Monthly Archives: April 2014

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith

A portrait of life in a Brooklyn slum at the start of the 20th century, this is a touching and insightful book. The Nolan family are held together by steely resourceful Katie whose response to her charming drunken husband Johnny’s lack of regular work is to scrub yet more floors. In a desperate but determined bid to build a better life for her children, Francie and Neely, she saves the rare spare pennies in a money bank made from a milk tin and insists they read a page of the bible and a page from the collected works of Shakespeare every night.

The children grow up knowing extreme poverty, hardship and with the love of a fiercely protective family. It’s the character of Francie that really shines – awkward and shy she struggles to make friends and lives in the shadow of her good looking happy go lucky brother. But Francie is smart and works hard. She idolises her father and precious time with him makes up for her mother favouring Neely. And it’s her father who helps Francie get into the school that allows her to slowly but surely fulfil her dreams.

As a family the Nolans are warm, loving, wise and remarkable. Despite abject poverty an adolescent Francie and Neely recollect their childhood as filled with fun. In less adept hands Smith’s telling of the episodes and experiences that make up their time in Brooklyn might well fall into sentimentality but A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN is just very honest. I really enjoyed it, as social commentary and as a story featuring some of the strongest women I’ve encountered in a book for a whole.

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NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl

night film by marisha pessl

This is probably the most chilling, spine tingling book I have ever read. I am far too practical to be easily scared but this had me switching lights on if I got up in the night and having to consciously stop thinking about it in order to get to sleep. It centres around a discredited journalist, Scott McGrath, who is investigating the death of Ashley Cordova, daughter of a reclusive cult film director whose fans calls themselves Cordovites.  It’s reported that Ashley committed suicide, but McGrath has investigated her family before and thinks there is far more to it. He is soon joined by Hopper, a friend of Ashley’s who has himself gone to look at the place where she allegedly jumped from a tall building, and a struggling actress, Nora, who was checking coats at a restaurant where Ashley ate shortly before her death. The unlikely trio’s determination sees them break into a fettish party, unveil some dark magic, stalked by Ashley’s brother, go undercover into an institute for the mentally ill, confront a fake priest in his antique shop and visit a tattooist, piano store and illegal tenement in their quest to uncover the truth about how Ashley died. They eventually conclude that the answers must lie within the well guarded walls of The Peak, Cordova’s vast estate and film set and where he is rumoured to be still living. What they learn there changes them forever, much as starring in one of the director’s films is rumoured to do.

Driven by a desire to confront the extremes of human existence, Cordova uses his work to explore the dark recesses of our minds and our worst fears. Each one is a nightmare, from which the audience members can choose to wake by shutting their eyes. The bravest will finish the journey and emerge with a renewed sense of the value of life taken to the edge, a compulsion to seek out “where the mermaids sing”. NIGHT FILM blurs the boundaries between Cordova’s philosophy and real life as lived by Nora, Hopper and McGrath. The places they visit are like film sets, the novel is cut through with newspaper articles about disappeared actors, website postings, photos and notes. Cordova famously leaves big questions unresolved for his audiences and the novel does the same. We are presented with Ashley as angel and as devil, with different interpretations of her death and it’s the reader’s own belief system that will determine just how we think the story ends. We are challenged to see things from different perspectives and ultimately shown that there’s no such thing as the truth – just our own versions of it.

There was a point about 2/3 of the way through when I felt irritated by the prospect that the plot was taking me in one direction and that the facts would not be revealed in the closing pages. But NIGHT FILM is much cleverer than that – it really does mess with your mind and make you think about who you are, the risks you are willing to take and how easy it is to cross the line into pure insanity. In the words of Scott McGrath: Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, you realize you’re on another trapdoor. Reading the book is like that – you think you’ve grasped what’s going on, only for it to change again as you realise you are being deceived by your own prejudices. Fascinating, compelling and very dark, this is a book whose secrets are only slowly revealed and which will stay with me for a very long time.

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ARCADIA by Lauren Groff

arcadia by lauren groff

ARCADIA opens with the members of a thriving commune gathered for a Sunday Morning Meeting. We are introduced to 5 year old Bit, who is tiny, a mote of a boy, and the warm physical and emotional comfort he derives from his parents, Abe and Hannah, as well as the fear and unease they can prompt in him. This sets the scene beautifully for the rest of the novel, which is essentially Bit’s experiences of the world, how they are shaped by his childhood, at once idyllic and full of hardship, and how they are shaped by the love he gives and receives.

Like so many fictional Utopia’s, Arcadia is doomed to fail, yet Groff handles this inevitability with a gentleness and sensitivity that allows all that’s good about the commune to remain vivid and strong, rather than being over shadowed entirely. First and foremost is Bit’s relationship with the natural world and how that sustains him through his mother’s mental illness, a terrible accident that befalls Abe and the turmoil of having to leave a crumbling Arcadia. It’s the backdrop for all that’s good in his life, his memories are almost always cast in these terms and ARCADIA is a celebration of the incredible impact that growing up steeped in nature has on children. Groff’s writing is full of metaphors that conjure this world, so someone’s face, for example, is as kind as a field of dandelions, yet she’s not sentimental about it – the bucolic is always tempered by realism and decay.

Bit’s also indelibly shaped by his first love, a girl who lives alongside him at Arcadia and is responsible for both some of his most intense experiences of joy and for shaking his life to the core. She is a constant, if not always physical, presence in his adult life in the city, where he tries to remain true to the values of his childhood. whilst also building a new forward looking present. But when Hannah and Abe need his help, Bit returns to Arcadia and is forced to decide which parts of his past he wants to leave behind and which he will need for the future.

I loved this book. The day to day details of how the commune operates are wonderfully evocative – the back breaking bread making, the tatting and harvesting, the kidlets truck, the crew that deal with the loos every day, the piercing cold and the fuggy warmth. Bit himself, as a five year old child, as a teenager and as a grown man, is clearly much loved by Groff and that spills over abundantly, so as a reader I too couldn’t help but love him deeply. That said, I suspect more cynical readers may find him rather irritating or simply too good to be true. But Arcadia is a dream, and I think it’s good to dream because it encourages us strive for something better. Here that better is about a sense of community and connection, noticing the world around us, learning all the time,  giving and sharing, and being physically active. Utopia doesn’t have to be a place, it’s about how we live our lives and, in Bit, Groff has created someone who as a child naturally embodies that, then as an adult must aim to do so more consciously.  As with her depiction of the natural world, she’s unswervingly honest about how difficult it can be, but her love for what Bit is doing is as strong as for the character himself; the result is an honesty that’s brutal without being cruel.

ARCADIA chimes with a lot of my own beliefs and I expect that’s in large part why I derived such enjoyment from it. Yet there’s much more going on here and you could easily just see some elements as the back drop to other main events. Either way, the overall effect is as restorative as a day suffused with sunshine, trees and mountains.

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