Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Helping Yourself

I've heard the arguments about Kathryn Stockett's The Help--that it's pandering, trivializing of the Civil Rights movement, and especially that there's something squicky about a white woman writing a story like this, where colorful black folks are given their power and their voice by a non-racist white lady.  Most of the things that I've hard in those conversations are factually true, and I can't argue with them.

The HelpBut I have to say, I'm enjoying the book.  I think its redeeming feature is the fact that it's not trying--not at all--to be an insightful discussion of race or the Civil Rights struggle.  It doesn't claim to be the Great American Novel.  It's not literary fiction--it's popular fiction. 

This is a mainstream, feel-good novel about women being friends and touching each other's lives.  It's a Fried Green Tomatoes book, a Ya-Ya Sisterhood book.  By setting it in an historically important, tense, pivotal time--and by filling it with lists of cultural touchstones like Bob Dylan and To Kill a Mockingbird and Medgar Evers (which, to be fair, took place within the context of the story)--the author gives the book more of a promise of heft than it really earns, which opens it up to the criticism it's received.

I'm not the first person to say this (although many of them are talking about the movie).  Not even remotely.  It's worth linking to the New York Times's take on it.  I really don't have anything to add to the argument, except that I agree that the book tells a very narrow story--the experiences of a few women--and that some of the treatments are, if not actually icky, then almost shamefully naive.

But I'm enjoying the book.  And not just, I think, on a white guilt level, but also on the kind of level where I'm pretty sure everyone will get what's coming to them.  (Note: I'm about halfway through, so these predictions aren't spoilers.)  It's soothing, like all feel-good stories are--Skeeter will get published, and Aibileen will find her voice and justice will be served and the bad guys will come to nothing and poo on them.  This is a book about the schoolgirl cruelties of adult women--not the true viciousness that people are capable of.  It's not about racial problems, it's about suburban ones.

The more I think about it, the more I think that it does overreach, and that there's some irresponsibility in--I want to call it "opening a can of worms," but then there's my problem.  The phrase itself is kind of dismissive, kind of ugly.  If you want to write a book that ISN'T profound, is it right or wrong to let it anywhere near a powder keg like race in the '60s in Jackson, Mississippi? 

Ultimately, Stockett wrote the book she wanted to write, and succeeded enormously at what she was trying to do.  The fallout is about whether that was a worthy, respectable, respectful thing to do, and whether all of us who are reading it and enjoying it are cretins or racists or both.  If the book hadn't been so enjoyable, no one would ever have asked the question.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Surrender Monkey

I have been inspired by Nancy Pearl.  If you're surprised by that, it's only because it's taken me so long to be inspired by her.

Lately, Adam's been playing with my Nancy Pearl Action Figure.  I have the deluxe model that comes with a book cart, computer, and stacks of books.  He really likes stacking the books on and off the book cart.  Where do you suppose he gets that one? 

Anyway, this sent me to Nancy's website, where I read her Rule of Fifty.  This is very similar to my 10% rule, and it basically says not to spend too much time on a book you're not enjoying.  There's no prize or reading a book you don't enjoy.  How is it that I need outside people to tell me this?

So my recent library kick has now been neatly bookended (I'd say no pun intended, but would you believe me?) by a recent spate of my interest fizzling out.  I still find it incredibly liberating to let myself off the hook; what I can't figure out is why I require so much convincing, but somehow I do, every time.  I guess that's why these come in batches.

The Last Four ThingsAnyhow, a quick summary just to keep you updated.  I sent The Last Four Things, by Paul Hoffman, back to the library after the first page.  It was only a two week loan; I was on vacation during one of those weeks and didn't have any time to read it.  And, with the perspective provided by distance, I realized that I didn't really care for the first book in the series, The Left Hand of God.  The plot was fast-paced enough that I put the sequel on my list, but in retrospect, I had a lot of problems with it.  There were some flaws in the writing, and some of the characters seemed inconsistent.  The worst part was that I could list the number of female speaking parts on one hand, and they were universally one-dimensional, and almost-universally nasty and insipid.  There are so many good books to read, there's no reason to do this to myself.

So Much Pretty: A NovelSo Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman, seemed promising at first.  It's a missing-girl-in-a-small-town book, but I couldn't tell if it was a character study or police procedural or thriller or even ghost story.  Turns out it was a literary novel.  Now, I've grown enough not to use that term pejoratively; that didn't make it bad.  But, as I mentioned in a previous post, it was all authorial voice.  The story switched from character to character between chapters, some in first person and some in third.  All the voices sounded the same.  In a book where one of your themes is about the sense of belonging in a small town, that's a huge handicap.

Which Brings Me to You: A Novel in ConfessionsWhich brings me to Which Brings Me To You.  This epistolary novel by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott has the clever structure of a series of letters written between a man and woman who met at a wedding and decided that they might have the potential to be more to each other than just another coat-closet hookup.  This was was a tougher call, because it wasn't awful.  The writing was good--clearly the two voices were different (different authors), though you'll never convince me that either character is anything but a writers, given the way elaborate descriptions are deftly woven through with conclusions about the nature of the universe.  Mostly, though, I just didn't like either of the characters; I thought they were both sad and kind of pathetic, but also proud of it.  I guess I'm saying that not only did I not like the characters, I think the authors DID like them, and I stopped reading the book.

The Emperor's Winding SheetThe Emperor's Winding Sheet was the biggest disappointment.  Jill Paton Walsh wrote Knowledge of Angels, a book I loved.  It was insightful and enjoyable, and it worked on the level of drama and also on the level of allegory.  This book--which won the Whitbread Prize in 1974, a prize I know nothing about--seems to be much more about the research that the author did than the story she wants to tell.  Constantine is the last emperor of Rome (though of course he doesn't know that yet, he may see it coming), and Vrethiki is the name given to an English boy whose ship was lost at sea, and who finds his way into the Emperor's garden.  Taken up as a talisman of good luck, Vrethiki is effectively enslaved and spends a lot of pages observing 15th century Constantinople.  The point at which I allowed myself to surrender (75 pages in, so well past Nancy Pearl's limit) was when I started counting how many pages of description they could have before someone said something, or did something besides interact with their environment.  It was three--three pages of banquets and jewel-encrusted things and complicated clothing.  Then there's a scene where the kid breaks a dish, and then a lot more pages of the walls around the city and what the streets look like.  Very travelogue, is what I'm saying, and not my cup of tea.

So, here I am.  Young Miles and Doc on Bessie, and I have things to say about them, and The Ninth Wife(which, by the way, refers to sequential, not concurrent, wives), which is not bad at all, from the library, plus The Help (post coming up about that) from Audible.  I'm really happy with this current crop, which makes me glad that I didn't spend any more time cultivating the stuff that didn't interest me.  Ever forward, as they say.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


For a little while there--a few weeks, at least--I had no library books.  It would have been a bizarre experience, but I was caught up in the pangs of first love and focusing on other things.

Then I turned up a couple of non-electronic books I was dying to read, and all of a sudden I'm back on the library bandwagon.  It's partly because I have so many books on Bessie already that I haven't started yet; it feels stupid to run out and get more, no matter how badly I want to read them.  But on the other hand, I'm really bad at picking my next book from the pile available, rather than rushing around following my urges.

So here I am with a big pile of library books.  It's kind of thrilling, actually.  It's nice to know that it's not all over--the library still has a lot to offer me.  Though I'm going to have to get used to spending money on books at some point. 

Quick list, for the curious:  How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgement, by Michele Lamont - nonfiction, behind the scenes of academia.  Love that stuff.; Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch - kids' comic book about a young Jewish girl who wants to fight dragons; The Ninth Wife, by Amy Stolls - who would marry a man who's had eight wives before her?; The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips - a novel about the messed up life of a guy who discovered Shakespeare's lost play--including the text of the play itself.  Possibly too postmodern and/or clever to be read; So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman - I have it checked out but decided not to read it after the first few pages.  When a city slicker character drives through farmland for the first time and sees a tractor graveyard, they are not able to pick out the threshers from the mowers.  This book was all authorial voice and description.

Oh, there's more.  There's always more.  But that's enough for now.  I'll keep you posted!

