Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Help: Part Four, Chps 29-End

So. How's 'bout that ending?

Skeeter gets a job in New York, Minny runs away from her abusive husband, Aibileen gets fired, but they're all free. I suppose the unfairness of that corresponds to the unfairness of racism but hot damn.

Poor Skeeter, if she stayed in Jackson unlikable people would dislike her and she'd never get married. If she hadn't been brave enough to write a book she would have had a piddly little job and been mildly uncomfortable in social settings and ended up as a empty headed housewife. That's no picnic but it's not quite on the same level as getting beat up by your husband or raising other people's children to grow up and hate you or being threatened with lynching.

Oh Skeeter, Skeeter. She's young enough that her stupidity and self-centeredness are in character, I guess, but the book only wants to see her as brave and transgressive.

I know you guys will rant about this much more effectively, and I'll come back to the novel, but I wanted to note a couple of things from the end of the book.

The acknowledgements contains one of the best lines of the book:
Thank you to Amy Einhorn, my editor, without whom the sticky-note business would not be the success it is today.

Stockett notes that she "took liberties with time," talking about songs and products in years before they were popular; also "the Jim Crow laws ... [were] taken from actual legislation that existed at various times across the South." Look, I know I'm Janey Stick-in-the-Mud when it comes to historical things but this kind of thing drives me nuts. IT MATTERS. It matters when things happened, but it also matters what laws were in place where and at what time. If you are going to write about Jackson, Mississippi in a specific year and you fudge the laws or whatever, then you are no longer writing about Jackson, Mississippi in that year. Which isn't necessarily a big deal unless your book purports to convey some sort of historical truth. I think, in this case, Stockett's fudging is pretty minor, but in general, if you have to fabricate or transfer historical details in order to tell a historical story, then your story maaaaaay not actually be good history. If Skeeter, in Jackson in 1962, couldn't have heard "The Times They Are A-Changin", but could have had the sense that things were a-changin, then what would have given her that feeling? It's a weak author, in my humble and snobby opinion, who has to make something up.

The autobiographical note, "Too Little, Too Late" makes me wish Stockett would have just written her own memoirs or something, but it also goes a long way toward explaining some of what's wrong with Skeeter. Skeeter is obviously channeling a lot of Stockett's experience, so I guess you could interpret some of her failings as Stockett's own critique of her younger complacency. But the book sets Skeeter up as heroine: she's the one who has the book idea, she's the one who pursues it, she's the one at the center of the project (and the one the maids think of when they worry about it). I get that Stockett wants to show both ends of the story, but Skeeter never gets any blow-back from her obnoxiousness and it makes for a really annoying read.

(Also: Stockett never reveals how old she is, which, again, IT MATTERS, and also, Southern Lady stereotype much?)

So, final thoughts. In the end analysis I thought the book took the easy path in two crucial ways. First of all, the utter evilness of Hilly and the lovelessness of the white Southern mothers. And secondly, Skeeter's lack of religiosity. It didn't quite sit right with me when Skeeter just sort of declares that she never really cared much about religion. (Wouldn't she, in that environment, consider herself at least something of a nominal Christian? Or have a stronger relationship to religion than just "meh"?) In both cases, it would have more difficult to go into detail but it would have enriched the book by miles. Also, relatedly, the sort-of absence of the civil rights movement bothered me. Skeeter (someone who orders banned books from California, remember) has access to a car, easily lies to cover up where she's going, and has been totally alienated from her former friends: how does she have so very little interest in or contact with the civil rights movement? Even if, as I've said before, she only has a strong aversion to it.

The relationship between Aibileen and poor hapless Mae Mobley was probably the best, most interesting part of the book for me. Forget Skeeter and her meal-ticket book; Aibileen's starting to tell Mae Mobley little civil rights stories (Martian Luther King!!! OMG!) was really touching. And I thought it was a sign of how things were changing and might change, in that Aibileen wouldn't have dared, perhaps, to do that before.

