Friday, January 20, 2012

The Revolter and the Princess - The Romanov Bride

Title: The Romanov Bride
Author: Robert Alexander
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0-670-01881-9
Pages: 306

Most people have heard of Anastasia, and her famous parents Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra, but the Romanov family was large and Alexandra's sister, Elizabeth, had married into the Imperial Family and suffered a similar fate as the rest of the family. This book is Elizabeth's story from just before the first Russian Revolution to the sweep of the Revolution of 1917. However, this story has a twist. It is told through two different view points – Elizabeth and her executioner, Pavel.

Born into a life a privilege and royalty, as the granddaughter of Queen Victioria, in the house German house of Hesse, Elizabeth's life tended to be scheduled and controlled first by her father and then by her husband. She married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, the uncle of Tsar Nicholas, and was surrounded by the wealth and grandeur of Russian Imperialism. However, through the death of Sergie, she was able to forge a life of her own, by selling her properties and jewels to found the Mary and Martha convent with a mission to minister to the poor and sick. As abbess, her faith and trust in her religious calling allowed her to overcome the distrust of the common people, the envy of detractors, and the political maneuvering of the revolution. Even her execution, ordered by Lenin, was carried out in secret – as a remaining member of the Romanov family, and beloved by her community, she was a threat.

Pavel's story begins in the country-side as a peasant, doomed to a hard and short life. With hopes of better jobs, he takes his new bride to the city. However, poor and uneducated, they has few opportunities, and when a local priest begins a petition to see the Tsar, Pavel and his wife are caught up in the early stages of the Russian Revolution. When the peaceful peasants march on the Tsar's palace, the soldiers gun them down, including Pavel's wife. Thus begins his journey of revenge and life of killing. However, his various encounters with Elizabeth, as both the Grand Duchess and a nun, makes him regret some of his actions. In the end, Pavel himself is executed by the very revolutionaries he supported, but found comfort in forgiveness given by both Elizabeth and a follow condemned priest.

At first, I struggled to get into the book. The switch between narrators was distracting, and at first, I couldn't identify with either person. Pavel was to pig-headed and Elizabeth to vain. However, both characters become more fully developed and I found myself really caring about them. Elizabeth becomes a Mother Theresa, and Pavel becomes the thief on the cross. Having taught the Russian Revolution for high school history, through the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) from University of Cambridge, I had a pretty good handle on the facts of the revolution, but this book really humanized it for me.
The author provides a website for the book, including a book guide and multimedia of his book tour and documentary and photos of Elizabeth. After reading, I wondered how much was fiction or real, and did a little Internet trolling myself. The author used public documents, such as letters and diaries, to create the story of Elizabeth.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Soap Opera in London - The White Queen

Title: The White Queen
Author: Philippa Gregory
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-4165-6369-3
Pages: 415

Off the Shelf Challenge book.  This book has been on my shelf for over a year.  My mother-in-law read through Philippa Gregory’s The Cousin’s War series which is based on the historical events of England’s War of the Roses.  It was a time of political intrigue, as the two royal houses, Lancaster (Red Rose) and York (White Rose) connived and murdered to gain control of the monarchy.  The White Queen is the story of Elizabeth Woodville, who, as a widow, became Queen consort of England as the spouse of King Edward IV.  In this story, her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, was a shrewd maneuverer with potential supernatural powers, who engineered her daughter’s assent to royal status.   The Tower of London, as a residence, and Westminster Abbey are central locations in the story.  As a historical fiction, much of the general facts of the story are based in documents, with the detailed fictionalized.  I enjoyed the courtship and early days of Elizabeth and Edward, but got lost in the soap opera of the political maneuvering. Elizabeth was also ambitious and protective of her own family.   The mystery of the princes in the Tower of London is illustrated toward the end.  Having been to London several times, it was interesting imagining the scenes as Gregory described them.

Friday, January 13, 2012

2 in 1 - The Devil in the White City

Title: Devil in the White City
Author: Erik Larson
Publisher: Crown
ISBN: 0-965-71134-X
Pages: 447

Many years ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Erik Larson about his book The Devil in the White City.  Being a history buff, I thought it would be very interesting, but being overseas, I didn't pick up the book and had forgotten about it.  I spent the past week at my in-laws and didn't bring enough books of my own to read.  My father-in-law had bought the book after hearing the same broadcast and my mother-in-law loved the book.  She said, "I wish I had highlighted things throughout the book.  There is so much to learn and check on. You should read it!" And so I did, with much of the same feeling - it was a history lesson wrapped up in an episode of CSI.

