Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: The Help

How 60 some literary agents turned this book down prior to finding one who really loved it is totally beyond me.  It also proves just how subjective the world of publishing is.  This book chronicles the lives of African American maids in Mississippi during the 1960s along with the white women for whom and with whom they work.  First, there is the maid Aibileen who works for a woman who seemingly has no time or interest in her kids.  In fact, the kids are more likely early on to think of the maid as their mom.  Aibileen constantly worries about use of the in house bathroom at The Leefolts and making sure all the silver is present and accounted for whenever it is used.  Eventually, The Leefolts build a bathroom in the garage that is stictly for their maid and not to be used by any white person least of all the children.  I was struck by the love and adoration Aibileen had for the Leefolts children and how in her own way, she was trying to teach them to be more compassionate and openminded.

Then we meet the maid Minnie who is the most independent spirited of all the maids.  She does not suffer fools let me say that first and foremost.  Minnie works for an elderly woman and is known for her cooking abilities.  Unfortunately, she has a spectacular encounter with the elderly woman's daughter and loses her job.  She then lands a position working for Cecilia Foote who lives twenty minutes away and is shunned by all the other women because they think she is not from quality stock.  Mrs. Cecilia has a beautiful home, but has no clue how to cook and cannot build friendships in the area in order to socialize more.  The funniest portions of this book is Minnie attempting to teach Cecelia how to cook.  Ms. Cecilia is most accomodating of any of the white employers and  I think it is because she experiences the wrath of the white women's league almost as much as Minnie. 

Finally, there is Skeeter who grew up having a maid that she looked upon not only as a caretaker but also as a friend.  Unfortunately, while she's away at college, her mother fires this longtime maid and refuses to discuss the circumstances with Skeeter.  Skeeter speaks with Aibileen about the loss of Abilieen's son who was attempting to write about what it is like as a black man to work for a white man.  Skeeter then decides to secretly write a book about the same concept, but from the maids point of view.  This involves a lot of secret meetings at Aibileen's home.  Skeeter is the one white gal who sees the massive condescending attitudes displayed by her white friends toward the African American maids.  She even becomes shunned by her white friends who recognize her stance on equality and then eventually dismiss her from the women's league. 

This is a fabulous first book by Kathryn Stockett.  I am hoping she continues to write about each of these characters and what happens over the course of their lives in subsequent books.  I am looking forward to the moview version of this book coming out in August and I relish the fact that this author has had so much success after being turned down many times by literary agents before finally finding someone who truly appreciates and saw the value in her writing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: Waiting: The True Confessions of a waitress

This book was an interesting look inside the life of a waitress who has almost twenty years experience working in the hospitality field.  She first decided to waitress as a means of socializing by working at a restaurant her parents operating each summer at a mountain resort.  She later works at a restaurant in and around Yosemite where she learns what it is like to be a prep person.  Later she works at fine dining establishments, chain restaurants, and a nightclub.  Though she leaves the field for a period of time to try another career endeavor, she eventually returns to waiting as it suits her lifestyle better.  I have always believed you can learn something from just about anybody regardless of the station in life or their career field and this book was no exception.

I have never been a waitress, but according to the author, it is a transient field in which to work.  You never know just how long you may work with the same group of people.  Additionally, there is a hierarchy in every restaurant starting with the dishwashers, busboys, prep staff, wait staff, chefs, and restaurant management.  You never want to be in a bad relationship with the hostess of a restaurant as he/she could assign you to a bad section of the restaurant or seat the worst customers in your section.  Also, who knew that one of the worst days of the year to waitress was Mother's Day due to the coming together of disgruntled family memebers.  The best day of the year to be a waitress is New Year's Eve because people are in a festive mood and tip well.  The down side of the business includes lack of health insurance and the dependence upon tips as your primary source of income.  I think what attracts people to this field is the sense of adventure each time they enter the restaurant as they never know who they will meet or how their shift will transpire.  Also, it is an opportunity for flexible working hours.  The author touches on some of the stereotypes patrons associate with waiting as a career; specifically, that it is for people who are doing something temporary until they can get the education or opportunity to pursue "real" work.  Patrons also tend to presume that waitstaff are not the most intelligent people, but since I am aware that there are many varying types of intellligence I have to disagree with the author on this point.  I think a waiter/waitress has to be a people-person, highly social, and have quite a good amount of emotional intelligence in order to read and understand patrons and their needs.  I have also liked the line "Hi, I'm Teresa your waitress and I'll be taking care of you this afternoon".  It feels like someone will be nurturing/protecting you and to me that is a really good thing because if more people looked out for the interests of others as much as their own then this would most likely lead to a more caring, considerate, and compassionate society.  Every field of career endeavor is after all what you make it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Well folks, this memoir was recommeded by a sales associate at my local Barnes & Noble.  It is titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.  It has taken me a while to read it since the paperback version is 437 pages.  This has been the most challenging memoir I have read recently.  It is about a young man and his siblings who interestingly live in an affluent suberb of Chicago.  There father is a lawyer who is also an alcoholic and smoker.  He can become violent when under the influence of alcohol especially toward his children.  He dies suddenly while out in the driveway getting ready to go to work one day.  Then, the mother develops stomach cancer and suffers through ongoing treatments.  It is left to the two middle children, Dave and Beth, to be at home and care for their mother as well as their young seven year old brother.  Eventually, the mother dies and interestingly, the bodies of both parents are donated to medical schools.  The siblings have a memorial service for the mother and then sell most everything within the homeplace.  They leave and go to California for a new start as their oldest brother lives there. 

After spending a summer vacationing, the two middle children move to Berkeley where the sister returns to college and Dave and the youngest sibling Toph rent a home in Berkeley.  They reside there and try to function in as normal a fashion as is possible with two siblings functioning as parents for a young seven year old sibling.  Dave, the middle brother, has the most reponsibility for Toph in that Toph lives with him and he is reponsible for Toph's schooling, insurance, having a place to live, food to eat, and ensuring that Toph does not fall victim to depression over the recent deaths of the mother and father.  Youth can be hard enough without the challenges of both parents dying; however, Dave becomes almost a magnet for chaos.  He is harassed on a beach one evening by teenagers who he thinks have stolen his wallet, he tries to make a magazine startup fly without a real staff or comfortable office quarters, he has a coworker who falls from a collapsed deck and lives in a coma, he has a friend who cannot help but continue to fall victim to depression and alchol as well as tranquilizers, and another coworker who dies without warning from an infection.  All the chaos and tragic events lead him to become extremely paranoid.

Dave finally returns to his hometown in the suberbs of Chicago for a wedding and discovers the family living in the house in which he used to live and he hunts down the remains of both his parents which were supposed to be cremated and returned to he and his sister, but were not.  His sister Beth had failed to inform him that she was offered the remains, but did not want to deal with them.  While he is visiting the funeral home that helped during his mother's death, the remains of his mother are located and he scatters them along the shores of Lake Michigan.  The magazine startup eventually folds and he and Toph decide to leave Caifornia as most of their friend are moving back East.  In the end, it is strange to see how much all of this tragedy has aged and matured both Dave and Toph, but you grow up fast when you are alone in the world, lose your parents, and must fend for yourself.