Friday, September 30, 2011

S.O.S. The Help

Kathryn Stockett's first novel, The Help, has bloomed into a mega-hit regardless of criticism for its historical inaccuracies and racial insensitivity.  One blog in particular, "A Critical Review of the novel The Help," is just loaded with interesting critical commentary. Nonetheless, many readers seem to adore it for the dialogue and punchy characters inhabiting a story the author thought would never be published.  In fact, according to Stockett, the manuscript was rejected by 60 literary agents before hitting pay dirt in 2009.  Since that time, The Help has enjoyed a great run on the book club circuit, has been released as a major motion picture, and will now be discussed this Saturday by our book group, Saturday Samplers.

The reaction to this particular book is all in one's point of view, but let's start with the book cover. The British book cover shows two black domestics caring for a white toddler in the 1950's or 60's.  The U.S. book cover consists of a muted, pretty illustration of three tiny birds set against a golden background.  What does this suggest?  I don't know, but clearly you are meant to feel good about picking up this novel and going with the flow.  If you read the first edition, would you notice that Medgar Evers's death was inaccurately attributed to a bludgeoning rather than a gunshot?  In several interviews, one with Barnes and Noble on their Web site, the author repeats this error.  Subsequent editions were corrected, but here is a screenshot of the mistake.

Stockett states in a Daily Mail UK interview that the story came about from her memories of her own family's black maid, Demetrie.  Demetrie worked for the author's Mississippi family for 32 years, raising Kathryn and her siblings, and accompanying the family on vacations.  Still, Demetrie was never allowed to use the family toilet, tub or dinnerware, and it never occurred to a young Stockett that this was unusual.  

In an NPR interview with Michele Norris, Kathryn Stockett states about her book, "It's fiction, but some of the facts and the settings and the backdrops - sure, that was Southern life.  Having a separate bathroom for the black domestic was just the way things were done.  Certainly, in my grandmother's time and when I was growing up, yeah, Demetrie's bathroom was on the side of the house.  It was a separate door.  Still, to this day, I've never been in that room."  Regardless, Stockett expresses her love for Demetrie and says, "Demetrie was treated like a queen, in my mind growing up, I should say."  As I said, it's all in your perspective.    

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Elizabeth and Maeve

Elizabeth Cunningham, author of our September book, The Passion of Mary Magdalen, was "called" by her main character through the medium of magic markers. 

Yes, Cunningham possesses a delightful, fruitful, and fanciful imagination which she let wander one day after writing an earlier book.  She decided to pick up markers and start drawing.  What appeared on her sketchpad was a voluptuous naked woman whom she named Madge.

"Madge" had bright orange hair and an attitude.  It wasn't long before Cunningham decided Madge would make a great book character, perhaps a retired prostitute who moves to Maine to take up painting.  From there the idea morphed into a book about Mary  Magdalen, imagined as a flame-haired Celt named Maeve, prostitute, healer and true love of Jesus. 

Now that you are tantalized, read more about Elizabeth Cunningham, her series of Maeve books called "The Maeve Chronicles," and her interesting upbringing as an Episcopalian who became an interfaith minister and counselor. Check her Web site,, and, if you like, follow her on Twitter as EliznMaeve.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist whose first novel, Year of Wonders: a novel of the plague (2001), will be discussed this Saturday at our book meeting.  Brooks grew up outside of Sydney, Australia, and resides there today with her family.  She is a graduate of the University of Sydney and reported for a Sydney newspaper in the early part of her career. After attending a master's program at Columbia University, she also worked for The Wall Street Journal. Her writing demonstrates a wide-ranging interest in historical and cultural topics of an international scope.  Among her books are Nine Parts of Desire: the hidden world of Islamic women,  the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, as well as People of the Book, a fictional piece based on the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah.  The latest novel, Caleb's Crossing, has just been published to excellent reviews and concerns the interplay of cultures, Native American and English, during the American colonial period.  Please visit the author's Web site for more information.  You might also enjoy reading here The Guardian's July 14, 2001 review of Year of Wonders.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

An Immortal Hit in Narrative Nonfiction

Rebecca Skloot, author of our next discussion book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has a very comprehensive Web site on which you can explore her biography, news and articles concerning her science writing career and her award-winning book, and other interesting avenues of information.  Among the articles under the tab, About Rebecca, is an interview she did for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.  Here she discusses how she structured her complicated narrative of Henrietta Lack's story. Shown in the photo below are her colored cards for storyboarding this book.  Enjoy exploring the many interesting links on the site.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tom Rob Smith

London-born writer Tom Rob Smith just may be the go-to author for people who are ready to move on from Stieg Larsson's  Millenium series. Smith's first book, Child 44, bears all the hallmarks of a great crime thriller - enduring suspense, characters who grow with the well-plotted storyline, and a relevant setting of historical authenticity, in this case, post-Stalinist Russia. His subsequent novel, The Secret Speech, and an upcoming publication, Agent 6, carry forward the story of Leo Stepanovich Demidov, former member of the MGB, as he and his family adapt to his new position in the Soviet State security system.

