April 13, 2010

Recent Readings

I love books. I love reading. I love reading books (although I will read anything really... magazines, newspapers, billboards, cereal boxes, Wikipedia's random article generator, etc.). Since the beginning of the new year, I have been busy with work and other goings-on in this game we call life, so when a co-worker/friend of mine invited me to join her book club, I was thrilled. Not only would I be "forced" to read, but then I would get to discuss what I'd read with others! What a novel idea! (Couldn't help the pun.)

For our first book, we chose Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. This was one of those books that I had picked up several times in various bookstores, but a) it was very long, and b) it was endorsed by Oprah. Now, I don't have anything personal against Oprah, since she happens to hail from my homestate and generally seems to be a helpful and giving person. However, I refuse to read a book simply because it's a part of Oprah's Book Club. I have been known to peel the "Oprah's Book Club" sticker off of the book before even making it to the register to purchase it. (As an aside, I feel the same way about books that have been made into movies; I will not, cannot, buy the book that has the movie poster as the front cover. For this very reason, I have yet to read Shutter Island, because I can't find a copy sans movie poster.)

Back to Pillars of the Earth. It is set in 12th Century England, after the sinking of the White Ship and before the murder of Thomas Becket. While I enjoyed the book, I enjoyed it more for the architectural story than the actual story story. It's historical fiction, and I do find the history of the English monarchy compelling. I really enjoyed reading about the function, the structure, and finally the form of cathedrals during this time and how those aspects continued to evolve from early Gothic architecture to the later Romanesque style. I would recommend the book, but I will say that at times, the story dragged a bit.

Our second book was The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. Kathryn Stockett is another Mississippi native, so I was the one who suggested we give this one a whirl. The events that occurred in the 1960s South are such a stain on our history, and although I was excited to read the book, I was also a bit apprehensive. Although race relations are, unfortunately, still a hot-button issue, they were an inferno in the Deep South in the 60s. Ms. Stockett spent five years writing The Help and received at least 45 letters of rejection before anyone would publish the book; publishers didn't want the responsibility of publishing a story that could potentially backfire in such a major way. Of course, I dug right in. While reading the book, I loved reading familiar street names, neighborhoods, and stores that are still in Jackson to this day. What was heartbreaking was reading the accounts of the African-American maids who were mistreated and abused. There is definitely some controversy regarding a white Southern author writing about the thoughts and feelings of "the help"; how on earth can she be objective when Ms. Stockett's own family had their own black maid? How can she even pretend that she knows how any of the women feel, when she has not been falsely accused from stealing from her employer, when she has not been forced to use a separate bathroom for fear of contaminating the "white" toilets, when she has not watched the baby she raised reach for her, the maid, instead of the child's mother? In the end, I think it was brave, not to mention ambitious, of Ms. Stockett to consider tackling the issue at all. Between the viewpoints of the multiple narrators, the novel does an excellent job of showing events from varying perspectives. The book is at times entertaining, disheartening, and joyful, and overall a very enjoyable read.

Our third book is the Swedish novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. This book has been hyped online and in the news lately, so I thought I would thoroughly enjoy it. I did not. The book starts off a bit slow, mainly throwing around some financial jargon that wasn't quite over my head, but wasn't quite interesting to me, either. For the most part, I enjoyed the characters in the book, especially the protagonist Lisbeth Salander (i.e., a girl who happens to have a dragon tattoo) and Mikael Blomvkist, journalist and magazine publisher. I love a good mystery/crime novel, so admittedly my expectations were high. I don't want to spoil any of the plot of the book, but I found the investigative journalism component compelling; I found some of the events in the book to be graphic and disturbing. It wasn't that I disliked the book, but it stayed with me, and not in a pleasant way. However, I find myself itching to read the next novel in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire, so perhaps it wasn't a futile read after all. The best way, of course, for you to decide if you liked it is to read it yourself.

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