Month: May 2010

Impressive: Cory Doctorow

I first heard about Cory Doctorow last year, when I was seeing reviews of his young adult novel Little Brother all over the book blogs. The Guardian had an interview with him this past weekend wherein he discusses why he gives his books away for free:

I give away all of my books. [The publisher] Tim O’Reilly once said that the problem for artists isn’t piracy – it’s obscurity. I think that’s true. A lot of people have commented: “You can’t eat page views, so how does being well-known help you earn a living as a writer?” It’s true; however, it’s very hard to monetise fame, but impossible to monetise obscurity. It doesn’t really matter how great your work is; if no one’s ever heard of it, you’ll never make any money from it. That’s not to say that if everyone’s heard of it, you’ll make a fortune, but it is a necessary precursor that your work be well-known to earn you a living. As far as I can tell, these themes apply very widely, across all media.

He also discusses the mixed messages we send kids about privacy:

Kids’ relationship with privacy is really confused; they’re told by teachers and adults that their privacy is paramount, that they should stop disclosing so much information on Facebook and so on. And then they go to schools where everything they do is monitored; there’s mandatory spyware that takes every click they make, every word they utter and sends it back to teachers and headmasters for disciplinary purposes.

Hallelujah! I haven’t read Little Brother yet, but I went immediately to his site today and downloaded the free PDF. Even though it was already on my TBR because I had seen so many good reviews, this short, thoughtful interview impressed me a great deal and made me more determined to read his work. I love to read interviews like this one, that make me want to read an author’s work because of how they come across as people, as opposed to how they come across as writers. You can download Cory Doctorow’s work,  including his latest novel, For the Win, at craphound.com.

What do you think about authors who give away their work for free?

TSS: Lost, among Other Things

sunsalon1Yes, I will be one of those people glued to my television tonight to watch the series finale of Lost, although I think the BBC may have ruined it for me. I saw a headline on their site Friday and clicked away as fast as I could. I did not watch Lost when it first aired, but last summer Bob and I watched the entire first five seasons and were hooked. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it, and having watched this last season on “regular” television (whatever that means anymore…we actually watch it through the Internet), I think the intensity of watching it on DVD or streaming makes it that much better, especially because there are so many twists and turns. The Internet has really changed the way we watch television, and in some ways I think we watch more (probably not a good thing, but oh well) because we can pick and choose and watch things straight through. Still, we have the most basic of basic cable, and I wish that HBO would hurry up and offer a subscription through the Internet so I could watch Treme, Big Love, and Entourage in real time, instead of waiting a year or so for Netflix to get it. Anyway, fellow Lost fans, I remain a firm supporter of Team Sawyer to the end. Just thought I would say so.

I have been doing a terrible job at supporting Short Story Month, and I will try to make up for it this week. My reading seems to have slowed to a crawl. I get ten minutes here and there during the day, and then I try to read when I go to bed but I only get through a few pages before my eyelids start to droop. I did finish Maile Meloy’s Half in Love this past week, so look for a post on that sometime soon. I also bought two other collections, Keith Lee Morris’s Call It What You Want, which I read about on Largehearted Boy (I loved his novel, The Dart League King, one of my favorite books so far this year) and Jean Thompson’s Do Not Deny Me, and I have another one out from the library (Who was talking about a library ban? Iliana? I am all for it.), The Secret Goldfish by David Means. There is no way I will finish all these this coming week, obviously. I had big plans for Short Story Month, but it looks like I will just have to turn it into Short Story Summer and be happy with that.

Seriously, I have so many books around the house, I am thinking of banning myself from the library after I turn in the books I currently have out on loan. I still have to read A Handful of Dust (I own that one) for the 1930’s Mini-Challenge, and I also signed up for Nymeth’s “read along” of Middlemarch (I own that one, too, and I’ve read about a third of it–several times). Participants will read at their own pace and post their thoughts the week of August 2. Right now, August seems far, far away, but then I seem to be under the impression half the time that it is still March.

Enjoy your Sunday, everyone!

Paris Review: Dorothy Parker

Interviewer: How about the novel? Have you ever tried that form?

