Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Help

I had to blog about this, because I loved it! The book was published in 2009, but is now gaining huge popularity. In fact, the movie is coming out in a few weeks. Kathryn Stockett wrote the book, and she based it off her childhood nurse and what she imagines her life was like. The author grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and she writes of the times. I want to briefly introduce the main characters, but I will leave their stories mostly out- you will have to read the book to find out the rest.

It is the 1960's, a time that is harsh on the black people, and the lines are drawn and the rules are written. The black people can't live on the same side of town as the white people, they can't shop at the same grocery store unless wearing their white uniform, they can't shop at the same bookstores or libraries...if any of these lines are crossed, violence breaks out. There was a black boy that was beaten badly for using a white bathroom, and he ended up blind. They white and black kids also went to different schools; because of Rosa Parks, they could both ride the same bus. The bus drives would take the white people closer to their destinations though. The book is full of harsh racism and prejudice, sad violence against the black people. One black boy is shot in the back by a white man, and the crime is just let go basically. During this time, Martin Luther gives his speech "I have a dream..." President Kennedy is also assassinated, and the people are more nervous.

Aibileen is a black maid, raising her seventeenth white child. She does her job well and quietly, and loves those children as if they are her own. She had a son that died while working at a factory, and didn't get the care he needed because the white hospital wouldn't treat him. She gets to know the white ladies of the town, when they come to play bridge or discuss their projects.

Minny is married with 5 children, and is also a black maid. She is feisty and can't hold her tongue, and has gone through many jobs. Her husband Leroy beats her often, but she stays with him. She gets a job with a newcomer to town, that leaves her speechless. She is unlike anyone she has worked for before.

Miss Skeeter is a white socialite who lives on a farm with her parents, having returned from college. She has not gotten married, and her mother constantly complains about her appearance. She is very tall, skinny, with big frizzy hair that won't be tamed. She has a big ambition to write or become a journalist, and comes in contact with a big editor in New York. She agrees to read some of her stuff; she also works part time at the Newspaper writing a column on housekeeping. Which is ironic, because she knows nothing about it. This is how she meets Aibileen and starts to ask her advice on her column.

Hilly is the head of The Starving Children in Africa program and her husband runs for office. They have 2 children, and she is very racist. Minny worked for her and her mother, but she blackmailed her and refused to pay her. Hilly is the big popular socialite, but one of the rudest to the black people. She starts asking everyone to build a separate bathroom for their maids, so their contagions won't be spread.

Miss Leefolt is another white socialite, and Aibileen works for her. She has 2 children, but pretty much ignores them and just worries about her gatherings and parties. They are not as well off as the others, but she pretends they are. She is not as racist, but turns her head the other way. She also has a bathroom built in the garage that her maid has to use, instead of the ones in the house.

Somehow Miss Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny get together and start working on a book together. They work on a tell-all book that describes each maid's experience, what it's like to be a black maid in the white homes of the South. The risks are big, especially as they hear about more violence spreading. They have to meet in secret and hide their work. Miss Skeeter had a nurse named Constantine, who suddenly disappeared while she was at college. As she strives to figure out what happened to her, she becomes so involved in writing the book that she loses all of her white friends. Read this book as you follow her passion of writing, of telling the truth, and whether or not it is successful. This book is wonderful as it breaks the barriers, and shows us what it was really like. I highly recommend this book if you haven't already read it. The black women are charming and entertaining to read, and Miss Skeeter is funny in all her awkwardness, but her ambition takes her far.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Abundance- A Novel of Marie Antoinette

This novel is about Marie Antoinette, who I am sure many of you have heard of. She was the daughter of the Empress of Austria, the 10th child, and sent to France to marry the Dauphin at the age of 14, to forge an alliance between France and Austria. She was married to the Dauphin Louis, and was much beloved by the people and the King, Louis's grandfather. New to Court and the ways of the French, Marie was much loved for her beauty, grace, wit and charm. She had the help of Count Mercy, a friend of her mother's, to help steer her in the ways of what she should do. She also corresponded regularly with her mother throughout her life, until her mother's passing.

It took almost 7 years before their marriage was consummated. Marie loved Louis, despite his shyness, awkwardness, and failure to be a man for so long. He loved to hunt, work with locks and different tools. They often hunted together when they were young, and enjoyed each other's company. He treated her with love and respect, and she was a good wife to him. Her vices were gambling and losing large sums of money, and befriending women and paying for their large debts and jewels. They had 5 children, 1 of whom was stillborn and 1 that died as a toddler from some kind of epileptic seizure. They later lost another child, and soon were only left with Marie Therese, their oldest, and their son the Dauphin, Louis Charles.

