A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

2017
07.06



Welcome to Reading Rants: Summer Reading Edition! I decided to re-read Betty Smith’s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, partially because of this NYC reading challenge When the winning book turned out to be one I had recently  devoured, I took a dive into ATGIB instead because a) I found this pretty, pretty paperback edition and b) I read it years ago and I had completely forgotten the plot. (Just wait, kids. Memory loss STINKS.)

ATGIB is in many ways a perfect summer read, that I know for a fact is probably on many of your school summer reading lists. It’s a perceptive, immersive examination of the childhood and adolescence of Francie Nolan, a girl growing up in the impoverished neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn from 1912-1918. Based on Smith’s own life, Francie is an innocent idealist trying to make sense of a harsh world. The title comes from Francie’s fascination with a “Tree of Heaven” that grows outside her fire escape, a hardy species my grandma used to call a “weed tree” that can survive almost anywhere. Even though her father is an alcoholic singing waiter and her mother a stoic washerwoman who together barely make enough money to pay for rent and food, Francie takes great delight in little things in life like the pleasure of a bag of penny candy and a library book. The family endures many hardships, but Smith lightens the tragedy with great scenes of comic relief, like the time Papa decides to take Francie, her brother and a neighbor’s child on a doomed fishing expedition off the Carnarsie Pier, or when Aunt Sissy, a serial bigamist, insists on calling each of her husbands “John” even if that’s not their name. Even though Francie is made sadder and wiser by cruel classmates, a terrifying encounter with a child molester, the loss of a beloved family member and a young soldier who falsely promises his undying love, she never loses her zest for life or her devotion to her beloved Brooklyn, which takes on an unreal quality as she grows older: “Brooklyn was a dream. All the things that happened there just couldn’t happen. It was all dream stuff. Or was it all real and true and was it that she, Francie, was the dreamer?” If you crave a deep, rich historical read that will transport you to another time and place while simultaneously revealing universal human truths, then you’ll want to plop yourself right under this TREE.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

2017
06.20



In the late teens and early 1920’s, many young American women were thrilled to find paying work outside the home in factories that sprang up in the wake of WWI. Two of these factories, Radium Luminous Materials in Newark, New Jersey and the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, manufactured glow-in-the-dark wristwatches. The factories employed young women, many of them starting when they were teenagers, to delicately hand paint the watch faces with incandescent paint made with radium powder. Though scientists knew that the radioactive element could destroy human tissue and it was used in the fight against cancer, it was also considered a wonder drug that could cure anything from “hay fever…to constipation.” While the girls were elated just to be in the presence of the expensive substance (which sold for $120,000 a gram), it didn’t hurt that the jobs also paid handsomely. Because the radium powder was so expensive, the girls were admonished to use it sparingly. But the powder scattered everywhere when they tried to mix it with the paint, settling on their skin, clothes and hair, which all glowed in the dark when they got home. They also got paint in their mouths from licking the thin brushes in order to make them fine-tipped enough to paint the tiny numbers.  It was fun when their clothes and teeth shone in the dark, and with all the money they were making, they could afford the latest stylish clothes, go to parties after work and enjoy being young. Until, one by one, they all began to sicken…and die, many before they reached thirty.

This is the true story of several of the women who fatally suffered from radium poisoning the 1920’s and their efforts to sue the companies that not only made them sick but refused to admit that radium was poisonous. Kate Moore‘s poignant, sympathetic work reads like a legal medical thriller as she dives deep into the lives and families of the women who were affected and chronicles their heart breaking attempts to hold the companies accountable. Shockingly, one of the companies didn’t even consider testing the ill women until the first MALE scientist died as a result of radium poisoning. As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, another tragedy where workplace safety was compromised when it came to female laborers. Radium Girls is for anyone interested in women’s history, medical mysteries, labor laws or courtroom dramas, because this story has it ALL!

Something New by Lucy Knisley

2017
05.21


Not being a big fan of weddings in general, it took me awhile to pick up Lucy Knisley‘s charming graphic memoir about her own wedding experience. What I should have remembered is that Knisley has a knack for drawing me in to whatever she’s drawing (pun intended)–whether it’s food, travel or family, and Something New was no exception. In her usual small, tidy trademark style, Knisley lovingly chronicles the year leading up to her wedding in upstate New York, warts and all. She details arguments with her mom, worries about the budget and ambivalence towards the whole idea of a traditional wedding. She also describes her shining love for her fiancé, John, the thrill of finally finding the right, simple dress and the joy of making your own decorations. What I liked best about this book was Knisley’s honest examination of conventional wedding components and her pleasure in subverting each one. In the end, Knisley created an heartfelt account of her unique experience that also managed to feel universally human. Teen peeps, while you may not be at the point of  planning a wedding yourself, you can still enjoy Knisely’s quirky adventures in dress shopping, family drama and DIY reception crafting. And it also makes a great gift to bring to all those weddings you’re going to be dragged to this summer!

Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Andrea Offerman

2017
05.14


Yvain, a little (ish) known knight from the court of King Arthur, wishes for adventure and gets more than he bargained for when he kills a local lord in battle and then promptly falls for the dead lord’s lady, Laudine. Luckily he is saved from this uber-awkward situation by Laudine’s maid, Lunette, who convinces her lady with logic to marry the lovelorn knight. But Yvain messes up royally again when he fails to return from adventuring by the deadline Laudine has set for him. Cast out of her castle, he roams the countryside seeking a way to win his lady’s heart back, encountering dragons, giants, and demons, and picking up a  pet lion in the process. With an emphasis on the importance and wisdom of the women who help school naive Yvain in the ways of the world, this sumptuous medieval graphic novel has a distinctively 21st century feel. Yvain’s journey is lushly illustrated by artist Andrea Offerman, who’s detailed watercolor & ink panels beautifully convey the opulence of the medieval courts and the dusty green of the mythical English countryside. My only quibble was that some panels were far too small to capture the lavish action captured within. Fans of Anderson’s rich historical fiction will enjoy this attractive venture into a new format, and can continue their exploration of King Arthur’s court by checking out Excaliber: The Legend of King Arthur and Here Lies Arthur.

Thornhill by Pam Smy

2017
05.11


Two eerie tales intertwine in this gorgeously illustrated gem. Mary’s story unfolds through the pages of her diary, dated the spring and summer of 1982. An orphan, Mary lives with several other girls and their caretakers at the Thornhill Institute, where she is terrorized by another girl so malicious that she won’t even write her name in her journal. Mary avoids her tormentor by escaping to her room, where she reads voraciously and makes jointed dolls out of cloth and clay. But when the bullying crosses over into cruelty, Mary finally stands up for herself, with tragic results. Meanwhile, Ella’s story, told entirely in pictures and set in 2017, presents her move into a new house, where her bedroom window gives her a direct view into the overgrown back garden of the old, condemned Thornhill Institute. After seeing the figure of a girl in the trees, Ella sneaks over the barbed wire wall to try and find her. Instead, she finds a series of broken dolls, that slowly lead her to an attic room in crumbling Thornhill where she uncovers the terrible secret of what happened to Mary all those years ago. This creepy-cool take on a traditional ghost story will give you chills even on the hottest days of summer, and is perfect for fans of Brian Selznik and Shaun Tan. Coming to a library or bookstore near you August 2017.

Be True to Me by Adele Griffin

2017
04.09


I don’t know about you teen peeps, but when the April thermometer stays stubbornly in the 30’s and 40’s and I’m ready for warmer weather, there’s no better antidote than sending myself to a steamy place via a book. And Adele Griffin‘s delicious new title about a love triangle set on Fire Island during the sultry summer of 1976 more than fits the bill! Jean Custis can’t stand “slinky, scrappy” Fritiz O’Neill, and it’s not just because Fritz had the nerve to beat her in Sunken Haven’s Junior tennis tournament last year. It’s because Fritz O’Neill doesn’t belong, she’s not a “Sunkie,” and never will be as far as Jean and many of the other Sunken Haven families are concerned. Fritz O’Neill doesn’t think much about Jean Custis, the cool, smooth girl with wealth and connections to spare that she beat in tennis last summer. The gorgeous, raspy-voiced Army brat is much more concerned with having the best summer of her life getting over the quarterback who broke her heart. When both stone foxes set their hearts on Gil Burke, a new edition to an old Sunkie family and a “real Ryan O’Neal type,” the heat is turned up on their simmering competition. Then a senseless tragedy gives each girl a raw, sorrowful understanding of what’s really important. Told in alternate, first-person chapters, Jean and Fritz emerge as complicated, fully realized characters, each full of burning desires and unfulfilled longings. And tortured Gil, as seen through the eyes of the girls who’ve fallen for him, is just as complex, navigating a world of wealth and privilege that he was born to but never allowed to take advantage of until now. Friends, I have fallen deeply for this juicy tome that feels like a inspired mash-up of all my warm weather favorites, including The Summer I Turned Pretty, Little Darlings, Nantucket Blue and Dirty Dancing, while still telling a timeless story about social class struggles in a groovy historical setting. It’s DYN-O-MITE! Honestly, the only thing I don’t like about this book is the title, which seems way too generic for such a hip historical fiction. Still, you’ll want to pack this book first in your beach bag or summer camp duffle when it sails into a library, bookstore or e-reader near you June 2017.

The Girl In Between by Sarah Carroll

2017
03.24


An unnamed girl in an anonymous city tells the story of her and her Ma, a homeless addict who tries to stay clean for her daughter but never quite succeeds. The girl and Ma move from tent to alley to abandoned building, constantly dodging the frightening Authorities in their official yellow vests. They are finally able to make a home in the overgrown and forgotten Castle, an old abandoned mill on the edge of the city. There, they set up a stopgap bedroom, ramshackle living room and even a makeshift kitchen. The girl feels safe, even though Ma says she must never go outside in case she is seen by the Authorities. So she spends her days reading school books Ma has brought home, spying on faraway apartments with her old binoculars and talking to the Caretaker, an old man who has also made his home in the shadow of the Castle. Then the ghost shows up, a mysterious presence that reminds the girl of the one terrible night Ma left her alone before they came to the mill.  Haunted by her own bleak memories, the girl must find a way to remember what happened that night so she can save Ma and herself from the ghost and their own grim futures. This  eerie, gritty debut blends suspense, survival and magical realism into a satisfyingly spooky stew that will keep readers guessing until the very last page. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you June 2017.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