Parker: I wish to God I could do one, but I haven’t got the nerve.

Interviewer: And short stories? Are you still doing them?

Parker: I’m trying now to do a story that’s purely narrative. I think narrative stories are the best, though my past stories make themselves stories by telling themselves through what people say. I haven’t got a visual mind. I hear things. But I am not going to do those he-said, she said things anymore, they’re over, honey, they’re over. I want to do the story that can only be told in the narrative form, and though they’re going to scream about the rent, I’m going to do it.

Interviewer: Do you think economic security an advantage to the writer?

Parker: Yes. Being in a garret doesn’t do you any good unless you’re some sort of a Keats. The people who lived and wrote well in the twenties were comfortable and easy living. They were able to find stories novels, and good ones, in conflicts that came out of two million dollars a year, not a garret. As for me, I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money. I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be a darling at it. At the moment, however, I like to think of Maurice Baring’s remark: “If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom he gives it.” I realize that’s not much help when the wolf comes scratching at the door, but it’s a comfort.

*photo from nndb.com; interview excerpt from The Paris Review Interviews, vol. I

The Siege of Krishnapur

I am not sure why, honestly, I decided to read The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell, but it was a happy coincidence that when I signed up for the Spotlight Series, which is currently featuring  New York Review Books, it was one of the selections, as I already had it on hold at the library. The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize in 1973, and one of Farrell’s other novels, Troubles, was shortlisted for the Lost Booker Prize, whose winner will be announced today (as I write this post, it has yet to be announced). UPDATE: He won!

The story takes place in India during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The British-occupied town of Krishnapur is attacked by rebel sepoys (Indians who served European armies) and held under siege for four months. During that time, most of the British in Krishnapur die, either from battle, starvation, or disease. Sounds cheerful, no?

But it is. Well, okay, not cheerful. But witty, and insightful. This is truly a novel of ideas, represented by Farrell’s cast of characters, concerning colonialism and the rights of humans in general. The Collector (who is basically a powerful governor, a highly ranked representative of British government in India), a man named Hopkins, is aptly titled, for he is obsessed with collecting objects he believes display the superiority of Western culture. Even amidst the disintegration of his own settlement, he continues to wax rhapsodic about the Great Exhibition of 1851. He believes invention is the key to progress, to elevating men above their station. The Collector’s main foil is the Magistrate, an embittered idealist who had championed social and political reform in England and represents a rational threat to the Collector’s rather romantic Victorian ideas about progress:

[The] Collector had merely been thinking of Prince Albert’s Model Houses for the Labouring Classes and of another argument he had had with the Magistrate about them…how shocked he had been at the Magistrate’s attitude to these model houses!

On his way to the Crystal Palace a small block of houses caught his eye not far from the south entrance to the Exhibition and a little to the west of the Barracks. He had paused, thinking how cheerful they were in their modest way. They had stood there, respectful and unabashed, without giving themselves airs amid the grander edifices round about. They were square and simple (like the British working man himself, as one of his colleagues of the Sculpture Jury had lyrically expressed it) with a large window upstairs and downstairs, and they were built in pairs with a modestly silhouetted coping stone above the entrance but no flamboyant decoration. They were not dour and sullen like so many of the houses in the populous districts; they were proud, but they knew their places. In short, they were so delightful that for a moment one even had to envy the working man his luck to be able to live in them as one passed on one’s way toward the Exhibition.

But when the Collector had grown eloquent about these charming little dwellings, for this was in the early days before he had realized that the Magistrate was impermeable to optimism where social improvements were concerned, the Magistrate had spoken with equal vehemence about the exploitation of the poorer classes, the appalling conditions in which they were expected to live, and so on, dismissing Prince Albert’s houses as a sop to the royal conscience. The Collector had protested that he was certain that the Prince’s houses had been prompted, in a genuine spirit of sympathy, by the reports published by the Board of Health’s inspectors about the wretched home accommodation of the poorer classes, the utter lack of drainage, of water supply and ventilation.

“What prompted trivial improvements, on the contrary,” the Magistrate had replied, “was a fear of a cholera epidemic among the wealthier classes!”