The Devil in the White City is actually two stories in one book - both stories take place within blocks of each other in Chicago during the late 1800s.  One character is Daniel Burnham, a leading architect of the Chicago Columbian Exposition (World's Fair)in 1893, and the other is Herman Mudgett, aka, H.H. Holmes (among numerous other alias), a suave, clever serial killer who murdered between 25 and 200 people throughout the U.S. but was especially productive during the World's Fair when hundreds of young, single women came to Chicago in the hopes of an emancipated life.

Paris has just closed their World's Fair with the wonder of the Eiffel Tower fresh in everyone's mind.  The U.S. wanted to make a statement to the Old World, that the New World could be just as dazzling and innovative.  Several cities vied for the honor (and the work) of the fair, with Chicago being the least compared to the likes of New York and DC.  Chicago has just begun to recover from the Great Fire and still had the reputation of being a Stockyard city, with low-class culture.  The architectural firm of Burnham & Root was selected to build the Exposition, which would be a city in itself.  With multiple delays of money, committees, and bureaucracy, it took almost a year to decide on a location, which left less than 2 years to actually build.   Architects from around the country proposed grand Neo-Classical style buildings, but struggled to build in the swampy land of Jackson Park.  Both Burnham & Root dedicated their lives to the management of this endeavor, which eventually killed Root.  Many innovations come from the building of the White City, named because all the buildings were white washed and illuminated with electricity at night.  We use AC in our houses because Westinghouse won the bid to wired the Exposition and we have Ferris wheels because the Exposition needed something to “out Eiffel the Eiffel Tower”.  The tremendous amount of work and organization that went into the development of the Exposition is absolutely amazing, and Larson does a great job of interweaving the facts into a compelling drama.

At the same time at the rise of the Exposition, a con-man/serial killer came to town.  He adopted the name Holmes in honor of the new books with Sherlock Holmes.  With some medical training and a charming personality, he created a small empire of a pharmacy, restaurant, shops, and apartments, all at little to no cost as he invented multiple aliases and swindles to pay for it.  At the same time, he had several wives and families, but his greatest creation was his very own amusement park of gas chambers, dissection rooms, and crematorium.  He charmed and killed multiple people, just for the satisfaction of controlling them.  He was eventually caught through the work of a private investigator who was attempting to track down some missing children.  The author used Holmes’s own memoir along with many newspaper articles, biographies, and eye-witness accounts to piece together Holmes’s life.  With the World’s Fair in town, Holmes really had an ideal situation to wreak his havoc.

With all the detail the author provides, this is not a fast or beach read – but it was absolutely fascinating.  There were several parts I read aloud to whoever would listen because the revelations of history were astounding.  There is so much I take for granted in life that has its roots in the creation of this fair.   At the same time, the recognition of the tremendous feat of building a World’s Fair – without computers, automobiles and infant electricity – is admirable.

A few remnants of the fair can still be seen in Chicago, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry.  Much of the original collection of the Field Museum also came from the World’s Fair.  The Norwegian Pavilion was moved to Wisconsin and can be toured at Little Norway.  Some believe the White City was the inspiration for Baum’s City of Oz and Disney’s theme park.

There are rumors that the book will be made into a movie, starring DiCaprio.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rosemary Remembered: Good fluff mystery

Title: Rosemary Remembered
Author: Susan Wittig Albert 
Pages:  304

Ah, the pleasure of a "fluff" book. For most people, a fluff book would probably mean a romance. But, for me, it is a predictable, stock character book, and most recently, a mystery series. In my local newspaper, once a week, people on the street are asked what they are currently reading. Last spring, someone mentioned a private eye series that was named after herbs. I was intrigued and looked it up. The China Bayles Mysteries are set in Texas. China was a hard-nosed lawyer in the big city who burned out and chucked it all to own and operate an herbal shop in a small-town, which seems to have a lot of odd characters and an unusual amount of murders. Through the course of the series, she makes friends, finds a husband and becomes more settled and happy in her life.

I requested the first five books from PaperBack Swap and Rosemary Remembered is the fourth in the series. It begins with a summary of her current life - leaving the big city, becoming a shopkeeper for herbs, falling for an ex-cop now professor, moving in with him and his teenage son, and the various murders she has already solved. She struggles with giving up her independence and single life, while being the non-stepmom for a teenager, especially since her own childhood was less than desirable. It is mid-summer in Texas, which means it is hot and miserable. China is hosting an herbal conference and goes to pick up a truck from an acquaintance to move some tables for the workshops. However, there is a dead body in the truck, shot through the head. So begins the investigation. To complicate things, an former convict, with a vendetta against the ex-cop is on the lose and looking to settle a score.

