Mailbox Monday

Sunday, October 31, 2010

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Another Monday, Another Mailbox!! This is a feature where we all share with each other the yummy books that showed up at our doors! WARNING: Mailbox Mondays can lead to extreme envy and GINORMOUS wishlists!!

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page, but for the month of October MM is on tour and hosted by 
She Reads and Reads

I'm lucky enough to have a great used bookstore about five blocks from my office - its a non-profit called Books For America and all its proceeds benefit literacy programs for children. The staff is amazingly helpful but not pushy. The stock turns over quickly and because the store is in downtown DC, the quality of the books is quite good - sometimes I find brand-new paperbacks and current bestsellers for $3-4 each! The most I've ever paid for a book there is $5.50.

Anyway, if you happen to be in DC stop by or look for their Amazon page! I stoppped by after work on a past weeknight and snagged the following:

A fun, light read - I've already finished this one. You can see my review here.
I tend to pick up "maybes" and then leave stacks of them behind the front desk as I work my way through the store. The kind BFA clerk noticed that I had handed her a stack of historical fiction and suggested this one as her own personal favorite! How could I refuse?

I've wanted to read this one for a long time - its supposed to be a masterpiece of narrative history. But the unwieldy hardcover from the library was simply not workable for slipping into my purse before work each day. I was thrilled to find an almost new trade paperback for $5!


This seems to have a lot of detail about a middle-class womens' lives in Tudor England - a nice change from all the novels about court life!


I thought this might be a good follow-up to The Help - a book that was a departure for me reading-wise and that I enjoyed very much!

Review: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

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Eloise Kelly, an intelligent American, leaves Harvard's Widener Library bound for England to finish her dissertation on the dashing pair of spies the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian. What she discovers is something the finest historians have missed: a secret history that begins with a letter dated 1803. Eloise has found the secret history of the Pink Carnation the  most elusive spy of all time, the spy who single-handedly saved England from Napoleon's invasion

There are times when life requires something more than a 500-page novel on Thomas Cromwell or a considered meditation on the horrors of the Civil War; these are the times when something more means something less. Pink Carnation is that book - so light you can almost feel it float out of your hands, so taken with its own sense of fun and adventure that you find yourself wondering if it actually counts as reading. I think of these books as "Metro books" - you can read them with all sorts of delays - scratchy train-operator announcements, babies crying, people shoving and pushing to fit in during rush hour - and still keep the thread of the plot.

Pink Carnation revels in comedy and the upending of swashbuckling traditions while telling a sweet - if contrived - love story. Napoleon's court is sketched in the barest of outlines, as a mere background to character interactions. In reality, this story of spying and mistaken identity could occur in almost any time or place and lose only loving descriptions of bouncing carriages and voluminous skirts.

Lauren Willig says she began writing Pink Carnation because she loved the old stories of the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Three Musketeers. Knowing this, I started the book hoping for a bit more adventure and plotting. I'm willing to go along with a romantic plot line but I need it to be filled out a bit more than your typical romance novel. After all, you're setting your story in Napoleon's court - the opportunities for night time chases, coded messages and double crosses are endless!

That said, I appreciated being able to open this book and lose myself in a fun story for a few minutes. I would recommend Pink Carnation to anyone who is looking for an escapist read. However, I'm not sure I'll continue with the rest of the books in the series - I need a little bit more spy craft and a little less romance to remain intrigued.

A Day at the Met

Saturday, October 30, 2010

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Last Saturday, I hopped a Bolt Bus from Washington, DC to NYC and took my younger sister to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a first visit for both of us and I tried to prep as much as possible to get a sense of the layout, must-sees and traveling exhibits.

On the bus, I read "Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the fall of Madame X" by Deborah Davis from start to finish. With no background training in art history, Davis managed to craft a short but compelling glimpse into 1880s Paris society and the social mores that made Sargent's painting unlikely to succeed.

Imagine my dismay when I got to the Met and realized that the entire American wing is under rennovation. All of the paintings are enclosed behind floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets. The reflecting glass makes for a frustrating viewing experience but it does allow you to get VERY close to the paintings.

Up close, you can see the ghostly pallor that made Madame X a sensation in Paris society but you can also see that Sargent made a terrible choice when he decided to roll the painting up and carry it around with him - Madame X is showing her age!