The author describes Marie as quite a charming young lady; blond, slight and skinny, beautiful, kind and good. She wasn't perfect obviously, because people started writing seditious pamphlets on her and twisting her activities and making her into some kind of harpy. Upon the King's passing, it seemed the country turned against their new sovereigns. King Louis and Queen Marie, often tried to help the poor the best they could. He was too weak a ruler, and she was too loft in her spending. There were a few riots early on over the price of flour for bread. It seemed the people blamed everything on their king and queen- the weather, price of food, and their jobs. They held quite a responsibility, scary at times. Queen Marie Antoinette loved to act in plays, gamble, dance and be with her friends. King Louis often went to bed early, and she stayed up late long after him.

She had an affair with a captain, Count Axel von Fersen. It seemed King Louis must have known of it, but did not care. He desired his wife to be happy. She had herself painted a few times, and had a life long friendship with the artist Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. The King's brother often started rumors and pamphlets on the Queen, and her image was tarnished. For once being so beloved, she was now known as quite the harpy and spender. Soon it seemed the country was in a deficit, and was out of money. They started to call Marie the Queen of Deficit. Soon King Louis had to create an Assembly of the Notables, but the aristocracy and nobles fought the change, and taxes. When this failed, The Estates General was convened, which hadn't happened in over 170 years. The three estates represented the general assembly of the nobility, clergy and the commoners. For each estate, a representative was chosen. 96% of the nation was the commoners, and they broke off and became known as the National Assembly. A man named Comte Mirabeau led the people to storm and destroy the Bastile, and soon the period known as The Terror began.

Soon the Revolution was in full force, and the King and Queen and their 2 children were forced to leave the palace of Versailles, to go to Paris. They were housed, virtually prisoners, while riots and deaths spread all around them. After many months, they make an attempt to escape at night. After a few days, they are caught and moved to another place, in an attic where they can be watched more closely. Fersen, the Queen's good friend, escapes to avoid punishment as well. He secretly works to free them, while they are imprisoned. They soon come to take the King, and he is tried for treason and then killed at the guillotine. He leaves a letter for his son, asking him not to seek revenge on his father's death. The scene is not quite as sad as it could have been, it seems the Queen and her children have lost all emotion by the time it happens.

They soon come for the Dauphin, and take him away. Marie fights against this, but has no say in the matter. A mob kills her good friend, and tries to wave her head outside their window. Marie refuses to see and hides her face. Some time passes, and they come for her. She has to leave her children behind, her daughter in the care of her aunt Elisabeth, and her son in the care of the vicious and mean men. After 9 months of imprisonment, Marie Antoinette is brought to the guillotine and killed. It is a bit anticlimactic, but if you start to feel as she must have felt, you can understand how she must have been ready for death. Her son later dies in prison from tuberculosis, and her daughter goes on to marry a cousin, and lives to the age of 73. The marriage was never consummated. The Queen's good friend, Axel, was later killed by a mob who believed he had poisoned the heir to the Swedish throne.

This was a time of great change, blood and death. Thousands were sent to the guillotine, and The Tower was widespread. Marie Antoinette was much misaligned and misunderstood, and many believed foul things of her. I liked this book because it followed the movie with Kirsten Dunst quite closely, and it seemed to show her character well, as I imagine it was. I would recommend this book if you are interested in this time period, and don't have a weak constitution.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

3 Books on Russia-China

I have been reading up a storm lately- I read 2 books by Kate Furnivall. The Russian Concubine and The Jewel of St. Petersburg. These aren't my typical books, but I was drawn to them when I saw them at Barnes & Noble. So I put them on hold at the library, and voila! The first book is actually The Jewel of St. Petersburg. but I read The Russian Concubine first. It follows Valentina, the mother, and her daughter Lydia in China. They live in The District where the Russians or white people live. They are very poor, and live on what Lydia steals, or Valentina makes at her piano concerts. Her father is gone, believed to be dead, and they carve out a life together. When the Reds took over Russia, and killed the aristocracy, her mother and father fled with her. He was taken, but her mother was saved along with her. She believes her father was killed by the Bolsheviks. It is Junchow, China and it is 1928.

Valentina drinks and smokes a lot, perhaps to forget the past. Lydia is often taking care of her mother and cleaning up after her. She meets a boy on the streets when getting lost after school, he saves her life from some Chinese bandits and thieves. His name is Chang an Lo. He starts to follow her and watch her, feeling that he needs to protect her always. She is different from anyone he has ever seen, with bright blond hair. The story gets quite complicated fast, as Lydia becomes more involved with Chang and angers the Snake Gang. She is almost caught stealing a few times, and is always caring for her mother. China is being ruled by England, and many are out there starving, thieving and murdering on a regular basis. It is a beautiful place, but so corrupt and full of despair. As Lydia grows to learn more about China, and Chang, she becomes involved in the Snake gang. They capture Chang and almost kill him, and she finds him on the docks in a hovel, almost dead.

