Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Snippets from Kathryn Stockett

Several months ago Kathryn Stockett—who wrote the Help; see previous post for my review—paused her book tour at the King’s English long enough to share some pearls. So clutching my s.r.o. ticket in my hands, and doing my best to control my fan-girlie giggle, I joined fellow-bloggers, Sharla of Winter Write, Melissa of One Librarian’s Book Reviews, and Suey of It’s All About Books for a delightful evening with a genuine southern belle.


Sharla and I were lucky to find a seats with a great view—on the stairs!

Here are my favorite snippets from the Q&A session:

  • She ruffled lots of feathers to write this book. People tended to close-lip when she started asking questions. Some members of her family don’t even speak to her anymore! (Which absolutely validates this book in my opinion)
  • But, she wrote it thinking no one would read it, so she didn’t care if she crossed taboo lines.
  • After 5 years and 60+ rejection letters, she finally stopped telling people she was writing a book.
  • But, she appreciates all those rejection letters, because they gave her the “thick skin” required to deal with the strongreactions people have to her book
  • The first cover for the Help, the one she fell in love with, was of a black woman’s hand holding a white child’s hand. The publishers vetoed it quickly though, and after 25 more possibilities, Stockett no longer cared what the cover looked like. However, she often wonders what the current cover has to do with anything.
  • She was too afraid to write in Hilly’s voice (Hilly represents the traditional, often hypocritical façade of the time) because it “freaked [her] out” to “go there.”
  • The Help receives mixed reactions from both races. Some say the book holds true to their experience, others are uncomfortable or upset.
  • Vernon Jordan, adviser to Bill Clinton, once told Stockett that while he was a chauffeur for the mayor of Atlanta, he had some similar experiences to those mentioned in the book.
  • One woman from Mobile said she hadn’t remembered seeing separate bathrooms for help and asked Stockett if that was exclusive to the Jackson area. Stocket claimed she read many accounts about separate bathrooms in Mobile and all over. She said she even sees them in older New York apartments occasionally.
  • Stockett’s own experience growing up in the south took place as recently as the mid ‘70’s, but she set the story in the early ‘60’s to coincide with the Civil Rights movement.
  • Stockett’s own maid who raised her from birth was Dimeteri, a second cook, handed down to her grandma. During Stockett’s awkward years, Dimeteri would whisper to Stocket that she was beautiful and important and talented. Stockett credits Dimeteri with establishing her self-confidence.
  • Now that Stockett understands the sacrifices that Dimeteri made in order to raise her, she is overwhelmed and thankful for Dimeteri’s gift.
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Kathrine Stockett’s The Help

Thank you so much Sharla of Winter Write for giving me this book! I absolutely loved it!

Stockett weaves this story through the voices of three very different women:

Minny-a pillar-of-strength, no-nonsense woman who’s mastery of the kitchen regularly prevents her from loosing jobs due to her constant need to speak her mind.

Aibileen-surrogate mother to 17+ white children. After decades of waiting on white families she looses her only family, her son, when his white employers fail to see that he receives proper medical care following a farm accident. After this “a bitter seed is planted deep in her heart,” and she struggles to come to terms with the rules of her world.

Miss Skeeter-a young, freethinker who–at 22-years-old–holds a bachelors degree in one hand, but will fail to impress her mother until she has a ring on the other.

Upon returning home from college to find that her own, beloved maid has suddenly disappeared and those who know why are too afraid to answer her questions, Skeeter starts to see some of the injustices of her world and way of life. So after assembling a great deal of courage, Skeeter, Minny, and Aibileen set out to do their part to end the injustice by publishing a book filled with the stories of southern black maids.

It was good to hear, from an inside perspective, about life in the South during the 1960’s. For some time I’ve held on to all kinds of questions about that culture and time. This book answered many of them.

It blows my mind that after 20 or 30 years of work, a black maid can only dream of earning minimum wage. I wonder at the complexity of the love/hate relationship between a black maid and the white woman who is helpless without her, but feels superior to her nonetheless.