The ex-cop is hired by the dead woman’s lover's boyfriend to find the boyfriend. Left alone with the teenage son, China attempts to tread the fine line between friend and mother, while following the understandably overpretective instructions of his father. Obviously, being a mystery, China is drawn into following various leads and finds that the dead woman had a very hidden life. She was a tax accountant, but also had a lot of enemies, from an ex-husband who was accused of domestic abuse, to the angry family of a former client who committed suicide, supposedly because of her influence.

For a lawyer/investigator (though not officially), China blabs a lot to all her friends, who unwittingly help her solve the mystery. Her New Age friend, Ruby, invites a channeler, who gives Yoda-like advise that leads and predicts some of the outcome. The campus cop director Smart Cookie, moves in to help protect China and the son from the ex-convict (and eventual fugitive) plus investigate the murder. All the while, China is relaying information between the local cops, the boyfriend's brother, and the ex-cop, who is in Mexico, looking for the boyfriend.


Like most mysteries, the story in wrapped up neatly in the last 20 pages. The dead woman found out that the brother was embezzling from the jointly owned company of the brother and boyfriend. When it was clear the dead woman and boyfriend would blow the whistle, the brother shot the woman, then the boyfriend and hid him in the freezer, then the garden.

At the same time, the son disappeared - though he was actually taken to a sci-fi convention by his crazy mother. China, through both natural and super-natural means, finds the son and the crazy mother, who had been suing for custody, is carted off. During this process, China realizes that she actually loves the son and wouldn't mind being his step-mother, though she still feels that she doesn't have the skills needed. However, to cement the bond between her and the son, the convict shows up to threaten them and China peppersprays him, to the great admiration of the son. So - all's well that end's well.

Since I'm sitting in a hospital waiting room, this was the perfect read. Not to taxing and easy to pick up and put down. The characters are familar - even if you haven't read the previous books. China is both admirable and a bit whiny, but in the tradition of V. I. Warshawski - independent, yet finding herself drawn into intimate relationships. Some of the references and dialogue are a bit dated and the story a bit formulaic, but for a beach read or waiting room read that's exactly what I want!

Monday, January 9, 2012

A little romance, culture, social awareness & happy ending: Chasing China

Title: Chasing China: A Daughter's Quest for the Truth
Author: Kay Bratt
Publisher: Kindle Edition
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1466478578  (My first e-book!)
Pages: 346

Mia is clearly adopted. Growing up in a small-town, very white, her Chinese features prompted thoughtless people to ask, “What is she?” to which her mother would reply, “Human, of course!” As Mia enters adulthood, she feels the need to find out about her roots, not because her childhood was bad, or she doubts the love of her adopted family. Fortunately, her adopted family is highly supportive and she sets off, alone, to visit China for the summer and research the orphanage, and hopeful, her birth family.

Having procured a tour of the orphanage she was adopted from, Mia is treated with great honor as the director shows her the facility. However, Mia is appalled at the treatment of the children, which, although humane, lacks warmth and encouragement. Because she was adopted to an American family, it is assumed Mia is now rich with maids and butlers, extravagant clothing, and extensive education. Although not rich by American standards, Mia ponders the twist of fate that allowed her to have a loving, supportive childhood in the face of the institutional treatment of the children in the orphanage. She is particularly drawn to a quiet and obviously ill little girl. The visit seems to go well, until Mia is allowed to question her foster mother. There is some mystery to Mia's birth or adoption that no one will speak of. The visit ends abruptly.

While waiting for another meeting, and more information, from the director, a series of happy coincidences carries Mia through the struggles of being a single, female, foreigner in an unknown land. First, she meets a Chinese-American man, Jax, who is interning with a five star hotel chain. He takes an instant liking to her because of her independent and confident ways. Through him, Mia is introduced to the expatriate women's group, who volunteer at the orphanage and try to raise money and support for the ill children. Mia is brought into the bureaucracy of trying to secure treatment for the sick little girl in the orphanage. At the same time, Mia strikes up a friendship with one of the young caretakers, TingTing, who leads her to her foster mother. When official-looking security people raid Mia's hotel room, she takes shelter with TingTing and her foster mother. Through this, she learns more about her adoption and sets out to locate the town she was born into.