There is also a short historical novel called "I Am Madame X" - its sitting on my TBR pile.


My sister adores the mid-19th century Hudson River School paintings of Thomas Cole and Frederick Edwin Church. The Met has Church's masterpiece The Heart of the Andes. Because the American Wing was so chaotic, neither one of us can remember if we actually saw the painting!

In any case, we both got to see his other masterpiece Niagara at the Corcoran Gallery in DC this summer.
We stopped for a quick snack at the msueum cafe and enjoyed a courtyard filled with Tiffany glass!

I'm particularly fond of this design that works with a mosaic fountain to form a three-dimensional design:
If we're ever rich, my sister and I decided we would install a replica in our living rooms!
Even with prior preparation, I was overwhelmed by the number of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings at the Met! The variety is incredible and it was great to see a class of young kids spread out on the floor of the museum, a teacher encouraging them to copy Van Gogh's Sunflowers.

I think I came away with a new appreciation for Van Gogh after this visit, especially since I happened to read an essay about his art and illness in The Best American Essays 2010 on the way home. The essay theorizes that Van Gogh suffered from crippling vertigo, resulting in the unsteady swirls of his paintings. My favorites included this lovely one:

In all, we spent about four and a half hours at the Met and only got through the American and European painting wings. Of course, there is so much more to see at the Met but it was a beautiful fall day and my sister was eager to explore New York City since it was her first visit.

After visiting a great art museum, I always want to find good historical fiction about artists. I find that they are very touch and go - Tracy Chevalier's classic Girl with a Pearl Earring moved me and I thought Sheramy Bundrick's Sunflowers was very good. But I've also had some disappointments - most of Susan Vreeland's work seems flat and I was so excited about Kathryn Davis' Dancing with Degas but it turned out to be so dull - how can you make Degas' ballerinas dull?

Anyway, feel free to comment - tell me a favorite painting you've seen in person or an interesting historical novel focusing on art!

HF Author Interviews

Friday, October 29, 2010

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I can't get enough of historical fiction author interviews - they're almost as good as an Author's Note at the end of the book!

Thanks to this Examiner interview with Anne Easter Smith, I now know that the Wars of the Roses can also be referred to as The Cousin's War!

Why has it taken so long for Robert the Bruce to get the full historical fiction treatment? Robyn Young has taken on the challenge and talks about her research in this short piece

This interview with Canadian author Mary Novik has piles of great detail about writing an historical novel.

I always think its interesting when an author is clearly uncomfortable with their book being labeled as historical fiction - as in this interview with Golden Mean author Annabel Lyon.

An intelligent piece that could have been retitled "How The Roman Empire Melted My Brain!"


Hello Again!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

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As you may have noticed, I disappeared for a few days. Since this blog is named "Historical Fiction Notebook" I experienced a bit of problem when I decided to take a break and read some essays, art history and Gothic suspense! Perhaps at some point down the road, I'll need to switch to an all-purpose book blog but for now I'm loving being apart of the HF community!

I'm curious to hear from other HF bloggers - what do you do with your blog when you want to read non-HF for awhile?

For now, I'm back to HF - I just picked up "The Secret History of the Pink Carnation" and am having fun with its light, frothy take on the French Revolution and a Scarlet Pimpernel-like female spy. Thanks to all of the other HF blogs who have been writing about Lauren Willig's books and encouraged me to give it a try.

So, good things are on the way - a post about Impressionist paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, links to HF author interviews, back-catalog reviews and my first "Cleaning Out The Book Closet" giveaway!

Thanks for sticking around!

Teaser Tuesday

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

- Grab your current read

- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!

Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Double your money here on Teaser Tuesday - I'm reading two books at the same time which is quite unusual for me - "The Confessions of Catherine De Medici" by C.W. Gortner and "Rebecca" by Daphne DuMaurier. I know Rebecca doesn't quite count for HFN but it's my first time reading DuMaurier's classic and its such a good one!

