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Book Review: Devil Tree by Steve Vernon

February 29, 2012 4 comments

Image of a tree surrounded by fog.Summary:
In a valley near a river in the wood near Indian territory lies a tree.  A tree that sends out its roots throughout the valley and demands blood.  It is in this valley that the godsman Lucas and his wife Tamsen find themselves wrecked and at the mercy of not just the man Jonah Duvall and his Indian bride Jezebel, but also at the mercy of the tree.

Review:
I decided to dip my toe into magical realism via a genre I love–horror.  It turns out it’s not a genre that works for me, although Vernon does it well.

Magical realism is a style in which magic is blended into the real world and characters view it as a natural, normal part of the world.  It is more realistic than fantasy but less realistic than traditional horror, for instance.  Personally, I could not get into an evil tree that wouldn’t let the inhabitants leave the valley.  I think, perhaps, I would have if the characters themselves had been more modern, but they have an antiquated magical feel to them as well.

The books’ main themes are sexual disloyalty and cannibalism.  The story seems to be saying that these negative qualities are possible in all humans, but the tree draws them out.  All I can say is that although these themes are ones that interest me, they just didn’t do it for me in this story.  I reiterate that I think the issue is simply that magical realism is not my style.

The tale is not badly told, although the strongest portions of the story are the flashbacks to Tamsen’s and Lucas’s lost prior loves.  Those tales are unique and beautiful, and I can’t help but wonder what made the author choose to tell them as flashbacks instead of as the central piece.

It is difficult to write a review of this book, for although I recognize that it is well-written, it is simply not for me.  Some combination of the style and the order in which things are told just didn’t work for me, although there is nothing easily pin-pointed as being wrong with it.

Overall, this is a well-written story that will appeal to fans of both the grotesque and magical realism.  You must have a tough stomach to be able to handle this tale, but also an ability to immerse yourself in a world of magic just below the surface.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Reading Project Wrap-up: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context

February 28, 2012 8 comments

On September 3, 2011, myself and Amy of Amy Reads announced our intention to co-host a reading project devoted to reading the list of recommended reads put out by the Association of Black Women Historians in response to the incredible popularity of Kathryn Stockett’s book (and later, movie) The Help.  It’s hard to believe that we’ve already completed reading all 10 books.  I sort of feel like I took a mini class on the history of black women’s labor in the US, and I’m so glad I did.

Although I was a US History major (and also English) in undergrad, I tended to focus more on colonization, westward expansion, and World War II.  The Civil War was not a thing of mine, nor was the Great Migration or the Civil Rights movement.  It may sound silly, but when you’ve only got 8 to 10 courses, some of which are taken up by requirements, to cover all of US history, some things just don’t get covered, especially if you don’t already have an interest in them.  So, although I knew right away that something was WRONG with The Help, it was difficult for me to elaborate exactly what.  I knew it was wrong for a white woman to be putting words in black women’s mouths about a time period that is so recent and still stings.  I knew that having the main, white character come in and rescue the black help was wrong.  And I knew that putting such a rosy color on a time period that was anything BUT rosy was revisionist and distasteful.  But I didn’t know enough about black women’s history to say much beyond that.

Well, thanks to this project, I know so much more now.  I know enough to elaborate in more detail what is offensive about The Help.  But before we talk about that, I want to talk about some of the things that I learned.

In the first read, A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight, we followed the life of a fictional biracial (but seen as black) woman living first as a slave then as a freewoman.  In this book I learned all of the negative connotations associated with working within a white household due to slavery.  We saw how Moinette was seen as sexual competition by the white women while simultaneously being raped by the white men.  This helped establish the false stereotype of black women as seductresses that must be controlled and watched within the home.  We also saw how slave women were forced to wear rags whereas white ladies wore finery.  This is a difference that racist whites later attempted to replicate by forcing uniforms upon their live-in and live-out servants.  This was also the first instance in the project where we saw that although some semblance of friendship could come up between black and white women, they could never truly be friends while living in a racist, unequal society.

The first nonfiction book–Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones–covered the largest time period of any that we read, sweeping from slavery up through the Civil Rights era.  It was, frankly, daunting and one I wish in retrospect I could have read over a longer time period to let things sink in more.  Yet, through this book we saw the parallel line of black history in the background of mainstream history taught in schools.  In this book we learned how African-American culture developed to be different from white culture but certainly no less valid.  For instance, we saw how slavery and its methods established the matriarchy and forced the stereotype of the “strong black woman” upon all black women, whether they wanted to be independent and the matriarch or not.  This book was also the first instance where we saw the incredibly brave front-line roles black women played during the Civil Rights movement from protecting voting registration workers with rifles to braving hostile whites when entering segregated areas.  This book also gave me an understanding of why black feminists and black women sometimes disagree with white feminists and white women about women’s role in the home.  For so long black families were forced apart or the black wives and mothers were forced to work out of the home that the idea of being the lady of the house is appealing as an equal right.  Although modern feminists talk about women’s right to choose what kind of life they’re going to lead, I think it’s really important to realize that for black American women for a long time they had no choice but to work outside the home–the exact opposite of white American women.

