Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Help by Kathryn Stockett


Please help.

Because I don't know.

I don't know what to do with this. I don't know what to say about this.

I don't know what to do or say because Kathryn Stockett wrote the wrong story.

Which is ironic, really, because one of Stockett's own characters manages to write the right story. Even more ironic is that it's Stockett's own author surrogate that writes the right story.

I'm so disappointed in the whole situation. I expected a blunt, hard-hitting, soulful examination of the lives of the South's colored maids in the 60s. What I got was a cowardly side-step around the issue.

I knew that The Help contained the writing of a book by the maids, facilitated by a white woman (named Skeeter), and that the employers of the maids who took part were in for some nasty shocks. That's fine. It's kind of taking the long way around the issue, but ultimately it shouldn't be terribly important.

But it was. Stockett wrote The Help about the writing of the fictitious book Help. Stockett wrote about the publishing of the book. Stockett's characters took real risks, faced real danger, overcame real obstacles and prejudices, and showed a bravery few people would have at the time.

The characters showed more bravery in their time than Stockett showed in the relatively soft-and-fluffy 2009.

Stockett told a few of the maids' stories, but most of the book was about the interactions between the white women and how afraid the maids and Skeeter were, and Skeeter's home life, relationships with her friends, and boyfriend. Most of the book's 450 pages are completely unnecessary and uninteresting. Even the maids' most shocking and tragic stories are stilted. The stories are referred to but the meat of the story goes into the personal interviews to be edited into characters' book that the actual living reader never gets to see.

This book could have been so much better. It could have been a couple of maids sitting around a card table telling stories about their past jobs that started with the good things, then as the night wore on got progressively more tragic. To keep the element of social change, they could have approached a sympathetic white character (like Skeeter), gotten it published, and then had the town's families recognize themselves. By taking the approach she did, Stockett never had to write anything too troubling, or too challenging. She took the easy way out. The commercial way out.

And I'm not sure which is worse, because they're really two halves of the same thing: Kathryn Stockett sacrificed her artistic integrity. She sold out. Yes, she's sold a lot of books but, as far as I'm concerned, they might as well be empty.

It's not that I can't enjoy a good light read, but even the parts that were supposed to be the most shocking or gut-wrenching fell short. Of course the maid cleaned up after her employer's wife had a miscarriage, who else was going to do it? Of course the maids did questionable things to the food they served you, do you think that it hasn't happened at every restaurant you've ever been to, ever? That the employers wives and maids never took care of each other after one of their husbands beat them? But those stories, the gritty ones, take up only paragraphs. And, unintentionally I hope, the author's tone is full of sunshine the whole time-- which is so weird. 

Those women went through things we can't even imagine, and things we can. It's the author's job, it's Stockett's job, to research what happened as much as she could and then go the extra mile. Tell us something new. Come up with something we haven't thought of. That's what authors do. That's what artists do.

Maybe if she had been bold and taken the chance, maybe the book wouldn't be the success it is today, but that's the risk an artist takes.

And...I mean...I'm usually not one to call Mary Sue, because I'm sure all writers put something of themselves into characters, but MARY SUE. The best part is where, after the acknowledgements section, Stockett herself outs Skeeter as her Mary Sue. Doesn't even try to hide it. Nope. It's right out there. Skeeter is directly based on Stockett herself and (secretly, for safety reasons) receives the praise and sworn love and protection of the black community in The Help. I think I can guess what Stockett was hoping to achieve with this book. 

If you're not expecting it to be a serious literary work of great social significance, you'll find The Help a pleasant beach read with a few smiles and maybe a gasp or two. You can even feel like you're being socially aware by reading a book dealing with race. 

A begrudging 2.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Giver by Lois Lowry-- The Giver Quartet, #1

I've been pretty blue these past couple of days and wishing for a simpler time. High school, specifically, and I read The Giver for the first time in high school, so in my mild regression I decided my next review would be of The Giver, first in The Giver series which, coincidentally, will have its fourth installment released in October.

The Giver takes place in an uber-futuristic world, in a community that, in an effort to minimize difficulty and pain, has eliminated things like weather, hills, and personal choice. There is no sunlight. There is no rain. The people have lost the ability to see color. Adults apply for a spouse and one is assigned to them. Spouses apply for children and they are assigned to them- one boy, one girl, no more, no less, not ever.

At the annual ceremony where infants to children of  11 (turning 12) receive the items, responsibilities, age, and hairstyles of the next year. The 11 year olds that are turning 12 are given the job assignments they will have for the rest of their lives, and the story centers on one of these 11-to-12 year olds, Jonas.

At the ceremony, Jonas is named the next Reciever of Memory. The community only has one, one man that holds the memories of generations past and feels all the pain and love that the rest of the community never gets to experience. In order for him to retire he needs to transfer the memories to Jonas.

