes her a comprehensive letter explaining his side of the story with regards to the accusations she flings at him, and once Lizzie calms down sufficiently, she starts to wonder if she's owes the man an apology.


Six months later, when travelling in Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle, Lizzie meets Mr. Darcy again, here at his magnificent estate, Pemberley. He's like a changed man, amiable, generous to a fault, complimentary and insisting he wants to introduce Lizzie and her relatives to his younger sister. Having had time to think and consider everything she learned in the letter carefully, Lizzie's heart is already more receptive towards Darcy when a terrible scandal is revealed, involving the youngest Bennett sister. Any happiness with the proper and respectable Darcy seems sure to be doomed - just as Lizzie was considering telling him her feelings had changed.


I've read Pride and Prejudice countless times, first in Norwegian, later in English. I fondly remember waiting eagerly along with my mother for every new episode of the 1995 mini series, that for a very long time type cast Colin Firth as the romantic lead in all sorts of things, as he was the perfect Mr. Darcy. When I don't have time to watch the six hour mini series, the 2005 movie version starring Kiera Knightley and Matthew McFadyen will do nicely as well. I adored the modernised YouTube version made around the book's 200th anniversary, and the spin off book resulting from it. I still return to the original every few years though and each time I rediscover little bits that I'd forgotten in Ms. Austen's brilliant romance, which as well as having several satisfying happy endings, is a very clever social satire, using the eternally unmarried parson's daughter's observations of the people around her and the situations of ladies very much in her social sphere. While Austen has written many memorable book, this was the first of hers I read and it remains my absolute favourite. 


The new Audible audio version, narrated by Rosamund Pike, who played Jane in the 2005 movie version, is excellent. Ms. Pike has a lovely voice and manages to differentiate between the huge cast of characters with pretty distinctive voices for everyone, mostly to great success. It was a perfectly soothing and comforting listen in the hustle and bustle of the pre-Chistmas weeks. All the characters are so familiar to me, and having the book to listen to while running errands and trying to finish the last of the shopping made several stressful tasks go easier. If you've never allowed yourself the pleasure of reading Pride and Prejudice, you should consider the audio version for an extra treat. If you already know and love the book, get the audio, as I can't imagine a version that could be better.

Source: kingmagu.blogspot.no/2015/12/cbr7-book-151-pride-and-prejudice-by.html
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