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• Saturday, September 29th, 2012

Kathryn Stockett was born in Jackson, Mississippi USA in 1969. She was raised by an African American maid called Demetrie McLorn and graduated from the University of Alabama after obtaining a degree in English and Creative Writing.

Aged twenty-four and with her diploma in hand she moved to New York where, for nine years, she worked in magazine publishing and marketing. Presently she lives in Atlanta with her husband and daughter.

The Help, published in 2009, is Kathryn Stockett’s first novel. It took her five years to write and about sixty rejection letters from publishers because of its controversial subject matter. As soon as it was published it became a best seller and was on The New York Times Best Seller List for Fiction for a hundred weeks. It was Amazon’s Best Books of the year 2009 and was long listed for the Orange Prize in 2010. It won the Townsend Prize for Fiction in 2010 and the exclusive Books Boeke Prize in 2009. The Help has been published in thirty five countries, translated into several languages, has sold over five million copies and was released as a film in August 2011.

Kathryn Stockett’s next book will again be located in Mississippi and will also be about women, but this time will be set during the period of the Great Depression.

The story of The Help takes place in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960’s, a crucial period for American Civil Rights. It’s a few months away from Martin Luther King’s memorable “I have a dream” speech that took place in Washington D.C. in 1963 and a few years after the civil rights and freedom movement of the mid-fifties by Rosa Parks. It’s a couple of years away from the abolition of Jim Crow’s end of the 19th century segregation laws against African Americans by president Lyndon B. Johnson in Congress in1964, making racial discrimination illegal.

In The Help, there are three main characters who take turns in the narration: Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter. The novel starts and ends with Aibileen, the oldest and wisest of the three. She is an African American maid in her fifties who, in a maternal loving way, raised seventeen white children in her lifetime along with the cooking and cleaning. Her love and care is often shown in the novel in the way she is raising Mae Mobley, the Leefolt toddler, as a surrogate mother. She is grieving over the loss of her only young son in a work accident, which was blatantly disregarded by his employer and which she was obliged to accept.

Aibileen’s best friend, Minny, is also an African American maid. She is younger than Aibileen, but unlike her, she is derisive, impetuous, indocile and bottles a great deal of anger in herself which makes it hard for her to keep her employments for long. She says to Miss Celia Foote, her present employer and who is labelled by society as “white trash”: “I got knowed for my mouth round town. And I figure that’s what it be, why nobody want to hire me”. Her wrath explodes when she prepares the chocolate custard pie that she bakes and combines with the ingredients her own faeces as a revenge and as a kept promise when she said “eat my shit” to her worst enemy, the loathsome, Miss Hilly Holbrook, who loves the cake and eats two big pieces of it rashly and voraciously, oblivious of what it hides inside. As Minny describes it: “she stuff it in her mouth like she ain’t ever eaten nothing so good…What do you put in here, Minny, that makes it taste so good?”
Minny was delighted to reveal to her what she had added to the ingredients and shocked Miss Hilly and her mother beyond belief.

The twenty-two-year-old Eugenia Phelan or Miss Skeeter is the youngest of the three. She is the daughter of a white family of cotton growers, who, like many southerners, employs black people in their fields and in their household as domestic servants. After graduating, Skeeter returns home to look for a job as a writer. She is emancipated, ambitious and thinks she can change the cruel, unfair, world she grew up in with its racism and injustice, which nobody in her conservative surroundings conveniently seems to notice. She is unruly, defiant and stands firm for her beliefs.

Outraged by the iniquities and unacceptable racism prevailing around her and even among her closest friends, Skeeter secretly decides to encourage the African American maids of her entourage to tell her their stories while in service with white families. To avoid retaliation, she is not going to sign her name as the author of her planned, anti-establishment, daring book and she promises the maids anonymity by using pseudonyms and by calling the city, Niceville. The oppressed, unfairly treated but unyielding maids accept to cooperate with Miss Skeeter.

The risk taken by Skeeter is similar to the one taken by Stockett for her début novel, racial boundaries still being a controversial subject in the south of USA. One simply does not “talk about such uncomfortable things”.

Although Skeeter is very secretive about her planned book, she succeeds in creating enemies around her and among her best friends, especially the self proclaimed leader, Hilly Holbrook, her childhood friend. Hilly is the president of the Junior League in Jackson Mississippi. She is racist, overbearing, arrogant and heartless and couldn’t put up with any person opposing her – people follow her in fear of her acrimony or reprisals.

Skeeter’s maid, Constantine, is presumably included in the novel in loving memory of Demetrie McLorn, the African American maid who worked for the Stockett family for fifty years. The author said in an interview that she started writing her novel in the voices of Demetrie, her black maid who died when Stockett was just sixteen-years-old. She raised her and was closer to her and her siblings than their absentee mother. However, The Help was not dedicated to Demetrie McLorn but to the author’s grandfather Stockett who was “the best story teller of all”, she said.

On the other hand Stockett included Demetrie McLorn in the acknowledgements. The author wrote: “My belated thanks to Demetrie Mclorn, who carried us all out of the hospital wrapped in our baby blankets and spent her life feeding us, picking up after us, loving us and thank God, forgiving us”. She also included her in her postscript: “Too Little, Too Late, Kathryn Stockett, in her own words”.

When the author was asked about her favourite character in the novel she said : “Aibileen is my favourite because she shares the gentleness of Demetrie”.

After failing her first writing attempt and after going through the terrible 9/11 event while living in New York city, Stockett felt homesick and said she wanted “to hear or revisit, those voices from her past”. That is when she decided to write The Help, a novel about her home town with the heavy, outdated dialect which made the story three dimensional for the readers and despite being an easy to read novel, it needed some getting used to for non natives.

The author reveals the gangrene that rots American society, like racism, class prejudices and the survival of the fittest and powerful. The novel is sometimes jocose despite its sadness, in order to ease the overwhelming intensity, but unfortunately it is often repulsively inhuman, poignant and moving. Albeit the tentative optimistic ending of a new era shining on the horizon, there is the success of Miss Skeeter’s book and her moving on to fulfil her dream by accepting a job offer at Harper’s magazine in New York, as a copy editor’s assistant.

There is also Minny, who at last wants to assert her independence by leading a new life away from her brutal and abusive husband.

The same optimism is displayed with Aibileen walking back home in the bright sunshine. She has just been fired by the weak charactered, Miss Elisabeth Leefolt, who receives the order from Miss Hilly Holbrook and carries it out without hesitation, despite the fact that Aibileen has been a good valuable, honest worker to the Leefolt family. The tenacious, Aibileen still holds some hope for the future, thinking that she is not too old after all to start another job as a writer.

All very optimistic and auspicious, but sadly there is still a long way to go in order to abolish the racism and hatred nourished by segregation that still prevails today in many communities of the world.

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Author:
• Saturday, March 03rd, 2007

Amélie Nothomb is the daughter of the Belgian writer and former ambassador to Japan, Patrick Nothomb. She was born in Kobe in 1967. By the time she was five years old, she was perfectly bilingual.

After leaving Japan, Amélie spends her childhood in China, Burma and New York. Living as an expatriate combined with the feeling of loneliness, made her withdraw into her own shell. Especially after returning to Belgium at the age of seventeen and having the shock of finding herself a foreigner amongst her own people. The shock was brutal and this triggered in her the need to write as an escapade.

“Hygiéne de l’assassin”, her first book was published in 1992 and was an immediate success, with a French literary prize. In 1993 she published “Le sabotage amoureux”, then in 1994 “Les combustibles”, in 1995 “Les catilinaires”, in 1996 “Péplum”, in 1997 “Attentat”, in 1998 “Mercure”, in 2000 “Métaphysique des tubes”, in 2001 “Cosmétique de l’ennemi” etc…

Amélie Nothomb writes about three books per year, but decides each time to publish only one per year and every time it’s a commercial success.