Our second fiction book–The Book of Night Women by Marlon James–is one I’m honestly a bit baffled over its inclusion on the list.  It’s set in Jamaica and is entirely about a slave rebellion on that plantation.  Although I loved the book and got a lot of emotional depth out of it, I don’t feel as if it informed me much on the topic at hand.  It did demonstrate how it can be difficult or even impossible to find a way out of a corrupt system, which is a good reminder when studying the past and wondering why so-and-so didn’t do thus-and-such.  Hindsight is 20/20, and even when in possession of it, there’s still no clear way out.  This book, then, reminded us not to judge others’ choices too harshly.

The next nonfiction read was the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody.  I’m personally partial to memoirs as a learning tool, because I think one of the best ways to learn about something is through the eyes of someone who lived it.  Anne Moody grew up in the south during Jim Crow and also became famous for a sit-in she participated in at Woolworth’s.  This read demonstrated two key things.  First, that black women were involved in the quest for civil rights without any need of poking or prodding from well-meaning white women.  Second, it demonstrated that the assertions made in the nonfiction earlier about the help were true.  Anne’s mother and herself both worked as domestic help, and Anne vividly recalls her mother working all hours of the day, even right after having a baby, bringing home the white family’s leftovers, and the way the help was trusted and simultaneously feared and distrusted by the people who employed them.  Moody’s memoir is an angry one, but she certainly had a right to be an angry woman.

Our next read was Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life by Alice Childress, which is an assembly of a serial written by Childress in the 1950s revolving entirely around the life of a domestic servant, Mildred.  Through these vignettes Childress addresses the tough situations domestic help encountered in the 1950s and sometimes plays out fantasies the help may have had such as telling off the employer, whereas in real life they might not be able to afford to do that.  I admit that while I was reading this collection, I wasn’t sure as to the value of it, but I found myself thinking back on it again and again throughout the rest of the project.  The book basically demonstrates the absurdity of employers calling the help a member of the family when the whole situation is steeped in inequality and racism.  This book is even more valuable since it was written by an educated black woman who had to periodically work in domestic service during the 1950s.

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph was our next nonfiction read, and it narrows its focus in on relationships between black and white women in the south from right before the Civil War to right after.  This book clearly demonstrates why a simple loving friendship between the help and the children in the household she works in just would not be logically possible.  The book demonstrates with historical documents how much energy white women in the south used simply to attempt to maintain their false position as “better than” black women.  This book demonstrated the complex cultural and racial relationship between black and white women that could not simply be fixed by one well-meaning college-educated southerner.

We then read The Street by Ann Petry, which I discovered is considered a classic of black American literature.  This book demonstrates the life of a black woman who first works as a live-in but then winds up having to come home to move out with her son after discovering her husband’s affair.  She then does everything she can to avoid domestic work and keep her son safely on the straight and narrow.  Although very little of this book is set in a domestic help situation, the beginning of the book, as well, as Lutie’s ever-failing quest to care for her son demonstrates the adverse affect that a society dependent upon racially divided domestic help has on those at the bottom of the totem pole, not to mention the culture at large.  The book is not subtle, but it is an enjoyable read and clearly related to the topic.

To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter looked at the intersecting issues of racism, sexism, classism, and domestic labor by narrowing its focus in on the city of Atlanta and covering its history from all of these perspectives.  It is difficult, nay, impossible, to summarize everything I learned through this incredible book. Suffice to say, nothing we read made it clearer the nearly impossible obstacles faced by southern black women in domestic work or made Kathryn Stockett’s book so abundantly clearly ridiculous and naive.

Our final fiction read was Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely.  This was definitely the most mainstream entertaining book of the project.  It is kind of a cozy mystery in which the crime solver just so happens to be a feisty black domestic servant woman named Blanche.  Everything we learned so far about the complexities innate in the domestic help situation are abundantly clear in the story without being preachy.  I found myself wondering how this book did not become more popular when it was first released.  It is such a clever mystery novel.

Our final read was Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis,  which, as the title indicates, focused in on the differences between help that lives in the home and help that lives outside of the home, and why black women drastically prefer the latter.  This is a short read, but it clearly demonstrates the dehumanizing affect of both racism and domestic labor for those subjected to it.

So, given all of that, how would I characterize what is wrong with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help now?  I would say it drastically oversimplifies the serious, life-threatening, soul-stealing world of racism in the American south and also innate in the employer/servant dichotomy.  It places the reins of social change in the hands of a kind white woman who views the help like one of the family, when in reality it was through the courage and strength of black women that the civil rights movement had any chance at all.  And they certainly did not view themselves as a member of the family for whom they worked for disgustingly low wages.  It seeks to rewrite history in a way that will assuage white guilt (most likely foremost the white guilt of the author) and retroactively removes the very real civil rights agency demonstrated by black women in the south from them.  It is a racist book because it oversimplifies and dumbs down what is a complex and sad chapter in American history that everyone should clearly understand for what it was to prevent us from ever reliving it.