It turns out that her family were poor farmers who lived in caves in the country-side. Although poor, they were happy and joyful with their children, but could not afford the tax and fine for having multiple children. So, Mia was taken from them. Her parents attempted to raise the money to get her back, but being uncommonly beautiful, she was quickly adopted by Americans, which is more profitable than the tax/fine. One of the dark secrets of China, according to the book, is that children are forcibly taken from parents and put into the adoption pool. In other words, they are stolen children. Mia, accompanied by Jax and TingTing, meets her birth father, and it turns out TingTing is her sister. In a fairy-tale ending, Jax returns to the States to work at his family's business, TingTing moves in with Mia's adopted family, and her birth father dies a happy man.

Having lived overseas for awhile, I found Mia's reaction to the orphanage and daily life in China to be ironically funny. She is both appalled and fascinated with what she sees and attempts to reconcile her American mentality to a new world view. This, I believe, is a typical struggle of expats. However, although there were moments of tension, her search for her roots was filled with to many easy coincidences, not the least of which was the ease of living in China as a single, female foreigner. Throughout the book I was wondering who the target audience was for the writing, as there was a strange obsession with lip-gloss and mascara, and a teeny-bopper description of the development of the romance between Mia and Jax. Although not necessarily marketed as a young adult book, the style is less sophisticated then the typical adult read. However, it was a fun read with a happy ending, and I think we all need a little Disney in our lives to counteract the cynicism that is prevalent.

The author, a white American woman, spent time working in Chinese orphanages and based some of the characters on the people she met. She continues to work with adoptees in dealing with the unique issues of adoption, and especially those from Asia. Her personal website has more details on her books and work.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2012 Tea & Books Reading Challenge - 2 Books - Chamomile Lover

This is a challenge made for me - I love tea and I love books!  As much as I would like to be an Earl Grey lover (as that is my favorite tea) I don't think I'll be able to read 6 large 700+ page books this year.  But, I do have a few on my shelf that I would like to read, so I will be a Chamomile Lover at 2 books, they are:

Tea & Books Reading Challenge

This challenge was inspired by C.S. Lewis' famous words, "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."

You better settle in with a large cup of tea, because in this challenge you will only get to read ... wait for it ... books with more than 700 pages. I'm deadly serious. We all have a few of those tomes on our shelves and somehow the amount of pages often prevents us from finally picking them up. You may choose novels only, no short story collections or anthologies, and in case you're trying a short cut by picking large print editions of a book, well I'm sorry, those do not qualify for this challenge! Let's battle those tomes that have been collecting dust on our shelves, so no re-reads, please!

2 Books - Chamomile Lover

4 Books - Berry Tea Devotee

6 Books - Earl Grey Aficionado (this will be the one I'll try)

8 or more Books - Sencha Connoisseur

This is the sponsoring blog, so click on this to sign up!
The Book Garden


Anyone may join. Just leave a comment on the Book Garden blog with the following info:
Name / Blog (if you have one) / Chosen Level

The Book Garden wil comprise a list with everyone and add it to this page!

Updates on the challenge will be posted on a regular basis and you may then comment with your own progress.

The challenge will take place between January 1st and December 31st 2012.

You can join any time between now and early 2012.

You have to pick a level, though you may "upgrade" to the next one at any time. In this case just drop me a line, so I can change your previous level.

You don't need to list your books ahead of time, though I won't object if you do. I'm definitely curious about your book choices for these challenges.

The books you choose may crossover into other challenges.

Both physical and eBooks are allowed, though personally I feel that especially the Tea & Books Reading Challenge is more fun with real books.

Reviews of the books read are not mandatory.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

2012 Off The Shelf Book Challenge - Make A Dint - 30 books

Bookish Ardour is hosting their second annual Off the Shelf challenge in 2012.

As I mentioned in my first post, I've collected a lot of books over the last 4 years and have been ignoring them. So, I challenge myself to Make A Dint – and choose 30 books to read this year that are already on my shelves.

What It’s All About

Do you love books? Do you love them so much your to be read list seems to keep growing, and growing, and growing? Is space on your bookshelf taken up with unread books? Is your eBook library burgeoning with unread stories? We’ve been there at BA and we still are!

This challenge is to read those books you own a copy of, print, digital, and audio, you have been meaning to read, but never gotten to. If you don’t own enough books for the challenge you can read your TBR list instead. And no, you do not need to get rid of your books afterwards, that’s completely your choice, this challenge is only to read them.

