Tag Archives: female authors

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Who?

  • Women
  • women who like a little depth to their chick-lit
  • people interesting in racial inequality in 1960s Mississippi

The Book:

Kathryn Stockett‘s debut novel called The Help is a rapid and easy read.  I spend a great deal of time delving in thick literature because it’s what I love,  but surely one enjoys a break for a soft and girly read every now and then.

The Help is about the lives of black maids in the 1960s Deep South. Stockett reveals the tension of love and hatred that the maids feel towards the families they work for.  Skeeter is a young white woman who grew up on a cotton plantation. After university gradation she returns to Jackson Mississippi, but has a hard time meeting traditional expectations for women of the time.  She  has a secret dream  to be a writer or a journalist in the editing business. Although she seems to have no real drive for her dream, she applies for random jobs in large cities. It’s a feeble attempt at escape.

A few events occur that highlight the huge injustices in her town between the “help” and the women they work for. In fact, Skeeter’s own  mother fired the family maid out of sheer racism. Skeeter feels convicted to act and enlists the help of two maids, Aibileen and Minny, to write a book from the point of view of the domestic help. Both  Minny and Aibileen have spent their entire adult life being maids for white families of Jackson Mississippi.

With great difficulty, and with the help of Aibileen and Minny, Skeeter is able to gather narratives and stories of the lives of The Help. They publish it anonymously to protect the women from losing their jobs or reputations among the white families in Jackson. The book is popular, and creates a stir in Jackson and all over the country.  The voice of the maids is heard.

I enjoyed this book. I felt like the plot was thoughtful. I was emotionally involved in the lives of the maids and their sufferings through the injustices.  What a hard existence.

However, I didn’t LOVE this book. The characters were slightly flat. Skeeter, in particular, was not believable.  I didn’t feel like she was compassionate towards the maids.  It was more of a decision of the mind, rather than the heart.

There was also something a touch “draggy” about it. I  finished it, but the last 2/3rds felt forced.

The Help was published in 2009, and they have already made it into a movie. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it’s good. Check out the trailer. It made me tear up a bit, because I’m a bit of a sap.

Cheers!

Books I DID NOT Love

The Reject Pile:

I haven’t had a dry spell like this is a while. This past month I’ve finished so little of the books I picked up it was almost frightening.   True to the name of my blog, these should not be read past page ten.

My opinion may matter if you are looking to pick any of these books up:

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness –

I read the first chapter in this book. To be honest, I didn’t have great expectations,and was looking for a quick easy read.  It had been recommended to me by my dear friend, The Globe Book Reviews, which often leads me to compelling and, sometimes, overlooked novels. The premise of this novel is witches that live among us…. so perhaps a Harry Potter for women?  The dialogue was forced and clichéd, and you’re just thrown into a story that seems unoriginal.   Boring!  Also, I flipped to a further chapter and there seems to be a vampire love interest… hmmm. Anyways not worth my time.

Say Her Name – Francisco Goldman

In this heartbreaking, true story, the reader is plunged into the depths of despair, as the author, Goldman, mourns the loss of his young wife, Aura. I’ve been a little melancholic of late, and so, perhaps this book came to me at a bad time. However!  The writing is touching and comes from the heart. This man loved his wife and that is admirable and divine. I just felt like it was too sad. Or, the first seven chapters dwelt too much on the loss in his life, which he no doubt feels, and not enough on the life that they shared, not enough celebration . Goldman! I can’t imagine your pain. You  must be miserable. But the book was too sad for me, sorry. Also, there is a strange sort of underlying current to the book that I didn’t like. Goldman was trying to save face, trying to prove to his mother-in-law that Aura loved him, and that it wasn’t his fault she died.  Kind of a weird premise for writing a story.

