Thursday, December 31, 2009


"THE HELP" by Kathryn Stockett

Once again I find myself with 10 books to review instead of posting about them one or two at a time. This time the task was so daunting I almost didn't write this post.

"The Help" is wonderful! I am not at all surprised that it is on bestseller lists. If you read only one book out of the ones listed here, read "The Help". It is set in Jackson, MS, in the 1960s, where, as one review put it, "black women were trusted to raise white children but not to polish the household silver." It centers around the genteel young white woman Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan and black maids/nannies Minny and Aibileen. Though she socializes with other white women in bridge clubs and the country club, Skeeter has more intelligence and/or sense than her peers. She becomes interested in the plight of black women servants and sets out to write their (anonymous) stories.

The turning point in Skeeter's enlightenment is learning that black women are not allowed to use the same bathrooms as her white employers. You may be reading this in disbelief, but it is absolutely true, as are many more disturbing facts revealed about this era of integration in the South. There is a hilarious episode during which Skeeter inadvertently (or through a Freudian slip) causes a whole bunch of old toilets to be dumped on a socialite's lawn. The best part of the book is Stockett's warm and wise portrayal of her black women characters.

CALLA LILY PONDER" by Rebecca Wells

This book is by the same author of "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood". I absolutely loved the book and the movie it was based on. I was surprised and disappointed that my book club members did not care for the book. I don't think they "got" what the Ya-Yas were all about, but I did, and would have joined the sisterhood in a moment. I guess if you like Wells' heroines, you'll like Calla Lily Ponder, and vice versa. Calla Lily's "crowning glory" is hair. Like her mother, she is a hairdresser, and feels she has the gift of healing people while working on their hair. I did like Calla Lily, but I didn't love her like I did the Ya-Yas. I really got frustrated with the way she clung to the memory of the boyfriend who left her for the bright lights, big city. I did love the descriptions of life in little La Luna, LA, her hometown, and New Orleans. As usual, Wells' book is full of nutty Southern characters.

"QUITE A YEAR FOR PLUMS" by Bailey White

I had encountered Bailey White before, in her memoir, "Mama Makes Up Her Mind: And Other Dangers Of Southern Living". So when I found this book in a thrift shop, I snapped it up. I wish I hadn't wasted the money. Like Rebecca Wells' books White's are full of nutty - or more kindly - eccentric characters and a big dose of peculiar Southern ways (here, it's Georgia). But what works in the memoir doesn't in the book. For one thing, the characters are just too darn eccentric to be believable. For example, there's the woman who leaves things at the local dump with cute little notes attached to them. One thing that really bothered me is that I could not keep the main female characters apart: Which retired schoolteacher is Hilma, and which is Meade? Of Eula, Ethel and Louise, which is the mother, which the daughter and which the aunt? There is no plot whatsoever. Rather, "Quite A Year For Plums" is more like a collection of little vignettes, each a chapter long.

VIRGINIA WOOLF" by Stephanie Barron

If you, as I do, love reading English whodunits; learning about Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West,  Nigel Nicolson and other members of the Bloomsbury Group; salivating over descriptions of Vita and Nigel's famous White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle and reading fictional stories about gardens and gardeners, then you'll love "The White Garden". Barron has cleverly drawn all these elements together into a smashing mystery. You could also call this an "alternative history" novel. Everyone knows that Woolf committed suicide in 1941 by loading her coat pocket with stones and walking into a river. Or did she? Since her body was not found for days afterward, what if instead she deliberately disappeared and was later murdered for possessing a dangerous war-time secret? A couple of minor criticisms: I found the conspiracy plot to be quite far fetched, and I also do not understand why American gardener Jo's English grandfather Jock felt such responsibility in the death of "The Lady".

"A CHANGE IN ALTITUDE" by Anita Shreve

In my above review of "The White Garden", I wrote that I didn't quite understand why the protagonist's grandfather felt such guilt over the (ficticious) demise of Virginia Woolf. I felt the same way about the female protagonist in "A Change In Altitude". Although I am a great fan of Shreve's, I did not enjoy this book as much as I have many of her others. I did enjoy her foray into a new setting: Africa. (I learned that Shreve worked as a journalist in Kenya early in her career.) Kenya newcomers Patrick, an American doctor, and his photographer wife Margaret are invited to climb Mt. Kenya by Diana and Arthur, English ex-patriots. Diana and Arthur are experienced climbers; Patrick and Margaret are not. The climb is ill fated, and haunts Margaret throughout the rest of the book. But why should it, I ask? What happened wasn't her fault. That, to me, was a serious flaw in the plot. But more importantly I asked myself why should I care about any of these insipid characters?