Jonas then begins to see the problems in his community. The literal and metaphorical lack of color. The reason why they are so serious about precision of language (parents don't love their children, they enjoy and take pride in them. You're not starving, you're hungry-- no one in the community is starving, or ever will be. Etc.) Jonas decides after gaining so much experience from the memories, that things need to change.

One of the things I love most about this book is the amount of detail Lowry packs into such a short book. The way she has the community set up is watertight, no element of life in the community is left out. You aren't distracted halfway through going, "Wait, how do they...?" because it's covered.

In fantasy criticism there's a rule that's been repeated so often it's cliche: the book or movie needs to establish a set of rules of what is and is not possible in the world being worked in. Chandler and I say this all the time on Movie Gaga. It's this seemingly small rule that, not followed, can destroy a fantasy work. The Giver stays well within its own bounds. More than that, it just barely goes outside the bounds of the natural world. The only magic that actually occurs is in the transfer of and the ability to almost enter the world of the memory.

This book is also the perfect introduction to dystopian stories. Too young for Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World, but old enough to begin questioning authority and the world around them? There isn't another book for tweens/young adults that shows how dangerous mind control can be.

There are layers of symbolism and allegory that can be analyzed all on their own, as well, which is what makes this book something you can return to over and over again for years, even as an adult. I love it.

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Let me preface this review by saying this book is not nearly as girly as it sounds from the title.

That being said, I do have to admit that this book is one of the three books that have ever made me cry in my life.

Well, four-- I was about eight years old and was reading this book that was waaaayyyy too old for me and I lost it when the dad murdered the baby sitter. I don't count that one, though, because I never finished it. And because I didn't cry because I was attached to the characters, I cried because I was afraid for my life.

The other two are the 6th and 7th Harry Potters.

This book struck a chord. I'm starting to get a little teary just thinking about it.

The story follows 3 students through boarding school and into their lives after. They grow up with the vague knowledge that they're very special, very lucky, and that they're human clones bred and raised to one day donate their organs to "normal" citizens until they die.

Their life-spans are half to a third as long as normal citizens so we watch as Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy dream of and struggle to have normal lives, make sense of their past, and try to put off their fates for as long as they can.

I think one of the reasons this book got to me so much was the powerlessness of the characters. The idea of being unable to do anything about your destiny, about your life...and knowing you're essentially going to be tortured to death at a young age; what a horrible fate. I feel a little claustrophobic just writing it.

There's no shortage of dramatic tension with this knowledge over your head while you read, but Ishiguro employs a writing technique that does, for me, diffuse the tension of the individual situations a bit-- Kathy, as the narrator, tells you what's going to happen, but then in order for that to make sense she has to explain something that happened weeks or months or years earlier. This makes me crazy, but I admit that I can't think of a better way to do it for this particular story.

Overall, there's something incredibly engaging about the book: I couldn't put it down. Watching Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy unraveling the secrets surrounding them, their love for each other in all its forms, and watching them deal with the heartbreaking truths is addictive.

4 Stars out of 5

Friday, March 2, 2012

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I really enjoy books about Asian cultural history-- probably because my American education refused to believe there was an Eastern hemisphere, but I digress. The point is, nowadays, I can't get enough of it and Lisa See is one of my favorites.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan gives an in depth look into the secrets of women's lives and relationships in 19th century China-- foot binding, cloistering, women's writing, and the special friendships forged. The story takes Lily and Snow Flower through their early childhood together as a matchmaker-made relationship between young girls called laotong.

We follow the girls through their brutal, painful, dangerous foot bindings and their lives as young girls locked away in the upstairs women's chambers, sewing and painting and doing "womanly" things. Then there's their meetings with the matchmaker, wondering about their husbands, and preparing for their weddings in both the traditional ways and the special ways reserved for laotong. After comes their lives during and after their marriages and children. Throughout everything, as was the intention of the pairing, the girls are there to help each other through anything the other needs.

Secrets are the main theme of the story. The women's secret lives in their cloisters, the secrets of the care and creation of the perfect bound foot, the secret language women developed to communicate with each other, and the secrets shared and forged between best friends. And as the novel progresses, the secrets surrounding Snow Flower's life are uncovered, one heartbreaking discovery after another.

Lisa See is an amazing writer, and this is the kind of book you can become completely engrossed in for every one of your multiple readings.

5 stars

A note about the movie: While I want to keep my movie-related rants confined to Movie Gaga,
I did want to mention that if anyone saw the (very poorly reviewed) movie without having
read the book I can tell you with complete confidence, even though I have never seen the
movie, that the two have very little do with each other. To sum up that point I will say only that there is not a single character in the book that is not Chinese, yet Hugh Jackman was one of the film's stars. No, I'm not kidding.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Blindness by Jose Saramago

I'm not going to beat around the bush: this book was a difficult read for a lot of reasons.