So here it goes:

"The rising sun bathed the city in saffron and rose. In the residential districts about the palazzo, the air still reeked from the night's carousing. We wound through narrow lanes, avoiding pools of waste. I longed to stop and admire the looming statues posed in niches along the way, to gape at the engraved copper heralds of the baptistry and the dumo's brick facade, yet my aunt propelled me forward, skirting the bustle of the marketplace for the back streets. " -Confessions of Catherine De Medici

And:

"The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkempt, not the drive that we had known. At first, I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened." - Rebecca

Review: March

Sunday, October 17, 2010

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From Louisa May Alcott's beloved classic Little Women, Geraldine Brooks has animated the character of the absent father, March, and crafted a story "filled with the ache of love and marriage and with the power of war upon the mind and heart of one unforgettable man" (Sue Monk Kidd). With "pitch-perfect writing" (USA Today), Brooks follows March as he leaves behind his family to aid the Union cause in the Civil War. His experiences will utterly change his marriage and challenge his most ardently held beliefs.


As a kid, I read Little Women but it never held a special place on my bookshelf the way it seems to have for other people. I picked up March hoping for a good Civil War novel from one of my favorite journalists (Brooks wrote Foreign Correspondence - a book that made a huge impression on me in my early teens and helped me decide on a career in journalism) but with little interest in the way it tied back to Little Women. 

March turned out to be a well-researched, solidly written effort examining the gap between intentions and actions, between blacks and whites and husband and wife. I turned the last page and didn't feel a thing - the story completely failed to move me in any way.

I failed to make a connection with Mr. March - he seemed like one of those sanctimonous people who are always running around telling people that they're making things better when they're actually complicating the situation and bullying those who get in their way. I felt his relationship with Grace, a house slave with complicated parentage, was artificial and unbelievably presented. To add to my frustration, she seemed to only pop up during key moments of the story when March needed a "slave conscience" to tell him how to feel.

It kills me to give Geraldine Brooks a bad review but I just don't understand why this was awarded a Pulitizer Prize - perhaps my expectations were too high after reading Mary Sutter. I would certainly not dissuade a reader from picking up March but they should take the enormous hype surrounding the book with a grain of salt.

Mailbox Monday

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Another Monday, Another Mailbox!! This is a feature where we all share with each other the yummy books that showed up at our doors! WARNING: Mailbox Mondays can lead to extreme envy and GINORMOUS wishlists!!

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page, but for the month of October MM is on tour and hosted by 
She Reads and Reads

For the first time in the history of my Mailbox Mondays, all of these books actually arrived in the mail!

Thanks to Susan Holloway Scott and Scandalous Women for this contest win:

Thanks to the Maiden's Court for an ARC of The Confessions of Catherine De Medici by C.W. Gortner:
Thanks to Historical-Fiction.com for a very exciting giveaway win. I've already read Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel but it's great to have a paperback copy to return to again and again:
Thanks to all for making this a great week for the mail!

W.W.W. Wednesday

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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It's time for W.W.W. Wednesdays: 

* What are you currently reading? "March" by Geraldine Brooks - a Pulitzer Prize winning novel about a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War.  
 

* What did you recently finish reading? I recently finished "The House on Fortune Street" by Margot Livesey - a classmate in my writing workshop recommended it to me. As I find with most contemporary fiction, I thought it was competent and engaging but lacking in any kind of original vision or voice.
 

* What do you think you’ll read next? I'm waiting for all three of my book wins to come in - Susan Holloway Scott's "Countess and the King", Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" (I might just re-read it!) and C.W. Gortner's "Confessions of Catherine De Medici." Hopefully one of them will make it here in time!

Teaser Tuesday

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

- Grab your current read

- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!


After searching high and low for another Civil War novel, I finally realized I've had Geraldine Brooks' March on my TBR pile for months now. The book takes the fictional character of the father from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and imagines his experiences as a chaplain with Union army.

I've read Brooks' brilliant non-fiction (Nine Parts of Desire, Foreign Correspondence) detailing her work as a journalist in the Middle East and enjoyed her first novel Year of Wonders up until its' bizarre ending. Here's hoping March breaks the Civil War bad luck streak:

From up there, at least, our prediciment must have been plain: the enemy in control of the knoll before us, laying down a withering fire, while through thr woods to our left more troops moved in a stealthy file to flank us. As chaplain, I had no orders, and so placed myself where I believed I could do most good. I was in the rear, praying with the wounded, when the cry went up: Great God, they are upon us!

- Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Mailbox Monday

Sunday, October 10, 2010

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Another Monday, Another Mailbox!! This is a feature where we all share with each other the yummy books that showed up at our doors! WARNING: Mailbox Mondays can lead to extreme envy and GINORMOUS wishlists!!

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page, but for the month of October MM is on tour and hosted by 
She Reads and Reads

Shocking! A week almost entirely free of historical fiction acquistions!

I visited the County Friends of the Library bookstore for some great buys:



This will be my first Mary Renault - I'm a little concerned by the reviews online that say she is an Alexander "hero-worshipper" but she is one of the biggies of HF - I can't ignore her any longer!



I've read Woolf's diaries, essays and Mrs. Dalloway. I thought it might be time to return to one of her more challenging reads.



To continue a long-running witch theme here at HF Notebook - the classic play.



After finishing Mary Sutter, I really wanted to continue with some Civil War reading. E.L. Doctrow's The March and Jeffrey Lent's In the Fall just did not grab me, so I switched to non-fiction and this classic account.



Whenever I'm in a bit of a reading standstill (paralyzed by options, perhaps?), I turn to a good Gothic mystery. This one is everywhere, I thought I should give it a try

By the way, all of those books combined cost less than $6. If you're a book hoarder, make sure you stay cheap!

Several library pick-ups this week:



I was disappointed by Kelly's Galway Bay - I would love an epic Irish Immigrant story to sink my teeth into but the characterizations felt off and I just wasn't engaged in the story.



E.L.Doctrow's The March received fantastic reviews but I suspect that has more to do with his literary reputation than the quality of the book. His refusal to punctuate dialogue was driving me nuts!



Continuing my Civil War bad-luck streak is Jarrettsville which introduced three separate first-person POV characters in the same number of pages. After a long week at work, I just did not have the patience to put up with that.



I've heard good things about this novelized account of the life of Henry James. I thought his latest Brooklyn was underwhelming but I love biographical novels.


One book that actually counts for Mailbox Monday - I ordered this one from Amazon. I'm thrilled to be visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art for this first time two weekends from now and this book will hold me over until then!

Review: My Name is Mary Sutter

Thursday, October 7, 2010

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Mary Sutter is a brilliant, headstrong midwife from Albany, New York, who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Determined to overcome the prejudices against women in medicine—and eager to run away from her recent heartbreak—Mary leaves home and travels to Washington, D.C. to help tend the legions of Civil War wounded. 

Sometimes a book’s title and cover blurb are its own worst enemies. My Name is Mary Sutter has been ill-served by both, which is a complete and total shame because Sutter may turn out to be one of my favorite books of the year – a moving, multi-perspective story of the Civil War that is both nerve-grindingly realistic and deeply lyrical.

When I put Sutter on hold at the library I was under the impression that it was a Civil War-era novel told in the first person, a nice little story about a midwife wanting to become a surgeon but encountering the prejudices of her own time against female doctors. The blurb led me to expect a “feisty” heroine with modern notions of gender equality mixed together with a predictable love story – in other words, the “typical appealing female character in another time” historical novel. 

After a slightly slow start, I plunged into the worlds of Civil War Albany, New York and Washington, DC. Since I’ve lived and worked in both cities, it was a special thrill to imagine the modern world peeled away from familiar streets, hotels and churches to reveal the past world underneath. Oliveira has constructed a solid scaffolding of period research that supports the story but never overwhelms it – some authors just know how to make an era feel like the past while allowing their characters to live in the present moment. Oliveira nails this. 

She also brilliantly constructs several unforgettable set pieces – an amputation, a birth and a battle. Her prose moves – I could hear the chaotic noise of a battlefield and feel the jangled nerves of a doctor. I rarely buy a book after I’ve checked it out of the library and read it – last night, I bought a copy of Sutter online just so that I could go back and read these scenes whenever I felt like it. 

Mary Sutter is an interesting character but not in any of the ways I expected – she can be quiet and withdrawn (how many authors make that gamble with their lead character and find a way to make it work?) but also relentlessly stubborn and bordering on the selfish. There are no sudden transformations here – the ugly duckling doesn’t turn into a swan. Mary is plain and awkward and knows her own mind – she stays that way throughout the book. 

But Mary's point of view is hardly the only perspective in the book - Oliveira also convincingly gets into the minds of a varied cast of characters - including Mary's mother, two male surgeons and even - I never thought this would work but it does - Abraham Lincoln. The result is a richer, deeper and more anguished view of the Civil War than would have been possible from just one character's perspective. 

