One-Minute Book Reviews

March 9, 2009

Are Y’all Payin’ Attention? Ah May Be a Yankee From New Jersey, But Ah Might Could Have a Review for Y’all of Kathryn Stockett’s Novel, ‘The Help’

A New York Times bestseller describes the mistreatment of black maids at the dawn of the civil rights era

The Help: A Novel. By Kathryn Stockett. Putnam’s/Amy Einhorn Books, 464 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Forty-five literary agents rejected The Help, and although that’s not an alpine number in today’s market, it’s easy to imagine why they did. A white University of Alabama graduate has written much of her first novel in the alternating voices of two black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s – as though Margaret Mitchell weren’t still taking heat, 60 years after her death, for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind.

For anybody who isn’t put off by the transracial ventriloquism, The Help may hold surprises. Kathryn Stockett tells the story of a white Ole Miss graduate who returns to her well-off parents’ cotton farm, cringes when she sees how her friends treat their “help,” and vows with the secret cooperation of the maids to write a book that exposes the abuses. There’s a lot to expose.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has rejoined a world in which maids work for less the minimum wage and must wear uniforms if they attend the weddings of children they helped raise. They must use dishes and bathrooms their employers don’t. And if they protest these and many other indignities, they may be fired and blackballed by women who can keep them from working again in their towns. In their off hours, they face all the other injustices of segregation, including that can’t use white hotels, restaurants and libraries.

The Help falls into the category that publishers call “mainstream women’s fiction” and has many of its hallmarks, such as a subplot involving Skeeter’s romance with the callow son of a politician. And yet it has something rarely found in novels that have as much pink on their covers as this one does: sustained social commentary. Stockett describes the results of a silent auction at the Junior League Annual Ball and Benefit in Jackson:

“As names are read, items are received with the excitement of someone winning a real contest, as if the booty were free and not paid for at three, four, or five times the store value. Tablecloths and nightgowns with the lace tatted by hand bring in high bids. Odd sterling servers are popular, for spooning out deviled eggs, removing pimentos from olives, cracking quail legs.”

That is sharper and more interesting writing than you will find in many novels with more literary pretensions, and it makes you wonder what Stockett could do if she gave a free rein to her satirical instincts. In some ways The Help resembles The Nanny Diaries, though the plot is more far-fetched and the writing less polished. Justice comes for the household employees, to the degree that it arrives at all, at scalper’s prices. Students of the abuses of the Jim Crow era may find much of The Help unsurprising, but the collective memory of those abuses is fading. This novel would be welcome if only because it will help to keep the hidden cruelties alive both for those who have never known of them and for those who would prefer to forget.

Best line: The belles of The Help know that before you marry, you can never give too much thought to choosing a silverware pattern. One woman says: “Skeeter, you’re so lucky to come from a Francis the First family pattern.”

Worst line: The black maids often say things like: “Law, my phone was disconnected cause I’s short this month.” And Stockett makes phonetic substitutions in their speech but not usually in their employers’. Given that her black characters say things like “terrified a” instead of “terrified of,” shouldn’t some of her whites be saying “Ah can’t” instead of “I can’t”? Ah may be a Yankee, but ah think they might could, because ah know how often writers done been tryin’ to show how white people talk in New Jersey.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2009

About the author: Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and lives in Atlanta.

Mini reading group guide to The Help: 3 Discussion questions for book clubs: 1) So, did y’all think Stockett was brave or insane for writing in the voices of Aibileen and Minny?

2) Janet Maslin wrote of The Help in her New York Times review: “It’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions. And it celebrates noblesse oblige so readily that Skeeter’s act of daring earns her a gift from a local black church congregation.” How much truth does this comment contain?

3) Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote in her review in Ms.: “As an African American, I accept black idioms as an aesthetic choice, but they nonetheless grated. Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have? There’s also the narrative rut of downtrodden but world-wise blacks showing white people their own souls, leading them out of a spiritual wilderness to their better selves. The Help has much more on its mind than that, but it doesn’t avoid going down a road too well traveled.” Do you agree or disagree?

Furthermore: The Help is #30 on the most recent New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 6, 2009

Kathryn Stockett’s ‘The Help’ — Coming Next Week

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:28 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I’ll have a post next week on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling first novel, The Help, about an Ole Miss graduate who returns to her native Jackson, Mississippi, and finds herself pained by how her young friends treat their black maids. A short item I wrote about a signing for the book appears on GalleyCat today. Emily Bell photo of Kathryn Stockett, seated, with Jennifer Myrick at Page & Palette Books.

