Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Help

PYZ, the writer of two interesting blogs, Zebra Shoes and Journey into Diversity, provided the initial impetus for the creation of Bookwagon. Here she reviews a book I received from my sister-in-law Annie for my birthday. She didn't put the book down (and I didn't see her face) for two days.  

The Help is a first novel for Kathryn Stockett, a writer who was born and raised in the South and who now lives with her husband and daughter in Atlanta. In this novel, inspired by her childhood memories of the family maid, Demetrie, Stockett explores life in the early 1960's in Mississippi from the viewpoints of several young white women and several black maids. Altogether their voices tell a rich and troubling story of privilege, discrimination, segregation, and rigid cultural norms. One white woman dares to challenge those norms and discovers the disparities between her life and those of her peers and the strength and power of the written word to reveal, acknowledge and share truths.

The story explores how people gain and control power using communication, emotional connection, and vantage point as tools. There is sadness in the pressure to conform in the the white women's experience; there is despair in the code of silence of the black women that driven by fear. There is hope in the many acts motivated by humanity.

The context of this story has changed, but the human condition has not. The story gives us a chance to consider the human condition one more time in the safety of the past.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Can the book possibly be as funny as this promotional trailer? Suddenly I am anxious for July 27th to arrive just to find out!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Kiwi Kayaking

Crime fiction continues to satisfy wanderlust, both geographical and temporal. Curious about travel on a mysterious pilgrimage in medieval England? Pick up Karen Maitland's Company of Liars but watch out for wolves, and the plague! In the mood for a stroll along a canal in Venice? Donna Leon and her creation, Commissario Guido Brunetti, will be glad to accommodate. Stay for supper with Paola and the family.

I have referred before to the outstanding blog Detectives Beyond Borders by Peter Rozovsky. In a recent posting, he was offering, as a prize, a copy of a new New Zealand novel featuring a middle-aged woman who is a researcher for a law firm, the mother of a recovering meth addict, and the widow of a man who killed himself coming to terms with this tragedy and her new situation in life. This is a "first novel", at least for the pseudonymous author "Alix Bosco", and apparently has generated much interest in New Zealand. There are plans to turn it into a television serial. It seems that the book, Cut and Run:When the Truth is No Protection, is now available through Amazon.

I haven't been to New Zealand but it has become an important place for my family. My daughter Emma attended university for a year there, lived and worked there after college, and is engaged to a Kiwi. I have taken to cheering for New Zealand in sporting events. I wear my Blackcaps cricket jersey with pride and that  has led to at least one interesting conversation here in New York (I still know nothing about cricket but am loathe to admit as much, especially while wearing a Blackcaps jersey.)

My familiarity with the culture and place that is New Zealand is limited by my not having visited. I have pored over photographs, talked with my daughters about their trips, and have spent some time wondering if I should visit in the New Zealand summer or winter. I am ready for my trip.

So it was with some excitement that I noted the mention of this book in Detectives Beyond Borders. Emma was, in fact at that very time, spending time in New Zealand. I emailed her to request a copy of this book as my souvenir and now I have read it. I have had to construct my own interior geography of Auckland and environs to picture the scenes and settings and I can say that I have enjoyed both my literary sojourn and a thrilling mystery that seems very much a New Zealand experience.

There is much satisfaction in reading Cut and Run including a thoughtful, self-aware narrator who struggles to come to terms with uncertainty and ambiguity in her personal and professional life. She painfully processes the memory of her husband and the circumstances of his suicide even as she struggles with her love and support, and mistrust, of her recovering addict son. The contemporary urban Auckland setting, familiar to the Kiwi readers, was sufficiently exotic to this northern hemisphere reader.

Among English-speaking nations, strong similarities in language and culture can obscure significant differences in attitudes, behaviors, and outlook that are distinct. Reading Cut and Run reminded me that cross-cultural travel is not limited to cross-language travel.

Anna Markunis, the protagonist, loves nothing better than to kayak in the Auckland harbor. This gives Alix Bosco the canvas needed to describe the harbor, the wind, the waves, and the feel and light of a seaside location. From my limited (but memorable) experience in ocean kayaking, I was able to imagine how she felt on her early morning excursions.

I was especially delighted that late in the story there occurred a thrilling scene of conflict and danger set on Auckland harbor. It is enough to say here that it involves Anna alone in a kayak far off the shore fending off a helicopter intent on thoroughly slicing her up. Reading this kayak-helicopter duel was better than being at the movies, and I write this on a 103 degree day in New York when an air-conditioned movie theater and a box of popcorn is awfully attractive.

I appreciate an author who constructs a novel that entertains and sustains interest over the course of a well-developed story. It is an extra when such an author displays some narrative pyrotechnics that make me hold my breath, flip the pages, and wonder, "What next?" Cut and Run  by Alix Bosco did that for me. I hope the television series is good. I think I would enjoy seeing it. You can bet that when I get to New Zealand, I will seek out the setting of the kayak-helicopter duel. Maybe they will have Anna Markunis tours.