The Deets

  • The Main Rule: Do not include books acquired during 2012, it defeats the purpose, read those books from before 2012 started!
  • Running Dates: 1st of January – 31st of December 2012
  • When Can I Sign Up: All the way up to the last two weeks of December 2012!
  • Crossover Genres: Anything! The name of the game is to turn those unread books into read ones.
  • Mr Linky: To use the Mr Linky you’ll need to click on the graphic then enter your link. These will be updated and posted into this page every couple of weeks or so.
  • Further Details: Crossover challenges are fine, you can change levels at any time, this is eBook, short story, and graphic novel friendly, and you don’t need a blog to join in (read further for details).

The How To

  1. Choose Your Level:These are listed further down and you can change levels at any time.
  2. Grab The Badge: Place it somewhere on your blog, profile, or in a signature where possible and link back (main page or this page, it’s up to you).
  3. Sign Up Post: Create a post on your blog, in a group, or on a forum (only if allowed) to let others see what you’re aiming for (a predefined list of books is optional).
  4. Link Up: Grab the direct URL to your sign up post, not your blog, click the Mr Linky graphic and enter your link!
  5. Blogless? Don’t worry, you can sign up with your social network profile (YouTube, Twitter, GoodReads, Shelfari included), just make sure you link to your review list, shelf, tweet, or category. If you don’t have any of those feel free to comment!


  1. Your Reviews: Reviewing is optional! But if you do review we’d love for you to share them by submitting them on the Review Page (including social networks).
  2. Finished: When you’re done it’s completion post time and you can share these on the Completion Post page!

Challenge Levels

  1. Tempted– Choose 5 books to read
  2. Trying – Choose 15 books to read
  3. Making A Dint – Choose 30 books to read
  4. On A Roll – Choose 50 books to read
  5. Flying Off – Choose 75 books to read
  6. Hoarder – Choose between 76-135 books to read
  7. Buried – Choose between 136-200 books to read

Extra Challenges

If you feel like that extra kick to your reading challenges here’s a couple you can choose from.
  • World:Choose a country as your theme, reading only books from that country or where it’s the setting. For how high you go you can choose more than one country;
    • Level Tempted and Trying: Choose one country
    • Level Making a Dint and On A Roll: Choose two countries
    • Level Flying Off to end of Hoarder: Choose three countries
    • Level Buried: Choose four countries.
  • Gender Battle: Read books only by female or male authors. Another alternative is to read equal amounts of both.

Sign Up

Click Mr Linky and away you go!


Friday, January 6, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: The Good of the Many . . .

Title: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter
Author: Seth Grahame-Smith
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-446-56308-6
Pages: 336

Last April, my husband and I were in New Orleans for a conference. On the way out to the zoo, we stumbled onto a movie set. It was clear the movie was set in the 1800s. The horse and wagons, the period dress, and building architecture seemed both in-congruent and completely plausible in a city like New Orleans. I guess it is not an unusual thing to find a movie set in New Orleans. The week we visited, there were almost a dozen movies being filmed in and around the city, or so we were told by an extra. Like most other tourists, we took pictures of the actresses in long dresses, bonnets, and corsets while they listened to their iPods and texted on their smart phones. Then filming began and I saw a tall gentleman in a cream colored three-piece suit and top hat. It was clearly Abraham Lincoln. However, come to find out, he was a vampire slayer! Who know?

Benjamin Walker as Abraham Lincoln - wrapping for the day.
That brings me to today's book - Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith, first known for his book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Many people want to read a book before seeing the movie, or end up reading the book because of the movie. I picked up this book because I saw the filming of the movie. Reading the book reminded me of paging through the historical book Then and Now: The Wonders of the Ancient World Brought to Life in Vivid See-Through Reproductions by Stefania Perring, which has pictures of historical buildings and places with a transparent overlay that shows what the place looked like in history. I recognize the Coliseum with chunks of it missing and looking like a relic, but with the overlay it became a vibrant theater filled with cheering people watching the gladiators bleed to death. I know the story of Honest Abe - his humble beginnings, his struggle to become a lawyer and president, and the tragedies in his life. Grahame-Smith overlays a secret life of vampire hunting, weaving an interesting combination of fiction and nonfiction. I was constantly lifting the overlay to check what was real and what wasn't. There was enough reality to make it plausible and enough fantasy to delight the Buffy-fan in me.

For some reason, Grahame-Smith bookends the story with an explanation of how this story came to be, with himself as the main character receiving secret diaries of Abraham Lincoln. It is his duty to take the ten journals of Lincoln and write a book that tells the truth about Lincoln's life. As Grahame-Smith says,"it turns out that the towering myth of honest Abe, the one ingrained in our earliest grade school memories, is inherently dishonest"(p. 15) "Vampires exist. And Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest vampire hunters of his age"(p. 14). And thus begins the "true" story of Lincoln.