At the heart of Child 44 is the mystery behind a seemingly inexplicable and horrible series of child murders occurring across a wide area of the Soviet Union.  A secretive, paranoid regime is unable to acknowledge that such crimes are possible, let alone that they may be connected.  Innocent victims face torture, character assassination,  gulags and misery, all so that the myth of a perfect political state might be perpetuated.  Meanwhile the vicious child slaughters continue unabated.  

One man, Leo Demidov, develops the conscience and courage to investigate these murders as crimes of a serial killer.  As the author notes on his Web site, "How a crime is investigated is a very useful litmus test for larger forces within a society, the priorities and prejudices of that world.  I guess with CHILD 44 I wanted to combine both those elements, the puzzle and the period in which this puzzle is unraveling." Although the novel's child murders are based on the true crimes of Ukrainian serial killer Andre Chikatilo, Tom Rob Smith fits them into his own web of cause and effect, and once again it is Leo Demidov who is at the center of it all.  

Smith shares that he was always a reader, loved adventure stories and took them in whatever form they came - mythology, history, science fiction, television, drama or film.  Perhaps the author's work as a storyliner for various British television shows following his graduation from Cambridge helped shape Child 44 into a story that would translate well cinematographically.  Apparently Ridley Scott, director of "Alien" and  "Blade Runner,"  thinks so too, as he has bought the rights to the book for a future film production.

~Evelyn Fischel~

Friday, March 4, 2011

Jill Ker Conway

Why reinvent the wheel?  Here is The Harvard Lamplighter's brief bio of our next author, Jill Ker Conway.

A slightly more extensive recap can be found on the PBS Web site.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

John Steinbeck: From Salinas to East of Eden

John Steinbeck 1902-1968
Steinbeck and wife Elaine, 1963

John Steinbeck may be regarded as a quintessential "American" author. His fiction focused on the common man - the Dust Bowl migrant, cannery worker, the  farmhand,  prostitute - the lowly of the American earth.  Nonetheless, he often cast his downtrodden characters in stories suffused with Biblical allegory or Arthurian references.  The stories of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, the banishment from the Garden of Eden, were explored repeatedly in his writings, particularly in our discussion book, East of Eden, published in 1952.

Like the Biblical Adam who was created from dust, Steinbeck's literary life seems to have sprung from the dust of his Salinas origins, the setting for East of Eden.  Born John Ernst Steinbeck III in 1902 to Olive and John Steinbeck in Salinas, California, the author spent his childhood, not entirely happily, in this transitional farming community in the Salinas Valley.  A somewhat lonely child who loved reading, Steinbeck left the valley to attend Stanford, but could never quite buckle down to graduate.  He worked odd jobs as a ranch hand, factory worker, and reporter to support himself while he wrote.

One of his first literary successes was Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, followed soon by Of Mice and Men in 1937 and The Grapes of Wrath in 1939.  Cannery Row was published in 1945 and The Pearl in 1947, although there were many other books and short stories written in the intervening years.  For his body of work, John Steinbeck received The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, ten years after the publication of East of Eden.  He married three times, his last marriage to Elaine Scott being a happy and sustaining one, and he had two sons by his second wife, Gwyn Conger, who was problematic in his life.  His sons suffered from their parents' divorce and were never as close to him as he would have liked.

It is for these two sons, Thom and John IV,  that Steinbeck wrote East of Eden.  In his journal he noted, "And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all - the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness.  I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable - how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born."  In this same journal, which he kept as he was writing East of Eden, we learn that he thought this book " the only book I have ever written.  I think there is only one book to a man."  This journal has since been published as John Steinbeck: Journal of a Novel.

Set in the Salinas of his upbringing, Steinbeck said that East of Eden was also an "autobiography" of this region.  His original title for the book was "Salinas Valley."  Additionally,  it is a history of his mother's family, the Hamiltons.  Steinbeck asserted that all the episodes in it about the Hamiltons were true.  I believe the Trask family, on the other hand, is a device to explore his stated subject of good and evil on a symbolic level and how it interplays with the Hamiltons on a personal level.  Steinbeck was sure that East of Eden would be his greatest work.
~ Evelyn Fischel~