Now, I know not everyone has the time or the energy to read all of the books on this list.  So what are my recommendations?

If you want a popular-style, fun book to read instead of The Help, I recommend you pick up Blanche on the Lam.  It is also a whole series, so there’s lots of room for prolonged entertainment without the disgusting rewriting of history seen in The Help.

If you are more interested in the civil rights movement and the involvement of domestic help in it, then I suggest you pick up the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi.

If you like short stories and want to hear the voice of the real help from the 1950s, then I suggest you pick up Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life.

If you really enjoy a well-researched, well-documented piece of nonfiction in your life and want a much clearer understanding of race in the populous southern city of Atlanta, then definitely pick up To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War.

Finally, if you want a short nonfiction read that quickly covers some of the issues innate in racially based domestic help through the voices of the women who lived it, then you should pick up Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940.

I am very grateful to the Association of Black Women Historians for taking the time to assemble and post this list.  I learned so much from reading through it and am now able to eloquently defend my stance on why it’s sad and wrong that The Help became such a popular read.  I encourage you all to follow your gut and question when something is popular that just doesn’t seem quite right to you.  Read up on the real history and find the little-known gems of fiction that are brave enough to confront the real issues.  The publishing industry will only change what it puts out and pushes on the public when we change our demands.  I can say that Amy and I already saw at least two of the books on the list go from unavailable on the Kindle to available in the time that we worked on this project.  We hope that this at least in a small part had to do with a new demand for the titles due to the release of the list from the ABWH or maybe even from ourselves talking about these lesser-known books on the blogosphere.

What I ask of each of you readers in conclusion is to choose just one book from the list to read.  Challenge yourself and try something that isn’t “popular.”  You’ll be surprised at what you discover and learn.

Book Review: The Child Who by Simon Lelic

February 27, 2012 1 comment

Envelope with blood on it.Summary:
A gruesome murder has thrown a British county up-in-arms, and Leo Curtice finds himself the attorney randomly assigned to defend the murderer–a 12 year old boy who killed and sexually assaulted an 11 year old girl.  He finds himself seeking to understand what would make a 12 year old kill and finding more empathy for the boy than those around him think is allowable.  Meanwhile, threats start coming in against his own family, including his 15 year old daughter.

Review:
This is a ripped from the headlines style novel that falls far short of others in its genre.  Apparently, Britain has a real problem with child murderers.  The thing is, though, when you’re writing a ripped from the headlines type story, your fictional version needs to bring something to the table that the real life stories and newspaper articles can’t or don’t.  Room by Emma Donoghue is an excellent example of this.  Telling the story from the perspective of the boy raised in the room his kidnapped mother is held hostage in was a truly unique and mind-blowing way to get a new perspective on the rash of kidnappings and hostage situations in the US.  This story, on the other hand, is told from the perspective of a defense attorney, which is almost exactly what you would get in the press.  There is nothing new or fresh.  Curtice sympathizes with the boy killer, but that is not true fresh perspective.

It’s also problematic when you google about child murderers in Britain and the stories that come up are far more fascinating than the novel you just read.  Stories like Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, two ten year olds who tortured and murdered a two year old.  Or Mary Bell an eleven year old who killed and tortured other children without remorse.  In contrast our story here is about a twelve year old boy who hits on an eleven year old, is rebuffed, and proceeds to knock her down, bludgeon her, and assault her with a stick.  Horrible?  Yes.  But with far more motive than two ten year olds abducting and killing a two year old.  See the difference?  The true to life stories push us to question and understand human development and behavior.  The fake one seems rather easily written off as a vicious twelve year old who can’t handle the word no from a girl he likes.  It’s as if the author was trying to play off of a phenomenon in Britain but missed the crux of what makes it so fascinating.  Twelve is hardly a youth in the way that ten is.

Then there is the whole side-plot about Curtice’s daughter.  From the beginning of the book you think she was murdered eventually somehow in some connection with the case.  Wanting to find out how this occurred is what keeps the reader interested and the plot moving in spite of the problems addressed earlier.  This, though, is ultimately a red herring of a plot point.  The daughter was a runaway.  Yes, the father didn’t know it at first, but she just ran away because of all the stress from the case.  That’s it.  As a reader, it felt like Lelic played a dirty trick on me, and I really didn’t like that.

