A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in BrooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a beautiful book which opens in 1912 and tells about the pleasures and pain of growing up through the eyes of Francie Nolan, with her family, in a large and poor immigrant neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Francie’s father, Johnny Nolan, is an attractive drunk, part-time waiter and singer in restaurants. Katie, her mother, is a determined and hardworking woman. Katie married Johnny when she was 17 and soon had Francie and afterwards, Neeley. Francie is smart, delightful in small pleasures, curious and ambitious. She loves her family, she loves reading and school. Neeley is a darling and is Katie’s apple of the eye. Sissy, Katie’s older sister, the only Rommely daughter who didn’t attend school, very loving, longs to become a mother, has (yes, has) three husbands and is my favorite character in the story.

The book mostly focuses on the hardships and sad moments people, young and old, encounter in life, however, it also shows the importance of these moments in order to appreciate the good ones. Some parts of the story were very relatable, and I’ve always enjoyed books that I can relate to. I, for one, also struggled to make ends meet at some point in my life. It’s funny remembering those days sometimes but those experiences helped me quite a lot to achieve my goals and be where I am now. Some lessons we learn as children don’t really make sense to us until we grow older. Things that we don’t really understand until we become adults.

Another point which the author, Betty Smith, was able to focus on is the sense of love, determination and hope in the family. The way she’s written the story won’t bring you to tears but will let you feel a profound connection with the Nolans.

It’s also quite notable that the women are the stars in this novel. Brilliant women packed with girl power. 🙂 They’re the strong characters in the entire story. They work mornings and evenings, they bear children one after another, they make sure to save as much money as they could even though they earn very little and sometimes not even enough to get by, and most importantly, they try their best to send their children to school and educate them and make them believe in a life that’s far much better than what they’re living at that time. Katie is very determined to send Francie and Neeley to school, she lets them read the Bible and Shakespeare every night.  Her sisters, Evy and Sissy, are also smart and independent women in their own ways.

Francie is smart and observant. A combination of her parents — a dreamer like her father, realistic and determined like her mother. She’s a keen observer, always sees the good in people and she loves reading. She has rich imagination and a good storyteller. She longs for more attention from her mother but she also knows that Neeley has always been her mother’s favorite. Her ability to deal with adversity along with being hard working and taking every opportunity she gets to better herself  is very admirable of her and was indeed very essential as she turns out to be “the tree that grew in Brooklyn.”

This is a gorgeous coming of age book. A book I can easily recommend to everyone and make them understand why I read. To be entangled with the characters in a beautiful, remarkable but also terrible and painful story in time or places we, too, experienced or never once imagined.

Quotable Quotes:

“I know that’s what people say– you’ll get over it. I’d say it, too. But I know it’s not true. Oh, you’ll be happy again, never fear. But you won’t forget. Every time you fall in love it will be because something in the man reminds you of him”

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains – a cup of strong hot coffee when you’re blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you’re alone – just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

“She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie’s secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father stumbling home drunk. She was all of these things and of something more…It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life – the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”

“Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words.”

“Sometimes I think it’s better to suffer bitter unhappiness and to fight and to scream out, and even to suffer that terrible pain, than to just be… safe. At least she knows she’s living.”

Rating: 5/5 stars

Advertisements

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

the old man and the seaThe Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and was the last major work of Ernest Hemingway. It’s a brutally simple story about an old Cuban fisherman named Santiago who is alone in life and his only friend is Manolin, a boy who used to fish with him before but because of a series of bad luck including not catching anything for 84 days, was soon told by his parents to go with other fishermen instead.

On the 85th day though, Santiago sailed further out than the other fishermen and was able to hook a giant marlin who happened to pull him farther away in the sea. What happened next? Where did the fish pull him to? Was he able to bring it home? Did he really hook the fish or was it the fish that hooked him? Was he able to change his luck?

This might not sound much of a plot for most people but I think it’s a good read. I found it an engaging story about an old man and his relationship with nature, an old man with nothing left to lose, an old man that has faith in himself, an old man who never backs away from his goal whatever it takes.