Thank you, Alice, for being our brave leader on this read-along journey! Well done with those section breaks, well done.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Gosh, I hate the phrase "Cyber Monday"*

I didn't actually mean to abandon my blog for the last week or two but blah blah blah you don't care.

I'm just popping in today to note that Amazon is having one of their big Kindle book sales today: "more than 900 books" under $5. Nothing from my wishlist is on sale** but it's worth checking out. It looks like there are a few series where all the books have been marked down, so you can get All Creatures Great and Small and various other James Herriot books for $3 a piece. My mom loves James Herriot. There's a whole stack of Boxcar Children books for 99¢ - I wouldn't give a kid an iPhone or an iPad but I'd buy a budding nerd a Kindle loaded with Boxcar Children. Of course Kindle books can be read on other devices, insert sales pitch here.*** Also, here's a book about two women ambulance drivers in WWI which I haven't read but maybe have heard of; anyway, if that sounds interesting to you it's probably a good book.

I suppose I could add also that Amazon lets you send Kindle books as gifts, which I have both sent and received and it seems to work well. You can specify your delivery date so you can order weeks ahead and the recipient gets an exciting email on their birthday. Technology, magic, etc.

I shall be back for The Help tomorrow and hopefully a little Harry Potter post later in the week. I'm also reading The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, so that'll be coming up eventually.

* Really I just hate the word "cyber".
** My number one gripe against the Kindle is that prices never show up on the Wishlist, either on the device or on the computer, which means you have to click through to see what each book costs which drives me BONKERS.
*** I suppose I have to note that links are for your convenience only, I'm not making any money... in general, but also on this blog, which seems like it should be obvious.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Help: Part Three, Chps 20-28

Lawdy, is it that time again?

We're in the thick of it now. Lots of things coming to a head in this section -- Skeeter's relationship with Stuart, Miss Celia's social status, the Terrible Thing Minny did to Miss Hilly, even the book project.

Oh sure, I had some problems with this part (I'm sure you've noticed by now that I'm a little critical). Central among these is in fact the Terrible Awful Thing. You mean to tell me there was actual human fecal matter in that pie?! No. No. My brain will not accept that as a plausible thing. I mean, I've only baked a pie once in my life, but... how would you work... it... in without ruining the consistency of the pie? And... wouldn't it affect the taste and smell? (Related Bill Nye episode.) (Easily distracted.) And when you consider the time and effort... I re-read the pages hoping to come across something to indicate that it was a lie, but... In the end, I so much can't believe this that I have gone full circle to believing it in a sort of magical fantasy land sort of way.

And maybe that's sort of my approach in general to this book now, because for the most part it's got me hooked. I tore through this section, wanting to see what was going to happen next. Even when the author made transparent attempts to manipulate me, the reader, I sort of shrugged past it ("'It's true. There are some racists in this town,' Miss Leefolt say. Miss Hilly nod her head, 'Oh, they're out there.'" - yes, yes, I see what you did there.) I am certainly enjoying Miss Celia more now that she's not just moping around being mysterious. And I thought that Skeeter's parents have become sliiiightly more human.

Plus there was this:

When you little, you only get asked two questions, what's your name and how old you is, so you better get em right.
 Adorable, right?

And this made me laugh:
enough costume jewelry for a whole family of hookers
 So that's me for this week.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Help: Part Two, Chps 10-19

For reals this time.

Things are developing but not in entirely satisfying ways.

For one thing, Skeeter is a little hard to read. Does she know what she's getting into or not? And just when you think her eyes are opening to the realities of the situation it turns out she can't stop thinking about her book, which, let's not forget, is a project that originates in Skeeter's desire for a writing career and not in much of a civil rights concern.

Aibileen lets her head hang. I'm sure it's out of grief for Yule May, but I suspect she also knows the book is over.
I don't get the feeling that the book is a social justice project for Skeeter, really, even after she's been working on it for a while now and learning more about the situation. Do you? I think it's still about Skeeter's career, and I'm not convinced that she gets what it means or might mean to the maids.