Reason #1: The style is...unique. After an extremely contagious and quickly moving plague of blindness strikes a city the government decides to quarantine the blind in an abandoned mental institution to try to contain the outbreak. For reasons unexplained beyond "names are no longer important" in the quarantine, none of the characters are named. The main characters are "the doctor", "the doctor's wife", "the girl with dark glasses", "the first blind man", and "the boy with the squint." They spend the entire book that way.

Which is awkward enough without Saramago's other stylistic choice: there are no quotation marks around anyone's speech, and he doesn't start a new paragraph when a new character begins speaking. This, naturally, makes it difficult to tell exactly who's speaking- or even if they're speaking at all. It works on the level that it's disorienting, so it's kind of like actual blindness in that way. But that being said, shouldn't sound then be the clearest thing? Or clearer, anyway? We would at least be able to tell the difference between two different speakers is all I'm saying.

Reason #2: It's incredibly violent, and graphically so. There are injuries, illnesses, attacks, fights, murders, and (again, graphic) gang rape in spades. Blood. Pus. Guns. Scissors. Did I mention the gang rape? Or, more specifically, multiple gang rapes. One woman is gang raped to death. We hear all about it.

In detail. Did I mention that part?

Reason #3: There's a lot of...excrement. The plumbing at the facility isn't the best and with society breaking down around them the blind stop caring about where they take care of business, as it were. But then the blind leave the facility because it turned out that just about everybody was blind and there wasn't any real need for the quarantine anymore, so we find out that the blind outside the facility stopped caring about...cleanliness, as well. Between the sights (one character can see), and the...smells...and the...depth...yeah, no, it's not pretty.

Reason #4: It's scarily realistic. Everything that happens, given the circumstances, is completely believable. Through the whole book you know- you know- that it's all plausible. And that's terrifying. But it's part of what makes this such a good book.

But that being said, it is a good book if you're the type that reads dramatic, depressing, intense things-- which I am but, for example, my mother is not. I wouldn't recommend this to her if Saramago paid me, she'd hate it. But if this is your thing, it's a can't miss read.

4 stars out of 5.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

I've been fascinated by the Tudors for most of my life. I could recite Henry VIII's wives, children, and their fates in elementary school because that's just the kind of kid I was.

Yes, I got as many strange looks as you think.

So it's only natural that as I grew up I came across Gregory's books and fell in love, just like I fell in love with Showtime's The Tudors. It was destiny.

But all these years of research and entertainment did little to endear Katherine of Aragon to me. Of course I admired her strength and fortitude, remaining silent and faithful while her husband flaunted his affairs then divorced her, claiming they were never really married in the first place. I can't even begin to imagine the pain...I'm not going to lie, I'm a jealous girlfriend. Had I been Katherine I'd have had that Boleyn woman trampled by horses at the very least, so the fact that she didn't even do that speaks to incredible self-control.

But self-control, especially in that decadent court and the sumptuous entertainments its inspired, is really kind of boring. Honor? Piety? Integrity? Snore.

So I put off reading The Constant Princess. Katherine was boring in stories about other people, so why would I want to read a whole book about her?

To my great surprise I regretted not having read it sooner. It's excellent.

Don't get me wrong. The Other Boleyn Girl is still the jewel in Philippa Gregory's crown, but The Constant Princess without a doubt claims a very respectable 2nd place in Gregory's stunning career.

One thing I didn't like, though, was that she wrote 3/4 of it in third person EXTREMELY limited
point of view and a quarter of it in first person, with long stretches of third person broken up with the first person bits, Katherine herself giving us further insight into her actions. Which was strange because the narrator gave almost no "inside" information on any of the characters. Had Gregory written this with a more traditional third person limited it would have completely eliminated the need for Katherine's explanations and would have made the flow of the novel far smoother.

But that's really my only complaint. In The Constant Princess you get to see the beginnings of Katherine's incredible strength: her mother, Isabella of Spain. Gregory also gives an explanation for how it came to be that Katherine married first Henry's older brother Arthur- an explanation that also explains why she fought so hard to save her marriage to Henry.

It's also interesting to see Henry as a young boy as Gregory's interpretation of what he might have been (probably was) like so perfectly explains the man, the king, he became. Reading it, it can be hard to remember that this novel or, really, any and all of Gregory's novels, are merely conjectures on what might have been based on her thorough research. Gregory's gift is how real she makes her characters out to be. How human. And how well she lines up actual historical events to their perpetrators.

4 stars out of 5

Also by Philippa Gregory: