A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the CastleI heard that this book was brought back into print because Ms. Rowling of Harry Potter fame said it was one of her favs. Well, thank goodness she said something, ’cause this Castle is not to be missed! Cassandra and her wacky family live in a crumbling English castle, leased when her famous writer father was still famous. Now, he suffers from perpetual writer’s block, and the family, once well-off, can barely scrape together a decent tea. Enter the wealthy Cotton brothers, two young Americans who are perfect matches for Cassandra and her lovely, but picky sister Rose-or so Cassandra thinks. The brothers Cotton may have other ideas…a hilarious and touching comedy of manners, Castle captures all the adolescent longings of first love, along with all the funny and not so funny moments that go with it. Incidentally, Smith is also the author of the original 101 Dalmatians, another wonderful classic that is ten times better than the movie.

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

“Here’s the story…” Imagine the Bradys-only funnier, smarter, riding around in an old jalopy instead of the trusty station wagon, living in the early 1900’s, and twelve of them instead of six–and you’ve got the Gilbreth family! Dad Gilbreth is a motion study engineer, (the study of how to do things more efficiently) and the easiest way to test out his theories is to practice them on his kids. Now, that may not sound too bad, except sometimes Dad is a little too efficient…like the time when one kid gets tonsillitis and he decides that it’s more cost-effective to set up an operating table in the living room and take out EVERYONE’S tonsils. But Dad also makes learning stuff a whole lotta fun-like when he paints messages in Morse code all over the walls of the summer house that lead to treats for the first person to decipher the code. Things are always hoppin’ at the Gilbreth place, and its’ more entertaining than “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Simpsons” combined! And did I mention this is all a TRUE story?? A nice old lady sold me a battered paperback of this book at a garage sale (the best way to discover classics) and it’s been one of my favorites ever since.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Welcome to the Blackwood House. Younger sister Merricat buries baubles in the garden and nails objects to the trees to “protect” her family’s property. Older sister Constance is a cheerful housekeeper who is happy enough as long as she doesn’t have to go outside-ever. And Uncle Julian, well, he’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, if you know what I mean. But with a little prompting, he’ll gladly tell you what became of the rest of the Blackwood clan-if you’re brave enough to listen. One of the three living Blackwoods murdered all the rest. But can you guess who? A wonderfully creepy classic by the acclaimed author of “The Lottery”.

Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

Sappy title, great book. Yes, we’ve all heard of Betty Smith’s oft-assigned classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But did you know she wrote many other fine novels, all with the same bittersweet tone as Tree? Joy is about the day to day struggles of a young married couple in the 1920’s, who manage to wring a little happiness out of life despite all their trials and tribulations. And boy, do they have some trials! Can you imagine trying to live on $5 a week in a two room apartment, going to law school and keeping your brand spanking new marriage from falling apart? That’s what Carl and Annie are up against, but they are determined to make it, no matter what. Smith knows her characters well, and by the end of this story, you’ll swear you know someone just like Carl or Annie, too.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

“They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him every where. Is he is heaven? Or is he in hell? That demmed (said w/ an English accent) elusive Pimpernel!” During the French Revolution, when the French aristocracy were literally losing their heads to the peasants, there was one brave Englishman who risked his life to save as many innocent people as he could from the cruel guillotine. He was called The Scarlet Pimpernel, after the little red flower he left in his mysterious wake. Was the Pimpernel a real person? Not exactly, but he was based on real people who did try to help French aristocrats escape during the Revolution. The Baroness Orczy wrote a rich fictionalization of this imaginary hero, whose exploits include breath-taking rescues, swash buckling sword fights, and dizzying romance. Oh! Has historical fiction ever been this much fun? Even though this story has gone through many incarnations (several movie versions, a Broadway play) the original novel is still tops.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Although this is a somewhat depressing book, it has quite a bit to say about human nature and how we all try to make meaningful connections with one another. In a small Southern town, Mick is a thirteen-year-old who dreams of leaving everything behind and becoming a famous composer. Biff is a restaurant owner who wonders what the heck he’s going to do with the rest of his life now that his wife has died. Jack is the local drunk who is looking for any kind of salvation, and Dr. Copeland is an African American physician who can’t understand why the other Blacks in his town won’t take more responsibility for their lives. All of them have found some relief talking to John, a deaf mute who provides each of them with what they need most-someone to listen. What they never stop to consider is that John may have problems-big problems-of his own. Each lonely character’s heart is hunting for something-love, compassion, answers to life’s big questions. And it’s a hunt that most of us can relate to. A deep, little bit weepy, read.

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

Fourteen year old Will Tweedy can’t believe it! With his beloved grandma not even cold in her grave, curmudgeonly Grandpa Blakesee has up and married again! And not just anyone-Grandpa has picked the sweetest flower on the vine, the town milliner (who also happens to be a Yankee!), Miss Love Simpson. Gums are flappin’ and tongues are waggin’ all over town, but no one is more confused than Grandpa’s own kin. Will knows he ought to be mad for grandma’s sake, but Miss Love is so sweet he doesn’t know what to think. And it’s just about the time of his grandpa’s new marriage that things start happenin’ at an alarming rate in the turn-of-the-century, sleepy town of Cold Sassy…country, quirky and oh so funny, Cold Sassy Tree is a hoot and a holler of a good classic read.