The ending was quite sad but moving. I felt really sad for Santiago but he was not at all sad for himself. Though he was totally drained in the end, he was still very optimistic  while talking with Manolin. Reflecting on what he said earlier in the book, “A man can be destroyed but never defeated.”

Quotable Quotes:

“Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

“Let him think that I am more man than I am and I will be so.”

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”

“Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?”

Rating : 4/5 stars

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

downloadSouth of the Border, West of the Sun is a book I’ve known years ago but didn’t have the chance to read because I can’t find a copy and I only want to read Murakami works on paperback. It’s unfortunate that I still didn’t find a copy but I need a Murakami fix to get me back to my reading so hello Kindle!  The first thing that came to mind though when I read the title page was hope and suicide.

The book is about a man’s mid-life crisis, narrated by the 37-year old Hajime, born as an only child in Japan who met Shimamoto, an only child as well at the time when being a single child was rare in Japan. They formed a bond from there and had a strong connection, an innocent relationship but young love didn’t quite blossom and they started drifting apart when they started attending different high schools.

In high school, Hajime had a relationship with Izumi. He later met Izumi’s cousin then soon found himself having sexual affairs with her. Izumi was devastated and the relationship ended. He went on living his 20s without any serious relationships until he married Yukiko at 30. He loves her and their two daughters. Soon enough, he opened up a jazz bar and became prosperous.

Then Shimamoto reenters the picture as she shows up in the bar one night after reading a magazine article about a successful jazz bar and its owner. Hajime came to realize he’s still in love with Shimamoto when he saw her. She shows up every now and then until they eventually end up having a night of sex in Hakone. Hajime was willing to give all up for Shimamoto but she has other things planned.

I think Shimamoto’s character is one of the strengths of this book. Murakami never explained about what happened to her all those years but there were hints (though I’m not so sure of my interpretation of them), and that she’s tired of her life and existence. I only know that her happiest days were the time she was with Hajime as a child with a lame leg listening to music and was trying to relive those memories when he saw Hajime once again. All throughout the book, Shimamoto’s character pushes the plot forward but still, typical of Murakami, the specifics about her weren’t revealed. I’m used to Murakami’s female characters to be mysterious but somehow, I wished for more of Shimamoto.

Izumi and Yukiko’s characters were clearly portrayed and I easily identified with their emotions but when it comes to Hajime, I neither liked nor disliked him. He was just a voice narrating his erratic life story.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is almost devoid of surreal elements. Murakami here focused generally on love and heartache. He painted us an honest portrayal of a man dealing with mid-life crisis by allowing Hajime to express his feelings. No author has ever gave me that feeling of melancholy the way Murakami does. It’s not always that I get to read books that convey intense feelings this much. Murakami is very skillful on this and the translation by Philip Gabriel is excellent.

This by far is the most conventional Murakami I’ve read and this somehow reminds me of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and also Murakami’s Norwegian Wood which I intend to reread sometime soon. The love affair wasn’t as heartbreaking as that of Toru Watanabe’s but probably the book wasn’t meant to let us totally sympathize with Hajime.

Funny how I was reminded of someone the entire time I was reading this. It’s sometimes hard not to wonder about the past most specially when things can’t be changed, but still I wonder what could have been…

This is a short read but definitely one with words and emotions that stay with you long after you’ve finished.

Quotable Quotes:

“Sometimes when I look at you, I feel I’m gazing at a distant star. 
It’s dazzling, but the light is from tens of thousands of years ago.
Maybe the star doesn’t even exist any more. Yet sometimes that light seems more real to me than anything.”

“I hurt myself deeply, though at the time I had no idea how deeply. I should have learned many things from that experience, but when I look back on it, all I gained was one single, undeniable fact. That ultimately I am a person who can do evil. I never consciously tried to hurt anyone, yet good intentions notwithstanding, when necessity demanded, I could become completely self-centered, even cruel. I was the kind of person who could, using some plausible excuse, inflict on a person I cared for a wound that would never heal.”

“The sad truth is that certain types of things can’t go backward. Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can’t go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that’s how it will stay forever.”

“…some feelings cause us pain because they remain.”