The Forgotten Waltz- Anne Enright

When I read in the Globe and Mail, that Anne Enright had published a new book,  I was very excited. I LOVED The Gathering, a book that won her the Booker Prize in 2007. Her new book, The Forgotten Waltz, is more lucid and plot driven. What I liked about The Gathering is that it felt like a woman’s thoughts coming out as a confession. Sometimes unclear, sometimes unformed. It was also full of very beautiful insight, little phrases stuck out and embedded themselves in my heart. The Forgotten Waltz is about a woman who has an affair with an acquaintance. There is no glorification, or romanticizing of the relationship, it is seen for what it is: physically driven and not really very meaningful. I was mad at the main character because she seemed to give up a nice relationship, with a kind man, for some asshole that only wanted promiscuous sex. The plot and the character bothered me, but more importantly, the prose contained only a portion of the poetry I had come to love from her. Over all, a tad bit disappointing.

There you have it folks-  three books I am returning to the library today, unfinished!

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

People  interested?

Back Cover photo
  • Miriam Toews fans
  • Me – because I met her last week (details below)
  • women who like wry humour
  • those desiring honest and engaging prose

The Book:

Irma Voth, by Miriam Toews is a coming of age story of an eighteen-year -old, old-order Mennonite living in Mexico. Irma’s spirit is restless and she falls in love and marries the Mexican, Jorge.  Consequently she is shunned by her family and community.  Her husband soon tires of her and abandons her. Having lost her family, and now her husband, she is very alone.

In a random, but oh-so-true, twist of plot, a Mexican director shows up to shoot a movie about the Mennonite community. Irma, alone and unhindered by the conventions of her religion, volunteers as a translator for them. Irma is empowered by working with the director and his crew. Without spoiling the plot, I can say that she and her sisters (one of them newborn) end up running away and learning to survive in the big wide non-Mennonite world. As expected, it ends with personal growth from characters and hope for the future.

Why?

I love Miriam Toews. I think she’s my hero. I read about this new book in the Globe Reviews section last month.

There is a startling quality to Toews’ work, like hearing a dear friend recount a story that is breaking your heart and giving you hope at the same time. A narrative voice that is miraculous and rare.  

Toews is subtly hilarious (I don’t LOL often while reading, but she does it for me!).  The stories are also simple, realistic and the plot is never “neat.”  However,  I would be lying if I thought that Irma Voth was brimming with new themes and unique characters. I felt like I knew the story even before I started it. But honestly, in a way, I appreciate that too.

I’ve been hitting up some of the literary scene in Hamilton. Last Tuesday night I went to a Random House-sponsored reading with Toews.  Wine and cheese + one of my favourite authors = great evening. Toews has an endearing sincerity and soft shyness. During question time,  I asked her why her characters always leave. She confessed to an entire room of strangers that she felt that escaping and running away from a Mennonite community was formative to her artistry. She joked that she hasn’t stopped “leaving” yet.

Her stories are places where life can change, where someone can feel the connection of the author on the other side of the page.  Toews’ novels have a voice that feels caring and alive. Like a soul speaking to another.

The plot for the book was inspired by a Carlos Reygadas film called Silent Light. I watched this a few months ago and it is  beautifully haunting.  Miriam Toews played a major character in the film.  The film Silent Light, and the book Irma Voth are definitely entwined, sharing themes (and sharing Toews). If you enjoy “artsy” films about interesting places,the Hamilton Library‘s got it!.

Silent Light

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

Interested In?

  • depression in literature
  • historical fiction (Brit-Lit)
  • playful characters

The Book:

The book shoves the reader into the lives of  two main characters, Sir Winston Churchill and Esther Hammerhans.  It’s a book with chilling insight into depression, something which Churchill was dogged by his whole life.  At a pivotal moment in the novel, when Esther meets Sir Winston, Churchill ponders:

But something about Esther disturbed him. Hello, what’s this? There was a quality to her…Yes, a strange energy about her, a dying star in the sky of her face.

