Thursday, March 31, 2011

"The Help," by Kathryn Stockett

"The Help" author Kathryn Stockett employs clean lines in rendering the jagged ones impacting the lives of her characters.

This book is a mainstay on the bestseller lists and blessed with a nutshell profile that boils down to "black maids in old Mississippi and the women who employ them."

And the line between these two classes of women is established primarily by the colors of their skin, although in the end, it turns out be more jagged and broken than initially proposed.

Dominant employers on the surface, beneath it the southern belles typify a disappearing breed invariably affected by their reliance on the ladies from across the tracks to raise their children and smooth over their glaring imperfections.

And though at times the good girls in this story can seem too good and the bad ones excessively evil, Stockett treats us to shades of gray and cracks in the facades that allow lovely ambiguities to blossom.

The color line is not the only one rendered here. Class rises its ugly head in the form of a lesser-pedigreed country girl from Sugar Ditch who the powerful Miss Hilly and her minions reject for lack of polish and poise.

The grayest of the gray is embodied by Ms. Skeeter, whose failure to snare a man during her undergraduate turn at Ole Miss thrusts her into the netherworld of the working woman in a time and place where women didn't work much.

The slowly growing distance between she and her Ladies League friends provides space for a relationship between she and one of her friend's maids, Aibeleen, to develop.

The lines between these two women of markedly different experiences are the lines they scribble on the page. They are lines of truth in a story very much about the written word and its potential to propel social change.

Ms. Stockett's story is tightly wound with a strong narrative spine hardly interrupted by extended introspection or flights of poetic fancy - the aforementioned clean lines - so we must be wary of telling too much and spoiling the whole.

It's okay to say Aibeleen is only the first of the maids who decide to tell fledgling scribe Skeeter her story. And it's okay to reveal that this odd and dangerous literary adventure is launched in the searing crucible of the early '60s civil rights movement.

Banking on the slimmest of promises from a New York publishing editor, the white girl must mix with the black girls. Some of the more important ones have secrets we are informed of, but lack specific details about until the book's final stanzas.

Whether Skeeter's book gets published, whether the white ladies are abused or elevated by their maids, and if or how they respond will not be revealed here.

It is worth most readers' time to take the plunge and find the answers themselves.

"American Gunfight" by Hunter and Bainbridge

In "American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill President Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It" the authors' duty to assemble a historical record around a forgotten news event sometimes gets in the way of what is otherwise a gripping story.

This true tale of two committed Puerto Rican nationalists, who failed to assassinate then-President Harry Truman, renders the high hour of American imperialism. In its depiction of duty-bound, patriotic law enforcement officers, its revisits a type of American male mostly departed from the scene.

The gunfight designed to shed light on the plight of oppressed Puerto Rico, and gain the larger world's attention, lasted less than a minute.

The authors make up for this lack of material with portraits of the few players who starred in the violent drama.

For the most part, the renderings are too in-depth and arrest the narrative's progress. The same goes for the detailed discussion of guns, their types, and the ways they are fired.

Less nettlesome and better-crafted is the background information on the political fortunes of Puerto Rico and how these spawned the would-be assassins.

It is a testimony to the long-ago happening's allure that a reader probably wades through the sea of superfluous facts, to see how something they already know turned out, turned out. If you follow.

Nonetheless, Mssrs. Hunter and Bainbridge have done yeomans' work in creating a one-stop and shop nonfiction record of how things went down all those years ago.

Had they not dedicated themselves to the effort, this not-unimportant tragedy, its victims and heroes, would have been lost to the dustbin of history (as they say). Though, at times, taxing their own narrative, they triumph with the scholastic challenge "An American Gunfight" posed.

Best for readers really looking into the history of Puerto Rican politics.

"The Little Book," by Selden Edwards

In "The Little Book" what comes round goes round and round and round...and comes back again.

Shelden Edward's novel is an exquisite time machine that feeds itself events which provide the impulse for later events, and earlier ones, too.

We have before us a case for the interrelatedness between persons and epochs alike.

The main trunk to this story, with significant secondary branches, follows '70s hippy rocker Wheeler Burden on a time travel trip through the fin de siecle Vienna of Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gustav Mahler.

Edwards brings to life the intellectual ferment that powered the Austrian capital’s rise to prominence in the worlds of music, philosophy, painting, and psychiatry of the time, without being so smart as to turn off those who've come simply to savor a fine tale.

For texture and plot-thickening, the author takes advantage of his time-travel meme to visit the stuffy and WASPy world of a New England prep school, and the more open-aired environment of the Sacramento Valley.

While dabbling in matters both deep and cosmetic, mixing Frisbees with Austrian empresses, and '70s rock with the rise of anti-Semitic thought in Europe, this complex novel sustains a comfortable readability throughout.

The author is masterful in his handling of deep and important subjects in a most entertaining way.