There is also Fleury, a young gentleman concerned with poetry and philosophy, and his opposite, Harry Dunstaple, a soldier interested only in battle. Fleury and Harry find themselves thrown together at the beginning of the siege, and Harry is determined to teach Fleury to be a soldier, mainly because there are so few able-bodied men available as the siege progresses. During one battle, Fleury and Harry pull the marble heads of Socrates and Plato from one of the buildings in the Residency to prop up a cannon:

Harry touched the portfire to the vent and in front of the rampart the advancing infantry, like the legs of a monstrous millipede whose body was hidden in the dust cloud above them, collapsed all together, writhed, and lay still. The men behind who were still on their feet hesitated, unable to see what lay ahead of them in the dust. All they could see was the looming shape of the banqueting hall and, startling in their clarity, two vast, white faces, calmly gazing towards them in with expressions of perfect wisdom, understanding, and compassion. The sepoys quailed at the sight of such invincible superiority.

There are the doctors, Dunstaple and McNab, who argue over the best way to treat the cholera epidemic overtaking the colonials who remain after the siege. There is the Padre, the Anglican priest, who firmly believes that God loves the British above all others, and who fights to preserve their way of life.

To be honest, my head is still spinning a bit from this one. The number of flags I used to mark pages is astounding to me: the book looks like it has ruffles. Last night I was thinking about colonialism and cultural dominance. This might seem like a strange comparison, but we have been watching Battlestar Galactica again, and I was thinking about some of the similarities there, the way the Cylons develop and attack the humans, how they advance using the same tools humans used to dominate them, driving the humans into a desperate isolation where they struggle to find a way to survive. The siege causes a similar reaction among the British colonials in Krishnapur, and in fact, even though this is technically an historical novel based around an actual event, the book has the feel of well-wrought science fiction. Any occupying force is an alien force, no matter how it sets up its microcosm of civilization, and it will find its ideals and its very existence challenged at every turn, because it is, if you will, experiencing the reaction of an equal and opposite force, which is the occupied.

I feel I need to read this again to get the full gist, not because it confused me but because it is so chock-full of ideas I might have missed because I was busy laughing. Farrell has a caustic wit, but at the same time the reader gets the feeling that he still has sympathy for these people: the truth of the matter is, they are ridiculous, but it cannot be helped. They are pure products of their environment, as victim to grand ideals in their own way as the sepoys and the Indian citizens are to the colonials’.

I highly recommend this book. I can see why it won the Booker, and I imagine (or maybe I should say I hope–how I hope!) that it will become a classic, because its story is timeless. I think now about American forces occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, and while this is not a political blog and I certainly believe that the men and women over there have an incredibly tough job, and while we aren’t there to colonize those places or make them part of an empire (ahem, well, let’s pretend big oil isn’t an empire), truly the idea is the same: that one culture must set another culture to right. And always, it turns.

More favorite passages (there are too many to share, I tell you):

Chloe, overcome by the heat, had thrown herself panting on Fleury’s lap and had fallen asleep there. He tried to shove her away, but a dog that does not want to be moved can make herself very heavy indeed, and so he was obliged to let her stay. Fleury did not particularly care for dogs, but he knew that young ladies did, as a rule. He had bought Chloe, whose golden tresses had reminded him of Louise, from a young officer who had ruined himself at the race-course. At the time he had thought of Chloe as a subtle gift; the golden tresses had blended in his mind with the idea of canine fidelity and devotion. He would use Chloe as a first salvo aimed at Louise’s affections. But in the meantime he found her only a nuisance.

Yet at the time [the Padre] could not understand why the Bible should have to be translated at all, even in the first place…why it should have been written in Hebrew and Greek when English was the obvious language, for outside one remote corner of the world hardly anyone could understand Hebrew, whereas English was spoken in every corner of every continent. The Almighty had, it was true, subsequently permitted a magnificent translation, as if realizing His error…but, of course, the Almighty could not be in error, such as idea was an absurdity. Here the Padre was aware of intruding on matters of extraordinary theological complexity which blinded his brain. It was so hot and one must not allow oneself to get caught like a ram in a thicket of sophistry.

