Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Help

STOCKETT, KATHRYN. The Help. New York: Berkley Books, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-425-23220-0. Pp. 534. $16.00.

The cover of Kathryn Stockett's first novel keeps reminding me that this is one of the most important books since To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes: The Help does discuss relations between the blacks and the whites. Yes: It was written by a white lady. Yes: It does make references to Mockingbird on numerous occasions. And yes: They did make a movie out of it. BUT: Let's not forget that the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird was contemporary with the Civil Rights movement, written when segregation and racial prejudice were the norm and not what we would simply call today, "racist". We all know that Mockingbird's contents were so inflammatory as to have been banned in certain states, including Mississippi, where The Help takes place. Mockingbird takes place in the 1930s and deals with a fictitious trial in which a black male defendant was accused of raping a white woman. The exonerating evidence is overwhelming, but to acquit him would be to admit the guilt of a white man, the victim's father. In the end, the jury find him guilty of the crime, but only after hours of deliberation. At the time, this was considered a small victory.

The Help, on the other hand, takes place entirely within the domestic realm of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Instead of a courtroom drama, this is a bathroom drama: most of what's at stake seems to be who gets to go to the bathroom where. Obviously bathroom segregation stands in for a much greater social issue, but Stockett doesn't really "go there". At one point I thought she would, when a black maid is sent to prison for four years for stealing a worthless bauble. The question of whether her twin sons would be able to go to college (the reason why she stole from "her white lady" in the first place) is never answered. Instead, back to the toilet we go.

Three women narrate the novel--there are almost no men to speak of here, which will greatly hurt Stockett's chance of reaching a male readership. Aibileen is the maternal black maid who has raised seventeen white children in her lifetime, oftentimes loving them more than their own mothers can. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is the short, fat, sassy maid who can't stop getting fired for talking back. She has six and a half children and a husband who beats her. Finally, there's Skeeter, a fairly prominent member of the young, white, upper class female community who was herself raised by a black maid. The only one of her social group to have finished college, Skeeter has greater aspirations than just getting married and raising white children. Do these three women seem familiar to anyone else? Other cast members include the awful white alpha-female and her entourage of yes-women, and a kindly, color-blind (figuratively, that is) Marilyn Monroe look-a-like. Stockett is an excellent writer of dialogue, and she even writes a Southern black woman's voice without making you too uncomfortable. But her characters aren't so much people as they are types.

The plot, although slow to get started, is intriguing and there are enough loose ends to give the reader a sense of urgency and suspense. What happened to Skeeter's childhood maid Constantine? What did Minny do to her former boss that was so awful? [Hint: John Waters could have written that bit.] But there are also details driving the plot that are too unrealistic, too obviously there only to keep things going. When Skeeter applies for a job at Harper & Row, a position for which she is grossly under-qualified, the editor actually writes to her a letter of encouragement. I've applied to plenty of jobs I wasn't qualified for. Where are all my mentors? Eventually a book idea (and possible book deal) comes from all this and Skeeter sets about stealthily interviewing blacks maids around town about what it's like to be a black maid around town. The result is a mix between a sociological study and a vehicle for revenge. In the end, as in Mockingbird, things are still the same, and yet somehow a little bit better.

Unlike Mockingbird, The Help, which deals with the evils of the now-defunct segregation laws, seems less to be an advocate for change than it does a pat on our white backs, as if to say "Look how bad it used to be. Isn't everything all better now?" It should be saying, "Yes, it used to be a lot worse, but how can we make it better?"

Monday, July 11, 2011

Next week

Next week: Kathryn Stockett's The Help.

Against All Enemies

CLANCY, TOM AND PETER TELEP. Against All Enemies. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-399-15730-1. Pp. 756. $28.95.

I guess I'll start with an easy one: this book is too long. Especially given that it involves two plots that are only tangentially connected, but both involving wicked groups of brown people--the Mexican drug cartels and the Taliban. (Clancy also mentions al-Qaida, apparently unaware that it is not a terrorist organization like the Taliban). Also, Against All Enemies is not going to be a stand-alone book, but is the first of a new military thriller series featuring generic killing machine Max Moore. So why the need to cram two installations into one giant book?

