Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Great Books for Summer . . . reviewed by Suzanne

For reading on lengthy and lazy summer days, I look for a book I can linger over. Here are two long novels. What held my interest--and I would have gone on reading if they had been twice as long--were the richly drawn characters and the detailed way the characters’ lives are described.

PART ONE: Fiction

Cutting for Stone
by Abraham Verghese
Verghese is a physician. I read his excellent nonfiction book My Own Country years ago. This, his first novel, is human in scale, humane in message, and a wonderfully told story.

Two brothers, born conjoined in a clinic in Ethiopia to a young pious nun from India. Their father, or so everyone thinks, is an American physician working at the clinic. I can’t tell you more plot details without giving too much away.

After their birth, the boys are separated in a difficult operation. They grow up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they are raised by the loving clinic staff. One of the brothers leaves Africa to do his medical training in America. That’s not the only reason he leaves, but again, I won’t give the story away.

The characters are unforgettable, especially Dr. Ghosh, who will long remain one of my favorites. Love, politics, betrayal, revolution, family, illness and healing are all ingredients that Verghese weaves together into a beautiful, tender story. There’s nothing stylistically or thematically innovative about this novel; it’s plain good storytelling.
Abraham Verghese’s website.

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
Abileen, one of three narrators, describes her daily and weekly tasks--polishing the silver, ironing the dress with dozens of pleats, cooking for the weekly bridge club--in detail. The two other narrators are Minny, Abileen’s irrepressible friend, who has trouble staying employed because she is “sassy”, and Miss Skeeter, a 22-year-old white woman who aspires to be a writer but still lives at home where she is bossed around by her mother. How and why the three women become friends is the core of the story.

“Help” is, of course, a euphemism for domestics, or as my mother called them “maids.” I grew up in Virginia around the time period in which Stockett’s novel is set. We had a “maid”, and, like the white characters in the book, she arrived on the bus, wore a uniform, worked all day at the duties my mother set out for her, and then returned home. That my mother had a “maid” is a huge irony. Raised on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, where she and her 10 siblings worked from and early age at chores around the house and on the farm, my mother did not belong to the Junior League, the women’s group at the church (she was an agnostic) or own a silver service that required polishing. I wonder in retrospect if she had a woman come in to do housework because it was the thing to do. And, since our house had only one bathroom, the “maid” used it as well as the family. One of the themes in the novel is the insistence by some of the white women that their houses have separate “facilities” for the “help.”

I cringed at the meanness of the hoity-toity, backbiting white socialites and thought their characters were stereotyped and exaggerated, but who am I to say? I’m sure there were white women like that in the South (and elsewhere) in the sixties.

I do know about the reality of Jim Crow laws. Like the white characters in the book who know nothing about the personal lives, joys and sorrows of their domestics, I doubt if my mother knew much about her “maid’s” life. She was one of the black women and men who traveled to the white neighborhoods to work, but who could not live there. There were no African-Americans in the public schools I attended.

Although Stockett describes the characters listening to news accounts of sit-ins at lunch counters and James Meredith integrating the university, this is not political commentary. It’s a book about loyalty, generosity and about smart, proud and determined women with grit. The women are the strength of the book, and I loved them.

I would characterize this as fiction that would be of interest almost exclusively to women. I can’t imagine many male readers picking this up. Read the New York Times review.
Kathryn Stockett’s website.

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