Friday, August 26, 2011

King Spins Yarns

I never read Stephen King till the year after I graduated from college.  At some point I realized that I had no idea what kind of writer he was, whether his books were any good, or really anything about him.  But he's such a cultural icon, I figured it was about time to see what was what, and I went on a little binge.  I'm happy to report I enjoyed many of his books a great deal, especially The Shining, Salem's Lot, and Pet Sematary

Eventually, I worked my way past the golden years and realized that at some point, somebody decided more words is better and stopped editing King's work.  Thus you end up with imposing tomes like Desperation and Cell, which are enormously long and full of so much imagery that the fastest-paced story takes forever to tell.  I went off King and haven't been back since, except to reread bits of my favorite, or short stories that he wrote back in his heyday of the '80s.

The Colorado Kid [COLORADO KID] [Mass Market Paperback]But then here comes The Colorado Kid, a slim little novel that doesn't seem to fit much about Stephen King.  I'd been half interested in the ads for the Syfy show Haven when I learned it was (very loosely) based on this book.  I'm much more likely to pick up a book than a whole TV show, especially one where I'm a full season behind, so here we find ourselves.

Make no mistake, this is not the King of the late '80s, reeling out tales of mystery and suspense.  First, this book is short--you'd call it a novella, but I'd even call it a protracted short story.  The length is not painful, and I'll have spent maybe 4 hours total by the time I'm finished reading it.  This can only be a good thing; it implies, at the very least, that someone edited the damned thing.

Anyway, it's the story of an unsolved mystery--a body is found in a small Maine town, and it takes years to figure out who it is, and still no one knows how or why he got there.  Now, I don't know yet how the story ends (I hate blogging after I finish a book), but I'm 85% of the way through (thanks, Kindle) and I can tell you, that's just the reason for the story.  This is actually a lazy, leisurely vignette of a micro-mini newspaper run by two old coots and their bright-eyed young intern.  They're telling her a story that makes so little sense it moves beyond journalism into yarn-spinning--which is what they do.

Stephen King LOVES old Maine codgers.  He loves the accent, the turns of phrase, the wry wisdom of a 92 year old newspaperman.  He loves the locals' scorn for folks from away, the elderly's affection for the young.  King believes that there is mysticism in things like old codgers and stores with clever misspellings in their names and women.  This is as much a story about the older generation passing their wisdom on to the younger as anything else.

And you know what?  I love those things, too.  And when he's not getting exhaustingly bogged down in those details--when someone edits his books--he does them really well.  The lazy afternoon of storytelling at this local paper is a fine, fast, fun read.  It's not horror--far from it--but besides having my pants scared off, this book has everything I love about Stephen King. 

And, while this makes me even more angry at travesties like Dreamcatcher and Cell, it's nice to know he's still out there, somewhere, working with an editor and cranking out good old New England storytelling.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

All The Good Post Titles Were Taken

It really seems like I could come up with a clever name for a post about a book called Shades of Milk and Honey, but everything seemed obvious, trivial, or trite.  I blame Mary Robinette Kowal, for making me realize that I will never be as clever as the great ones.

First, the premise: this book is a straight Jane-Austen-style drawing room drama, only in a world where one of the many accomplishments expected of a young woman is glamour, or magical illusion.  That's almost all you need to know about the story for me to talk about it, but I'll give you a little more: Jane is plain and solemn but very accomplished, while her sister Melody is beautiful and charming but less skilled.  They need husbands.  There, now you know what I need to tell you.

Shades of Milk and HoneyWhat I mean by that is that now you can go out and read it.  And you should, because it's so sweet, and fine, and fluffy.  I'm not going to claim it's note-perfect Austen--rather, it's a strong imitation.  The period style of writing is sometimes too insistent--especially when an unusual spelling like "shew" for "show" comes up more than once on the same page--but I actually found that incredibly endearing.  The precision of language and sentence construction was just right, and lulls you into the structured, proper world you want to be in.

The magic is a wonderful addition, too.  This is not high adventure magic; this is creating art with "folds of ether" instead of paintbrushes or hat trimmings (though rest assured, bonnets are trimmed in the book).  There are plot points about magic, but you could almost have used painting instead in most of them. And it's woven so comfortably into the story that you hardly notice it--it does nothing to take you out of the story.

This is not a deep, thought-provoking novel.  This is a light, fun little romantic meringue of a book that you should take time to read in between all the other, more substantial things you have to do with your time.  I can't urge you strongly enough--read it!  Now!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Another Example of Me Behind The Times

How have I never read Octavia Butler before?  How may times did I see a copy of Parable of the Sower before I finally, finally picked it up last week?  What cave have I been living in?

Parable of the SowerA sad, Octavia-Butlerless cave, apparently.  If you're a fan of the future dystopia, this book is right the heck up your alley.  It's not exactly apocalyptic--it's more like the whole country is now like the worst neighborhoods in the roughest cities.  Middle class people put walls around their neighborhoods and grow as much of their own food as they can; most people don't live that well and have to steal and kill to survive. 

In this violent world, Lauren Olamina is born with a genetic weakness--she feels other people's pain.  When she sees people suffering, she feels it physically.  She has also come to a conclusion about religion: God is change.  Not just that the nature of God is to change, but God is change--controlling everything, implacable, but shapeable.  She forms this concept of religion as she grows up in her safe but precarious neighborhood and thinks about what her future might hold.

The observation of living in Lauren's world is really the entirety of the book--there's no driving quest except to survive, which happens moment to moment.  The religious and spiritual elements of the story are fascinating, and I actually wish there had been more depth to the question-and-answers that Lauren has with her friends about God and her new religion.  I want to know more about how she defined God--really, I almost wanted her to start spouting parables.

So this is a story of details.  Of characters--Lauren's practical yet idealistic father; her angry, violent brother; her friend in denial; any number of other characters she meets in her life.  The author doesn't spare her characters at all, but she also doesn't get bogged down in their misery (I'm looking at you, This World We Live In) to the point where you can't see the deeper points--what it means to be human, to have hope, to plan for a future that seems a million miles away.

I wish I could flesh out more about what I loved about Parable, but it was so simple, so personal, that it's almost hard to talk about what happens.  There are a few more significant aspects, but it's mostly just about  how the characters live, and why.  Somehow the book answers that question without ever seeming to ask it.  I'm excited to read The Parable of the Talents, which follows it, and pretty much everything else by Butler, and I'm so sorry to find out that she passed away just a few years ago, far too young.  I love discovering a new author, though, and I'm looking forward to rolling around in this work for a while.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Vacation Dispatches

Some people would tell you that it was impossible to write about Sisterhood Everlasting, Anne Brashares' follow-up to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, without giving away major plot points.  Those people are faint of heart, and I am not one of them.

Sisterhood Everlasting: A Novel (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants)At the end of the book, I was satisfied in the way that a warm plate of cookies makes you satisfied.  At various points along the way, though, I was plagued with doubt and fear.  And when my doubts were cleared up, it was in a kind of happily-ever-after, magical okayness that felt kind of unreal after the raw emotional stuff that had come before.

But let's step aside from that.  I won't give away the somewhat shocking thing that happens at the beginning of the book, or the kind of downbeat feel of the first half or so.  What I'll say is that this story begins ten years after the end of the Sisterhood's adolescent adventures in book four.  They are now 29 instead of 19 and in the thick of living their lives. 

Except they're not.  Each one is still tangled up with the same adolescent problems they had in the other books.  Bridget skims along on the surface of life, moving fast and feeling nothing.  Lena is so afraid of feeling anything that she's practically a recluse.  Carmen's insecurities have her living the high life and feeling crappy about herself.  Tibby has her own problems, and has pulled away from the Sisterhood. 

All of these were poignant emotional situations when they were 19.  At 29, though, they are all looking really neurotic.  And it's all based around their different ways of avoiding feeling things, because they feel them so deeply.  Carmen sticks with appearances; Lena tries to keep the world from spinning, Bridget is always moving, Tibby is on the other side of the world.

I can't go much further into what actually happens in the story, but this alone--the fact that their problems at 29 are the same as their problems at 19, only more intense, more life-limiting, more indelible, all seems really depressing to me.  And there's a level on which any warm-fuzzy happiness at the ending can't feel long-lasting, if it never was before.  There's an implication that they all had a well-adjusted period in their early 20s, but it's all rather sketchy.

If you've read the book, I'd love to know what you think.  I really enjoyed the last half, as everyone started working through their issues, but the first half, where everyone was just a falling-apart mess, had me so sad and afraid for the Sisterhood that I was all gloomy.

Hopefully my vacation will have a little more reading time and I'll be back on the bloggy wagon!