My Book Club’s March book: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

This book has been on the best seller lists for quite some time now.  It’s been a wildly popular book club selection.  (I remember hearing about it at the Barnes & Noble form about book clubs that I attended last year). Based on that, I mentioned it to my fellow book-clubbers, and one of them added it to our “virtual bookshelf” of potential reads.  It was picked for our March 2011 book.

I’m always interested in books that become uber-popular.  When I read them, I find myself unable to resist trying to figure out what is it about this particular book that has made it so popular above and beyond “normal” popularity.  I wonder if part of the reason for this one is the “rooting for the underdog factor.”  I want Skeeter Phelan to succeed. I want Abeleine’s story to be told.  I want Milly to escape her abusive husband and improve her life.  There’s also a component of “the villain you love to hate factor.”  How despicable is Hilly Holbrook?  The New York Times review of this book describes her as such a witch “the readers want to see someone drop a house on her.” I think she is made more loathsome since she conducts her villainy under a mask of gentility. I am reminded of my top ten literary villains list post from last year where one of my “favorites” was Ellsworth Toohey from The Fountainhead.  The villain who masquerades as a crusader for good.  Those are the most despicable kind.  Never underestimate the literary power of a good villain!

I’m not generally a fan of the multiple viewpoint novel.  I often find it distracting.  Just as I’ve settled into reading from Skeeter’s viewpoint, we switch back to Milly’s (Oh, and all of these are written in the First Person) with her different attitudes and different language.  Then, just as I’d get used to that, we’d switch over to Abeleine’s.  This isn’t my preferred way to read, but in this case it wasn’t that bad.  I was able to deal with it.  I remember one of my earliest experiences with the multiple-viewpoint novel was Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Written in epistolary style with multiple letter writers (or gramophone recorders in one case), I found it distracting as well.

Stockett weaves in some “reality” to the story with brief mentions of actual historic events. The murder of Medgar Evers,  The Vietnam War, The assassination of JFK, the civil rights marches, etc.  This helps put the novel in historical context, but I was continually surprised by the naivete of the Skeeter character.  How she repeatedly doesn’t realize the full danger and “explosiveness” of the situation she and the maids are in, how she doesn’t keep close enough tabs on her satchel, and several other instances just stretch the limits of my credibility. I guess we can say she is young and just write it off to that, but she’s  a college graduate and supposedly a journalist and writer.  Maybe her lack of experience (also further illustrated by her somewhat awkward relationship with Stuart Whitworth) in the world makes this believable, but I struggled with it. Several members of my book club pointed out that they “kept waiting for something terrible to happen” to the maids or to Skeeter, but it never really does – this also stretched the limits of my credibility.

Another thing I liked about the book was the editor character in New York, Mrs. Stein, and her “detached mentoring” of Skeeter.  I loved the first letter she sent Skeeter and how she concluded it:  I do this only because someone once did the same for me…  I thought that was great.  It reminded me of a passage from Stephen King’s excellent non-fiction book, On Writing.  He had already been experimenting with writing for years in school, and finally – in an effort to channel his mischief elsewhere – his school administrators shepherd him into a part time job for the local paper (as in a Real World writing job).  King includes a photocopy of his first article’s submitted text with the editor’s mark-ups.  It was an epiphany for him.  I can’t remember the exact language but he basically says, “why couldn’t someone have told me this long ago?”  That is also a great book, by the way, part biography, part writing instruction.

One thing I didn’t like about the book was what I’ll just call (for anti-spoiler reasons) “The Gross-Out Factor.” If you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean.  I kind of guessed early on what this ‘secret’ was, but if you haven’t read it, I’ll leave it for you to discover.  I realize this was an important plot element that allows Skeeter and the maids to get away with publishing their book – and keeping it from being suppressed – but it was still gross.  J 

Have you read The Help?  What did you think of it?  Why do you think it’s been so very popular?

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Three quick hits…

Next up: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A busy weekend prevented me from reading my weekly short story already, but I did draw a card from the deck, getting the five of hearts, which directs me to read Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  I know I’ve read this before, but it may have been almost 20 years ago now.  I’m looking forward to revisiting it in more depth now that I have a couple more decades of reading under my belt.  Any Washington Irving fans out there?

Andy Rooney probably considers me the enemy

A co-worker pointed out to me that Andy Rooney’s bit at the end of 60 Minutes last night was about e-readers, and how he prefers books.  (Everyone who’s surprised, please raise their hands.  Anyone?!?)  Anyway, here is a link to watch his piece.  Nothing too surprising there for me.  I agree and appreciate there is comfort in being surrounded by books in your office or workspace (I am too – at my home “office” anyway) but I love the accessibility AND the portability of lugging around the equivalent of a few crates of books with you at all times.  I think he didn’t like that one of his older efforts was a free eBook now, too.  Oh well, he gets paid to be a crotchety old man, doesn’t he?  Anyone catch this last night?  Or what do you think after watching the link to the video?

I started reading The Help

This is my book club’s book for March.  It’s a bit longer so I thought I’d better get started.  My first thoughts are that it’ll go fairly quick, BUT I hate (I absolutely HATE) reading books with non-standard English dialects spelled out (like saying “Law..” when the speaker means “Lord…” or “instead a” rather than “instead of.”  I guess the dialogue wouldn’t read true otherwise, but it feels like I’m playing a musical instrument that’s been tuned wrong, and will have to make an adjustment back to “normal” English when I’m done.  Maybe this is me being a literary snob.  Does this bother anyone else?

-Jay

March Reading – The Month Ahead…

Good riddance to February and all the brutal and unpleasant weather that came with it. Now it’s March. The first month of Spring! (I know, the first three weeks are still Winter, but I don’t care) The only “problem” with Spring that I can think of is that, with the weather being nicer outdoors, its harder to curl up and read a lot and stay indoors.

I nearly finished my tenth book of the year last night (To Kill a Mockingbird, which I’m reading in “preparation” for attending a stage version with my Mom on Sunday), and with February being a short month, I feel I’ve kept up a good pace so far this year. But what lies ahead in March…?

Well, I have two book club obligatory reads. One is The Help, the wildly popular bestseller by Kathryn Stocket. I had thought about buying this as an audio book (I’ve never listened to an entire audio book before. I bought one once before, thinking I’d listen during my daily commute, but traffic’s command of my attention seems to easily trump audio book-listening) since I still have a gift card leftover from the holidays, but then I listened to an excerpt on iTunes and it didn’t really grab me. One of the members of my book club “reads” almost exclusively via audio books and some day I want to try it, but I don’t think this will be the book. The second book club read is Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut for the KVMLBC. This will be a re-read for me, but now that I’m more familiar with this author I hope to get a new perspective. I also started reading a strange novel, Under the Skin, by Michel Faber – a book that I learned of via the blogosphere.

Let’s see… What else? Well, of course I’ll be continuing my short story reading project, which I have enjoyed immensely thus far (like you couldn’t tell), but I think I may also wrap up the William Trevor collection of stories (only three to go!) and get that book under my belt as well. I also downloaded the Anthony Trollope book, The Small House at Allington after hearing about it in the story, After Rain. It’s dauntingly long, though, and I confess I’m afraid to start it. I’ve NEVER read any Trollope, though, and I’ve long thought that this is a serious gap in my cultural literacy that should be addressed (sooner rather than later).

What about you? “What’s in your wallet?” Er, I mean, what’s in your reading future for March? As always, I’d love to hear about it…

-Jay

Sent from my iPad