Race Relations Could Use “Help”

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The other day I turned on my television and saw that the movie The Help was on. Abandoning my chores and plans for the morning, I sat down and sank into this compelling drama about race in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s.

The movie is based upon Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel of the same name, and it chronicles a young white female journalist’s attempt to tell the story of race relations from the perspective of the town’s black maids. Some reviewers criticized the conceit of yet another white character being the “savior” of blacks. Those critics missed the point of The Help.

During the course of interviewing the black character Aibileen, the journalist, nicknamed Skeeter, comes to see the plight of the people who serve her and the other whites in town through one black woman’s eyes. Herself a misfit in a world of strictly proscribed roles for women of any color, Skeeter is first horrified, then determined, not only to tell the story of  the black maids around her, but also to find out the truth about her beloved Constantine, the black nanny who had raised her.

As I watched the story unfold, the many indignities suffered by blacks in the film – separate bathroom facilities, seats on the back of the bus, condescension and threats from their white employers – I had the sense that in many ways we’ve come so far, but in other ways we have a long way to go. In particular, I was struck by how frightened the black characters are about reprisals from whites for standing up for themselves. The entire book Skeeter writes is done under cover of darkness and published anonymously against a backdrop of civil unrest and the murder of black activists. Today this fear plays out in African-American neighborhoods, where young black males are afraid to get on the bad side of a white police officer.

The message of The Help is that the only way to improve race relations is for blacks and whites to know each other, to see each other as fully human and filled with inalienable dignity. The friendship that develops between Skeeter and Aibileen, as well as Aibileen’s sassy friend Minny, is one born of hours sharing food, tea, and stories in Abilene’s kitchen.

Ignorance breeds fear; knowledge brings understanding. Let’s try harder to see things from the other side of the racial divide to bring hope and healing to race relations in America.

 

Penny for Your Thoughts

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The line outside Pfeiffer Hall in downtown Naperville, Illinois, wound around the block. Those queued up, my sister and I among them, excitedly chatted as the line inched forward. What were we all so eagerly standing in line for? A concert? A great sale? A glimpse of an A-list celebrity?

We were all there to see and hear a rock star of the crime novel world: Louise Penny. Penny was making an appearance to launch A Great Reckoning, her latest in a series of best-selling books about Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, and the tiny Canadian hamlet of Three Pines, a fictional town that readers around the world wish they could move to.

A few years ago, another of my sisters had introduced me to the charm of that world by recommending Penny’s first novel Still Life. Like many readers, I was hooked by the other-worldly setting and the carefully drawn characters that inhabited that world. I consumed the subsequent novels in relatively quick succession and now find myself in the position of eagerly awaiting each new book.

To call Louise Penny a mystery writer is to minimize the literary quality of her books. For me, the murder and its solution are almost beside the point. What Penny is really portraying are the secrets of the human heart. All of her novels are about human emotions gone wrong, about integrity and courage, about love and steadfastness in a world gone bad. The characters are not just a bunch of eccentric villagers but well-drawn individuals with their own flaws, yearnings, hopes, and fears.

Last night, the author explained that each book hinges on a few lines of poetry that form the core theme of the work. She talked about the difficulty of becoming a writer and described a bit about her process, all of which I find fascinating as a would-be novelist myself. In person, Penny is as intelligent, funny, charming, and real as I would expect her to be based upon the strong narrative voice in her novels.

Upon returning home from the book launch, my sister and I sat on the couch with a glass of wine and talked about all of Penny’s 11 previous novels, trying to remember which one involved which complex story. We checked out websites to refresh our memories and found that Louise Penny has inspired a Harry Potter-like passion on the part of her avid (if slightly older) fans.

As fall approaches, I can think of nothing cozier than curling up in front of the fire with a strong cup of café au lait or glass of wine and diving into the world of Three Pines and the humble genius of Louise Penny.

Move Over, Gone Girl

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There’s a new girl in town. The Girl on the Train is a riveting new thriller by first time novelist Paula Hawkins.

With alternating points of view, plenty of twists and turns, and the sense that things are not quite what they seem, this Girl bears some resemblance to the blockbuster best seller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

The story centers on a lonely woman who peers into the life of a young couple she sees from the train she takes each day to and from her home on the outskirts of London.

Is her interest in these strangers just a way to pass the time, or is it an obsession that will lead to harm?

Reminiscent of a Hitchcock thriller, The Girl on the Train takes the reader into the lives of seemingly ordinary people and asks:

How well do you really know someone?

Be forewarned. Once you pick up this novel, you won’t be able to put it down.

Those Ubiquitous Book Lists

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The internet is filled with lists: top 10 places to retire, 15 life hacks you will love, the 12 worst fashions making a comeback etc. I find these lists kind of interesting, but the ones that bother me a bit are the ones related to books.

Recently on my Facebook news feed, I have seen such lists as 23 Books You Didn’t Read in High School but Actually Should, 32 Books That Will Actually Change your Life, and the 18 Greatest Books Ever Written (or something to that effect). My reaction to all these lists was, Really? On whose say so?Purporting to know the greatest or most life-changing books strikes me as a bit on the arrogant side. Some of the choices seem so arbitrary.