Fleury had not been paying attention when the cannon was loaded; the beginnings of an epic poem had been simmering in his brain.

“Fleury, for God’s sake!” shouted Harry, who knew how desperate the situation was. Fleury did not know; he was in a daze from the noise and smoke which had tears streaming down his face, and the haze of dust which hung everywhere, very fine, lending the scene a “historical” quality because everything appeared faintly blurred, as in a Crimean daguerrotype. Fleury found himself appending captions to himself for the Illustrated London News. “This was the Banqueting Hall Redoubt in the Battle of Krishnapur. On the left, Mr. Fleury, the poet, who conducted himself so gallantly throughout; on the right, Lieutenant Dunstaple, who commanded the Battery, and a faithful native, Ram.”

This was a design for a new weapon which would, he believed, create a revolution in the cavalry charge. Now, the great difficulty in the cavalry charge, as Fleury saw it, is that you very often have to deal with two of the enemy at once, with the result that while you are cutting the head off one of your assailants his companion is doing the same for you. The weapon which Fleury had designed and made for himself in order to overcome this difficulty resembled a giant pitchfork with prongs roughly at the distance of a man’s outstretched arms; it also had a wide tail, like that of a magnified bishop’s crozier which, reversed, could be used for dragging people off horses; on the shaft, for psychological reasons, there fluttered a small Union Jack. His only problem was to find a place to attach the weapon to his saddle. For the time being the prongs of the instrument (which he had christened the Fleury Cavalry Eradicator) sprouted over his horse’s head like a pair of weird antlers.

So poor Louise, who loved her father very dearly, could only turn to Harry for help. Harry listened to her in frank disbelief. Girls had a habit, he knew, of distressing themselves over things that did not exist. It was something to do with their wombs, so a fellow-officer had once told him. No doubt Louise was suffering from this womb-anxiety, then. He explained that if father had started calling Dr. McNab “the Gravedigger” it was only from a robust sense of professional rivalry and nothing to worry about. Besides, McNab probably deserved it from all one heard.

Paris Review: John Cheever

Interviewer: What comes first, the plot?

Cheever: I don’t work with plots. I work with intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts. Characters and events come simultaneously to me. Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction. Of course, one doesn’t want to be boring…one needs an element of suspense. But a good narrative is a rudimentary structure, like a kidney.

*photo from Wikipedia; quote from Paris Review Interviews, vol. III

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The problem with discussing bestsellers is that pretty much everyone has read them by now. I think I may be the last person in the book blogging world to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so I won’t belabor the point much: it was a solid, entertaining read. I read it very quickly, in just a couple of days, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire, probably sometime in…oh, I don’t know–2014. I have a lot of books to read. If you like mysteries, then definitely pick this up, but I think I should warn you about one thing…read on.

I won’t bother with a plot synopsis, so no worries about me giving anything away in terms of who-done-it if you haven’t read this, but I do want to talk about a particular aspect of the book: violence against women. This was something I had been warned about ahead of time by another blogger (and I honestly cannot remember who it was–sorry, fellow blogger!) who mentioned this in her review. I had intended to read it on my own, but it was also our book club selection for the month of May. I think it will be interesting to see if the woman so offended by Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now will also find this book offensive in any way. There are some rather graphic, disturbing scenes in the book that involve sexual violence committed against one of the main characters, Lisbeth Salander (said “girl” in the title) and violence she commits then, in turn, against her aggressor (and I admit, I actually yelled “DO IT!” when Salander was getting her revenge). Part of the investigation in the book also involves a series of serial crimes against women, which are described in all their gory detail.

Now, I didn’t find any of the violence in the story to be particularly gratuitous, and for certain the crimes under investigation, surrounding the disappearance of a young girl, are nothing worse than one might see on the evening news. Such is the sad state of affairs for women in this world, so the late Mr. Larsson seems to be saying. One of my book club members who as of the last meeting had already read the book said, “There isn’t much to discuss about it, really. Maybe family secrets.” Having read the book now, I am a bit surprised by this comment. It makes me wonder: are we so inured to this type of violence that it no longer even registers as a topic of conversation? Or is it just such a  conventional topic in a book of this type (mystery, suspense) that it ceases to shock us?