Yule May being thrown in prison came awfully suddenly, didn't it? And wasn't it nice of her to write down her whole life story and motivation for Skeeter/us? And then all of a sudden everyone wants to help Skeeter -- and by everyone I mean a convenient thirteen maids. Convenient because Skeeter needs twelve and one of the thirteen turns out to just want to acknowledge some of the uncomfortable power dynamics in this book. I felt like all of this could have been much better handled so that it actually felt like a turning point instead of Insert Turning Point Here. I get that the Yule May thing was supposed to have happened suddenly, it just felt clumsy in the text.

Skeeter's life among the white folks isn't all that much better. When she left her bag behind -- her bag that she was carrying with her everywhere so that no one would see its sensitive contents -- at the League meeting or whatever that was, I was just all: G.T.F.O.

My thoughts exactly, stick man.

And maybe I'm just not paying sufficient attention (that's kind of my M.O. these days) but Skeeter's cautiousness feels really uneven. If anything she relaxes after the bag incident. Even though she's supposed to be a college graduate who wants to support herself with a writing career and who orders banned novels from an illicit press in California -- she just doesn't feel that smart or savvy, I guess. Especially that last bit. Does someone who deliberately seeks out banned books also feel hesitant to think of Hilly as anything but a friend?

I admit that I'm curious to find out whether her Sexy Boyfriend™ is going to turn out to be a secret supporter of Civil Rights. Scenario 1: he's a bigot, dumps Skeeter, and she takes off as a confident professional writer to New York. Scenario 2: he's sympathetic and/or won over by Skeeter's work and everyone lives happily ever after.

I'm glad we have Miss Celia's deal out in the open now (well, for us readers) (although that miscarriage business was harrowing). For some reason I thought it was a little underwhelming still; I guess I was hoping there was going to be something surprising there and there wasn't really. Oh well.

Overall, the book is holding my interest pretty well, but as I'm seeing the plot develop I'm not all that impressed. Entertained, maybe, but not impressed.

The Help: Pride Goeth Before A Fall

Eh heh heh ...eh.

So last week I was riding high, feeling smug because I was so ahead in my reading for the Help! I have not read The Help! Readalong. Where's that wonderful graphic?

There it is.

In the first week, I got up to chapter 16, so I was feeling pretty smug about finishing through chapter 19 for today. Then a week passed and I forgot about it (reading Harry Potter among other things) until last night. Then I went to a lovely Bach concert, and thought I'd do the reading in the morning. This morning I woke up promptly but then got caught up in foreign apartment listings. And then I watched this video featuring Patton Oswalt:

Reader Meets Author: Patton Oswalt

....which reminded me I was supposed to do something about a book today? Oops. And now I'm going to go to the gym (hurgh) in an effort to jumpstart some dissertation work (urgh) so I am going to try to write something up for tonight.

Mostly I am posting this for Alice, so she has something to read at work and also so she can mock me. Aren't I a good friend?

Monday, November 14, 2011

A couple of loose thoughts

The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan has been living in my purse for the last week or two as my go-to public transit read. It would make me feel very brainy reading medieval poetry on the bus except that my inspiration was the incomparable "Take Back Halloween" website. Thus I was first drawn to this book by its author's awesome horned headdress.

There are extant portraits of Christine, why didn't they use one for the cover?

I never had much interest in "medieval stuff" as a kid, and the medieval history class I took in college didn't have much impact on me at the time. In the last couple of years though I've had the opportunity to admire some really lovely medieval artwork in London, and the period has begun to grow on me. Now that essay we had to write in college about whether or not "the Renaissance" is a useful historical (as opposed to art historical) period seems much more compelling to me.

Anyway, I haven't gotten terribly far into the collection but it's already clear that Christine was a pretty nifty lady. I'm especially charmed by her work The Letter from Othea. Basically she wrote a mock-antique text along with two commentaries: one literary/historical, and the other moral/theological. Commentaries like these were common literary forms of the period, but here all three pieces were written by Christine. What a fascinating project!