Tom Clancy's name has already been put on a series of video games, and I would argue that Against All Enemies would be a lot more enjoyable as an RPG, what with all the missions, weapons, and information gathering. Besides, if AAE had been made into a video game instead of a book, I would have been spared all the pornographic descriptions of weapons ("He had also been given the choice of an AK-103, an M16A2, or an M4 carbine...Of course he chose the M4A1 with SOPMOD package, including Rail Interface System.., flip-up rear sight, and Trijicon ACOG 4x scope"); ill-gotten wealth; and gore.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

One more day!!

Tom Clancy's Against All Enemies (except for that one enemy, we got nothing against him) is a whopping 756 pages. Expect my review tomorrow when I've managed to recover. To tide you over, here's a picture of a cat (this is an old photo, but I'm pretty sure that's Koch on the left, playing video games without his shirt on):

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Next week

Next week: Tom Clancy and Peter Telep's Against All Enemies.

The Greater Journey

MCCULLOUGH, DAVID. The Greater Journey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4165-7176-6. Pp. 558. $37.50.

Popular historian David McCullough took on an enormous undertaking when he decided to write a book about Americans in Paris, beginning with the medical students, writers, and painters of the 1830s, all the way through 1901. That's three generations and never mind how many changes in French regime (I lost count, but I think it's somewhere between three and four). That's a lot of ground to cover, enough material with which to write fifty books. Instead, McCullough has no choice but to race through dozens of biographies and three quarters of a century in less than 500 pages (unless you're also reading his source notes, bibliography, and index, in which case it's 558 pages).

As a result, too much becomes too little. The Greater Journey is an excellent introduction to 19th century Paris, but of all the Americans mentioned, only three are given due notice: popular author James Fenimore Cooper; American minister to France during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, Elihu B. Washburne; and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent figure fairly prominently, but I might just be saying that because I just finished reading about them thirteen minutes ago. Everyone from the beginning of the work are already long-forgotten. Samuel F.B. Morse is easy to remember because he invented the telegraph and was a fanatical nativist.

McCullough is the first author I've had to read for this blog who has received a Pulitzer Prize (actually, make that two Pulitzer Prizes). I'm saying this without actually double checking, but I'm pretty sure I'm right. The Greater Journey is exemplary for the obviously vast amount of research the author undertook in writing it. McCullough relies heavily on primary resources, which becomes especially apparent when the paucity of letters leaves McCullough blindly conjecturing about what "may or may not" have happened, but "doubtlessly" did or did not. I could get a bit impatient when an event would be mentioned solely because there are no sources pertaining to said event.

And while McCullough is a talented popular historian, he has a repetitive writing style that taxes the quality of such a lengthy work. Here is a short paragraph that exemplifies his authorial foibles: "Meanwhile, happily, the work [John Singer Sargent] was engaged in, another ambitious portrait, offered a perfect chance to paint as freely and as much from the heart as he ever had". Notice, first of all, the pointless and awkwardly placed adverb. One doesn't need to be an adamant advocate for Strunk and White's Elements of Style to argue that this one word quickly and needlessly interrupts the rhythm of an already awkward sentence. Secondly, the sentence is again interrupted by the mentioning of the as yet unidentified "ambitious portrait". Given that most of Sargent's works were "ambitious portraits," this could easily have been stricken from the record. Or, McCullough could have specified that Sargent was working on a portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. Lastly, I cannot stress how many times (200? 250?) McCullough employs "" usually for the effect and little else. ("[A] show many visitors enjoyed as much as anything"; "as beautiful as any bridge in Paris".) I got as exasperated as I'd ever been. Whatever that means. I think it may go hand-in-hand with McCullough's equally overabundant use of superlatives. So, if we were to go back and rewrite the sentence above mentioned, it should go something like this: "Meanwhile, the work Sargent was engaged in, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, offered a perfect chance to paint freely and from the heart". Or, even better. "Meanwhile, Sargent was painting Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth". Or, even better, strike the whole thing. An entire page will be devoted to this painting anyway.

Still, The Greater Journey is an excellent and interesting and different approach to the amateur's study of Paris during an undeniably tumultuous century. It's a bit of a slog, but McCullough has an expert eye for interesting anecdotes and writes with outright joy and genuine admiration for all of his plentiful subjects.