"A BIG LITTLE LIFE" by Dean Koontz

I was first introduced to Dean Koontz' passion for golden retrievers in one of his novels. This book is subtitled "A Memoir of a Joyful Dog" and is about Koontz' and his wife's life with their golden, Trixie. As an owner of a (now-deceased) golden, I know how smart and lovable these dogs are. It's been almost a year since Penny died, and I mourn her still. Trixie is a very special dog as well. She seems to have a sixth sense which not even most dogs have. I bought this book knowing I would cry at the end. Sorry if that was a spoiler for you, but you must have known that people don't write memoirs about their dogs until after the dogs have passed on ("Marley and Me", for example). So be prepared to cry over Trixie's demise, but first enjoy and celebrate the life of this big little dog the way the Koontz' did.

"LABOR DAY" by Joyce Maynard

I have been a fan of Joyce Maynard since my teens. I read her various columns in girls' and women's magazines as she progressed from teenager to young woman to wife and mother. I also read her book "At Home In The World", in which she detailed her affair with that American icon, J. D. Salinger. Like fellow writer Anna Quindlen, Maynard successfully made the transition from columnist to fiction writer. "Labor Day" takes place in and around Labor Day weekend in Holton Mills, NH, centering on the lives of teenager Henry, his mother Adele, and an escaped convict named Frank, who at first takes them hostage but then is absorbed into their lives. Maynard proves, with believable and likable characters, that a family is whatever you define it as, and that love is where ever you find it.

by Katherine Howe

A fellow book club member recommended this book, but I was wary, knowing that she had selected a (gag) Danielle Steele book when it was her turn to host the club. However, I did see the book in my Literary Guild magazine, so I took a chance on it. I needn't have worried. The book is set partly in the present and partly in Salem, MA, during the Witch Trials in 1692. The protagonist, Connie Goodwin, is a Harvard graduate student studying women in American history. Traveling to Marblehead, MA, to clean out her late grandmother's house in preparation for selling it, Connie discovers a physick (or spells) book of a woman named Deliverance Dane. We learn that while most of the women accused as witches in Salem were innocent, Deliverance was not. Connie finds that she is a descendant of Deliverance, an actual witch, and what's more, she discovers that she has witchy powers. In a race against time, she must learn the secrets of Deliverance's book to save the man she loves.

"WILD LIFE" by Molly Gloss

This book relates the tale (real or imaginary??) of how Charlotte Bridger Drummond gets lost in the primeval forests of Washington State and comes to spend time with a small group of the legendary ape-like creature Sasquatch. Charlotte is quite the character - a widow bringing up five sons in near-wilderness, supporting them by writing dime novels featuring romantic, brave and plucky women. When a little girl gets lost at a logging camp in the Cascade Mountains in 1905, Charlotte - independent, cigar-smoking, men's-clothing-wearing feminist that she is - goes to the camp to help. After she becomes separated from a searching party, she strives to stay alive in the woods.

It is then that Charlotte, starving and near death, meets up with a small bunch of Sasquatch who eventually accept her as part of their group. I loved this section of the book the best. Charlotte forges a deep bond with the creatures, especially the mother, and eventually becomes more animal than human. I did have trouble with the writing. Charlotte's first-person story resembles the dense, convoluted style of newspapers of that day.Yes, Charlotte is extremely intelligent and well read, but would she have told her story in these words? However, that is a minor criticism, for "Wild Life" is a gripping - and ripping good - adventure story.

I've read that a lot of people were disappointed in Barbara Kingsolver's new book "The Lacuna", saying it was not as good as her other books. I disagree. While I loved Kingsolver's older books, especially "The Bean Trees" and "Animal Dreams", I think "The Lacuna" is just as good. It is definitely more ambitious in scope. Knowing a bit about Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera helped, I think. And while I had known that Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was exiled in Mexico, I had no real understanding of his politics. I didn't know that he and Stalin had conflicting views, thinking a Communist is a Columnist, plain and simple. I also learned a great deal of the 1950s-era Communist witch hunts in the U.S., again having no idea of how bad conditions were for many artists and writers. But above all I empathized so much with the hero, William Shepherd. The son of an American father and a Mexican mother, William is an ex-pat in both countries, never fully Mexican nor America.

1 comment:

Brook Stableford said...

This is truly inspiring. Barbara Kingsolver will be presenting writers' workshops at the San Miguel Writers Conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico February 19-23 2010. I just signed up. It looks like a rare opportunity to meet her. Are you going?