I'm also intrigued by the way she explains ancient Greek deities. Like so:

And because the ancients had the custom of adoring everything that seemed blessed beyond the common level of things, they called several wise women who existed in their time goddesses.
Or here:
Minerva was a very wise lady... and because this lady possessed such great wisdom, people called her a goddess.
Now, if you're a medieval writing about the ancient gods, "by God's grace illuminated by the true faith" as Christine puts it, you can treat them as entirely imaginary literary figures, as real spiritual entities of some kind, or you can pull this little historicizing move apparently. I have no idea whether this insistence on the historical existence of "goddesses" is unique at all, but I do think it's pretty interesting. Maybe that's what's so great about medieval art and literature: even when you know that the stereotypes are wrong, it's still really delightful when you get to see what's actually there.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Harry Thicky Potter Thicky

Yes, that's right, I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and now I have written you a rambly post about it.

I got through about 300 pages on the first night I picked it up; you can't say it's not engaging. A little breakfast reading and another dedicated evening and I was done.

As I think I mentioned before, I stopped reading the books partway through Order of the Phoenix. I have a vague idea that I might have gone back and finished that one later (I know I own it), but I've still never read Half Blood Prince. I was a little confused in the first couple of chapters of Deathly Hallows, trying to remember who was who (I really did not remember that Tonks was Bellatrix's niece; and it took a while to place Bill) but overall I had remarkably little trouble getting back into the world of the books.

So Harry Potter's kind of a moron, right? That was mostly my feeling through the on-the-run part of the book. Well, ok, through most of the book. I adore Hermione and I felt bad that she was stuck with those two bozos for so long -- I certainly wouldn't want to trust them with my safety. And how is it possible that they still had the whole "We're coming with you argument" multiple times in this book?! I thought we learned the lesson about sticking together in book 1! And book 2! &c... &c... I don't know how Harry expects to get anything done without them, really; especially without Hermione.

If I can't be Hermione, I want to be Emma Watson.
This made me groan aloud:
Harry stepped out from under the Cloak and climbed up onto Ravenclaw's plinth to read them. "Wit beyond measure is man's greatest treasure." "Which makes you pretty skint, witless," said a cackling voice.
It's always satisfying when a character in the text says what you're thinking, even if the character is eeeevil. I mean, Ron tells Harry that saying "Voldemort" summons the Snatchers: Harry says "Voldemort". Harry "hears" Voldemort thinking about how he won't even be able to set foot in Hogsmede without raising the alarm: so Harry takes Ron and Hermione to Hogsmede without apparently even thinking about the dangers. I mean, he basically presents it to them as "we'll go to Hogsmede and then figure out how to get into the castle," as if Hogsmede is sure to be a safe place. Dur.

All that aside, Harry's confrontation with Voldemort is perfection. The reappearance of Exposition-Dumbledore would have been annoying, but I was thoroughly sold by then. I started tearing up around page 700, namely:
Harry looked at his mother. "Stay close to me," he said quietly.

Once Harry realizes what he has to do -- once he knows how his meeting with Voldemort must end -- what can I even say? It's just perfect: so satisfying.

A few assorted character thoughts: It's interesting how Rowling makes Dumbledore and James Potter rather unlikable by the end. Well, "unlikable" is too strong, but she gives them real, concrete sins. Maybe it's because I haven't read Half-Blood Prince, but Snape never quite sat right with me. His motivation of being soooo in love with Lily from childhood just seemed pathetic rather than sympathetic. I had heard about the Molly Weasley vs Bellatrix Lestrange duel, but found it a little underwhelming in practice; although I liked -- nay, loved -- when the professors (especially McGonagall) got to spring into action and show what they were worth. I always thought McGonagall was a tough nut. I remember finding the earlier house elf plots pretty stupid but I thought it was all justified by the house elf business (both Kreacher and Dobby) in this book. I liked that Voldemort's arrogance would lead him to think he'd discovered a totally new place in Hogwarts, when in fact it wasn't a terribly unknown place at all.

