7/15/2010

Summer Reads

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. By now it seems that everyone in America has read this novel. It's been on the New York Times best-seller chart for untold weeks and received a lot of media buzz; book clubs all across the country have championed it. IMDB informs me that a movie version is in production.
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The story of a generation of women living in Jackson, Mississippi during the nascent years of the Civil Rights movement, The Help employs a frame story structure that follows the adventures of an east coast educated, wealthy young white woman, Skeeter, who returns home from college adrift and purposeless in the early 1960's. Too smart to marry any of the local hicks, Skeeter is a member of the Junior League but feels out of place and disconnected with her southern (read "brainless, racist, superficial") society sisters. She attempts to find purpose in her life by secretly interviewing and writing down the stories of all the maids who work for her family and friends around town, focusing primarily on the tales of two main characters, Minnie and Aibeleen.
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Along the way, Skeeter and the maids find themselves, each other, and purpose in their lives. They believe that the simple act of telling their stories will somehow change the racist world they live in, and perhaps they are right. Most people I have spoken to about this book have uniformly praised it......but I have to admit it drives me crazy. It is a noble enterprise to recount the experiences of the maids, to let their voices be heard, and to decry the hypocritical society women who employ the maids to raise their children without a care in the world yet simultaneously worry if that same maid could be trusted to use their toilets or while polishing the family silver. This criticism of southern society - both then and now- is valid. My problem with this book is the attitude that seeps through every page; a self-congratulatory vibe that fairly shouts, "Aren't I a good person for taking the opposing point of view and telling you what these women's lives were really like ? Look at me ! I'm a southerner who is not racist ! I understand the plight of these people ! " And that, in and of itself, is just as damning as being racist. It is a view of people and situations that reduces individuals to stereotypes and fosters a post-colonial imperialist missionary attitude. These poor people can't help themselves, they still need us white folk to do it for them! This book is patronizing and the characters remain stereotypes (the noble white woman, the funny irascible maid, the all-caring lovable mammy who suffers silently, the white trash tramp with the heart of gold). While an entertaining read and probably an eye-opener to the many southerners who will ponder it with some discomfort, The Help will never be a great literary work. The entire time I was reading this story, I couldn't help but think of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, a timeless classic that manages to explore similar themes (African Americans are people, too !) while creating characters that are sympathetic, archetypal and deeply drawn (Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell, Atticus Finch, Dill Harris, Scout, Jem, Calupurnia), not stereotypical.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Of all the books I read this summer, this is the one I have recommended most to others. This story blends fantasy, noir style mystery, mythology and classic road trip motifs into a captivating tale of a modern day quest for the self. Shadow is released from prison, takes up with a strange fellow who may be the god Loki in disguise, and the two travel across the continent rounding up other displaced former old world deities (often depicted in humorous ways : Egyptian gods turn up as morticians) all the while preparing for some grand epic clash of the Titans sort of battle that is going to take place at the "Rock House" of east coast fame (from barn roof signs all over the mid-Atlantic area: " See Rock House ! Only 45 miles ! ) The enemy ? "New Gods" that have supplanted the old ones: gods of credit cards, money, tv, movies, and the internet (personified as an obnoxious rapper kid in a limo). Highly entertaining while offering valid social criticism, I could not put this book down, and neither will you. Great for lovers of fantasy, mythology, the American scene. Will make you think of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" - in a good way.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker.The title of this book captivated me, and Elna Baker is a humorous raconteur - her yarn about working at FAO Schwartz one Christmas season, selling a baby doll a named "Nubbins" causes me to break out in laughter even just thinking about it. I am surrounded by many Mormons where I live, and confess I know little about their faith (other than a quick tour through wikipedia) or what they think about the world and themselves. This coming of age story, which recounts a wholesome young woman's attempts to make it in the Big Apple, finding love and herself along the way while maintaining her personal values, provides a sympathetic eye-opening view to Mormonism at its most mainstream interpretation. (Granted, this is a a liberal version of this faith, or the author would not find herself living in New York doing the things she does.) Read it for humor, or for understanding this often unknown faith/culture just a wee bit better. Now that I think about it, each of the books I read this summer explore the concept of moving past prejudice and into getting to know individuals in a more open manner. Social criticism in a variety of highly entertaining formats.
Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz. The title perhaps riffs on one of Groucho Marx's old jokes: Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read. So we have a book about man's best friend that is, in itself, man's best friend (a book about man's best friend.) In this work, the author applies the same observational anthropological skills that many have used to study primates and other species, and applied them to the study of that animal that is constantly by our side and yet rarely completely understood. A fascinating read for any dog lover, Horowitz explains how dogs "see" in "smell-o-vision", why it is important to take a moment to greet your dog when you return home at the end of the day, the importance of play, or marking, of barking, and many other interesting behaviors. Her style is engaging and not dry - this is a great read.

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