Aside from the fact that people have their distinct preferences and tastes in types of literature, is there a way to determine which books throughout history are the best? When I was teaching at an elite girls’ school in Los Angeles, we in the English department would have disagreements about what works to include in our curriculum. One of the teachers asserted that there are certain “chestnuts” of literature that all students should be required to read. I disagree.

Often this attitude is used to justify a canon of literature that includes only “dead white guys,” so to speak. In the 80s in particular, so-called reformers like Bill Bennett took aim at more inclusive reading lists that featured writers of different colors and ethnicities. They revealed a clear bias in favor of a Eurocentric, Western approach to studying literature. I’m not saying that works like The Scarlet Letter or Plato’s Republic are unimportant. I just think there are so many different works that are rich in meaning and language that it is wrong to narrow our lists into those “chestnuts.”

So how do you judge a book? Not by its cover, certainly. As an example, a best-selling author named Kristin Hannah publishes novels with romantic-looking covers that make the books seem like light fluff, a beach read, if you will. Yet Hannah tackles serious issues, such as an injured pilot returning from Iraq, and detailed historical accounts of such events as the siege of Leningrad. Her books are deep, well-written, and anything but fluff.

I do think there are literary standards one can use to decide whether a book is good. (Hint: Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t meet these standards.) But a book’s greatness can only really be judged by time. A good example is To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s only novel (though as I write this, news has come out that a second novel is to be published after all these years). Generations have loved this deceptively simple tale of a young girl growing up in the South and experiencing the narrow-mindedness and prejudice, along with the moral courage and kindness, that can exist in a small American town.

Still, if TKAM doesn’t float your boat, that doesn’t mean you are a literary heathen. There are numerous “classics” that I, a former English teacher, have no intention of reading. I find Herman Melville’s writing to be hopelessly dull and James Joyce’s to be impenetrable. I don’t think this makes me a philistine.

I guess there’s no harm in this never-ending parade of book lists. At least we’ve got people who spend a lot of time on the internet talking about books – and, I hope, powering down the devices and picking up one of them.

Was Blind, But Now I See

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In keeping with my theme this week of reviewing memoirs by friends of mine, I would like to mention another great read for your Labor Day weekend – Long Time, No See by Beth Finke.

Beth Finke and I were intrepid reporters and editors for our high school newspaper, the York-Hi. I fondly remember Sunday pasteup nights in a bygone era when we had to put together each page of the newspaper manually (a lost art in this digital age).

I learned early on that Beth had Type 1, or juvenile, diabetes, and that she took it in her stride as a teenager. It wasn’t until our ten-year high school reunion that I realized the terrible toll diabetes can take on an individual. In the class memory book, we were each invited to give an update on our lives. In Beth’s, I read, “I am busy learning to be a blind mother.” Although I knew blindness could be a side effect of diabetes, I was stunned to realize that my former classmate could no longer see.

Years later, I reconnected with Beth and discovered that she had continued to write and that she had penned both a children’s book about her disability entitled Hanni and Beth: Safe and Sound and a memoir with the cleverly named title Long Time, No See. Reading the book gave me a new window onto the world of my former classmate and, more importantly, into what was lost and gained by her blindness.

With humor and honesty, Beth chronicles the many hurdles she faced growing up with a life-threatening disease. She clearly illustrates the strength of her indomitable mother Flo as well as her own ups and downs coming to terms with her illness and her eventual succumbing to blindness. Beth’s adult life has been marked by job discrimination, infidelity, and caring for a severely disabled child. It has also been marked by love, determination, and the support of family and good friends, as well as her husband Mike.

I loved Long Time, No See, and I appreciate Beth’s willingness to share her story. It certainly opened my eyes about many things in life. I highly recommend that you give it a look.

For more information, go to bethfinke.com.

Good American Wives

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Susan Blumbeg Kason is an accomplished writer. She is also a friend of mine. Besides living in the same town, we both have Chinese children. Mine was adopted, but Susan’s was the product of her marriage to a Chinese national, a marriage that is at the center of her recently published memoir Good Chinese Wife

Good Chinese Wife is a clear-eyed portrait of a marriage gone wrong. In her memoir, Susan describes the infatuation with China and Chinese culture, as well as the youth and naiveté, that propelled her into a relationship with a man she hardly knew. The memoir has all the ingredients of a good book: a riveting, page-turner of a plot, well-drawn characters (a difficult feat when said characters are real people), and an unflinching honesty that shows her desperate attempts to make her marriage work as well as the bravery she exhibits in protecting her young son. The book premiered to critical acclaim, and as a writer myself who is currently working on a memoir, I can only hope I have the skills and especially the courage to look at myself and my life with such candor.

Another great memoir that details the unraveling of a marriage is a book by another friend, Margaret Overton. Margaret and I were high school classmates back in the never-you-mind!s. Her memoir Good In a Crisis has also received rave reviews since it was published in 2012. In it, Margaret describes the disintegration of her marriage, her near-death experience due to a brain aneurysm, and her life after divorce. Despite the fact that Margaret is tall, blond and drop dead gorgeous, she endures the most horrific dating experiences and subsequent down periods in her life. Although the book is at times laugh out loud funny, it is Margaret’s complete honesty that gives the book its meaning and authenticity. I am in awe of her talent and heart.

I highly recommend both Good In a Crisis and Good Chinese Wife to anyone looking for an honest, devastating,  but ultimately uplifting story of a woman in crisis.