As I mentioned, the book’s first two chapters are a bit slow as Oliveira takes her time introducing us to Mary Sutter’s family and her situation in Albany. She occasionally missteps with some overbearing visual metaphors – one shattered blue and white teacup that is meant to represent the sundered Union immediately comes to mind. I also felt that one of the key relationships between Mary and another lead character early in the book was not developed strongly enough. Mary makes several key decisions based on the results of this relationship and I felt that the reader should have been more emotionally involved in that relationship from the beginning. 

I’m guessing that Oliveira’s publishers had two choices – sell Sutter as the literary historical novel that it is, under its original title The Last Beautiful Day or pitch it to the primarily female, historical fiction crowd as My Name is Mary Sutter. My hope is that Sutter will find an audience far beyond the HF crowd and that many readers will give themselves the opportunity to enjoy this unflinching story of beauty, heartbreak and fear.

Booking Through Thursday

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When you travel, how many books do you bring with you?
Has this changed since the arrival of eBooks?

 I love this question! No one in my family is shocked to see me arrive with at least 4-5 books plus the one I'm currently reading to hold me for a week-long visit. I've even taken 4-5 books with me on vacation! Clearly, I know that I'll never get around to reading ALL of them but I just feel safer knowing that I'm traveling with my own personal mini-library. 

I guess this would make me an ideal candidate for eBooks but I have neither the money or the inclination to buy an eReader. I have a Kindle app on my iPod touch and that feels strange enough - it feels like I'm not reading a real book! 

So, I will just continue to bless Southwest and their Two Bags Fly Free policy - a policy that's often resulted in a frantic check-in counter shifting of books from one bag to another to avoid going over the 50 pound mark!

W.W.W. Wednesdays

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

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It's time for W.W.W. Wednesdays: 

* What are you currently reading? "My Name is Mary Sutter" - an awkwardly titled but fascinating book looking at a midwife in Civil War-era Washington, DC.
 

* What did you recently finish reading? I finished Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" last week and enjoyed making a detour into a time period I rarely read about - 1960s Mississippi.
 

* What do you think you’ll read next? I have truly ridiculous TBR stacks - I just bought Dennis Lehane's "The Given Day" and Mary Novik's "Conceit" - and can't wait to read them. But I also have Mary Pat Kelly's Irish immigrant novel "Galway Bay" on hold at that library and that will probably take precedence!

Teaser Tuesday

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!

- Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!


I'm reading "My Name is Mary Sutter" by Robin Oliveira - don't let the odd, slightly generic sounding title turn you off - this is an interesting book with an unusual lead heroine. As I've said before, I love reading books set in the past in places I've lived and this one features both Albany, New York and Washington, DC!

"The colonel was on horseback, patrolling the hill on which Fort Albany was rising, where three weeks before there had been only trees and scrub and wild hogs, In this endeavor there was pride and disappointment both, but shouting about construction was not leading troops into battle. Nor could he even call this motley band of brigands troops. Men only, dignity an elusive thing when professors and drunkards both had answered Lincoln's call." 

Mailbox Monday

Sunday, October 3, 2010

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Another Monday, Another Mailbox!! This is a feature where we all share with each other the yummy books that showed up at our doors! WARNING: Mailbox Mondays can lead to extreme envy and GINORMOUS wishlists!!

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page, but for the month of October MM is on tour and hosted by She Reads and Reads.  



I've discovered the secret of good work days - just have all your book purchases shipped to the office. There's nothing better than a package with a new book landing on your desk in the midst of other minor crises and projects!

From Amazon, I received:


A novel about 17th century England, centered around the life of Pegge Donne, daughter of famous poet and philosopher John Donne. Thanks to Reading the Past for a great review that made me immediately order this one!

Two must-have library holds came in this week:

How can I resist an historical novel set in Albany, New York and Washington, DC? I've lived in both places and love reading books set there.

The heartfelt tributes to Judith Merkle Riley by Reading the Past and Historical Boys pushed me to get this one. A novel about the life of an ordinary Medieval woman who has lived an extraordinary life:


And then - because I can't be happy with just picking up my book holds, I also found:

I really enjoyed Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman and I'm looking forward to this one -
I've read plenty of books about the courts of Edward IV and Richard III. This has a different perspective, from a silk trader.