Ultimately, Lelic tried to write a ripped from the headlines style story akin to Room, but he failed on all of the points that made Room such a hit.  There is no unique viewpoint, no valid suspense, no daring willingness to take things even further in fiction than they went in real life.  The book is a disappointment.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Friday Fun! (New Job! *Confetti*)

February 24, 2012 8 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

I am so incredibly happy to get to give you all a big update in the life of moi this week.  Tuesday morning after the long weekend, I got a phone call offering me my first professional librarian job!!! Although I’ve been doing the work of a librarian for quite some time now, this position actually requires an MLIS and is in the exact same area of librarianship as my interests.  I don’t like to name exactly where I work on this blog, because this blog represents just me and not my workplace.  Suffice to say, then, that I will be working in educational librarianship in a library that supports one of the medical schools in the Boston area.  The library is the ideal mix of medicine and academia, and I’m so stoked to start work there in mid-March.

This of course means that my life over the next couple of weeks and at least through March is going to be crazy (crazy in a good way).  I’ll have a new schedule, new commute, new health insurance, new paycheck schedule, new….well everything!  It’s all wonderfully exciting and still kind of hard to believe after over a year of job hunting.

Of course this means that other things, like my writing and this blog, are going to have to be pushed to the back burner for a bit until I adjust to all the newness.  One thing I know about me is that I can sometimes push myself too hard, and I don’t want to do that this time around.  So, I’m going to push the release of Waiting For Daybreak back to May or June.  You can also probably expect a few less posts a week here, although I will be doing my best to write up everything for all books finished that week over the weekend and schedule them ahead of time for the next week (Wow, did that sentence make sense?)  There will also be slower responses to comments.  These are all good things, though, because this just means this blog has returned to being my hobby instead of what I’m doing to keep my sanity while job hunting, lol.

I do hope you guys will keep following along, because I’m still the same me, just a far far happier one now. :-D

Book Review: The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

February 23, 2012 2 comments

A woman in silhouetteSummary:
Martha, a retired, widowed schoolteacher, thought her life was pretty much over until one night when a young intellectually disabled white woman and a deaf black man show up on her doorstop in the rain holding a newborn baby.  Soon people from a nearby mental institution show up to take them back away.  The young woman, Linny, seems terrified and asks Martha to hide the baby.  The man, Homan, escapes.  Martha goes on the lam to keep the baby girl out of the institution, and Linny and Homan fight against all odds attempting to reunite their family.

Review:
I received the audiobook version of this as a gift for one of the holiday swaps I participated in in December.  It was my first time reading the audiobook version of a modern story, as I’m a cheapskate and usually just get ones for free that are out of copyright.  It was thus an entirely different experience to be forced to slow down when reading this piece of historic fiction about a very dark secret in American history–mental institutions.  The amount of time that Linny and Homan are forced to spend simply waiting for their lives to get better.  Waiting for people to recognize their humanity.  It hit me much harder than if I had been able to read this in a couple of hours.  (Each disc is about 1 hour long, and there are 10 discs).  The wrongness of it all.  The amount of time and lives wasted simply because the able-minded and able-bodied didn’t seek to understand or to grant these people the basic human right of self-direction.

The story itself is told from multiple viewpoints–Linny, Homan, Martha, Kate (a caregiver at the institution), and later Julia (the baby daughter when she grows up).  Mostly Simon does a great job switching among the different voices, particularly representing Linny.  She does not overinflate her internal dialogue to be that of a person with an average IQ, but she still clearly represents Linny’s humanity.  I am a bit skeptical of the voice given to Homan though, mostly his tendency to give people bizarre nicknames like “roof giver.”  I know that neither
Simon nor I know a deaf person who is unable to communicate with those around him, so really it is all guess-work as to what his internal dialogue would be like.  But I can’t help but feel like it’s not quite there.  On the other hand, his confusion and frustration at people talking around him, over him, and treating him like he’s stupid just because he’s deaf is very well done.

In retrospect, I’m not quite sure why so much time was devoted to Martha and Julia when Julia was a baby.  Her story doesn’t end up being nearly as important as the Homan/Linny romance, so this focus feels a bit like a red herring.  I would definitely shorten those chapters.

The use of artwork and items of visual significance to the characters is gorgeous though.  Lighthouses are a central feature, and I don’t even like lighthouses myself, but I still found myself moved by how important the visual arts can be to people.  This is a book that, surprisingly, winds up being almost a battle cry for the arts.  For their value in helping us connect with each other and hold on to our humanity.  I think any artist or someone who is a fan of the arts would appreciate this book for that reason.

On the other hand, Simon is clearly a person of some sort of faith, with a belief in god and the tendency for things to all work out right in the end.  I’m…not that type of person.  So when characters wax eloquent about god or an overall plan or the ability of evil people to repent and turn good, well, it all feels a bit more like fantasy than historic fiction to me.  I probably would have been irritated by this less if I had had the ability to skim over those parts though.

In the end, though, I came away from this book appreciating its uniqueness and all the good qualities it had to offer.  It demonstrates through a beautiful story why it’s so important not to institutionalize the mentally ill or mentally challenged.  It shows the power of love to overcome race and disabilities.  It is the story of the power and beauty of resiliency.