“I think you still love me, but we can’t escape the fact that I’m not enough for you. I knew this was going to happen. So I’m not blaming you for falling in love with another woman. I’m not angry, either. I should be, but I’m not. I just feel pain. A lot of pain. I thought I could imagine how much this would hurt, but I was wrong.”

Rating: 5/5 stars

Unstoppable: My Life So Far by Maria Sharapova

maria-sharapova-unstoppable-book-cover-2017-0I am not a big fan of Maria Sharapova but I’m a big tennis fan. She won’t even be on my top five favorites but given that she’s one of the hottest tennis players and one of the most popular faces on tour, I am curious to know about her story and thought this book would make me understand why she behaves the way she does. Before reading this, I was already aware of her accomplishments, of the injuries she had and the doping incident which caused her being banned from the circuit. I wasn’t aware, however, of how everything started for her, what drives her to play, what inspires her, what motivates her.

Unstoppable is Maria Sharapova’s memoir. She’s from Russia but moved to the US to train when she was six years old together with her father, in hopes to become a tennis superstar someday as her father believes she will be. She’s won five Grand Slam titles to date. She became an overnight sensation when she beat Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final as a seventeen year old. The book tells Maria’s share of highs and lows, struggle and success. From winning tournaments and Grand Slams, her rivalry with Serena Williams (it wasn’t much of a rivalry I think since Serena always beat her… well okay, one-sided rivalry?), her shoulder injury and of course, the doping incident.

I wasn’t a big fan of Maria before I read this and still not after, however, I admire her determination more now. It’s good to know and understand her and her journey. She is an accomplished player and definitely have a story of her own to tell.

Whether you’re a tennis fan or not, penned down in simple language with Rich Cohen, this is worth your time reading.

Quotable Quotes:

“As hard as I practice, I have learned that doing nothing is just as important as doing everything.”

“You can’t control what people say about you and what they think about you. You can’t plan for bad luck. You can only work your hardest and do your best and tell the truth. In the end, it’s the effort that matters. The rest is beyond your control.”

“I know what losing does to you. I’d learned its lessons on tennis courts all over the world. It knocks you down but also builds you up. It teaches you humility and gives you strength. It makes you aware of your flaws, which you then must do your best to correct. In this way, it can actually make you better. You become a survivor. You learn that losing is not the end of the world.”

“What sets the great players apart from the good players? The good players win when everything is working. The great players win even when nothing is working even when the game is ugly; that is, when they are not great. Because no one can be great every day. Can you get it done on the ugly days, when you feel like garbage and the tank is empty?”

“There is no perfect justice, not in this world. You can’t control what people say about you and what they think about you. You can’t plan for bad luck. You can only work your hardest and do your best and tell the truth. In the end,it’s the effort that matters. The rest is beyond your control.”

Rating: 4/5 stars

A Reread: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

imagesCrushing. Yes, crushing. It’s the only word I can think of after I first read this while on vacation in 2015. And unable to decide what book to read next, I decided to reread this since it’s a very short book and you can read it in one sitting.

Of Mice and Men is the story of two migrant workers in California in the 1930s, George and Lennie, who work in different ranches in order to save money and buy themselves land. George is street smart while Lennie is a big, strong guy with a child’s mind. They both dream of owning a land since George is also tired of always being on the run (because of stupid things Lennie get into) while looking for work at the same time. Things seem to be going their way until Lennie pets the hair of the landlord’s daughter-in-law and eventually, accidentally killed her.

In a little over a hundred pages, Steinbeck was able to tackle on themes like friendship, loneliness, power, hopes, and dreams. The prose is very straight-forward and easy to read. Good enough to make you smile and cry. All the characters felt so real.

The end? Still crushing. Absolutely heartbreaking but what was offered is totally solid. I loved this the way I loved it the first time I’ve read it. A powerful short story.

Quotable Quotes:

As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.”

“Guy don’t need no sense to be a nice fella. Seems to me sometimes it jus’ works the other way around. Take a real smart guy and he ain’t hardly ever a nice fella.”

“Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head.”

“Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”

Rating : 5/5 stars

A Reread: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

download (1)The Catcher in the Rye depicts a few days in the life of a whiny 17-year old, Holden Caulfield, after being expelled. Again. His search for authenticity, for what’s right and what’s wrong. His views on adults and the innocence of childhood. Holden likes children because they seem to be so innocent in a corrupted world.