I've already finished this one - heck out my review here - it's not my usual type of read but I tore through it and was glad for the experience.


I stopped in Borders because I had five dollars in Borders Bucks and found this on the bargain shelf - just a few days after my dad sent me email suggesting it! The clerk was really sweet and swiped a 40% coupon on top of the BB and I ended up not having to pay a thing for a hardcover first edition! I read 50 pages on the Metro coming back home and love Lehane's writing - his WWI-era Boston feels vibrant and the characters are instantly memorable.
Next week promises to be a strong one - I've won THREE different blog giveaways!

The Other Plantagenets

Saturday, October 2, 2010

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Between Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the War of the Roses, the other Plantagenet kings don't get much time or attention in historical fiction. I enjoyed this interview with Susan Higginbotham who has written well-received novels about Edward II and III. Time for another addition to the TBR pile!

Review: The Help

Friday, October 1, 2010

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An optimistic, uplifting debut novel set during the nascent civil rights movement in Jackson, Miss., where black women were trusted to raise white children but not to polish the household silver. Eugenia Skeeter Phelan is just home from college in 1962, and, anxious to become a writer, is advised to hone her chops by writing about what disturbs you. The budding social activist begins to collect the stories of the black women on whom the country club sets relies and mistrusts enlisting the help of Aibileen, a maid who's raised 17 children, and Aibileen's best friend Minny, who's found herself unemployed more than a few times after mouthing off to her white employers. The book Skeeter puts together based on their stories is scathing and shocking, bringing pride and hope to the black community, while giving Skeeter the courage to break down her personal boundaries and pursue her dreams.

I debated whether or not The Help qualified for a review here on HFN – after all, the events in the book only took place two decades before I was born and are all well within living memory. Truthfully, I was thinking of ways to avoid explaining why I suddenly would pick up and read a book that most people think received the Oprah seal of approval (it did not). 

I dread the cookie-cutter, self-satisfied Oprah’s Book Club picks – life is short, I have no need to spend my time reading about irredeemably bad men, hidden family secrets revealed at predictable points in the plot and “the triumph of the human spirit” in capital letters. 

The Help intrigued me because I’ve followed the debate about the points-of-view portrayed in the book. The story is told from the perspective of a young white woman and two black maids. Some said it was disrespectful for a white author to tell the story of black maids during the Civil Rights movement, others mentioned how thoroughly Kathryn Stockett was able to get into their heads and write from their perspective. I wanted to decide for myself. 

The Help immediately draws you in to the world of Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. You meet Abileen, the “quiet” maid who had raised 17 white children and Minny, the “mouthy” maid who has been fired by just about every family in Jackson. Skeeter Phelan, a white cotton farmer’s daughter with dreams of becoming a writer, completes the trio of perspectives. She secretly begins taking down the maids’ stories and turn them into a book that reveals the complexities of white-black relations in the south. 

The book rises past cliche and easy sentimentality (although the blurb would certainly lead you to believe it strays into that territory) because of the quality of Kathryn Stockett's writing. You can always tell when an author is writing from experience or research and it's clear here (and confirmed in an afterward) that Stockett has based the book on childhood memories. She uses love, compassion and an unerring sense of detail to recreate a small Southern town. I was always engaged by all three lead characters' voices - Stockett's skills characterizations makes them all equally interesting - not an easy feat in a multiple-perspective novel.

Once they are set in motion, the characters pretty much do what you expect they will do. I don't know that I learned anything new about black-white relations (the book can pretty much be summed up as "some people are bad, some people are good, some people don't make sense at first - but you should try to understand them"). I enjoyed the flawless depiction of life in the rural south during the Sixties but I was also fully aware that the book was only giving me a small cross-section of the white (country club set) and black (serving class) experience.  

I'm glad that I tried a different time period and challenged myself to read something more mainstream and commercial. I'm mystified by the manufactured controversy over a white woman writing from a black perspective - the moment we begin limiting writers to their own experience is the day we can bid goodbye to an original book or even an original thought. Appreciate good writing for what it is and instead hope that someday a mainstream novel about complicated human relationships doesn't have to bear the tagline "uplifting" to draw in so many readers!