A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

I’m someone who really likes classics, even really long, slow ones, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, is definitely both of those things. In that sense, I have to admit that this isn’t a classic that everyone will love, but for me it was extremely enjoyable.

Smith’s novel is a coming-of-age tale about Francie, a young girl growing up just after the turn of the century. I have to admit, I haven’t read many novels from this period (so much of the American cannon seems to have come out of the 20s and after), and so I really enjoyed Smith’s insight into the period – her perspectives on class lines, religious and ethnic divides, gender inequality, etc. I was captivated by these intriguing overarching themes, as well as the details about the era (paper collars?! singing waiters?).

If you’re a patient and close reader, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this narrative. It certainly educated me on the realities of early 20th Century struggles and trends, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

James Baldwin, “Go Tell It On The Mountain”

Having only read If Beale Street Could Talk, I’ve been eager to get to more of Baldwin’s work for a long time, and was excited to pull Go Tell It On The Mountain off the shelf. And while I have to admit that while I found Beale Street a bit more riveting of a narrative, the thematic complexity of Go Tell It On The Mountain is unmatched.

One could spend hours and hours unpacking the racial, gendered, and religious power dynamics that play out between characters in this novel – it’s the kind of book that makes you want a class or a reading group to discuss it with, the kind that prompts me to look up podcasts and articles that analyze it.

And the fact that this is a semi-autobiographical novel makes it even more troubling, painful, and powerful. The fact that it was Baldwin’s first novel makes it even more impressive.

Finally, I want to mention that although, as I’ve mentioned earlier, this wasn’t quite as spell-binding as Beale Street (I found it a little slow at times), I also want to mention that this narrative develops in a way that is really unexpected and yet, realistic. With Go Tell It On The Mountain, Baldwin once again uses his craft to offer an insightful perspective of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and class in America.

Get the book through a local or independent publisher, HERE.

Love. By Toni Morrison. Love. Love. Love.

I have never read a novel by Toni Morrison that wasn’t worth raving about. And yet, I have found that my favorites are not the same ones that get all the hype. Most of us have read, or at least heard of, The Bluest Eye and Beloved. But my favorites have tended to be Morrison’s lesser-known works, including Sula and Song of Solomon.

And Love falls in the latter category. Though not her most popular work, this might be one of Morrison’s best, in my humble opinion. On the surface, this is the story of a friendship between two women that has eroded over decades, but of course it is so much more than that. This novel really highlights the complex, unexpected, and shifting nature of love – of love between friends, between siblings, between lovers and spouses, between parents and children. And it’s about the impacts these relationships have on a community over time.

But what really amazes me about this novel is Toni Morrison’s incredible skill with subtly. Because when I’ve talked with others about this novel, the words “hate” and “anger” come far up far more frequently than “love” or “joy.” But without spoiling anything in the story, the final chapter starts to peel back the ways in which, throughout the entire novel, Morrison has been writing about love with great intention, subtlety, and scrutiny.

I am left thinking of all kinds of love, the way it changes over time, the power it has to hurt or heal. And what is more beautiful and memorable than a book that leaves you thinking about love?

Eager to read this one? Get the book from an independent bookshop HERE.

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

I’ve known the name Holden Caulfield – known him to be the protagonist and unreliable narrative of The Catcher in the Ryefor years and years. It’s one of the books that my professors in college would reference without hesitance, sure that everyone had read at some point.

Only somehow, I hadn’t. Until now (and I’ll add here that my husband was so shocked I hadn’t read this classic that he went out and got it for me).

Within the first few pages, I realized how many assumptions I had already formed about this book. And in fact, the ways that the novel actually ruptures those assumptions is precisely what made it so interesting to me. (and boy, was it interesting). So, for this book review, I wanted to call out my own assumptions and the ways that J.D Salinger ruptures them.

First, I knew Holden Caulfield to be considered an “unreliable narrator” but I never guessed that he would be so aware his own capricious nature. But in fact, he’s very self-aware. He says himself that he’s a liar, and that his mood can change suddenly. But because he himself acknowledges his inability control these changes, the reader finds themselves sympathizing with Holden, rather than blaming or resenting him.

Second, I expected a story about a young man, but what Holden Caulfield really offers us is the story of a generation. The truth is, not a whole lot happens in the plot of this narrative. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that it’s not always clear what Holden is looking for, what he needs, or what he wants. But I think that’s the point: he doesn’t know, and perhaps many of his generation didn’t know. Amidst the abundance that characterized America post WW2, Holden’s outlook and mindset seems to directly challenge the notions of the American dream as perpetuated by Hollywood and the general society.

Finally, I expected this “great American classic” to employ the formal, dated language that we (too often) associate with classics. But there is none of that here. In fact, I would argue that Salinger breaks every “rule” we’ve ever been taught in our English classes about what makes “good writing.” Holden’s language is extremely repetitive, often crass or low-brow, and sometimes downright ridiculous. And yet, that same language feels authentic and familiar in a way that (it seems) a piece of “classic literature” rarely is. I can only imagine that, especially for young readers, this would be incredibly illuminating in terms of what “good writing” is, and what a “good story” embodies.

Through Holden’s story and voice, Salinger showed readers that, in fact, the American novel didn’t have to look or sound like anything we’d seen before. And maybe, just maybe, it could even look and sound like us.

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