I could go on about this, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, it always surprises me when violent sexual content fails to provoke comment, but plain old sex just freaks people out. The woman in my book club who hated Rosoff’s book objected fiercely to a young girl who falls into a relationship with her first cousin. While I’m not saying it isn’t taboo, it’s also not exactly way out of the mainstream either. Why else was the royal family so full of hemophiliacs, after all? Another woman in my book club thinks that the movie Shakespeare in Love is pornographic because of the sex scenes. Yes, that movie for which Gwyneth Paltrow won the Academy Award for Best Actress (and Cate Blanchett didn’t win for Elizabeth, but that’s a discussion for another time). I wonder what she’ll have to say about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Stay tuned.

TSS: May is Short Story Month

sunsalon1Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there. My own “child,” my cat Diva, is unfortunately under lockdown in our guest bathroom. She had to have radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism, which is common in older cats (she is 17, but doesn’t look a day over 10…even the vet cannot believe it). We have to keep her semi-isolation for two weeks, and lap cat that she is, she is not happy about this fact at all. Let’s just say, I am not expecting a gift. Not even a card.

I mentioned this yesterday, but May is Short Story Month. Dan Wickett at the Emerging Writers Network blog has long been an advocate for a national short story month, and this year Poets & Writers magazine is getting into the mix and supporting the idea as well. I am late to the party as usual (and in fact was technically not even invited), but I greatly support the idea of a national short story month so I have decided to devote every Wednesday for the rest of the month to discussing short story collections I have read and enjoyed in the past, hopefully to help generate more interest in the short story as a form. I’ve never understood the whole West Side Story thing between the short story and the novel, like they were rival gangs squaring off in the aisles of bookstores and libraries. I have also never understood why some people believe that the short story is some sort of practice for writing a novel. The forms are distinct, but they are both meaningful. I don’t think anybody would ever say (I would hope nobody would ever say) a poet writes poems because he or she is not ready to write a longer work. They are all distinct forms of art, and no less valuable for it.

A few weeks ago–when I was completely unaware of Short Story Month, by the way–I mentioned that I wanted to spend more time discussing short stories. Part of my inspiration for wanting to do so was finding Charles May’s excellent blog, Reading the Short Story. I cannot remember how I found it, but I am so happy that I did. Charles discusses individual stories, collections, and the form and art of the short story as a whole. He is a passionate advocate for the short story, and the literary world could use more people like him. After reading his blog, I realized that in my earlier post about the short story I may have done the form a disservice. I said that I had studied them so deeply that for a period I could no longer enjoy them. That statement is not entirely true. I certainly did not mean that stories are so opaque, take so much work to unlock, that one must read so deeply that reading becomes a chore. I think a lot of people put that sort of pressure on the form–having to read for language and metaphor rather than “story,” whatever that means–and expect it to be more difficult than it really is. I simply went through a period of time where I worked so hard to understand how writers constructed their stories, from the point of view of trying to understand how to construct my own, that I had exhausted myself. My disappointment in my own writing was at an all-time high, and my energy for reading at an all-time low.

Anyhow, I am not here to discuss my own efforts at writing, but rather to talk about stories and collections I have enjoyed in the past, and as the year continues, to share some new (to me) collections with you. I’ve already reviewed several collections, including Mary Yakuri Waters’s Laws of Evening, Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories, and Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds. Over the coming weeks I hope to highlight stories from Marly Swick, Mary Robison, David Gates, Amy Hempel, Antonya Nelson, and Charles Baxter, among others, and I hope that you will share some of your favorites in the comments.

*Short Story Month logo designed by Stephen Seighman; copied from Emerging Writers Network

Paris Review: Alice Munro

May is Short Story Month, and Alice Munro, along with being one of my favorite writers, is an undisputed master of the short story form. If you have not read any of her work, I suggest you get your hands on one of her collections, pronto. My personal favorite is Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

Interviewer: Were you a big reader growing up? What work if any had an influence?