I marveled at the Catch22 of a black maid raising up white children—sometimes with more love and care than their own parents—knowing that eventually these white children would become white adults and learn to debase her for her race and profession. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this situation is that the black maid must give so much to the care of a white family that her own family must go neglected. Her own children must forfeit the attention of their mother, because she is bound to someone else’s children.

My favorite part of this book must be contrasted against the prevailing facades, hypocrisy, and dishonesty of the white folk in this book. Aibileen tends a young girl who longs for her mother’s approval but goes largely ignored and brokenhearted, because her mother is too caught up in the foolishness of her society to provide attention for her daughter.

In a most loving and unselfish way, Aibileen finds the quiet moments to whisper in her ear that she is a special girl, a smart girl; a girl who can be confident and do great things. I just love Aibileen (and the real woman who inspired her character) for giving such a valuable gift to someone who could easily make her life miserable later. My hope is that instilling that little girl with confidence will help her make her own choices about race someday and not just parrot her parents’ views.

It’s clear that Stockett knew her characters well. She does a brilliant job of giving each woman her own distinct voice, heart, and feelings. I appreciate the clear view she provided of everyone in this book. I sympathized with all different perspectives: black maid, white southern belle, white trash, and redneck.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova has earned her stripes and proven her skill with the well-researched masterpiece that is Still Alice.

However, this book confirmed for me that I am far more afraid of loosing my ability to think than I am of pain or infirmity. I will try to bare well any challenge that is thrown my way, but I crave the luxury of retaining my memories and ability to think and reason throughout. I place much value on the minds of older people. I would like to serve future generations the same way my predecessors have served me.

After watching my own sweet grandmother fight a loosing battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s I found myself nodding my head a lot throughout this book. I drew many parallels and have gained a greater appreciation for my grandmother’s experience.

Watching Alice go through this and realize her own uselessness was horrifying to me, because I thought of how helpless my grandma must have felt while her disease was progressing. I’ve honestly never considered what Alzheimer’s must have been like for her. I’ve calculated what it meant to my parents, their relationships with siblings, and other relatives and situations. But what must it be like to watch your independence fade and realize what a burden you are becoming and will be to your loved ones? I pray I’ll never know.

Another common experience I shared with Alice’s family is how much communicating can take place without thinking, through feelings alone. In the later stages of my grandma’s experience I remember that even though my grandma couldn’t remember anything or anyone from the present, it wasn’t hard to figure out if she was being treated with respect or condescension because of the way these incidents affected her mood and self-confidence.

My grandma didn’t need to remember any part of a bad or good experience for it to affect her. These experiences drove home to me exactly how important it is to not allow these people to slip through the cracks in our attention.

One important positive feature of Alzheimer’s that the book brought out is the unreserved love these people can offer the world. They love like few others can.

Likewise, I remember well, that as my grandmother’s expectations and ability to evaluate my decisions dwindled, the love she showed for me increased and multiplied over and over. That love was sincere and fully accepting. It never felt false or inappropriate to me. It was beautiful and so meaningful during my teenage years.

I’m so glad that the end of the story brought Alice’s family together and peace to her life. Her family worked hard to help her maintain her quality of life and demonstrated several ways she could add value to their lives.

There are some valuable lessons to be found in this book. Anyone who’s life was/is touched by this cruel disease should pick this one up.

Tips and Tricks Tuesday: How I Craft a Book Review

If you’d like some advice about how to write a very formal and scholarly critique of a book, you won’t find it here. Please visit Purdue’s Online Writing Lab for a great article about that kind of book-reviewing. This is about the informal world of book-review blogging, and what I look for and aim to provide in a book-review.

So, to start: do you or don’t you take notes while you read? I don’t. I prefer to be absorbed into the story, and I can’t do that if I am constantly assessing whether the text or character or what-have-you is ‘jot-worthy’ or not.