Through the help of one of her mother's old friends Liev Popkov, they bring him back. He has been tortured and left for dead. During this time as well, her mother has married an English journalist and moved into a home. While they are away on honeymoon, Lydia works to care for Ching. She finds out he is a Communist, and this is the reason the Snake triad gang is coming after him. They also find out she is with him, and comes and kidnaps her. Her parents come home, and are frantic to find her. Chang an Lo searches everywhere he knows to find her, and eventually has to face the leader of them all to free her. She is tortured and almost drowned in a cage a few times, but is set free when Liev, Chang and her teacher come to rescue her.

Her stepfather and mother aren't happy about their relationship, but seem okay with it for a time. Chang decides he needs to leave China, because the gang will always be looking for him. The day he is leaving, Lydia is watching her mother with her professor driving down the neighborhood, and it is suddenly blown up. Her mother was dead. I was saddened by the book, and the hopelessness of China. I have heard it is a beautiful country, but it was such a hard time for people. The relationship between mother and daughter was also quite complicated, and you find out later that her father is still alive, but a slave. Lydia travels to find him, with her half brother Alexei. There the story ends. There is obviously some torture scenes and some sexual. Skip over them if you can.

The Jewel of St. Pertersburg is what I read next, and it was interesting to finally find out what Valentina, the mother, was like. In the other book, she seemed remote, distant and lazy. It follows her and her family in Russia, they are part of the aristocracy and quite wealthy. Her father serves the Tsar Nicholas II. In the beginning of the book, it follows Valentina as she escapes the house early one morning to ride her horse. She comes upon some dangerous men accidentally, and barely escapes with her life. Upon coming home, she finds their summer home ablaze. Her sister Kayla has been burned badly, and barely lives. During this sad period of time, while she tries to help care for her sister, her family goes back home to St. Petersburg. She tries to take her sister out with her as much as possible, but it is hard with her in a wheelchair. Her sister attempts to take her own life one night, but is saved by her sister.

Valentina is strong willed, and decides she wishes to drop out of school, she is 17, to focus on becoming a nurse. Her father says no, that she needs to marry a wealthy man. While he looks to finding her a man, Valentina goes to Court to play for the tsar and the Countess Serova. While there, she sees a man with brilliant red hair and is fascinated. She sees him another time, and is secretly in love with him. While at a ball, she is introduced to him. His name is Jen Friis, and they instantly connect. He tries to court her, but is thwarted by her father, who wants her to marry Captain Cherov, in the tsar's army. She extracts a promise from her father, that if he will let her become a nurse, she will court Captain Cherov. During this time, she continues to see Jen in secret. They fall in love and meet often. He is an engineer for the tsar, and works in the tunnels and canals.

While visiting him in his work one day, they are almost killed by a collapse and water filling up the tunnels. The Bolsheviks had tried to bomb the tsar's home, but instead hit the tunnel. Several attempts had been made at killing different aristocratic members. Russia was bound for rebellion, and soon Valentina and Jen are caught up in it. She finds out that her driver is one of them, and finds some bombs he is hiding. When he finds out, he escapes. His name is Arkin, and she searches for him to oust him to the Okrhana police. In the meantime, life goes on and she falls in love with Jen. She becomes pregnant, and finally her parents agree to let them marry. The rebellion is still in full swing, and Valentina works by day as a nurse, and by night she serves the poor and searches for Arkin.

The rebellion is coming about, because the working class people are angry at their work conditions, poor pay, and the tsarist rule. The aristocracy lives in supreme comfort and wealthy, while they slave away. Valentina does all she can to help those around her, but is the target now of Arkin. He captures her and her sister, and keeps them for a few days while blackmailing their father. He is bankrupt and can't afford their ransom. Finally they escape, and go home. Things die down enough, that they are married and move into their own home. Jen continues to work on his tunnels, while Valentina plays her piano and takes care of their daughter Lydia. Soon the uprising begins again, and many lives are claimed. Her father and mother are tried for treason, and Jen is captured and locked up for several months. She finally gets his release with the help of an old friend, Liev Popkov, and convinces Arkin, who is back again, to help her.

They escape through the tunnels, and onto a train outside the city. They are headed to China, when they are stopped by some Bolshevik soldiers. They take her husband away, but let her live along with her daughter, because she throws up some diamonds and gives them as payment. I was again saddened by such a sad time, even though love abounded, it didn't last long. I can understand why rebellions like that start, but the violence is so said and upsetting. I don't know if I recommend these books, unless you are into that period of time.

