Our View From Here

Perspectives of Five Women

Potato Peel Something-Or-Other

In Guernsey, 4 July 2010

Image via Wikipedia

Last spring, I was sitting in a restaurant with my fellow book club members. We had just finished our discussion about a book that wasn’t that big of a hit with the group. It was May, so we started discussing which books we wanted to read for the summer months. One of the women suggested “Potato Peel Something-or-other.” We immediately pulled out our smart phones, looked it up on Amazon.com, read the description, and decided to slate it for later that summer. It eventually got delayed until October, but I read it when I still had time before school started.

My first impression of the book was that I was not going to enjoy it. I am not usually a fan of books that use the convention of letter or journal writing to tell the story. I had a really hard time with Dracula by Bram Stoker because at least the first part is all journal entries. I also had a hard time connecting to Juliet, the main letter writer and character that brings the story together, because I couldn’t relate to her. She was a professional writer who had great success writing humorous articles regarding WWII and during that war, she lost her home in the bombing. While that was interesting, it wasn’t enough to carry a story.

Fortunately, the book takes a big turn when a seemingly random man writes to Juliet when he receives a used book that has her address written inside the cover. This starts a conversation between the writer and the man who lives on a English Channel Island called Guernsey. I’ll admit that I was totally ignorant of the geography of the English Channel, but I immediately went over to Google Maps and started exploring. (If you want to see where it is, go here!) This little island had been greatly affected by WWII when the Germans occupied it for the majority of the war.

As Amanda said, the story isn’t about WWII, but it’s hard to write about this island in 1946 without the constant reminders of the strife they endured. The authors did a fantastic job creating characters using their own words.  One character – Adelaide Addison – only makes a few brief appearances in the novel, but you can totally picture this overbearing, self-righteous woman who butts into everyone’s business.

One thing I found most interesting is that one of the main characters never actually appears in the book. Elizabeth, an outgoing and personable woman, is the founder of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society because of her quick thinking and smooth talking. She touches the lives of all the islanders, yet is absent from the island prior to the novel’s beginning. I feel the author was especially skilled in developing this character through other’s view of her, especially since there were so many different views of her.

I loved this book much more than I had anticipated. By the time Juliet met the islanders, I was hooked. There are a few rumors regarding the movie for Potato Peel Something-or-Other, my favorite being that they are in talks with Kenneth Branagh to direct it. It looks like the aim is to have it out in 2013. I hope they do make this movie – I would love to see Guernsey and its fictional people come to life.

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Where do I sign up for this society?

As I thought about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society one word came to mind that more or less summed up my impression of the book. It’s a word I hesitate to use because it’s somewhat dated. Contemporarily, my experience has been that it’s generally used sarcastically. But it’s a good word. A word that accurately and succinctly depicts the book. That word is charming.

The book is constructed entirely of letters (or telegrams) during the immediate post-World War II period. It’s reminiscent of Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, another book composed of letters. While Ella Minnow Pea is also (dare I use the same word twice in one blog?) charming, the characters and plot is much simpler than Potato Peel Pie, as I affectionately call it. With Potato Peel Pie, over a dozen characters are fleshed out through the course of the book, each with their own back story and experiences. When you stop and think about it, it’s a pretty impressive feat to make these characters seem real, without a bit of narrative exposition, at least in the traditional sense. In fact, the characters seem so real that I found myself grieving when I read that one of the characters passed away.

Potato Peel Pie is a story about the war, without being a War Story, if you can distinguish between the two. What I mean is that the war is a part of the story, and brought some of the characters together, but the purpose of the story isn’t to talk about the war, or how the characters survived before, during and after. I’ve read many of these War Stories and I’m not trying to disparage them in any way, but Potato Peel Pie is different in that the war has become part of the fabric of the characters’ lives. It’s ever-present, because how could such a terrible long-running event not be? But at the same time, most often, the characters don’t actively discuss or think about the war. When they do, they almost discuss it with detachment, as if they’ve grieved all they can, or care to, and that they are just trying to go on with as normal a life as possible. Makes sense to me.

I don’t have much to say about this book, besides the fact that I loved it. I started becoming more and more despondent as each page turned brought me closer to the end of the book. It’s not often that I don’t want a book to end. I read a lot and enjoy many books, but I’m usually ready for the conclusion. In Potato Peel Pie, I could have read for quite some time more, without getting tired of the story or the characters. Anyway, I’m getting dangerously close to blubbering, so I will end by highly recommending you read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Right now. Go. Shoo!

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I Wanna Live in Guernsey

SPOILER ALERTS! I don’t usually include spoilers but halfway through writing this I realized I was spoiling certain things. So beware!

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

To start let me state this simply. I LOVED this book. I read it in 2 days. I then opened it back up again to read again the next day. I’ve had to fight off the urge to read it before bed because I know I won’t go to sleep.

For starters, the book is written in a style I really like. Rather than your typical narrative the story is presented in a series of letters written back and forth between all the characters. What is so great about this style is how the voice of the book keeps changing. I become quickly attached to many of the characters thanks to their writing styles. Reading through all these letters made me a little sad that this method of correspondence is disappearing in our society. No one really sits down and writes letters on paper to people anymore. Granted we have e-mail and various other media but I feel like there’s a certain something that makes a hand-written letter more special (I think I’ll write a letter to my aunt in England who shuns computers).

The other reason I love the book is how well the various scenes are described. A significant portion of the book takes place on the Isle of Guernsey part of the Channel Islands south of England. The primary letter writer (Juliet) regularly describes scenes looking out over the water. In my mind they look something like this:

I went to visit family in southern England a few years ago and this book helped trigger so many memories of that trip.

There is a certain humbling quality to the book as well…hmmm…humbling might not be the word I want. The book takes place right after the end of World War II. It discusses the bombings that hit England and the German occupation of the channel islands. There is even a story arc involving the holocaust. It’s a reminder that many people have been through many hard even impossible times but they’ve survived. It also reminds me that certain things may not be going right the way I want right now but people have been through much worse and kept their heads up. So suck it up because my life isn’t bad at all.

The book isn’t just imagery and tellings of life after the war there is an actual plot to follow.  I was instantly drawn to Juliet and found myself wanting to warn her when I was afraid she was going to make an obviously poor decision. Or hoping that by the end of the book she sees what will make her completely contented that I can already see. I didn’t just want to cheer for the main character, other supporting characters in the book tug at my heart strings just as much. I’d love to sit and have tea with so many of them.

So two thumbs way up for this book. It really draws you in and as I’ve mentioned in previous posts I love when books do this. This one went a step further for me. I felt a strong urge to go visit Guernsey and a little part of me, as I mentioned above, really wants to live there.

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Required Reading for Book Clubs

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Image by thomas ford memorial library via Flickr

A little over a year ago, just before the end of another school year, a friend of mine posted on her Facebook page that she was looking for a book club to join, or at least, people willing to start one. Thus began the group that I’ve been reading fantastic works with for the last year. We’re made up primarily of teachers with a few other professions thrown in and we get a long pretty well.

When it came time to choose a first book, we all threw out a suggestion or two. Malissa, our fearless leader, was discussing the book club at lunch. One of the guys in the group sarcastically responded, “What, are you going to read The Help?” It had only been out for a couple of months at that point and was quickly getting the reputation of being the go-to book for book clubs. I, like Nicki, was a little put off by the cover – too girly, what did it have to do with anything, but I bought the book (pre-Kindle, so I actually broke down and bought the hardcover) and began reading.

As the other ladies on this blog have discussed, the story is from the point of view of two black women (“the help”) and one upper class white woman. The switching of narrative was a little confusing at first but soon became enthralled by the different personalities and takes on the story line that each woman had.  Aibileen was the strong woman who kept calm and collected, worrying more about the children than her self. Minny, the hot-tempered one, brought a bit of humor to the book, but also a deeper side to a black woman’s life in the South. I loved reading her parts the most. And Skeeter showed how a white woman who believed in civil rights was an outsider in this society.

Having not lived through the Civil Rights Movement nor having ever lived in the South, a lot of this was eye opening to me. It bothered me how white parents could let their children be raised by these black women, but wouldn’t even let them use their bathrooms. It also showed how having ideas different the norms of that society could put you on the outside very quickly.

The movie of The Help is coming out this August. It’s got a pretty good cast – Emma Stone as Skeeter, Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, Viola Davis as Aibileen, and Octavia Spencer as Minny. Even one of my favorites, Allison Janney, is in it as Skeeter’s mother. The trailer, which I have included below, looks pretty good. I was pleased with the way Water For Elephants, our last book discussion book, turned out on the big screen, so let’s hope that they do the same this time around.

Enjoy:

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My Help on The Help

WARNING! CONTAINS SPOILERS! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!

Like my fellow bloggers this week, I too thoroughly enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. It was an engaging story with (mostly) well-developed characters that I grew to (mostly) care about. Nevertheless, I did have a few minor critiques that just bugged me about the book.

First, it took me awhile to get used to hopping back and forth between characters. I would just be getting really involved in a particular narrative when it would switch to the next character. I have a tendency to read quickly and sometimes skipped over the heading that we were starting with a new character. It would take me a few paragraphs of being very confused before I realized I hadn’t switched with the book. As I got further into the book I got used to the hopping around but I still found some of the transitions jarring.

My next critique is largely petty. I understand the author used various references to help provide context to the reader on what was going on in the broader society and when certain events were taking place. In a lot of cases, I felt these drop-ins interrupted the flow of the overall story. I’m happily reading a maid’s narrative when all of a sudden she’s talking about a man on television being interviewed about zip codes. What? Where did that come from? Like I said, I’m guessing Stockett used these references so the reader knew when things were taking place but the advent of Shake & Bake and the introduction of zip codes really didn’t help me at all with the timeline of the story. Call me crazy or ignorant, but apparently these little factoids seemed to have escaped my educational upbringing. Rather than helping with the timeline of the story, part of me felt like the author was using these devices in a “neener-neener look how smart I am” kind of way, which just annoyed me. I’m pretty sure that probably wasn’t the intent but it felt that way to me just the same.

One thing I did begrudgingly appreciate about the book was that everything wasn’t neatly tied up at the end. Did Skeeter make it in New York? Did Aibileen find a new job? How did Mae Mobley do without her? Did she remember the lessons Aibileen tried to teach her? Did Minny really stay away from her abusive husband this time? And gosh darn it, did Hilly finally ever get her due? I’m a sucker for happy endings. I like all the characters I grow to love to have their own happy endings and the villains to be properly punished. But in this kind of story, such an ending would have cheapened the overall story, because that isn’t how life works. Abileen and Minny were members of a disadvantaged class and Hilly had all the privilege in the world. Often enough, sadly, life has a tendency to maintain inequities rather than change them. Had everything turned out rosy for our protagonists, the book would have lost all meaning and cause for reflection. While part of me wanted the over-the-top happy ending, I’m glad it turned out as it did.

All of that being said, I did really enjoy this book and I will happily recommend it to others and perhaps pick it up again at some point in the future. I’m a bit concerned about the movie though. So much of the “meat” of the characters is revealed in their inner dialogue. I’ll be curious to see how the movie develops these characters without excessive use of voice-overs. Guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

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Judging a book

Never judge a book by its cover.  It’s a cliché, to be sure, but in this case it’s very appropriate.  The cover of The Help doesn’t want you to buy the book.  The cover makes it look like the most dreadful kind of chick-lit and deceptively conjures images of the Middle East.  What are the birds about?  Why yellow and purple? The title doesn’t do it any favors, either.  We discussed reading The Help for my actual book club for months.  Every time, I’d look it up on Amazon, see the cover and have a visceral reaction to it, “I do not want to read that.”  Then, I’d read the plot summary and think, “well….maybe.”  When we finally did choose to read TH for book club, I brought this issue to the attention of the other members.  Someone, holding up the book and gesturing to the cover summed it up perfectly, “I don’t want to read this book.” Then, turning it over and pointing out the summary, “but I do want to read this one.”  This was the essential hurdle for me. 

That said, when I actually sat down with the book, and got into it, I found it a delightful, if problematic, read. 

The author is a white woman who grew up in Mississippi and was raised with the help of a black maid.  The book is written as a series of first person narratives from the perspectives of three characters, two black maids and one young white woman. The voice and writing style shift between characters.  I found myself growing slightly uneasy during the first few chapters. 

The two black maids’ chapters are written in thick, accented english, portraying at the very least a sub-standard education.  As I became aware of this bias in writing it came to feel, at first, like a very strange choice of voice for a writer.  But then, I realized that the characters’ voices told me things about them that they never overtly said.  I was still wary of the choice, however, until I read the author’s epilogue, where she wrote about her inspiration for the book and the deeply conflicted feelings she herself has about her home state and its history.  Her personal story put me at ease with the characters, the writing and the setting of the book, in a way that even the story’s conclusion and the growth of the characters could not.   

The Help was entertaining , sprinkled, if not fully directed by the historical events of Jackson, MS in the early 1960’s.  Character growth for the protagonists is monumental, for the other characters, especially the primary antagonist, it’s thin on the ground, which was a little bit disappointing.  Some people are resistant to change.  But the force with which the main “bad guy” of the book, Hilly, pulls didn’t quite ring true to me.  She was, after all, a young woman, barely into her twenties.  She had some years of college and was raised in a big city.  Surely, some understanding of the changing nature of the world must have penetrated her psyche?  But Hilly actually pushes the other characters to devolve socially, to move backwards toward more separatism and more inequality, and without a moment’s reflection, at least as far as we know.  Political motivations and social pressures and expectations are her primary driving forces, and though she acts as a ring leader, she shows almost no capacity for independent thought.  What I’m trying to say is that even though she’s a good mother and has the capacity to be a good friend, Hilly’s character was a little too one-dimensional and single-minded to be fully believable.

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Drawn In by “The Help”

Possible Spoiler Alert! We’ll see how the post progresses.

It happens with most books for me. They draw me in an result in sleepless nights reading all night or an entire day suddenly gone with no idea how that happened. This happened almost instantly when I read “The Help”. Kathryn Stockett immediately drew me in to the different characters in the book. Hoping that everything works out for certain women in the book. Hoping dearly that others get their proper come-uppence.

This book also served as an eye opener. Through school we are taught all about the civil rights movement but the characters give a great day-to-day perspective for how bad things really were. This may be fiction but so much of the book is drawn from reality. I had many moments where I was just disgusted at how the uppity white women would treat their African American housekeepers. It made you love even more the characters that didn’t show such extreme prejudice.

The individual stories with each of the ladies were just as intriguing as main plot that tied all the women together. This just helped to draw me in to the story more and more. Over all a hearty thumbs up. Just be sure you have a full afternoon to get wrapped up in a book.

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Waiting for “The Help”

Isabel is taking a short break, but Our View From Here welcomes the return of Erin for this week and next!

My book club has had “The Help” at the top of our list for a year, but we waited until it came out in paperback this spring to read it. Perhaps a silly rule, but once we set it, we couldn’t back down! 😉 It came up as an option every month, as did a few other books we had to wait for.  There are so many fantastic books out there to read – we decided it’s good to have a guideline or two to help us choose!

I loved this book.  It was worth the wait.  Kathryn Stockett has quite a talent with language and dialects.  She creates three specific characters with distinct voices and alternates telling the story from each of their perspectives.  It’s a story told somewhat dispassionately, bringing very different personalities together to begin the slow process of change in the deep South in the early 1960’s. Each of the character’s hesitations and fears of disturbing the peace are experienced very clearly without becoming precious or over-written.  Throughout “The Help,” huge, national civil rights events are referenced fairly casually, giving markers for the storyline and lending credibility to the novel.

The few men in the novel are truly secondary, support characters.  The book’s focus is on women of Mississippi and the relationships between the colored help and the white women for whom they work.  These women, and the children they raise, are the ones who spend all day in the house together, while the men are elsewhere.  Most accounts of this time period are told from the male perspective and this is a welcome addition to the male-dominated history.

While the following quote doesn’t represent the plot of “The Help” especially well, it stood out to me, and I love the beauty of the language:

“He claps my hands to his hips and kisses my mouth like I am the drink he’s been dying for all day, and I’ve heard girls say it’s like melting, that feeling.  But I think it’s like rising, growing even taller and seeing sights over a hedge, colors you’ve never seen before.”