I read the book, at whatever pace it demands, and then put it all–my thoughts included– on the shelf for a few days. After that I make a note of anything that still stands out to me: writing style, character development, a certain moment, a plot twist, anything. I figure if I’m still thinking about something after a few days, then it’s probably worth discussing in my review.

If nothing stands out, but I must write a review then my best bet is to go through a list of questions like this one from the Los Angeles Valley College Library and hope it gets the wheels turning in my brain.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I don’t use a template for book-reviews. I shape each article individually. But while I’m shaping, I keep a few do’s and don’t’s in mind:

Don’t:

  • Stress about a comprehensive synopsis. Readers will go to Goodreads or Amazon for that. Most books already have dozens of synopses out there. Your personal opinions and perspective is the unique thing you can offer readers.
  • Be afraid to talk about plot twists, ending, or other surprise points. But be considerate, and warn those who haven’t read the book yet to stop reading your review if you are about to give away something important.
  • Think that a negative review will damage a book’s sales. Often times a negative review breeds more curiosity. If you want to deter readers from buying than don’t mention the book at all.

Do:

  • Read the entire book before you review it! This should be obvious, but for reasons unknown, some people don’t. You cannot pass fair judgment if you haven’t considered all the evidence. And as The Bloggers’ Bulletin suggests, you could end up with a foot planted squarely in your mouth if you make a factual error.
  • Mention the book title and author’s name in the first paragraph of your review. As Scholastic points out, no one likes to dig for that.
  • Express your opinions. As your reader that’s what I want from you. But if you’re reviewing a book about Mexican food, and if–due to a traumatic childhood incident involving avocados–you have an atypical aversion to Guacamole, it would be cool if you disclose that and acknowledge that your opinion may be colored accordingly.
  • Draw your conclusions and then explain why. The ‘why’ part lends credibility to your opinions and persuades your readers. Without the ‘why’ your review is just another rant.
  • Consider the author’s purpose in writing the book. University of Northern Carolina’s online writing center offers a great example of how skewed a review can end up, if the reviewer judges solely from their expectations and ignores the author’s intentions.

I usually sum-up by recommending the book to those that might find value in it, whether it’s a very wide audience made up of anyone who’s ever ridden in a car or a smaller crowd of moto-cross-loving grandmothers of Siamese twins.

So what about you? Do you take notes when you read? Do prefer the scholarly book-critique, or the casual, opinion-laden book-review?

Merlin’s Charge, Peter Joseph Swanson

While on a grail quest, accompanied by various tired and forgettable characters, a horny, pessimistic Merlin does his best to jade an adolescent, and very green, Arthur into despising politics and people.

After reading this book I can’t tell you what Arthur’s interests and favorite pastimes were. I can’t even tell you what color his hair was. But I can tell you all about his wet dreams: what he saw, what he felt, and how he cleaned himself up. So it was with other characters too. The first 1/3 of the book was so unbalanced in this manner that if I hadn’t had a personal motive (I met the author through a writer’s social-networking site) I would have stopped reading.

Another gripe, all 220 pages of this book added up to make one very long chain of chatter. Talk, talk, talk. I felt like I was at a never-ending ladies’ quilting bee! More than once I screamed inside my head, Please stop talking! Just for a second! Perhaps this was meant as an experiment, but in my view it failed and should have been abandoned early into the project.

What’s more, the tone of the conversation never seamed to change. The celebration of a wedding, the slaying of a defenseless blind-man, the press of eminent danger was all revealed to us through generic comments inserted into the relentless barrage of chatter. Characters that were excitable were always agitated. Those that were prone to casual cynicism were always offhanded and negative. Really annoying.

Merlin’s Charge wasn’t all bad, however.

