A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
This novel, considered a classic, first published in 1943, is a coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan, a young girl from an Austrian/Irish-American immigrant family, living in Brooklyn. Francie, like the Tree of Heaven which grows, literally, out of the cement of the Brooklyn streets and sidewalks, is resourceful and able to thrive despite the hard times suffered by her family.
Personally, I was hooked from page one, when I discovered that Francie, who was eleven years old when the story opens, was born in 1901, the same year as my Grandma, who immigrated from France as a little child.
Tai-Pan, James Clavell
Long ago I read Shogun, by James Clavell. Shogun was an epic tale about the Japanese feudal system, and I found it fascinating. Although Clavell’s books are long and detailed, I felt I was ready to tackle another one.
Tai-Pan is a story of the European and American sea traders who seize the uninhabited island of Hong Kong, with its natural harbor. It takes place at the close of the first Opium War.
Although there are many characters in the novel, the story centers on the competitive relationship between Dirk Struan and Tyler Brock, owners of the two largest shipping companies vying for domination of the Chinese market. Dirk Struan, whose company is the largest in all of Asia, is known as Tai-Pan, translated Supreme Leader.
I learned a lot from working my way through this book, but I did find it to be work. When I read Shogun, I found myself being emotionally tied to the characters and didn't want to come to the end of the novel. Tai-Pan, although an interesting story, left me with an emotional disconnect to the characters, and a feeling of satisfaction and relief that the book was finished.
Paranoia, Joseph Finder
After working my way through Tai-Pan, I wanted something much less academic. I found it in Paranoia. It is a fun novel, with twists and turns around every corner. The main character, Adam Cassidy, is involuntarily trapped in a spider-web of corporate espionage, which turns dangerous when he falls into the roll of a double-agent.
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
I kept running into people who recommended The Help. I avoided reading it for about a year, thinking it was probably too similar to The Secret Life of Bees, which I read recently. Finally, however, I thought I’d give it a chance. I’m so glad I finally succumbed.
I was correct that there were some similarities in this book to The Secret Life of Bees, in that it centered upon black-white relationships in the Deep South. But the similarities stop there. The Help, as suggested by the title, itself, tells the stories of some of the African American maids – the help - who worked in the homes of the white socialite families of Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.
Their story is told in an original and clever way. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a recent white college graduate, has moved back home with her parents, on their cotton plantation in Jackson. Her passion is writing, but she has been unable to land a job in her field. Skeeter, herself, grew up in the loving care of Constantine, her family’s maid, but upon her return home finds that Constantine is gone and has been replaced by a new maid. Skeeter’s questions about Constantine’s disappearance are avoided and not answered by her family.
Those questions, however, lead Skeeter to a new and unprecedented relationship with two of Jackson’s African American maids, Aibileen and Minny. From this relationship grows a clandestine book-writing project and, eventually, a true and deep friendship. The book they write, in the midst of the historical drama of the civil rights movement and the assassination of Medgar Evers, in Mississippi, eventually involves the cooperation of a dozen Jackson maids and puts them all at serious risk.
The story plays with the emotions, as it has complex shades of humor, tension, fear, sadness, grief, admiration, joy and love. I highly recommend its reading.