Munro: Reading was my life really until I was thirty. I was living in books. The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me because they showed me that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well. But the thing about the Southern writers that interested me, without my really being aware of it, was that all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. I didn’t really like Faulkner that much. I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.

Interviewer: Which you’ve always done as well.

Munro: Yes, I came to feel that was our territory, whereas the mainstream big novel about real life was men’s territory. I don’t know how I got that feeling of being on the margins; it wasn’t that I was pushed there. Maybe it was because I grew up on a margin. I knew there was something about the great writers I felt shut out from, but I didn’t know quite what it was. I was terrible disturbed when I first read D.H. Lawrence. I was often disturbed by writers’ views of female sexuality.

Interviewer: Can you put your finger on what it was that disturbed you?

Munro: It was: how can I be a writer when I’m the object of other writers?

*photo from abebooks.com; interview from The Paris Review Interviews, vol.II

The Help

I read The Help for my June book club, as it came up surprisingly quick on the hold list at the library. (I just got Wolf Hall last week, and I put it on hold in—wait for it—January.) So many people have written reviews of The Help, it seemed pointless to bother writing one of my own, but I at least wanted to share some thoughts…thoughts that, now that I read through them, sound suspiciously like a review. Oh well. Might as well go all the way and tell you up front: If I were a giver of stars, I would give this book a solid three out of five. I don’t think it lives up to all the hype—it will never, for example, be equal to To Kill a Mockingbird—but it is a pretty solid book, and far better than a lot of popular nonsense.

General plot synopsis (like you need it, but just in case): The Help is the story of white families and their African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. The novel switches between several first-person points of view: that of two maids, Aibileen and Minny, and a white girl named Miss Skeeter. Miss Skeeter is a graduate of Ole Miss, and she wants to be a writer. After college she applied for a job at Harper & Row, but never heard a thing until one day one of their editors contacted her out of the blue and offered her some advice: she should get a job writing at the paper, and she should keep her eyes open for things she can write a book about. Miss Skeeter (or, just Skeeter, really—only the maids use the “Miss”) gets a job working at the paper as Miss Myrna, the housekeeping-advice columnist. Skeeter has always been taken care of by maids and knows next to nothing about housekeeping, so she enlists the help (no pun intended) of her friend’s maid, Aibileen. Skeeter also has an ulterior motive in befriending (if that’s the right word—using is probably better) Aibileen: she is trying to find out what happened to her own maid, Constantine, who left abruptly without saying goodbye before Skeeter returned from college. In talking to Aibileen, Skeeter has an epiphany about the subject of the book she wants to write: the help.

The writing is clean and even, and Stockett manages the trick of shifting points of view rather well—no easy feat. I am still not sure how I feel about her using a black dialect for the maids, but I don’t think it got in the way of the story too much, and Aibileen and Minny’s voices were distinct. My favorite parts of the book belonged to Minny and Miss Celia and their relationship, which I thought was the most complex and well-rounded in the book, next to Aibileen and Mae Mobley. One thing those sections, and this book in particular, shows very successfully is that love is complicated, and so is hate, and sometimes they sit right next to each other in the same heart.

In telling this story, I believe Stockett, like Skeeter, has only good intentions, but her view is limited, and she cannot escape the context of her own life. This would have been a very different book if it had been written by someone who did not have such passionate and conflicted feelings about her family’s own maid. I’ve read that some people are greatly offended by her attempt to write from the point of view of the maids, or to say that a loving relationship existed in what was essentially the vestige of a master-slave society. While I understand that and think it is valid on some level, I also think that does not make Stockett’s experience of things any less authentic. I wonder if Stockett’s book is so widely embraced because it makes white people feel better about the whole thing, puts it in a nice little Lifetime movie wrapper that teaches us all a lesson. I don’t mean to be snide about this—just to pose the question. Even though the story has its merits, I don’t think it would do justice to the time if this were to become the book to represent what America was like, and I thank goodness we have other accounts.