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt, is a novel giving face to the illness that plagued the historical character of Sir Winston, and the fictional character of Esther Hammerhans.  The protagonist is depression, or as Churchill was known to call it, his “black-dog”.  Black Pat is an ugly character, who intrudes on both Sir Winston and Esther.  Black Pat follows them around and whispers dark, untrue things about them, or slobbers on their clothes, or sheds on their beds. Black Pat ruins their concentration, drinks their alcohol and becomes an itch they can’t scratch.

Set the days prior to Sir Winston Churchill’s retirement from politics, Sir Winston feels the presence of Black Pat almost constantly. He mourns the loss of his career and his busy-ness. He is sorrowed by the quietening of old age. At the end of his career (he’s 89!) rather than reflect on his mistakes and achievements, we find him reflecting on the effect that mental illness had on his life.  In one of the most beautiful lines of the book, Winston says to Black Pat:

You are a dark star in the constellation which forms me. And to fight against you is to try and fight the stars in the eternal firmament.

Churchill has known the darkness of Black Pat his entire life and he suffers for it.  His character’s resolution seems no more than resignation, until Churchill meets Esther.

Esther Hammerhans is mourning the two -year loss of her husband. She feels alone until Black Pat knocks on her door. Black Pat, a man-sized dog, his talk fills up her empty emotional life with both disgust and pity at the same time. She allows him to board with her because she feels so alone. The book is playful with this relationship, and the reader is struck by absurdity of a grown women renting out a room to a talking dog. As Esther learns who Black Pat represents in her life, she also learns truths about her husband and his death that are essential to finally letting him go.

The climax of the novel is the meeting between these two fated individuals. Esther’s boss at the House of Common’s Library nominates her to type out Churchill’s retirement speech. As mentioned in my first quote, Sir Winston recognizes Esther is suffering in the presence of Black Pat.  Churchill urges her to push him away and be stronger. At the end of the novel, the reader cheers with Esther as she overcomes her bout of depression.

Worthwhile?

I found this book a clever and insightful illustration of depression. I would recommend it to anyone.

The issues of depression and myself cannot be isolated. And so I speak from experience when I say that this book was fairly realistic. Most significantly this novel, made me ponder a great deal about depression in history. Specifically the developments of modern psychiatry and medicine. I felt the most for Sir Winston, and for his dysthymia. It haunted him. I was impressed with his ability to survive.

Hunt also makes some very clear distinctions between Esther, who was suffering from a depressive episode, and Sir Winston, who had chronic depression. Esther was able to combat her depression with some changes, Churchill however had to come to terms with his illness and to live with it.

Hunt’s character development is brilliant.  Black Pat is deplorable and disgusting, pathetic and alive.

Overall a refreshing read, and very impressive for a first novel. Although it dealt with a deep issue, the reader did not feel plagued by pages upon pages of introspection and remorse. The novel is only 211 pages, and I assure you they pass quickly. For anyone interested, at the bottom of Penguin UK’s write up about this book is a brief interview with the author.

Cheers!

Elijah catching snow flakes

Sheilagh’s Brush by Maura Hanrahan

For Readers interested in:

  • historical depictions of early Canadian life, specifically Newfoundland.
  • women’s issues (control over their own bodies, midwifery,etc.)

Sheilagh's BrushThe Book:

Sheilagh’s Brush by Maura Hanrahan was a rapid and memorable read, full of depth and perception.  Thankfully, I happened upon this book on the library shelf. It is set in coastal Newfoundland, where life in the 20s and 30s was grueling and unrewarding. Sheilagh is the main character, a young woman belonging to a tight community called Rennie’s Bay. At the very beginning of the novel, Sheilagh has nearly died in childbirth. Hanrahan pulls us into the harsh realities of life on the coast with the first sentence:

“The nurse is certain this baby will not live.”

Sheilagh has delivered her daughter named Leah and is attended by the district nurse, the local midwife, her mother, and her sister Claire. Leah is premature and she spends the first weeks of her life inside a “just-warm” oven, coming out only for feedings. Leah does live, despite the nurse’s concerns.

