Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

This book seemed to be everywhere for a while and that kind of popularity always puts me off. I’m sure it won’t live up to it’s reputation. However, several friends read it and loved it and I ran out of things to read on holiday (horrifying thought) so I decided to read The Help and despite the hype I loved it.

Here’s the blurb …

 Be prepared to meet three unforgettable women:

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women – mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends – view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don’t.

Obviously I am aware of the civil rights movement in the US, but I am completely ignorant of the fine details. SO this story told from the view point of the maids (or help) was a real eye-opener for me. I’m dumbfounded by the way people spoke to the maids – like they were recalcitrant children (so patronising) and then there is the whole separate toilet issue! But the vital point was the intimidation and violence directed at the black people to maintain the status quo.

This novel is an entertaining and easy read as well as being informative. I do find it strange that the white women allow people they see as inferior to race their children. The novel is written from three different perspectives; Aibileen, Minnie and Skeeter. Each has a distinct voice and different experiences, which creates a well-rounded view of rural life in Mississippi in the early 1960s. Even the white women lived narrow and restricted lives – it’s all about getting married and being part of the Junior League. I’m glad I read this novel and I’m looking forward to seeing the movie.

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There Should be More Dancing – Rosalie Ham

I bought this novel based solely on the title – there should be more dancing, don’t you think? I have read and enjoyed Summer at Mount Hope, so that might have made me more receptive to buy a book knowing nothing at all about it. Rosalie Ham is Australian and this novel is definitely Australian. It reminded me at times of the movie The Castle – there were some laugh out loud Australian humour, so international readers beware.

Here is the blurb …

Margery Blandon has led an upright, principled life guided by the wisdom of desktop calendars. What went wrong? Margery suspects her that her first born, Walter, has betrayed her. Her second son, Morris, might have committed a crime, and her only daughter is almost certainly trying to kill her. Then there’s Pat, her life-long neighbour and enemy – now demented – who possibly knows the truth about everything. Should she throw herself from the 43rd floor, or should she abandon everything she believes and embrace her enemy for the sake of what’s right?.

 I loved this novel, the characters are superb. Margery with her cross stitch aphorisms (mostly taken from desktop calendars), her strict routine (roast chicken every Sunday) and her willful blindness to people and events around her. Then there is Walter, the Brunswick Bull, who has never been quite the same since the last fight. Judith, Margery’s daughter, with her mobile beauty business and her determination to finally possess her mother’s pearls. This was a joyful book about a difficult subject; aging. Her children want her to move into a nursing home, so they can sell the house and have the cash. She wants to stay there and if she moved who would tie Mrs Parsons’ shoe laces? There is also a bit of a mystery about Margery’s husband (who blew himself up – and the pub – by smoking too close to his oxygen tank) and Pat (who has dementia) seems to know what it is. And is her second son really managing a hotel overseas? I suspect Margery knows everything, but doesn’t really want to admit she does.

This novel is about families – the relationships between family members, what is due to family and the lies we tell one another for whatever reason. Although it has funny moments, there is an undercurrent of sadness to this novel. Margery, after a life of disappointment, is finally living how she wants and old age, infirmity and greedy relations might steal it all away.

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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet – Jamie Ford

This novel was recommended on a blog I read (possibly this one). I didn’t know anything about it, but reserved if from the library – there was quite a queue.

Here’s the description …

In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.

This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While ‘scholarshipping’ at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship-and innocent love-that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.

Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice-words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.

Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.

I have visited Seattle and it is always nice to read about a place you have been. This novel, in particular, had a great sense of place – the smell of salt, the rain and mud at the fairground, chinatown and japantown. The characters were wonderfully drawn as well.

For me this novel was an easy way to learn slightly more about the internment of people with Japanese ancestry during world was two. I didn’t know anything about it at all until I read Snow Falling on Cedars.

The prose was at times slightly forced – I was jolted out of the story and made aware I was reading a novel. However, I still think this novel is well worth reading and I look forward to Mr Ford’s next novel.

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The Best of Everything – Rona Jaffe

As it is school holidays, reading is happening, but thinking and writing is not.

I read a review of The Best of Everything here and was intrigued, Luckily I could get a copy for my Kindle (have I said how much I love my Kindle?).

This novel is Mad Men from the girls’ perspective, although as it was written in 1958, we should say Mad Men is like it.

Here is the description …

When Rona Jaffe’s superb page-turner was first published in 1958, it changed contemporary fiction forever. Some readers were shocked, but millions more were electrified when they saw themselves reflected in its story of five young employees of a New York publishing company. Almost sixty years later, The Best of Everything remains touchingly–and sometimes hilariously–true to the personal and professional struggles women face in the city. There’s Ivy League Caroline, who dreams of graduating from the typing pool to an editor’s office; naïve country girl April, who within months of hitting town reinvents herself as the woman every man wants on his arm; and Gregg, the free-spirited actress with a secret yearning for domesticity. Jaffe follows their adventures with intelligence, sympathy, and prose as sharp as a paper cut.

I loved reading this novel. The characters were very convincing (even the scary stalker one!). It was about gaining independence and moving out of the family home. They all seem to be marking time waiting for something better to come along (this usually means meeting a man and getting married – Caroline might eventually find satisfaction in her career). It is a 1950’s version of Sex and the City. The exploits of single women looking for fulfillment in New York. It is a fun read of the ‘glamourous’ life of a New York City girl.

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