Saturday, April 17, 2010

160 (2010 #25). The Help

by Kathryn Stockett, read by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell

This audiobook was fabulous. The book is told from the viewpoints of three characters, plus an omniscient narrator for one scene. The readers are perfect for their parts, accents and all, and even do a wonderful job bringing non-narrating characters to life. The story has just enough drama to make it a page-turner, and is great for listening to on a long commute. I found at times I had to sit in the car after my 45-minute commute just to finish an exciting part of the story.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1962 through 1964, The Help is the story of two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, who work at below-minimum-wage for white families. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is a member of the bridge club that meets at the homes of the women Aibileen and Minny work for. Single and 22, Skeeter actually wants to use the degree she earned at Ole Miss, especially since she didn't get the MRS. her mother was hoping for. She wants to become a writer. She manages to get a job with the local paper writing a housekeeping advice column, and starts meeting with Aibileen, her friend Elizabeth's maid, to get the answers to the questions sent to the columnist. Aibileen is 50-something and has spent much of her life raising her employers' children, especially sad as her own son died in his early 20s in an accident at work.

Skeeter comes up with the idea to write a book of interviews with local maids on what it's like to work for white families. She's inspired by the insistence of another friend, Hilly, on including a "home help sanitation initiative" in the Junior League newsletter she edits. Hilly believes all white families need a separate bathroom for their black help to prevent the spread of diseases. Hilly's just put the fourth member of their bridge club, Hilly's own mother, in a nursing home, and spread rumors that back-talking Minny, her mother's maid, has been stealing. Minny, mother of five and wife of an abusive drunk, becomes the second volunteer, after Aibileen, to work on Skeeter's writing project.

What follows is exciting, sometimes scary, uplifting, and sometimes heartbreaking. Stockett has developed wonderful characters, even minor ones such as little Mae Mobley, Elizabeth's neglected daughter, to Skeeter's mother Charlotte, to white-trash-married-into-wealth Celia Foote, Minny's new employer. Throughout the book, we see good and bad people, both black and white.

I could really relate to this book. When I was about eight years old, my family in Houston had a black maid for about five months who came once a week. At the time my mother had five children between the ages of six months and me, the oldest at eight, and she'd recently had abdominal surgery. Her father, my grandfather, hired Mariah to come and help with the laundry and ironing and other heavy jobs. Like the maids in this book, she wore a white uniform and hose, and rode the bus from across town to our neighborhood.

Author Kathryn Stockett grew up in Jackson. On her website, she writes, "Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person that raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too." Her book has generated some controversy, especially for the dialect used for the blacks, but it's also received praise and even comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird.

If this audiobook doesn't win at least one Audie Award (it's nominated for Fiction and for Distinguished Achievement in Production), I'll be surprised. Jenna Lamia is Skeeter, Bahni Turpin is Aibileen, and Octavia Spencer is Minny, while Cassandra Campbell narrates what happens at "The Benefit." These actresses are especially good at creating voices for the minor characters, such as Celia and Hilly, and even manage to do a good job at mimicking each other on the main characters.

Can't recommend this book enough, especially the audio version, and I can see why it's been at or near the top of the bestseller lists for a year now.

ETA 8/24/10 - The audiobook won both Audie Awards it was nominated for.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook was borrowed from my university library and has been returned.]

Saturday, April 03, 2010

159 (2010 #24). The Bread of Angels

by Stephanie Saldaña

Subtitled "A Journey to Love and Faith," this memoir covers the author's Fulbright scholar year in Damascus, Syria, studying the prophet Jesus of Islam. A native of San Antonio, Saldaña is 27, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and recovering from a heart broken in Cambridge, when she arrives in Damascus in September 2004, speaking very little Arabic. She finds a place to live in the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma, and a protector of sorts in the elderly Armenian "Baron" that she has coffee with every day.

Saldaña spends her first couple months taking a crash course in Arabic at Damascus University, and exploring the city. By mid-November, feeling lonely and sad from bad memories from the past, she heads north to Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi, the Syrian Catholic Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian. There she plans to undergo a month of silence and do the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

On page 101, Saldaña notes that the Exercises "move through four stages: the Fallen World, Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection," and she has divided her book into four parts with the same titles. Her month at the monastery comprises part 2, the Incarnation, at the end of which she thinks she should become a nun at Mar Musa.

Saldaña then undergoes her crucifixion of sorts as she wrestles with this decision. A visit home at Christmas convinces her she wants a family. When she gets back to Damascus, she is very sick, and the political situation becomes more unstable. She pulls out of her depression while studying the Quran in Arabic with a female sheikh, and later teaches English to Muslim women.

All the while she makes more visits to the monastery as she realizes she has fallen in love with Frédéric, a novice monk there. I could really relate to her statement on page 230: "I grew up enough of a Catholic to know a thing or two about the magnetic appeal young men in the clergy can have for young women," remembering a certain Father What-A-Waste when I was in junior high. Frédéric has not yet taken his final vows, and the attraction is mutual. You don't find out until the end of the book what Frédéric decides to do, and there is a hint of what happens next in Saldaña's acknowledgments at the conclusion.

Some reviews have compared this book to Eat Pray Love, but it's SO much better than that self-absorbed piece of fluff. Saldaña's writing is gorgeous and thought-provoking. For instance, I marked this passage on page 112, when Saldaña has been thinking about some of the awful things that have happened to members of her family: "Now I understand that hell is not being banished from God. Hell is the inability to save those you love."

The dust jacket has a gorgeous front cover and spine. My only quibble with the hardcover's design is the font used for the page numbers; it is difficult to tell 1s, 4s, and 7s apart. I would also liked to have seen some of the author's photographs (and those of others) as illustrations in the book, particularly of Mar Musa and its beautiful frescoes. I think they would have further enhanced her lyrical prose.

I'm not much of one for spiritual books, but I highly recommend this one.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This book was received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. This hardbound final edition will be donated to the collection at my university library.]