Whether or not it’s true, I’m convinced that Peter Joseph Swanson has done his homework. He struck me as very knowledgeable about medieval times, magic, grail quests, etc. It was great to hear about pursuits and lifestyles of the day. PJS pointed out that things like bridges were considered modern technology, horses were still a luxury, and cobblestones and paving of any kind practically didn’t exist yet.

Also very interesting, with Christianity on the rise and paganism just starting to move toward the background, PJS compared and contrasted various points of both religions all through the book: the differences between wedding and burial ceremonies, explanations for drought and other weather patterns.

I loved PJS’s interpretation of the Holy Grail: a magic cauldron with an endless supply of food. This cauldron does indeed grant life to the town that possesses it and would be far more desirable to its impoverished people than eternal youth or some such.

I also liked the most important plot point. An evil pict-witch steals the Holy Grail, changes its purpose from good to evil by inverting it, and uses it as a demon bell. If she can steal a holy bell from an abbey and turn it evil, also by inverting it, all is lost. So it falls on the future king and his enslaved teacher to save the wasteland.

To sum up, if you love sarcasm and dark humor under any circumstances, definitely pick this one up. If you’re interested in medieval history this might be worth wading through. Otherwise, don’t worry about it. There were some cool things in this book, but I hope to soon find out what the trade value is for a used copy of Merlin’s Charge.

Sara Gruen’s, Water for Elephants

This book was a little too gritty for me, but I recognize that I’m far more sensitive about public display of sexuality than most. I understand that sensuality was a huge part of circus life. The story needed to acknowledge that part of the circus world, but I would have appreciated being spared so many of the ugly details.

In spite of this I had to keep reading. The originality of the setting, plot, and characters kept egging me on. I don’t believe I have ever encountered a story about circus performers in the 1930’s, set mostly on and just off the train. I was absolutely absorbed in that world.

I loved the parallel story lines involving old Jacob and young Jacob. It wasn’t just an older person reflecting on his former years; old Jacob had problems and struggles to overcome as well. I loved watching him in both situations growing and evolving. Just as Dave Weich says in his interview with Sara Gruen (transcript at the back of the book), juxtaposing the old Jacob with the new Jacob, “grounds some of the crazier stuff going on in his past.” It softens his wild days and endears him to the reader.

The ending was great. Gruen is not afraid of a little falling action, which I deeply appreciate. All the ends wrap up nicely, but there’s plenty of hints for Jacob’s future. I probably won’t read this book again, because of the many detailed sexual encounters, but it was well-written, well-rounded and very satisfying.

Markus Zusak, the Book Thief

Holy cow. I love this book!

The narrator is a compassionate and over-worked Death, minus the scythe, who takes mental mini-vacations by observing the varieties of colors in the sky. While working he always tries to avoid looking at grieving survivors, but his eye is caught by the face of a girl he keeps bumping into: the Book Thief.

I loved hearing about the power of words. The evil words of one man sway millions to do insane things, and the hope-filled words of one girl lift a Jewish soul from his metaphorical grave, comfort her terrified friends and family, and strengthen her own resolve to rise above her surroundings.

Without comparing it to the unspeakable suffering of Jewish people during WWII, Zusak does a brilliant job of showing how difficult life was for regular German citizens. He shows that very few of them were the intolerant madmen they’re sometimes made out to be. Most of them were just scared, hungry, and looking for a way out of their problems. Many Germans believed that minorities were being targeted unfairly, but felt powerless to meddle with that.

**Spoiler Alert** If you haven’t read this book yet, stop reading now!

I am not necessarily a lover of sad books and sad endings. It’s unbearable that Liesel looses her home and so many loved-ones. However I believe the story would have felt untrue or contrived without some great and terrible ordeal to overcome. For heaven’s sake, Death is the narrator, what else can be expected?

The great thing is the depth of Liesel’s sacrifice directly reflects the height of her victory by moving on once the dust has settled.

I wish we could have seen more of her post-war life, but it speaks well that Death didn’t come near her again until it was her time to go. The more I think about that, the more fitting and perfect it is to end the story that way.