Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

From Goodreads:

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger.
Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed. 

The Help, like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society before it, got a lot of buzz that for some reason had me assured that I would not care for it. I am so weird that way, but I just think they are never going to live up to the hype. And then I'm all surprised when they do.

My sister got it for my mom for Mother's Day and I was at their house and needed a book to read while nursing and it was just THERE so..I read the first chapter. And I totally stole it so I could finish it.

There was so much in this book that could have gone wrong, like the changing narrators or the southern accents (they can be so hard to read when written phonetically), but none of that tripped me up. I love that it was about race relations during a particularly volatile time in America's history but was also about women and the relationships we have with one another. It was both funny and heartbreaking. And generally really impressive for a debut novel.

I want the three narrators to be my neighbors and we'll be the type of friends who always leave their back doors unlocked in case there is gossip or cooking to be shared and I will gain 50 pounds because they deep fry everything. I just loved them.

I think my favorite part was when two white women are "worried about" another friend whom they believe is mixed up in the civil rights movement. "The racists," they whisper fearfully, "They're out there!" But one of those women is probably the most racist character in the book. I thought that small scene summed up so much in such a small interaction and Stockett does really well with those kinds of details.

 Just a generally awesome book.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

From Wikipedia:

Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador's garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech. The play is a sharp lampoon of the rigid British class system of the day and a comment on women's independence, packaged as a romantic comedy.

Who DOESN'T love this story?? It's been a long time since I've seen My Fair Lady but now I'm itching to rent it.

Pygmalion is just a fantastic play. There's a quote on the back cover of the copy I got from the library that really sums it up for me:

[George Bernard Shaw is] The most influential writer of his age...His plays can scarcely prove other than lastingly delightful since they are the product of vigorous intelligence joined to inexhaustible comic invention.
-J.I.M. Stewart in the Oxford History of English Literature

Exactly. It's witty and funny and the characters are so likeable and the whole thing is generally delightful. And I can't read it without singing, "Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait!" which just improves the experience. This one goes on my hypothetical favorites list.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

From Goodreads:

Deciding that true romantic heroes are a thing of the past, Eloise Kelly, an intelligent American who always manages to wear her Jimmy Choo suede boots on the day it rains, leaves Harvard's Widener Library bound for England to finish her dissertation on the dashing pair of spies the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian. What she discovers is something the finest historians have missed: a secret history that begins with a letter dated 1803. Eloise has found the secret history of the Pink Carnation the most elusive spy of all time, the spy who single-handedly saved England from Napoleon's invasion.
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, a wildly imaginative and highly adventurous debut, opens with the story of a modern-day heroine but soon becomes a book within a book. Eloise Kelly settles in to read the secret history hoping to unmask the Pink Carnation's identity, but before she can make this discovery, she uncovers a passionate romance within the pages of the secret history that almost threw off the course of world events. How did the Pink Carnation save England? What became of the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian? And will Eloise Kelly find a hero of her own?

 I think it's kind of funny that all the descriptions of this book focus on Eloise when she's hardly in the book at all. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation focuses the vast majority of its 450 pages on Amy Balcourt and Richard Selwick, fictional historical characters contemporary and associated with the (also fictional) Scarlet Pimpernel in the early 1800s.

I haven't had a whole lot of luck with historical fiction in the last year. Most of what I've picked up has been mediocre to downright painful. I attributed this to my own personal preferences since Janssen loved A Curse Dark as Gold and Ten Cents a Dance while I thought they were...not good.

So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. Perhaps it's because this is thoroughly a quick-read love story in historical fiction's clothing. It's not trying to teach you anything about Napoleonic France or tell the story of how Bonaparte tried to invade England through fictional characters (although, a little more historical stuff would have been fun), it just revels in its lovey-dovey-ness while occasionally throwing in a name you know from history class. It's much more chick-lit-y than historical fiction-y.

My one complaint (and it's a biggie) is that it occasionally veers into..ahem...romance territory. If you know what I mean. Love scenes in any genre make me twitchy but in books they're especially bad and this book is no exception.

Romance scenes aside, it's a great beach read. Or middle-of-the-night-nursing read. Whichever.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Lions of Lucerne by Brad Thor

From Goodreads:
In this incredibly fast-paced thriller, a conspiracy hatched close to the Oval Office results in the kidnapping of the president and the slaughter of a company of Secret Service agents commanded by ex-Navy SEAL Scot Harvath. The story careers from the ski slopes of Utah to the top of Switzerland's Mount Pilatus and sets Scot on an impossible mission: recover the president, evade renegade Swiss spy Gerhard Miner and his cadre of trained agents, and elude the American conspirators who are hot on his trail. Framed for murder, his reputation in tatters, his former colleagues turned against him, Harvath finds an unlikely ally in a beautiful Swiss prosecutor who's been checkmated by Miner once too often. Together they play a high-stakes game of mixed "doubles" to save the president and uncover the conspiracy. Brad Thor's debut novel is a tightly wound spy tale that makes up in excitement what it lacks in subtlety and character development.

Ah, Brad Thor. My dad loves his stuff so I've picked up a few of his novels since they're always laying around my parents' house.

Brad Thor novels are pretty much 24 in book form. Scot Harvath might as well be Jack Bauer. They are both agents doing classified government work. They are both always right about everything. They both must always go rogue at some point. They both always say, "With all due respect," when they are about to tell the president or some other high ranking official that they're stupid or crazy or both. They both get the crap beat out of them on a regular basis yet still manage to scale mountains/beat people senseless/save the world fresh off their deathbeds. And they're both awesome.

This isn't exactly the most intellectual of reading but it is so fun. I've loved all the Brad Thor novels I've picked up and I know I'll happily borrow any others I find on my dad's desk. They're fast paced and full of twists and the guy gets the girl and and the bad guy goes down hard. What's not to like?