Monthly Archives: September 2011

Review: The Help

A week or so ago, I mentioned to a coworker that I had just started reading The Help. She responded, “Oh, I saw the movie. It’s your typical white-guilt story.” Now, I freely admit that I haven’t seen the movie (nor do I plan to see it), and I don’t know how much they simplified or cut from the book. What I do know is this: if all this woman got out of the movie adaptation of the book was a message of “white guilt”, she MAJORLY missed the point. Katheryn Stockett wrote an incredibly complex and moving story of relationships and interactions in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. The Help is not trying to guilt or glorify; it’s a portrait of a particular place and time, one that people need to remember as a vital part of the United States’ recent history. Stockett weaves real historical events into the novel — JFK’s assassination, the murder of Medgar Evers, the explosion in the Alabama church that killed four little girls — and gives the characters genuine reactions to these world-altering happenings.

For me, the first indication that The Help was a novel to be respected was the reading addiction that kicked in almost immediately. I found I HAD to read some every day, and usually read quite a bit. Studying for the GRE? Meh. I could read two chapters of my novel instead! I skipped meals for this book. I ignored phone calls. I stayed up late and was grumpy all the next day. It was literally glued to my hands during any and all spare time in my day. Even when I wasn’t reading, I was thinking about The Help, wondering what would happen and envisioning scenes.

The novel’s narration is divided between the three main characters: Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny. Normally I really am not a fan of split narration, but this novel executes it perfectly. The main storyline is augmented by the voices, feelings, and minor events in the lives of these three women, all of which culminate in their interactions with each other. Aibileen and Minny are black, the titular “help” to various white families in Jackson. Skeeter (a nickname bestowed on her as a child by her older brother) is a white woman, an aspiring writer who begins to feel uncomfortable with the racism and ingrained prejudices her peers exhibit. I was impressed with the full-bodied nature of each of these characters; Stockett does a nearly impeccable job of illustrating their hopes and fears through their conversations and daily routines. One of the most interesting features is the nuances in the way the characters view one another, especially as the novel progresses.

Skeeter has long had a respect for the help that her friends do not, though the conflict does not become apparent until the novel’s arch-villain Hilly Holbrook begins pushing to have even private homes have a “white” and a “colored” bathroom so that the whites don’t run the risk of catching any of the “horrible colored diseases” that Hilly assures everyone their maids and other black workers have. Skeeter mentions to Aibileen that she wishes she could change things, though she doesn’t know how.

Eventually, an interconnected series of events leads Skeeter to write a book about the relationships between white women and their black maids. Aibileen is the first to help her in this, giving interviews and allowing Skeeter to copy down her stories, albeit with names changed for her safety. I can’t even begin to map out all of the causes and effects that get this project rolling, or those that take it from a struggling hope to an almost-there dream with ambitions, payoffs, and consequences. I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but even if I did, I wouldn’t want to cheapen the beauty of this novel by giving only bits and pieces. There were a lot of parts that literally made my heart ache, but also parts that had me laughing out loud. The women have everything you’d expect them to: love lives, family drama, gossipy neighbors, bills, jobs that give both soul-crushing defeats as well as heart-warming rewards. All of these little familiar aspects of life take place against the colorful and changeable backdrop of the unrest of the 1960s. Stockett does an excellent job not only of giving the reader believable characters, but also of giving the characters believable lives. You can’t help but root for Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, and fly through the pages to find out what lies in store for them.

I encourage people to absolutely read this novel — it’s one of the rare books that will consume your heart and mind completely from start to finish. It’s not just about race, or even race relations. It’s about the strength that women find in themselves when they let down their guard and see themselves reflected in a woman they never would have guessed they had so much in common with. It’s about principles and pride. It’s about pain and loss, about never letting go of the hope for something more. It’s about family, in all its forms, and the myriad sacrifices that people make for it.

I strongly recommend this book, and hope that people read it. Don’t just see the movie; the movie is NEVER as good as the novel. Or, if you really must see the movie, read the book too. The Help is a novel that absolutely deserves its place on the best-seller list.

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Celebrate Banned Books Week!

In the midst of Banned Books Week, I am pleased to see how many people are embracing their First Amendment right to write, publish, and read whatever they’d like. In 1990, Ed Morrow, the president of the American Booksellers Association, and Harry Hoffman, president of Walden Book Company Inc., wrote an open letter to 28 newspapers. Below is an extremely powerful quote:

“We believe attempts to censor ideas to which we have access – whether in books, magazines, plays, works of art, television, movies or song – are not simply isolated instances of harassment by diverse special-interest groups. Rather they are part of a growing pattern of increasing intolerance which is changing the fabric of America. . .

“Censorship cannot eliminate evil. It can only kill freedom. We believe Americans have the right to buy, stores have the right to sell, authors have the right to write and publishers have the right to publish Constitutionally-protected material. Period.”

These words remain truer than ever today.