Lincoln was propelled into vampire hunting when his mother was poisoned by vampire blood in retaliation for his father's debt. His motivation for learning to read and write was to learn the secrets of vampires to hunt them down and destroy them. In one of his early killings, he becomes friends with a "good" vampire, Henry, who recognizes the deep infiltration of vampires into the foundation of America's constitution and government. It seems slavery was a boon to vampires as there was easily available blood without retaliation. Therefore, the Civil War was not necessarily fought over the freedom of slaves but rather a war between factions of vampires for control of the country, with humans being the pawns. Lincoln may be the Great Emancipator, but, according the Grahame-Smith, the emancipation was actually to reduce the food supply for the Southern Vampires. Some of the most famous figures of the Civil War, such as Jefferson Davis and John Wilkes Booth, were either in league with vampires, or vampires themselves. If you are looking for an alternative reality book - this one clearly is for you!

I think I have forgotten how to read books just for pleasure, or fun. My analytical mind would not turn off while I was reading and I continually tried to sort out how much was fact and how much was fiction. Grahame-Smith has done an intriguing job of tweaking famous pictures of Lincoln in ways that made me think, "But wait, is that ax really in the picture of him talking to the General? " (The ax being his choice weapon to behead vampires). Or, taking famous speeches and reinterpreting them to indicate the subtext of the war with the vampires. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I used to watch faithfully, he is a tragic figure who knows the implausibly and impossibility of his situation yet continues to forge ahead, so the ignorant majority of the population can enjoy the daily pleasantries of life. His secret work takes a toil on his health and family, yet he continues to sacrifice as (in Spock's words, echoing John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism) "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."

The movie should be in the theaters this summer. I'm looking forward to seeing the scene I saw being filmed in New Orleans, and as an action/fantasy film, it is based on a solid premise. Here is the trailer for the film:

If you want to know a little more about the book, this is a good review:

When I finished reading, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, I felt much like I did when I finished reading Wicked. I had the MGM techno-color version of The Wizard of Oz in my psyche since childhood and Gregory Maguire shattered that image. Yet, his new creation was intriguing and I've often thought of his portrayal of the images of good and evil, and the difference between intentions and consequences. Grahame-Smith similarly made me confront how much my image of Lincoln was based on the Disneyfied version of history and how much can actually be hidden from the general public. How much of our political system is generated and run by interests outside of the good for the many, and instead for the good of the few or the one?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Glossy Version of Being The Help

Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 534
ISBN: 978-0-425-24513-2

As a reader, I tend not to jump on the current band wagon. I tried reading Oprah's picks, and tend to dislike most of them. Actually, despise is a more accurate word for several - as I threw a few across the room in frustration of the inane writing or plot (or lack thereof). If it is on the New YorkTimes bestseller list, I try to avoid it. Why? I think it is the adolescent willfulness that is still in me - I don't like to be told what to do or read. At the same time, there has only been one person who has understood my taste in books, my brother. He has always found me obscure but great fiction and non-fiction and I delight in his Christmas and birthday presents. However, most other people press books in my hand that they loved and I slog through them at a snail pace; finally giving in to skimming and skipping pages just to say I finished it. When they ask how I liked it, I use the duplicitous tactic of turning the question back on them, so I don't have to tell them how much I disliked it.

When The Help came out as a movie, suddenly I saw the book being read on buses and in coffee shops. Even my mother picked up a copy, which surprised me because she generally doesn't read popular books. She was quite anxious to see the movie, but is one of those people who needs to read the book first. One weekend I popped by mom's house to catch a ride to the airport and found the book waiting for me. Now, airplane time is prime "fun" reading time for me, but I had already been geared up to read Nine Parts of Desire:The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks. The cheery yellow movie poster cover of The Help did not entice me to abandon a journalist's experience of living and working with Middle Eastern women during the first Persian Gulf. In fact, the cover led to think of pretty birthday cupcakes, when all I wanted was some solid mash potatoes and gravy.

This week, I began reading The Help. At first I felt a bit like a voyeur. I am a Northerner born and bred, and although I've lived overseas for a long time, I've had few direct racial encounters personally, though I well aware of the racial, social and cultural struggles non-white Americans face every day, and especially black Americans. As a child, I grew up in a typical small town of European descent and hadn't met an African-American until I joined the Army. The overt discrimination I then witnessed was eye-opening, though I continued to enjoy my white privilege through college and into work. It was with this awareness of white privilege that I began reading The Help and wondered how a white author could realistically and accurately portray the voices (even fictional) of the African-American experience from 50 years ago.