Overall, I recommend this work of historic fiction to fans of historic and contemporary fiction, advocates of the mentally ill or mentally challenged, and those just simply looking for a unique love story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Book Review: Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis (The Real Help Reading Project)

February 22, 2012 6 comments

Portrait of a black woman dressed up with a portrait of a black woman scrubbing stairs.Summary:
Clark-Lewis’ grandmother was part of the great migration of African-American women from the south to Washington, DC who then took on domestic work in the homes of the rich and powerful.  Through her grandmother, Clark-Lewis was able to contact many of the elderly women who were part of this movement and assemble their oral histories.  Utilizing their histories, she paints a picture of the typical life of the African-American women like her grandmother.

Review:
It’s hard to believe this is the final book in The Real Help Reading Project.  I’ll be posting my wrap-up later this week, so be sure to check that out for reflections on the project overall.  For right now, though, let’s talk about the last book.

In comparison to other pieces of nonfiction on the list, like Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, this one has an extremely narrow focus.  Just this group of women from Clark-Lewis’ grandmother’s generation who specifically migrated from the south to DC for domestic labor jobs.  But this type of intense focus can make for a greater understanding of an issue as a whole.

What I found most interesting was how these rural women were raised by their families specifically to do domestic labor.

Your people all trained you to do service work. It was what they all knew you had to learn—period. Now, maybe a teacher, aunt, or somebody would tell you that you could do other work, but you knew that you’d do service work. You knew, and sometimes you’d think about doing different work—but you knew it wasn’t to be. ‘Specially at home—service was all there was for you. They knew it. You knew it. (page 43-4)

I think if I hadn’t read and learned about the conditions in the south for African-Americans I would find this to be a very defeatist attitude, but really it was just practical.  The girls’ families were just trying to give them the tools they needed to succeed as best they could in the culture they were in.  Although the adult women look back on their hardworking childhoods with a bit of bitterness at the loss of the ability to be just a child, they also acknowledge that these tools helped them succeed in life.

Another interesting thing is that sending the women north had nothing to do with advancing their lives but everything to do with helping and saving the family and the family farm.  The family unit was very strong for all of these women, even at a distance.  They helped distant and close relatives in DC with childcare and other labor and sent all or the majority of their pay home to the family farm.  This really fights the stereotype in American media about the weak or non-existent African-American family unit.  I was, indeed, impressed at how these families managed to stick together across such a distance and among the different cultures of the north and south.

The other issue this book addresses that none of our other nonfiction reads really did was how dehumanizing it was for African-American women to “live in” aka to live within the house they were working as a servant for.

Living in you had nothing. They job was for them, not your life. [From the] time I could, I started to try to get something that let me have some rest. A rest at the end of the day. That’s why you try to live out. You’d be willing to take any chance to live out to just have some time that was yours. (page 124)

Personally I don’t find this surprising at all, since I feel a real need for personal space away from my job, and I think most, if not all, people do.  However, the culture at the time seemed to think that African-Americans didn’t need that.  I’m sure part of that thought process was due to racism.

If there is one thing that this book demonstrates above all else, though, as have many in this project, it’s that no matter what the family the domestic help labors for thinks, they themselves do not see themselves as “like one of the family.”

She [the domestic worker] was proud that they [the family she worked for] “didn’t even know where I lived.” She did not consider them nice people, friends, family, or even good employers. She worked for them strictly for the money. Period! Yet they insisted that she was “just like family. (page 188)

Things like this….they kind of give me the willies.  What kind of a culture and society are we cultivating where this sort of disparity of perceptions of a working arrangement can exist?  Employers shouldn’t be able to think an employee is “like one of the family” while that worker is simultaneously thinking the employers are bad people.  I understand that we all fake it to survive, but it shouldn’t have to be that way.  We should be able to do our jobs and be happy and have positive relationships with our employers.  That, to me, is a basic human right, and I think one thing that this book demonstrates is that this is only possible in a job where the domestic help lives out.  Where they come in, do the cleaning (in their own clothes, not a uniform), and leave.  It is true that some people are frail and need help with those tasks or are so busy they can’t find the time to do it but can afford to pay someone else to.  But it should be about getting the task done. Getting in and out.  Not forcing uniforms and groveling upon people.  That’s just evidence of classism at its worst.

Source: Public Library

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Discussion Questions:
Note, originally Amy was going to host the discussion, but since she lost her book during all of the traveling she has to do for work, I thought I’d go ahead and post some questions for everyone.  I am sure she will get her hands on another copy eventually.  Alas, this book isn’t as readily available in Canadian libraries. 

  • The women in the book point out that their families wanted them to stay working with one family for their whole lives as “live ins.”  Why do you think their parents wanted that?
  • Clark-Lewis points out the value in gathering oral histories from the elderly.  Have you ever gathered any oral histories and what did you learn from them?
  • The women specifically point out how being in a city and exposed to other ways of doing things led them to defy their families, sometimes with bad consequences.  What do you think about this sort of impact city life has on migrants from the countryside?
  • One woman who grew up with the domestic worker quoted from page 188 working in her home referred to her as like one of the family, but the worker did not see it that way.  What do you think leads children with domestic help in the home to see them like family when even the help does not see themselves that way?