Finally, I heart Neville Longbottom. What. A. Badass. He might have one of the best character arcs over the series, no? He starts out as a total nerd, the sort of kid a hero like Harry would pity if he noticed him at all, but as you go you find out what an awesome dude he is, and that he has a family/ancestry as badass as Harry's or Ron's. And it's not so much because he changes all that much -- it's just that you (and Harry) realize who he is and what he can do. Luna's a great character that way too. They start out as oddballs who are easily dismissed, and they don't get to be part of the Inner Circle, but they turn out to be formidable and indispensable.

Sadly, my roommate doesn't have Half-Blood Prince on her shelf, so I'll have to wait before I'm able to claim that I've finished the series, but I'm so glad I read this.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Help: Part One, chps 1-9

Wooo, Alice posted her comments (click below) so now I can post mine.

So! I'm enjoying the book so far! I am intrigued, intrigued I tell you, by each of the three main characters; although the present-tense and switching of narrators I find mildly tedious. Then again, I am very grateful that the entire book isn't written in dialect, so there's that. I'm enjoying the book so much I actually read ahead, but before I crossed the threshold of chapter 10 I made some notes which I shall now share with you all (oh goodie).

Does anyone feel like there are some super easy targets in this book? How cliche is it that all the white mothers are cruel and unfeeling?

I have an issue with the Mister Johnny plot. If Mister Johnny is such an old time Southern boy, why on earth would he be shocked and offended that his wife has hired a maid? Wouldn't he expect it? In fact, wouldn't he have made sure his wife hired someone? I get Celia's motivations in wanting to hide it, but I don't quite get why Minny goes along with it. She seems so savvy, she must realize that Mister Johnny must have an inkling of what's going on, right? And that he must be ok with it, right? Why does she (Minny) think she's actually in hiding from Mister Johnny? Maybe this is just a case of my failing to understand an irrational situation.

I wonder if the book will address Skeeter's Miss Myrtle shenanigans, namely the way she mindlessly uses Aibileen for her own ends and doesn't even pay her. Will Skeeter start to feel guilty? Will someone call her out on it? I don't know who could exactly, but... someone. Maybe she'll become more self-aware.

Finally, I will simply say: I feel for Skeeter and her tallness.

Monday, November 7, 2011

I have not died, nor have I devolved into illiteracy...

... I've just had some stuff going on. I've been reading The Help of course (and finding it much more engrossing than anticipated) and picking at some other things. I had one of those little fits of used-book ordering about a week ago (because of course I don't have enough books) and those have all arrived now. I'm not likely to write a post about the A-Z of Goldwork with Silk Embroidery or Ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Costume, but I might muster a little review of the other two eventually.

One is Better Than Beauty, a reprinted style/etiquette guide from the 1930s. I have a special place in my heart for advice literature; I find it soothing. When I'm especially stressed out, you might find me trawling Google Books for interesting and entertaining snippets of wisdom like, "Dandyism is never more out of place than on the glacier, or among the Norwegian salmon fisheries." Better Than Beauty is a very modern and urbane specimen of the genre and, if you're weird like me, well suited for bedtime reading. (This has been your odd insight into my psyche for the day.)

The other is a Norton critical edition of selected works by Christine de Pizan.

I've got more than enough to read, so of course I'm thinking that what I really want to read is something totally different. Namely: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My roommate has the first six movies, and last Thursday night as I was waiting for a ride, I caught up by watching numbers 5 and 6 (yes, the ride was exceptionally late). I stopped reading the books, lo these many years ago, partway through #5 (Order of the Phoenix), and while I think I know all of the big shocking things that happen in the books after that, watching the two movies was fun and exciting. Maybe this makes me a bad reader or something, but I think part of my problem was that I was having a hard time feeling the increased tension in the books. I didn't quite get that the stakes were being raised, it just seemed like everyone was getting more overwrought. (That, and Tonks was a horrible, cliche, obnoxious character.) Anyway, whatever was going on with me back then, watching the movies the other night I understood what was going on much better, and now I'm thinking that, rather than borrow the last two movies from people, maybe I should just read the book. Which I would be borrowing from my roommate. Hey, JK Rowling doesn't need my money.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Help: The Helpening

I actually had a moment earlier this week when I wondered what I should read next. Then I remembered that Alice at Reading Rambo has already told me what I'm reading next.

