Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

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?

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.

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This book proves that Henry James is a master at fleshing-out characters and weaving relationships. Each individual was so well-developed they felt more like my dear friends rather than strangers I eaves-dropped on. In fact, the slow moments in the book were due mostly to character and setting development nearly to the point of overkill.

This story contains little action, which in my view, can easily be sacrificed to the great characters and relationships, so that wasn’t a problem for me.

The big flaw of this piece was the sudden drop at the end. I know I’ve complained about this more than once lately, but this ending was by far, the most frustrating! After several hundred pages of build-up, with one beloved character in terrible trouble, and immediately after a life-altering event takes place between two other main characters, we are notified that our main character has figured out what to do, and there the book stops.

There is no hint about how any of these situations resolve (or don’t). The reader is left to drown in a puddle of their own assumptions. Worse still, there is no hope of Henry James (who died in 1916) producing a sequel to tie up the loose ends!

I have stewed for days, wondering about my dear friends who simply ceased to exist. Even though the ending of this book fully invites the reader to do so, I feel I have no right to draw my own conclusions as these people are entirely fictional, and I did not invent them.

*Grrrr* Unless you’ve no problem exercising your imagination upon the work of others, you may want to skip this one.

Good Advise for Bloggers In Clear Blogging by Bob Walsh

We are currently reading from Clear Blogging by Bob Walsh (Apress 2007) in my Web 2.0 class. I’m learning a TON from this book. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to be a serious blogger. Here’s a few ideas from the book (and a few from our class) that I thought might be useful to all who blog:

  • Own Your Words. Keep a cool head and don’t get carried away. I can’t find the exact quote, but Walsh says something like: Never publish anything you wouldn’t want your grandma or boss to read, because odds are they will read it.
  • Keep an idea list. In an un-published draft page or elsewhere, keep a running list of post ideas. Sometimes we have more good ideas than we can possibly write about at the moment, and sometimes we sit at the keyboard with nothing to say. An idea list will help even things out.
  • Keep a “my bad” list as well. Notice words that you tend to misspell or mistype. Paying attention to these words will help you correct problems.
  • Use tabs, labels, or categories. Help your readers find more of what they love. Add tabs, labels, and/or categories to each post to organize your site. Your readers will appreciate being able to find things efficiently.
  • Show your favorites or “best of.” In your sidebar or somewhere else, display a list of links to your “favorites” or “best of” posts. Your audience will appreciate seeing the work you are most proud of.

If you want to increase traffic to your blog, here’s some good ideas:

  • Consider a focus. Blogs are a great for keeping a journal or log about your activities and interests. But if you want to attract an audience, choose a specific focus. People who are also interested in whatever you are focusing on will be more likely to re-visit your blog.

  • Consider your audience. Place yourself in the shoes of those who you’re writing for. What do they want to hear about?
  • Stick to a schedule. Your readers will appreciate knowing when to expect your content to change.
  • Spend some time on your post titles. The title is the first thing your readers see. They often make the decision to read or not based on the title of the post. The title should be interesting and describe what the post is about.
  • Be thoughtful about your tagline. (the subtitle of your blog) Use words that people search for. Your tagline, the titles of your posts, and the first few words of your posts are what search engines will crawl. If you have the words people search for in those areas, you will be placed higher in search result lists.
  • Include your biography and a picture of yourself. People interested in your words will want to know about you. If you’re willing to disclose part of yourself it lends credibility to your words.

BE CAREFUL!!
Blogs can feel so personal. It’s just you and your computer, right? WRONG! Remember, unless you take specific steps, blogs are a public space.

  • Keep your safety in mind. Little details can lead to identity theft, kidnapping, and other problems.
  • Know your rights. Occasionally lawsuits are filed over the content of a blog. The EFF have posted a very readable legal guide for bloggers on their site. It’s worth checking out.
  • Consider adding a disclosure policy. If you don’t want to be held responsible for any ignorant comments people make, apparently our sue happy society requires that this be spelled out somewhere. If you endorse products or advertise for anything on your blog, you might visit disclosurepolicy.org for a sample disclosure policy spelling out the intent of your endorsement.

Carol Matas’ In My Enemy’s House

**spoiler alert** It was like reading an outline! Nothing was fleshed out at all. I appreciate when a writer describes the situation so well that you feel like you’ve stepped into the action. It’s nice when they lead you to certain feelings and emotions through creative, detailed language.

I never once got lost in this book. The language was full of, “I went here, I did this, I felt this.” It was like talking on the phone not visiting another world!

As readers we all hope for the best for the protagonist of a story. But I can’t imagine any reader appreciating the way that every time the main character tried to manipulate a situation, it worked out exactly as she had planned. So annoying!

Also, the whole book is leading up to a reunion of our heroine and someone important. (Anticipating this moment is the only thing that kept me reading.) As soon as she located this person, the book abruptly ends before she reaches him. We don’t even get to be there for the reunion!

No wonder I found this book on a clearance shelf!

Jason F. Wright Recovering Charles

I truly appreciated a first-hand look at post-Katrina, New Orleans, without the biased, self-serving spin of the media or political figures. The story was charming and carried me along beautifully until the last chapter.

Wright spends the whole book weaving us into a very conflicted dysfunctional family. His main character has spent years trying to come to grips with his emotional baggage. Then, at the very height of all the drama, in a “pulled the rug out from under you” kind of move, he wraps it all up a few contrived pages. The ending felt very artificial, not at all natural for this character he so carefully dissected through the previous 200+ pages.

But it was still worth reading to gain what is hopefully an accurate perspective of this sobering event.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

The small, farming community of 1950’s Holcomb, Kansas is overwhelmed and devastated by the brutal murder of an entire family.

Whether or not Truman Capote is a true genius has been debated, but there is no question about the quality of his work in In Cold Blood.

In Cold BloodThis book is insanely well written, a masterpiece. Without deviating from the time line, Capote kind of spirals us around and down through events in individual lives into the climax. His use of vignettes is unparalleled.

The tie-in factors between each glimpse is amazing, considering every horn-honk, every crunch of gravel, every blade of grass mentioned in the book is factual and documented. (except for one fictional encounter thrown in at the end meant to help the reader climb back out into reality again) The symbolism Capote pulls out of everyday objects is inspired.

I believe this may have been one of the first times an author ever attempted to invoke sympathy for the killers in a factual murder. In that regard, as in many others, Capote left large shoes to fill.

The questions raised made this a difficult book to read and left me (as it should) very unsettled. Be warned this does not wrap up into a neat little package, but read it anyway, for its brilliance.