Some things do bother me about this book. For one thing, I felt that even the best-drawn characters (Aibileen, Minny, Miss Celia, Yule May) came dangerously close to being types. I wish in particular that Skeeter had been less generic. Instead, she is the general misfit: the tall, awkward smart girl among all the petite, pretty Junior League girls who are already married. She is smart, and her intelligence is thought of as a hindrance. She wants to be a writer. How many heroines like this exist in literature, with these same characteristics? Stockett tries to round her out—for example, saying she reads banned books, and that Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is one of her favorites, but these details seem forced into the story for that very reason and not organic to the character.

Almost everybody else in the book is broadly drawn: the racist-to-the-core Hilly; the wife-beating drunk Leroy, Minny’s husband; and, of course, the New York editor “Missus” Stein, who, when Skeeter tells her to have a Merry Christmas at one point in the book, replies, “We call it Hanukkah, but thank you, Miss Phelan,” because we all know that New York, and publishing in particular, is filled with rude Jews. That’s one thing that almost made me put the book down, but I was almost finished, so I kept going.

There’s also an unbelievable amount of drama. The book is just chock-full of sad stories, people lost and heartbroken and dying, but not terribly original. This is exactly the kind of book I would have loved when I was fourteen or fifteen. And then there are the (to me) annoying references to “real” events peppered throughout the book, like people might not believe the story if Stockett hadn’t thrown in not only the gratuitous references to Martin Luther King Junior, Medgar Evers, and the rest of the civil rights movement, but also to To Kill a Mockingbird, the pill, Valium, the Beatles (although the song, “Love Me Do,”  Skeeter whistles at one point in the book had not yet been released as a single in the United States), Bob Dylan, and Emilio Pucci. Sometimes it’s better to let the audience do the work of filling in these sorts of details, so that the story can take the stage. It almost felt like Stockett thought it might not be believable if she didn’t get in every detail about the early 60s.

But those things are mostly petty, and I wanted to tell you why I was withholding those two stars. The last thing is this: I would have liked to hear more about the maids, and I would have liked the chance, actually, to get inside Miss Leefolt’s or Miss Hilly’s head and see what was going on in there. Having a first-person account of one of those characters would have balanced things out a bit. As much as I despise racism, I think it’s valuable to understand how someone who can espouse such ideas thinks, what she believes her logic is from her actual point of view, and not to see it from the outside, where it simply (to this book’s audience) sounds audacious. Fear is a very real thing, which is why it drives people to such desperate measures.

Overall, though, The Help is a worthwhile read, if you should happen to pick it up. It was on my list to read this year, so I’m happy I got to it.

TSS: Some Thoughts on Book Clubs

sunsalon1I just finished reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help for my book club in June. We were originally supposed to read Meg Rosoff’s award-winning How I Live Now, but one of our book club members read the book early and hated it, and went on at length at our last meeting about how vile it was and also how Rosoff had gotten everything wrong about England (said book club member is Welsh; I pointed out to her—and to everyone—that Rosoff has lived in England for the last 20 years, so I doubt she is completely unfamiliar with it). After she went on at length about how much she disliked the book, we almost had no choice but to pick a new one, and even though I relented it made me angry. First, nobody else in the book club got a chance to read Rosoff’s book, so no one could offer up an opposing or different view. We were simply to take her word for it that it was a terrible book. Second, it seems to me that a book that causes someone to form such a strong opinion is exactly the kind of book that is right for a book club, because you have something to discuss. I don’t think every choice should be controversial, and I hate to think anyone feels marginalized by the selections time and again, but I also think it was unfair of this member to hijack everything before we could read it and have a fair discussion.

This seems to be a struggle we have over and over again in our book club. Most of the women only want to recommend something popular or something that they have already read and think of as a safe choice. While I certainly understand not wanting to waste time on a book I am not enjoying, I also joined a book club so that I could get a broader view of things, and so I could have discussions about books. When everyone simply nods and agrees that the book was lovely, that tends to be the end of the discussion. So what, then, is the point of a book club? Why not a supper club?

And I hate to admit, but I wonder: Do mixed (male and female) book clubs have the same issues? Is it book clubs in general? Is it simply the mix of personalities in the group? For the most part, I enjoy getting together with these women every month. We are all very different, but the only real point of tension we have is book selection…not a good thing for a book club.