Life continues for Sheilagh, as she spends her time caring for the needs of her family, or putting up food for the long winters. The depictions are not a simplified, agrarian idealism. This is a book depicting the gritty realism of eating nothing but fish and cabbage day in and day out.  People die regularly of common diseases,  and one looks forward to small things like the Christmas dance all year, because it is the only time to have fun.   The community must rely on each other to survive, for good or ill.

What keeps Sheilagh’s spirit alive and joyful is the love she feels for her daughter Leah. Sheilagh loves her husband Peter, but they often disagree or are disconnected from each other’s realities. She does not wish to go through childbirth again although her husband tells her he would like a son. Sheilagh secretly rejects the authority of her husband over her own body by using birth control.

Claire, Sheilagh’s sister, feels called to greater things than the sustenance scraping of Rennie’s Bay. She tosses aside the love of a handsome young man of her community. Claire gathers her courage and leaves Rennie’s Bay, rejecting the hold of the community.

Through both of these narratives, the reader is also given glimpses of the local midwife and her role of healing in the community. With the same objectivity, we are privy to the thoughts of the district nurse and her sorrow in tending to the physically horrid lives of the people in these remote communities.  The nurse was often broken by people’s readiness to use superstition and prayers, rather then simple medical procedures. One woman dying at fifty,  felt that she had lived a long and good life.

The Point:

This was a powerful book. It is short and wonderful addition to Canadian Literature. I continuously thought of The Birth House, by Ami McKay (click here for my review), because it is a similar setting in time and place. But, all the complaints I had with The Birth House are redeemed in this book. Sheilagh’s Brush covers the same issues realistically, rather than idealistically. Hanrahan reveals the story with elegance, without pushing her own agenda.

The characters were vivid and historically faithful. The novel captured the complexity of a cast of characters that I appreciate so much in a novel.  We feel for Sheilagh’s desire to not have children, but we also feel sorry for Peter, who just wants a son to work with him someday.

The most compelling and intelligent part of the novel, was Hanrahan’s theme of traditional medicine vs modern medicine. In The Birth House, it was very clear readers were meant to feel that modern medicine was the enemy, and had taken away the respectful and traditional ways of women. That view is entirely too simplistic.

Sheilagh’s Brush shows both sides.  The reader sees the midwife’s lifesaving care through keeping premature Leah in a make-shift incubator. But we also see the bizarre superstitions that cause harm, such as putting an axe under the birthing bed to take away pain (rather than giving pain medication in a hard labour). The midwife  insisted on weaning all babies at nine months lest the mother should poison their babies through their milk.  The nurse knows these things are only superstious traditions, and still tries to work within them to bring relief to people.

If you liked The Birth House, and it’s themes, please read this one. It is not lighthearted, but it is stunning and realistic.

ALSO: Go ahead and read my review of The Birth House.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

For Readers interested in:

  • Gender issues
  • Relationships between parents and children
  • Unique coming of age books

The Book:

I finished this one up in a flash! Kathleen Winter has created such an easy and beautiful read, with a heartfelt plot and memorable characters. This book is about a little person born in the late 1960s to a mother and father in Labrador. The birth of this child is a happy occasion, but filled with secrets. This beautiful and perfect child was born ( as is 1-2% of the general population) with gender ambiguity. Treadwater and Jacinta decide to call the baby Wayne, and to bring the child up a male. His vagina is surgically closed, as is this side of his identity.

As Wayne grows, he find himself caught between his mother who is comfortable with his duo expression of sexuality and his father who is not. Wayne’s parents love him very much, but they are unable to help him with his gender confusion, especially as he grows older and has to take hormones to turn his body into a man. Wayne doesn’t fit in with the other boys while growing up.