Book Review: The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice

February 18, 2012 6 comments

Image of a wolf's eyes.Summary:
Reuben Golding is a talented new journalist who feels as if he is floundering around with no direction in his family of wealthy, talented people.  That all changes when he’s bitten in a mysterious attack while writing about an old house on the seacoast.  He shortly discovers that the bite has turned him into a man wolf–like a werewolf, but with the ability to change every night.  Oh, and also he has an insatiable desire to devour those who smell like evil.  His quest for answers about his new situation will open up a whole new world to him.

Review:
It needs to be said that having read only Anne Rice’s earlier books, I somehow missed the memo that she went from atheist to Catholic in the early 2000s.  As an agnostic myself, one of the things I love about her earlier novels, beyond the poetic writing, is this search for meaning without belief in a god that the characters demonstrate.  So.  I was less than thrilled to find god all up in my werewolves.  *growl*

But it of course is more than philosophical differences that make this book bad.  The writing is just….not what it used to be.  The pacing is off.  Parts of the novel wax eloquent about the redwood forests, but then action sequences feel like Rice was trying to mimic the style of pulp authors like Palahniuk.  (Something that she does poorly, btw).  I get wanting to try a new style, but you need to pick one or the other.  The up and down almost randomness of the style changes made it difficult to get into the story.

Then we have the story itself.  If Rice had gone just slightly more absurd, this would make an excellent humorous novel.  Of course, it’s not meant to be.  A perfect example is one scene that I keep thinking over just for the giggles it gives me.  The scene, is supposed to be one of the pivotal, more serious ones in the book, naturally.  Reuben is in his wolf form and having just run through the forest eating animals, he stands on his hind legs and spins in a circle while singing the Shaker song “Simple Gifts.”  And then a woman in a cabin sees this and naturally they have the hot hot beastiality sex.  (Note: I do not actually find this scene hot at all.  In fact I find it really fucking disturbing, and I don’t find ANYTHING disturbing usually).  It isn’t like scenes of sex and violence in other novels that are part of an overall narrative designed to help you understand something.  It’s not an allegory of anything either.  It just is there because….yeah, I don’t know why it’s there, actually.

Then we have the wonderful presence of an atheist character who is clearly there so Rice can lecture atheists via her book.  Oh you silly atheists! Of course there’s a god!  The whole of nature is reaching toward him and yadda yadda yadda *eye-roll*  This is just bad writing.  It’s such an obvious attempt to be able to directly lecture the readers that it’s painful to see.  Particularly after knowing that Rice is capable of actual eloquent writing.

Also the whole entire concept of having werewolves actually be evil-fighting do-gooders is like a furry version of Batman. And who wants that? Nobody, that’s who.

Speaking of Batman, if I have to read one more book about a poor little privileged white boy, I’m going to lose my mind.  Aww, poor Reuben, he has a high-achieving lawyer girlfriend who loves him, a surgeon mother, a giving brother, and a professor father, but Reuben is bad at science and everyone tells him a 23 year old can’t write.  People need to take him seriously!  Poor Reuben.  And Reuben claims he changes after getting the “wolf gift” but he really doesn’t.  He still whines to anyone who will listen and runs around trying to tell everyone else what to do but never bothers to actually force himself to grow up.  He could have been an interesting main character if the wolf gift actually challenged and changed him.  But it doesn’t.  He’s still the same, whiny, privileged rich kid.  Only now he’s surrounded by the slightly creepy doting wolf pack.

Oh, and Rice?  Wolf packs don’t consist of only one gender, idiot.  Research? Have you heard of it?

Overall, this was an incredibly irritating and frustrating read that I disliked so much I’m not even going to do my usual of passing on my reviewer’s copy to my dad.  This one is going in the recycling bin.  And you all should give it a pass as well.

1 out of 5 stars

Source: Copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review

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Friday Fun! (Wild Swans at the ART)

February 17, 2012 2 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

So, you may recall that one of my 5 star reads of 2011 was Wild Swans by Jung Chang (review).  Imagine my shock when I saw a poster for a play at the American Repertory Theater by the same name!  I immediately googled and found out that the very same book had indeed been made into a play with the cooperation and assistance of Jung Chang.  Holy shizzit!!  I bought a ticket then and there.

The show was last night, and I was skeptical.  How could a 90 minute play possibly encompass such a large book?  We’re talking the lives of three women and covering decades of China’s history!  But I was encouraged by the involvement of Jung Chang herself so went in with positive thoughts.

You guys.  I was blown away.

We entered the theater to see a Chinese market scene, complete with the actors talking in Mandarin (I think) while we were finding our places and waiting for the show to actually start.