The Concubine's Daughter is written by Pai Kit Fai, set in the twentieth century in China where a woman's destiny is not her own. There is a farm landowner who has 3 wives, and his third wife gives birth to a daughter, Lia Xia (meaning beautiful one). When the husband leaves to bury the child since it is a girl, she jumps from the window and is killed by some pikes. The child is not quite dead when the husband notices a white fox, and in the Chinese traditions, it is believed if you see one, that the body of the baby will come back to haunt you if killed. He lets her live, and orders his 2 wives to take care of her. They resent her and treat her harshly. He decides to give her lotus feet, because she will be a great prize. Girls are sold at age 8, and get a higher price if they have tiny feet or soft butterfly hands. While they try to bind up her feet, she bites and fights them.

She already has a mind of her own, a strong one. Eventually she runs away a few times, and talks her father out of binding her feet. He agrees because he fears her wrath, or that of her undead mother's. For he saw another white fox, and decides to treat her well. She is sold at the age of 8, to a local silk farm. She meets the nice girls there, and works hard. As time passes, she is noticed, and is called to be a silk weaver. Then she is called to be the owner's concubine. She resists his charms and slaps him and tries to escape. They find her, and give her one more option- to accept the ivory hair comb. This is a life of no men, children, and just weaving for the rest of one's life. Lia Xia does not see it as a compliment, but tries to escape again. She is tied up, beaten, left to starve, and then is prepared to be drowned. It was frequent custom to kill those that have not behaved or obeyed.

Right when she was being drowned, an English captain sees her and dives in to save her. He takes her home with him, and has her taken care of. When she is able to walk again, she starts to work for him. As they get to know one another, they fall in love and marry. He treats her very well, and teachers her about the sea. He is very wealthy and respected. An old family feud comes back, one night while she is big pregnant, and she is abused and then burned. Still alive, barely, she gives birth prematurely to her daughter. She bids her servant Fish take care of her, and take her away, and then throws herself into the sea. Her husband finds her, and mourns the loss of her. He tries to find who did this, but they have disappeared. He searches for his daughter, to no avail.

Fish raises Su Sing (meaning Little Star) away from China. She grows up healthy and strong, and can read and write well. That is a legacy her mother had started, to be a scholar. Su Sing learns as much as she can, and prepares herself to return to China to her father at the age of 12. She is thwarted by the efforts of an angry boy, who was tutored before her. He is jealous of her and how they care for her. He kills her godmother Fish, and her tutor. He takes her to China, but sells her to a whorehouse. She escapes with her wits and charm, virginity intact, and moves to another entertaining house where she can make more money, without doing anything much. She meets a friend there, and together they run away before they are sold. Eventually she meets a man in the army, and he decides to help her find her father. He also helps them find good housing where it is safe.

Su Sing pays off her previous owners, so they won't come after her ever again. While they are living in the country, a big flood comes, and her friend is killed. They find some contacts that know where her father was, and she goes to meet with them. They believe him to be dead, and she finds him by chance. Mistress Bramble, her mother's old tutor, has her father's will and a deed to the old home. She moves in, while continuing to search for her father. She finds him, and they meet. He is blind and badly scarred from a shipping accident. They are together for a few days, before he dies. Su Sing moves back home, and approaches her father's old enemies, the ones who had killed her mother. She pays them and blackmails them into keeping away from her. There is much more to the story, but I'm afraid I've tired out my typing hands. This ending is happy, she marries her captain and they live happily ever after.

Reading all of these books made me sad, and grateful for the country I live in. I am grateful for the freedoms we have, and the comforts of life. It made me appreciative of what others have gone through, and to abhor war even more. If you are interested, these books were entertaining but as you can read, very disturbing at times and sad. These stories are told to show that there were powerful women who shaped their own destinies, despite immense odds and obstacles.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Movie Books

Marley & Me is a great movie, and an even better book. It follows a married couple through the challenges of life, with a horrible dog that ends up bringing them all together. They suffer a miscarriage before having their 3 beautiful children. The book is written in the 1st person from the dad's point of view, as he works his way from being a small column writer to a columnist. They eventually get a nice home, and then move again for a new job. Marley eventually gets sick, and they take him in to the vet. They decide to take him home to care for him, and he seems to rally and do better. He gets very sick again a while later, and they take him back in. The vet suggests they put him down, and they do. The Dad stays with him all night, and then they bury him in the family yard. I''m not much of a dog person, but the story was touching. Not like Beethoven, just crazy dog antics. It was about real life, love and growing.

"Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things-a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty."