26 June 2010

The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa.

A lot of people have said a lot of things about Kathryn Stockett’s completely brilliant debut novel, The Help; among them:

“…immensely funny…” – Daily Telegraph
 “A laugh-out-loud…must-read” – Marie Claire
 “Touching, disgraceful, funny.” – Daily Mail

I’m sorry – are we talking about the same book here? I’m prepared to put money on the fact that none of the reviewers quoted above are South African.

Because only a South African, raised by a nanny, used to having a full-time maid around and used to being raised, in many cases, by two moms – one white and one black – can appreciate that this is a sad book.

A masterfully written book, yes. A tragicomic book, yes. But a heart-breaking book, above all. Maybe I’m making too much of it. It’s possible. Read the book yourself, and let me know. To start with, here’s the blurb:

“Enter a vanished world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver…”

That world hasn’t vanished, okes. Not really.

Granted, there are no separate water fountains, no separate counters at the grocery store, no separate seats on the bus – but there were more recently than 1962 and a lot of what’s in this book rings very true for me. Okay. Rant over.

Stockett’s The Help is spectacular. Each of its three narrators, Minny, Aibileen and Skeeter, have her own voice; her own way of explaining what’s going down in segregationist Jackson. And regardless of who’s talking, you can’t put it down.

Here’s Aibileen:

“I arrange the-this and the-that for her lady friends. Set out the good crystal, put the silver service out. Miss Leefolt don’t put up no dinky card table like the other ladies do. We set at the dining room table. Put a cloth on top to cover the big L-shaped crack, move that red flower centerpiece to the sideboard to hide where the wood all scratched. Miss Leefolt, she like it fancy when she do a luncheon. Maybe she trying to make up for her house being small. They ain’t rich folks, that I know. Rich folk don’t try so hard.”

There’ve been so many rave reviews. This book is the must-read of the year. Even the one-book-a-month bookclub bobbas are reading it. But the only reviewer with whom I agree is the legendary Marian Keyes, with her “Daring, vitally important and very courageous.”

She clearly got it. Must be because she’s Irish.

22 June 2010

Fieldwork (Mischa Berlinski)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa.

This is a story about a story.

If you’re used to the way I write my reviews, and you don’t mind that everything is more or less about me, read on.

If you’re new to this blog and want ‘a real book review’, maybe fish around in the archive?

Anyway, approximately six months ago, Penguin sent me a box of review books that included, among others, Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork. I read the back; it sounded great. So I took it with me on holiday. The sad part is that I never got to it. It looked wonderful, but there were so many other wonderfuls in December! Like...

  • Chic Jozi (Nikki Temkin)
  • The Well and the Mine (Gin Phillips)
  • Free Food for Millionaires (Min Jin Lee)
  • Bright Shiny Morning (James Frey)
  • Ways of Staying (Kevin Bloom)

So, I left Fieldwork at the beach house for my in-laws or their guests to enjoy on a future holiday (there’s a burgeoning library there, next to the fireplace, largely thanks to Penguin and, I suppose, me) – and duly forgot all about it.

Until this trip.

There it was. Waiting for me. Not on the shelf where I’d left it, but in full view. Not inside. On top. I vaguely recalled the original appeal and picked it up for a cursory flick-through. Three days later, I put it down again; thrilled with myself.

Whadda book!

Here’s a hint:

“This novel began not as fiction but as a history of the conversion of the Lisu people of northern Thailand to Christianity. Then one afternoon, I woke up from a long nap with a plot in my head, and my history became a novel. At that moment, I abandoned any intention I had to tell a true story. The Dyalo do not exist, except in these pages. None of this stuff happened to anyone.”

– Author’s Note

How fantastic?

I’ve kind of ruined things for you, though, because I didn’t have this compelling context until the very last page (literally) of the book. So all the while I wondered about Mischa, who writes in the first person, as himself, and that was delicious, to say the least. But the fact is that this book – even if you don’t like anthropology, ethnography, religion, research or fieldwork (and I really, really don’t) – is completely and utterly brilliant.

More information:

This sort-of-thriller is about Mischa Berlinski, a reporter who's moved to northern Thailand to be with his schoolteacher girlfriend. He hears from a friend about the suicide of Martiya van der Leun, an American anthropologist, in the Thai jail where she was serving 50 years for murder. Fascinated, Mischa begins to investigate Martiya's life and supposed crimes and in doing so, uses readable and clever backstory to explore the enduring conflict between faith and science.

The problem is that the plot doesn’t do the book much justice. Read it. It’s lekker.


20 June 2010

Okay, okay. So I lied.

I didn't mean to. Really. But, yes. The promised reviews never materialised. Time rolled on. I read more books. Life happened.


The good news is that I have a good story about a good story. Gird your loins. Here it comes...