Her eighth book “Fear and Trembling” was published in 1999 and was a winner of the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française and Prix Internet du livre. The book was translated into 14 languages and sold half a million copies. A big success. Two of her books have been made into films: “Hygiéne de l’assassin” and “Fear and Trembling”.

The main theme of “Fear and Trembling” is the clash of cultures between East and West. It was told in the ancient Japanese tradition that if anyone wanted to address the Japanese emperor, it had to be with “Fear and Trembling”, the emperor being the highest figure of authority. This belief is followed on all levels in Japan, as the author reveals the very rigid hierarchy in the typical headquarters of a Japanese international conglomerate in Tokyo called Yumimoto.

Amélie-San is reprimanded for not taking the right steps by going through the correct channels, despite the fact that her deed was very useful to the company.

What the author wants the westerner to understand, is that in the oriental mentality, it’s not the successful results that count, since achieving them the ‘untraditional’ way can cause more harm than good.

Consequently one has to follow the system blindly and not be an ‘individualist’, which is the worst betrayal to the traditional system: “Mister Tenshi didn’t want to sabotage the company. I begged him to let me work on the report. I alone am responsible.”… “Mister Omochi stood open-mouthed for a moment before coming up to me and bellowing right into my face.” Do you dare defend yourself?” “No, I’m blaming myself. I’m claiming all the wrong for myself. I alone should be punished.” “You dare to defend this snake!”

Then follows the arguments with Miss Mori Fubuki: “I’m twenty-nine years old. You are twenty-two. I’ve been in this position since last year. I fought for it for years. Did you think that you were going to get a comparable job within a matter of weeks?”

Due to not following the ‘correct’ system, Amélie-san has to endure the most degrading retrogression. Starting as an interpreter and ending in the humiliating job of a toilet attendant.

Like most of Amélie Nothomb’s books, “Fear and Trembling” includes some personal, real life experiences. A kind of an autobiography. The style of her writing is indicative of her own character; subtle, humouristic and extravagant. I recall her telling Bernard Pivot in the French TV programme “Apostrophe”, that she takes delight in eating rotten fruit.

Amélie Nothomb’s style is uncomplicated which makes the book easy to read despite the issue involved, being the relationships and methods of Japanese white-collars, and their entrapment in their uncompromising system.

Amélie Nothomb shows us very clearly her compassion for those people, but at the same time expresses her frustration at being unable to change anything, or even to reason with them:
“Le plus insupportable, c’était de voir mon bienfaiteur humilié par ma faute. Monsieur Tenshi était un homme intelligent et cosciencieux: il avait pris un gros risque pour moi, en pleine connaissance de cause. Aucun intérêt personnel n’avait guidé sa démarche: il avait agi par simple altruisme. En récompense de sa bonté, on le traînait dans la boue.”
She makes us aware of her concern with human relationships throughout her book.

Amélie Nothomb’s humouristic tone can be hilarious at times or even like a caricature, but nevertheless carries behind it more than what it suggests.

Unlike other books we read, in “Fear and Trembling”, the author doesn’t take us anywhere in Tokyo, apart from the restricted view from her office window. The year Amélie spends at the Yumimoto company is all devoted to a description of the Japanese headquarters, the people working for it, their devotion to their work and the hierarchical system. Not forgetting to describe at length, the uncompromising Japanese mentality.

At the end of her one year contract with Yumimoto, Amélie-San returns to Europe. And like a phoenix, after all the humiliation endured, emerges from the ashes, glorious and successful with her prize winning book “Hygiéne de l’assassin”.

She then receives a congratulatory letter from her former superior, Mori Fubuki acknowledging her success. The letter was written in Japanese as a sign of friendship which seems to have been accepted at last.

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