The book is narrated by three main characters. Aibileen and Minny are both African-American maids tasked with running the houses and raising the children of two white families in Jackson, Mississippi. Freshly graduating from college, with no husband or career, Skeeter returns to her disappointed parents on a small plantation, to find her childhood maid has been fired and disappeared. As she tries gathering information from the maids of her friends about what happened to her maid, she begins to recognize the cruelty, hypocrisy, and ignorance of her white friends in their treatment of their domestic staff. At first, Skeeter leaps on the opportunity for a good story, "I'd like to write this showing the point of view of the help. The colored women down here . . . They raise a white child and then twenty years later the child becomes the employer. It's that irony, that we love them and they love us, yet . . . We don't even allow them to use the toilet in the house . . . Everyone knows how we white people feel, the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family. Margaret Mitchell covered that. But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it." (p. 123).

Both Aibileen and Minny recognize the danger in speaking about their work. Not only could they get fired, but with Jim Crow laws still in force, jail, beatings and lynchings were normal responses to uppity black action. However, with several local black beatings and a murder, plus a local initiative to build black only bathrooms for the domestic help, both women believe this could be an opportunity to have their voices heard. When Skeeter proposes the article to a publisher, the publisher requests a full book of interviews, to capitalize on the soon-to-come march onWashington, DC led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To fill a book, Skeeter requires about a dozen maids to be willing to talk about their work. When one maid is accused of stealing and sent to jail for an excessive amount of time, the several maids agree to participate in the book. It is at this time Skeeter finally realizes the danger she has put herself and, especially the women, in. Particularly, the maid of the town's queen-bee, Hilly, who has a vendetta to create a fully separate but equal society because she feels strongly that "they are not us." The book is jointly edited by Skeeter and Aibileen with all names changed. The initial publication of a few thousand copies did not fulfill the demand, once the book was talked about on TV.

SPOILER ALERT - If you haven't read the book, and don't want to know the ending, skip the next paragraph.

In the end, Hilly recognizes the book is set in her town (though she can't admit is because of the Terrible Awful) and tries to have all the maids involved fired. However, a few of her white friends refuse, because of what they believe is a positive relationship with their maid. But, Aibileen is fired, which pushes her into considering doing something new and Skeeter gets a job in New York.

On the whole, this is a redemption and coming of age story for Skeeter (and the author), who feels guilty for the way her family treated their own maid. Both Aibileen and Minny allow Skeeter to leave Jackson with a sense of having accomplished something. However, the two women must continue to face the daily disrespect, discrimination and degradation of being black in America. I think one of the most powerful parts of the story is Aibileen's determination to re-educate Mae Mobley, the white toddler she is raising. Aibileen tells Mae Mobley secret stories about how people are people no matter what color their outsides are. Although this may seem like an obvious statement, discrimination and hatred are not inherent, they are taught and reinforced by the people around us. However, that also means that respect and love can be taught and model to counteract the evil actions of bigotry.

Association of Black Women Historians issued an open statement regarding many issues concerning the book and movie including the use of dialect, trivialization of the black experience, and lack of attention to the issues of the Civil Rights movement. It is a worthwhile read.  There are several other critiques of the book also, many which are justified.  The Help is marketed as a "beach read" but the actual experiences of the women who had to endure the constant degradation deserves more than a cheery cupcake cover. Although my breath was taken away by some of the ignorant and hurtful comments made by some of the white characters to and about the black characters, I would guess that was only the tip of the ice-burg of reality. And, like all beach reads, the story ends happily for all involved, wrapped-up like a 30 minute sitcom, which does not reflect the prevalence of modern discrimination.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2012 Outdo Yourself Reading Challenge hosted by The Book Vixen - I'm on Fire!

What’s your reading goal for 2012? If it’s to read more books, then this is the reading challenge for you There were 227 readers who wanted to outdo themselves in 2011. Are you up for the challenge?

  • Runs January 1, 2012 – December 31, 2012 (books read prior to 1/1/12 do not count towards the challenge). You can join at anytime. Sign up on The Book Vixen’s blog.
  • The goal is to outdo yourself by reading more books in 2012 than you did in 2011. See the different levels below and pick the one that works best for you. Nothing is set in stone; you can change levels at any time during the challenge.
  • Books can be any format (bound, eBook, audio).
  • Re-reads and crossovers from other reading challenges are allowed.
  • Grab the reading challenge button and post this reading challenge on your blog to track your progress. Please include a link back to this sign-up post so others can join the reading challenge too. You do not have to be a book blogger to participate; you could track your progress on Goodreads or LibraryThing.