Also, I looked over the ALA’s list of banned classics, and I am proud to say I have read a large number of them. The banned classics I have read include:

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses, by James Joyce
7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
9. 1984, by George Orwell
10. Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
11. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
12. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
13. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
14. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
15. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
16. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
17. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
18. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
19. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
20. Native Son, by Richard Wright
21. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
22. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
24. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
25. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
26. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
27. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
28. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
29. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
30. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
31. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
32. Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron
33. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
34. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

I may not have like all of these books (*ahem* A Separate Peace *cough, cough*), but I would fight to the death to be allowed to read whatever I want, whenever I want.

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Banned Books Are Some of the Best Books!

Banned Book Week 2011 starts TOMORROW! I encourage everyone to participate by reading banned or challenged books. There are plenty to choose from; over 11,000 books are on the list. Banned Book Week lasts from Sept. 24 through Oct. 1, and will be celebrated in lots of fun and exciting ways by many libraries and book stores around the nation. Only YOU can decide what books are appropriate for you. Don’t let anyone censor your literary choices! Books that have changed the way we think of literature and the world around us have been deemed offensive at one point or another, but thankfully enough copies survived the book-burnings to enlighten those open-minded enough to read them. So give The Man the finger, and read a banned book!

For more info, check out the website:

http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/

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Review: Wild Sheep Chase

I have finished Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, and I’m kind of still digesting the novel. I feel like someone pulled the rug out from under me, and I’m still trying to decide if it was funny or just plain mean. This isn’t to say the book was funny or the ending was a joke; quite the opposite. For 285 pages, I hung in there based off a promise made on page 49: “‘Listen, an important phone call is going to come through in ten minutes. […] Something about sheep. Lots of sheep, and one sheep in particular. […] And that’ll be the beginning of a wild adventure.'” It mostly lived up to this assertion. Now that it’s all over, I am deliberating and sorting out my feelings.

Perhaps it wasn’t fair to be reading this novel concurrently with The Count of Monte Cristo. This novel is certainly an adventure, but of a very different sort than the French revenge story. Instead of mercilessly hunting down opponents and driving them to death or insanity, our protagonist in Wild Sheep Chase is up against a nameless, faceless adversary; an adversary that, even from the confines of his deathbed, is able to make an offer our nameless main character can’t refuse.

(Yes, I realize that I just used “nameless” twice within the same sentence. This is because Murakami does not relate a single character’s name in this novel. A few characters are referred to by nicknames or initials – such as Rat or J – but that’s it. I actually think it’s a testament to Murakami’s skill and style that, as a reader, I hardly noticed the lack of names. I’ve really only started thinking about it now, as I write this.)

At any rate, this adventure is not your typical rollicking, action-filled beach read. It’s more like tugging on a thread, untangling the knots, and suddenly finding that your sweater is just a heap of yarn. It really is a fantastic novel, but don’t expect gunfights or car chases. It’s simply not that kind of adventure. It’s cerebral and emotional, with unexpected glimpses into characters’ pasts and presents as the stepping stones to the dénouement. Though various scenes come before it, the real story begins with the aforementioned quote from page 49. The protagonist gets an odd call from his business partner, and is swept against his will into a sideways world in which a seemingly innocuous photo of sheep in a pasture has become a death sentence. A man who works for “the Boss” orders that the protagonist hunt down one particular sheep out of the flock in the photo within a month. If he refuses or fails, he will be killed. The story is almost noir in many ways: filled with rainy nights, long train rides, and a girl who enters and exits the tarnished hero’s life like a phantom.

Our protagonist (for convenience, I am going to start calling him Tanaka) meanders through Japan’s northern countryside, picking up clues in the most unlikely of places. His best lead comes from a man known as the Sheep Professor, who spins him a philosophical tale of ovine spirit guides and misunderstood power sources. Tanaka then heads for the mountains, finding a remote homestead near an isolated town that may in fact hold all the answers. Along with his girlfriend, Tanaka makes the trek (two trains, a 3-hour car ride, and then an hour-and-a-half hike) to this sheep mecca with high hopes of solving the mystery and retaining his life. His hopes rest on finding his long-lost friend Rat, who sent Tanaka the photo in the first place.

Instead, the homestead is empty. Beautifully, starkly, empty. The pasture is clearly that in the photograph, but there are no sheep to be found. Nor are there any people, though the cabin is fully stocked with food and fuel, as if the occupant had simply stepped out for a moment. Of course, being over four hours from the nearest town, there is nowhere for Rat to have stepped out to. Interestingly, it was at this point that I had an inkling of what might come, though Murakami swiftly diverted my attention with an oddly spellbinding character until I forgot my theory. Without giving the ending completely away, I have to say that while I was satisfied — not thrilled, but happy enough — with the answers Tanaka gained from Rat, I felt the manner in which Murakami delivered them was superb. It was an exceptionally well-written scene.