I’ve seen reviews that find Holden to be an annoying character and it’s easy to see why people think that but he’s a teenager who still doesn’t have that much wisdom and is looking for authenticity in people. Losing his brother Allie is what made him dislike everyone he meets.. He likes his brother too much and preserves a perfect image of him in his mind thus he finds other people to be phonies. (I think it’s easy to guess how Holden would think about social media!) His sister Phoebe is the only person he likes. That part of the book towards the end was so nice when he was watching her in the carousel. He was happy. How he wants her sister to stay that way, be as innocent as she is as a child and not to become what he believes other people are.

I first read this as a teenager and Holden is an eminently relatable character. There were several parts in the book that made me laugh out loud. I read it again in 2013. I still enjoyed it now reading it for the third time though I kinda felt sadder. It’s just that this time, I recognize Holden’s problems more than I did before. I say he’s relatable, true enough, I’ve been there, done this, done that, but I moved forward. It’s kinda sad to think that J.D. Salinger portrays the future as a depressing place to be but what’s important is we all reach a time in our lives where we realize that’s not what we want to hear or what we want to believe. So we move on more positively and I hope Holden does, too.

I still definitely enjoyed reading this again and will be rereading it once more in a couple of years. I wonder where the ducks are, though? 🙂

Quotable Quotes:

“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

“When you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.”

“Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”

Rating : 5/5 stars

Burned Alive by Souad

386990Burned Alive is the story of a 17-year old girl who calls herself Souad, uneducated, beaten and victim of honor killing, from one of the villages in the West Bank region.

Written in simple prose, Souad tells us the story of life in their village. She talked about how women are literally worth less than animals and that men hitting their wives and daughters are a normal occurrence there. Women are not allowed to speak and think for themselves. They’re not allowed to look at men and if they do, they’re branded as whores or “charmuta” in their language.

At 17 years of age, Souad was already considered old to not be married yet. The father has to arrange the marriages of his daughters from the eldest to the youngest. Souad hoped to get married as soon as possible but her sisters have to be married first. She soon fell in love with a man who took advantage of her believing he wants her, too. She then got pregnant and the man disappeared. Sex (and getting pregnant) before marriage is a grave dishonor for some (if not all) Muslim countries. And in places like Souad’s, it is punishable by death. The man who does the killing is considered a hero. And in Souad’s story, it was her brother-in-law. He poured gasoline on her and set her on fire. It’s a miracle that she survived with 90% of her body burned. And even more miraculous to have given birth all alone later in the hospital where she was left to die.

I’ve known a little about honor killing already since grade school so this subject is not really new to me anymore and I find this book as something that describes the difficult life of Muslim women in places like the West Bank. Despite the advances in women’s rights nowadays, there are still many who suffer from inequality all around the world. Many argue about the realness of this story but I’m of the opinion that this really happened, that these atrocities are real. There was a part in the book where Jacqueline, the humanitarian aid worker mentioned that she was told not to involve herself with Souad’s case because it is family matter and that honor killing is part of their culture/tradition and that they should respect that. But I think it’s facetious to say so as in this case because it is clearly an oppression disguised as culture/tradition. How can anyone, man or woman, accept such barbarism as “tradition”? Come on, stand up for yourself, argue with your parents, strive hard to make a living, fight with your boss, work your ass to achieve your dreams, at the very least, you’re free!

This is a quick read. It does shed light to the issue of honor killing in the West Bank. How very harshly and cruelly women are treated by men, even family. Culture is culture, traditions are traditions. And I know it’s difficult to change that. But I still think, it all still depends on the mentality of the people involved, regardless of gender.

Quotable Quotes:

“Something in me is broken but people don’t realize it because I always smile to hide it.”

“The only way to help me stop suffering was to help me die.”

“Although I am able to walk about freely, I am a prisoner in my skin.”

“They tell me that I’m going to live but I do not believe that and I wait for death. I even beg for it to take me. Death seems preferable to this suffering and humiliation.”

“I was ashamed to still be alive, although no one knew this. I was afraid of this life but no one understood.”

Rating : 3.5/5 stars