Shortly the show started with De-hong (Chang’s mother) talking with her mother about her engagement to a Nationalist.  I was surprised that they were starting with De-hong.  What about grandma?  Clearly, I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to play adaptations, because how they told grandma’s story wound up being my favorite scene in the play.  De-hong’s refusal to marry the Nationalist quickly won the audience over, most of whom had not read the book.  It quickly established De-hong’s strong personality.

The next scene featured De-hong in full communist party uniform coming to a field of workers to explain communism.  In order to win the workers over to the cause, they explained their own family history of suffering at the hands of the elite.  It is here we got grandma’s story.  One of the comrades pulled out a traditional Chinese stringed instrument and a gong.  The others pulled out these GORGEOUS puppets!  I mean their faces were beautifully painted and so expressive.  The evil elites’ faces were grotesquely disproportionate and painted, whereas De-hong’s mother was simple and beautiful.  In a few short minutes, using the puppets to demonstrate, De-hong told the workers the story of her mother’s life suffering as a concubine and how she stole her away from the house.  I was shocked at how perfectly it worked and completely loved how smoothly it fit into the play.

The show then progressed to De-hong and Shou-yu’s courtship while working as comrades in the fields.  So far everything had pretty much taken place against the same scenery.  I was wondering how they were going to transition what I knew was coming–hospitals, apartments, schools, etc…  I was impressed when they rolled back the matting on the back wall while the action was happening.  Gradually transitioning from field to hospital.  This background scenery of people was used for most of the rest of the play with set pieces being moved around in front of it to depict the main settings of apartments, classrooms, hospitals, and meeting rooms.

The other thing that really impressed me in the play was how they managed to show the problems Comrade Ting caused without totally demonizing her.  They made it clear that Comrade Ting used to be with Shou-yu, and Shou-yu kind of rubbed his courtship of De-hong in her face.  Not that this excused Comrade Ting for going after De-hong, but it prevented her character from being too easily demonized by the audience.

I was also impressed with how, although the play makes it clear that Shou-yu’s commitment to Communism above all else hurt his family badly, it is also evident that his family still loved him and he them.  Another powerful scene depicts the young reds coming after Shou-yu and forcing Er-hong (Jung Chang) to choose whether to “draw a line” between herself and him or not.  Drawing a line is essentially disowning a family member.  Er-hong tearfully refuses and chooses to stand beside her father.  It was a great scene that eloquently depicted so much of the feeling of the book.

The play then subtly shows the passage of time to more modern ones by using a video of people working in a rice field as the backdrop for a scene where Shou-yu is working in a prison camp and Er-hong visits him.  This is when we start truly seeing Er-hong’s story.

The final couple of scenes were set against a background of cubes with more video on them.  This showed both the crowded hustle and bustle of the city and also the relative modernity of Er-hong’s young adulthood.  In just a few short scenes, the play managed to demonstrate the family being reunited, as well as Shou-yu’s persistent refusal, in spite of everything, to help his daughter by pulling strings.  He to the very end was committed to pure equality, even though Er-hong points out to him that nothing they do will change the system.  The father and daughter’s very different opinions are eloquently presented in a few short lines.  Er-hong then leaves her father and steps to the very front of the stage on a mat to demonstrate her eventual emigration from China.

Overall, the play ultimately focuses in on De-hong’s life, but it works.  We see how her viewpoint of her mother’s life influenced her choice to back up Communism.  We then also see how De-hong’s choices influenced Er-hong to ultimately leave China.  It’s an eloquent play that really does the book justice.  I encourage any of my local readers to go see it, as it is still playing.

Happy weekends!

PS I had pictures, but the production scolded me so I had to take them down.  Alas!

Movie Review: Skin (2008) South Africa

February 15, 2012 2 comments

Young black woman with an afro.Summary:
Based on a true story, Sandra Laing was born black to two white parents.  Something that is an interesting anomaly of unacknowledged or unknown ancestors, but unfortunately for Sandra it was oh so much more than that.  Sandra was born in South Africa during Apartheid, and her white Afrikaner parents were members of the National Party.  This film chronicles her fascinating life from a young girl hidden from the sun in the hopes that her skin would lighten as she grew older to a young runaway marriage to striking out on her own with her children.

Review:
I know movie reviews have been scarce around here.  That’s mostly because since I joined the gym my evening free time is spent either there or reading.  This weekend though I had a cold and a bit of a fuzzy head from a fever so I randomly chose an interesting looking movie from my Netflix recommendations.  I had no idea when I chose it that Sandra Laing’s story is a true one.  I didn’t realize this bit of information until the end credits.  I thought it was one of those “what if” scenarios and knowing that this actually happened makes the whole thing incredibly painful.