2017
03.10


When Haitian-born Fabiola arrives at her cousins’ house on the corner of American Street and Joy Road in Detroit, she dreams of starting a new life. But after her beloved mother is detained at the airport, Fabiola’s dreams begin to fade. Her aunt and three cousins (Chantal, Donna and Pri) are strange and intimidating, with their weaved hair, strong opinions and tough attitudes. School is confusing with its complicated cliques and strict teachers. Haiti seems very far away: “Nothing here is alive with color like in Haiti. The sun hides behind a concrete sky. I search the landscape for yellows, oranges, pinks or turquoises like in my beloved Port-au-Prince. But God has painted this place only gray and brown.” The one bright spot is her blossoming relationship with Kasim, a smart, funny boy she meets at a club while out with her cousins. Fabiola also takes comfort in her native religion of Vodou, and sets up an altar in her new home where she lights a candle for her mother and prays to the lwas, or spiritual guides, to protect her family and help her understand this peculiar new world. But Fabiola will need more than the guidance of Papa Legba when she is approached by the police to find evidence against Dray, her cousin Donna’s ruthless boyfriend and resident drug dealer. In return for her help, the detectives have promised to look into her mother’s deportation case. Torn between her new family and her old, Fabiola is forced to make a choice that will have devastating consequences, no matter what she decides. This fascinating novel blends gritty realistic detail with lyrical descriptions, resulting in a unique reading experience that beautifully illustrates the pain and difficulty of living between cultures. Readers looking for another story of Haitian/American culture clash should try Fresh Girl by Jaira Placide.

Vincent and Theo: the Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

2017
02.27



Vincent and Theo, Theo and Vincent. More than friends, more than brothers, these steadfast siblings kept each other alive through their devotion to art and to each other. Theo was the prosperous younger brother, becoming a profitable art dealer at a young age due to his savvy business sense and sharp eye. Vincent was the tempestuous older brother, moody and unpredictable, discarding a number of odd jobs before settling on painting as a profession. Then as now, pursuing a career in the arts wasn’t the most lucrative pursuit, but Vincent was able to perfect his signature impasto technique because of his brother’s steady financial support. Theo longed for romantic love, while Vincent craved commercial success so he could repay Theo, but neither brother ever put anything before their relationship with each other. While most people have heard of famous painter Vincent Van Gogh, few understand how completely vital Theo’s support was to Vincent’s success. In this intimate biography, rich with direct quotes from the brothers’ letters, author Deb Heiligman chronicles the ups and downs of the siblings as they navigated success, failure, loss of friends and family, love and marriage. My favorite passage concerns a parcel that Vincent was determined to carry himself. How Heiligman uses that story as a metaphor and weaves it through the entire biography as way of illustrating the brothers’ relationship is beautifully and subtly done, and provides readers with an insight as to which brother was emotionally carrying the other at different points in their lives. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you April 2017.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

2017
01.27


Sixteen year old Starr Carter has to navigate two different worlds that couldn’t be further apart: Garden Heights, the poor, mostly black neighborhood where she and her family live, and Williamson, the pricey, mostly white prep school she attends. She is pulled in one direction by her loving but strict family and culture, and the opposite direction by her wealthy school friends and white boyfriend Chris. “…I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang, some attitude, but not too much attitude, so I’m not a ‘sassy black girl.’ I have to watch what I say and how I say it, but I can’t sound ‘white.’ Shit is exhausting.” Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air character and Tupac Shakur‘s music are her touchstones as she tries to make peace between her two selves, but she often feels totally overwhelmed with the burden of keeping them separate. When her unarmed childhood friend is Khalil is gunned down right in front of her by a white police officer, Starr’s worlds collide in the worst possible way. Suddenly she is in the spotlight, fighting to defend Khalil’s memory and reputation at home and in front of a grand jury, while feeling angry and exposed at school when her clueless classmates stereotype Khalil as a “a drug dealer and a gangbanger” who “was probably gonna end up dead anyway.” The simmering conflict spirals out of control when the police institute a curfew, tanks roll past Starr’s front door, and Garden Heights becomes a battle zone. Tired of trying to unite her double life, Starr finds her true north when she confronts the police who are trying to block her and her friends from protesting with the strongest weapon of all: her voice. “Everybody wants to talk about how Khalil died…But this isn’t about how Khalil died. It’s about the fact that he lived. His life mattered. Khalil lived! You hear me? Khalil lived!” Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Angie Thomas‘s debut novel is a searingly honest, painfully real examination of racism, police violence, code switching, and the importance of love and family in the face of crisis. Some readers will come away with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what it means to grow up African American in this divided country, while others will find comfort and validation in seeing themselves on the page and being authentically seen. A vital read for all that is coming to a library or bookstore near you February 2017.

Contact

Jen Hubert Swan
Librarian, Book Reviewer,
Reading Addict
swampophelia27@yahoo.com