After that scene, however, the book ended all too quickly. There is an alarming decent back to earth, though one last image that Tanaka describes seeing from the train window brings a whole new sense of unease and unfinished business. This is why I was left with the rug-pulled-out feeling. I waited the entire novel for something to happen, then it did, and then there were no more pages in the book. While I do appreciate the simplicity and open-ended nature of the minimalist ending, I felt it left a something intangible to be desired. Or perhaps it’s a mark of Murakami’s skill that I want more.

Either way, this novel was well worth the read, and I absolutely plan to read more of Murakami’s work.

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Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Holy revenge story, Batman! The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, may be the most epic revenge story I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The Count of Monte Cristo is set against the vivid backdrop of France during the end of the Napoleonic Era and the restoration of King Louis XVIII to the throne. This book starts off somewhat slowly, but when it kicks into adventure time, it kicks ass. This novel was completed in 1844, but believe me when I say it is just as compelling now as it must have been back then. Adventure and intrigue never go out of style. This is a far cry from other works published at that time, even some of my favorites — Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 and Jane Eyre in 1847 — which are still popular, but less easy to relate to. As much as I adore my Jane Austen, I simply can’t lose myself in a comedy of manners in which the female characters’ SOLE goal in life is to marry a rich bachelor. I have trouble supporting characters that rigidly defined, though I admire the way in which Austen and Brontë painted them.

Dumas, however, gives us a tarnished hero in the character of Edmond Dantès, a young merchant sailor arrested due to false charges brought against him by two jealous rivals (Fernand and Danglars), and imprisoned by an immoral judge (Villefort) simply seeking to make a name for himself.  Due to the tragic conspiracy laid against him, the naive and upstanding young Dantès is literally snatched away from his bride-to-be Mercédès on their wedding day and thrown into a horrible prison for fourteen years. This is the relatively slow bit. Granted, I understand that Dantès is in prison, so there’s not a whole lot he can do, but I did get a little tired of his pining. Of course, I’d probably be miserable as well if I was thrown in a dungeon for a crime of which I knew I was truly innocent.

While in prison, Dantès becomes friends with the prisoner in the next cell, and they actually tunnel under the floor to visit one another. His new friend, a priest by the name of Abeé Faria, helps Dantès understand the plot laid against him, including deducing who framed him and then betrayed him to the authorities. Together, the two men plot an escape; their plan takes a very long time, however, and in the years they are incarcerated Faria educates Dantès in many subjects, to the point that he has the education equivalent to that a gentleman of society would have received. Sadly, Faria passes away before he and Dantès are able to execute their escape plans. However, Faria bequeaths Dantès an enormous fortune that he had hidden away on the island of Monte Cristo before being imprisoned. Now, things start to get interesting. Dantès escapes the island prison in a totally unexpected fashion, and manages to gain the treasure Faria had left to him.

Once he has the staggering wealth of a nobleman, Dantès renames himself the Count of Monte Cristo and sets out to seek vengeance on those who wronged him. He finds that Fernand, Danglars, and Villefort have all become extremely rich, and — to make matters worse — his love Mercédès married Fernand, the very man who was responsible for Dantès’ absence. Dantès spends TEN YEARS planning and setting up for his ultimate revenge, though thankfully Dumas skims over that decade of his life. Dumas instead uses vignettes to establish the way in which Dantès lays the foundation for things to come. Some of the stories seem to make no sense, but one hundred pages later you realize that it was all part of a master plan. This whole book felt like a murder mystery in which you were racing alongside the killer, trying to guess when and where he would strike next. And good god – when Dantès strikes, he strikes HARD. He is very Old Testament in his ideas of retribution and the sins of the father being paid for by the son (or wife, or cousin, or friend…). If Dantès views you as guilty in the plot against him, you can pretty much kiss everything you care about in your life goodbye.

Now, I HIGHLY encourage everybody to read this book, so I don’t want to give too many spoilers. The main action of the novel takes place in Paris society, which is all the more interesting for the historical events of the time. Dantès picks away at his enemies little by little, so subtly that at times even I wasn’t sure what his endgame was. Let me assure you, the final result of his labors is extreme. It’s interesting to find  yourself rooting so hard for someone doing such underhanded and occasionally awful things, but I truly was cheering for Dantès all the way. I also appreciated the fact that Dumas did not attempt to give the novel an unrealistic happy ending; the mission throughout was to rain misery and pain down on those who had hurt him, so a tidy ending would have been ridiculous. I wondered how Dumas would handle the lingering love between Dantès and Mercédès, but I was satisfied even with the way he resolved that aspect of the storyline.

This book is engrossing and emotional, but still a downright fun read. I found myself reading pages whenever I could spare a moment, even once while in the turn lane at a stop light. Now, of course the language is slightly out of date, even if the ideas are not. I think this actually adds to the appeal. I felt utterly transported to another era, one in which sword fights, city glamor, and sprawling country houses were still natural parts of life. In closing, let me share one of my favorite lines from the novel: “What I demand, madame, is that justice shall be done. My mission on earth is to punish.

If that doesn’t hook you, I don’t know what will.

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