Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Women Helping Bring Racial Understanding in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi--Kathryn Stockett's "The Help"

Kathryn Stockett's The Help is a wonderful debut novel. The Help follows three women in Jackson, Mississippi from 1962-64--Aibileen a 50-something black woman who has worked a a maid her whole life, Minny another black maid in her 30s, and Skeeter a 22 year old white woman who has just finished college at Ole Miss and dreams of being a writer. Desperate to jump start her writing career, Skeeter comes up with an idea to capture the experiences of 12 black maids working in the homes of white women. Skeeter convinces Aibileen, the maid of her best friend Elizabeth, to work on her project. Aibileen then convinces Minny, and other maids to join in the project, despite the potentially brutal consequences if they are discovered. As the women work to complete their book on a tight timeline from a New York publisher, the racial tension heats up in Jackson. Will they be found out, or will they publish their work and show the world the unique relationship between white and black women--where they are all just people--in Jackson. 

Stockett alternates among the three main characters as narrators, giving this novel a unique story that is told from the perspective of both the white employer (Skeeter) and the black maids (Aibileen and Minny). As the three women come to understand each other you see the discovery from both perspectives, which gives the novel a deep emotional feel. The relationship that forms among these women is strong, and by the end of the novel I felt like I was one of them. Although the novel has an optimistically happy ending, I found myself crying at the end of these women's remarkable journey. 

I think this book has the potential to become a "must read" on race relations in the South, especially for young women. As someone who grew up in a big Southern family, I can say that Stockett's voice is authentic, and she does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the time. I will definitely be recommending this book.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

An Excellent Picture of the Antebellum South--Where Are All Women are Some Type of Property--Valerie Martin's "Property"

Valerie Martin's Property takes the reader into the head of Manon, a wealthy white woman living near New Orleans in the late 1820s. Manon is married to a slave holding planter that she despises because of his open relationship with a household slave, Sarah, and his especially brutal treatment of his field slaves. As a series of tragedies befall Manon, the reader accompanies Manon as she assesses her place in the world and the value of her life. By the end, the reader and Manon are left contemplating the "property" of the title--is it simply slaves like Sarah, or in a way is at all women, who are defined as property in this regimented and cruel society. 

Property is a captivating read, but it is also a depressing look at a dark time in American history. There are no heroes in this story--everyone is guilty in this society built on using other human beings--but the narrative gives you an honest look at the emotional strain on a woman during this period. Martin does an excellent job of not imposing 21st century sentiments on Manon, who I believe is portrayed with stunning realism. Rarely do you find historical fiction from a woman's perspective that is this rich and well written. This book will make you think, and like Manon, you may not come to a happy conclusion.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lots of Art, Religion, But Little Romance--"The Miracle of Prato"

The Miracles of Prato tells the story of Lucrezia Buti, a young woman who has just entered a convent against her wishes in 15th Century Prato, a town outside of Florence. Lucrezia's family had fallen on hard times, so she has been denied the marriage she always dreamed of and has to become a nun instead. Soon after entering the convent, a depressed Lucrezia catches the eye of Fra Fillipo, the convent's chaplain, and a famous monk-painter. Fillipo is intrigued by her beauty, and--seeing her as his new Madonna--asks her to model for him. The two quickly fall in love, and marry in secret after Lucrezia is the victim of a terrible crime. But what will the Church do, allow the monk and young nun a life together, or take it away? 

Despite an excellent subject and a strong start, The Miracles of Prato fell a little flat for me. The authors do an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of a small convent in Italy in the 15th century, and the art they describe is beautiful. But the characters that populate this beautiful world are extremely one dimensional, and they react to their situations in a consistently helpless fashion. I know I may be a modern reader imposing my views of the past, but I like my historical romance with a bit of spunk and passion, which is lacking in Miracles. Instead, the novel is full of stereotypes, from the greedy man at the head of the church to the fallen virgin who is still a repentant angel. Although the novel is in part based on fact, these flat representations make it feel unbelievable. 