By way of kicking things off, she's posted some of her preconceptions about The Help and rather than increase her comment count I'm being a jerk being self-centered going to post a few of my thoughts over here. Because let's be honest I wasn't going to manage a second post this week otherwise (sigh).

I think the first time I consciously acknowledged the existence of The Help was when the random stranger I talked to in Waterstone's this spring asked if I knew whether it was any good. "Uh, it's popular, I think. It's about segregation?" -- that is about as much as I knew about it.

And since I am a huge snob that was all I needed to ignore it. It seemed like an Oprah book: madly popular among (I assumed) suburban housewives, and Serious because it was about something Sad. I imagined book clubs across the country swooning over it. "Oh my god, you guys! It was like, so sad back then! How could people be so mean?" Yes, I know, I'm a horrible, horrible person.

(But don't worry, because in this story I get my comeuppance.)

So there I was, being superior, and then the movie came out. The reviews I read (e.g.) seemed to confirm what I thought about the book: that it was a condescending, sentimental portrayal of inequality meant primarily to make the reader feel better about herself. But then something strange happened: people I knew went to see the movie. And they liked it. Including a usually rather critical grad school companion of mine, whose work centers on racism and discrimination. Maybe they were wrong. Or maybe there was something to this whole The Help thing that I wasn't getting.

So I am duly chastened for my assumptions and prejudices and I haven't even read the book yet. Well done Stockett!

Anyhow, I am reading away and we'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Unsurprisingly, this book is not for children.

I know I ought to be getting some dissertation work done this afternoon, but I'm having trouble identifying my next steps, so I'm going to tell you about The Children's Book instead. Responsibility!

The first thing one might notice about The Children's Book is that it's huge, and this is not an illusion. My edition is 879 pages long, and the margins and the text are all normal sized. By my rough count, there are about 14 main-character children and nearly as many main-character adults. It sounds crazy to have 25-30 main characters, but that is just the kind of book this is.

"Cast of thousands," as they say
I really enjoyed the book, don't get me wrong, but I would say that anyone less than A.S. Byatt submitting this manuscript would have been told to cut it down, for goodness' sake, don't you know people don't have attention spans anymore? I laughed when I realized (through the acknowledgments) that Byatt dedicated the book to her editor. I think if someone wanted to cut this book down they could find inessential passages to cut -- I skimmed over the historical-context passages in particular -- but at the same time everything that's there makes for good reading.

The book is basically about a group of children and how they grow up; most of them are members of Fabian/aesthetic movement/Arts-and-crafts-type households, but some come from more humble or more "establishment" backgrounds. You see how the children are affected by their parents' and their parents' associates' ideas, actions, and sins. There are secrets and scandals, but they don't dominate the core of the book. The characters are really well-written, and diverse without seeming forced. The only slightly false notes were the two working-class children, Phillip and Elsie; Byatt was a little more solemn with these two, I think, and they come across as a bit more flat. Maybe a little too noble.

It seems very high school lit class to be all, "What is this book about" but I couldn't help but ask myself, what is this book about, anyway? (Don't worry, I will not attempt to discuss Symbolism.) The most immediate thing that leaps out at me is that Byatt is showing how flawed the progressive/permissive movements the characters are part of were. Whether the children embrace or reject or ignore their parents' ideologies doesn't seem to affect their lives much. The world rolls on and goes up in flames in the Great War regardless. The adults have big ideas and bold, radical new ways of seeing the world, but in the end their actions end up being narcissistic. If this were high school I'd say that they fail, on the whole, to be truly radical because they fail to really love the children and put them first.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book: it's heaven for those of us who just like to see how things turn out for people. I got some of the characters confused now and then because I can never remember names, but for the most part -- and I credit this to Byatt -- I kept them straight. "Good writing" is a very difficult thing to define or describe, but this book is full of it, and is a very worthwhile read.