March 17, 2008

Why Is ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ Such an Important Novel? (Quote of the Day / Doris Lessing)

Filed under: Classics,Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:55 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Alan Paton never won a Nobel Prize for Cry, the Beloved Country, his landmark 1948 novel about a Zulu minister who learns that his son has murdered the son of a white man. But his book may have had a greater impact on the struggle for racial justice in South Africa than any by Nadine Gordimer, who did win. And it has had a strong readership in the U.S. for six decades, bolstered by two movie versions and its selection for Oprah’s Book Club in 2003.

Why was Cry, the Beloved Country so important? Here’s an answer from Doris Lessing, the novelist and 2007 Nobel laureate in literature, who was born in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and wrote another book critical of South Africa, The Grass Is Singing, that appeared soon after Paton’s:

“What you have to remember is that the whole of southern Africa was seen as a very happy, fun place full of satisfied blacks…. Cry, the Beloved Country destroyed that vision. Then along came The Grass Is Singing, which helped to break it down even more.”

Doris Lessing as quoted by Emily Parker in “Provocateur” in the Weekend Interview with Doris Lessing, The Wall Street Journal, March 15-16, 2008.

Read a biography of Paton at
www.litweb.net/biography/142/Alan_Paton.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 15, 2008

Why Did the American Library Association Snub Sherman Alexie?

Did Alexie’s young-adult novel finish out of the medals because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial joke that includes the “n” word?

By Janice Harayda

Sherman Alexie never really had a shot at winning the 2008 Newbery Medal, which honors the most distinguished work of literature for children (specifically, for those under the age of 14). The material in his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is too mature for many children in that age group.

But Alexie was a favorite for the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award for young people’s literature, which honors a book for an older audience and went to Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a 2007 National Book Award www.nationalbook.org. And it was mentioned repeatedly in the Mock Newbery contests held by libraries in the weeks before yesterday’s awards ceremony.

So a lot of people were surprised when The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian finished out of the medals at the ALA’s midwinter meeting yesterday, receiving neither a major prize nor an honor-book designation. Did the novel lose because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word and caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave at an Illinois high school in October?

Tomorrow One Minute Book Reviews will review The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian www.lb-teens.com, including comments on parts that might given pause to the ALA. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing this review. One-Minute Book Reviews normally reviews books for children and teenagers on Saturdays but may depart from this policy when books make news. Its reviews of books for adults will resume on Thursday.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 24, 2007

David Matthews Looks Back on Straddling a Racial Divide in ‘Ace of Spaces’

The son of a black father and white mother writes of the confusion he felt while growing up in Baltimore in the late 20th century

Ace of Spades: A Memoir. By David Matthews. Holt, 302 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Ace of Spades has a blurb on its back cover from Paula Fox, and its coolly detached prose in some ways resembles that of her Borrowed Finery. But you wish that the book had more in common with the work of such an elegant writer.

David Matthews affects the elevated diction of a Victorian triple-decker in this memoir of the racial confusion he felt while being reared in a Baltimore ghetto by his black father after his white mother abandoned him in infancy. His words clash repeatedly with his stories of living in a rat-infested house and carrying a Beretta when a friend needed backup on a drug deal – “perforce,” “peradventure,” “vouchsafed,” “surfeiture,” “temerarious.” The problem isn’t that he’s sending people to the dictionary – something I’m all for — but that his mandarin prose makes no sense in context. If he’s trying to show that he was once, as he puts it, “the shallowest sort of aesthete,” why keep it up after that phase passed?

You get the sense that, through such language, he’s less interested in telling the truth straight up than in creating a “character” who will interest readers or movie producers. This impression becomes especially troublesome near the end of the book when he searches for facts about his mother, who he learns died after abandoning him. He gets the name of a psychiatrist who treated her for schizophrenia and finds that — “miraculously,” he says – the doctor is still alive and living, as he is, in New York. The psychiatrist agrees promptly to meet with him, then pours out the details of his mother’s personal and medical history. Far stranger stories have appeared in memoirs, and everything in Ace of Spades could be factual, apart from the few “names and identifying characteristics” that Matthews says he has changed. Still, you wish that Matthews had, as he might have put it, “vouchsafed” the proof.

Best line: Matthews says that in college he developed an “intellectual anorexia” common among black men when he saw any display of intellect as “uncool, which is the definition of white.”

Worst lines: “… he aimed his fifteen-year-old phallic trebuchet at the college coed/divorcée/cocktail waitress set.” Matthews also writes that in middle school he had “an incipient though feckless concernment with the opposite sex.” Yes, “concernment.”

Editor: Vanessa Mobley

Published: February 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 367 other followers

%d bloggers like this: