Our View From Here

Perspectives of Five Women

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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Next week, of course, we’ll be doing our first book club post about Water for Elephants, and you should certainly tune in for that, because, if nothing else, it will be interesting to see what everyone thinks of the book, in such close proximity to the move release.  But I recently finished Tina Fey’s new book, Bossypants, and I want to talk about that. 

First, if you like Tina Fey, or think she’s funny at all, you’ll probably love Bossypants. If you don’t find her funny, then this book is probably not for you.  Some people don’t like her humor or her politics and that’s ok, she realizes it and talks about it in the book.  This book is more a personal memoir than a political manifesto anyway, so even people who disagree with her may find some humor in her trials and travails. 

Full disclosure: I actually downloaded Bossypants as an audiobook and it was so worth it to hear Fey read her own material.  Her timing and charm add a lot to the experience.  I did, however, order a real book book copy online so that if she ever does a book tour I can get her to sign it. 

What I find amusing about Fey in the first place is her ability to inject humor into seemingly unfunny situations.  Looking back on my own life, many of the absurd situations I found myself in are now humorous stories that I share with friends and family.  However, Fey is much braver than I am, because she’s sharing these with the whole world (including photos of hideous haircuts she had when she was young…I have these too, and they are NEVER seeing the light of day again).  Embarrassment really does ferment into comedy over time. Unfortunately, we rarely recall this at the embarrassing moment. 

What I found truly interesting about Bossypants were Fey’s recollections from her time at Saturday Night Live and stories from working on 30 Rock.  I watch those shows, so the stories she tells feel like peeking behind the curtain.  It’s clear from her writing that she loves what she does, she has managed to surround herself with great people and that being funny for a living isn’t bad at all.

Bossypants occasionally strikes a feminist note.  So many people consider feminist to be the other “f-word,” something that requires apology. Personally, I do not and I’m confused by this position.  Fey’s commentary on the matter is brilliant:  Yes, women are funny.  Yes, women do work.  Yes, it is different for women than men.  But that’s something that has to be dealt with.  Be funny, be brilliant, do your thing and don’t apologize. 

All in all, this book confirmed a long-held suspicion:  Tina Fey should be my best friend.

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Reignited Reading

It was with much trepidation that I recently joined a book club.  I’ve never be a part of a book club before, and hadn’t read with a group since college.  I love reading, but generally, I love reading what I want to read.  So surrendering my reading choices to the whims of a group of strangers felt like an odd choice for me.

It turned out really well.  I enjoyed our selection, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and our discussions about the book flowed very well, considering many of us didn’t know the others.  I joined the club with a friend from work.  The meeting was held at her other friend’s home, and the other members were all friends of that person.   Also, I can’t be entirely certain, but I’m pretty sure all the other members were about 6 or 7 years younger than me.  Normally, this wouldn’t be any kind of issue, and when it came to the book and our discussions and analysis of it, it wasn’t.  But there’s a very real-feeling generation gap I feel with people who’ve just left college. Student life is still very much a part of their life and their thinking, and I no longer feel that way.  All of these things led to my trepidation.

It’s been driven home to me over and over, and I still haven’t fully learned the lesson: it’s good to try new things; it usually won’t hurt and you’ll probably enjoy it.  I did have fun.  I did enjoy the book.  I also learned from my fellow-book club members and that deepened my enjoyment of the book.  And the side effect of trying this new thing: I’m excited about reading again.

My interest in reading waxes and wanes.  Occasionally, I just can’t get jazzed about anything there is to read.  I can’t bring myself to pick up a new book.  Sometimes this is because I’ve just finished something really good and I don’t want to read something that could be bad, other times, it’s simply because of ennui.  Lately it’s been the latter.  But now, there are at least three exciting books in my personal queue.  And, I’m curious about some of the themes addressed in Guernsey. I’m exploring some of the historical aspects addressed in the book.  It also helps that one of my favorite authors just came out with a new book.

And, on top of all these new and thrilling books, I have another book club book for next month!

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Fact or Fiction

Choosing a favorite book, for me, is like choosing a favorite relative–no, that would probably be easier.  It all comes down to genre.  Are we talking fiction? Non-fiction? If we’re talking non-fiction, history? sports? art? sociology? medicine?

So, rather than make the gut-wrenching choice of one book over another, I’ll share a few  favorites.  This way, I don’t actually have to make a real decision, and nobody feels left out.

Taking the fiction category in a walk is Middlesex by Geoffrey Eugenides.  This book is a true epic (in the actual sense of the word, not the diluted internet sense) spanning two continents and three generations.  The story follows the unlikely protagonist (a gene) on its journey through time, space and blood until it is realized in the form of a young hermaphrodite named Cal(liope).

The story is driven by characters and the events that shape them take hold of the plot and steer it toward its inevitable conclusion.  It’s dark at times, light at times, and always reminding you that time moves forward, actions have consequences and family secrets will out.

Admittedly, this is a classification of non-fiction into which I don’t often dip my toes.  But, I read an article in the New York Times about this book and couldn’t help but pick it up.  Once I grabbed it, I was hooked.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall weaves the story of an amazing ultra-long distance race with the biology, physiology and psychology of running.  Human beings are designed to run, far.  We’re designed to chase things and outlast them.  And we weren’t designed to do it in shoes.  Our ancestors, roaming the savannah, hunting deer, were not doing it in Nikes.

This book made me want to run.  Barefoot.

Ok, this one’s a tie, but only because I can realistically sub-divide the category of History into two subcategories (completely for my own selfish purposes): Human History and Physical History.  (Again, these subcategories are a construct, created for the sole purpose of allowing me to choose two history books as my favorites.  They will not help you locate either of these books at your local bookstore.)

Human History
My current favorite book about Human History is At Home, by Bill Bryson.  Again, this is a current favorite, which could be due to the fact that I finished it only a few weeks ago.  Bryson is a great storyteller.  He’s witty and thorough and manages to weave several disparate threads into a coherent narrative, which we all know, makes for a neat story, but is rarely the way that history actually unfolds.

Physical History
Ok, it’s another Bryson book, but it’s just freakin’ rad.  I’m talking about A Short History of Nearly Everything. In A Short History Bryson takes us through the history of Earth from before there was an Earth: the  beginning of time.  Again, he goes about making things I learned in high school interesting and fun.  Part of the charm is Bryson’s status as a non-scientist.  He does his research and talks to scientists, but in the end, he’s just a person trying to understand the how’s and why’s of physics and earth sciences.

Ok, this one might be cheating a little on the category, but The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande (who is a surgeon and has written other books about medicine) deals with the medical field, so I’m leaving it categorized as is.  This book details Gawande’s task, with the WHO of designing a checklist to reduce the incidence of post-surgery infection. Along the way, he goes outside of his field, into the airline, construction and engineering industries to find out what experts know about checklists.  I’m not making it sound super-exciting, but trust me, it’s worth reading.

One of my most recent favorite genres is the essay.  Since I commute on the bus, an essay is the perfect little bite-sized helping of literature. One of my favorite essayists is Sarah Vowell, and my favorite of her books is The Partly Cloudy Patriot (taken from the famous Thomas Paine line: “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot, will in this time of crisis shrink from the service of their country.”)   Vowell is a patriotic American, but not someone who allows her patriotism to sugar-coat her understanding of reality in America today.  Indeed, she shines a light on the absurd in our country as well as the admirable. Oh, and she’s really funny.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I’m sure there are a ton of others, but I can’t think of them all now.

*Images courtesy of Amazon.com* obviously.

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