Wayne learns the truth about his gender in high school. He has to have an emergency operation to clear out menstrual blood from his closed vagina. Wayne feels alone and confused. He leaves Labrador for the mainland and finds a job in St. John’s. Wayne tells his family that he wants to stop the hormone therapy, and let his nature take over, for better or for worse. This frightens him and his father, but it is something Wayne feels he must do.

Wayne starts to become more feminine. An acquaintance notices, and sexually assaults Wayne. He becomes frightened and alone. His father, hears the news of his rape and leaves Labrador for the first time to come and support his son. Treadwater realizes that although he is unhappy that Wayne has stopped his hormones, the love he feels for the person, Wayne, is strong. His father’s love remains constant despite Wayne’s own identity inconstancy.

This book was a good one. I read it quickly, and had a hard time putting it down. I thought Wayne was a beautiful and gentle person. Someone I would love to be friends with. The characters were well-developed and involving.

Kathleen Winter’s strength is in her soft and supple narrative. Winter is also clever, there was often quite a bit of ambiguity in the language used to describe the Labrador landscape. Using intersexuality as a metaphor for her homeland – a between place that can’t be defined clearly. The plot is not for everyone, but I was drawn to it. It is intriguing to contemplate issues of gender. I finished the novel deeply sympathetic for Wayne. I felt like the 2% or so of the population that are born intersex are not treated with respect in our culture.

A book for everyone? Not really. It deals with sensitive gender issues that might make some people feel uncomfortable. But I found it fascinating and reminds me of two other novels I’ve enjoyed with intersexuality themes. One: Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides which uses the theme of intersexuality to explore the plight of American immigrants; and two: The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaege. Thinking about Vanderhaege has made me excited. I think I am going to reread The Last Crossing and review it soon!

Also, I found a great blog for people interested in Atlantic Canadian fiction. Here is a review of Annabel from Salty Ink. It’s a blog that promotes literature set in Eastern Canada.

There are two other books I’ve reviewed set on the East Coast (Cape Breton and Newfoundland):

  1. The Birth House by Ami McKay
  2. February by Lisa Moore. (click on the titles to read them).

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy

Who?

  • Short story lovers.
  • Those who like current American literature

The Book:

I was interested in the hype around this book, and Maile Meloy is an awesome handle ( I often have a quirky reason for being interested in a book). This book was also on a few recommendation lists (here, and here). Both Ways is the Only Way I Like It may be an awkward name, but it’s not an awkward read. This collection of short stories feels very American. (I’ll explain later) I generally focus my attention on Canadian literature, mainly because I enjoy it more and there is usually less online about them. While reading this book, I felt like I was peeking into a different culture in a way I wouldn’t have expected. The stories are all set somewhere in Middle America.

The stories centre on the theme of parents and children. Or, more broadly, being responsible or irresponsible. My favorite story was the first one, about a crippled polio cowboy who is in love with a woman from a random encounter. I also enjoyed the story about a man whose wealthy grandmother shows up on his doorstep after being dead for a month. The characters were decent, and the plots concrete.

I didn’t love the book, and I didn’t hate it either. What I couldn’t really figure out was why it was listed as a best seller for so long. What made it so popular? Her name? The Americans’ great love of short stories?

Meloy’s narrative was too similar for each character. The only truly memorable ones were the two I mentioned (in my humble opinion). It felt like I was reading 11 different life plots for the same character.

But certainly, the themes of the short stories held my attention, and as the title suggests, show the incongruent feelings that lie beneath us: how we want to be the child and the parent. We want to inherit money from people we don’t like, but we don’t want to pretend we like them. We want to have wild, surprising sex, but we don’t want to hurt our spouses and have an affair. We want to be protected, but also independent. Meloy did well to show this commonality. I don’t know, it might just be an American thing – like the unabashed love of processed cheese ( just kiddin’).

Cheers!


Like this?

You might also like my other articles…

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud
Generation A by Douglas Coupland
Unless by Carol Shields