“The Help” offers an entertaining story from a perspective not often heard; sort of a “behind-the-scenes” of society life at the time. And quite an enjoyable read!

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Water For Elephants: Even Better the Second Time

Sells-Floto Circus train unloading

Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

Spoiler Warning – Big time! I mean it!

You were warned…

I’ve read Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen twice now.  The first time was about three years ago.  The book hadn’t been out in paperback for long and I decided to pick it up. It sat on my shelf for a little bit since I had a bit of a book back log. When I did get to it, I wasn’t sure what to think. The two page teaser at the beginning grabbed me right away, but the next chapter was from the point of view of an old man.  It wasn’t nearly as interesting as the teaser.  I kept trudging through and it picked up once I realized that the old man was the young man in the flashbacks.

The second time I read it was last fall when my offline book club chose it as our October selection.  I reread the book since most of it was hazy in my mind. I remember enjoying it much more the second time around.  I understood what exactly was going on in the teaser, but I had forgotten enough of it to make most of the novel seem new again.  I was also able to look at the old man in a new light – understanding that it was the same man and how that experienced shaped him.

Overall, I liked the book, but there was one part that almost made me stop reading the book.  As any regular reader knows, I’m a bit of a dog lover. When Kinko’s dog, Queenie, was lost, I was almost in tears.  I was in tears in the next chapter when Marlena brought the dog back to him.  The character of Kinko is such a hard guy, obviously affected by his physical stature and that he was the bottom of the performers.  The dog was the only thing he cared about and it made him more human.

Next weekend, my offline book club is meeting to go see the new Water for Elephants movie. While I’m not a big Robert Pattinson fan (liked him as Cedric in Harry Potter, can’t get over him as a sparkly vampire in Twilight), I do like Reese Witherspoon and the story is epic enough to play well on the big screen.  I hear that the elephant steals the show, though!

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A Welcome Diversion

Warning!! Possible Spoilers….Maybe…Possibly…

I apologize now. I am not quite sure how to approach this post. I’ve never been in a book club and haven’t had to write my thoughts on a book since grade school. In school we were taught to read and analyze what we were reading. Look for the hidden meaning the author wanted you to find. Writing a report about the reflection of society presented within the text blah blah blah. Call me a simpleton fine. Here is how I tend to look at books and the depth of my analysis when reading them. Was it a good story? Did it draw me in to the point where I stayed up too late reading it wanting to know what happened? Did it feel like a relaxing escape?

So in the Christine method of Book Analysis. Yes, yes, and yes.

Usually if friends or relatives recommend a book I’m willing to give it a shot. Normally the recommendations come from my sister. I’d heard of Water for Elephants but had no idea what I was in for when I opened it up. Unfortunately due to the commercial push for the movie that opened last week I already had a mental picture of the two leads. That was the most frustrating part for me. I like when I can let my mind decide what the characters look like, not a Hollywood Casting director.

I like that stories have the power to transport us to different time. Show us how life was lived in a different perspective from what you’re taught in grade school history and aspects of that time that just don’t make it into the history textbooks. In this case the Train Circuses from the Depression Era. The trials and tribulations the people had to go through. I find it all fascinating. It’s a way to imagine a life so different from your own. I was mildly envious of the “glamorous” travel of going from town to town to see the country. Obviously though, especially trying to put on a circus during the depression there is nothing glamorous about it. The conditions people were forced to live in but accepted it because at least they had a job and were fed regularly. It really makes you appreciate what you have. It really helped to read it the past few weeks when work has been a horrendous torrent of insanity. I escaped to this book and was reminded that people have survived and dealt with much worse.

To sum up. It was a good book. I enjoyed the story very much. The author did a wonderful job grabbing my attention in the beginning by giving a 2 page teaser of the climax of the story. I read through the book curious as to what leads to the insanity that was the opening few pages…and then got really confused when Chapter 1 took place in a nursing home. I always like it when I can curl up with a book that takes me away from where I am for a little while. Water for Elephants totally fulfills that requirement…I  feel like I just wrote one of those plugs they stick on the back cover. Sorry for that.

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