We know that innate parental unconditional love is a myth.  And if there was ever a true story that should unequivocally dispel this myth once and for all, it’s Sandra’s.  Is there anything more abusive, more unloving than raising your child in a culture that hates her and doing, really, nothing about it?  Although her parents did fight to have her classified as white and not colored (so they could keep custody of her, because apparently children had to be raised by parents of the same race during Apartheid), they did little else to protect her.  Indeed, by her teen years her father was pressuring her to behave for white boys who were being verbally cruel at best or attempting to rape her at worst on dates.  It’s little wonder Sandra ran off to be with a black man she met.  Your role as a parent should be to protect your child and prepare her to take care of herself in the real world and advocate for herself.  But Sandra’s parents’ racism clouded everything so much that the most they did was attempt to hide her.

Of course, the problem then became that Sandra was raised in a privileged background, and that’s all some of the black South Africans could see when they looked at her, including her own husband.  He says to her at one point, “You still think of yourself as white.”  I find it fascinating how people can become so wrapped up in their own problems resulting from inequality that they fail to see the pain inflicted by it on others, even others that they love.

The actress who plays the older Sandra does a great job showing her progression from a hopeful teen to a downtrodden factory worker at the end of Apartheid.  The trauma from a life where everyone judged her either on her own skin tone or that of her parents is abundantly evident on the actresses’ face.

That said, while the topic is incredibly important and the true life events heart-breaking, I don’t think the movie itself does the real story true justice.  The actors and actresses did a fine job with what they were given, but even basic googling shows that the story was cleaned up for a mainstream audience, which I think was a very poor decision on the part of the filmmakers.  Sandra’s life was actually more difficult than they even give her credit for.  For instance, she left home at only 15 (she seems much older in the film), her first husband already had a first wife, she actually had six children not two, etc….  (Essence, The Guardian, Women and Hollywood)

Personally, I view this movie as a gateway to the far more fascinating nitty gritty true story.  I’m adding the book by the journalist Judith Stone about her work with Sandra to attempt to figure out her past called When She Was White.  But.  If you don’t have the time to get into it in depth, the short biopic is definitely a better choice than say the latest romcom out of Hollywood.  It will push you to confront the tragedy of racism and the myth of parental love against all odds.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix Instant

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Book Review: Hellsbane by Paige Cuccaro (Series, #1)

February 14, 2012 4 comments

Blonde woman standing near statue of an angel.Summary:
Emma Jane Hellsbane has always had the ability to sense other people’s emotions, and she turned that into a comfortable career as a “psychic.”  All that changes when the cute jock from highschool who mysteriously disappeared halfway through senior year lands on her doorstep with a clawed stomach.  She swiftly finds out that he’s a nephilim–half human, half fallen angel–and so is she.  Without intending to, Emma Jane finds herself swept into the war between the angels and the fallen, as well as attempting to pay off the debt for her father’s sin.

Review:
This was a classic case of not a bad book but I’m not the right audience for it.  I definitely don’t think the summary of the book that I read was quite as clear about the book’s Christian leanings as the one I just wrote for ya’ll.  If it was, I wouldn’t have picked it up.

What we have here is what I’m thinking is probably a new category of Christian fiction I was completely unaware of –Christian paranormal clean romance.  Now, I know at least two of my followers who would absolutely LOVE this book for exactly those reasons.  Alas, that’s exactly why I didn’t like it.

The Christian mores and doctrines have a strong presence.  We even go so far as to have Emma Jane come from a Catholic family but be an agnostic herself until hell and heaven literally show up on her doorstep.  As an agnostic myself, I found it rather patronizing to have an agnostic character proven wrong by flesh and blood angels and demons.  Y’know, like that would ever actually happen in real life? The whole scene just felt smug.  On the other hand, I could totally see as a Christian enjoying seeing someone convert from agnostic back to Catholic.  And yes, this book is heavily Catholic.  There is a lot of talk of saints and levels of sin and etc…  This of course means that there are things that I just don’t agree with (like the whole Emma Jane being held responsible for her father’s sin), but that’s only natural considering that this book is geared toward people who believe in those sorts of things.  Kind of like how I can’t stand The Chronicles of Narnia for similar reasons.

The fact that this is a Christian romance also means that there is ZERO SEX.  There is one pretty tame kiss.  If you want clean romance, this is your book, but if you’re like me it, um, is not.

The only thing that bothered me that I can’t chalk up to not being the target audience is the surprising lack of racial diversity in a book set in Pittsburgh.  Seriously, woman, I know there are black people in Pittsburgh!  And we’re not just talking oh the characters are white.  They all seem to be blonde-haired, blue-eyed white people.  This would make sense maybe in um….Wisconsin perhaps.  Not Pittsburgh.  Cuccaro really should focus on more diversity in her future books.

These things said, Cuccaro is generally a good writer.  The plot is complex, the characters well-rounded, and the sentences are well-written.

Overall, this book is well-written for its target audience–Christian, probably Catholic readers looking for some clean paranormal romance.  If this sounds like you, you should check it out.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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