Although I didn't love this book overall, there were parts that were enjoyable, full of beautiful settings and scenes. It gives you a real feel for church life in Italy, and the struggles of young women at the time. I would recommend this book to fans of the Renaissance period in Italy, or students of art history, with a warning about the characters.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

This was fun :-)

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Literate Good Citizen

You read to inform or entertain yourself, but you're not nerdy about it. You've read most major classics (in school) and you have a favorite genre or two.

Dedicated Reader
Book Snob
Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
Fad Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Journey To Old Hong Kong--Janice Lee's "The Piano Teacher"

The Piano Teacher takes place in Hong Kong in two distinct periods--one before and during World War II (1941-1942) and one after (1951-1952). At its center are two women in love with one man. Claire, a newly wed young Englishwoman has just arrived in Hong Kong with her new husband in 1951. As she tries to adjust to life in this foreign city, Claire takes a job as a piano teacher in the home of a wealthy Chinese family, the Chens. At their house, Claire meets another Chen family employee, Will Truesdale, a chauffeur who never seems to drive anyone. Will and Claire fall into a passionate romance, and soon Claire begins to discover Will has a complicated past with the Chens, and one of their relatives, a former love named Trudy. As Claire and the reader discover the horrors of Will's past during the war, she comes to realize who she really loves. Will she be able to accept the crimes of those around her during the war? 

This book grabs you in the first chapter, and I absolutely had a hard time putting it down. The author's juxtaposition of the two time periods, slowly unfolding the central narratives in each makes for a captivating read. I found the characters and the motives for their actions intriguing. The author's description of the setting was rich--at points I felt like I could feel the humidity (maybe its just because its pretty humid where I live) and smell the streets of Hong Kong. And although this book sounds like a fairly standard historical romance, some of its plot elements kept me guessing to the end. 

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical romance, because its one of the best i've read in a while. I know its early in the year, but I have a feeling The Piano Teacher is going to stay on my best of the year list. 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

An Emotional Set of Short Stories about Surviving Life--Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge"

Olive Kitteridge is a series of twelve short stories set in a small town in Maine. Each of the stories features Olive Kitteridge, a tempermental middle school math teacher. In half of the stories Olive is a main character, in the others she is a minor player, but all of the stories share a deep emotional core which captures the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Although the events in many of the stories are everyday--weddings, deaths, illnesses--the characters in each show rich humanity and deep emotion. As the stories loosely trace Olive through almost 40 years of her life, you find yourself liking this extremely unlikable woman, and enjoying following her journey through life. 

Elizabeth Strout does a fantastic job capturing all aspects of the human spirit in Olive Kitteridge. Her stories capture people's deepest emotions during trying times, and the pictures she creates are excellent. That being said, if you're a reader that needs to love the main character in a novel, this is not a book for you. Olive Kitteridge is a difficult person--tempermental, opinionated, and sometimes, just downright mean. But despite her faults, Olive's perspective on life is fascinating, and by the end of the novel, I found myself empathizing with her situation. As Olive encounters all sorts of challenges in her life she proceeds with purpose and a serious face, and nothing shakes her unique outlook on life. 

This was an excellent collection of short stories and I would recommend it to those who enjoy literary fiction. This is the first work by Elizabeth Strout that I've read, but it won't be my last.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A "Land of Marvels" But No Emotion

Barry Unsworth's "Land of Marvels" is set in the Middle East in 1914, in an area that would become Iraq. The novel takes you into the desert with Somerville, an archaeologist searching for his big discovery. Somerville is in a race against time and circumstance--the railroad is about to be built through his dig site and all of Europe--and by extension, the Middle East--is on the edge of war. Will he make his big discovery, or will forces larger than him--the war, the railroad, the quest for oil--get the better of him. 

Unsworth's novel is full of historical detail and political intrigue. It is well written and complex. However, it is missing, for me, a critical element--character development and emotion. Unsworth's characters are flat--nothing that happens to them over the course of the novel changes them at all. This surprised me, for Unsworth is a novelist that was praised for his character development. The characters in the novel also lack emotional depth. It was unbelievable to me that any of these characters cared about each other because they were all so cold and unfeeling. 

I would recommend this book to people interested in Iraq before WWI and the political intrigue of the era. However, if you like books with more emotion and heart, I would recommend that you look elsewhere.