     Getting my heart rate up – Read 1–5 more books
     Out of breath – Read 6–10 more books
     Breaking a sweat – Read 11–15 more books
     I’m on fire! – Read 16+ more books

My Goal . . .

As I already mentioned, I want to read more fun books than the last few years of graduate school.  Therefore, I'm on fire! I will read more than 16 fun books than last year, which was a pitiful few (like 5).  I will not count the academic books I will continue reading for my dissertation.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Quiescit Anima Libris - The soul (spirit) finds respite in books.

I was born into a world of reading. Some of my earliest memories involve sitting on my father's lap and reading the comics. Or, going to the library with my mother to check out the same book every week just because I loved the illustrations. I had a library card by the time I was three and have always had one since. My mother became my school librarian and later worked at a bookstore. In our house, the entry hallway was lined with five tall bookshelves brimming with books. It is no wonder that I am a bibliophile.

However, the last few years has seen a decline in my own readerly life.  What is a readerly life you might ask? Although there is not one set definition, having a readerly life means being immersed in reading, excited about books, and eager to share your reading. As a graduate student, I am currently doing research in an elementary classroom. During the first quarter of the year, the students explored what it meant to have a readerly life. They learned about choosing books at their appropriate level, having a plan for reading, responding to what they were reading, and sharing their reading with others. This is something very typical for many elementary classrooms that are using the reading workshop format. Lucy Culkin is the guru of the readerly life for elementary teachers. However, I am much more well-versed on the reader workshop model by Nancie Atwell and Linda Rief, who are better known at the secondary level. In my own classroom, I have tried to set up an environment where students are immersed in books of their own choosing, given time to read, and have the opportunity to talk with their peers about their reading.

Strangely, as a graduate student I have not had these opportunities. I have been told what to read, how to read it and how to respond to it. The only time in the past few years that I have read" fun" books was at the and of the semester or on vacation. Recently, I was paging through Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and recognized that many of the things he identifies as changes in how we think because of the internet are true for me. I have not engaged in sustained silent reading for a long time. It seems my concentration is lacking. And I have only responded to book in soundbites. Book sharing sites, such as the reviews on Amazon or, one of my favorites, are nice, but it is basically Facebook for readers - comments are limited and superficial. I have found that I greatly miss my readerly life.

It is the beginning of the new year. Although many people make resolutions, I tend to shy away from resolutions. Eric Zorn, a columnist and blogger for the Chicago Tribune is attributed with saying, “Making resolutions is a cleansing ritual of self-assessment and repentance that demands personal honesty and, ultimately, reinforces humility. Breaking them is part of the cycle." It is almost a joke to make a resolution and then break it. I think Tom Morris, a turn-of-the-century professional golfer, summed it up well when he said, "A goal is not the same as a desire, and this is an important distinction to make. You can have a desire you don't intend to act on. But you can't have a goal you don't intend to act on." I think resolutions are desires - to quit smoking, to lose weight, to become a vegetarian. Therefore, this year I am setting intentions. According to the dictionary, an intention is "a course of action that one intends to follow." My intention for this year is to read more" fun" books. In other words, I would like to read the books that I have chosen to put on my bookshelf.  And being the good teacher that I am, I know that having a goal of “more", is not Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, or Timely. So my SMART goal or intention for this year is to read one "fun" book a week, and to make myself accountable, I will blog about it.

So, what are these books that I'm going to read? They are the books that have been piling up on my bookshelf for the last four years. I had lived overseas for 10 years before returning to the States. The first week I moved into my new home, the local library had a used book sale. After 10 years of walking into foreign bookstores that had thousands of books that I could not read, I went a little crazy and bought grocery bags full of books. Since that time, I have also joined Paperback Swap, which is an amazing website to swap or recycle books. In addition I have both a mother and a mother-in-law who are voracious readers. They keep giving me books, then asking if I've read them. I feel both sad and embarrassed when I have to say that I have not. I have more" important" reading to do. But what could be more important than losing myself in a book? Fran Lebowitz, an American author and columnist said, “To lose yourself in a book is the desire of the bookworm. I mean to be taken. That is my desire.” It is my hope that you will become a bibliophilic bookworm with me!