Monday, May 23, 2011

Reading Report-unplugged week

The Help - Kathryn Stockett.  This one and the next have been so widely read and reviewed that I don't know if I have much to add.  It's good.  There were some things about the writing that were interesting to me, making me wish I knew someone I could ask about creating characters.  It seemed at times that they were place holders rather than separate, distinct characters-- as if Stockett had said to herself, OK, now Hilly needs a positive character trait, so I'll show her interacting with her children.  OK, I need an employer-maid pair that really love each other, so I'll put these two in.  But it's not enough to detract from the story, or to take away from the importance of what is said.

For all of us who lived in the South and are more than 40 years old, it brings back memories of things we don't necessarily want to remember.  How wrong it was, but how entirely entrenched it was, and how scary-impossible it felt to change anything.  In case you haven't heard about it, it's the story of a number of white and African American women in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s-- the black women work for the white women, and their relationships are complex and disturbing.  The women in the book are my mother's generation, but I was old enough to see.  We didn't have a maid--we weren't in a high enough income bracket for that--but we did have a series of black women that came in and cleaned for us once a week.  They never did childcare, though, so it was a little different, but maybe not much-- maybe not as much as I wish it was. 

I started the book with a sense of dread, that I would come to love these African American women and horrible things would happen to them.  I wouldn't be able to deny the truth of it or the reality of it, but I didn't want to read about it.  But Stockett did a really nice job of showing the reality of how bad it was without dragging her characters through graphic horrors.  Even though it would have been fair for her to do it.  I'm just glad she didn't.  And I should probably be a little bit ashamed about that. Entirely worth reading, if only to bear witness.

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen.   It's good.  It's worth reading, especially for the recreation of the world of the traveling circus a hundred years ago.  She did a lot of research, and it shows in many realistic details.  But now I will proceed to gripe about it.

**Spoiler Alert** I'm not giving away anything major but if you are one of the few people who haven't read this, and you like to approach a book with a completely clean slate, skip down to the paragraph that starts with "Savvy."**  Until I took a creative writing class last spring, I had never heard that prologues in novels were a bad thing.  I've read books that had them and I never really noticed them enough to think that they were good or bad, although sometimes I skimmed impatiently through them.  Since that class, I've read several discussions of this on writing blogs, and I sort of see their point.  It can be lazy writing, a way of doing "info-dump" without having to figure out how to fit it seamlessly into the main narrative of the story.

But still prologues didn't bother me as a reader.  Until this book.  This prologue bugged me, not because it was lazy writing, but because it was manipulative writing.  The prologue in this book is foreshadowing-- a description of a murder that will occur at the end of the book.  When you get to it the second time, it is retold in more detail.  In the prologue, Gruen leads you to believe character A committed the murder, when in fact it was character B.  The changed scene is not a huge surprise-- by halfway through the novel, I was thinking to myself, well, it shouldn't be A that kills him, it should be B.  So you sort of know.  But it just struck me as a really odd choice for an author.  Why would you want to purposely mislead your readers?  It felt manipulative and insincere to me, and left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  But I still think it's worth reading.  The recreation of a moment in American history is fascinating.

Savvy - Ingrid Law.  Even though my kids are too old to read kid books anymore, I still enjoy the good ones, and this is one of them.  First, what didn't work (borrowing from Lora).  The voice of the narrator, a 13-year-old girl named Mibs Beaumont, is really irritating.  I think it would have irritated me even when I was 12, but that was so long ago it's hard to say for sure.  She has a sing-songy way of speaking with internal rhymes and double words ("I felt a tad vulnerable being a jig shy of jaybird-naked in a suit that better suited someone older") that would feel more appropriate for a tall tale or a folktale than it does here.

Another part of the problem with the language is that Law makes up words for the plot that are a little cutesy.  In the Beaumont family, everyone develops some sort of special gift that displays itself for the first time on their 13th birthday.  Rocket can create sparks and electrical currents; Fish taps into the weather.  The gift is called a "savvy" and learning to control it is learning to "scumble."  So there are several conversations about scumbling your savvy that make you roll your eyes.  But I know that wouldn't have bothered me when I was 12, because think of all those science fiction books I read that had all kinds of made-up words for fancy science fiction stuff.  So I will just shut up about that.

But language aside, I loved this book. It opens on Mibs' 13th birthday, and the story of figuring out her "savvy" is the story of the book.  Her father has been in a very serious car accident and is in a coma in an ICU in another town.  She wants to get there to be with him and her mom (who is staying with him at the hospital), but also so she can help him with her new gift.  She hijacks a pink bus and gradually gathers a motley collection of friends old and new.  When her gift turns out to be something that she thinks isn't going to do him any good, she has to struggle with disappointment that she didn't get something spectacular like her brothers.

Law has many wise things to say about learning to value yourself when yourself isn't who you want to be.  She isn't subtle about it; the moral of the story practically hits you over the head at times.  But this is kid fiction, and subtlety is not necessary.  and it spoke to me as an almost-50-year-old who still has self-esteem issues at times--and if you're still working on it at this age, sometimes you need a 2x4.  This is a fun, lovely book, and better yet-- it comes with a sequel already in print.  and p.s. there is some not especially overt religious stuff in here-- the characters attend church, and the preacher's kids are two of the main characters--but it never becomes obnoxious.  I hope you know me well enough by now to know that that would be a deal breaker for me.

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